Bible Scandals

Europeans have almost forgotten what blasphemy means. No one, for instance, predicted the offence and riots that were caused by cartoons featuring Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Muslims are zealously concerned with God’s honour; they would never place a Quran or a Bible on the floor, let alone use God’s name inappropriately. And yet most non-Muslims rarely get through one conversation without misusing a sacred name. The UK laws against blasphemy were repealed as recently as 2008, by which time they already appeared hopelessly archaic. It seems amazing that as recently as 1977, the publisher of Gay News was imprisoned for describing Jesus as “well hung”. The fact that I can quote these same words shows how much society has changed.

In Jesus’ day, blasphemy was perhaps the most scandalous offence anyone could be accused of. Even Romans regarded impiety against the gods as an offence against the whole of society. The ancient unwritten 'common law' of Rome (the mos maiorum) established the honour of the gods at the heart of Roman law.

Jews were so horrified by this offence that Paul and his fellow Jews were able to provoke a crowd into stoning Stephen for it. They were merely angry when Stephen accused all Jews of disobeying the Law of Moses, but when he claimed that he could see “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”, they boiled over into murderous rage (Acts 7:53-58). Many in that crowd must have remembered that Jesus had regularly referred to himself as the “Son of Man” and so the blasphemy was clear.

Jesus himself was almost stoned on a couple of occasions when he claimed that, “My father and I are one” and when he said, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 10:30-39; 8:58-59). The rather stilted phrase “I am” was a deliberate reference to God’s interpretation of his own name, Yahweh or Jehovah – no one knows how it was really pronounced (Exodus 3:14). John’s Gospel mentioned many occasions when Jesus provocatively used the phrase “I am”.

John isn’t alone in recording Jesus’ scandalous claim to godhead because Jesus accepts similar charges of blasphemy elsewhere (Mark 2:7; 14:62-64). His most audacious claim to divinity goes almost unnoticed by modern readers, when he said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Any first-century Jew would immediately recognize that Jesus was referring to a famous rabbinic saying: “When two or three sit to study Scripture, the Shekhinah is in their midst”.[1] When he quotes this saying, Jesus replaced the words “the Shekhinah” (ie. “the glory of God’s presence”) with “I” – something that would have been regarded as blasphemous by any Jew.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is, surprisingly, one of the most accurate portrayals of life in Jesus’ day (as well as one of the most amusing), but it is wrong in one respect at least: no one would get stoned simply for saying “Jehovah”. In fact, in Jesus’ day, people still greeted each other with “Jehovah bless you”.[2] However, soon after Jesus’ day, Jews did stop speaking God’s actual name and replaced it with Adonai ('Lord') or ha shem ('the Name'). Modern Jewish software often says: “Please treat this printout with respect because it may contain the name of G*d.”

The prohibition of blasphemy was the most serious of the Ten Commandments because it is the only one that is followed by: “The Lord will not leave this unpunished” (Exodus 20:7). The Jews concluded from this that blasphemy must be unforgivable because if God said that it would not go unpunished it meant that no amount of repentance would enable people to escape punishment by obtaining forgiveness.

Jesus didn’t repeal this law – he actually extended it in a surprising way. When some Pharisees accused him of casting out demons by Satan’s power, he replied by accusing them of blasphemy: “whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness” (Matthew 12:26-32). Jesus had already pointed out the obvious: Satan’s demons weren’t being cast out by Satan’s power, so this must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. He therefore accused the Pharisees of equating the Holy Spirit with Satan and said this was unforgivable blasphemy.

The Jews weren’t surprised to hear that blasphemy was unforgivable – they already knew this from the Ten Commandments. The shock was that Jesus said blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was unforgivable. Since the Law only said that blasphemy against God was unforgivable, it meant that Jesus was putting the Holy Spirit on a par with God!

Jesus reinforced this conclusion by reminding them that “blasphemy” is forgivable when it is directed at anyone except God. At this point our English language gets in the way of understanding what Jesus means because in English we “insult” people and “blaspheme” God, whereas Greek uses the same word for “insults” directed at both people and God. For example, when Jews “insulted” Paul, the Greek verb used is blasphémeo (Acts 13:45; 18:6).Jesus’ saying becomes clearer if we translate it as: “all insults will be forgiven but insults against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven” (Mark 3:28-29). By pointing out that this insult is unforgivable, Jesus defined it as an insult against God – that is, he was implying that the Holy Spirit is God.

Jesus added that “speaking against the Son of Man is forgivable” (Matthew 12:32). This is surprising because, as we have seen, the Gospels weren’t shy to proclaim Jesus’ divinity. We must therefore assume that he did not class this as the ultimate sin because his divinity was not yet obvious; however after the resurrection, such doubt was no longer an excuse. The letter to the Hebrews points out the seriousness of reviling Jesus and says: “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” after such rejection (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-29). The reason why their sin cannot be forgiven is because they know who Jesus is yet still choose not to turn to him in repentance. The only unforgiveable sin is that which is unrepented before Jesus – because he is the only source of forgiveness.

The Jews believed that God forgave minor sins immediately after repentance, but major sins remained unforgiven until the sacrifice given on the next Day of Atonement. But what about blasphemy? How could that be forgiven when God had said it would not go unpunished? Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha in the early second century 'solved' that problem by saying that death was sufficient punishment – that is, if you repented, God would forgive your blasphemy at your death. Forgiveness wasn’t so complicated for Christians, because Jesus’ sacrifice covers all punishments and enables him to offer immediate forgiveness for any repented sin – even the sin of blasphemy.

The real tragedy of the 'unforgivable sin' is that many people who suffer from psychological feelings of guilt assume that they must have committed a sin which can’t be forgiven. Their conviction of guilt is so overwhelming that they feel unforgivable. This is compounded when they read in Hebrews that forgiveness is impossible for those who deliberately choose to reject God.

However, the very fact that someone wants to repent and be reconciled with God is proof that they have not irrevocably decided to reject him. God is always ready to receive a sinner, and Jesus died for all sin. The letter to the Hebrews is very clear: for those who reject Jesus’ sacrifice, there is no other source of forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that the rejection itself is an unforgivable sin, but it emphasises that Jesus is the only source of forgiveness. If you reject Jesus’ sacrifice, there is nothing left. But if you have the longing to repent, this demonstrates that you have not ultimately decided to reject Jesus – and God’s arms, like the arms of the Prodigal’s father, always remain open to welcome you.

Go to 6. Eternal Torment


[1] Mishnah Avot 3.6 – “two or three” comes from the discussion immediately following this saying. Both sayings are clearly related to each other, and the original version must have been the Jewish one, because Jews would not have adapted a saying by Jesus.
[2] Mishnah Berakhot 9.5.

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© 2012 David Instone-Brewer
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