Should we forgive our debtors?
First, we need some background. The concept of sin is an abstract idea. We cannot touch sin, see it, or measure it. Speakers of languages all over the world often refer to abstract ideas with more concrete words, typically used metaphorically. (Remember recent BBB posts about the book Metaphors We Live By. Metaphors pervade the Bible as well as our English language. Our daily language usage is "awash" (!!) in metaphor.)
There is no single word used in the Greek New Testament for sin. Instead, there are several more concrete words used metaphorically in the Bible to refer to the abstract concept of sin. Among them is this list of Greek words for sin:
- ἁμαρτία - to miss the mark (Luke 11:4)
- ἀγνοημα - an act done in ignorance of God's will
- Hebrews 9:7 (sin committed in ignorance)
- 1 Timothy 1:13 (sin committed in ignorance
- ὑπερβαίνω - going beyond the will of God [1 Thess. 4:6 (overstepping or trespass); in Josephus and Philo lit. "going beyond the head of the risen Lord."]
- σκάνδαλον - a cause of sinning or causing someone else to fail (1 John 2:10)
- ενοχος- guilty or liable (Matt. 26:66)
- πονηρoς - guilty or evil, as a noun one who has done an evil deed (John 3:19)
- πταίω - stumbling or failing to live up to God's will (Rom. 11:11)
- προσκόμμα - taking the opportunity to sin or cause someone to sin (Rom. 14:20)
- παραπτώμα - a transgression of the will of God (Matt. 6:14)
To this list should be added:
10. ὀφειλήμα - debt; metaphorically, a moral debt, sin(UPDATE: Caveat emptor! BBB contributor Peter Kirk notes that ἁμαρτία likely just meant 'sin' at the time the New Testament was written. It's etymological meaning was probably a dead metaphor by that time. Also see comments to this post for some additional Greek words which referred to sin.)
Some exegetes believe that Jesus was referring to cancellation of literal financial debts when he taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer. And that is what it sounds like Jesus taught when we recite the Lord's Prayer in our church. There is a great deal of exegetical support, however, for understanding Jesus to be referring to sin in the prayer he taught. Some of that support is found in the very context of the Lord's Prayer. Just two verses after Matt. 6:12, we read:
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (ESV)
The Greek word underlying the translation "trespasses" here is παραπτώμα, which is a common word used, again metaphorically, to refer to sin.
In Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer, he uses the common Greek word for sin, ἁμαρτία metaphorically, rather than ὀφειλήμα. I personally think we are straining at gnats (metaphorically!) if we try to find very much difference in the semantics of the reference to sin between the Matthean and Lukan versions of the Lord's Prayer.
Perhaps there was a hint of the more concrete (non-metaphorical) meaning of ὀφειλήμα as 'financial debt' in the Matthean version, but I doubt that any such connotations are in focus in the Lord's Prayer. It is much more likely that Matthew used ὀφειλήμα here with the idea of moral debt which occurs when you sin against someone, that is, when we wrong them. We can wrong God, just as we can wrong others. When we wrong anyone, we owe them a moral debt that needs to be cancelled before our relationship with them can be fully restored. The debt is cancelled through forgiveness, another abstract idea which is referred to in the Bible metaphorically. When we forgive someone, we (metaphorically) release them from their debt to us. The Greek word for forgiveness, ἄφες, used in the Lord's Prayer is another metaphor. Its non-metaphorical meaning can be glossed as 'cancel, release.'
(We can also note that there are other kinds of debt we can incur toward others besides those which are financial or moral. We can be socially in debt to someone. For instance, if someone does something really nice for us, we can say in English, "I'm indebted to you," or "I'm in your debt." Social debt, like moral debt, is an extended semantic usage of the primary meaning of the word "debt.")
So, what is it that we are really asking God when we recite the forgiveness part of the Lord's Prayer (Our Father)? Are we asking to have our financial loans canceled? No, we are asking to be forgiven. Technically, we might be asking to have our moral debt due to sin removed, but how do we express that accurately and clearly in today's English? I suggest that the closest translation equivalent in English to the semantic focus of
ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν (Matt. 6:12)in the Lord's Prayer is simply:
Forgive usWe might translate that request following the Greek syntax more closely as "Forgive us our sins" but I don't think that is very natural English. And it means the same as "Forgive us." There is no semantic component of the originally intended meaning that I am aware of which is left out if we just say "Forgive us." In English we can omit the object of "forgive" since we understand from the meaning of the word "forgive" that its semantic object is some kind of wrong or sin.
Let's not make things more complicated than they were in the original biblical texts by using misleading "literal" or "essentially literal" words in translation when the original text was metaphorical and needs to be translated with English words which accurately communicate that metaphorical meaning.
The following English versions accurately communicate the figurative (metaphorical) meaning of the Greek words having to do with sin in the Lord's Prayer:
Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us. (REB)
Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us. (TEV)
Forgive us as we forgive others. (GW)
Forgive us for our sins, just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us. (NCV)
and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. (NLT)
and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. (ISV)
Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others. (CEV)
More literal translations which use the word "debts" (KJV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NIV, TNIV, NET, HCSB) do not accurately communicate the metaphorical meaning of Jesus' reference to sin in the Lord's Prayer. Instead, for most English speakers today, they communicate something about financial debts.
Some visitors to this blog have been concerned thinking that we BBB contributors have an agenda against literal or essentially literal Bible translations. This is a special concern since there is currently widespread promotion of essentially literal Bible versions as being the most accurate kind of translations. To suggest anything else almost sounds like heresy in some circles today.
We need to repeat what we have said a number of other times. We are not for or against any particular English Bible versions. Instead, on this blog we promote translation which most accurately communicates to current speakers of English the intended meanings of the biblical texts.
When we know the intended meanings, and for the most part we do, for the majority of Bible passages, we should accurately translate those meanings to English. We should not use less accurate non-metaphorical translations when the original texts were written to be understood metaphorically.
We should not require Bible teachers or pastors to have to explain to us when a word in an English translation should be understood literally and when it has a metaphorical meaning, nor should we have to discover the difference using commentaries, lexicons, or other biblical study helps. The original meaning should be accurate and clear in a translation itself. This is not so-called "interpretive" translation. It is, rather, the most accurate kind of translation possible. Any other teaching about translation is misleading.