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This article challenges Mark Goodacre's contention that the distribution of editorial fatigue in Matthew and Luke points not only to Markan priority but also to Luke's dependence on Matthew. Goodacre's argument is criticised through questioning the assumptions that Matthew's handling of Q would have been analogous to his handling of Mark and to Luke's handling of Q, as well as the claim that no instances of editorial fatigue can be detected in Matthew's handling of the double tradition. The conclusion is that the argument from editorial fatigue cannot be used to establish that the existence of Q is improbable.
At least since the 1840s, when Bauer published his insightful critique of the Gospels, scholars have been aware that Mark 2.6–7, where the omniscient narrator claims knowledge of the scribes’ unspoken criticism, can hardly be acknowledged as historical in the strict sense. Despite this recognition, it has in fact been commonly held that the scribal protest brings a first-century Jewish tenet to expression fairly well: God alone could forgive sins. Fiedler summarized the consensus approvingly in 1976: ‘Any expectation of an act of forgiving by anyone else than God himself was missing; not only that: such an activity could only be understood as an attack upon God’s own prerogative – as far as it would be taken seriously at all.’ The present chapter will challenge this statement both by re-examining the texts already mentioned in the debate, and by highlighting some passages that seem not to have received scholarly attention in this context, but which are of acute importance to the question. In addition to this assessment of the plausibility of the scribal protest, I will consider a point of almost equal consequence, namely the apparent silence of the scribes as they are faced with Jesus’ argument in 2.8–10. This feature, too, has implications for my verdict about the historicity of 2.6–10.
The criterion of implausibility, which comes into play in this chapter, has a number of limitations already discussed in Chapter 1. It assumes a reconstruction of (in this case) early Judaism, which is built on incomplete evidence that has to be generalized. Even if none of the extant sources agrees with the sentiment expressed in 2.7, as I will argue is in fact the case, the possibility that individual scribes in Capernaum held to it can never be excluded with certainty. This is a natural limitation of historiography: we do not have all the facts, so our reconstructions have to be based on the most reasonable interpretation of the facts that we do have.
The preceding chapters have brought this investigation to a point where it seems reasonable to surmise that the forgiveness sayings in Mark 2.5b and Luke 7.47a come from the historical Jesus, while the controversy in Mark 2.6–10 probably does not. In the present chapter, the argument will be bolstered by an appeal to the criteria of coherence and incoherence. There are, as we shall see, distinctive traits in a plausible overall reconstruction of the career of the historical Jesus, with which the announcement of forgiveness in Mark 2.5b and Luke 7.47a, so to speak, fit particularly well; conversely, there is tension between Mark 2.6–10 and an overall picture of the historical Jesus. In addition to authenticating the historicity of the sayings, I will also make an attempt at interpreting them within the larger framework of Jesus’ deeds and sayings.
I have singled out two prominent aspects of the mission of Jesus with which, as will be shown, Mark 2.5b and Luke 7.47a are positively coherent: his activity as a healer, and his identity (as expressed by himself and acknowledged by others) as a prophet. These two aspects are rarely questioned in historical Jesus research and have even been dubbed the two ‘bedrock facts’ about Jesus. They are also suggested by the narrative contexts of the forgiveness sayings and, to some extent, by their parallels in early Jewish texts. Mark 2.1–12 portrays Jesus as announcing forgiveness as part of a miraculous healing, and Luke 7.36–47 endows him with prophetic characteristics. The phenomenon of prophetic forgiveness in early Judaism was dealt with at length in Chapter 4, where I also discussed the conjunction of healing and forgiveness in the Prayer of Nabonidus. A deepened study of the career of Jesus as a healer and prophet can, in this light, be expected to provide an appropriate context for the understanding of his forgiveness announcements.
The arguments of scholars who deny that the historical Jesus forgave sins can, somewhat simplistically, be grouped together in two basic hypotheses. According to the first hypothesis, which dates back to Bauer, the Gospel episodes reflect a tenet of christology: the risen and living heavenly Christ forgives sins. According to the second, originally proposed by Bultmann, the rationale is ecclesiological: primitive Christians sought to anchor their own authority in the earthly life of Jesus. Either hypothesis will gain plausibility only if it can be demonstrated that primitive Christians did harbour these christological or ecclesiological convictions, and if it can be shown that they were likely to express them in the form of narrative about Jesus. It is therefore remarkable that no thorough investigation of the topic of forgiveness in primitive Christian literature seems to have been made. The present chapter seeks to fill the gap by reviewing the topic as treated in all extant sources of primitive Christianity up to c. 135 ce, whether canonical or non-canonical, (proto-)orthodox or (proto-)gnostic.
Methodologically, what will be tested in this chapter is the applicability of the criterion of discontinuity. As pointed out in Chapter 1, this is to be understood as pertaining only to the question of continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and Christianity. It cannot be demonstrated beyond doubt that primitive Christianity as a whole did not view the risen Jesus as the forgiver of sins, but it may be demonstrated that the evidence that primitive Christians did do so is far too meagre to allow any hypotheses to be built on that foundation. To avoid circular reasoning, the Gospels will normally be bracketed out from the material considered. Exception from this rule will only be allowed for some Gospel material that seems clearly to point beyond the narrative time frame of the life of the earthly Jesus: the synoptic missionary discourses and the commissions in John 20.19–23; Matt 16.13–20; 18.15–20.
The investigation will begin by setting out the primary evidence from the Gospels, and by identifying and excluding from further consideration any elements that stem from the evangelists’ redactional activity, the word ‘redaction’ being used here in a sense that is more metaphorical than literal, that is, as a means of visualizing in literacy-focused terms quite complex processes and phenomena, which often operate according to principles of orality. In this way, I hope to be able to clarify to what extent the notion of the earthly Jesus as someone who forgave sins is multiply attested in the tradition.
The concern will be with those texts which, directly as in Mark 2.1–12 par., or indirectly as in John 20.19–23, attribute or may attribute a forgiving activity to the earthly Jesus. ‘Forgiving activity’ is a deliberately vague expression, which draws attention to an important aspect of the criterion of multiple attestation that was mentioned in Chapter 1: what, exactly, are we expecting to find attested? If it is a general attitude of forgiveness in Jesus’ mission, or an emphasis on the theme in his preaching, then ‘forgiving activity’ can be taken in a broad sense to include not only every mention of forgiveness in the sayings of Jesus, but also his table-fellowship with sinners, his parables and so on. If, on the other hand, our interest lies in determining the plausibility of Jesus claiming for himself an authority to forgive sins, then the criterion of multiple attestation is met only if multiple sources agree that Jesus did lay claim to such an authority. What is general cannot count as attestation for what is specific.
Two Gospel episodes portray Jesus of Nazareth as someone who forgives sins. All three synoptic Gospels relate how Jesus once told a paralyzed man in Capernaum that his sins were forgiven (Mark 2.5 par.). This occasion instigated a controversy, which culminated in Jesus’ declaration that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth (Mark 2.10 par.). In addition, Luke’s Gospel includes an episode in which Jesus tells a sinful woman that her sins are forgiven (Luke 7.47–8), which made the onlookers wonder who he might be, since he even forgives sins (7.49).
It is the aim of the present study to enquire how Jesus related forgiveness and its proclamation to his own person and mission. I will attempt to answer, within the necessary limits set by the nature of historical reconstruction generally and of Jesus research specifically, the following basic questions: is it plausible that the historical Jesus did claim to forgive sins in some manner that resembles the way in which this is narrated in the Gospels? If so, in what sense did he purport to forgive sins? What, if anything, does this tell us about who Jesus claimed to be and how he was perceived by his contemporaries?
The study now coming to its conclusion has been a project of authentication and interpretation. As a microcosm of the Gospels as a whole, the primary text, Mark 2.1–12, has been found to contain a mixture of historical data and fictitious elements. By using the criteria of multiple attestation, discontinuity and coherence I have judged the announcements of forgiveness in Mark 2.5b and Luke 7.47a to be derived ultimately from the historical Jesus. When evaluated by the criteria of implausibility and incoherence, Mark 2.10 has been deemed an inauthentic saying. It is explicable as the product of rhetorical elaboration of Mark 2.5b.
In Chapter 6, I outlined, in the fullest possible detail, the historical event that arguably underlies Mark 2.1–12. There is no reason to duplicate this reconstruction. Before I turn to some implications of this study in a wider perspective, suffice it to address the preliminary questions posed at its very beginning. These can now be answered with some confidence.
Recent historical Jesus scholarship has once again raised the demand that the application of negative criteria for historicity should be supplemented with a credible explanation of the origin of unhistorical material (see Chapter 1 above). To meet this rightful expectation, I will here sketch a tentative history of the development of the tradition behind Mark 2.1–12 from the earliest eyewitness account of a historical event, via oral transmission, up to its final integration into the Gospel of Mark.
To appreciate the present chapter correctly, it is necessary to note that its function is radically different from that of Chapters 2–5, all of which have assessed, by the use of conventional criteria, the historicity of the forgiveness episodes. The present chapter presupposes that this assessment is valid, and does not in and of itself provide an argument either for or against the historicity of the various elements of the episodes. Its purpose is to provide the ‘missing links’ that, granted the validity of my argument above, are needed to explain how and why the secondary material in Mark 2.6–10 was added to the episode.
The Gospels record that Jesus purported to forgive sins. What significance would such a claim have had for his contemporaries and what would the implications have been for his identity as a first-century popular prophet? Tobias Hägerland answers these questions and more as he investigates the forgiveness of sins in the mission of the historical Jesus. The Gospels are interpreted within the context of first-century Judaism as part of a broader reconstruction of Jesus' career as a healer and prophet, and rhetorical criticism is introduced as a tool for explaining how the gospel tradition about Jesus and forgiveness developed. Hägerland combines detailed exegesis and rigorous methodology with a holistic view of the historical Jesus, evaluating recent scholarship about first-century Jewish prophets and utilizing previously neglected textual evidence to present a thorough investigation of the theology of forgiveness in early Judaism and primitive Christianity.
The question as to whether Jesus preached repentance has been discussed in historical Jesus research over the past twenty years, apparently without any scholarly consensus being at hand. This article seeks to eliminate some unnecessary confusion from the debate by investigating early Jewish conceptions of repentance and suggesting that a distinction should be maintained between moral and ritual repentance. It argues that Jesus, while most probably expecting moral repentance of his followers, did not uphold the customary rites of repentance. The article suggests some reasons for Jesus' avoidance of traditional penitential prayers and practices, which may account for the instances of strong criticism against him indicated by the synoptic Gospels.
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