An Analysis of Mark 2:1-12
After preaching and healing in the synagogues of Galilee (1:39), Jesus returns to his home base of Capernaum (2:1). Word travels fast, and a large crowd gathers as he begins to preach (2:2). With the room at maximum capacity and Jesus' growing reputation as a healer par excellence, four desperate and enterprising men, carrying a paralyzed man, rip the roof off the house where Jesus is preaching (2:4bc). After creating the opening, the men lower the paralytic down on the bed in which he is laying (2:4d).
Jesus sees the faith of the men(τὴν πίστιν αὐτῶν; 2:5a) and responds in a remarkable manner. The reader might anticipate Jesus telling the paralytic to "Rise, take up your mat and walk," (cf. 2:9c) but, instead he states, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (τέκνον, ἀφίενταί σου αἱ ἁμαρτίαι; 2:5c). What makes this pronouncement so surprising? Whether we agree with scholars who see this statement as an example of the "divine passive" ("The Lord has forgiven your sins") whereby Jesus is merely speaking on God's behalf,1 or take the stance that Jesus is proclaiming his own judgment, i.e. "a performative utterance" whereby Jesus himself is forgiving the man's sins,2 the end result begs the question of Jesus' status vis-à-vis YHWH. If we grant the "divine passive" interpretation, there is a precedent for others speaking on YHWH's behalf, as OT priests had the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins when sacrifices were brought to the temple, and Nathan the prophet proclaimed that David was forgiven (2 Sam 12:13).3
However, if we determine that Jesus is proclaiming his own authority to forgive sins (a position we will argue for below), then we are not merely talking about Jesus' status as prophet or priest, but something much more. The priest and the prophet have authority, but it is derived from God. In the OT, "the majority of references to the forgiveness of sins have God as their subject."4
In a recent article, Daniel Johansson establishes that the pardoning of sins was a divine prerogative that God alone exercised (e.g. Exodus 34:7; Pss 32:1-5; 51:1-4; 103:2-3; Isa 6:7; 43:25; 44:22; Zech 3:4; etc.).5
Returning to the Markan narrative, it quickly becomes obvious to the intepreter that Jesus is acting on his own authority when he pronounces the paralyzed man's sins forgiven by the reaction of the scribes in 2:6-7. The scribes, observing this incident, begin to question "in their hearts" (2:6b, 8bc), "'Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming!'"(2:7ab) The charge of blasphemy carried with it a penalty of death (Lev 24:15-16), a charge that is revisited in Jesus' interrogation before the high priest in 14:64, which leads to his condemnation. The scribes questioning continues as they ponder, "'Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (2:7c). Regarding this last question, Guelich comments:
Accordingly, the “One God” (εἶς ὁ Θεός) probably reflects the wording of Deut 6:4 LXX with its emphasis on the singularity of Israel’s God, an appropriate emphasis for this context. In other words, Jesus was not being accused of claiming to be God but of blaspheming against God by claiming to do what God alone could do.6France adds:
The use of εἷς, rather than μόνος as in Luke, perhaps carries the implication that what is at issue here is the defence of the Jewish creed that ‘Yahweh is one’ (Dt. 6:4). A man who claims to do what only God can do threatens that unique status, and that is blasphemy.7Jesus' immediate perception in his spirit determines the inner thoughts of the scribes, and subsequently questions, "'Why do you question these things in your hearts?'" (2:8c; cf. 2:6b). With this question, Mark highlights another implicit claim to Jesus' Divine status as YHWH is depicted both in OT and Second Temple sources as one who knows the hearts of human beings (e.g. 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kgs 8:39; 1 Chron 28:9; Pss 7:9; 139:23; Jer 11:20; Sirach 42:18; Psalms of Solomon 14:8).8
Jesus asks sharply, "'Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’"? Jesus' a fortiori argument highlights what is easier to say not what is easier to do.9 One cannot observe with any tangible evidence that a person's sins are forgiven, whereas a physical healing begs for tangible evidence. Jesus' emphasis here is placed on his authority to forgive sins which the next verse demonstrates. Jesus continues: "'So that you may know that the Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) has authority (ἐξουσίαν ἔχει) on earth to forgive sins'" (2:10). Space precludes any detailed discussion of the "Son of Man" debate, which continues at a prolific rate, but so far as Mark's narrative is concerned, this represents the first of fourteen occurrences of the epithet in the Second Gospel. Mark's Jesus uses this title more than any other as a descriptor for himself and uses fall into three main categories: 1) Apocalyptic settings (8:38; 13:26; 14:62); 2) Jesus' earthly authority to forgive sins (2:10) and supersede the Sabbath (2:28) and 3) With regards to suffering (8:31; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 14:21 [twice], 41). 10 The Danielic Son of Man (Dan 7) probably stands behind Jesus' title here as that figure ("one like a son of man" [ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου] comes riding on the clouds and stands before the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13,14).11 Moreover, the link between this figure and Jesus' self-reference is strengthened when one considers that the Ancient of Days has bestowed "authority" (ἐδόθη αὐτῷ ἐξουσία;) upon him and that he will rule over "all the peoples of the earth" (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς)..., and his authority is an everlasting authority (καὶ ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτοῦ ἐξουσία αἰώνιος) that will not be removed, and his kingdom (ἡ βασιλεία αὐτοῦ) shall not perish" (Dan 7:14 LXX/OG). This language is reminiscent of Mark 1:10 not only for the reference "the Son of Man" (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) but also for the reference that he has authority (ἐξουσίαν ἔχει) on earth (ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς) to forgive sins. Moreover, Mark's Jesus inaugurates the "Kingdom of God" (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ; 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14-15, 23-25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43).
Returning to the narrative, Jesus commands the paralyzed man to "...rise, pick up your mat and go home." (2:10b,11). This physical healing confirms the former pronouncement by Jesus that the man's sins are indeed forgiven. The crowd, in turn, is astonished as the man does exactly as Jesus commands and exclaim "'We never saw anything like this!'" (Mark 2:12).
Once again, Mark's implicit Divine/High Christology is on full display in this narrative. The combination of Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness of sins and the verification provided by the man's physical healing, combined with his insights with regard to the scribes thoughts--not least their charge of blasphemy--all rights enjoyed by YHWH exclusively, all unmistakably point to Jesus' divine status. Moreover, at least in this context, Jesus' self-reference as "The Son of Man," to the Danielic Son of Man, a divine being, further cements the fact that Mark does boast a High Christology. When Markan episodes are studied closely for hints at a High Christology, it is little wonder that the great Vincent Taylor concludes: "Mark's christology [sic] is a high christology [sic], as high as any in the New Testament, not excluding that of John."11
1 For a discussion of the "divine passive" position see Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1:1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 34A (Dallas: Word, 1989); 86.
2 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); 125.
3 Mark L. Strauss, Mark, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); 121.
4 Paul Ellingworth, "Forgiveness of Sins" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992); 241-243; here 241. Ellingworth cites Exod 34:7; cf. Numbers 14:18-20; Neh 9:17; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9.
5 Daniel Johansson, "'Who Can Forgive Sins but God Alone?' Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism,'" JSNT 33 (2011): 351-374.
6 Guelich, Mark 1–8:26; 87.
7 France, The Gospel of Mark; 126.
8 Sigurd Grindeim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels: God or God's Servant? (London: T&T Clark International, 2012); 48.
9 Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); 120.
10 For an extended discussion on these categories see James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 80.
11 John J. Collins states: "The expression 'one like a son of man' in this passage is more properly translated as “one like a human being.” His human form contrasts with that of the beasts from the sea. But he is not said to be human. The imagery of a figure riding on the clouds strongly suggests that the figure in question is divine." See idem, "The Son of Man in Ancient Judaism" in the Handbook for The Study of the Historical Jesus II, eds. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter,(Leiden:Brill, 2011) 1545-1568; here 1548.
11 Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (London: MacMillan, 1959); 121.