A Who Were the Sinners

One of the more spicey controversies of recent historical Jesus scholarship was occasioned by the swingeing criticism levelled by Sanders against Jeremias's answer to the question. Jeremias had confused the issue by defining 'sinners' as 'a specific term for those engaged in despised trades' and by lumping them together with 'the amme-ha-aretz (people of the land), the uneducated, the ignorant, whose religious ignorance and moral behaviour stood in the way of their access to salvation, according to the convictions of the time'.186 Sanders responded that the term 'sinners' means 'the wicked', or as we might say, law-breakers,

185. Note also Matt. 21.31-32: 'Truly I you, toll-collectors and prostitutes are preceding you into the kingdom of God. . .. the toll-collectors and prostitutes believed him (the Baptist)'; see above, chapter 12 n. 165.

186. Jeremias, Proclamation 109-12.

nals, 'deliberate and unrepentant transgressors of the law'.187 It was not used to refer to the ordinary or common people. 'The common people were not irreli-gious'.188 Jeremias's treatment gave too much weight to the unacceptable view that Jesus brought a message of grace and forgiveness to an unfeeling or merely formalistic Judaism. Jesus' real offence, in Sanders's view, was that he consorted with law-breakers, those who disregarded their covenant obligations, and that he promised them the kingdom without requiring them to repent.189

Sanders, however, left himself equally vulnerable to criticism. If Jeremias had operated with a too undifferentiated definition of 'sinners' in Second Temple Judaism, Sanders was operating with an equally unnuanced view of why individuals might be described as 'sinners' within the Judaism of that day. It is true, of course, that 'sinner' (rasa') means one who breaks or does not keep the law, as its regular use in the OT makes clear.190 But the understanding of what the law required was by no means uniform or wholly agreed within Second Temple Judaism. Consequently there were many aspects of conduct where there would be dispute as to whether the action in question was in fact a breach of the law. The point is now nicely illustrated by the recently published 4QMMT. It itemises a range of issues where it is clear that the Qumran sect believed their halakhoth to be what the law required The letter seeks to persuade others that they should follow these rulings and thus be accounted righteous before God (C26-32), with the obvious corollary that failure to agree with and practise these rulings would leave them in breach of the law, that is, as sinners. Such is ever the way when points of doctrine or praxis become of such importance in a group that it finds it necessary to separate itself from others (C7) and to maintain a identity distinct from the others. The unavoidable conclusion for such a group is that others are 'sinners' because they fail to observe the doctrine or praxis which is of such self-definitional significance for the group.

In other words, 'sinners' was not an absolute term, such as could always be demonstrated in any law-court in the land. 'Sinner' also functioned as a factional

187. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism 385 n. 14 cites Jeremias approvingly here.

188. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism 177-80, 182; Sanders is followed by Meier, Marginal Jew 2.149, 211-12; 3.28-29; Crossan and Reed, Excavating Jesus 119 ('the deliberately, continuously, and obstinately wicked . . . those who are irrevocably evil').

189. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism 198-206; also Historical Figure 226-37; also with W. D. Davies, 'Jesus: from the Jewish Point of View', in Horbury et al., eds., Judaism 3.618-77 (here 636-43). Sanders' polemic against Jeremias drew vigorous protest from his former McMaster colleague Ben Meyer, 'A Caricature of Joachim Jeremias and His Work', JBL 110 (1991) 451-62, with response from Sanders, 'Defending the Indefensible', JBL 110 (1991) 463-77; and from Hengel and Deines, 'Sanders' Judaism' 68-69, speaking somewhat on behalf of German scholarship.

190. E.g., Exod. 23.1; Deut. 25.2; Pss. 1.1, 5; 10.3; 28.3; 37.32; 50.16-18; 71.4; 82.4; 119.53, 155; Prov. 17.23; Ezek. 33.8, 11, 19; Sir. 41.5-8.

term, a term of vituperative insult, a dismissive 'boo-word' to warn off members of the in-group against conduct outside the boundaries which defined the group.191 This is precisely what we find in much of the literature of the Second Temple period. Already in Dan. 12.10 'the sinners' (r^sa°im) who fail to understand Daniel's revelation are contrasted with 'the wise' who do understand. In 1 Maccabees, the 'sinners and lawless men' certainly included those whom the Maccabees regarded as apostates, as Israelites who had abandoned the law (1 1.34; 2.44, Similarly the 'sinners' in the various early Enochic writings are opponents of the self-styled 'righteous',193 who 'sin like the sinners' in that they use what the Enochians regard as the wrong calendar and so fail to observe the feasts aright (7 En. 82.4-7). In just the same way, in the Dead Sea Scrolls rs'm refers to the sect's opponents,194 where again it is the sect's interpretation of the law which determines that those who do not accept that interpretation are to be numbered among the wicked. In some ways most striking of all are the Psalms of Solomon, where repeatedly the 'righteous', the 'devout',196 inveigh against the 'sinners', where again it is clear that the latter often denotes the opponents of the righteous, that is, probably the Hasmonean Sadducees who controlled the Temple cult.197 In all these cases the term 'sinners' does not denote non-practising, law-defiant Jews, those who would be generally regarded as lawbreakers, but Jews who practised their Judaism differently from the writer's fac-tion.198 They were 'sinners', that is, law-breakers, but onlyfrom a sectarian viewpoint and only as judged by the sectarians' interpretation of the law.199

191. In what follows 1 again (as in §9.4) draw on my earlier 'Pharisees, Sinners and Jesus' 73-76; more briefly my Partings 103-105. On the factionalism of Second Temple Judaism see further above, §9.4, including n. 56. Crossan criticizes Sanders, with some justice, for treating sin only in individual terms and ignoring systematic evil and structural sin; but Crossan in turn, despite distinguishing between invective and portrayal, pays no attention to the way the term 'sinner' was actually used at the time {Birth 337-43).

192. J. A. Goldstein, 1 Maccabees (AB 41; New York: Doubleday, 1976) 123-24.

193. 1 En. 1.7-9; 5.4, 6-7; 22.9-13; and 94-104passim.

194. lQpHab 5.1-12; 1QH 10[= 2].10-12; 12[= 4].34; CD 2.3; 11.18-21; 19.20-21; 4QFlor (4Q174) 1.14.

195. E.g., 1QS 5.7-13; 1QH 15[= 7]12; CD 4.6-8. Note the citation of Dan. 12.10 in 4QFlor 2.3-4a, where the sect presumably identified itself with the maskkilim of Daniel.

196. E.g., Pss. Sol 3.3-7; 4.1, 8; 9.5; 10.3, 6; 13.6-12; 15.6-7.

197. Pss. Sol. 1.8; 2.3; 7.2; 8.12-13; 17.5-8, 23. See again above, §9.4 at n. 131.

198. 'When viewed through the prism of the prevailing purity system, the dissident is seen clearly as outside the realm of what is holy and exclusive to the group' (Malina, Social Gospel 60); cf. Buchanan: 'outcasts from a liturgical point of view' (Jesus 132).

199. Sanders recognizes this aspect in talk of 'sinners' (Jesus and Judaism 210; and earlier in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism, index 'The Wicked'), but he fails to integrate it into his treatment of Jesus. On the seriousness of the charge see again above, §9.4.

A striking fact emerges from all this: that the language used in criticism of Jesus strongly reflects the polemical and factional use of the term elsewhere attested among Jesus' contemporaries. Most notable is the antithesis between 'righteous' and 'sinners' (Mark 2.17 pars.), reflected also in Luke's conclusion to the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15.7) and in his parable of the Pharisee and the toll-collector (18.9, The conclusion lies close to hand that Jesus was criticised by some who regarded themselves as properly law-observant ('righteous') and that he was criticised for associating with those whom 'the righteous' deemed to be 'sinners', that is, those who disregarded or disputed interpretations of the Torah held dear by 'the righteous' (sadikkim). In other words, the sentiment of Mark 2,17c fits remarkably closely into a context typified by the Enochic corpus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Psalms of Solomon. As we noted earlier (§9.4), the same literature also indicates the likelihood that Pharisees were heavily involved in such factional disputes. It must be judged very likely, then, that the critics of Jesus were indeed typically Pharisees (whose standpoint the Psalms of Solomon probably reflects most closely), and that it was indeed they who used the term 'sinners' in criticising Jesus' association with those deemed law-breakers by such Pharisees.201

In which case we should also note that in Mark 2.17 Jesus is not remembered as disputing the righteousness of the Pharisaic critics. As the saying stands, 'the righteous' in 2.17c correspond to 'those who are in good health' in 2.17b.202 Even if at this point 'righteous' is as much a factional term as 'sinner', it is not the self-assertion of righteousness which Jesus here questions,203 only the use of the pejorative 'sinner'. Nor does Jesus deny that the epithet is often justified: 'sinners' are equivalent to 'the sick'; he himself called for repentance (§13.2a); in the parable of the Pharisee and the toll-collector, the latter confesses that he is

200. Note also the use of dikaioo in Matt. 11.19/Luke 7.35; Luke 16.15; and cf. Matt.

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