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Luke 23:34 (DRA) (emphasis added)

34 And Jesus said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. But they, dividing his garments, cast lots.

Addressing the Father, Jesus acknowledges God's ability to forgive their sin (of crucifying him), and presumably, it's safe to assume the Father will forgive whatever Jesus asks. The focus of this question, however, is on the latter part: "for they know not what they do."

It's clear they were beyond the age of accountability. Given this, how are we to understand Jesus' interceding for their forgiveness for 'not knowing' what they were doing—their seeming inculpability?

Is it that they did not know they were in fact sinning; that they did not know Jesus was innocent and were following orders from someone else; or for some other reason that Jesus says "they know not what they do"?

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    This question is focused on the application of the text to modern religious practitioners, which is off topic here – Dan Sep 10 '17 at 5:42
  • @Ruminator Yes, two community reviewers did. You might ask on Biblical Hermeneutics Meta or in Biblical Hermeneutics Chat about this question. As it's currently closed it is certainly due for some heavy editing, but I'm not convinced your edit would have solved the issue. – Caleb Sep 12 '17 at 10:59
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There is a great passage in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians which may, I believe, shed light on the passage you quoted. In Chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul recalled how he presented himself to the Corinthians when he first came to them.

He did not come on strong, as would some eloquent orators, but he came on weak, so that the fruit of his preaching would be attributable only to God and not to him. Furthermore, his message of the cross was not framed in a polished style and accompanied by a dynamic delivery, with tightly-knit and persuasive arguments and infallible reasoning to buttress his message. No.

Worldly wisdom, of which Paul had spoken earlier in his letter (see Chapter 1:18 ff.) was not the vehicle of his preaching; rather, it was "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (2:4).

Then Paul goes on to say (and the bold print is mine),

Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (vss.7-10 KJV).

In looking back on the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion of his Lord, Paul realized, as did his Lord while hanging on the cross, that the Roman and Jewish authorities involved in the crucifixion (or as Paul called them, "the princes of this world") would not have crucified Jesus had they recognized who Jesus really was and had believed in him.

Unbelief takes many forms, is manifested in many ways, and afflicts all people--even Christ followers. The commonality in disbelief is distorted thinking about the truth, even when, as in Jesus' day, Incarnate Truth and "the powers that be" (both Jews and Romans) were face to face.

Call it what you will: spiritual blindness, unbelief fueled by hatred, lack of understanding, or even willful ignorance (i.e., not knowing either what one is doing or what is being done); Jesus realized that his captors either could not or would not understand the gravity of what they were doing to him.

That is why, I suggest, Jesus asked his Father to forgive his torturers, for although they knew at least intellectually what they were doing--namely, killing a political gadfly and a Jewish blasphemer, in their heart of hearts they did not really know, for had they known, they would not have crucified their Lord and Savior.

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Good question. My main question is, "Who is 'them'?"

It seems unlikely that Jesus was giving 'blanket forgiveness' to persecutors/onlookers.

The only other possibility I can see, thus far, is that Jesus was speaking of the Principalities/Powers over this world.

1Cor. 2:8 - Which none of the Princes of this world ((eon)) knew: for had they known [it], they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Eph. 6:12 (KJV) - For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

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  • Principalities is an entirely new explication, which I appreciate very much. It makes clear how broadly we need to approach trying to understand the thoughts of Jesus. While I didn't read your answer with this as your leading explanation, it's interesting to recognize it's possible Jesus was talking to the Father about something we have no specific awareness of. I don't understand how that resolves the 'they know not what they do' aspect, but it expands the set of potential explanations. Since even the demons are aware of the diety of Jesus (James 2:19), we'd conclude they know what they do. – Uncle TN Sep 15 '17 at 3:03
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Perhaps this verse does not belong in the NT? Or attributed to Jesus?

https://www.massbible.org/exploring-the-bible/ask-a-prof/answers/father-forgive-them

It's complicated...and then there's James

"It is true that some important copies of the Gospel of Luke do not include this verse. Missing from two of the very early manuscripts favored by contemporary text critics--P75, a third-century papyrus copy of Luke and John, and Codex Vaticanus (B), a fourth-century pandect Bible known for its pristine text--it was also excluded by the scribes of Codex Bezae (D), an early fifth-century Greek-Latin diglot, the fifth-century Freer Gospels (W), Codex Koridethi (Q), and various Old Latin and Syriac copies. Though initially present in the highly regarded Codex Siniaticus (Aleph), it was placed in brackets by an early corrector, only to be re-established in the fifth century by yet another editor.

"Yet Jesus’ prayer on the cross can be found in other important manuscripts, including Codex Alexandrinus (A) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C), as well as manuscripts belonging to the textual groups Family 1 and Family 13. Such a divided record is puzzling, suggesting that some ancient Christians accepted the passage as an authentic, Gospel saying of the Lord, while others ignored it, or were unaware of its existence, or, perhaps, went so far as to delete it from their copies of Luke.

(Snip)

"Interestingly, the prayer was attributed not only to Jesus but also to James, the brother of the Lord. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, a second-century Christian writer named Hegesippus recorded the last words of James as, “I beseech you, Lord God Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” an obvious parallel to Jesus’ prayer in Luke (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16). Perhaps, then, a statement once associated with Jesus’ brother was later applied to Jesus himself, and added to the Gospel at an appropriate location. Alternatively, perhaps a prayer already known as Jesus’ own was applied to the martyrdom of his brother as well, lending further significance to James’ death by means of repetition and comparison.

"Clearly there is no easy solution to the question of this passage’s place within the Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, Jesus’ statement was familiar and appreciated, at least in some quarters, and many early Christians did believe that the verse belonged in Luke."

Author: Jennifer Wright Knust

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It was that they didn't fully understand His identity as the Lord of Glory, their own Redeemer (1 John 2:2), and in fact that they were killing the very Author of Life (Acts 3:15):

1 Corinthians 2:7-8 (DRB) But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: 8 Which none of the princes of this world knew;1 for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.

1 That the Christ had to suffer and be killed—the 'scandal' of the Cross. cf. 1 Cor 1:18.

Notice that their relative ignorance hinges on His fundamental identity (for they knew what He was about [Mt 27:43; Wis 2:18], but not His fundamental identity as the Son of God [Mk 1:1])—if they had known not so much who but what He is (His identity as the only Son of God), they would not have dared approach Him with a spear, let alone thrust Him through with one.

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  • The executioners did not believe Jesus was who He said He was, agreed! While awareness would have changed their actions, does lack of awareness grant forgiveness? – Uncle TN May 20 '18 at 21:00
  • The forgiveness might be a reference to the passive not holding deicide to their account precisely for said ignorance. There might remain some amount of evil intent as to killing someone who in their minds, even, probably wasn't deserving of death. So it might refer to partial forgiveness: forgive them for killing the Lord of Glory, but perhaps not for killing the innocent regardless of identity. These are my opinions, of course. – Sola Gratia May 20 '18 at 21:14

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