In what has come to be known as the famous trilemma that Jesus is either a liar, lunatic or Lord, C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) builds his case that Jesus had a divine self-understanding on the basis of his claim to forgive sins. Countless commentators agree that in Mark 2:1-12 (cf. Matt 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26) where Jesus proclaims that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven is a usurping of a divine prerogative and seems confirmed by the omniscient narrator who reveals that the scribes thought Jesus committed blasphemy (2:6-7). N.T. Wright (“Simply Lewis“) writes appreciately of Lewis though he tries to provide a more nuanced conservative view that Jesus didn’t just claim to be god but that people could find in Jesus what they would normally seek by going to the temple where the divine presence was housed and the forgiveness of sins offered. Yet other scholars such as Geza Vermes (The Religion of Jesus the Jew) or E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) point out the passive (“your sins are forgiven”) meaning forgiveness is attributed to god and that Jesus does not go beyond prophet or priest as a divine spokespersons (Vermes on p. 193 n. 9 notes the parallel from the Prayer of Nabonidus where a Jewish exorcist forgives the sins of the Babylonian king).
With this background in mind, lets turn to Daniel Johannson, “‘Who Can Forgive Sins but God Alone?’ Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism” JSNT33 (2011): 351-74. The aim of his article is to demonstrate that Jesus’ action is without parallel for other intermediary agents. First, the willingness to forgive is often described a divine attribute even if no biblical passage and the rare one in Second Temple or later rabbinic literature explicitly declare that it is the exclusive right of YHWH alone (352-3). Then he argues that priests made atonement for sin but in textual descriptions of their practice there is no evidence that they pronounced an absolution of the forgiveness of sins (354-6). Against the view that the scribes in Mark reflect the Pharisaic viewpoint but that the Prayer of Nabonidus represents a different view from Qumran, he raises issues about the fragmentary state of the text leading to differing scholarly renderings and concludes that the least problematic translation is that god forgives the king’s sins (357-60). Jesus goes beyond a prophet who just announces god’s forgiveness (2 Sam 12:13) in personally forgiving the paralytic (Mk 2:10) (360) and he disputes Hägerland’s interpretation of Josephus Antiquities 6.92-93 (cf. 1 Sam 12:16-25) that Samuel forgives sins on behalf of God (either the people beg Samuel to forgive them for their personal affront to him and his own leadership in asking for a king or, better, god is the implied subject of the infinitive “to forgive”) (361-63). Some scholars read some texts (Targum of Isaiah 53, T. Levi 18.9, Damascus Document 14.19) as suggesting that the Messiah grants forgiveness but he objects that these passages suggest that sin will cease in the messianic age or, at most, that the Messiah will make intercession or ritual expiation for sins but does not grant forgiveness (364-66). Finally, angels act as messengers in announcing forgiveness (the seraph who touches the prophet Isaiah’s lips with coal to atone for his sins in Isa 6:7 may seem to go further but the LXX version places the emphasis on the atoning function of the coal), with the seeming exception of the Angel of YHWH who is closely linked with or may have originally been understood as the visible manifestation of the deity (Exod 23:20-21, see also how this is reworded in the LXX and how the passage comes up in debates about “Two Powers” in b. Sanh. 38b; Exod. Rab. 32.4; Zech 3:4 again reworded in the LXX) (366-69).
All in all, this is a well-argued article but I have two questions. First, does the Markan Jesus forgive the paralytic or like a messenger announce they are forgiven (…by god); the divine passive seems to support the latter (and perhaps the scribes misunderstand out of hostile intent) while the claim that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins seems to support the former (but could this be a shorthand that the Son of Man has authority to announce forgiveness on god’s behalf, or does Jesus authority on earth to forgive just echo what has already been granted in heaven, or if Jesus has literally been granted authority to forgive on earth might there be a parallel in Matt 16:19 where Peter is granted authority on earth to bind and loose which will be ratified in heaven)? Second, if it is unprecedented in Jewish texts on divine agency to ascribe to figures other than YHWH the right to forgive sins, does that necessarily imply a “high christology” in Mark or might it just be another innovation in Christian understanding of Jesus as the supreme mediatory figure (note the parallel passage in Matt 9:8 where the people are astounded that god had given such authority to humans). Finally, James Crossley and Michael Bird, who co-wrote How Did Christianity Begin: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence, have debated this particular passage on the radio program Unbelievable. Bird defends the traditional view that Jesus is understood as usurping a divine prerogative in forgiving sins while Crossley argues that Jesus is not doing anything so radical but that the passage could be translated as your sins are loosed (the paralytic is freed from the sins that result in his condition) and that the issue is not claiming to be divine but in where Jesus’ authority comes from (he points to Mark 3 where the scribes ascribe Jesus’ authority in exorcisms not to god but to Be-el’zebul). What do you think?