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Was Jesus Perfect? Then How Was He Human?? Guest Post: Jeffrey Siker

Another guest post by Jeffrey Siker, raising a very hard question with some peculiar answers and a provocative suggestion.

Jesus and Sinlessness: Metaphor and Ontology, Blog 3

In the two previous posts I have shown how the tradition developed that Jesus was sinless, namely, retrospectively in light of resurrection faith.  If Jesus was raised to divine stature at the right hand of God, then surely he must have been God’s divine Son throughout his public ministry (even if hidden by a messianic secret), and also in his baptism and birth.  Thus, the logic goes, he must have been perfect throughout his life.  He could have no taint of sin.  On this the earliest Christians generally came to agree, though they expressed this agreement in different ways.

Gnostic Christians like Valentinus in the second century associated sin with material existence, and bodily physicality.  This led Valentinus to argue that Jesus only appeared to be a flesh and blood human being.  In reality he was a spiritual being only.  As a result, Valentinus argued that Jesus “ate and drank in a special way, without excreting his solids.”  Jesus was thus not corrupted by a physical body, which was the locus of sinful flesh.  Clement of Alexandria agreed that Jesus did not need to eat, but argued that he did eat “so that his companions might not entertain a false notion about him,” namely that he only appeared to be human.

Later Christian tradition …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    robgrayson  May 24, 2019

    “I have become convinced that to speak of the “sinlessness” of Jesus is really at best a kind of metaphor to describe a life patterned by faithful obedience to God and faithful relationships with others. But metaphors cease to have life when they become fossilized, ossified, and turned into some kind of literal ontological statement about divine or cosmic reality”

    “Rather than human perfection, I would argue that Jesus provides a pattern of transgressive faithfulness that redefines both faith and sin. It is a pattern of life that moves away from conventional and traditional moralistic notions of sin. It is a transgressive faithfulness that crosses boundaries and in the process makes us intensely uncomfortable, for it links the perfecting of faith with ways that Jesus transgressed traditional understandings of family, friends and faith.”

    These two sentences are gold. They put into words something I’ve come to believe but have not been able to articulate so well.

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  2. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  May 24, 2019

    You state in your book Lost Christianities that one of the reasons Apostolic Succession is not a valid argument is that the Gnostics also had similar claims, but surely it is clear that whatever Paul believed, it was closer to what the proto-Orthodox believed than the Gnostics?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2019

      It may have been closer, but it wasn’t the same — and Gnostics could indeed derive many of their beliefs from Paul.

      2
      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  May 27, 2019

        It just doesn’t make sense to me then to make the claim that there were all these Christianities floating around and no one had any idea which was which. With the original Jesus being the trunk or roots, and then the various Christian sects branching off from there, how would all the differing versions of the faith sit in relation to whatever the original might have been?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2019

          I’m not sure what you mean that no one knew which was which. Are you saying that if there are lots of forms of Christianity that everyone knew that it was some other one that was actually the true one, and they held to a false one? (And think about Christianity today! Does everyone know which is which?)

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  3. Avatar
    godspell  May 24, 2019

    In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus and the disciples encounter Moses and Elijah, who have apparently come down from heaven to commune with him. There is no sense in that story that Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah–he is being compared with them, interacting with them as an equal. Were they sinless too? Moses certainly is depicted as a very flawed person in Exodus. Elijah shows multiple signs of human weakness, however admirable he may be overall.

    If Moses and Elijah could ascend to heaven, an honor that Jews tended to believe was reserved for a few exceptionally holy men (and probably no women), why did Jesus have to be sinless in order to receive the same honor?

    I think that they tried on various hats–teacher, prophet, Messiah, Son of God, God–and to some extent kept them all. One might suspect Jesus tried some of those hats on as well, trying to figure out who he was. I personally think he felt closer to Moses and Elijah (and maybe Jonah, the most flawed prophetic figure in the Old Testament) than he did to some promised Messiah. That he was walking in their footsteps. And just as imperfect as them. But again, without sin, there is no virtue.

    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      Well, I do think that the purpose of the Transfiguration scene is to show Jesus as the culmination of the law and the prophets (hence, Moses and Elijah). So in that sense the story presumes the superiority of Jesus.

      It’s interesting to me that there are various figures in the Jewish (and Christian) tradition who are described as “blameless” or “righteous” in the eyes of God (Abraham – Gen 17:1 – ; Job; Elizabeth, Zechariah – Lk 1:6 – et al), and even Paul can say that in terms of obedience to the law he was “blameless” (Phil 3:6) The only significance for calling Jesus “sinless” is so that he can be an appropriately unblemished sacrifice to atone for human sin — again all in retrospect. Since neither Moses nor Elijah died and were raised from the dead, there was no need to explain their deaths. Ironically, in the Testament of Abraham the patriarch is being given a heavenly tour of the earth by the archangel Michael, and Abraham starts destroying all the sinners he sees on earth because he is sinless and as a result “he has no pity for sinners” (Test.Abraham 10:15-19). But then God tells Michael to stop the tour lest Abraham kills everyone. The perfect Abraham then “repents” of his action!
      Jesus didn’t have to be sinless to be raised to the heavenly realm; he had to be sinless so that his death could have atoning significance (not unlike the Maccabean martyrs in 2 & 4 Maccabees). Why did Jesus “have to die”? Because he died! In retrospect the early Christians explained the death in sacrificial terms in light of the resurrection.
      Without sin there is no virtue. Nice.

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      • Avatar
        godspell  May 27, 2019

        In Mark’s story of the Transfiguration, Jesus says afterwards (to the disciples who still somehow don’t know who Jesus is, even though God just told them, while they were in the presence of two of the most revered individuals in the Jewish faith), that Elijah has already come, and people did as they wished with him. He’s pretty obviously talking about John the Baptist. In other instances, people think Jesus is Elijah returned. Elijah comes up over and over again in the gospels. He is, one might argue, a pre-Messianic figure.

        To what extent, before Jesus, was there a tradition of resurrection in Jewish thought? Specifically, of a dead prophet returning to inaugurate a new age? After all, Elijah was said to have raised the dead himself. In many ways, Jesus is a new Elijah–or depicted as one.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  May 24, 2019

    When theologians explain how Jesus could be fully God and fully human I hear words like “paradox” and “mystery,” which translated means, “We know this doesn’t make any sense, but that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!” Now, Job and Noah are called “blameless” and righteous in their stories. Did the Jews of Jesus’ day believe all people are sinful, or was the concept of total depravity a Christian idea?

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    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2019

      I suppose some thought it was possible to be “blameless” but still to have committed sins. That appears to have been Paul’s views, at least. (He says that he was “blameless” before the law). And yes, a person could be righteous and still have sin. I don’t know of Jews at the time who thought they were absolutely sinless.

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      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  May 27, 2019

        That made me chuckle so! My good jewish friends would never, none of them, think they were absolutely sinless. The very idea!!! That would take away so much angst and moaning – no, could never be!

    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      I agree with Bart (shocking!). Jews of Jesus’ day did not think of people in terms of sinlessness or perfection; rather their categories had more to do with whether someone was “righteous” or not — whether or not they kept the Jewish law and followed the traditions of the elders. Disobedience and sin were ever a problem, but the Jews had mechanisms to deal with sin that had been ordained by God — especially in terms of Temple sacrifice and the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). From a Jewish perspective there was no real need for Jesus to die for human sin, since God had already provided ways to be cleansed of sin, just as God had provided ways of being cleansed of ritual impurity (which was not a sin) in order to participate in Temple sacrifice.

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  5. Avatar
    Steefen  May 24, 2019

    Jeffrey Siker
    Still, rather than seeing Jesus as an ontologically perfect human being, I would propose another way of approaching this troubling Jesus, a way that accepts the actual humanity of Jesus. Rather than human perfection, I would argue that Jesus provides a pattern of transgressive faithfulness that redefines both faith and sin.

    Steefen
    How would you strengthen your proposition with claim/s of Jesus’s transgression/s?

    Yes, you say Jesus transgressed the traditional understanding of family, friends, and faith. Jesus sinned in reference to family and friends; and, instead of sinning with reference to faith/religion of Temple Judaism, he did not fulfill it by making it more reasonable / spirit of the law instead of overly letter of the law?

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  May 24, 2019

    Dr Siker

    I appreciate your insight/understanding of
    >> the “sinlessness” of Jesus is really at best a kind of metaphor to
    >> describe a life patterned by faithful obedience to God and
    >>faithful relationships with others.

    I know someone who says a religious life (christian, christlike life) is a life of “absolute faith, absolute love, and absolute obedience”

    therefore we have no issue in believing, for instance, that Tamar was sinless in her relation with Judah, nor was Mary sinful even if the father of Jesus was someone other than Joseph.

    But the bigger question is: if this is a proper understanding of “sinlessness” what does it say about the nature of The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed as imminent?

    Some (maybe many) people misunderstand that to be a world where there are no tornados, no one ever gets sick, no physical death ( even no births). But if we rather understand the Kingdom of God as a world of no “sin’. in the sense of “sin’ as you have comprehended. then I guess you have a much better understanding of the world Jesus hoped would arrive within his generation.

    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      It’s certainly the case that early Christians thought the Kingdom of God would be some kind of idyllic reality where (as Revelation puts it) there would be no more tears or death or suffering (Rev 21:4), since God will again dwell with humanity (a new Eden). Many scholars argue that the Gospel of Luke in particular shows the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom in the ministry of Jesus. And Paul seems to have believed that he and other Christians were living “between the times” — between the already of Jesus’ victorious death/res and the not-yet in his coming again (1 Thess4). In the early 20th century the Social Gospel movement argued that people could become progressively less sinful, and the church could be a semblance of God’s Kingdom. (But then there’s the French church historian, Alfred Loisy, who famously said that “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, but all we got was the church!”) My own sense is that as long as humans have breath, sin will endure, even if we redefine its meaning, even if (as Paul puts it) those in Christ are being transformed from one degree of glory into another — a kind of progressive perfecting.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  May 26, 2019

        OK
        “My own sense is that as long as humans have breath,
        sin will endure,”

        that is certainly an absolutely reasonable view you hold,

        but are you also saying that is as Jesus saw things?
        then how do you reconcile Matt 5:48

        You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

        do you not accept that as historical?
        or do you think he was using hyperbole, (i do think there are many instances where he used hyperbole eg Lk 17:20 ) but It does not appear to be the case here.

  7. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 25, 2019

    Dear Jeffrey. I think the points you raise on this subject are fascinating. I confess to not having read your book and I hope you will forgive me (😉) for taking up some of your points on the basis of your posts alone. I agree with the evidence you adduce to show that Jesus was not always regarded as sinless by either his contemporaries especially the those obsessed with the outward mosaic law abidance, but even the disciples questioned his conduct. You view this developing tradition as progressive invention, but it could be seen as progressive realization or revelation, depending on your viewpoint. I don’t agree that this developing tradition necessarily ‘sacrificed the humanity of Jesus on the altar of his divinity’. You don’t have to be guilty of wrongdoing to experience remorse or guilt – you only have to feel that you might have done wrong. Likewise, you don’t have to have done wrong to experience forgiveness from someone you have offended. I am inclined to think that Jesus wondered whether he had sinned and I am sure he even had doubts about his message and his mission. Otherwise, as you say, he would not have been fully human. In agreement with your ‘transgressive faithfulness’ idea [nice term by the way], Jesus himself indicated that real sin was an inward disobedience to God. Calling Jewish leaders children of the Devil, saying ‘get thee behind me Satan’ to Simon Peter (that offended me), cursing a fig tree, calling a gentile woman a Goyim (?Greek pun on the word for cynic) may be offensive, but isn’t Jesus’s point that offensiveness to ‘man’ is not necessarily offensiveness or disobedience to God.

    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      You raise a good point. I guess the question for me is: what’s the difference between progressive invention and progressive realization? Is it a matter of perspective? I think, for example, of John 20:1-9 — when Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the (empty) tomb. Peter goes in and sees that Jesus isn’t there. The Beloved Disciple (who got there first!) “saw and believed” — believed what? Believed that Jesus had been raised even without seeing the risen Jesus (which Thomas demands before he’ll believe). The next verse is telling: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” — They reinterpreted their scripture in light of what they believe they experienced. This is nothing new. Christians, Jews, Muslims — everyone with a set of “scripture” is constantly engaged in reinterpreting these scriptures in light of present circumstances and developing beliefs. For centuries Christians saw the Jews as damned “children of the devil” (quoting John 8:44). Only in light of the Holocaust and Christian guilt over complicity in a theology that demonized Jews did Christians stop blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus (cf the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, 1965), and a whole new movement of seeing the Jews as in a valid covenant relationship with God apart from Christ developed (at least for many denominations).
      As for feeling guilt or remorse — you only feel this if you think you have done something wrong. Whether you’ve actually done something wrong is another question. So the irony, it seems to me, is that it would be a sin for Jesus to think of himself as “sinless”! It would be “missing the mark” of what it means to be human. This is Paul’s point in the Philippians 2 hymn to Christ — “though he was in the form of God he did not count equality with God as something to be exploited” — unlike Adam and Eve, who fell for the serpent’s line that if they ate from the tree of knowledge their eyes would be opened and they would be like God. (Another irony — they already were like God!) In Christian tradition the idea is that Jesus restores the ability of people to become “children of God” (John 1).
      And yes, I think you’re right that Jesus stressed the notion of inner transformation that leads to outward faithfulness. Let’s face it, the notion that we’re judged on the basis of our inner emotions and desires is a radicalization of the Jewish law.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  May 27, 2019

        I agree with 90% of what you say above, in particular, your main point that scripture has been constantly reinterpreted in light of what the disciples and subsequent Christians believe they experienced. That doesn’t mean the re-intepretation or even the first interpretation is either right or wrong and even now, we are doing the very same thing!. For example, I beleive in the interpretation of the suffering servant to mean a suffering messsianic lamb of God that was fullfilled by Jesus (as well in places, also meaning Jacob / Israel). Was a single suffering propitiatory messianic human servant Isaiah’s intepretation? Or that of his contemporary hearers? , Maybe, maybe not. Was it God’s intention? Well that depends on a) whether you beleive Iin God b) whether you believe Isaiah was a true prophet of God and c) whether in the light of Jesus’s life and death, you beleive he sufficently fits the bill. I can certainly see how in many ways, both the Jewish nation and Jesus fit the bill. I accept that whether I think of Jesus as sinless may depend on whether I theoloigcally need him to be so as a fullfilement of that prophecy as a spotless passover lamb, whether I need to think of him as sinless to worship him, whether I need to think of him as sinless to have been ‘God’s Son’. Actually, I need all 3, but does that of neccessity make me wrong in beleiving Jesus was sinless? In Jewsih thought now and at the time of Jesus, the Messiah did not and does not need to be sinless any more than David is required to have been sinless. Therefore the sinlessness idea of Jesus idea was not based purely on prophetic intepretation, but on re-interpretation in the light of what Jesus said about himself and how he conducted himself, which is another branch of the topic of the historical Jesus. The other question you raise of whether Jesus thinking about himself as sinless would make him a sinner is a fascinating one. I think if he was wrong then yes. If he was right then no. Here’s another question: if he was sinless would it have been a sin to think of himself as sinful? 🙂

  8. Avatar
    roger  May 25, 2019

    I agree Also if all humans are constantly changing wouldn’t Jesus be a much different person after 2000 years? How relevant can it be to read about his ancient past?

    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      Well, it’s the touchstone for the entire Christian tradition. The story of Jesus is what gave rise to all of the Christian stories that followed.

  9. Avatar
    nbraith1975  May 25, 2019

    Jesus never considered himself as a divine being – in any way equal to God. Telling the man that he was NOT “good” makes this clear. Jesus identified YAHWEH as his “Father” AND his “God” – as any human being would.

    17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10)

    17 Jesus *said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” (John 20)

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    • Jeffrey Siker
      Jeffrey Siker  May 26, 2019

      I think it is the case that while later Christians made Jesus equal to God, Jesus did not do this in his lifetime.

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  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 25, 2019

    Dr. Siker; Thanks for a very thought provoking series.

  11. Avatar
    Euler  May 26, 2019

    Here’s a suggestion. Less of these theological posts and more guest posts similar to the Joel Marcus posts. ‘Transgressive faithfulness’ ‘ pattern of life that moves away from conventional and traditional moralistic notions of sin’ Are meaningless phrases. ‘ perfectly sinless’ is a tautology. More historical Jesus/ Text criticism,please.

    2
  12. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 28, 2019

    Interesting that Valentinus believed that — to put it bluntly — Jesus didn’t poop. It reminded me of something my Church History prof, a former Greek Orthodox monk, told me several eons ago. Namely that Adam and Eve didn’t sweat. I suppose that means that Jesus, being the sinless second Adam, didn’t either. An orthodox vestige of a semi-Valentinian attitude?

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  13. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 30, 2019

    In England we have this saying which you are recommended to repeat yourself before meeting someone important (eg at an interview) “all men use toilet paper”

    • Avatar
      robgrayson  May 31, 2019

      Funny: I’m English and I’ve never heard that saying. I *have* heard the expression, “Everyone shits”, though I suspect I probably heard it on the lips of our American cousins.

  14. Avatar
    ftbond  June 13, 2019

    If one accepts that Jesus was the embodiment of the Spirit of God (ie, “Emmanuel”, “God With Us”), then it leads to the question “How can God sin?” Jewish thought is basically “God is God, and whatever He does is right”.

    If Jesus were *not* the embodiment of God, then we can invent any and all other “meanings” we want to try to explain the concept of Jesus’ supposed sinlessness.

  15. Avatar
    anvikshiki  July 30, 2019

    Might this conception of the “sinlessness” of Jesus have been one theological result of translating the expression “son of God” out of its traditional Jewish/Hebrew context and into a Greco-Roman religious and philosophical context? As I understand it, “son of God” or “sons of God” in the Tanakh and other early Jewish sources do not necessarily mean that a being has a divine nature–though sometimes the expression can refer to members of God’s heavenly council or angelic beings–but often simply means either a royal figure or prophet who, though they are entirely human, are favoured by God in some special way. To be a “son of God” in this traditional sense, even with regard to angelic beings, would not imply sinlessness, as some of them impregnated human women, some of them made adversarial bets with God. For human figures favoured by God it hardly implied sinlessness–David and Solomon were far from sinless. So calling Jesus “son of God” in a Jewish context would mean only that he was a human being who found favour with God, and one could work out that kind of relationship either as an adoptionist or an early Christian like Paul who seemed to believe Jesus was originally an angelic figure become human. But none of this would lead to any necessary inferences that Jesus was sinless. But when this formulation “son of God” was translated into a Greco-Roman religious and philosophical context, with its many gods becoming human or impregnating human beings, or its Platonic divide between spirit/ideal and matter/imperfection, or with its categorical philosophical sophistications, then the meaning of the phrase fundamentally changes. In the Greco-Roman religious and philosophical context, if one is a “son of God,” then what is important about that formulation would be a specifically relevant determination of what kind of relationship that son had to his God, or what about the son’s nature was provided by his God. It’s like a transformation from a theology of nurture to a theology of nature. So, the theological tradition of the “sinlessness” of Jesus, at least historically, is one of the consequences of the outcome that early Christianity, in only a few generations, became a decidedly Gentile phenomenon rather than one in an originally Jewish form. To me, it was largely unfortunate, because it made Christianity much more about what Jesus was than about what Jesus taught.

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