Why Does ‘Atonement’ Disappear in the New Testament?
Today we have a Bible translation question from a listener named Brian. “Hello, Pastor John! I am grateful to God for your ministry and for this podcast. And I’m grateful for your commitment to accurate Bible translations. Speaking of translations, I have noticed that the ESV’s Old Testament has 103 mentions of ‘atone’ or ‘atonement.’ But the ESV’s New Testament doesn’t contain any mention of ‘atone’ or ‘atonement.’ Is that because the Hebrew word ‘kaphar’ means ‘to cover’ and Christ’s death and resurrection actually erases or forgives our sins rather than merely covering our sins? What am I missing here?”
Well, this is fascinating. I at first thought, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know what to say about this.” And the more I got into it, the more interesting it became. So, it’s a little bit of heavy sledding, but hang on, and I think you’ll find it interesting.
Cover for Sin
The English word atonement originally meant at-one-ment (spelled the same) and referred to any reconciliation of estranged parties. It wasn’t originally just a theological or biblical word. For example, when Thomas More said in 1535 (I got this from the Oxford English Dictionary), “having more regard to their old variance than their new at-one-ment,” or atonement — that is unity, reconciliation, oneness.
But as time passed, the English word atonement became almost entirely a theological word, referring very generally to the way the broken relationship between God and man could be made right. So, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “As applied to the redemptive work of Christ, atonement is variously used by theologians in the sense of reconciliation, propitiation, expiation.”
In fact, this is very significant. In Leon Morris’s book titled The Atonement, which I recommend, he has a chapter on redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, justification, because all these are different ways of describing how God in Christ overcame the broken relationship between God and man.
The words atonement or atone occur in the ESV Old Testament 103 times. In every one of those cases, it is translating some form of the Hebrew word kaphar. Now, that word originally meant “cover,” but just like the English word atonement, it seems to have become almost a technical word, not for covering anything in general, but for covering sin in particular — that is, removing it and restoring the broken relationship between God and man.
“They wanted to celebrate with greater specificity and fullness what actually happened in the death of Jesus.”
And we can see this peculiar theological orientation for the word kaphar by noticing that in the Greek Old Testament, the word kaphar in Hebrew is virtually always translated, not by any ordinary Greek word for cover, like kalupto, but almost always — over a hundred times — translated with exhilaskomai, which doesn’t mean “cover” at all. It means “appease” or “to reconcile.” So, it’s pretty clear that kaphar was not a word used in biblical times for just any old covering, but for the covering of sin — precisely in the sense of doing away with it or removing it, so that the relationship between God and man could be made right.
‘Atonement’ Is Limited
Which brings us now to Brian’s question: Since the word atonement is used over one hundred times in the English Old Testament, why is it never used in the English New Testament? (By the way, it’s not just the ESV — this is true right across the board in English translations, including the King James Version. The ESV never uses atonement in the New Testament, and the others, maybe one or two times.)
It’s not just an interesting question about the English word for atonement and why it doesn’t occur in the New Testament; it’s also a question of why the Greek translation of kaphar — namely, exhilaskomai — never occurs in the New Testament. That’s even more provocative. It’s as though the New Testament writers steered clear of all the kaphar associations, both Hebrew and Greek. And so, the English translators are perfectly justified in not using the English word atonement at all in the New Testament.
So there’s no Greek word for kaphar in the Greek New Testament, and there’s no English word for kaphar in the English New Testament. Amazing. Why is that? That’s Brian’s question: Why is that? And I think Brian’s suggestion is on the right track. He asks, “Is it because the Hebrew word kaphar means ‘to cover’ and Christ’s death and resurrection actually erases or forgives our sins rather than merely covering our sins?”
Now, I wouldn’t want to say that kaphar in the Old Testament only meant “cover” and not “put away.” I don’t think that’s the case, but I think you’re on the right track. Maybe more generally, we should say this: the achievement of Christ in his death so utterly outstripped anything referred to by the kaphar word group in the Old Testament that the New Testament writers didn’t want to use words with that kind of association or limitation.
The Worth of Christ’s Work
But here’s another way to say it, maybe: it’s not just that the New Testament writers wanted to avoid the inadequate connotations of kaphar in the Old Testament. I think, and this is more important, they wanted to celebrate with greater specificity and fullness what actually happened in the death of Jesus in dealing with sin, rather than just over and over again using a word like “he covered it,” “he covered it,” “he covered it.” Let me just give you some examples so you can see what I mean by this amazing variety of specificity they wanted to celebrate.
- They used the word lytraoō to draw out the ransom (Mark 10:45).
- They used the word apolutrōsis to get at the meaning of redemption (Ephesians 1:7).
- They used the word hilastērion to draw out propitiation (Romans 3:25).
- They used the word katallassō to draw out the meaning of reconciliation (Romans 5:10).
- They used the word katharismos to draw out the meaning of purification for sins (Hebrews 1:3).
- They used pherō and thusias to show Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27).
- They used aphaireō and periaireō to refer to taking away sins (Hebrews 10:4, 11).
- They used dikaioō to get at justification (Romans 5:9).
- They used sōzō to get at simply saving us from our sins (Matthew 1:21).
Sometimes they simply stated the fact Jesus died and then made the connection with the removal of God’s wrath, like in 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” So the point there is not to give it any particular name at all — just to say he died, and that’s why there’s no wrath against us anymore.
So yes, Brian, I think you’re right that the kaphar idea, the atonement idea of the Old Testament, is inadequate to describe what Christ accomplished when he shed his blood. I only want to add to your explanation that the New Testament writers were eager to tell us more about how God saved us through the death of Jesus than any one word could ever have told us. I would encourage every Christian to study and meditate on the wonder and the variety of the words that the New Testament uses to describe the greatest of all events in history: the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. You won’t regret it.