Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament foreshadowed Jesus Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalty for people’s sins. I assumed that those sins were intentional sins—-sins that people intended to do. If I mouthed off to my mother, for example, that was something that I intended to do. I knew that I was violating God’s commandment to honor my parents, yet I committed the sin anyway. And yet, as a Christian, I believed that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for that sin. My assumption was that the situation in Old Testament times was similar, only the Hebrews would offer an animal to die in their place after they sinned.
I was surprised, therefore, and maybe a bit disturbed, when I read Leviticus 4 and learned that the sin offering was for unintentional sins, or sins committed in ignorance. I later would read Numbers 15:27-31, which prescribes a sin offering for unintentional sins, but the death penalty for defiant, high-handed sins. I wondered what exactly unintentional sins were. Were they sins that one committed because one did not know what the law actually said? Were they accidental sins? What are accidental sins? Since that time that I read Leviticus 4, I have heard a variety of definitions for unintentional sins. I have heard that they are sins that one can commit as a result of not knowing the law or the legal or ritual status of an object—-one may inadvertently eat something that he is not allowed to eat because it belongs to the priests, or touch someone or something unclean while being unaware that he or it is unclean (see Leviticus 5:2, 15). They can include accidental sins: in Numbers 35, for instance, a contrast is made between a person who kills someone accidentally and one who commits premeditated murder. But I have also heard that they can be sins committed in weakness. Then there was the rabbinic dictum that repentance could convert an intentional sin into an unintentional sin (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86b; see here for other references). That fit more with my understanding of how things worked!
A study of how the concept of unintentional and intentional sins fits into the New Testament and Christianity would probably be interesting. Hebrews 9:7 acknowledges that the high priest on the Day of Atonement offered a sacrifice for the sins that he and the people committed in ignorance. Hebrews 10:26 affirms: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins” (KJV). That sounds pretty rough, but a lot of Christians would say that Christians who feel bad about their sins can still find forgiveness, or that Hebrews is specifically criticizing apostasy from the Christian faith (cp. Hebrews 6:4-8), not simply committing a sin. Moreover, Hebrews does appear to regard sins committed out of weakness to be unintentional sins, the types that can be forgiven (Hebrews 4:15-16; 5:2).
The concept of sins from ignorance occurs a handful of other times in the New Testament. Those who contributed to the death of Jesus were said to have committed their sin in ignorance (Acts 3:17; I Corinthians 2:7-8). Gentile lust and idolatry are said to flow from ignorance (Acts 17:30; Ephesians 4:18; I Peter 1:14). One can probably bring into the discussion biblical texts that appear to suggest the opposite—-that seem to say that these sinners knew full well what they were doing. Regarding those who conspired to put Jesus to death, I think of Jesus warning the Pharisees about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, of attributing Jesus’ activity to Satan when it is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:21-32). Regarding the Gentile idolaters, I think of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18ff. that the Gentiles knew God, for God made himself known to them through creation, but they chose idolatry instead. Maybe these are examples of Bible contradictions. Or perhaps these concepts all coexist, on some level: there could be such a thing as willful ignorance.
Going past the New Testament into Christianity, there is the Catholic concept of mortal and venial sins, and I wonder if that could be related, in some manner, to the concept of intentional and unintentional sins in the Bible. One perhaps can even go outside of the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity and look to Plato and Aristotle for insight. Plato believed that knowing the good was loving the good, that true knowledge of the good would lead to love of the good. That could imply that, in a sense, all sins flow from ignorance: if a person sinned, according to this view, the person obviously must not know the good, for the person would love the good if he or she truly knew it. Aristotle, however, was more open to acknowledging weakness of the will: that a person can know what is right, and maybe even desire to do what is right, and yet still do wrong out of weakness. How, or whether, both insights influenced Judaism and Christianity would probably make an interesting study.
All of that said, I want to turn now to the concept of unintentional sin in Books 1-2 of the Sibylline Oracles. Books 1-2 contain a Jewish edition of prophecies that were attributed to the Sibyls, who were female prophets. These books may date to the second-third centuries C.E. Here are two places where I have found the concept of unintentional sin in these books:
1. Sibylline Oracles 1.43-45 is talking about the sin of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit. We read there (in John Collins’ translation): “She gave, and persuaded him to sin in his ignorance. He was persuaded by the woman’s words, forgot about his immortal creator, and neglected clear commands.”
The sin of Adam would not initially strike me as a sin committed out of ignorance. God explicitly prohibited Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, so Adam was aware of the rule, yet Adam ate the fruit anyway. But this passage in the Sibylline Oracles says that Adam sinned in ignorance because he temporarily forgot about God and neglected God’s commands. As an aside, this may shed some light on what the Epistle to the Hebrews means by unintentional sins. I think of Hebrews 2:3, which warns about neglecting God’s great salvation. Neglecting is not necessarily the same as rejecting, but it can still be disastrous in that it can lead to drifting away from the faith. At the same time, Hebrews there does seem to suggest that neglect can bring a stern punishment. Maybe Hebrews believes that neglect is a venial sin that can lead to a mortal sin if one is not careful, or something like that!
2. Sibylline Oracles 2.68 is part of an extract from Pseudo-Phoclydes, and it says (again, in Collins’ translation): “Do not commit perjury either in ignorance or willingly.”
I wondered how one could commit perjury in ignorance. Perjury is lying, right? Lying is knowing the truth and choosing to say what is untrue, right? Perjury sounds to me like it would be an intentional, willful sin.
But not so fast! I think of Leviticus 5. Vv 17-18 may suggest that the sins listed in Leviticus 5 are unintentional sins. In any case, they require a trespass offering, not the death penalty. One sin that Leviticus 5 mentions is hearing a voice of swearing and not telling anyone about it, which probably means withholding important testimony. Leviticus 5 does not explicitly say why the person hearing the swearing does not tell anyone about it, but perhaps the person forgot that he heard it, or failed to come forward due to weakness (i.e., shyness, not wanting to get involved, fear). Another sin in Leviticus 5 is swearing to do good or evil and not following through. Maybe the swearer was careless and forgot his oath, for v 4 says that, when he finds out about it, he is to offer a trespass offering. In these cases, the category of unintentional sin seems to be applied to testimony in court, or oaths; weakness of will or ignorance can come into play in these situations.
So what could perjury committed in ignorance be? My guess is that it could be saying that something is true, when one does not fully know. One may believe that something is true or conclude that something is true, but one is filling in some of the gaps in one’s own mind with conjecture. In condemning perjury committed in ignorance, Sibylline Oracles 2.68 may be saying that, if one wants to testify, one should make sure that he knows what he is talking about. He should be clear, to himself and to others, about what he knows, and what he does not know.
I’ll leave the comments on in case one wants to add additional information or insight.
UPDATE: Book 2 of the Sibylline Oracles closes with the Sibyl repenting and asking for forgiveness because she “committed lawless deeds knowingly” (Collins). This occurs after an extensive discussion of eschatological punishments and rewards.