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The Ransom theory of atonement

Many of the carvings examined by Mary Curtis Webb depict the furious battle in Hades between the winged Christ and Leviathan (an image of Death and the Devil from the Book of Job). The literary source of these carvings, Webb concluded, is the early Christian Ransom theory - particularly the version expounded by Pope Gregory I in his lengthy commentary on the Book of Job, the Moralia in Job, completed shortly before he sent the Roman mission to Canterbury.


The Ransom Theory was an attempt by the early church in Alexandria to explain why God became incarnate. Christ took on mortal form so that, through his suffering and death, humanity would be freed from the burden of inherited sin. The death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, paid to the Devil.


The notion of redemption in terms of payment of a ransom has a long history, deriving from Biblical texts and Jewish apocryphal works. To Christian apologists, it had been connected with the idea of the death of Death. This was to be accomplished, as they said, through the self-deception of the Devil and his refusal to acknowledge the fact of Christ's incarnation in Jesus. For, being thus deceived, the Devil, in lusting after the flesh, was emboldened to attack Incarnate God, and was therefore hooked on the hidden barb of unrecognised Divinity.


The theory was developed by the Alexandrians, including Origen (c. 185-254), and was in common currency from the 3rd century. From Jerusalem to Cappadocia, from Syria to northern Italy, it was widely drawn upon in the writings of Christian apologists.  It was transmitted most fully in the Latin west by Gregory. Webb suggests that Moralia in Job was the most widely read book outside the scriptures throughout the early Middle Ages. Copies were kept in most monastic libraries - sometimes in duplicate or more - in spite of its inordinate length. 


The Ransom Theory tells how the Devil, who had tricked Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, demanded of God a ransom to liberate humankind from the burden of original sin. God’s love for his creatures determined that their ransom must be paid but the price required by the Devil was nothing less than the blood and soul of the Son of God. The Devil was himself deceived by God who offered him Jesus as bait.  Leviathan, unaware that the human flesh on offer was divine, was caught on “the Hook of Divinity”, thereby bringing upon himself his own destruction.  


Gregory describes how Christ assumes human substance, in order to bait a hook and snare Behemoth:


Who can be ignorant that on a hook a bait is placed, a point concealed?  For the bait tempts and the point may wound. Our Lord, therefore, when coming for the redemption of mankind, made as it were , a kind of hook of himself, for the death of the Devil: for He assumed a body in order that this Behemoth might seek therein the death of the flesh , as if it were his bait.  But while he was unjustly aiming at that death in His person, he lost us, whom he was justly holding. He was caught therefore on the hook of His incarnation, because while he sought in Him the bait of His body, he was pierced by the sharp point of His divinity.  For there was within Him His humanity to attract the devourer; but there was His divinity to wound, there was His open infirmity to excite and His hidden virtue to pierce through the jaw of the despoiler. He was therefore taken by a hook because he perished by means of that which he swallowed.  For this Behemoth knew indeed the Incarnate Son of God but he knew not the plan of our redemption. For he knew that the Son of God had been incarnate for our redemption, but he was quite ignorant that this our Redeemer was piercing him by His own death.  Gregory op.cit. XXXIII, 14

The deception of the Devil

Hortus Deliciarum of the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg

The event was wonderfully illustrated in the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights), compiled in Alsace after 1167. The illustration shows the snaring of Leviathan by the bait of human flesh on the Hook of Divinity. Herrad, abbess of Hohenbourg in Alsace from 1176 to 1196, drew on classical, literary and theological sources to explain and illustrate the history of the world, from its creation to eventual destruction. The illustrations are of exceptionally high quality.


Based on the Moralia in Job, the fishing line is shown as the lineage of Jesus who stands robed and crowned freely and unbound upon the Cross. The drawing of Leviathan is closely paralleled in the sculpted figure on the lintel of the Parish Church of Dinton, Buckinghamshire. 


The sculptures illustrating scenes from the Ransom Theory were carved by craftsmen who were evidently well familiar with their literary source, even though they had probably never learned to read from a book.  Theirs was a visual vernacular. Each craftsman, having been taught the literary source by priests or monks, used his own imagination and understanding as he illustrated the scenes from the Ransom Theory in minute and careful detail. 


To a reader of Moralia in Job or the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the meaning is immediately very clear. The carver selects details from one or the other account and illustrates them exactly, so that his work may be seen as a theological statement. So it is understandable that depictions of the Ransom theory vary.


At the end of the 12th century the Ransom Theory was challenged by Anselm’s exposition of the Doctrine of the Atonement, and later by Abelard. The Ransom Theory was discarded and largely forgotten.  Consequently, depictions such as the Pitsford tympanum vanished for ever from the repertoire of ecclesiastical sculpture. The scenes and characters are now either a source of mystery or are reinterpreted to fit later doctrines.

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