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The Claim to Forgive Sins in Mark 2:1-12

In high school, I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity to strengthen my faith. Lewis uttered this famous line: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.” Central to his case is that Jesus forgave offenses committed against God (Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26). The omniscient narrator reveals the inner thoughts of the scribes who were shocked by the “blasphemy” (Mark 2:6-7).

E. P. Sanders countered that the use of the passive “your sins are forgiven” implies that Jesus was acting as God’s spokesperson in announcing God’s forgiveness of the paralytic and that Jesus was simply taking the prerogative of a priest (Jesus and Judaism, pages 273-274). However, some scholars could turn this argument around in support of Jesus’ exalted self-understanding. In an appreciative article entitled “Simply Lewis“, N. T. Wright adds further nuance to Lewis’s point by insisting that Jesus was claiming that one could receive from him what one would normally get in the temple where the divine presence was housed and sins were forgiven.

The problem with the view that Jesus intended to replace the temple here is that it is not clear whether priests actually pronounced the forgiveness of sins and individuals who repented could be forgiven outside of the sacrificial system. Moreover, Mark 2:10 seems to suggest that Jesus has the authority to forgive the paralytic individual’s sins and Jesus’ pronouncement is presumably ratified in heaven. In the next post, I will search for potential Jewish parallels for Jesus’ action. Yet in the parallel account in Matthew 9:8, the crowds reason that God could, in fact, give this authority to human beings. Moreover, this same authority is imparted to the disciples (Mark 11:25; John 20:23). “Blasphemy,” a charge which could be thrown around in a dispute over the office of the high priest as noted in James Crossley’s post, could reflect a debate over whether Jesus had truly been entrusted with this authority from God or was a false prophet. This should not detract from the fact that it was still a remarkable claim to presume to mediate forgiveness on God’s behalf.

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