E. P. Sanders, "The Sinners" [excerpts]

in Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985),

pp. 182-185,186-190,202-208.


The common people were not irreligious. They presumably kept most of the law most of the time, observed the festivals, and paid heed to 'some of the more serious purity regulations'.38 It was only the special purity laws of the haberim which they did not observe. We should pause to consider those which they probably did observe - or were generally expected to observe.

1.3.1. Biblical purity laws. Purity laws are strange to most of us in the West, and confusion seems to settle like a cloud around the heads of New Testament scholars who discuss Jewish purity laws. Some clarification may be useful.39 There are biblical laws concerning purity which all who counted themselves as at all observant would have kept. Most purity laws, however, are not prohibitions; they do not require people to avoid impurity. They regulate, rather, what must be done after contracting impurity in order to enter the temple. Josephus put it very well: in several instances the law prescribes purification 'in view of the sacrifices': 'after a funeral, after childbirth, after conjugal union, and many others' (Ap. II. 198; cf. II. 103f.; BJ V.227). Purity is related to the temple and the sacrifices, and impurity does not limit ordinary associations, except for very short periods of time (AJ III.261f.).

As Josephus indicated, the most pervasive laws concerning purity are corpse uncleanness (Num. 19), menstruation, intercourse and childbirth (Lev. 12. 1-8; 15.16-24). Care for the dead was and is considered a firm religious duty, and contracting corpse -uncleanness was therefore required in a family in which there was a death. Childbirth and intercourse are good, and menstruation is natural. The impurity which is incurred by childbirth, until it is removed, prevents a woman from touching 'any hallowed thing' (that is, something intended for use in the temple) and from entering the temple itself (Lev. 12.4). Luke describes Mary and Joseph (depicted as good 'amme ha-arets) as observing the purity laws regarding childbirth (Luke 2.22f., 39). In such matters the rule is that people who have contracted impurity should not defile the temple (Lev. I5.31). Similarly the warning about corpse-uncleanness is not to defile 'the tabernacle' (Num. 19.13). Most people had corpse-uncleanness a lot of the time; and, since the rite of purity requires the ashes of the red heifer, purification has been impossible since shortly after the destruction of the temple. There is nothing wrong with such people; they are only forbidden by biblical law to enter the temple area. People in a state of impurity according to these and similar laws - the laws which were presumably accepted by all- were not sinners, nor had they done anything which made them inappropriate companions for 'table fellowship'40

There are also prohibitions related to purity, such as those against eating or touching certain unclean creatures (Lev. 11; cf. AJ III.259f.). These convey impurity which is removed by washing and the setting of the sun (see e.g. Lev. 11.28). There are a few prohibitions which involve the transgressor in sins, such as the eating of certain fats or blood. For these, the penalty is ‘cutting off’ (Lev. 7.22-27). In the later Rabbinic interpretation, 'cutting off' puts the transgression strictly between human and God, and it is atoned for by repentance.41 The same penalty is prescribed for those who, while impure, eat sacrificial food (Lev. 7.20f.).

This discussion has by no means dealt with all aspects of the purity laws, but I shall attempt some generalizations. (1) Most impurities do not result from the transgression of a prohibition, although a few do. Purification in either case is necessary before entering the temple or otherwise contacting something holy, and it is accomplished by washing and the setting of the sun (or, in the case of corpse-uncleanness, a more complicated variant of the procedure: Num. 19.1-13). In neither case is the impure person a sinner. A substantial sin is committed only if someone while impure eats holy food or enters the temple. (2) A few purity transgressions, such as eating blood, are in and of themselves sins; that is, they require atonement. (3) Contact between an impure person and a pure person is not ordinarily considered a sin, although such contacts may have been avoided to keep impurity from spreading and ultimately touching something connected with the temple. In one important instance contact with an impure person involves both parties in a sin: sexual intercourse with a menstruant. The Bible (Lev. 20.18) specified 'cutting off as the punishment, while the Rabbis required a sin-offering (Niddah 2.2). (4) But, as a general rule, those who became impure, either because they should do so (e.g. to care for the dead and bear children), or because they touched something forbidden (e.g. vermin), did not, as long as they lived their ordinary lives, sin. Normal human relations were not substantially affected. Recourse to the immersion pool (see just below), and waiting for the sun to set, cleansed most impurities.

It should be emphasized that observation of the biblical purity laws was not a special concern of the Pharisees. Westerholm, who in general understands the topic of purity very well, nevertheless has some curious statements. He writes that 'in O.T. times, it was clearly the priests' responsibility to define the areas of clean and unclean, and to teach the

observance of these distinctions to the people', while 'in the N.T. period, Pharisees observed distinctions in this area drawn by scribes.'42 We should first note that the prescriptions for cleansing before entering the temple could not be enforced by anyone, but lay on each person's conscience. But since the biblical laws principally have to do with the temple, it was still in Jesus' day the priests' responsibility to teach them.43 There is no reason to believe that they had surrendered this prerogative to the Pharisees, or to secular scribes who taught them to Pharisees.

The biblical laws seem to have been widely observed. Westerholm calls attention to the passage in Josephus which describes resistance in the days of Herod Antipas to setfling in Tiberias, which overlay a burial ground (AJ XVIII.3 6-3 8).44 Living in such an area would make one always impure. We may now also point to the numerous ritual baths (miqvaot) which archaeology has brought to light in houses in Jerusalem during the Herodian period. There were also miqvaot to the south and west of the temple area. With one exception (to my knowledge) these are not equipped with a pipe connecting the bath water to a cistern containing rain or spring water45 which is virtually required in cities by later Rabbinic rule, and probably also by the Pharisees? We know that at least some of those most zealous for the law and Israel built such miqvaot before 70.47 The houses in west Jerusalem, a prosperous area of the city, may have been occupied by priests or others who worked for or in the temple. We may attribute the number of miqvaot partly to prosperity, and perhaps also partly to respect for Jerusalem as a holy city: observance of ritual purity may have been higher there than elsewhere. But we see in any case that it was widely observed, and observed by people of different classes and halakic orientations. The well-to-do inhabitants of West Jerusalem, probably Sadducees if anything, did not observe it because the Pharisees and scribes demanded it, but because the Bible does.48

One should ask what was the situation of a person who disregarded the purity laws and did not use the immersion pool, but remained perpetually impure. Here it would be reasonable to equate being impure with being a 'sinner' in the sense of 'wicked', for such a person would have taken the position that the biblical laws need not be observed. All the laws of purity and impurity are to be voluntarily observed. If, for example, a husband and wife agreed not to observe the prohibition of intercourse during menstruation, no one would ever know unless they announced the fact. If the woman never used the immersion pool, however, her neighbours would note that she was not observant (unless she could afford a private pool). Not intending to be observant is precisely what makes one 'wicked'; but the wickedness comes not from impurity as such, but from the attitude that the commandments of the Bible need not be heeded.

Thus these biblical purity laws, which most people seem to have observed, did not lead to a fixed view that the common people were sinners.

1.3.3. Purity: Conclusion. The reason for making these simple observations is that, as I said above, confusion seems to surround the subject. Thus Braun takes Mark 7.6-9 (on handwashing) to be an instance in which Jesus castigated 'specific abuses in the Jewish practice of his time',52 Braun, we must assume, did not know the religious motive behind the programme of the haberim (to sanctify daily life), and characterizes it as 'abuse'. But the particular point here is that he regards the handwashing code as a Jewish practice, when in fact it was limited to a small group. Similarly Aulen, summarizing recent New Testament scholarship, writes that Jesus' view was that prescriptions in the law of Moses, 'for example those concerning the Sabbath and purity', must give way when they come into conflict with the love commandment,53 But handwashing is the only purity issue discussed in the synoptics, and it is not a prescription of 'the law of Moses'. Prescriptions in the law which deal with purity cannot, in any case, be held to conflict with the commandment to love one's neighbour, since they do not affect inter-personal relationships,54

To reiterate: the purity laws which governed everybody did not affect 'table-fellowship', but principally access to the temple. Incurring impurity by the biblical code usually did not make a person a 'sinner'. Failure to abide by the special laws of the haberim, which did govern eating, only made one a non-.haber, that is, an 'am ha-arets.

Thus when scholars focus on purity as constituting the issue behind the criticism that Jesus ate with 'sinners', what they are saying, sometimes without knowing it, is that the haberim accused Jesus of eating with the 'amme ha-arets, not that Jesus associated with those who transgressed the biblical law.55 Making purity and table-fellowship the focal points of debate trivializes the charge against Jesus. It, becomes a dispute between the haberim and the 'amme ha-arets, and Jesus strikes a blow against the minutiae of the former. One then misses the point of the charge: that Jesus was accused of associating with, and offering the kingdom to those who by the normal standards of Judaism were wicked. They were doubtless also impure, but it was not impurity as such which made them wicked, nor can Jesus' inclusion of them be construed as defiance primarily of the laws of ritual purity.

1. 3.4.  Haberim and Pharisees. Before 70, the haberim were almost certainly a very small group, and it is dubious that haberim and Pharisees were identical. The case for identity can be made if one assumes a direct equation between the Pharisees and the Rabbis; for the Rabbis certainly thought that the laity (or at least some of them) should eat food in a state of semi-priestly purity. But the equation of 'Pharisees' and 'Rabbis' is itself precarious. And, once we turn to Rabbinic literature, we find further complications. One Rabbi proposed that no haber should touch a corpse (the haber should become in this way too like a priest).56  If all Rabbis were haberim, and if the opinion that haberim should not touch a corpse were to carry the day (it did not), then who would tend the dead? Neither the Rabbis, nor their wives, nor anyone who followed their rules. Thus it is doubtful that even all the Rabbis were haberim. Before 70, there was probably an appreciable overlap between Pharisees and haberim; and after 70 the Rabbis accepted the main point of the haberim. But these connections do not amount to an equation.

People who have learned who the Pharisees were by reading Jeremias, supposedly a reliable authority, will find these terminological distinctions puzzling. That is because Jeremias, obviously thinking that all Pharisees were haberim and all haberim Pharisees, simply wrote the word 'Pharisees' when he was discussing a text which contains the word haberim. Thus, for example, he wrote that 'A Pharisee does not dwell with them [the 'amme ha-arets] as a guest' as his translation of Demai 2.3;57 but 'Pharisee' does not appear in the text: it reads haber. When one adds the assumption (which was long held, and which Jeremias shared with many) that the Rabbi perfectly represented the Pharisees, the use of 'Pharisee' for 'haber' in translating Rabbinic texts resulted in the simple equation of .haber, Pharisee and Rabbi which we noted above, and naturally gave the impression - in fact seemed to prove conclusively - that Pharisaism in the period before 70 was defined by insistence that the laity observe the priestly laws governing handling and eating food. But that is just what we do not know. All that we hear about Pharisaism from people who were actually Pharisees before 70 is that the party was defined by its zeal for the knowledge of the law, belief in the resurrection, and acceptance of the tradition of the elders.58 Did the tradition of the elders insist that lay people act like priests? Not that we know of. It is noteworthy that Josephus makes a point of the fact that the Essenes would not eat other people's food (BJ II. 143f.), but says nothing about the Pharisees' observing special food laws which set them off from other Jews.

Neusner in recent years has argued in favour of the view formulated by Jeremias and others - that the Pharisees were a small purity sect -, but his analysis of the Rabbinic texts is unpersuasive and is made especially dubious by the evidence from Josephus. 59

Josephus's descriptions of the Pharisees, as we shall see later in this chapter and also in ch. 11 ~ are suspect in one regard: the great influence which he attributes to them in the Antiquities. But he would have had no reason for concealing their peculiar food and purity laws, had such laws defined them. He appears to have found ascetic and rigidly scrupulous practice attractive, as did many, and he gives numerous such details about the Essenes, covering not only food but sex (e.g. BJ II. 160f.). He unvaryingly characterizes the Pharisees as 'exact' with regard to the law, and there is every reason to think that the Pharisees tried to have their views of the law carry the day. He exaggerates only their success. They do not emerge from his pages as a 'small, retiring group of purity-observers', and it is probably wrong to stress too much the dominance of the haberim among them. In Josephus, the Pharisees are lay interpreters of the law.60

1.4. The 'amme ha-arets and the hakamim, the learned, are also contrasted in Rabbinic literature (Horayoth 3.8). In this context the meaning is 'uneducated', that is, by the Rabbinic standard.


2. The 'amme ha-arets and salvation

Now we come to the important point, which justifies the terminological discussion. Jeremias wrote that the 'amme ha-arets (hereafter, now that the terminological clarification is complete, the common people) were, in the accepted view of their day, excluded from salvation.61 That this is incorrect might be seen simply from the preceding terminological discussion: since the term 'wicked' did not include the common people, and since the latter are to be characterized simply as neither haberim nor hakamim, it should follow that no one thought that the common people were excluded from salvation. Here, however, we must not only clear out some terminological underbrush, but fell a large tree; for we are up against a dearly cherished view: the Pharisees, who dominated Judaism, excluded everyone but themselves from salvation, and Jesus let the common people in. Gustaf Aulen, who in theory knew that 'the sinners' were not the same as 'the common people',62 nevertheless accepted the view which is expressed by Jeremias:

Table fellowship with 'sinners' was not a simple breach of etiquette on the part of the individual, it was clear defiance of both the regulations concerning purity and the ordinances which prescribed the penance required of such violators of the law for restoration into the religious and social community.63

In this passage Aulen, having said that the 'sinners' were not the common people, describes 'the sinners' as not obeying the 'regulations concerning purity' which govern 'table-fellowship' - that is, whether he knew it or not, as being common people. Further, he evidently thought that those who were impure had transgressed the law, were required to do penance, and were not fit associates for others. All these suppositions are wrong. We have seen that impurity may be incurred by obeying the law as well as by certain sorts of disobedience, that acts of penance are not required for most forms of impurity, and that association with others is not forbidden. The statement that the sinners needed to repent in order to be restored to the community is correct with regard to the wicked, but not with regard to those who were only impure. Aulen followed standard definitions and ran the two together. He also saw Jesus' offence as being that he ate with the impure and that this offended the Pharisees.64 By putting the emphasis on purity and eating, he in effect agrees with Jeremias's view that the issue was between a small purity group - called by Jeremias, Aulen and others 'Pharisees' - and Jesus, who favoured including those who did not accept special purity regulations, that is, the common people.

Since this position is here under attack, I should explain why I have quoted a distinguished bishop and theologian who, in his nineties, wrote a remarkably good book about recent research on the life of Jesus. It is precisely because he was not a professional New Testament scholar and certainly not one who claimed expertise in pre-70 Judaism. On such a point as this he could do nothing other than repeat the opinion prevailing among supposed experts. It is not difficult to compile a very long list of New Testament scholars who hold or have held the view just quoted from Aulen's book. But the fact that Aulen wrote that sentence shows more clearly than any such list how common are the opinions which we listed at the beginning of the chapter. In Aulen's discussion we see virtually the entire package of erroneous views on the significance of Jesus' going to the sinners. Since he thought that the issue had to do with eating with the impure and that the opponents were the Pharisees, we see two equations: (1) Those who had special laws governing eating were 'Pharisees'; therefore 'Pharisees' were haberim. (2) The people with whom this special group would not eat were 'sinners'; therefore the common people were sinners and outcasts. (See above, pp. 176f. nos. 1 and 3.) Since Aulen thought that the impure were outside the community, he must have thought (3) that the 'Pharisees' controlled Judaism and could make those with whom they disagreed feel excluded (nos. 2 and 4 above). (4) He saw Jesus' association with the impure as offending the Pharisees (no. 6 above). This is all incorrect.

Our understanding of the situation will be better if we consider the common people under the two headings which characterize them: lack of education and non-observance of special purity laws.

The link between Jesus' gospel and his death is made in various ways. Sometimes the causal chain runs from eating with sinners, to opposition by the Pharisees, to crucifixion,102 while others make this point by fixing on the parables instead of the act of eating. In the parables Jesus proclaimed grace to sinners and thereby offended the righteous. 'Jesus goes to the cross because he clings to the word of grace.'103 It was those against whom Jesus told the parables who killed him: 'He dies for the truth of his parables.104 The position is basically this: We (the Christians, or the true Christians) believe in grace and forgiveness. Those religious qualities characterize Christianity, and thus could not have been present in the religion from which Christianity came. Otherwise, why the split? But the Jews, or at least their leaders, the Pharisees, did not believe in repentance and forgiveness. They not only would not extend forgiveness to their own errant sheep, they would kill anyone who proposed to do so.

The position is so incredible that I wish it were necessary only to state it in order to demonstrate its ridiculousness. But thousands believe it, and I shall try to show what is wrong with it. Let us focus first on the novelty of an offer of forgiveness. The tax collectors and sinners, Perrin assures us, 'responded in glad acceptance' to Jesus' saying that they would be forgiven,l05 But was this news? Did they not know that if they renounced those aspects of their lives which were an affront to God's law, they would have been accepted with open arms? Is it a serious proposal that tax collectors and the wicked longed for forgiveness, but could not find it within ordinary Judaism? That they thought that only in the messianic age could they find forgiveness, and thus responded to Jesus 'in glad acceptance'?106 Perrin, citing only irrelevant evidence, asserts that the 'sinners' 'were widely regarded as beyond hope of penitence or forgiveness',107 and thus he denies one of the things about Judaism which everyone should know: there was a universal view that forgiveness is always available to those who return to the way of the Lord.108

Secondly, he presents an extraordinary picture of the tax collectors and sinners: they wanted forgiveness but did not know how to obtain it. I think that a quick chat with any religious leader - that is, a priest - would have clarified the issue: God always accepts repentant sinners who turn to his way.

Thirdly, it is inaccurate to say that Jesus welcomed people 'back into the community'.109 Jesus did not control access to the temple. We must continue to try to think realistically. It is quite possible (in fact, as will soon appear, quite likely) that Jesus admitted the wicked into his community without making the normal demand of restitution and commitment to the law. That might give his followers a sense of community; but it is not accurate to say that 'he welcomed those people [the sinners] back into the community'. They all would have known perfectly well what to do if they wished to be considered members of the covenant in good standing.

Fourthly, we should remember that Jesus himself was not primarily a preacher of repentance. We earlier observed that there is scant material which depicts Jesus as calling Israel to repent. The parables about God's seeking the lost (Luke 15.3-6; 15.8f.), once the Lucan conclusions are removed (Luke 15.7, 10), are seen to be focused not on repentance but on God's action.110 The latter may imply the former, but it is difficult to show that Jesus was a spokesman for a return of the sinners to the community. The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-9) brings home the curiosity of the reported charge that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and promised them a place in the kingdom. This story was, as I proposed above, created by Luke (or possibly a pre-Lucan writer) to emphasize repentance and reform.111 It emphasizes these qualities so effectively that their scarcity elsewhere becomes striking. Jesus doubtless believed in reconciliation between the wicked and God, but the absence of passages which call for repentance and restitution shows at least that he did not aim at restoring the wicked to the community. If Jesus, by eating with tax collectors, led them to repent, repay those whom they had robbed, and leave off practising their profession, he would have been a national hero.

This leads us to the fifth and most decisive point. No one would have been offended if Jesus converted quislings. The case with other 'sinners' is similar. Let us take the case of a professional sinner, an usurer. If such a person were led by Jesus to repay the interest which he had accepted, and to turn to a life in accord with the law, who would have objected? Those who needed to borrow money, for example farmers who borrowed each year against the next harvest, would be inconvenienced if their accustomed usurer quit his profession. But presumably there would be someone from whom to borrow, and the defection of one usurer from the money market would not seriously affect the economy. Those who were zealous for the law, such as the Pharisees, would rejoice. The notion that the conversion of sinners was offensive to the Pharisees is, when thought about concretely, ridiculous.

3.2. The offence. As I said earlier, it is hard to establish with certainty what was offensive about Jesus' behaviour. This has not been problematic to scholars as long as they could think that the offer of forgiveness to repentant sinners was unique and would have been offensive to the leaders of Judaism. Jesus proclaimed that the wicked who repented would share in the kingdom, and the Pharisees were led thereby to a fatal enmity. But once we see (1) that everybody (except the Romans) would have favoured the conversion of tax collectors and other traitors to the God of Israel and (2) that Jesus' message in any case was not primarily orientated around a call to repentance, the significance of the charge that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and the wicked becomes difficult to determine. The success of the explanation that conversion was offensive, however, has kept other proposals from being brought forward, and we do not have a rich array of alternative possibilities.

There is one other which should be mentioned. The controversy has sometimes been held to be that Jesus offered forgiveness (inclusion in the kingdom) before requiring reformation, and for this reason he could be accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Had they already reformed, they would not have been sinners. That is one of the ways in which Jeremias stated the case: Judaism offers forgiveness only to those who are righteous. They had first to become righteous to be forgiven.112 Jesus' offer in advance is sometimes called unconditional forgiveness.113 But what precisely does this mean? The intended contrast is, of course, with Judaism, where conditional forgiveness was offered. Quite apart from the fact that Jeremias has caricatured Judaism by dividing up chronologically reformation of life and forgiveness, we must still press the question: are we dealing with a significant contrast? We should, once more, think concretely. If the result of Jesus' eating with a tax collector was that the tax collector, like Zacchaeus, made restitution and changed his way of life (we recall that Jeremias accepts the story), Jesus' proclamation of forgiveness was not unconditional. The condition of its effectiveness was obviously the conversion. I submit that the distinction proposed is too small to create much of a dispute. For clarity, I shall repeat the proposed distinction. It is this: Jesus said, God forgives you, and now you should repent and mend your ways; everyone else said, God forgives you if you will repent and mend your ways.

Modern theologians find here a significant difference, and perhaps rightly so. It is a profound insight that the gift should precede the demand, and putting the two clearly in that sequence is satisfying theologically. It can also be effective in human relations. But is it a matter of offence? How large would this theological distinction have loomed in the first century? For, it must be emphasized, we can be discussing only a theological distinction. Jesus did not tell sinners that, before purifying themselves, and without bringing a sacrifice and a prayer of repentance, they could enter the temple. Urging and acting on this view would certainly have been fatal. But I cannot see that the same could be said for Jesus' symbolic action of eating with sinners. He may have intended to symbolize thereby the priority of grace to repentance, but in the eyes of pious outsiders he would simply have been joining the ranks of the ungodly. They might regret it, but they would not have killed him for it. In their effort to have Jesus die for the truth of the gospel, modem scholars who find here the crucial point of offence go even beyond the evangelists in creating plots by the Pharisees.

I doubt that tax collectors and usurers walked round Galilee in such a state of anxiety about forgiveness that the distinction between 'if you repent' and 'assuming that you subsequently repent' was a burning issue. Likewise I doubt that the formulation attributed to Jesus ('assuming that you subsequently repent') would have offended anybody. I can well imagine that saying to a tax collector that he would enter the kingdom ahead of the righteous (Matt. 21.31) would have been irritating to the latter; but not that the righteous would have conceived a deadly enmity for Jesus for putting grace before repentance - if his aim was in fact reformation. We must look elsewhere.

We may gain a clue to the meaning of the theme of the sinners by considering further repentance and forgiveness. It is an interesting and somewhat curious fact that most scholars who write about these themes in the Gospels do not say just what they have in mind. Jeremias's view is clear: he accepts the story of Zacchaeus. But Perrin, for example, wrote page after page on repentance and forgiveness without ever saying whether or not repentance, in Jesus' view, required restitution.TM Westerholm has an interestingly ambiguous paragraph: Jesus' view was that all were on the same footing; all needed to repent. Some

... seized gratefully the chance to enter in. For others, however, the undiscriminating nature of the message proved offensive .... Clinging to their claim to be righteous, they refused to enter a kingdom ... where 'sinners' and 'righteous' sat together at a table spread by God.115

Westerholm's depiction of the banquet seems to imply that the sinners admitted by Jesus remained sinners, but he does not spell this out. On the contrary, he, like others, writes about their repentance. We see here a typical lack of clarity about the meaning of 'sinners', 'repentance' and 'forgiveness'. If the sinners had repented, they would not have been sinners.

Let me say clearly what 'repentance' would normally have involved. By ordinary Jewish standards offences against fellow humans required restitution as well as repentance (see e.g. Lev. 6.1-5 [Heb. 5.20-26]; Num. 5.5-7; cf. Baba Kamma 9.6 and Baba Metzia 4.8 for the Rabbinic interpretation). Other offences were atoned for by repentance alone. While the temple stood - that is, in Jesus' time - repentance would be demonstrated by a sacrifice (see the same passage in Leviticus).116

My proposal is this: it may have been just these requirements that Jesus did not make of his hearers. He may have offered them inclusion in the kingdom not only while they were still sinners but also without requiring repentance as normally understood, and therefore he could have been accused of being a friend of people who indefinitely remained sinners.117 Here at last we see the full implication of the repeated observation that Jesus did not issue a call for repentance and that it was Luke who emphasized the reform of the wicked who accepted him.

Some support for this view comes from considering, again, the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. It appears that John's message was distinguished from Jesus' on the question of repentance and the sinners (Matt. 21.32; 11.18f.). One might argue that the distinction between them was that John called for national repentance while Jesus sought individuals who were lost, but that both equally hoped for conversion and righteousness. But this is not likely. We must remember that it was an accusation against Jesus that he associated with sinners, while John came in the way of righteousness. This points to a more fundamental difference than those of tactics and audience. John, the preacher of repentance, was not accused on the grounds that Jesus was. It appears that John was the spokesman for repentance and righteousness ordinarily understood. Jesus, equally convinced that the end was at hand, proclaimed the inclusion of the wicked who heeded him.

There are three further passages which point in this direction: the Call of Levi//Matthew (Matt. 9.9-13//Mark 2.13-17//Luke 5.27-32); the Question about Fasting (Matt. 9. 14-17//Mark 2. 18-22//Luke 5-33-39); and the story of the would-be follower who wished to bury his father (Matt. 8.2ff.//Luke 9.59f.). The last passage will be discussed more fully later, and here I shall only indicate that it puts following Jesus above obeying the fifth commandment. The authenticity of the other two passages is less certain, but each seems to rest on a reliable kernel. Jesus probably did have a tax collector among his followers - even though later his name was not securely remembered - and it is probably this fact which gave immediate substance to the charge that he ate with tax collectors. The Gospel tradition subsequently expanded this point ('many tax collectors and sinners', Mark 2.15 and parr.), but we can safely assume that there was at least one.'118 It is noteworthy that this one is not said to have repented, repaid those whom he had robbed, and assumed a life conformable to the law. What he did was 'follow' Jesus.

The Question about Fasting makes basically the same point: some of the traditional practices of Judaism may be foregone by those who follow Jesus. The saying that the 'sons of the bridechamber do not fast while the bridegroom is with them' (Mark 2.19 and parr.), were it to be given general application, would be the clearest indication in the Gospels that Jesus put 'following' him above observing the law; for at least the fast of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16.29) was emphatically observed. The passage in its present form seems to have in view some lesser fast or fasts not observed by everyone and not commanded in the Torah. We regrettably cannot recover the original application of the saying, but it harmonizes well in the present context.119

The only passage which might count against the view proposed here is Mark 1.44 and parr., where Jesus tells the cleansed leper to show himself to the priest and to make the required offering. This curious passage -which in any case does not deal with a transgression - actually highlights the lack of any such statement to the tax collectors and other sinners who accepted him. Even in the Lucan story of Zacchaeus the tax collector was not required by Jesus to make restitution, and no sacrifice is mentioned.120

I propose, then, that the novelty and offence of Jesus' message was that the wicked who heeded him would be included in the kingdom even though they did not repent as it was universally understood - that is, even though they did not make restitution, sacrifice, and turn to obedience to the law. Jesus offered companionship to the wicked of Israel as a sign that God would save them, and he did not make his association dependent on their conversion to the law. He may very well have thought that they had no time to create new lives for themselves, but that if they accepted his message they would be saved. If Jesus added to this such statements as that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom before the righteous (Matt 21.31), the offence would be increased. The implied self-claim, to know whom God would include and not, and the equally implied downgrading of the normal machinery of righteousness, would push Jesus' stance close to, or over, the border which separates individual charisma from impiety.

I realize that my proposal will not be a popular one. Surely Jesus desired the conversion of sinners. But if that were all he sought, what was controversial about him?

Speculative as this proposal is, I consider it much more likely than the popular one: Jesus called sinners to repentance; and therefore mainline Judaism, being opposed to repentance and forgiveness, sought to kill him.