May 10, 2006

Opheilema in Matthew 6:12

Wayne Leman is aksing the question should we forgive our debtors? As those of you who have spent some time in different churches will have noticed, there are a wide variety of translations of Matthew 6:12 used in the Lord's Prayer as recited in various congregations and traditions. The most common seem to be "debt" (from KJV), "trespass" (from Tyndale), and "sin" (some more recent translations). Which of these is correct? Well, as usual in Bible translation debates, none of the major translations is flat out wrong, but some are more accurate than others. Which should we use?

Well, to start with, opheilema does (or at least can) mean "debt" in just precisely the English meaning of the word, but there are two issues with this 'literal' (in scare-quotes) translation. It seems to me that the two issues are separate, but the Better Bibles Blog discussion has so far confused them:

  1. Opheilema in its literal meaning, even in classical Greek, had a broader semantic range than the English word 'debt' (at least in the English Wayne and I speak).
  2. The use of opheilema for sin, i.e. for some kind of moral deficiency, may well have been a dead metaphor by the time the New Testament was written.

I'll deal with each of these in turn.

In ordinary contemporary English, as Wayne points out repeatedly in the post and comments, the noun 'debt' refers almost exclusively to money. The only exceptions I can think of are a few stock phrases that have become for us dead metaphors (I'll explain about dead metaphors in connection with point two). For instance, in the phrase "he has paid his debt to society" of an ex-convict released from prision, I don't think we are talking metaphorically about financial debt. Likewise with the verb 'owe,' we can say "I owe you an apology," and that certainly isn't a 'live' metaphor. In classical Greek, however, the noun opheilema refers literally, not metaphorically, to any obligation whatsoever. In fact, the verb form, opheilo, can even be used to mean "ought" in sentences like "I ought to be actually studying for my ancient Greek final, which is tomorrow morning, right now, rather than writing about things that are only tangentially related and calling it studying." That example was longer and more complicated than it needed to be, but you get the idea. So, it is often better, in classical Greek, to translate opheilema as 'obligation' or something of this nature, because it has a broader semantic range (range of meanings) than English 'debt.'

Concerning the second issue: while (live) metaphors are difficult to translate across cultures, they are easy to translate across languages. While it is difficult to find the boundary between cultural facts and linguistic facts, it seems to me that the interpretation of (live) metaphors are clear examples of cultural facts, and we can't make what is metaphorical in the original literal in translation without seriously altering the content of the original. If differing cultural background makes it difficult for modern readers to understand the metaphor, we ought to include a footnote explaining about shepherds, or ancient kings, or whatever the material of the metaphor is.

That said, when metaphors are used repeatedly over a long period of time, they become 'dead.' What this means is that native speakers of the language no longer notice the metaphor. There are many particularly colorful examples of this in English. For instance, when was the last time you thought about the literal meaning of the phrase "I've got a frog in my throat?" Most of the time, native speakers don't even notice. If the use of opheilema to mean "sin" is like this, that is, if Matthew and his readers never thought about the fact that the word normally meant 'debt,' then it may be misleading to translate it as 'debt' in English, especially since this is not a familiar metaphor to English speakers (excluding some variants of "church English"). I don't have the Koine resources to determine whether this metaphor was 'dead' in the first century - in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone could write a dissertation on this subject, as much work as it might take! - but it's an important question to consider, I think.

The context makes opheilema synonymous with paraptoma (see vv. 14-15), which does indeed mean 'trespass.' The question is, does Matthew think these words are actually synonymous, or is this an example of Hebrew parallelism? If the latter, then Matthew/Jesus (but remember Jesus was speaking Aramaic) might think that these are two not-quite-syonymous words, and be using them in tension with one another to get at the core concept he means (but I don't understand Hebrew parallelism very well, so I'm not sure what to do with this).

So, in the end, what do we do? Well, it would be nice to translate opheilema and paraptoma differently, to reproduce the original effect, but Wayne is right that we shouldn't translate opheilema as 'debt,' because the two words are not really equivalent in this context.

I would say that if the metaphor is dead, we might go with 'sin' for opheilema and 'trespass' or 'violation' for paraptoma or something along those lines. 'Transgression' has been used in the past, but that word is kind of archaic now. ISV has 'sins' and 'offenses' which is not bad if the metaphor is dead.

If, on the other hand, this is a 'live' metaphor, so that the original readers are thinking of the normal meaning of opheilema when they see this, then we need to work in the concept of obligation some how. To 'forgive' an obligation is to not demand that the one obligated fulfill it (the Greek word for 'forgive' is also metaphorical - it literally means 'to send away,' but that metaphor is almost certainly dead).

How do we work this into good English? One way to go is "and forgive us [for our failure to fulfill] our obligations, as we also forgive those who have obligations to us ... for if you forgive people for their violations [against you], your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive people for their violations, your heavenly father will not forgive your violations." (vv. 12, 14-15) That's pretty clunky, in my opinion. It's just not quite natural. Furthermore, "forgive us for our failure to fulfill our obligations" is not quite accurate. In the context of the whole of Scripture, I would say the meaning is that we are asking God not to demand that we fulfill our obligations because we are unable to fulfill them. If this interpretation is right, perhaps we should actually put that in our translation of verse 12, along with a hint of the literal meaning of aphiemi ('forgive'): "and release us from our obligations, as we also release those who have obligations toward us." That sounds a bit antinomian, but I think that this verse without the context of the whole Scripture could be interpreted in an antinomian way, so it's probably ok for the translation to have that property as well. It's only the broader context, I think, that will tell us what obligations we are asking to be released from.

I'd never really examined this verse closely and had no idea it was so difficult! It always looked so simple in English... Thanks, Wayne, for bringing this up!

Posted by Kenny at May 10, 2006 12:08 PM
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