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Prof Marius Nel
August 24, 2023 @ 17:3018:30
Matthew, Jesus, and the creation of interpersonal forgiveness
Understanding interpersonal forgiveness has important implications for academia, the church and society. Engaging with this topic highlights the value of the exegetical study of ethical themes in the New Testament.
Although divine, third-party and personal forgiveness occurs in various societies, interpersonal forgiveness is often linked directly to Jesus. Some philosophers, such as Hannah Arendt, even claim that Jesus invented it. Third-party forgiveness, which is often linked to divine authority, involves one person forgiving the transgressions of another against a third party. Personal forgiveness is a unilateral act, by which a victim forgives the offender without the latter’s direct involvement. Interpersonal forgiveness is distinct in that it involves the mutual participation and moral transformation of both parties. It calls for both remorse from the transgressor and a willingness to forgive from the victim, resulting in an interactive reconciliation process.
Interpersonal forgiveness is mentioned in all four Gospels in the New Testament, but receives special attention in the Gospel of Matthew. While Jesus in Matthew demands from his followers personal forgiveness of the transgressions of those who do not form part of their community, he also demands interpersonal forgiveness between fellow community members. This demand is a distinct one, since the concept of interpersonal forgiveness as understood today was absent from ancient Greco-Roman thought. While classic Greek literature does discuss forgiveness, there is little evidence of broad reflection on interpersonal forgiveness. Instead, transgressions between people are explained or excused on account of internal or external factors, rather than forgiven. In addition, it is noteworthy that the New Testament generally uses different terminology for forgiveness than classic Greek writers. The concept of interpersonal forgiveness is also not a major one in the Jewish world, since forgiveness was seen as the prerogative of God alone.
The Gospel of Matthew, however, emphasises the imperative of interpersonal forgiveness. To Matthew, interpersonal forgiveness is both distinct from seeking divine forgiveness (Matthew 5:23–25) and an integral part of receiving God’s forgiveness. Understanding Matthew’s ethics of forgiveness requires an understanding of the historical contexts of the authors of the New Testament as well as contemporary readers, hermeneutics, and exegesis of texts such as Matthew 18:23–35. In attending to these matters, New Testament ethics can contribute to contemporary discussions in South Africa in which forgiveness and reconciliation are of critical significance.
Marius Johannes Nel is a professor of New Testament in the Department of Old and New Testament at Stellenbosch University (SU). He obtained the degrees BA, BAHons (Greek) cum laude, BTh cum laude, MTh (New Testament) cum laude and DTh at SU between 1988 and 2013. Marius joined the staff of the Faculty of Theology in 2012 and has served as chair of the Department of Old and New Testament as well as of the Programme Committee.
His primary research focus is Matthean ethics, as evidenced by his more than 60 published research outputs and conference presentations on six continents. He is also committed to the ongoing conversation between academia and the church on the interpretation of the New Testament. This commitment is reflected in his recent books, Om Jesus te sien (2022, co-authored with CW Burger) and Reframing – novel metaphors for reimagining the church and the Bible (2023).
Marius is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the International Consultation on Ecclesial Futures (ICEF) and serves as chair of the New Testament Society of Southern Africa as well as assessor of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. He is also co-editor of the academic journal Scriptura and a regular contributor to Die Kerkbode.