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Did Jesus lead a sinless life?

Part 2: Actions by Jesus that might be considered
sinful if done by an ordinary person. Conclusions.


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Actions by Jesus that might be considered sinful if done by other Jews at the time:

The following activities might have been considered sinful, if performed by an ordinary person in Galilee during the first century CE:

bullet Harvesting on the Sabbath: The various versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21) all contain prohibitions against working on Saturday, the Sabbath day.  For example, Exodus 20:8-11 states:

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work...For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

Deuteronomy 5:21 states that on the sabbath, "in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest." Jews were prohibited from harvesting crops or preparing a meal on the Sabbath; observant Jews still are. Exodus 35:2 states: ...but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. Numbers 15:32-36 described a man who was executed because he gathered wood on Saturday -- perhaps to keep his family from freezing from the cold.

But Matthew 12:1-6 states: "At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day." (The "corn" referred to in the King James Version of the Bible is really referring to a grain crop.) Mark 2:23-28 describes the same incident. In Luke 6:1-5, the disciples' sin was not to pluck and eat the ears of grain; it was the act of rubbing the ears between their hands to extract the kernels which was considered work, and thus sinful.

Jesus justified the activities of his disciples, by referring to David obtaining the consecrated shewbread from "Abiathar the high priest" on a sabbath, and eating it.

The source of sin in this incident would be "Jesus' violating or condoning violation of the Sabbath law, one of the most sacred and distinctive of all Jewish institutions." 1

In Matthew 12:1-8 Jesus responds to criticism from the Pharisees about this incident. He quotes Hosea 6:6 -- that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The Sabbath was originally introduced to provide a day of rest so that people would not exhaust themselves through over-work. Jesus implied that the Pharisees had lost track of its purpose. Still, from the standpoint of the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples' "work" was a sin.

bullet

Eating without washing one's hands, etc: Pharisees and scribes observed that some of Jesus' disciples did not wash their hands prior to eating. Mark 7:2-3 states: "And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders."

Matthew 15:1-4 also describes this same incident. The author emphasized the Pharisee's belief that to not wash one's hands before eating was to dishonor one's parents traditions, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments.

In Matthew 15:11, Jesus states "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." This is a radical statement. It "implies the setting aside of the entire dietary and ritual cleansing code, oral and written" of the Torah. 2 This verse negates much of the Mosaic law. Later in verses 13-14, Jesus is recorded as stating "...Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." This is a veiled "denunciation of the leaders of Israel as constituting a group which has no rightful claim to call itself the people of God. Matthew records Jesus as transforming "a critique of Jewish institutions into a repudiation of Judaism itself." 3

One source of sin in this incident is Jesus condoning his disciples' eating without washing their hands. A far greater sin was to negate much of the Mosaic law as being without value. Finally, he made a treasonous attack on the legitimacy of the Jewish leadership; this might have been considered a capital crime in those days.

bullet Transferring demons into about 2,000 pigs: Mark 5:8-14, Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:27-39 describe an incident in which Jesus exorcised a man who had been tormented by about 2,000 demons. Jesus sent the demons into a nearby herd of pigs.  Mark 5:13 states: "...And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.

In this case, the sin was to destroy the livelihood of the farmer(s) who owned the pigs. Because pigs were considered so unclean by Jews, the owner was undoubtedly a non-Jew. Jesus presumably could have transferred all 2,000 demons into a single pig, and thus minimized the economic hardship to the farmer. He could perhaps have even transferred all of the demons into a rock, bird or mouse, and totally avoided financial loss to the farmer.

bullet Verbally attacking the Pharisees: Luke 11:37-54 describes a meeting over a meal between Jesus and a Pharisee. Jesus angrily and abusively attacked all Pharisees, saying that their "inward part is full of ravening and wickedness." He referred to the Pharisees as "you fools," "hypocrites." In Matthew 23:13-36, Jesus refers to them as "blind guides," "blind fools," extortionists, unclean, serpents, a brood of vipers, murderers, persecutors, and being full of iniquity, etc.

The sin in this case is to attack another individual for their religious beliefs and practices. To call them fools is particularly serious. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus is recorded as saying:

"...anyone who says to his brother 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin [the Council]. But anyone who says 'You fool' will be in danger of the hell fire" (NIV)

"Raca" apparently means "I spit on you." That passage seems to imply that a single insult of the type that Jesus made is a sufficiently serious sin that it places a person in danger of going to Hell.

bullet Personal habits: In Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34, Jesus is called a "gluttonous man and a winebibber" i.e. a glutton and a drunk. If this is an accurate description, then his eating and drinking behavior might be considered sinful. Of course, there is no way to verify that this description is accurate.

bullet Aggravated physical assaults in the Temple: The Torah outlines the rituals that Jews were required to perform in the Temple. These often involved the ritual sacrifice of animals such as doves, lambs, sheep, and oxen. Pilgrims came to the Temple from various lands, and first had to change the currency of their country of origin into temple coinage at moneychanger tables. Only then were they able to purchase animals to be ritually killed by the priests.  Mark 11:15, Matt 21:12-15, Luke 19:45-47 and John 2:14-16 describe an incident in which Jesus entered the temple grounds and attacked the vendors there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers, spilling their coins onto the ground. He overturned the seats of those who sold doves. He made "a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple" by whipping them.

These passages are ambiguous They don't state whether Jesus used the scourge as a weapon to actually hit the moneychangers, or whether he merely used it to threaten them.

  • If he actually flogged the moneychangers, he would have been guilty of the sin of aggravated assault -- assault with a weapon.
  • If he merely threatened them, then he would have been guilty of threatening physical assault.

We received an E-mail from a visitor to this site who suggested that Jesus only used the scourge to whip the animals and drive them from the temple; he did not attack the vendors. This is quite unlikely, because the animals would either have been caged or tied up. Whipping them would not have driven them from the temple.

Some theologians suspect that this attack would certainly have been detected by the Roman army garrison. During Passover time,when Jews from all over Judea and the rest of the Roman Empire converged on Jerusalem, they were placed on a state of high alert, fearing that Jewish nationalism might trigger a revolt. The soldiers were stationed in a position to oversee Temple activities. Some believe that Jesus was immediately arrested after the aggravated assaults or threatened assaults in the Temple, was tried by a relatively junior Roman officer for inciting a riot, was found guilty, was sentenced, and was quickly executed by crucifixion as an insurrectionist. They believe that the various trials of Jesus which are described in the Gospels never happened.

bullet

Conspiracy  to steal animals: In Mark 11:2-4, Matt 21:2-3, and Luke 19:30-31, Jesus instructs two of his disciples to go into a village - perhaps Bethany. They were to locate a colt tied up near the entrance, and to return with it. If someone stopped them they were to explain that the Lord had need of it. Otherwise, they were simply to steal the colt without paying for it or obtaining permission.

In Matthew's account, they were to steal both an ass and a colt, and Jesus somehow rode into Jerusalem astride both animals. Liberal theologians interpret this strange arrangement as a misunderstanding by the author of Matthew of Zechariah 9:9 "...behold, thy King cometh unto thee... lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." One commentator wrote: "Matthew misunderstood the Hebrew parallelism by which the lines were matched by sense rather than by sound." 4 Hebrew poetry makes almost no use of rhyme and no direct use of meter. Rather, the "units of thought in each line of the poem [are] enhanced compared or emphasized by their relationship to those in a parallel line." 5 Thus, Zechariah is referring to the same animal, twice. The author of Matthew appears to have misinterpreted the passage and believed that it referred to two separate animals. The authors of the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John did not make this mistake. In Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35, and John 12:14-15, they describe Jesus as riding on a single animal: a young donkey or colt.

The sin in this case was conspiracy to commit theft.

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bullet Prejudice based on race or nationality: Matthew 15:22-28 describes an incident between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Mark 7:25-30 describes the same incident, identifying her differently as Greek/Syrophenician. One commentary on the Bible explains that "The inhabitants of this area were racially and linguistically connected with the ancient Canaanites." 6She begged Jesus to cure her daughter who was possessed by a demon. He first ignored her, but then explained that he was sent only to bring the Gospel to the Jews, not to the Gentiles such as she. Jesus cruelly replied to the desperate mother that it was not right for him "to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." i.e. it is not appropriate to take the Gospel, which was intended only for the Jews, and offer it to Gentiles as well -- here described as sub-humans, as dogs. Here, Jesus was following the behavior of other observant Jews in the 1st century CE who would frequently refer to Gentiles contemptuously as "dogs.") She quipped back to Jesus that even the "dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Jesus relented and, from a distance, cured the daughter of demonic possession because of the mother's faith.

The sin in this case was to treat a person of another race and/or nationality as sub-human, by referring to them as a dog.

Conclusions:

We may conclude:

bullet

From the perspective of most conservative Christians, Jesus is God and thus, by definition, is incapable of committing a sinful act. Behaviors ranging from cursing, breaking Sabbath laws, theft, assault, crimes against humanity and genocide, which were/are considered criminal acts if done by a human, are moral, ethical and sinless actions when they are carried out by God.

Religious conservatives might criticize religious liberals for judging God by applying contemporary human standards of behavior to the creator of the universe. One might consider Elihu's response when Job criticized God: Job 35:16:

"Therefore doth Job open his mouth in vain; he multiplieth words without knowledge."

One might consider God's response to Job as well: Job 38:1-41:

"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?....Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof..."


bullet

From the perspective of many liberal Christians, Jesus was a man -- a human, not a God. He engaged in some sinful behavior and in perhaps two recorded criminal acts. He did nothing that could be considered a capital crime by today's standards -- a crime that would result in the death penalty. However, the aggravated assault and the creation of a disturbance in the temple would certainly have been considered treasonous in 1st century Galilee by the occupying army -- a capital crime for which the Roman Army would have sentenced anyone to crucifixion.

That form of execution was reserved for slaves and insurrectionists. Since there is no indication that Jesus was ever a slave, he must have been considered an insurrectionist -- and thus considered guilty of a major crime -- by the occupying army.

As usual, there is no way to harmonize the beliefs of conservative and liberal Christians. They logically follow from their different interpretations of the Bible.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1991), Page 623-624
  2. "Questions and Answers," True Jesus Church, at:  http://www.tjc.org/ 
  3. Op cit., Laymon, Page 627.
  4. Op cit., Laymon, Page 635.
  5. Op cit., Laymon, Page 1077
  6. Op cit., Laymon, Page 628.

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Copyright © 2000 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-17
Latest update: 2011-FEB-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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