In this week’s discussion we were asked to look at Philippians 3:2-11 and try to define what Paul meant by “blameless” in v. 6. I said that Paul began this section warning the Philippians of “evil workers” seeking to enforce circumcision on Gentile Christians, so his bragging in vv. 4-6 was merely an outline of what should be done away with. But in discussing the word “blameless,” we must address that instinctual assumption indicating Paul meant “sinless.” James D.G. Dunn “[doubts] if the term amemptos, ‘blameless,’ should be understood as equivalent to ‘sinless,’ that is, never having breached any commandment in the slightest degree.”
Although I didn’t raise the question in our class discussion, I wanted to raise it here. Paul is talking about fulfilling all the little requirements for when one does commit a sin – all the atonement sacrifices and signs indicating his repentance. In terms of covenantal nomism, Paul is declaring himself as the best at “staying in.” As best as I can tell, this is what he means by “blameless.” Yet, our language changes slightly in regards to Christ’s sinlessness, so I feel I must ask: How do we know that this sense of “blameless” was not how Jesus’ sinlessness was understood – that, in fact, early Christians saw Him as blameless in regards to “righteousness under the law,” like Paul?
I only ask this question because I’m trying to better understand where Christ’s sinlessness came from. My gut instinct is telling me to believe it, but oftentimes my “gut instinct” is really only my “fundamentalist reflexes” kicking in, as my former roommate described that feeling. I’ve found various passages rather explicitly saying Christ was sinless, which I discuss below, but I’m wondering if this was how it was understood or if it was more like Paul’s blamelessness?
Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
John 7:18, “Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.”
Other related verses are John 8:48; 14:30 (kind of); 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 3:18; 1 John 3:5, 7. I quoted the ones I think convey the aspect well enough. I’m sure there are other verses or passages that could be discussed as well.
All these passages strongly indicate Christ was as sinless as many of us believe Him to be. Yet in light of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:6, I can’t help but wonder if this might have been how the early church thought of Jesus. Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:22; and 1 John 3:5 seem to be echoing Isaiah 53:9 with their “no sin was found in him” tone. Yet Isaiah 53:9 has a little different wording: “They made his grave with the wicked/ and his tomb with the rich/ although he had done no violence/ and there was no deceit in his mouth.” After reading this passage, Christ’s sinlessness seems less explicit.
Is there good reason to believe Christ’s sinlessness was understood more in terms of Paul’s blamelessness? Or am I misunderstanding these various texts? Do you think they’re drawing from Isaiah 53:9? If so, are they still reading the Isaiah passage correctly?
If you interpret Paul as being an observant Jew — as his actions in Acts attest — it is easy to come to an understanding of Christ’s sinlessness. Paul said “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” Try reading “Christ our Passover goat is sacrificed for us.” Christ as the vicarious sin offering has paid His sacrifice so that the original punishment — death — has been paid for us. I interpret in the (Radical?) New Perspective thought that we are still under judgement of the Law but the death penalty, aka being “cut off” forever, is off the table.
@Rick: I can see the aspect of Christ being the sacrificial lamb “without defect or blemish,” as 1 Pet. 1:19 says, but I see that as an allusion to purity within the Law, which I also see as being similar to Paul’s “righteousness under the law.” If Christ was “pure” in the sense of Paul being “righteous,” then wouldn’t that mean Christ was “blameless” in the same sense that Paul was? Purity in accordance to the Law was a major focus in Second Temple Judaism, so I’m wondering if these claims of Jesus being “sinless” were actually claims of his “blamelessness” in regards to the Law – and that only after centuries of reflection upon the resurrection did they come to mean that Christ did not sin at all?
By no means am I attempting to discredit what you’re saying; I’m simply trying to see Jesus through a different lens than the 21st C. Christian one.
@Jeremy: It seems that Paul’s clarifying “as to righteousness, the one ‘under the law'” (κατὰ δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐν νόμῳ) may indicate that for Paul it is possible to obtain a certain righteousness under the law, but that righteousness is insufficient. I think the law itself makes this obvious in that there are sacrifices for the forgiveness of trespasses, the Day of Atonement for the nation, and so forth. I don’t know if Paul is saying, “You’ll never see me disobey a single precept of the law!” Rather, he may be saying that as far as the law is concerned he is covered: he honored it, he sought to live by it, and he worked within the sacrificial system as prescribed.
If this is the case there is no contradiction of thought. Paul may have very well thought of Christ’s sinlessness the same way as the author of Hebrews: it is Christ’s sacrifice that mattered the most. All other sacrifices point toward his final and ultimate one where he offered himself. If so, Paul doesn’t see himself as blameless, but that doesn’t mean he saw himself as “sinless”. I know it the “I” of Rom. 7 is debated, but I can’t help but think that Paul writes that section from his own experience so that while “blameless” under the law’s requirements he knew he was not perfect, sinless, or without need of Christ’s work.
“Purity in accordance to the Law was a major focus in Second Temple Judaism”
Was it? Lets’ be clear there is:
1. Purity as Moses defined it. (Pre 2nd temple)
2. Purity as old covenant prophets understood it. (Pre 2nd temple)
3. Purity as Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians understood it. (2nd Temple)
4. Purity as Saduccees, Pharisees, Herodians practised it. (2nd Temple)
5. Purity as Jesus understood and practised it. (2nd Temple)
These are different. Clearly there was conflict between 5. and 3. and 4. but not between 5. and 1. and 2.
Therefore the righteousness of Christ was to be ‘blameless’ before God (Christ was more than blameless, Christ was praiseworthy [Rom 2:29] before God (wow!) deserving all worship, riches, honour and glory.
However, when the Pharisees and Saduccees spoke of righteousness, they too spoke of being blameless, but not ‘blameless’ before God, but ‘blameless before them as religious authorities. Consider [Luke 11:42]. Jesus was showing that the Pharisees abused 1. and 2. not in the spirit it was intended.
You ask “How do we know that this sense of “blameless” was not how Jesus’ sinlessness was understood. We know that Jesus’ sinlessness was understood to be blameless with respect to God’s perspective when we read that Christ was obedient in all things, even death. Reading [1 Sam 15:22] we understand that any sacrifice (including Christ’s) would be unnecessary if we did not offend God.
Jesus did not get his understanding of what was and wasn’t blameworthy from the religious elite. As a Pharisee, Paul understood what his contemporaries would find blameworthy and what they would not. For example, in the mind of a Pharisee ” …for a hanged man is cursed by Elohim” [Deu 21:23] meant that being hung on a Cross was evidence Christ was cursed by God. Yet it was man’s curse, not God’s that put Him there, so clearly the Pharisee’s understanding of blameless, and unrighteousness was exactly defective.
If there is anything we can learn from 2nd temple Judaism, it is how how poorly biblicists can corrupt the plain meaning of scripture.
I’ve taken Paul’s “found blameless” statement to mean he has to his satisfaction as a Pharisee followed Torah’s prescriptions which include what to do after you sin. He couldn’t have meant sinless since he called himself the chief sinner of them all elsewhere.
I think Paul contextually was speaking there as if he were still a Pharisee in belittling 1st century Jewish claims about the value of these first birth assets relative to knowing Christ, “tribe of Benjamin, 8th day man, Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, persecuted the church”!
To Paul the Pharisee, he had been blameless. To Paul the believer after He saw the beatific vision, he considered all that skubila.
@Patrick – your comment reminds me that it kind of goes back to N.T. Wright’s point that ‘Christ’s righteousness’ in Paul’s work is legal standing before God – not some essence built up in Christ poured into the sinner as an ointment to get us past judgement.
N.T. Wrights point is that ‘Christ’s righteousness’ is to be found blameless because of faith, by the judge Himself.
@Brian: Understanding Paul was more focused on Christ’s sacrifice makes a lot of sense, especially when one recalls 1 Cor. 2:2; “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Do you think, then, that in our modern (in very general terms) we’ve over-emphasized Christ’s sinlessness? What I mean is, if Paul were alive today, would he agree with our treatment of Christ as God walking the earth (barely touching the ground at times)?
@Andrew: Thank you for breaking that down; it’s incredibly important to highlight not only the nuances of time regarding purity (as you put them, “Pre 2nd Temple/2nd Temple”), but also the differing factions. My claim was a bit too vague, now that I think about it. And I also appreciate your distinguishment between Jesus’ view of his own blamelessness (rather than that of the religious elite) and Paul’s Pharisaic-influenced definition of “blameless.” With your breakdown of the various factions, do you think Jesus understood himself to be “blameless” to the law of Pre 2nd Temple Judaism? And do you think, as far as we might be able to glean from Scripture, he saw himself as “sinless”?
Also, I haven’t quite reached Wright’s work on Paul just yet, but I definitely will by the end of this semester. Are you reading “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” by chance? I recently picked that one up and am excited to read it.
@Patrick: I absolutely agree; “sinless” was probably not how “blameless” was understood in Paul’s time. I suppose I’m trying to figure out, though, if Jesus had been viewed as “blameless” in the same understanding of Paul’s “blameless” until some time later, toward the latter part of Paul’s ministry, Jesus’ “blamesslessness” was becoming more understood as “sinlessness.” What do you think?
@Jeremy: I don’t think Paul would depict Jesus as “barely touching the ground”, neither has the Church traditionally done so, which is why Docetism is a heresy. Modern Evangelicals may have a Christology that often over emphasizes Jesus’ deity to the point that it submerges his humanity, but I think this is more an error of ignorance than intent. Many Christians rightly worship Jesus, but wrongly conclude that this makes him a superman. We don’t find that Jesus in the Gospels, or the writings of Paul, or the Epistle to the Hebrews. We find a very real, very human Jesus.
That said, sinlessness doesn’t seem to be anti-human in the view of the early Church. Theoretically, Christians imaged Adam as sinless, temporarily, and thus at his most human. Setting aside the debate about the historicity of Adam, we should acknowledge the theological point: sin is alien, outside; sin is not normal, intrinsic. If Christ was the human par excellence then sinlessness isn’t a problem as long as affirm with the author of Hebrews that his temptations were real.
Whether or not the early Church moved from “blameless” before the Law to “sinless” in the world is possible. For many early Christians, being Jews, I think that it is quite likely that they measured sinfulness up against law observance, though that being said, we must remember that the early Jesus traditions also depict Jesus as one who broke the Law in the eyes of some, so it wasn’t simply law observance, but something that transcends that idea. Thought?
I think that while blamelessness comes from the area of ‘procedures’ (you can fulfill procedures blamelessly and these procedures have even procedures concerning what to do when you fail to follow the procedures), the idea of sinlessness comes from the area of ontology. There were many blameless people, the Gospel of Luke even begins with a whole procession of them: Zechariah, Elisabeth, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon, John the Forerunner. All of them holy, righteous, blameless. Christ however is sinless, without a stain, without a spot, without any impurity, a perfect Lamb to be sacrificed to God. Sinlessness for Christ is not what He does or does not do, it is what He is. Now, our understanding of this depends on how we imagine the faith of the Apostles developed. Did they knew Jesus as a righteous rabbi, a man capable of being a pure sacrifice due to His blamelessness – and as God in addition to that? Or was Jesus for them someone qualitatively different from the beginning, a new kind of man not bound by dychotomy of procedures and blame? I think that Jesus and His sinlessness emerge from the Apostolic writings as something like the sword of Alexander the Great cutting through the Gordian knot. The sinlessness of Jesus is something positive, coming from a different logic, and it becomes something negative only when He’s being compared. It’s like comparing a 3D cube with a sketch of a cube on paper and saying that the 3D one does not look flat. Well, of course it does not look flat! It’s 3D! Still this is what would strike the 2D-people first when they’d look at the real cube.
Jeremy, its a good question, and I have pondered Jesus’ actions in verses such as [Matt 8:4],[Mark 10:3] and [Luke 5:14].
I believe Jesus understood what was given to Moses as well as it’s purpose and intent; Jesus was the one who gave it to Moses (face to face) [Exo 33:11]. This gave Jesus a unique advantage with respect the Pharisees who bound themselves only to the spirit of the Law. There is another thing at play here, and that is Jesus divinity humbled by mortality.
All authority is ordained in heaven, even that of the Pharisees who sat on Moses seat [Matt 23:2]. So the other principle at play is that Jesus undoubtedly honoured all commandments given to him by the Pharisees save for the ones that would have caused him to sin. So yes, Jesus was blameless with respect to the law of Moses, but not blameless with respect to the opinion of the Pharisees.
A great example would be Jesus knew that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath [Mark 2:27]. Moses instructions were to ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy‘. The Pharisees interpreted this is a narrow tyrannical way showing they didn’t understand what it meant to keep a day Holy (that is ‘to the Lord’).
Jesus had a right understanding of what that mean so knew that picking wheat and healing others on Sabbath was ‘God honouring’. Was Jesus in-line with the Law of Moses – yes, absolutely. Was he in line with the Law of the Pharisees? No.
We know Jesus knew Himself to be sinless [John 8:28-29][John 8:46-4].
.. should have read ” ….. Pharisees who bound themselves only to the letter of the Law.“
The nature of discourse back then was much ‘sharper’ than we are used to, i.e., “Get thee behind Me, Satan!” Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees, at least the Hillelite Pharisees, were those of close spiritual kin debating and defining sometimes minor issues. I think “conflict” between Jesus and Jews other than Caiaphas arose anachronistically once the notion of a Christian-and-no-longer-Jewish Jesus developed. We’re 21st century Westerners trying — with some not trying very hard and/or with an agenda (I’m not accusing anyone here) — to make sense of Jesus’ uniqueness WITHIN His Own 1st century Middle Eastern culture.
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