From the Greek

This column looks at the way some Greek words are used in scripture and tradition in English translation.

This column looks at the way some Greek words are used in scripture and tradition in English translation. The New Testament was written in a version of Ancient Greek called Koine, as was some liturgy and theology.
The last column in ‘From the Greek’ discussed the word hamartia, usually translated as ‘sin’. Two other Greek words are also translated as sin, paraptoma, ‘trespasses’ or ‘transgressions’ and opheilomata, ‘debt/what is owed’.

This word is used in different noun forms and as a verb in the examples used, but this article will refer to it in its root form, opheil, literally debt of the financial kind with which we are familiar.

Figuratively, however, it has a range of meanings, from what is owed, to obligation, duty, one’s due and sin. For example, in Mt 18:21-35 when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive one who sins against him (hamartia), Jesus responds with a parable about the settling of financial accounts using the word opheil. Opheil also appears in the literal sense when Jesus rebuffs the critics of the woman who bathes his feet with her tears, with a story of two debtors who, owing different amounts, could not repay their creditor (Lk 7:41-43).

Opheil is used figuratively in both versions of the Lord’s prayer: on both sides of the petition in Mt 6:12, ‘forgive us our debts (opheil), as we have forgiven our debtors, (opheil)’; but on only one side of it in Lk 11:4 – ‘forgive us our sins (hamartia) as we ourselves forgive everyone who is in debt (opheil) to us’. Most of us use a version of the Lord’s prayer where the same word is used in both parts of the petition, either sins or trespasses, so it is interesting to speculate on how these translations came about and to wonder if the spiritual meaning changes when different words are used, particularly with modern understandings of the causes and consequences of global debt.

The word paraptoma, translated as false step, transgression, trespass, does not appear in the Lord’s prayer. But paraptoma does show up immediately after Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in Mt 6:14-15, ‘If you forgive others their trespasses, (paraptoma), your heavenly father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses’ (paraptoma). Paraptoma also appears in Mk 11:25 after the story of the withered fig tree when Jesus says, ‘When you stand praying, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly father may in turn forgive you your trespasses, (paraptoma)’.

These various Greek words broaden our understanding of words whose meanings have been enculturated, through translation and in the different eras of Christianity.