Open in browser
By Mikel Del Rosario
If you find our weekly free articles helpful, we encourage you to become a subscriber to our monthly newsletter. The support of our subscribers and patrons make The Worldview Bulletin possible. If you’d like to grow in your ability to articulate and defend the Christian worldview, and support our work defending Christianity at the highest levels, we invite you to become a subscriber.
When it comes to investigating miracle stories in the Gospels, some skeptics are quick to dismiss the idea that Jesus was anything special in his culture, saying that miracle workers were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. They wonder, “What makes Jesus any different?” One answer suggests itself in the very first miracle story in the earliest Gospel, the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). Here, Jesus seems to forgive a man’s sins, saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5b). Who else says anything like that? Did other miracle workers claim to forgive sins? In this short post, I offer an initial response to the question, “Are there any parallels to Jesus’ claim to forgive the paralytic’s sins?”
If you investigate accounts of Hellenistic “divine men” looking for anything like Jesus’ forgiveness saying in a miracle story, you won’t find anything about human mediation of divine forgiveness. Whether you read about deified healers like Asclepius, his two superhuman sons Machaon and Podarlirius, Machaon’s own four sons, Menecrates of Syracuse, or Pyrrhus, you won’t find any parallels to Jesus’ forgiveness saying. And these Greco-Roman miracle workers do not claim to forgive sins in any narrative. Miracle stories that might appear to be closer to the Healing of the Paralytic, including a boy who supposedly cured a lame man named Nicanor and Apollonius of Tyana curing a lame man do not mention anything about the forgiveness of sins either. In light of this, Jesus’ forgiveness saying appears to be unique in the Greco-Roman world of miracle workers.
But what about Jesus’ immediate Jewish context? Some say that other human beings also claimed to forgive sin and that Jesus’ forgiveness saying—even in the context of a miracle story—did not make him any different from others who mediated divine forgiveness. For example, Bart Ehrman compared Jesus’ forgiveness saying to what he believes Jewish priests would do. But is there any evidence that Jewish priests ever claimed to forgive sins? Some people assume that priests would pronounce forgiveness when overseeing guilt and sin offerings in Second Temple Judaism. However, it appears there are no clear references to a priestly pronouncement of forgiveness. Although priests performed atonement rites and prayed for people, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that they ever pronounced forgiveness of sins in connection with sacrifices. In fact, the Letter of Aristeas tell us that first-century priests sacrificed in silence at the Jerusalem temple. While Leviticus 16:1-34 reports that the high priest made atonement for sins, the Mishnaic description of the high priest’s sayings suggest only that he prayed for people after they repented of their sins. One atonement text where no sin has been committed is Leviticus 5:8. This is about purification rites for a woman who has given birth. So, we see that the category of atonement indicates purification, not forgiveness.
Jesus’ forgiveness saying appears to be unique in his immediate cultural context. This is interesting because Jews believed that it was only God—not priests—who could forgive sins. While priests were involved in atonement rituals and praying for people, there is no clear evidence that any of them ever claimed to forgive sin. We have not discovered a single text that records a priest saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” Contrary to Ehrman’s view, it’s unlikely that Jesus’ forgiveness saying indicated a merely human priestly function because priests were not actually believed to forgive sins. Indeed, there seems to be no clear evidence of any miracle worker, priest, or other human being who claimed to forgive sins like Jesus does in Mark 2:1-12. Thus, his forgiveness saying appears novel and may well be unique among human figures of the ancient world. In light of this, it appears difficult to assert that Jesus was merely one of many known miracle workers in his culture. Rather, Jesus appears to be a unique kind of miracle worker.
Beyond this, at least some Jews who witnessed the healing of the paralytic recognized that Jesus presented the miracle as evidence that validated his authority on earth to forgive sins. If all human offenses are ultimately offenses against God, and only the One offended may forgive such offenses, the right to forgive sin in general seems to be a uniquely divine function.
 I could not find any examples of miracle-working θειος ανηρ (a “divine man” connected to a deity who is empowered to do miracles) believed to possess the authority to forgive sins in general.
 For a summary of the ancient traditions surrounding these pre-Christian healers, see Barry Blackburn, Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Aner Concept as an Interpretative Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 24–28.
 The extant inscription does not clearly indicate a healing: “Nicanor, a lame man. While he was sitting wide-awake, a boy snatched his crutch from him and ran away. But Nicanor got up, pursued him, and so became well.” Inscriptions Graecae 4.1.121-122: Stele 1.16. in Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook for the Study of New Testament Miracle Stories (London: Routledge, 1999), 20 (See also 21-23, 42-45).
 See 3.39 in Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F. C. Conybeare, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1912), 3.39.
 Ehrman’s hypothesis is that Jesus merely claimed “a priestly prerogative, but not a divine one” in Mark 2:1-12. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 126-27.
 Hägerland, Forgiveness of Sins, 133.
 Ibid., 134.
 Daniel Johansson, “Jesus and God in the Gospel of Mark: Unity and Distinction” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 2011), 49.
 Letter of Aristeas 92-96. For discussion, see E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (SCM Press, 1992), 109.
 Hägerland, 135.
 Crispin Fletcher-Louis takes a priestly-cultic view of Daniel 7:13. He connects Jesus to the Son of Man as Israel’s eschatological high priest. C. H. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 2,” ed. C. H. T. Fletcher-Louis, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 5, no. 1 (2007): 58, 72, https://doi.org/NTA0000055150. Note: Although the Jew in The Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242) is not identified as a priest, there is debate regarding whether or not a human is said to have forgiven sin in this fragmentary manuscript. On this, Barry Blackburn concludes, “varying interpretations of the Nabonidus text by competent Aramaic scholars certainly caution us against unequivocally judging that Jesus’ words of forgiveness [in Mark 2:5] were not ‘outstandingly novel or unique.’” Barry Blackburn, Theios Anēr and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Anēr Concept as an Interpretative Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark (Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 139.
 E.g. 2 Sam 12:31, Ps 32:1-5, 51:1-4, 7-11; 103:3; 130:4; Isa 43:25; 44:22; Dan 9:9; Zech 3:4. Hofius notes an explicit affirmation which appears in a later text Midr. Ps. 17:3 as part of David’s prayer: “No one can forgive sins but you alone.” Hofius, “Jesu Zurspruch der Sundenvergebung,” 40 n. 11, cited in Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 2006), 60.
— Dr. Mikel Del Rosario helps Christians explain their faith with courage and compassion. He is an Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Moody Bible Institute and has published over 25 journal articles on apologetics and cultural engagement with his mentor, Dr. Darrell Bock. He holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics with highest honors from Biola University as well as a Master of Theology (Th.M) and a Ph.D in Biblical Studies (Emphasis in New Testament Studies) from Dallas Theological Seminary where he served as Cultural Engagement Manager at the Hendricks Center and a host of the Table Podcast. He also taught Christian Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University and Digital Media for Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. Visit his website at ApologeticsGuy.com.