τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν....1
"For he caused him who knew nothing of sin to be sin for us...."
The preceding vv. 18-20 make it clear that 'he' is θεός (God), and 'him who knew nothing of sin' in this context is Χριστός (Christ). The presence of the article (τὸν) with the participle γνόντα indicates that it functions as a substantive and thus rules out the notions of causation ("since he did not know sin") and concession ("though he did not know sin"). It is participial only in form.
ἐποίησεν occurs with a double accusative in this passage, which indicates a focus on causality.2 This is why I've elected to translate ἐποίησεν as 'caused' rather than merely 'made'.3
When did this identification of Christ with sin take place?
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Harris argues that the translation of the second ἁμαρτία in v. 21 deals with the translator's answer to the question, "when did this identification of Christ with sin take place?" He offers two possible options:
- The incarnation
- The crucifixion
Translations that appear to support the former include:
"... God made him share our sin..." (Good News Translation)
"... God made him one with the sinfulness of man..." (New English Bible)
Those identifying this 'event' as the incarnation often use Romans 8:3 as support, which the New English Bible renders as:
By sending his own Son in a form like that of our own sinful nature, and as a sacrifice for sin, he [God] has passed judgement against sin within that very nature.
Harris believes the context clearly points to the latter event (crucifixion), and so he offers four possible translations for the second ἁμαρτία in v. 21:
- Sin offering
- Sin bearer
Harris opts for 'sin offering':
It is true that v. 21 makes no explicit reference to the death or the cross of Christ, but this is no objection to the cultic or sacrificial view that localizes the ποίησις in the crucifixion, since the death of Jesus is mentioned three times in vv. 14–15 and διὰ Χριστοῦ (v. 18) is clearly equivalent to διὰ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτου [= τοῦ θεοῦ] (Rom. 5:10). According to a long and distinguished tradition, the second ἁμαρτία in v. 21 refers to a “sin offering.”4
BDAG takes ἁμαρτία 'as abstract for concrete (abstractum pro concreto — the Dutch version has a specific example)':
As abstr. for concr. τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁ. ὑπέρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν (God) made him, who never sinned, to be sin (i.e. the guilty one) for our sakes 2 Cor 5:21.5
There is considerable semantic overlap in these translation choices, so rather than discuss each separately, a discussion of the sense of this word is in order (regardless of which specific English word/phrase is used to translate it).
In what sense did Christ become sin?
Thrall further discusses in what sense Christ became sin in this passage in her commentary on 2 Corinthians, presenting two options from the historical interpretation of this passage:
- As a sin offering
- Christ in some way suffers the fate of sinners
While acknowledging support for 'sin offering', Thrall argues that the context best supports the latter sense:
The presupposition of this line of argument is that death is the ultimate consequence of sin, and so may be seen as its punishment (see Rom 5:12; 6:23). It is true, of course, that Christ did not suffer the eternal death which is sin’s ultimate penalty. But it is doubtful whether the argument should be pressed in this way as constituting an objection to this form of interpretation. In Paul’s view Christ’s death was certainly real (1 Cor 15:3–4) He could well have supposed it to include some experience, however brief, of that separation from the presence of God which he could have seen as the eternal lot of the unregenerate. This brings us to the important consideration that in essence Paul may be thinking of relationships. To say that Christ was made ‘sin’ means that ‘he came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath’. The context, concerned with the theme of reconciliation, would favour this interpretation. It would not be a matter of a death penalty impersonally imposed in accordance with a heavenly system of abstract justice. Rather, Christ’s death would be the consummate experience of that personal alienation from God that has characterised human life from the beginning. Whilst Paul does refer to this death in sacrificial language, and whilst also the passage in Isa 53:9–11 may be in his mind here, the ἁμαρτία is to be understood in terms more personal than that of a ‘sin-offering’, which suggests the objective neutralising and removal of sins rather than a radical change which needs to be brought about in the personal relationship of the sinner with God.6
In what sense is ἁμαρτία generally used most frequently in the NT?
This sense chart was generated using Logos v6 showing the sense of ἁμαρτία throughout the New Testament texts:
The three other passages where the sense of 'sin offering' appears to be intended all occur in the epistle to the Hebrews (10:6, 8, 26, note that Paul's authorship of this epistle is debated). In other words, there isn't much precedent for such a reading in the New Testament in general, and none at all for Paul (assuming he was not the author of Hebrews). I believe it is more likely that the sense explained above by Thrall was intended.
Decisions about the text concerning when and in what sense Christ became sin will affect how this passage is interpreted. The reader must infer from context which interpretation is best. Hopefully this answer makes the reader more aware of some of these interpretive challenges and how some scholars have responded to them.
I prefer translating ἁμαρτία simply and consistently as 'sin' and understanding the second use as metonymy (which preserves the ambiguity, allowing the reader to infer a specific sense and accompanying soteriological theory from the context for him or herself). 7
1 Eberhard Nestle et al., Universität Münster. Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27. Aufl., rev. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1993), 2 Co 5:21a.
2 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 839-40 (cf. definition 2, section h, paragraph β).
3 Although 'made' carries a sense of causality anyways, so this translation choice isn't that big of a deal.
4 Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Milton Keynes, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Paternoster Press, 2005), 451-2.
5 Arndt, Danker, & Bauer, 51.
6 Margaret E. Thrall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of the Corinthians, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 441–442.
7 In the interest of keeping this brief (both in length and the amount of time I spend answering), I have omitted discussion of the remainder of this passage. While this is critical to understanding the meaning in context (particularly the sense in which followers of Christ become the righteousness of God and how/if this is analogous to the sense in which Christ became sin), the current response answers the question(s) asked by the OP.