The deaths of the Maccabean Martyrs are described at some length in the book of 2 Maccabees. Antiochus Epiphanus (Epiphanus, a self-given title, meaning something close to “God with us”, and a tyrant who eclipsed anything the Romans were doing as at the early years of the first century) persecuted the Jews very generally, and a lot of martyrs are recorded as being killed for not being prepared to abandon various of the Mosaic commandments, frequently those forbidding contact with pigs. Seven in particular (together with their mother and teacher) are remembered especially. In the somewhat later 4 Maccabees the writer takes things a step further:-
“When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.” (4 Maccabees 6:26-29)
The tyrant [Antiochus IV] was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated. (4 Maccabees 17:21-22)
Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by mortals, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace …” (4 Maccabees 18:3-4)
4 Maccabees dates from either the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE, probably early. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the writers of the New Testament knew not only the story (the Maccabean restoration had already given rise to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah) but also this interpretation. It is also the only event recognised within Judaism in which humans are killed and this is considered an atonement.
As a result, when I read the NT writers and see any mention of “atonement”, my initial assumption is that they are referring to the template of atonement set out in 4 Maccabees. This does not seem to occur to anyone around me, though. The Maccabean martyrs have, it seems, been virtually completely forgotten in the protestant West (they are actually venerated as martyrs in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly the former).
It is, of course, an integral part of the story of Maccabees that following the martyrdoms, things improved immeasurably for the Jewish population. History does seem to indicate that this was mostly due to the revolt of the Maccabees, which eventually forced on Antiochus the grant of some self-rule, which led to the eventual restoration of an independent state. Against this background, it is easy to see how some of Jesus’ followers would have seen him as a new Judas Maccabeus rather than a new Eleazar, and expected a revolt, but the template of Eleazar, the widow and her seven sons was still there.
It seems to me that with this background, there is no real need for other atonement theories. Granted, the text as it is might be some support for an exemplary atonement (Abelard), fits reasonably with Girardian end-of-scapegoat thinking and could readily have a Christus Victor interpretation added. It also contains the words “ransom” and “for the sin of the nation”, and thus is not completely inconsistent with the fairly early “ransom” theory, sharing the problem that it is unspecific who the ransom is paid to – though a naive reading might indicate that it is paid to Antiochus (and one might equally argue that Jesus’s death was “paid to” Caesar). The early proponents of the theory considered the debt due to Satan…
There is no suggestion of Anselm’s concept of assuaging an insult to God’s honour, nor yet of paying to God the (infinite) price of disobedience through sin in a Lutheran penal substitution manner. I note in passing that while the other concepts are somewhat enhanced by a resurrection, satisfaction and penal substitution are if anything undermined – it would seem, naively, that a death which is only temporary is of considerably less worth than a death which is permanent.
There is also no suggestion that God “provided” the Maccabean martyrs to enable him to forgive in circumstances in which he could somehow not otherwise bring himself to display his primary characteristics of love and mercy (markedly failing in the process to display omnipotence). That, I suspect, is entirely the fault of some infelicitous wording by Paul in Romans 3:25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–“.
I note the variety of translations here. “Set forth”, “purposed”, “preordained”, “publicly displayed”, “proposed”, “presented”. It is clear that the various translators have had some challenges in finding an adequate term for the Greek “proetheto”, which has the literal meaning of “before-placed”. So God placed this event before us as an atonement, did he? That does not, I think, mean that his primary purpose for Jesus’ entire life was that he be a sacrifice, even a willing one. In part, at least, I would think that this is strongly suggested by the fact also relayed to us by Paul that Jesus was divinised on his resurrection, just as in 4 Macc. 18…
If that were not sufficient argument, however, note the words “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness”. The purpose is explicit; God wished to show US that he was righteous, that so great a self-sacrifice could not be left without a corresponding action of God’s, namely acceptance of the atonement (and, I would suggest, resurrection and elevation of Jesus). This, of course, clearly has to be “recieved by faith”, as there is no evidence that God treats the death in this way apart from the apostle’s word and, perhaps, the resurrection (although that could potentially have some other cause).
In my thinking, it also has to be “received by faith” as that is how the psychological mechanism works which permits us to feel better about ourselves when some member of our group acts heroically or when our leader does something commendable (the latter, sadly, being in somewhat short supply these days). The inverse, of course, also operates – I am invariably embarrassed when hearing of the idiocies or bigotries of other Christians, just as the Muslims of my acquaintance are embarrassed by the actions of ISIS.
I do, on occasion, note that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (which seems the only concept of atonement which my church understands, along with most evangelical and conservative Christians in the West) is actually the only one of the atonement theories which has real power to effect that psychological mechanism in a group of people notably including many in recovery from addiction and many with serious criminal records. This is unfortunate; I would, absent that, be suggesting that we wipe all mention of PSA from our theology books, our rituals, our speech and our thinking.
Why? Because, in the inimitable words of Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity, God is not a dick. The god-concept which is required for either satisfaction or PSA is of an unmerciful, legalistic, self-righteous prig. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the God I experience and worship.
But it does look a lot like Antiochus Epiphanus, who, if we follow through the logic of the “ransom” theory, was functioning as the embodiment of Satan.