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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

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Idol, IdolatryIllness
Ignorant, Ignorance

The Old Testament. While the concept of ignorance is found often in various equivalents, the word itself rarely appears (only twice in the RSV: Psalm 73:22; Ezek 45:20). The latter passage, which contains the expression "sinned through ignorance, " is likely grounded in Leviticus 4-5 and Numbers 15, where a distinction is made between unintentional and deliberate (high-handed) sin. The context here makes it clear that unintentional sins are not only attributable to ignorance, but also to negligence and human frailty. Ignorance does not so much characterize the sin as it does the circumstances under which the sin was committed. While ignorance did not eliminate guilt it did attenuate it, for in contrast to high-handed sins a purification offering was available for sins done through ignorance (Num 15:27-31).

The New Testament. Here also the word appears a limited number of times (thirteen in the RSV) but its concept is a significant and pervasive one. As in the Old Testament, lack of knowledge mitigates sin. Peter, while not exonerating those who crucified Jesus, does seem to attenuate the guilt somewhat, noting that they "acted in ignorance" (Ac 3:17). So Paul observes that he received mercy because in persecuting the church he "acted in ignorance" (1 Ti 1:13). Jesus extended forgiveness to his tormentors, noting they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34). Characterized as a great high priest in Hebrews 5:2, Jesus is said to deal gently with the ignorant.

Other passages, however, indicate that ignorance can be culpable without any palliation. Intentional ignorance associated with deliberate blindness (Rom 1:18-23) and with hardness of heart (Eph 4:18) is not lightly dismissed by Paul.

Ignorance requiring mercy and forgiveness is not then so much a quality of the uneducated as it is the quality of a sinner; it is not so much an intellectual issue as it is a moral one. Even as biblical wisdom is not intellectual fullness, so ignorance is not an intellectual privation, but rather a spiritual one. It is through such ignorance (an unwillingness to forgive) that a person can be outwitted by the designing Satan (2 Co 2:11).

Ignorance is used to characterize the pagan world that had not received the special revelation of God (Acts 17:23, 30; 1 Peter 1:14 — cf.; Wisd. of So 14:22, ; "Err about the knowledge of God … live in great strife due to ignorance" ). Thus education is not so much needed as is the proclamation of the gospel (Rom 1:16-17). Likewise, needing the kerygma are the legalists who through ignorance believe that they can effect their own righteousness (Rom 10:3). But even the revealed and received word can be twisted by the ignorant (2 Peter 3:16).

In a few passages ignorance simply indicates the lack of knowledge (2 Cor 1:8; 1 Thess 4:13) or special training (Ac 4:13).

Carl Schultz

Bibliography. R. Bultmann, TDNT, 1:116-19; J. Daane, ZPEB, 3:251-52; D. K. McKim, ISBE, 2:801; A. Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible.


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ignorant, Ignorance'". "Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology".
<>. 1897.


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