THIS learned and comprehensive monograph surveys the idea of the forgiveness of sins in the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and early Christian writings both orthodox and heterodox down to Augustine in the fifth century. There is no one overall thesis, but striking and original insights emerge.
In the Old Testament, God alone forgives sins, and God himself provides the means of seeking forgiveness by providing the sacrificial system. Sacrifice is not a way of trying to force God’s hand, but the God-given method for seeking a forgiveness that God is willing to give. In the New Testament, Jesus’s offer of forgiveness to sinners is, therefore, a sign of his own status as God’s chosen messenger, and hints at his own identity with God.
The idea of free forgiveness suffers setbacks in early Christianity, as certain writers deny that this or that group of people can ever be forgiven: the Jews, in particular, are often singled out as unforgivable, in a sad anticipation of more modern anti-Semitism. Strikingly, Carter suggests that it may have been Marcion, for all his other errors, who most fully appreciated the gospel message of God’s forgiveness.
A large part of the book is dedicated to a study of Luke-Acts, where important themes emerge. Luke does not seem to have a theory of the atonement connected with the death of Jesus, but bases Christian hope on the resurrection and ascension. Indeed, the New Testament as a whole does not have any single atonement theory, but, rather, uses a series of metaphors to attempt to capture the sense of liberation from sin through Christ.
Jesus’s own granting of forgiveness and associating with “sinners” — meaning primarily tax-collectors and prostitutes — was a political act, since it undermined the monopoly of the Temple authorities to police forgiveness through their control of the sacrificial system. That, in turn, challenged the Romans, who maintained the Temple authorities in power. So Jesus’s dispensing forgiveness was probably one of the reasons for his arrest.
This is a fascinating theory, which deserves careful consideration. “Sinners”, Carter suggests, were felt by people at large to be responsible for the nation’s plight, and, using a sociological theory known as “labelling”, he analyses the way in which they were scapegoated.
Also significant is the attention paid to differences among New Testament manuscripts. He shows that the three great codices, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Bezae, signal, by what they include or omit in the sayings of Jesus at the Last Supper, and in his words from the cross, different ideas about sin and its removal.
This argument repays a careful reading, illustrating as it does the point made by David Parker, in his The Living Text of the Gospels, that sometimes manuscripts of a single Gospel can differ as much as, or even more than, the Synoptic Gospels do among themselves.
There is more, but this gives an impression of the scope and thoroughness of an important book. It is not for the faint-hearted, as much Hebrew and Greek appears both untransliterated and untranslated — unusual nowadays — and the coverage of secondary literature is extensive. But for anyone interested in forgiveness and atonement it is essential reading. It does not support any theory of the atonement known to me, but shows just how variegated Christian thought on the subject has been.
John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.
The Forgiveness of Sins
James Clarke & Co. £27.50