March 11: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a

The next petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and the 2nd of the second part of the Prayer, has traditionally been translated in terms of forgiveness. While this is generally correct, it obscures the actual Greek vocabulary that is used. There are again certain differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, but the basic form of the petition is the same; it begins as follows:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n
“and may you release for us…”

The conjunctive particle (kai, “and”) indicates the close connection, in thought and form, with the previous petition, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader. This connective sequence for the petitions will be discussed as we proceed. The verb a)fi/hmi, usually translated “forgive” is more accurately rendered as “release”, though a more literal rendering would actually be “set/send (away) from”. In the New Testament, it is used regularly (along with the related noun a&fesi$) in connection with the sins of a person (or people), i.e. “releasing” sin, in the sense of sending it away. The ancient Day of Atonement ritual gives a concrete symbol for this in the “scapegoat” that is sent away into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people (Lev 16:20-22). Of the many New Testament examples where the verb and noun are used in this sense (for release of sins), cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9-10 par; 3:28-29 par; 11:25; Matt 18:35; 26:28; Luke 1:77; 7:47-48; 17:3-4; Acts 2:38; 5:31; Col 1:14; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9, etc. The opposite of releasing sin is to hold it, using a verb such as e&xw or krate/w, as in the famous formula in John 20:23 (cp. Matt 16:18):

“Anyone (for) whom you would release th(eir) sins, they have been released for them, and anyone (for) whom you would hold (them) firm, they have been held firm.”

Indeed, it is the release of sins that is expressed in the Lukan form of the petition: kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n, “and may you release for us our sins“. In Matthew’s version, however, the wording is different:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\ o)feilh/mata h(mw=n
“and may you release for us our (deb)ts (we) owe

The Didache (8:2) follows Matthew’s version, but uses the singular noun instead of the plural: “…our (deb)t (we) owe [th\n o)feilh/n h(mw=n]”. The difference here between Matthew and Luke is just part of the textual complication related to the form of this petition. First, we must note that Matthew is consistent in the wording used in both parts of the petition:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata], even as we (have) released [a)fh/kamen] our (deb)tors (who) owe [o)feile/th$ pl] (to us)”

In Luke, however, the wording is different, resulting in a (partially) mixed metaphor:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our sins [a(marti/a$], for we (our)selves also release [a)fi/omen] every (one) owing [o)fei/lonti] (anything) to us”

How are we to account for these differences? Some commentators would chalk them up to different ways that the original (Aramaic) words of Jesus were rendered into Greek. This is certainly possible. In particular, it is likely that the Lukan form attempts to explain a (Semitic) concept of sin as (religious) debt which might have seemed strange to Greek hearers and readers. In this regard, Matthew’s version is almost certainly closer to the original, the Aramaic of which might have been something like (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901):

an`y+b^oj Hn`l^ qb%v=W
an`y+b^Y`j^l= an`q=b^v= yd]K=
ûš®buq lán¹h µôbayn¹°
k§dî š§báqn¹° l§µayy¹bayn¹°

Fitzmyer (p. 906) also cites an interesting example (in Aramaic) from the Qumran texts (4Q534, col. ii. 17) in which “sin” “debt” (i.e. guilt) are juxtaposed: “its sin and its debt” ([htb]wjw hafj).

In any case, the Lukan ‘modifications’ clarify the text in several important ways:

    • That the debts a person owes to God are to be understood in terms of sin, as opposed to money or other ‘ordinary’ debt.
    • Retaining the specific idea of debt in the second half of the petition implies that what a person must forgive for others includes things like ‘ordinary’ debt—i.e., wrongs and injustices brought about during the course of daily life and business.
    • The final pronoun makes clear that the wrongs to be forgiven are things done specifically to us (believers).
    • The use of the adjective pa=$ (“every [one]”) also gives to the petition a universal context and setting which otherwise has to be inferred in the Matthean version.

The meaning of this petition, both within the Prayer and the wider Gospel context, will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note. However, before continuing it is worth pointing out a couple of other textual variants which can affect how the passage is interpreted. In Matthew’s version, for the second occurrence of the verb a)fi/hmi

    • The majority of manuscripts have the present tense, a)fi/emen/a)fi/omen, “even as we release…”.
    • The aorist form (a)fh/kamen), adopted above, is read by a smaller (but diverse) range of witnesses: a* B Z 1 22 124mg 1365 1582 vulgatemss, and some Syriac and Coptic manuscripts (Metzger, p. 13).

These readings each give a slightly different nuance to the petition. The use of the present tense suggests that the disciples are to follow God’s example—as He has cancelled our debts, so we will forgive the debts of others. The aorist implies a different sort of reciprocal principle, such as Jesus emphasizes in vv. 14-15 (and elsewhere in his teaching): if we want God to forgive us, we must (first) forgive any wrongs others have done to us. Both external evidence, and the context of the Sermon on the Mount, argue in favor of the aorist form. The Didache has the present (a)fi/emen), which also appears in some manuscripts of Luke (instead of a)fi/omen).

References marked “Fitzmyer” above (and throughout this series) are to  the Commentary on Luke by Joseph A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible [AB] series, Vol. 28/A, 1985. References marked “Metzger” are to the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition).

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

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