Monday, May 16, 2022

Did Jesus forgive Sins?

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

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
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:

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.


Dennis Maher said...

Good. I went right to "Acts of Jesus" to check this. I don't know why I never questioned whether or not Jesus forgave sins, but I have wondered what evidence there is that "Jesus loves you" or "Jesus loves me" or even "Jesus died for our sins." Such thinking seems to me to be an inference.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

In the examples below, Jesus followers are required to forgive one who sins against them personally. In your healing examples, the stories seem to assume that Jesus was not the offended party. So the scribes' question really is, how can a human forgive sin when he/she is not the offended party? The answer is when the human is really divine - "the Son of Man on earth" (Mk 2:10; 27-28)

***indicates a pink vote by the Jesus Seminar, indicating that it's probably an authentic saying of the human Jesus.

***Mt 6:12 Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.
Mt. 7:2 Don't forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back.
Lk 11:4 Forgive our sins, since we too forgive everyone in debt to us.
Mk 4:24 The standard you apply will be the standard applied to you, and then some. In fact to those who have, more will be given, and from those who don't have, even what they do have will be taken away!
Mk 11:25 And when you stand up to pray, if you are holding anything against anyone, forgive them, so your Father in heaven may forgive your transgressions.
Mt 5:23 So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, 24 leave your git there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.
Lk 6:37 Don't pass judgment and you won['t be judged, don't condemn, and you won't be condemned: ***forgive and you'll be forgiven.
[These last two might/could involve forgiveness: Mt 5:25 You should settle quickly with you accuser on the way to court...
Luke 12:58 Do your best to settle with your accuser on the way to the magistrate...]

So a forgiveness principle was probably at the center of the teaching of the human Jesus. It's like being in a therapy session and the counselor points out that you can't have mental and emotional health when your actions are controlled by resentment toward another.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
I have no doubt that forgiveness of others was part of the teaching of Jesus. I do not think that there is sufficient enough evidence to suppose that he forgave people for sins they committed against God. The Jesus Seminar reports constitute what one body of scholars thought. The most important aspect of what we accomplished was the process.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Denny,
I agree. All the things you mention are ecclesiastical inferences.