You might be asking why such an obvious question is being addressed in this post. Aren’t sinners just anybody since everybody sins? Well, not so fast. It turns out the Greek word for “sinner,” hamartōlos, had some specific meanings in the New Testament depending on how it was used. After we look at some examples from the gospels and the writings of Paul, this should become clear.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the stereotyping of other cultures and peoples were the norm. Romans, for example, divided the world into Romans, Greeks, and barbarians. Jews divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. These categories came replete with stereotypical characteristics that were often negative in nature. This is not surprising since these were dyadic cultures who measured self-worth in terms of how one adhered to group norms. Freedom of expression was much more limited than today. Being judged an honorable first-century, Mediterranean individual depended on how closely you complied with the norms expected for your group. There were gender norms, racial and tribal norms, clan norms, religious norms, social status norms, and so forth. Falling outside these expected norms resulted in being castigated by your group. You became “the other”, an outsider – a member of a group other than the one you were expected to belong to.
Paul is the earliest author represented in the New Testament. He was a Hellenistic (Greek acculturated) Jew and as such he shared ideas with other Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora (the land outside Israel). He demonstrates his contemporary predilection for stereotyping “the other” as part of his recollection of a conversation he once had with the apostle Peter. Paul summarized the conversation in his letter to the Galatians. In speaking with Peter, Paul shared with him the notion that they were not members of “the other,” that is, the Gentiles. He pointed out that they were “Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). Paul is not differentiating Gentile sinners from Jewish sinners; Gentiles as a group were categorized by most Jews to be irredeemable “sinners.” They did not have the Torah and so their overall behavior repeatedly violated it. Consequently, not having Torah, they had no means of atonement, a merciful feature of Torah for Jews. Gentiles were, as a class, “sinners.” According to most Jewish thought, there was no salvation outside Torah.
By classifying Gentiles in this way, Paul aligns himself with other Hellenistic Jewish writers of the day. According to the Wisdom of Solomon (30 BCE – 70 CE), for example, “the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (14:12). From a bit earlier comes this:
“In the case of the other nations [Gentiles] the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us [Jews]…he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people” (2 Macc. 6:14-16; ca. 124 BCE).
Also, from about the same time period and from a work known and used in Palestine comes this:
“And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all of their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable. They slaughter their sacrifices to the dead, and to the demons they bow down. And they eat in tombs.” (Jubilees, 22:16-17; ca. 2nd c. BCE)
By understanding Gentiles as “sinners,” Paul is not saying that Jews do not sin. In fact, he makes it clear that all people must deal with sin (Rom. 3:9). But Jews have available to them the means for atonement: contrition, restitution, prayer, sacrifice in Jewish Temple. Priests in Jerusalem regularly made atoning sacrifices for the Jewish people. Some Jews believed that even suffering and death could be a means of atonement. For a Jew, then, penitence marked a return to God and a renewed resolve to conduct oneself righteously. Gentiles, on the other hand, do not return to God; they were never with God. As Paul taught them, they must turn to God (from idols) if they wish to be made righteous.
To whom does Jesus refer when he speaks of “sinners”? As most historians agree, Jesus restricted his mission to the house of Israel (Mat. 10:6, 15:24). Yet he is quoted referring to sinners. Seemingly, he is not referring (at least primarily) to Gentiles.
The four New Testament gospels remain our primary sources for information about Jesus. Most scholars today accept that the Gospel of Mark was written first, the authors of Matthew and Luke built their gospels around Mark, using it as a framework, and the author of John wrote independently of the other three.
In an episode from the life of Jesus (Mark 2:15-17), Pharisees are depicted as complaining that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus’s response is that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners. This dichotomy is different from Paul’s. Here, Jesus does not mean to say that he came to call Gentiles, yet he is still calling members from a group that Jews associated with “the other,” that is, those who fell outside the religious and social norms expected by other Jews. Who are these nonconformist Jews?
That Mark associates the term “sinner” with “tax collector” is instructive. The conversation, therefore, cannot be about everyday Jews who sin. “Tax collectors and sinners” represent a special group. Tax, or better toll, collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman administration in Judea collecting tolls on goods crossing territorial boundaries. Jewish collaborators with Rome were despised by many other Jews of the day; they could even be considered apostate. That is, they were as good as outside the covenant because of their collaboration with Jewish oppressors.
The nondescript “sinners” associated with these tax collectors must be thought of in the same light. For whatever reason they, too, were considered apostate. These are likely the ones Jesus refers elsewhere to as the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel (Mat. 10:6, 15:24). The fact that Jesus contrasts these “tax collectors and sinners” to “the righteous” means that repentant Jews who attempted to observe Torah faithfully, even if they occasionally sinned, were not, at least according to this passage, the primary target of Jesus’s mission.
Later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus laments that he is going to be handed over to sinners (14:41). Again, he is not referring to just anyone who sins; otherwise his prediction would be pointless. Jesus is either referring to what Christ’s followers might have considered apostate Jews within the Jerusalem leadership or to the Gentile Romans themselves, part of a class, as we saw, universally known by Jews as “sinners.”
The Gospel of Matthew features a story in which an accusation leveled against Jesus is considered by Jesus himself when he is quoted as saying that he has been accused of being friends with “tax collectors and sinners”. If we consider the term “sinner” as meaning anyone who sins, the accusation is once again pointless. Everyone would be friend to a sinner and have sinners as friends. The accusation, therefore, like the one made in Mark, is that Jesus befriends those considered, at least by some Jews, to have fallen outside their membership in the Jewish covenant.
The Gospel of Luke depicts Jesus comparing the things that sinners do with those things his followers should do (Luke 6:32-34). “Sinners,” according to Jesus, love those who love them, do good to those who do good to them, and lend to other sinners. Is Jesus speaking about everyone who sins? This is unlikely. Recall that Jesus joined John the Baptist in calling the Jewish people to repentance (Mat. 3:2; Mark 1:15). Saying that these Jews called to repentance love other sinners, etc., makes little sense as an accusation. Jesus is surely contrasting those called to repentance, including his followers, with a group or groups known for being outside the covenant, be they apostate Jews or even Gentiles.
That Jesus was not referring to everyday Jews who sin in the previous examples is also made clear by a unique quotation attributed to Jesus only in Luke (13:1-2). Here, Jesus learns of Galilean revolutionaries or reactionaries executed by Pontius Pilate. Jesus asks rhetorically if these Galileans were worse sinners than “all other Galileans” because they suffered. In response to his own question, Jesus says no. Though everyone sins, including Galilean Jews, the rebels were not punished with death because they were worse sinners than any other Galilean (remember, many Jews believed that God punishes the unfaithful and rewards the faithful). Jesus implicitly makes the claim that the Galilean insurgents were not, in fact, punished by God. In his apocalyptic worldview, their suffering was not caused by God but by Satan and the earth-bound forces acting on Satan’s behalf (the Romans). From throughout the gospels, we know that Jesus preached an apocalyptic message involving an imminent overthrow of Satan and his forces and the inauguration of a kingdom ruled by God. Jesus ends this short conversation in Luke by again warning everyone to repent of their sins in fear of perishing. Something imminent was about to happen.
In the fourth and final gospel of the New Testament, an interesting comment on sinners is made (John 9:31). A blind man, healed earlier by Jesus, is subject to an investigation that was being conducted over the incident by the “Jewish religious leaders”. The formerly blind man says that “we [Jews] know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is devout and does his will, God listens to him.” This statement is John’s way of characterizing Jesus as devout but it also supports the previous results of our inquiry. Surely God listens to everyday sinners who repent, otherwise what would be the point? These “sinners” are those outside of the family of God: either apostate Jews, Gentiles, or both.
Reading the New Testament in its historical context is essential for understanding its meaning. When we transpose our own ideas and values onto first-century writers and characters we risk missing the teachings they offer. Though repentance from sin was a call made by John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’s followers (Mark 6:12; Acts 2:38), the call was made to observant-minded Jews within the covenant who might have unatoned-for sin and needed atonement now especially in light of the coming Kingdom. The “sinners,” however, were a special group, stigmatized and rejected by other Jews. They are the erstwhile Jews whom Jesus says he has targeted above all others. The “sinners” are also the group of Gentiles that Paul has devoted his life to redeeming.