Did the historical man, Jesus from the village of Nazareth in Galilee, in the first century forgive “sins” committed by those Israelites who came under his influence? I cannot answer the question but intend to review the evidence available to answer it. I suppose one could reply to the question: why should he not forgive sins? He is also credited with empowering his followers to forgive sins (John 20:23). In reliance on this one verse some religious groups in the modern Christian church practice the forgiveness of sins in God’s name.1
The word “sin” is also a problem. The Bible uses the generic word sin quite frequently but very few specific acts or attitudes are ever designated as sin in the Bible.2 The modern church, however, regards many acts and attitudes as sin that are not called sin in the Bible. Those acts (called sin) and the persons (called sinners) committing the acts lack a basis in the biblical tradition for so designating them as sin/sinners. Hence, calling people who commit such acts sinners seems little more than a slur against them.3
The evidence for Jesus forgiving sin is very meager. In Mark Jesus is portrayed as forgiving sin only one time, the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). Matthew abridges Mark’s story, and Jesus still forgives the paralytic’s sins (Matt 9:1-8). Luke lightly edits the story, and Jesus still forgives the man’s sins (Luke 5:17-26). To this singular attestation (Matthew and Luke took the story from Mark) Luke adds another story, the Woman with an Alabaster Jar (Luke 7:36-50) in which Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, “which were many” (Luke 7:47). In the synoptic gospel literature, there are only these two incidents in which Jesus is portrayed as forgiving sins.
There is, however, a related story in the Gospel of John, the Woman taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11. The tradition history of this story does not encourage one to regard it as a historical event, although it is an early tradition; the earliest attestation is 5th century).4 We are told a woman was taken in the very act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought her before Jesus and asked him what he thought about the law that required stoning as the punishment for adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:23-24). Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone.” Her accusers departed one by one beginning with the oldest. Jesus was left alone with the woman. “Has no one condemned you,” he asked. No one had. “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more,” Jesus said. It is interesting that he did not forgive her sin of adultery or her other sins.
Jesus did not condemn her, even though she was clearly guilty of committing adultery (after all, she had been caught in the act, 8:3). Even though Jesus did not condemn her, he did not forgive her and thus she was not absolved of her guilt before God. Hence, her guilt for this sin would have remained with her. Forgiving her sin/sins would have been the greater gift, if one assumes that Jesus, in fact, did have the authority to forgive sins. The story begs the question as to why the author of the story did not portray Jesus forgiving her, as well as not condemning her?
It seems to me that the scribes asked the question that penetrates to the heart of this narrative: “who can forgive sins, but God alone?” The scribes are clearly correct (Mark 2:6-7), it seems to me. Forgiving sins is God’s business.5
Missouri State University
1See Hedrick, “Can the Church grant Absolution for Sins?” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 258-60.
2For the evidence, see Hedrick, “What is sin?” in Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 247-50.
4See Hedrick, “Orphan Sayings and Stories in the New Testament” in Wry Guy Blog: http://blog.charl.com/search?q=woman+taken+in+adultery
5Mark 2:5 “Child your sins are forgiven” is rejected as a saying of Jesus the historical man by the Jesus Seminar; The Seminar understood Luke 7:47-48 as a Lukan embellishment: See the analysis by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus (Harper San Francisco, 1998), 63-65; 291-292.