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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Matt. 9:5: Which is easier?

Read Matt. 9:1-7 in any version. Here it is in the ESV, if you wish to read this version:
1. And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3. And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5. For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6. But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7. And he rose and went home. 8. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
What is the answer to Jesus' question in verse 5? Or is it a rhetorical question for which Jesus is not expecting any answer? What is Jesus trying to communicate to his hearers in verse 5? What are any implications for translation?


At Tue Oct 09, 11:35:00 AM, Blogger Adrenalin Tim said...

Hm...good question. For me, if someone were to ask me, "Which is easier, to say x or to say y?", I would assume that the implicit answer is that it's equally easy to say either.

This seems like it may be different in this instance, because one statement is abstract and the other concrete. If I asked, "Which is easier, to say 'I am hungry', or to say 'Go get something to eat'?", then the fact that one of these statements is provable/actionable/demonstrable, and the other is not, comes into play.

Maybe that's a springboard for further discussion...

At Tue Oct 09, 11:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, the answer is surely that both are impossible to say, except as empty platitudes, for those who have no authority to do so - but both can be said by those like Jesus to whom God has given authority to say them, and they are equally easy.

At Tue Oct 09, 12:45:00 PM, Blogger TedE said...

I suggest that Jesus framed the question rhetorically in order to demonstrate that with him, the natural and the spiritual are both servant of his authority. One cannot see inside another's inner life. However, one can see a paralytic walk.

There are three movements here. One, Jesus knows the evil thoughts of the Scribes; two, he forgives the sin of the paralytic; and three, he heals the paralytic. All demonstrate the authority of Jesus.

An observant Scribe would perhaps have seen this, recalled OT passages where Yahweh knew and acted upon the thoughts of the people, forgave sin, and did creative miracles. That same observant Scribe, having recalled those might have at the very least looked at Jesus and said "Hmmmmm....".

At Tue Oct 09, 02:46:00 PM, Blogger David said...

It is easier to say "your sins are forgiven" because who can fact check the statement?! It is much harder to say "get up and walk" because the fact checking will be immediately clear.

At Wed Oct 10, 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

David wrote:
It is easier to say "your sins are forgiven" because who can [in] fact check the statement?!

Very good, David. I think you're right.

Now, γάρ ("for") ties the statement in verse 5 to the rhetorical question in verse 4. So (I ask rhetorically), what does that γάρ do?

According to several Greek grammars, γάρ signals explanation and/or exposition of the previous assertion. So, the ability to check the validity of Jesus' statement about forgiveness further explains the rhetorical question. Or, I think more correctly, the "ability to check" further explains the assertion implied by the rhetorical question.

So, if a rhetorical question seeks to get people to think about an implied assertion, and γάρ signals an explanation of that assertion, what assertion is Jesus making in verse 4?

Furthermore, does translating the rhetorical question as a rhetorical question help send the modern English reader down the pathway to a correct interpretation? Does translating verse 5 rather literally, accomplish that same goal, too?

At Thu Oct 11, 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Tom said...

I agree with David and would add that saying that sins are forgiven (or not) was something the Scribes had probably done. Remembering that the Scribes would have believed that the man's physical condition stems from his spiritural condition, Jesus shows that he demonstrably has authority to do what they cannot claim to do, i.e., to excercise authority over the physical manifestation of sin, and so demonstrates that he can also do what they only claim to do, excerise authority over the spiritual aspects of sin.

At Thu Oct 11, 11:20:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tom, I have always assumed that what the scribes taught was "It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7, from Mark's fuller account of the same passage). But maybe someone with more background in Rabbinic studies (Iyov?) can let us know what was the actual teaching of the scribes of that time.

At Thu Oct 11, 02:31:00 PM, Blogger David said...

The idea/concept of the physical state of an individual being the result of previous sin is important in this passage. Notice that the very first thing that Jesus says is, "Your sins are forgiven." But then he is accused of blasphemy for that statement. Again, it is a statement that anyone can make: which mortal can see into the mind of God to determine the status of the man's sins - forgiven or not. Easy to say, other's can't really say yes or no, and the poor guy is still on his bed. So Jesus pushes the envelope further, and asks the question about which is "harder," pronouncing absolution to someone or healing that person? The obvious answer is, "commanding a paralyzed man to stand up and walk!" So Jesus gives the command, and the man walks away. Now what are the scribes and teachers to do? The man is healed, Jesus had pronounced forgiveness, and the outward manifestation that the scribes and teachers were certain could not be produced appeared to them.

I don't know if it was normal for absolution to be given by the scribes and teachers in late Second Temple Judaism. The Jewish observers in Mark's account were certain that Jesus had committed blasphemy, so I don't really know if one of them had pronounced absolution it would have been acceptable. Maybe in the temple after a sin offering / sacrifice an officiating priest would make such a pronouncement. But in this situation, "in the field," as it were, I would hazard that they would have been in the same boat as Jesus: prove it!

At Sat Oct 13, 08:58:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think what's going on here isn't on the semantic level but rather in pragmatics. Jesus isn't asking which is an easier sentence to utter. He asking which sentence is easier to utter in a social context given how people will respond to it. David's point then follows from that. But since Wayne's question seems to be getting at what's going on semantically, I think it's worth considering that the key to interpretation probably isn't semantic at all in this case.

At Sat Oct 13, 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy, you're on to something important in the verse. Actually, my questions were not about semantics but about the rhetoric of what Jesus said. What was Jesus doing by what he was saying? I think your labeling it pragmatics is a good call.

What Jesus said is particularly fascinating linguistically because there are two syntactic questions. There is a comparative. And I suspect that the entire rhetorical impact really has little to do with real questions. There is some kind of rhetorical questioning going on, but it's not as straightforward rhetorical questioning as when we chide someone in English with "What do you think you're doing?!" or in Greek (by translation), "Are all apostles?" etc. (1 Cor. 12:29).


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