Why Christianity Happened: Sinners!
The third major section looks specifically at the role of ‘the sinners’ in the causal chain, as it were. This is the most technical section as it looks at the various terms for ‘sinner’ over approximately 1000 years, from the Psalms to the rabbinic literature and how this applies to the gospel text. It is also not explicitly tainted by social scientific approaches (that doesn’t last long though). Think of this section as the ideological impetus for the emergence of Christianity and non-observance of the Law.
EP Sanders’ famous definition of the gospel sinners has much more to it than many of his critics allow. His most significant advancement was the idea that they were not the common folk hated by the Pharisees. I think it is possible to go much further than this and argue that whenever the socio-economic status of the sinners is mentioned in Jewish literature they are always regarded as oppressive nasty rich types.
In the Psalms the sinners (usually, but not exclusively, resha‘im; LXX: hamartōloi), often contrasted with the righteous, cover a variety of naughty behaviour from acting as if there were no God, law-breaking, beyond the covenant etc. And in a number of Psalms they are violent, oppressive, exploitative rich people. A common theme is, naturally, the judgement of the sinners. It also follows quite naturally from this perspective that this language described gentiles and this is found in a number of Psalms. There are a number of other Hebrew words where the LXX uses hamartōlos but the message is effectively the same.
These ranges of meaning barely change in subsequent literature. In early Jewish literature (including the crucial Aramaic literature) the usual themes of non-observance, beyond the covenant, and judgement are all well attested. Again whenever their socio-economic status is mentioned they are oppressive rich types who revel in their ill-gotten gains. There develops, as Dunn stresses, a more intra-Jewish focus: your version of the law is beyond the law. They lack justice so they buy it. They are generally a bad influence. Various texts working with a basic this worldly reward theology have problems with these people flourishing but they manage to negotiate the problem in ways that may not seem entirely satisfactory to us (e.g. you don’t know how it will end for them) whereas those who have a more developed concept of life-after-death make sure that these people who seem to get away with everything will eventually burn, don’t you worry.
Early rabbinic literature can be quite general on the issue but all the usual themes occur, including the idea of intra-Jewish legal polemic. Again, whenever socio-economic status is mention it is one of oppressive rich. They will be punished of course but rabbinic literature also has another tradition where God cares for the nasty sinner.
Rabbinic literature is particularly illuminating as m. Sanhedrin and its interpretation in subsequent rabbinic tradition, along with parallel rabbinic texts, bring all the key themes and words together in the explanation of Sodom. What is interesting is that the sexual side of things is virtually ignored. For the rabbinic tradition it is the issues mentioned above which define these ultimate sinners and they are the most comically evil sinners I found [insert own joke here].
The translations of the biblical texts into Aramaic and Syriac follow the same pattern with some interesting twists. The r-sh-‘ root can translate all sorts of wicked behaviour, all in line with what has been mentioned but on an even wider scale if anything. The same goes for various other Aramaic/Syriac words used when Hebrew uses the r-sh-‘ root and the Greek uses hamartōlos. The same also goes for the use of Aramaic/Syriac debtor-sinner language which may well underlie gospel traditions and root attested at by the time of Jesus.
The linguistic evidence is extremely consistent and being this stable over c. 1000 year period is important because by implication the gospel language should fit the pattern. And, to look ahead, the constant overlapping of Jewish sinner and gentile sinner should prove important. As for what Aramaic word was used in the gospel, I think we have to leave that one open and also accept the possibility that more than one Aramaic word was used. It doesn’t matter too much as the relevant words are very similar and thankfully the gospels are steady in their use of hamartōlos, a word that also covers all the relevant points.
The synoptic tradition has some general uses, perhaps with reference to gentiles. There may well be echoes of intra-Jewish legal debates. But notice that they can be associated with tax-collectors who were regarded precisely as oppressive rich and sometimes beyond the law. The gospel tradition is, as we might expect, perfectly in line with the rest of Jewish thought on their general identity.
It seems as if Jesus was calling these rich people to repent, or better return to the law, the language typical of Jews returning to the fold. The idea of getting sinners to repent is found in Ezek. 33 and later Jewish literature, including the Aramaic debtors possibly repenting. This idea is also present throughout the gospel tradition. Even the much discussed parables of Luke 15 ultimately seem to reflect pre-Lukan tradition to in the sense that they are typical of Jewish repentance stories.
So far a non-controversial Jesus. But clearly Jesus’ association with sinners did cause controversy. Elements that would have got Jesus into trouble would have been his potential for success. It is unlikely that a Pharisee would have been delighted if a sinner chose Jesus’ way over theirs, just as we see the various intra-Jewish legal disputes in early Judaism and attested well enough in the synoptic tradition. Associating with such types would not have gone down well either. Sinners were regarded as having a negative influence on the upright and while Ezek. 33 was not ignored, it is in terms of the literary evidence a minority view to get sinners to repent. Why waste your time? Think also of associating with the oppressive rich in the light of the socio-economic circumstances outlined in a previous blog entry: we have plenty of examples of how these people really ought to be treated. What’s more, with the exception of the Lukan story of Zacchaeus, we have no real indication of how successful Jesus was. If they were not giving up their wealth oppressive rich ways (and some must surely have been reluctant to do so!) then Jesus was effectively sleeping with the enemy. Jesus’ opponents may well have had a strong point.
As a side issue there is no evidence that Jesus bypassed the Temple system in anyway and he is never criticised for doing so. There is only evidence to the contrary. The view that Jesus did bypass the Temple ought to be dropped. David Catchpole’s book Jesus People makes this point well.
This ties in neatly with the idea of Jesus trying to get the rich to repent, as mentioned in the other blog. But it also points forward and the rest of the book shows how the role of the sinners provides the crucial link to the expansion of ‘Christianity’ after Jesus’ death and the emergence of non-observance and Paul’s theology, esp. justification and law.