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Jewish Intermediary Agents and the Forgiveness of Sins?


To begin the investigation about whether human or angelic figures could forgive sins on God’s behalf, I want to note some recent specialist literature. Check out Tobias Hägerland, Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins: An Aspect of His Prophetic Mission (Cambridge University Press, 2011); “Prophetic Forgiveness in Josephus and Mark,” SEA 79 (2014): 125–139; Daniel Johannson, “‘Who Can Forgive Sins but God Alone?’ Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early JudaismJSNT 33 (2011): 351-74; Sigurd Grindheim, “Divine and Human Forgiveness: A Response to Tobias HägerlandSEA 80 (2015): 126-141. With that said, here are some possible parallels for Jesus’ act of forgiving sins:

  • Did the priest forgive the penitent sinner offering a sacrifice? The issue may be that there may be little evidence that the priest pronounced the forgiveness of sins.
  • Did an exorcist (Daniel?) forgive sins in the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242). The issue is that the text is fragmentary and the translation is disputed.
  • Prophets speak on God’s behalf about impending judgment or mercy, but does the prophet Samuel take a more active role in forgiving the Israelites’ sin (Josephus, Antiquities 6.92-93). See the debate in the sources above over whether Samuel or God is the implied subject doing the forgiving and whether Samuel’s prayer to God distinguishes it from Jesus forgiving on his own authority in Mark 2:10.
  • Do passages where a messianic figure performs priestly roles like making intercession for the people or that associate the messianic age with the forgiveness of sins imply that the Messiah offers forgiveness? Again, the issue is the lack of evidence that the Messiah personally forgives sins.
  • Angels too speak on God’s behalf in announcing divine forgiveness, but does the Angel of the LORD forgive sins (see Exodus 23:20-21; Zechariah 3:4)? This could be strong evidence of an intermediary agent who possesses the divine name and forgives sins, but Johannson diminishes its force by viewing the Angel as possibly the visible manifestation of Yahweh or at least that the two have some overlapping functions.

There may be other examples to debate their relevance. A larger concern I have is the leap from the observation that there may not be a fully analogous Jewish parallel to the inference that the action in Mark 2:10 was unprecedented and claimed a divine prerogative. On historical grounds, our knowledge is partial and could be revised based on surviving material evidence (e.g. the Prayer of Nabonidus was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls and published by J. T. Milik in 1956). Even if there are no parallels as far as we know at present, it could be that the Gospel writers simply had a different understanding that God could grant a human representative the authority to forgive sins (see Matthew 9:8). It also seems to me theologically problematic to make the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity dependent on a “God of the gaps” argument, where certain activities are placed in the divine category if we have not yet discovered an adequate human parallel for them. There are much more explicit passages in the New Testament and the subsequent Christian tradition to provide a more secure foundation for a high Christology.

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