I’m working on a paper for my New Testament exegesis class, even though I am on summer break. Once again, I’ve taken an extension for one of my classes to work on a paper (sigh). I’m enjoying it, but I have a plate full of things to get done. The paper is about the ‘divine passives’ and how they should be recognized in the book of Mark. It’s actually a very interesting idea and makes connections between biblical studies and the way languages work.
A ‘divine passive’ is a use of the passive voice that does not express an agent. If I say, ‘the ball was hit,’ that’s a use of the passive voice with no agent expressed. Who, exactly, hit the ball? I can add ‘by me’ and the mystery is solved. But sometimes in language agency is either obvious or even annoying. If in the context of my conversation I am already talking about being ‘at bat’ and then use the passive voice for hitting the ball: ‘I was at bat and the ball was hit’ adding ‘by me’ is awkward. Expressing agency is not only redundant, but boring and unnecessary. Sometimes in the New Testament, the unexpressed agent of the passive voice is divine, i.e. God.
Mark 2:5 says: ‘And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." The word for forgiveness is in the passive voice. Who is the agent that actually does the forgiving? Jesus is the speaker, but doesn’t God grant forgiveness of sin? Is this an implicit claim of deity? These are interesting questions, and the lexicon (fancy word for dictionary) helps in this instance, but doesn’t help with all divine passives. More important is the context of the passage. In Mark 2:6-7 you see the response of the scribes: “But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?"
At this point in my study, I think one of the strongest indications of a passive voice for divine agency is when the passive usage ‘trespasses’ on areas known to be controlled by God alone. The indication is not really based only on word meaning, nor is it based only on grammar, but it is also based on the ‘discourse,’ the things happening in the context. But remember, not every use of the passive is divine! Our understanding of any passage of scripture must rely on the word meanings, the grammar and the larger context of the passage.