Questions, Insights, & Responses

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#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.


Writer - Part 1



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"? - Part 1



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:


Writer - Part 2



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. - Part 2



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 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 and

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 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