Tuesday 9 July 2024

Did Jesus *really* say "sin no more" in the Fourth Gospel?

There are two places in the Fourth Gospel (in the Authorized Version) where Jesus is quoted as saying "sin no more": 

After healing the man by the pool at Bethesda:
5: [10] The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. [11] He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. [12] Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? [13] And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place. [14] Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. [15] The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

Following the episode of the woman taken in adultery:
8: [9] And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. [10] When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? [11] She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. [12] Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

The problem is that - as a straightforward order given to any human being - "sin no more" is impossible, hence nonsense; because the very essence of Jesus's teaching is that all Men are sinners and no Men can cease from sinning. Which is a major reason why the incarnation and work of Jesus is necessary. 

So the alternative is to finesse the statements into something specific, that might be true. 

But there is no context that the man beside the pool in Chapter 5 has sinned as a cause of his infirmity, so that "sin no more" seems irrelevant, as well as impossible. Furthermore, when Jesus is quoted as uttering the following "lest a worse thing come unto thee"... well, to my eye this threat identifies the sentence as a later and false interpolation. And, indeed, the entirety of verse 14 can be deleted without loss of continuity. 

What of the usage in Chapter 8? Well, here again the phrase "go, and sin no more" can comfortably be deleted; and this deletion also avoids the contradiction between "neither do I condemn thee" and "sin no more".    

On this internal evidence; I regard the phrase" "sin no more" as alien to the Fourth Gospel, alien to Jesus's teaching; and thus presumably a later addition by some other hand. 


Pangloss said...

Bruce, it is nowhere implied that sin caused the man's infirmity. To not sin indeed would be impossible but making a serious effort to be as righteous as possible to avoid damnation surely is.
As to Jesus telling the woman to sin no more must have been for her to commit the sin of adultery no more. This surely belonged to her realm of possibilities albeit other sins she would now and then still commit.
If we are to erase Bible verses we have trouble understanding and/or agreeing with, what is left in the end? We would all have our own version of the Bible - according to our preferences and likes. But surely if you don't believe the Bible is God's fully inspired Word, then it is a pick-and-choose.

Luke said...

Does ''sin no more'' fit into Jesus's teaching if the orthodox criteria of mortal vs venial, and intrinsically sinning vs remote material cooperation with evil is used? And does ''lest a worse thing come unto thee" fit in with not a threat but a loving warning of the reality of hell? Also physical liberation is connected in Mark 2:1-12 as an outward sign that Jesus can and primarily wants to forgive/absolve sins, spiritual liberation rather than physical liberation. Is it too much a long shot that with the woman caught in adultery and the man at the pool Jesus had absolved them from the bondage of their mortal and intrinsic sins signified by the words ''sin no more''?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Pangloss - People do this stuff all the time with the Bible, and always have - I think what you object to is *me* doing it.

But my attitude is that I can, should, indeed must take responsibility for my Christian faith. I am not prepared to hand it over to the judgment of "what other people say"... Whether other-people nowadays or in the remote past, whether ordained/ professorial or whatever... Whether described in the modern scriptural research literature, or at sometime in the past among some unknown persons of unknown honesty and competence.

This is too important to be decided by what amounts to hearsay (and Chinese whispers).

Read the 500 word preface to Lazarus Writes, and think about it:

Since I became a Christian and engaged with the Bible as such, I have not been satisfied with the usual ways of reading and understanding the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired and true; but, as a scientist, I have always known that 'true' does not mean without error, nor does it mean correct in every particular, nor does it mean fixed. Truth is the beginning of enquiry, not the end.

In sum, I have felt compelled to develop a way of understanding the truth of the Bible that seems better than those I have encountered.

What I reject include the following:

1. Regarding the Bible as a single unified book which is all equally true and without 'error' - when error is defined as the falsehood of explicit statements;

2. Regarding the truth of the Bible as something that resides at a sentence by sentence ('verse') level (and certainly not a word-by-word truth);

3. Regarding the truth of all sentences/ verses as requiring knowledge of the whole Bible;

4. That all the New Testament is equally valid;

5. That all the Gospels are equally valid and tell a single absolutely coherent story (coherent at either/ both the level of the whole or part-by-part).

So much for some of the negatives - what then?

Well, I reach the above decisions on the basis of what could be termed intuition or discernment - as all such decisions must be and are inevitably made -- the difference being whether that knowledge of intuition is explicit, or denied; and with the conviction that explicit intuition is more reliably and powerfully discerning than is unconscious or denied intuition.

On this basis I regard the Fourth Gospel ('John's' Gospel - but when taken in isolation better called the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, whom I will later identify as the resurrected Lazarus) as the heart of the Bible on the basis that it uniquely claims to be the work of one of Christ's disciples, whom Jesus particularly loved; and I believe these claims.

Then - on reading it (in the divinely-inspired Authorised Version or 'King James' translation); I find a work of the highest level of beauty, profundity and coherence - a work which when considered as literature surpasses any other in the language in terms of beauty, profundity and coherence.

So, I start with the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, and with the conviction that this should be placed first in the Bible, first among the Gospels and should be at the heart of Christian understanding and life (all the rest being regarded in the light of this coherent work of genius and inspiration).

And I try to know the light of this Gospel; so that I may know the other Gospels, the New Testament and Bible, and the Churches and traditions, and possible Christian futures - all in its light.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - Well, that's Your finesse; but it doesn't convince me.

We first need to decide what Jesus was primarily about - after which such matters of detailed wording are (usually) not difficult to resolve.

WJT said...

John 5:14 can’t be deleted without loss of continuity. In v. 13, the man doesn’t know who healed him. In v. 15, he tells everyone it was Jesus. I agree that “sin no more” is problematic, but the text doesn’t make sense without it.

In chapter 8, of course, the whole episode is almost certainly an interpolation.

Hagel said...

"We would all have our own version of the Bible - according to our preferences and likes."

People already have this due to different cognitive abilities, different translations, different canons (which book was included by whom in which edition), and different interpretations which cause the same effect.

You can't escape the human condition. You can only do your best within it.

Furthermore, "it would be a problem if it were so" doesn't mean that it isn't so. If it was edited, it was edited.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WJT - I don't see it. "Jesus findeth him in the temple" is not explicit either way.

A said...

I was curious about this. It looks like the earliest surviving manuscript "P66" is missing entirely the tale of the adulteress.

"In common with both the other surviving early papyri of John’s Gospel; P45 (apparently), P75, and most New Testament uncials, Papyrus 66 does not include the pericope of the adulteress (7:53-8:11);[4] demonstrating the absence of this passage in all the surviving early witnesses of the Gospel of John."

I'm not saying this is definite evidence, but it suggests Dr. Charlton's point is possible.

A said...

Ah like a fool, I didn't realize this was an thoroughly argued topic already according to Wikipedia.

I try to ignore that sort of thing as it seems fraught from danger, but looks like it's an often held opinion that this section is a later addition.

Dr. Charlton took a decidedly non-materialistic approach for a similar conclusion.


Bruce Charlton said...

@A - I didn't know about this; but in a broad sense it illustrates the fatal problem of relying upon expert opinion when it comes to the fundamentals of Christian faith. We absolutely need to get behind the wranglings of scholars and ecclesiastics --

Who invariably disagree anyway (at any particular time, and even more so across the centuries and between denominations)! Therefore even if we try to base our faith on "authority" we always need personally to discern between authorities; and to pick who exactly we are going to believe.

This has always been the case, but in the modern era we have become conscious (or should be!) that this is what we are in fact doing.

I was a scientist, and it's exactly the same in all (real!) sciences at the cutting edge of research and theory. We must always be deciding who to believe, and sometimes we must (if we are a real scientist) believe what we personally have decided, and set-aside all previous "authorities".

William Wright (WW) said...


First, I am not sure whether those phrases are or not part of an original or true bible story, so I am not taking a position for or against here.

In your assessment you may be overlooking the fact that Jesus' words also seem to have power. For example, he spoke "Lazarus, come forth", and Lazarus obeyed his voice and rose from the dead.

It may well be that Jesus' words to these people to "sin no more" is not an injunction that is impossible for the person Jesus is speaking to actually perform, but rather a blessing of power given to that person.

The Book of Mormon, for example, has multiple examples of people who looked on prior sins 'with abhorrence' and were made white and clean - free from sin. These stories in John's gospel may be similar - Jesus blessing them that they now have the power to indeed sin no more, and are healed. If he could forgive sins by speaking it, and raise people from the dead by speaking it, I see no reason why Jesus could not give power to sin no more (if such power was the desire of the recipient) by also speaking it.

Just a different angle to consider.

TJ said...

I second WW. I was close to an old catholic priest. I once asked him point blank if he'd ever witnessed a miracle. He said he'd witnessed complete transformations of character and morals. These were not normal conversions but miraculous ones. For example, prostitutes turning into ascetics overnight. Such drastic transformations that the priest considered them miracles.

Philip Neal said...

I think that the two passages are related and that the phrase is a mystery but authentic. This is a triple bank shot which will probably not persuade you, but let me try.

The first story, the pool of Bethesda, concerns a man who "had an infirmity thirty and eight years". Counting inclusively, the said feast of the Jews had come and gone thirty six times and this time was now the thirty seventh.

The second story, the woman taken in adultery, takes place in the courts of the temple. It is important that only the Sanhedrin might pronounce a death sentence there, and at that time they had ceased to do so.

Now the Sanhedrin numbered 71 because 36 was required for a majority, and the Lamed Vau, the hidden holy men of Jewish tradition, numbered 36, assuming they all turned up. Only a Lamed Vau might defy the Sanhedrin and the accusers are inviting Christ to do just that. The point of the story is this. Who will cast the thirty sixth stone? You all have to be Lamed Vau, not just me. And 36 years had passed with not a single Lamed Vau turning up at the pool.

All of which does not mean that I understand either story. Christ, on the Sabbath, told the cripple to take up his bed and walk. How can he, within days and in the temple, forbid the man to commit the same "sin" again? It was in any case only a sin against the oral law. Adultery is a real sin in the written law and the gospel, yet Christ uses the self same words. I am not sure that this is about sin in our sense at all.

Jonathan said...

Upon reading this post, my first reaction was the same as WW's--maybe Jesus is offering them a miraculous gift, to sin no more, and not merely issuing an unfollowable suggestion.

Another angle, though: you have written that in the context of the 4th Gospel, "sin" means "death". Could his words mean something closer to "die no more"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - That's right - In the IV Gospel sin (usually) means death.

More widely, sin means any way in which we are Not aligned with God's nature and loving creation. It is to align us with divine creation by resurrection (after death) that Jesus came.

It is a gross misunderstanding to assume that mortal Men could cease to sin, because it amounts to asserting that Men can have eternal resurrected life in Heaven but without dying. But Jesus had to die, and so must we.

Sin is pervasive to the human condition on earth. Ultimately we are here to *learn* from our experiences and choices in mortal life.

Of course human beings can cease from doing (acting upon) a few very specific sins like murder, adultery and the like - but real evil comes from motivation whether or not there is action - and we can't prevent motivation.

But the major sins in the West today include dishonesty, resentment and despair, and the destruction of beauty - and who can refrain from these in our world?

Middle Class and professional people lie for a living, as of 2024 in our totalitarian world; and devout Christians are at least as bad as anybody else; *especially* church leaders/ priests/ pastors etc.

Furthermore people are made very variously. Many people are children, others have a weak will, others are easily susceptible to social pressure, others are impulsive, many have low intelligence and lack of foresight, others are raised in terrible situations etc. They cannot stick to plans, they cannot reform their lives - they are not made that way. Yet God made them that way, and they are not excluded from salvation.

No. All this is a *distraction*. The lesson of Jesus is that we must *repent* our sins...

Not that we must (impossibly) cease from sinning; nor even that we must slightly reduce the severity/ quantity of sinning (which is what church teachings on ethics are about).

Jesus came to save *actual* sinners, and that means all of us - but save sinners who "repent" - i.e. who know, and know as evil - their sins; and who "follow" Jesus.

(What "following Jesus" means? - I reference Lazarus Writes.)

William Wildblood said...

If you repent your sins and carry on sinning as before you have not really repented. The greatest saints felt themselves to be great sinners because there is always something rotten in the state of the soul which can only be healed through Christ, but they did at least do their utmost not to actively sin. That is what Jesus meant by saying sin no more. He wasn't expecting the woman to be perfect but to try to walk in the light. At the same time, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." That doesn't mean anyone can actually be perfect but we must make our best efforts. Grace can only come to the person who is able to receive it.

When I look into my own heart I can see all sorts of badly motivated impulses there but I have the choice of whether or not to go along with them. The impulses to sin cannot be expunged, though they will fade the less they are listened to, but overcoming the tendency to succumb to them is in our power and what we must do if we would be the soil in. which the good seed can be sown.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - "If you repent your sins and carry on sinning as before you have not really repented."

I disagree, at the level of visible action. Some people, *many* people, simply cannot change the many many actions that they repent.

Naturally, repentance entails an inward recognition that one has done wrong, and the desire not to continue - so there is a motivation Not to sin...

But that is a Very different matter from being able to delete or even diminish that behaviour in future - especially considering that there are hundreds, thousands, of ways in which we sin every day, every hour...

I think That is what the Saints recognized and what Jesus taught; that sinning is the human condition. A man could, like the Pharisees dedicate his life to the avoidance of proscribed sins and the practice of multiple virtues, and yet be steeped in sin and reject salvation.

And Jesus (it seems obvious to me) did not want people to be sin-orientated in their lives. I think he wanted us to candidly acknowledge our status as sinners, and candidly admit it to ourselves, repent it - but mostly get on with learning from the experiences of our lives, which is what we are here for.

The wonderful thing about repentance is that it frees us to live joyfully, whenever that change presents itself (although, again, experiencing a lot of deep happiness is an innate trait - which some people lack, and must cope with that lack).

My idea of an ideal Christian is someone who is not sin-orientated, but who quickly recognizes and honestly admits to whatever of his innumerable sins become apparent in the course of life.

That's why I keep harping on the endemic and increasing modern sin of dishonesty - because this stands in the path of repentance. many people who regard themselves as exceptionally pure, devout and observant Christians are shockingly dishonest; and thereby self-blinded to their progressive corruption into active support of the agenda of evil.

William Wildblood said...

I understand what you are saying but I think it comes perilously close to excusing wrong-doing. The fact that it is difficult not to sin again should never be used as an excuse not to make great efforts to avoid that. But we do agree that motivation is the main thing.

Maniac said...

"And Jesus (it seems obvious to me) did not want people to be sin-orientated in their lives. I think he wanted us to candidly acknowledge our status as sinners, and candidly admit it to ourselves, repent it - but mostly get on with learning from the experiences of our lives, which is what we are here for."

Well-stated, Bruce. I speak from experience when I say that being sin-obsessed is a miserable way to live.

Pangloss is right - the Lord was telling the woman to be faithful to her husband from then on.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Maniac & Pangloss - I think you are wrong, although you are of course right to interpret it that way, if that genuinely convinces you. It doesn't do much harm - except to suggest that there is something conditional upon future moral reform, to what Jesus is doing.

I think that in the core IV Gospel (the parts that mutually cohere and are internally-consistent, and don't give rise to suspicions of later tampering), the term sin is not used in that way - i.e. it seems to me that IV Gospel "sin" is a very general term (particularly referring to the immutable nature of mortal life and death-without-resurrection), and not a group of specific wrongdoings that might be avoided.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - "perilously close to excusing wrong-doing"

That accusation has often been made towards Jesus - at the time, and since. I think we need to understand what that was really all about, why Jesus associated with sinners etc; rather than trying to finesse away the criticism.

I think we need to disentangle questions of law and public moral order, which demand observable evidence; from the ultimates of salvation.

In other words; I think Jesus was trying to show, by his behaviour as well as his words; that he was teaching something qualitatively different from the usual, prudent and sensible, behaviour-based public morality of the Pharisees and their like.

I'm all for good social behaviour in my environment, very much so! But it doesn't really have much to do with salvation.

What is spiritually lethal is when sins are denied, embraced and propagated - or, even worse, inverted into virtues, as is now official public policy.

a_probst said...

"Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at-- Mom! Please put that stone down! I'm trying to make a point here."

Bruce Charlton said...

@a_p - Yaas. While I am very sympathetic to the veneration of the mother of Jesus, and I think it has been overall a positive force for good in history; it was a terrible theological mis-step to assert that Mary was "without sin" and went to Heaven without dying. Because that, at a stroke, eliminates the need for Jesus's incarnation and resurrection.

Luke said...

But on Mary I thought the Catholic teaching on the immaculate conception is that this grace was won by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus...much like the annunciation....they derive from Jesus's saving work and take place within how orthodox Christianity considers space-time?

And on going to heaven without dying (presumably at the orthodox Christian view of the second coming) 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - Yes, I'm aware how anything can be explained-away by sufficiently paradoxical/ mysterious/ incomprehensible theology (especially when "wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff" is brought to the argument).

It's a question of whether I want to bet My Life on its validity. And the answer is - obviously! - No.