shared from and with BibleTexts.com users
#111 - Did Jesus grant 10 disciples the authority to pronounce sins "unforgiven"?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Thanks for providing such a wonderful biblical resource website!
I have a question regarding a statement made by Jesus to his disciples. It is as follows:
John 20: 21 - "Peace be with you, As the Father sent me, so I send you... Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive any man's sins, they stand forgiven; If you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain." (New English Bible)
Is it the role of a disciple to "pronounce" another man "unforgiven"?
In the three somewhat similar gospel accounts, Jesus' grants authority to forgive or bind sins. In each case the one/s granted the authority are different:
(1) Peter - The authority reportedly was granted to Peter during Jesus' ministry (Mat 16:18,19)
BACKGROUND: According to Paul's letter to the Galatians, which was written 25 to 30 years before the Gospel of Matthew, the three leaders of the Jerusalem church, which modern scholars have called the Mother Church of apostolic Christianity, were Jesus' brother James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:9). Paul's account of his rebuke of Peter (Gal 2:11-14) indicates that James carried the most authority of the Jerusalem leaders. As explained in (2) below, the actual historical practice was that each local church would have had the authority to pass judgment on the sins of members of their ownchurch community, because until the early 4th century each church was autonomous and self-governed.
(2) The local church - The authority reportedly was granted to the churches during Jesus' ministry (Mat 18:15-18)
BACKGROUND: It should be noted that until Constantine's organization of the Christian church into a centrally governed body around the time of the Council of Nicea in 325, each church was autonomous and self-governed. Even in the apostolic period when the church in Jerusalem was considered what modern scholars have called the Mother Church of apostolic Christianity, each church was still autonomous and self-governed. This means that each local church would have had the authority to pass judgment on sins.
(3) The 10 disciples (with Thomas missing) - The authority reportedly was granted to the 10 disciples during this post-resurrection appearance of the risen Lord Jesus (Joh 20:19-23).
BACKGROUND: Elaine Pagels (Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, NY: Random House, 2003) argues that the Gospel of John was written to assert the divinity of Jesus (page 37) and to refute authority of the Gospel of Thomas, including Thomas' "power to forgive sins, which the others received directly from the risen Christ." (page 71; see also 69-70); whereas, in Luk 24:33-36 the risen Lord Jesus appears to and confers apostleship upon all 11, including Thomas. Pagels writes:
What John opposed ... includes what the Gospel of Thomas teaches -- that God's light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. Thomas's gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one's own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. (page 34).
If Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been joined with the Gospel of Thomas instead of with John, for example, or had both John and Thomas been included in the New Testament canon, Christians probably would have read the first three gospels quite differently. The gospels of Thomas and John speak for different groups of Jesus' followers engaged in discussion, even argument, toward the end of the first century. What they debated is this: Who is Jesus, and what is the "good news" (in Greek euangellion, "gospel") about him? (page 38)
It should be further noted that some scholars see evidence of at least two additional early redactions or editing of the Gospel of John, as represented by the version we now have. These would include the Prologue of Joh 1:1-18 and the Epilogue of Joh 21:1-25. Some scholars believe that in these redaction processes, some elements have been minimalized or eliminated. (E.g., the role of Mary Magdalene and/or Mary of Bethany is believed by some scholars to have been much more significant in the original, pre-redacted version of the Gospel of John.) Some elements have been added, modified, or given very different significance. (E.g., though Joh 20:28 seems to be declaring that Jeus is Lord and God, Joh 1:18 declares that no one has ever seen God, and Jesus in Joh 20:17 declares to his disciples, "I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Even Joh 17:23,26 show Jesus' followers to have a potential for the same relationship with God as Jesus had with God.). The point of this that Pagel's comments above may have more to do with the redacted Gospel of John than with the original Gospel of John. None-the-less, it is the redacted version that we all have in our Bibles today, so that is the primary object of our study here.
It should be noted that even if one were to be excommunicated from any church denomination, one's salvation is not dependent upon card-carrying membership in any particular local or global denomination. Jesus (in both Luke's gospel and Thomas' gospel) reassured us that the kingdom of God is "within" us; thus, one's salvation ultimately is not dependent upon a church organization but upon one's individual relationship with God and upon demonstratively representing His reign within one. Jesus' very original Good Samaritan story clearly destroyed all religious boundaries that were believed to exist in the kingdom of God. (See http://www.bibletexts.com/texts/parables.htm#good-samaritan. The Samaritan, not the priest or Levite received Jesus' commendation.)
If Jesus' saying had to do with establishing church authority, it seems then that there are two tiers of authority here. One is the authority of the church, the other is the authority of the individual and his relationship to God. Yet Jesus' saying appears to confer absolute authority, as he used the phrase "in heaven and in earth."
My thought is that God's love never abandons His child. Yet Jesus seems here to permit condemnation. I just want to be very precise as to Jesus' intent, as he is our Way-shower.
One of the points of my original response was that the teachings granting disciples personal authority for judging sins did not likely come from Jesus. The gospel writers and/or redactors created the words and attributed those words to Jesus to establish local church discipline. This was a common practice, not considered dishonest, in those days. This was the basis for later writers penning 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus in Paul's name, even though they were most likely written around 115-125 A.D. As I wrote:
Each of these three accounts/instructions about the forgiveness or finding/binding of sin is in the context of identifying/establishing the legitimate/orthodox authority by second-generation Christian writers for their second-generation audiences. Robert Funk and Roy Hoover (The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, NY: Harper Collins, 1993) may be correct in saying the that John's and the other accounts "are to be understood as creations of the individual evangelists." (page 467)
It is important to understand that each of the gospel writers and/or redactors represented a different segment of the post-apostolic Christian world. It is very worthwhile to make a comparison of the 4 gospels using a research aid such as Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Third Edition. (See my review at http://www.bibletexts.com/reviews/bibles/synopsis4gospels.htm.) Such a comparison will show how each gospel-writer added their own content and interpretation of Jesus life and teachings -- additions that reflected the values of their particular church community.
The earliest canonical gospel was Mark, written most likely between 70 A.D. and 75 A.D. On the other hand, Paul's authentic letters, the Didache, and most likely the Gospel of Thomas may be dated as early as 50 A.D. They are our earliest Christian records. None of these three early groups of writings includes teaching such as is found in John 20:23, even though the Didache was basically a training manual for early Christians. It is also interesting to note that Paul, who was not one of the 10 disciples mentioned in Joh 20:23 rebuked Peter who was one of those 10 disciples. (For further details on the authority of church leadership, see http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa059.htm and http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa078.htm.)
You wrote, "Jesus' saying appears to confer absolute authority, as he used the phrase "in heaven and in earth." Again, it was an early church community, not Jesus, who was endeavoring to assert absolute authority." I completely concur with your statement, "God's love never abandons His child."
This agrees with the summary of my commentary, "One's salvation ultimately is not dependent upon a church but upon one's individual relationship with God and upon demonstratively representing His reign within one. Jesus' very original Good Samaritan story clearly established no religious boundaries."
That said, our uniting today in Christian endeavors with others in a church fellowship community is an important part of following Jesus. His men and women disciples -- which traveled with him and/or attended to the groups' various needs as they ministered to others -- represented a fellowship community, a church of sorts. That provides us with an example of church fellowship that we should heed today.
It is also relevant to note that in earliest Christianity being baptized into a church community was the beginning of the journey, not the end of the journey indicating one has "arrived." Members' mistakes in theology and in practice were to be expected and were to be corrected through loving edification. As Paul wrote (2Co 2:7 TEV), "You should forgive him and encourage him, in order to keep him from becoming so sad as to give up completely. And so I beg you to let him know that you really do love him." (See also http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/christiancorrection.htm.) The more hardlined approaches were there result of later competitions between different Christian communities over defining what was and was not "true" orthodoxy.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer