Chapter 1. Forgiveness and Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, Meanings, and Forgiveness

On my first date with Melanie (to whom I am now married), as we began our meal together, I said to her, “I have just written a paper on hermeneutics. May I discuss it with you?”

You may find this an unlikely question on a first date. Melanie certainly did. Nevertheless, the question, and the range of answers to the question, are worth talking about, even (or perhaps, especially!) on a date.

When I put the question to Melanie, she said, “What’s ‘hermeneutics’?” It is not surprising that she should have asked the question, as issues to do with hermeneutics are outside her own academic discipline and field of research.

In answer to Melanie, I said that hermeneutics are the range of ways and assumptions we might use to interpret texts, especially biblical texts. What I meant is that hermeneutics alert us to the fact that we make suppositions in order to interpret a text. One needs a “hermeneutic,” that is, a framework of interpretive presuppositions, to understand any written text. I also said that hermeneutics are important because they give texts meaning; without hermeneutics, texts are no more than symbols in ink on a page.

The conversation about hermeneutics lasted the whole meal; “the rest,” as is popularly said, “is now history.”

In this book on forgiveness, I start with hermeneutics because the interpretive presuppositions we bring to writings about forgiveness in the New Testament, which from now on I refer to as “the Christian Scriptures,” will shape the outcome of our reading. Some of the hermeneutics I will bring to our reading I have deliberately chosen; others I have deliberately excluded because I think they are mistaken or irrelevant. Unfortunately, I will be unaware of some of the hermeneutics I adopt, and in years to come I may regret how excluding them has skewed the reading that I offer in this book. I want to be “up front,” as best I can be, about some aspects of how and why I read the texts as I do; you, the reader, may agree or disagree. So I am highlighting what I regard as important for explaining why I am approaching the interpretation of the Christian Scriptures on forgiveness in the ways I do.

I will now set out seven of the hermeneutical presuppositions that underlie much of the discussion about forgiveness in this book.

Forgiveness Is a Social Construct

We cannot describe what we mean by “forgiveness” and “forgiving” by reference to an objective notion of forgiveness, because no such objective notion exists. Rather, to speak of “forgiveness” and “forgiving” is to deploy language about socially constructed concepts that can best be understood against the cultural setting in which the concepts are used. This means we need to be sensitive to the context of the language and literature we are looking at. It would therefore not be surprising if words about forgiveness have one set of meanings in the Christian Scriptures, and another (but, of course, related) set of meanings in a different collection of writings or in popular, modern speech.

Forgiving Behavior Is Evidenced in a Variety of Ways

Forgiving behavior comprises a variety of different responses, with some of the responses more or less richly textured as behavior that we think is forgiving. To accept an apology that is offered with a gift of a bunch of flowers as an expression of contrition is probably to forgive; so also (just about) is for a mother to receive and accept a surly grunt (that sounds like the word “sorry”) from a teenager who has been rude to her. In contrast, some patterns of behavior are related to what we understand to be forgiveness or forgiving behavior but they do not have enough of a “family resemblance” to forgiveness and forgiving behavior for us properly to call them “forgiveness” or “forgiving behavior.” So if we say, for example, that the “hard center” of forgiveness is not holding against another person the wrong that person has done to us, we might want to say that the effect of ignoring a wrong is akin to forgiveness but not truly forgiveness, notwithstanding that the outcome in both cases, pragmatically speaking, is often similar.

The Christian Scriptures Are an Anthology

The Christian Scriptures are not one book but, as they stand today in most Christian traditions, an anthology of twenty-seven books, written by a variety of different authors. In different ways, the books are seeking to make sense of the “Christ-event” (that is, the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) for those to whom the individual books were written. It is also important to add that the anthology of books that now comprise the Christian Scriptures was written during the course of the first century CE, probably beginning about the midpoint of that century, and perhaps into the early part of the second century CE. This means that they may have been written over about a sixty-year period, with different authors and at different stages in the development of the early Christian church.

One implication of these straightforward statements is that what we read about forgiveness in the Christian Scriptures might not necessarily be self-consistent. In other words, there might be a variety of understandings as to what it means to forgive, because different authors may have different interpretations of and approaches to forgiveness. Certainly, we cannot assume that there is “one voice” on forgiveness in the Christian Scriptures. Additionally, the twenty-seven books may also point to a change, or development, of understanding about forgiveness in the period during which they were written. We cannot assume that, in the first century of the church, the notion of what it means to forgive, and why and when it is right to forgive, remained unchanged.

The Chronological Order of the Composition of the Christian Scriptures Influences How We Interpret Them

Many think that we should begin with the Gospels to identify the earliest Christian traditions about forgiveness. However, the Gospels, as we now have them, contain material that is almost certainly the result of some years of development, editing, and reflection, and are based on traditions that were at first circulated orally. Of course, the Gospels may well contain elements of what Jesus said and taught about forgiveness, but we cannot be sure what precisely is “original” (the word scholars often use in this connection is “authentic”) and what may be later developments.

We should note too that each of the Gospels is a work of theological reflection in its own right. It is a mistake to see any of the Gospel writers as no more than uncritical collectors of material that has been put into a book called a “gospel.” When it comes to forgiveness, what each of the Gospel writers includes appears deliberately to have been chosen and even, to some extent, shaped to reflect that Gospel writer’s own theological purpose. For example, Luke’s theology of forgiveness is different from Matthew’s, and Matthew’s different from Mark’s. Each Gospel can be read on its own as a discrete work of theology, and, as we shall see clearly later in this book, a careful comparison of one Gospel with another will reveal significant differences of emphasis, approach, and understanding when it comes to forgiveness.

Given that what we now have in the Gospels has very likely been developed from earlier oral and written sources, and then edited, is it possible to know accurately what Jesus said, and can we disentangle what Jesus said from later additions that are now part of the Gospels? Scholars have developed criteria for identifying what they believe can point us to what they call the “authentic sayings” of Jesus. I think it is fair to say that their efforts can now be regarded as a failure. We therefore cannot be certain about what Jesus did or did not say. We return shortly to whether this last point is significant.

Despite what is popularly assumed, the writings of Paul the Apostle are, almost certainly, the earliest of the writings in the Christian Scriptures. Disconcertingly, therefore, if we want to identify the earliest writings on forgiveness in the Christian Scriptures, we should look at Paul’s letters and not the Gospels.

But which are Paul’s letters? Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, only seven are regarded as almost certainly coming from him. The seven are Romans, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Even of these, some may be compilations of what he wrote, put together by later editors, with the occasional passage doubted as to whether it is genuinely Pauline (e.g., 2 Cor 6:14–7:1). Varying degrees of doubt exist about the six “disputed” letters, though probably, the letters in the form that we now have them either are based on earlier, and now lost, genuine letters of Paul or are perhaps letters written by another writer seeking to follow, and develop, the theology of Paul. They address new situations and circumstances faced by Christian churches after the death of Paul. The six “disputed” letters are Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.

The Cultural Context of the Christian Scriptures Influences How We Interpret Them

It is important to be alert to the cultural and social context in which the Christian Scriptures have come to us. Paul wrote as someone from within the Jewish tradition; he was a Hellenized Jew, which means that the way he lived his Jewish faith and practice was, to some extent, the result of more than three centuries of Jewish adaptation to the Hellenized culture of the Roman Empire. Paul’s first language was Greek, not Hebrew, and, in his letters, he quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which from now on I shall refer to as “the Hebrew Scriptures”) that was in widespread use by Greek-speaking Jews. Of course, there were many gradations of Jewish adaptation to Greek culture throughout the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is best to say that in seeking to understand and interpret Paul’s writings, we must remember two things: first, that Paul was both rooted in Judaism and rooted, in some measure, in Greek culture; second, that both Jewish culture and Greek culture shaped how and why he wrote what he did. It is therefore very likely that Paul knew, and would have been influenced by both Greek and Jewish patterns of thought about forgiveness. We might expect to see these patterns influence how he explores and interprets a Christian approach to forgiveness.

It is more complicated when it comes to the Gospels. Jesus is rooted in “Palestinian Judaism,” Judaism that was more traditional than the Judaism of many parts of the Roman Empire outside Palestine. What Jesus said about forgiveness comes out of that Palestinian setting. However, the Gospels are probably addressed to and, importantly, made relevant for communities whose cultural and religious setting is different. In effect, the Gospels have been made relevant for people in a different situation from those to whom Jesus spoke, and address new questions that the early church, but not Jesus’s former hearers, faced. Luke’s Gospel is an obvious example: Luke was writing for a Greek reader, Theophilus. The Gospel seems to reflect the perspective and concerns of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians, with Luke adapting for a different setting material about Jesus, what he said, and what he did, that formerly came out of a Jewish cultural context. Matthew’s Gospel seems to be addressed to Jewish Christians whose relationship with Palestinian Judaism was becoming increasingly detached; Matthew seems to have shaped his material to reflect that increasing detachment. These observations mean that, when it comes to forgiveness, it is difficult to identify with certainty what Jesus said and taught because, in the way the material now appears, it has been reshaped and reworked for a culturally and socially different audience.

This is probably less troubling than at first it seems. I suspect that the question whether we can know what Jesus said about forgiveness is inseparable from the question the Gospel writers were asking, namely, what is the significance of what Jesus said about forgiveness. The former question is relatively uninteresting and one-dimensional; the latter sets Jesus’s teaching in an interpretive framework that is cultural, contextual, and theological. To put it simply: what someone may have said is of little “cash value” unless set within an interpretive frame. So long as the Gospel writers were no more than interpreting and applying what Jesus had said to their own situations (rather than writing, in effect, fiction) they were doing what many preachers and teachers do today: they were making the Jesus traditions relevant and applicable to their audiences.

The Christian Scriptures Are Not Exhaustive

The Christian Scriptures disclose many debates, sometimes conducted in a bad-tempered and combative way, as the writers tried to make sense of the Christ-event. There are often disagreements; there are even rows and schisms. If one reads the Christian Scriptures carefully, there is no sense that the last word has been said on the subject matter of the debates, or even that unanimity had been reached. Moreover, I do not think that theological reflection and development stop with the completion of the written, Christian Scriptures. So, when it comes to forgiveness in the twenty-first century, for example, there is therefore no reason why we should not continue to reflect on the meaning of the Christ-event. We may perhaps thereby develop some new insights into what it means to forgive.

All Sources of Learning May Inform Christian Theology

Lastly, it seems to me self-evident that God gives wisdom and insight to all people, whether they are from a faith tradition or not, and, if they are from a faith tradition, whether they are from the Christian faith tradition or not. There is no reason why the wisdom and insight of all people should not enrich a theological reading of the Christian Scriptures. The wisdom and insight may be important for addressing new questions about forgiveness, or suggesting new approaches. They may also enhance and enrich the approaches to forgiveness we find in the Christian Scriptures, rather than be in conflict with them. In other words, modern wisdom and insight may enlarge the approach to forgiveness we find in the Christian Scriptures, and contribute to a better understanding of why, and how, and when people may forgive. Obviously we will also need to discern to what extent contemporary insights cohere with and even enrich the insights of the Christian Scriptures on forgiveness.

As you will see as you read this book, I have benefited much from the insights of philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, and lawyers when it comes to forgiveness. Where I can, I have sought to integrate those views into a theology of forgiveness. What I will suggest about forgiveness in this book addresses twenty-first-century questions and discussion about forgiveness. It also addresses how forgiveness was explored and formulated in the Christian Scriptures in the early years of Christianity. What I am also seeking to do is to formulate a theology of forgiveness through mutual dialogue and engagement with both modern and ancient material.


  1. What are hermeneutics and why are they important?
  2. Which hermeneutical presuppositions are adopted in this book? Which others could have been included?