Thursday, November 18, 2010

The forgiveness of sins in Luke-Acts

When I issued my "lament for unanswered questions" last month, I had just read Jeremiah 31:34--"for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more"--and was reminded that for several years now I've wanted to think about what it would have meant for Jesus to forgive sins in a first century context. The question is somewhat embarrassing since forgiveness is so prominent in the Gospels, and because I used to think forgiveness of sins was the main thing about being a Christian. It doesn't help that most of my first year students assume that the meaning of passages like Luke 5:20 and 7:48 is obviously to show that Jesus is God. (Why couldn't the Pharisees understand?) To be sure, Luke's Christology is high indeed, and the passages emphasize the son of man's authority to forgive sins; Jesus acts on God's behalf.

My question, though, is not with Christology, but with why Jesus would forgive sins in the first place when there was a functioning cult center in Jerusalem that operated a system of atonement that had been established by God. Why forgive sins when this is what the Temple was for?

(1) E.P. Sanders, who has probably done more than anyone else to raise the question, concluded that the historical Jesus offered forgiveness without requiring repentance from the sinners he gathered around him. Unfortunately, Sanders does not help us with Luke's understanding of forgiveness because Luke is careful to emphasize that Jesus called sinners "to repentance" (5:32).

(2) John Howard Yoder connected the forgiveness of sins to Jesus' quotation from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:18, and argued from allusions in Isaiah 61 to the year of Jubilee (Lev 25) that Jesus meant to inaugurate God's Jubilee. Announcing forgiveness is the Jubilee 'release' in action. See this post for more details on Jubilee imagery in the OT.

(3) N.T. Wright argues that Jesus believed the Temple's system of atonement was broken, and that forgiveness in Jesus' ministry means what it did in Jeremiah: return from exile. It's an interesting suggestion with a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to the New Testament, but--as I've suggested elsewhere--the idea that most Jews believed they were in exile is problematic.

Although I have been working around the question for a little while, I have not yet taken the time to work carefully through the theme of forgiveness in Luke-Acts, and I'm still puzzled. If you can point me to the answer, please do so!


Jeremy Myers said...

Though modern Jewish thinking is not identical to first century thinking, have you asked any Orthodox Jews today if they view themselves in "exile" in any sense?

I know a couple dozen. I will ask them.

d. miller said...

I haven't. Let me know what you find out!

Jeremy Myers said...

I will try to ask some of them later this week.

By the way, I know you are not too keen on NT Wright's view of forgiveness, but have you read his discussion of forgiveness in his book, Evil and the Justice of God? I found it quite helpful.

d. miller said...

I'll have to take a look. Thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy Myers said...

I asked several of my Chassidic Jewish friends about whether they view themselves in exile in any way today. As it worked out, I was able to ask them independently, not when they were all together.

Every single one, without hesitation, said, "Yes, absolutely we are in exile." I got different bits of information from each person. Here is the summary:

It is called galot, the Hebrew word for exile. The current exile is referred to as the Roman Galot. Previously, they had the Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic (or Greek) Galot. The Roman Galot began in 70 AD with the destruction of the Second Temple.

Three factors are needed to not be in Galot: the land, the temple, and the king. Right now, they have only the land, and even that is not fully owned/possessed.

I asked what characterized the Hellenistic Galot since they had the land and the temple, and they said that they didn’t have a king at the time, and even though they had the temple, it was missing several elements, such as the Ark of the Covenant.

They all mentioned that when the Messiah returns, then the Roman exile will be over.

Hope that helps a bit...

d. miller said...

Thanks, Jeremy. The answer was basically what I expected, but it is really nice to have first-hand evidence! Of course, modern Jewish beliefs about being in exile don't necessarily translate back into the first century. The radical changes after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 suggest that they do not. Fwiw, my working understanding is that the belief in a continuing exile is a product of rabbinic Judaism and was not representative of most Jews in Palestine before the destruction of the Temple.

Jeremy Myers said...

Do you have any resources I could check out which show the differences between Judaism then and now and how those differences evolved? I would love to research this more as Rabbinic/Jewish backgrounds is a growing interest of mine.

Jeremy Myers said...

I should clarify my request. I've read most everything by Wright, Sanders, Neyrey, Malina, Pilch, Flusser, Young, and Neusner.

It seems to me that in general, these authors would not agree with your conclusion. Did things change after AD 70? Of course. But I don't think they would say that belief in a continuing exile is a product of rabbinic Judaism.

So I'm looking for resources which would refute the views of the authors above, using primary sources from the first century.

Jeremy Myers said... more.

I have Martin Goodman's book Rome and Jerusalem. I'll read it next.

So if you have any others besides that one, please let me know!

d. miller said...

You've read more than I have, then (at least if you've read most of Neusner). I don't recall Sanders ever arguing that most Jews believed they were in exile. I haven't read enough of the others you mention to comment.

Re: others: Shaye Cohen's discussion of continuity and change between the Second Temple and Rabbinic periods is, I think, very helpful: Chapter 7 in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (WJK, 2006). I've also been influenced by Seth Schwartz's sustained argument for a massive change after 70 in Imperialism and Jewish Society (Princeton, 2001).

I presume you've also looked at my posts of Wright on exile (linked to in this post).

d. miller said...

Hello Jeremy (if you are still listening): Thanks for the Wright recommendation. I'm still not quite persuaded by Wright's take on exile or Schweitzer's model of the atonement, which Wright adopts, but I'm intrigued enough by the way Wright develops the exile theme in the OT to want to pursue the question further, and Pitre's book on the tribulation is on my reading list--so I may eventually be persuaded. One hazard of being a skeptic is that one is forced occasionally to change one's mind. In this case, I wouldn't mind being wrong.