A common refrain within Christianity is that Jesus lived a sinless life. Belief in this doctrine has long been a necessity in Christianity, as it forms the basis for the atonement of Jesus’ death. Jesus had to be sinless in order to act as the sacrificial lamb for all people.
JESUS: A LAMB WITHOUT DEFECT
Ancient Jews symbolized the need for this atonement – this reconciliation between humankind and God – in the celebration of Yom Kippur. Among other things, Yom Kippur included the ritual slaughter of a physically flawless lamb, whose shed blood served as atonement for the sins of the Jews. The lamb was required to be young (a year old), male, and “without defect.” It was required, then, to be “perfect,” otherwise it could not adequately serve as a sacrifice to God.
For ancient Jews, any sacrificial animal was to be physically flawless. The need for sacrificial animals to be “without defect” is repeated dozens of times in the Torah. One example is Deuteronomy 15:21 – “If an animal has a defect, is lame or blind, or has any serious flaw, you must not sacrifice it to the Lord your God.” Furthermore, in the first chapter of Malachi, God condemns the Jews for offering sacrifices that were “blemished” with diseases and other physical maladies. In Malachi, God even goes so far as to say that anyone who has a good lamb, but offers a blemished lamb instead, is “cursed.”
This, then, is the theological and historical basis for the idea that Jesus – whose death was seen as the ultimate sacrifice to God for human sin – was by necessity “perfect” and sinless. The Doctrine of the Atonement simply would not work if Jesus had been a regular sinner like you and me. God cannot accept blemished sacrifices. Thus, you have 1 Peter 1:19 which states that Christ was “a lamb without blemish or defect.”
However, is there any textual evidence in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life to suggest that Jesus, in fact, may have committed sins? I believe that a literal reading of the stories of the Gospels must lead one to suppose that Jesus may not have been quite so perfect and “without defect” as some folks like to imagine.
First, it is necessary to point out that the very word “sin” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Most people would consider the mass slaughter of men, women, children, and infants the worst kind of sin – yet God is responsible for doing just that many times in the Old Testament. Furthermore, while many people believe that “breaking the law” is a sin, most do not think it is sinful to break a law if the law is unjust.
Additionally, many Christians suppose that breaking God’s commandments, as laid out in the Bible, is sinful, but most Christians routinely break Biblical commandments without supposing they are committing a sin. For instance, in Acts chapter 5, Peter is described as condemning two members of the Christian population who withheld some of their own money from the community. Not only does Peter condemn them, he actually strikes them dead for this grievous sin! Christians were expected to give all they had to the community, and failing to do this had dire consequences. This passage, then, preaches a very difficult lesson, one which is universally ignored by modern Americans. No one supposes they are sinning when they give only ten percent of their income to the offering plate on Sunday morning. Another example involves corporal punishment of children. Most parents refrain from beating their children with rods to punish them, even though the Bible commands parents to do this. This one is especially ironic, because most Christians would not only not beat their children with rods, but would consider such an act to be child abuse, and therefore sinful!
For my purposes, I will stick to the sin “basics” – that is, actions that most everyone would consider sinful. Specifically, I will look at cases where Jesus seems to have engaged in intentional economic ruin, racial prejudice, verbal abuse, physical abuse, drunkenness, stealing, and lying. Since most people who believe Jesus was sinless also read and interpret the Bible’s stories literally, I will be approaching this subject from a direct and literal reading of the stories. In other words, for the purposes of this essay, I will be assuming that all the Gospel stories attributed to Jesus represent literal historical actions by Jesus.
INTENTIONAL ECONOMIC RUIN
Most people would consider an intentional act that ruins someone economically to be quintessentially sinful. Purposely burning down a private business owner’s store, for instance, would not only be a terrible crime, but most certainly a “sin” by most people’s standards. Another example might be bilking an elderly person out of their retirement savings through mail fraud – not only a serious legal crime, but a moral crime as well.
Mark chapter 5 describes a relatively famous scene in which Jesus heals a demon-possessed man by casting his “legion” of demons into a herd of pigs. The 2000-strong herd of pigs subsequently makes a mad dash down a hillside, where the pigs drown in a lake. The writer of Mark tells us that “those who were tending the pigs” ran and told everyone what had happened and later “began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.”
The story behind the story here is rather clear: Jesus has just sent these pig herders, and their master, into financial ruin. The destruction of 2000 pigs would be a major economic disaster even for a modern farmer, much less a farmer eking out a living in 1st century Galilee. In this passage, Jesus seems to have little regard for how his actions have affected the owners of the pig herd.
Racial prejudice has been, and often continues to be, one of the banes of society. Few people disagree that judging someone by their race or nationality, or using derogatory names to refer to other races of people, is immoral and sinful. Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, tend to do this from time to time, but most would never expect such things from Jesus.
However, the 15th chapter of Matthew describes a very curious, and often overlooked, scene in which Jesus not only discriminates against someone based on their race, but even calls them a derogatory name.
In this scene, Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman (that is, a non-Jew) who begs him to heal her demon-possessed son. Jesus’ first action is to ignore her completely. When she keeps on following and begging, the disciples get irritated and urge Jesus to send her away. Jesus then explains his perplexing actions: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, “I’m not interested in non-Jews or their problems.” He is, in effect, discriminating against this woman because of her race. The woman, however, is not to be put off. She falls at Jesus’ feet and literally begs him to heal her son. He responds with the phrase: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” This may seem a confusing phrase at first site. What Jesus is saying follows his previous comment. His message is for the “children” of Israel, and it is not appropriate to give that message to “dogs” – that is, non-Jews. Jesus has just called every non-Jew a “dog” who is unworthy of his message. The woman, in a great challenge to Jesus, replies that even the “dogs” eat from their masters’ tables. At this display of faith (some might say self-degradation) Jesus relents and heals her son.
Most everyone agrees that verbally berating someone with name-calling and other hyperbole is mean-spirited at best and sinful at worst. We have already seen in the previous section a scene where Jesus engages in name-calling. Those of us who grew up as Christians are familiar with the famous warning from Matthew 5:22, where Jesus says that anyone who calls someone a “fool” is in “danger of hell fire.”
Apparently, Jesus meant anyone but himself.
Interestingly, in the very same Gospel where Jesus warns against calling people fools, Jesus himself refers to the Pharisees as “blind fools,” with the writer using the very same Greek word for “fool,” so that there can be no doubt that the meaning of the word was the same.
Not only is Jesus engaging in hypocrisy here by not holding himself to the same standards that he holds everyone else (which most would consider, in and of itself, sinful), Jesus is also committing the sin of name-calling (again).
“Fools,” however, is not the extent of Jesus’ verbal attack on the Pharisees. In Luke 11, Jesus is invited to dinner by a Pharisee and he accepts the invitation. But upon being questioned about not ritually washing up before eating, Jesus goes on a tirade, accusing Pharisees of being clean on the outside, but “full of greed and wickedness” on the inside. He says Pharisees are foolish, and neglect justice and God’s love. He accuses them of hypocrisy and false piety. He finishes by saying Pharisees are like “unmarked graves” that people walk past without noticing (presumably because they are so unworthy of notice).
The Pharisee, at this point, says that Jesus is insulting him by saying these things. So Jesus continues. He accuses the Pharisees of not doing anything to help people. He then blames the current generation of Pharisees for the “blood” of all the prophets that has been shed “since the beginning of the world.”
All this because the Pharisee was described as “surprised” that Jesus did not “wash before the meal” and then told Jesus his words were insulting? Wow.
This passage in Luke is pretty disturbing, but even more disturbing is a similar passage in the 23rd chapter of Matthew. This entire chapter, in fact, is one long diatribe against the Pharisees, and includes the “blind fools” quote I mentioned above. In this passage, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of vanity and hypocrisy, and says they have neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He calls them “sons of hell.” He calls them “blind” on four different occasions. He says Pharisees look “beautiful on the outside” like a whitewashed tomb, but on the inside they are just “full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” Like the passage in Luke, Jesus says the blood of all the prophets is on the Pharisees. He calls them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and says they will not be able to escape “being condemned to hell.”
To someone outside of Christianity, this must surely come across as intolerant verbal degradation and abuse, and must surely be sinful by most people’s standards.
Perhaps less “clear cut” than some of my other examples, there is some evidence of physical abuse – or perhaps more appropriately “aggravated assault” – by Jesus. I am, of course, talking about the famous “cleansing of the Temple” scene, described in all four Gospels.
Jews coming into Jerusalem from other regions often went to the Temple to sacrifice animals. Before they could purchase an animal for sacrifice, they had to exchange their foreign currency. For this reason, there were moneychangers in the Temple, giving people a convenient place to exchange their currency before purchasing an animal, and making a profit in the process.
In clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple, Jesus is described as overturning their tables and spilling their money, and driving them and their animals out of the Temple with a whip. Did Jesus actually whip the moneychangers? That is unclear from the text, but either way you slice it, Jesus had committed an act of aggravated assault with a weapon. He was, of course, attempting to make a point, but the people he attacked were no more “guilty” than anyone else and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time – as so many victims of assault are.
One of Jesus’ primary methods of teaching seems to have revolved around eating and drinking. The partaking of food and drink is a common and recurrent theme throughout all four Gospels. Apparently, Jesus had a reputation for this. In Matthew chapter 11, Jesus states that people call him a “glutton and a drunkard” because he has come to the people “eating and drinking.” Oddly, Jesus does not deny these accusations, but simply points out that this is one way in which he is different than John the Baptist, who ate sparingly and did not drink alcohol. Does this mean Jesus was a drunk? He probably was not, but many Christians, even to this day, believe drinking alcohol is a sin, and those people seem to bypass this passage where Jesus points out that he is frequently accused of being a drunkard because of his fondness for winebibbing.
The very idea that Jesus “stole” anything may seem preposterous. However, a careful look at the passages that describe Jesus’ actions just prior to his final entry into Jerusalem might imply that he did just that.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke each describe a scene in which Jesus tells his disciples to go into the city to find a colt for him to ride. If anybody asks them what they are doing, he instructs, they are to simply tell them that the Lord needs it and will return it. The unspoken implication here is that if no one sees them do it, then they should just steal it and bring the colt to him. In Mark and Luke’s account, the disciples are indeed questioned about their actions, and they reply as instructed. Matthew’s account, however, implies that they did not run into any trouble in taking the colt (Matthew, curiously, has them taking not just a colt, but a donkey too).
Nit-picky semantics? Maybe, but stealing is stealing, and it appears that Jesus had no qualms about taking something that was not his in this situation. After all, he was just going to use it for a while and then return it. Try telling that to the judge when you are on trial for grand theft auto.
This is, perhaps, one of the strongest cases of Jesus “sinning” in the New Testament, and the passage in question is almost universally overlooked. Even in researching for this essay, I did not come across any other sources that mentioned the following passage or Jesus’ apparent lie.
In the opening verses of John chapter 7, Jesus is in Galilee teaching. The Feast of Tabernacles is happening soon, and his disciples encourage him to go, suggesting that he can get a lot of exposure there, and that no public figure goes around acting “in secret.” Jesus, however, tells them that it is not yet his time (a foreshadowing of his execution) and that he is not going to Jerusalem for this feast. He encourages them, however, to go to the feast by themselves.
Then comes the shocker, in verse 10: “But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but in secret.”
So what has happened here? There is absolutely no question that Jesus has just lied to his disciples. He stated unequivocally that he was “not going to this festival” (verse 8). Yet later, after they had left, he went to the festival in secret.
Interestingly, Dark Age scribes evidently recognized this religious quandary. By telling his disciples that he was not going to Jerusalem, but then going later in secret, Jesus was clearly sinning. So what these scribes did was simply insert the simple little word “yet” into the phrase in question. So instead of Jesus saying: “I am not going to this festival,” their manuscripts read: “I am not going to this festival yet.” By slipping in that one little word, they felt like they could “correct” the obvious theological problem with John’s original text. We know this happened because the word “yet” does not appear in any of our earliest copies of the Gospel of John. It is not until one gets well into the Dark Ages that manuscripts begin to have this word included. Unfortunately – as is the case with so many other scribal variations – this variation has ended up in our modern Bibles. Most modern English versions have Jesus telling his disciples he is not “yet” going. However, the most textually-reliable English translation – the New Revised Standard Version – prints the verse the way it should read, without the word “yet” inserted. For those of you who are NIV users, the NIV prints the verse with “yet” included, but has a footnote pointing out that the earliest manuscripts do not have this word.
As I stated in the beginning of this essay, the nature of my argument has necessitated the assumption that all the stories attributed to Jesus in the Bible are true. Since Jesus’ sinless nature is primarily only asserted by those who take the stories in the Bible literally, it is necessary to present this argument with the assumption that these stories are, in fact, historically accurate.
Ultimately, I believe these arguments make a more broad general point about Bible literalism, Church doctrine, and the insistence by many Christians that Jesus was the sinless, divine, literal offspring of God. When someone reads the Bible literally, they are faced with hundreds, and even thousands, of religious quandaries. For some, this may bring an entire faith system into question. But for others, they simply begin to realize that the faith is not the problem – the literalizing of the text is the problem.
I believe the Gospels of the New Testament contain fiction and fact, myth and history, literature and reporting. I believe that many things about the life and teachings of Jesus can be gleaned from the Gospel stories, including those I have illustrated above.
For me, driving the demon into the pigs is clearly a story illustrating Jesus’ power over mental and emotional illness; the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman shows first that Jesus was a product of his 1st century Jewish culture, but also shows that when challenged (as he was by the woman’s pointed response), Jesus was able to step outside of those boundaries and demonstrate personal growth; the stories of Jesus’ harsh words for the Pharisees illustrate his deep-seated offense at the hypocritical and narrow ways of the religiously intolerant; the story of the cleansing of the Temple demonstrates Jesus’ derision for worldly pursuits and material gain; Jesus’ penchant for eating and drinking illustrates one of his primary methods of teaching, and symbolizes the heart of his message – that everyone is welcome at the table of God; the story of Jesus and the colt is a story not about stealing, but about an attempt on Jesus’ part to challenge the pomp and circumstance of the Roman empire; and the story about Jesus deceiving his disciples was clearly used by the writer of John to foreshadow Jesus’ later death and to demonstrate how Jesus knew that Jerusalem was to be the scene of his ultimate “showdown;” it also serves to show that deception is not always “black and white” and that sometimes it is better to withhold information if it serves a greater purpose.
It does not matter whether any or all of these stories are literal; what matters is the lesson of Jesus’ life and message. Jesus was a real human being, with real human failures; but it is the basic humanity of Jesus that makes his ability to inspire confidence, compassion, love, and a changed nature in his followers all the more impressive and appealing.
It is only when one begins to literalize these stories as historical fact that one begins to be plagued with the issues of “sinfulness” that I have illustrated here, and to subsequently miss the whole point about the true greatness of Jesus’ fully human life. But those “sinful” actions absolutely must be faced if one wishes to literalize all the accounts of Jesus’ story. Too often, literalists gloss these issues over, or ignore them completely, rather than allowing them to broaden their outlook. I encourage any of my readers to allow these issues to serve as an opportunity to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” as the author of 2 Peter encouraged us to do. By doing so, you will discover a fully human Jesus who, through the power of his personality and vision, inspired his followers into the fullness of life in God, an abundant life that even death could not threaten.
* Several of the points I make in this essay were introduced to me in an article by B.A. Robinson of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, at their website www.religioustolerance.org.