|Does the Bible present some people as sinless?|
Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
Romans 3:10 "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one."
Psalm 14:3 "There is none that doeth good, no, not one."
Most critics won't go as far as saying these verses are outright wrong, but they do set them against these verses:
Job 1:1 "There was a man . . . who name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright."
Genesis 7:1 "And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation."
Luke 1:6 "And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless."
So is the Bible telling us there were a few sinless people?
Not at all. The NT folks are described as "righteous before God." This does NOT mean that they never sinned either (the word nowhere and in no way implies perfection!), but it does mean - as the next part clearly says - that they followed all the commandments.
Now even if this is not an exaggeration for emphasis, if they followed the law, then they did what was required in the law to make them righteous before God - that is, they brought the appropriate sacrifices. By the OT covenant, that made them righteous before God.
As for the OT folks, we can start by using as a framework comments offered by James White in response to a critic:
The Hebrew terms used in these passages do not mean sinlessness. Rather, the Hebrew word is tam, which refers to completeness, not sinless perfection. When applied to man, it would refer to a complete man with moral integrity (see: Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon for details).
In answer to this, the critic said that White "apparently adopted (a solution) from some prominent apologists to escape this problem." -- apparently being unaware that Driver, Briggs etc. are not "apologists" but eminent scholars of Hebrew. Beyond this, the critic simply ignores the distinction between the words:
Complete in what way? Complete "with moral integrity," says JW. But that's sinlessness. What's the difference? He is either complete morally or he isn't. If he is complete then he's sinless; if he isn't complete then he's a sinner like everyone else. To say someone is a complete man with moral integrity is to say he is sinless...He is either perfect or he isn't.
White's explanation was not perfectly clear, but it is clear enough that tam is not "sinlessness", as its usage elsewhere shows:
Ex. 26:24 And they shall be coupled together beneath, and they shall be coupled together above the head of it unto one ring: thus shall it be for them both; they shall be for the two corners. (Can inanimate objects be "sinless"?)
Songs 5:2 I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
The actual word for moral perfection in Hebrew is tamiym (cf. Gen. 17:1, 2 Sam. 22:31). Tam might better be equated with "well-rounded" or "fulfilling one's duties" or "in the right place" (which would include proper reaction to sin), but it does not mean "perfection".
"Tamiym" is used to describe Noah in Gen. 6:9, but it refers to him as "perfect" in his "generations" [towledah], the word used of physical family descent. One suggests that, in the context of Gen. 6:4, this refers not to Noah's moral behavior, but to the fact that his line was untainted by interaction with the "sons of God" who came unto the daughters of men.
You're not dealing with the issue of whether anyone has ever been genuinely sinless. What does the Bible say about whether anyone is simply righteous? While the Epistle to the Romans says not, there are verses that describe both Old Testament and New Testament figures in such terms.
Romans 3:10 says, "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one." This objection manifests no awareness of genre; it fails to take note of Paul's explanation of what is meant in the Psalm quoted: "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin."
Thus, we see that a person could be "righteous" in terms of the law, yet not counted "righteous in his sight" - the more important of the two, seemingly.
When it comes to verses like Luke 1:6 and 2 Peter 2:7-8, in which persons are called "righteous", let's put it this way:
"He drew a perfect circle."
"Perfect circles only exist conceptually."
Has a perfect circle ever been drawn, given that they only exist conceptually? Is the word "perfect" the same word in each case? Obviously, in each case the word is the same, yet the words are used with a variance of intent that is common in English, as it is in other languages.
In the former instance, the circle that was drawn is taken to be an excellent approximation of perfection. In the latter instance, the practical impossibility of drawing a truly perfect geometric form (especially with an instrument so microscopically crude as a pencil or a pen) is recognized; thus the latter statement is an absolute use of perfect, while the former represents an approximation accepted in the language culture.
Luke 1:6 says these people were sinless. How can this be understood as describing these two in any other terms but sinless?
Let's ask a question as an analogy. We have a poetic expression, "he has ants in his pants." How can we understand in any other terms than that a person really and truly does have ants in their pants? It is not enough to object that the argument is, "the text doesn't mean what it says": we must consdier genre and context.
It also does not good to appeal to the possibility of semantic emergency, e.g., "Maybe Noah's flood was only local but its extent was exaggerated for emphasis? Maybe some of Jesus' miracles were exaggerations?" Socio-linguistic awareness tells us where to draw the line.
Are you saying that following the OT laws in every detail may make you righteous, but it won't make you sinless?
Not at all. The sacrifices were coverage for sin, so the law itself implies that a Jew would never be able to be sinless; otherwise there would have been no sacrifices. The OT laws were designed to be impossible to follow - to show our own inadequacy in the face of perfection and lead us inevitably to the realization that only through grace could we be saved.
You didn't give enough examples of tamiym.
Tamiym appears 142 times in the OT. Most have to do with a sacrifice being "without blemish" (which obviously would mean, free of any clear problems, since no animal can be perfect or sinless).
The first example I gave is compellingly relevant to the idea that tam does not innately refer to sinlessness. The latter example supports the same idea, as the sixth chapter of Song of Solomon provides no contextual justification for supposing that "undefiled" means "sinless". On the contrary, physical perfection or completeness seems to be the referent (note particularly the intimation that his "dove" has all of her teeth).
It is not enough to suggest that another meaning may be ascribed to the word. Dissenters are obliged to explore each of those 142 instances of tamiym if that is the route they wish to take.
Surely Eccl. 7:20, "For there is not a just man upon the earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not," is simple enough, prove the point. If it is proverbial literature and cannot be read as if it were stating an absolute, then there is only one conclusion - namely, that there are just men who do good and sin not, in blatant contradiction to the verse from Romans.
To be sure: there are indeed such men; they are called "infants", young children, and mental deficients. Moreover, note what I say full: "Material in the Bible that belongs in the proverbial/wisdom genre cannot be read absolutely and used to claim error and/or contradiction." --- the latter clause is indispensable.
If it is not absolutely true that all men are sinful, then there is at least one righteous man.
However, this argument is actually tangential to the issue. Our issue is not whether or not the statement in Ecclesiastes is absolutely true or not, but whether or not the author intended them to give an absolute teaching regarding the existence of sinless man. Absolutes are not absolutely absent from proverbial and wisdom literature, and would not be, in principle; it should simply be understood that absolutes would be a rare exception to the norm and that caution is needed when regarding them.
Proverbial literature is therefore to be taken as a poor foundation for explicit doctrinal truths. In other words, if the only place in the Bible that stated that people were inevitably sinful appeared in wisdom/proverbial literature, that conclusion would be based on a weak foundation (in terms of exegesis, leaving aside issues of church authority and the like).
In Old Testament times God grants his followers earthly security and prosperity when they are faithful to him and obey his will, and only allows them to suffer defeat and persecution when they stray. But in New Testament times, things have changed, and even God's most faithful messengers suffer persecution and torture, even death.
Is the concept of "martyr" virtually unknown in the OT? What of the prophets killed by Jezebel? what of Elijah fleeing into the wilds? what of Elisha being taunted and hounded? what of Jeremiah being thrown in a pit? what of Daniel and friends being punished for their beliefs? what of Esther having to rescue the Jews from extermination? etc.
The difference: Persecution occurred in the OT when the opportunity arose, but was less "opportunistic" in a religiously homogenous situation as occurred in Israel/Judah (versus the diverse setting of the Roman Empire and politically-charged atmosphere of Judaea) where also most people were more worried about their next meal than persecuting the one who was different.