Some people say miracle workers were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. Was Jesus any different? One key event in Jesus’ life that helps answer this question is the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. Before Jesus healed the man, he claimed to forgive the man’s sins, saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5b, ESV). But how common was a claim like this? Did anyone else in Jesus’ context ever claim to forgive sins? This short post offers an initial response to the question, are there any parallels to Jesus’ claim to forgive the paralytic’s sins? We will consider two categories: (1) Greco-Roman miracle workers and (2) Jewish priests in the Second Temple period.
Greco-Roman miracle workers
If you search ancient tales of Hellenistic “divine men” while looking for anything like Jesus’ forgiveness in a miracle story, it’s difficult to find any meaningful parallels. For example, consider deified healers like Asclepius, his two superhuman sons Machaon and Podarlirius, Machaon’s four sons, Menecrates of Syracuse, or Pyrrhus. None of their accounts include human mediation of divine forgiveness. In fact, it is hard to find any stories where the miracle worker says much of anything—let alone claims to forgive sins. Specific miracle stories that appear more closely related to the healing of the paralytic, like the story of a boy who supposedly healed a lame man named Nicanor or Apollonius of Tyana curing a lame man make no mention of the forgiveness of sins. These examples suggest that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins may be unique in the Greco-Roman world.
Jewish priests in the Second Temple period
But what about Jewish priests? Since Bart Ehrman compares Jesus verbally offering forgiveness to the authority to Jewish priests, it may be helpful to ask, “Is there any evidence that Jewish priests ever claimed to forgive sins?” Some say priests of the Second Temple period would pronounce forgiveness when overseeing guilt and sin offerings. Priests merely performed atonement rites and prayed for people. There is no clear reference or conclusive evidence suggesting priests pronounced absolution or forgiveness of sins in connection with sacrifices. In fact, according to the Letter of Aristeas, first century priests sacrificed in silence at the Jerusalem temple. Leviticus 16:1-34 does say that the high priest made atonement for sins. However, Mishnaic descriptions of the high priest’s sayings suggest that priests only prayed for a penitent people.
The Jewish view is that God—not priests—forgave sins. There is no clear evidence that priests forgave sin. Rather, priests only performed atonement rituals and prayed for people. Leviticus 12:6-8 doesn’t involve sin, but speaks to purification rites for a woman who has given birth and the role of the priest within this process. This category of atonement is connected to purification, indicating that atonement is distinct from forgiveness of sin. We know of no text that records a priest saying, “your sins are forgiven.” In light of this, Ehrman’s assertion that Jesus’ words only indicated a kind of human priestly function seems dubious. Claiming to forgive sins was not a common occurrence, even among priests. This lends further support to the idea that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins may be unique in Second Temple Judaism as well.
Jesus’ claim to forgive sins is one aspect of his ministry that makes him unique when compared to both Greco-Roman miracle workers and Jewish priests. There seems to be no straightforward evidence of any person who claimed to forgive sins like Jesus does in Mark 2:1-12. Thus, Jesus’ claim to forgive sins appears unparalleled in his context and suggests that Jesus was known by some as a unique kind of miracle worker.
If all sin is ultimately an offense against God, and only the one offended may forgive the offense, the right to forgive sin seems to be a uniquely divine function. This raises the question of whether Jesus verbally offering forgiveness was heard as a claim to possess divine authority—an area of inquiry with significant implications for Jesus’ self-understanding and his uniqueness in the ancient world.
 For a summary of the ancient traditions surrounding these pre-Christian healers, see Barry Blackburn, Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Aner Concept as an Interpretative Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 24–28.
 The inscription does not clearly indicate a healing: “Nicanor, a lame man. While he was sitting wide-awake, a boy snatched his crutch from him and ran away. But Nicanor got up, pursued him, and so became well.” Inscriptions Graecae 4.1.121-122: Stele 1.16. in Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook for the Study of New Testament Miracle Stories (London: Routledge, 1999), 20 (See also 21-23, 42-45).
 See 3.39 in Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F. C. Conybeare, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1912), 3.39.
 Ehrman asserts that Jesus merely claimed “a priestly prerogative, but not a divine one” in Mark 2:1-12. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 126-27.
 Daniel Johansson, “Jesus and God in the Gospel of Mark; Unity and Distinction.” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 2011), 49.
 Letter of Aristeas 92-96. For discussion, see E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (SCM Press, 1992), 109.
 Crispin Fletcher-Louis takes a priestly-cultic view of Daniel 7:13. He connects Jesus to the Son of Man as Israel’s eschatological high priest. C. H. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah : Part 2,” ed. C. H. T. Fletcher-Louis, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 5, no. 1 (2007): 58, 72, https://doi.org/NTA0000055150. Note: Although the Jew in The Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242) is not identified as a priest, there is debate regarding whether or not a human is said to have forgiven sin in this fragmentary manuscript. On this, Barry Blackburn concludes “varying interpretations of the Nabonidus text by competent Aramaic scholars certainly caution us against unequivocally judging that Jesus’ words of forgiveness [in Mark 2:5] were not ‘outstandingly novel or unique.’” Barry Blackburn, Theios Anēr and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Anēr Concept as an Interpretative Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark (Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 139.
 E.g. 2 Sam 12:31, Ps 32:1-5, 51:1-4, 7-11; 103:3; 130:4; Isa 43:25; 44:22; Dan 9:9; Zech 3:4. Hofius notes an explicit affirmation which appears in a later text Midr. Ps. 17:3 as part of David’s prayer: “No one can forgive sins but you alone.” Hofius, “Jesu Zurspruch der Sundenvergebung,” 40 n. 11, cited in Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 2006), 60.
Published August 29, 2022