Greek words used in scripture and tradition.
The New Testament was written in a version of Ancient Greek called Koine, as was some liturgy and theology.
The most common Greek word translated as the English word ‘sin’ is hamartia. It occurs many times in the New Testament.
In Ancient Greek, hamartia cannot be sharply defined. It has a broad spectrum of meanings from a character’s fatal flaw (from Aristotle), to accident, mistake, failure, fault, wrongdoing, error, sin and guilt. It contains both the idea of accidental and deliberate wrongdoing.
Other meanings include missing the mark (from archery) and the notion of an excess of any particular characteristic (even piety).
If we think that the meanings of mistake or accident are qualitatively different from the idea of a moral flaw or deliberate wrongdoing, Greek tragedy informs us that injuries committed in ignorance can have the same sort of powerfully tragic effect as the more commonly believed sense of hamartia/sin as a moral defect or error.
In the gospels, the word hamartia is first encountered in the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Jesus will save his people from their sins Mt.1:21.
Towards the end of the Gospel of John, hamartia is used when Jesus says to Pilate: ‘…. the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin’ Jn.19:11.
Other uses of the word hamartia occur at the last supper – ‘this is my blood of the covenant which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’ Mt:26:28; and at the resurrection ‘that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations…’ Lk:24:47.
Throughout the four gospels, the word hamartia appears in its various forms over 40 times.
Another word which translates as ‘sin’ is paraptoma, which has a similar meaning and is usually translated as ‘trespasses’ or ‘transgressions’.
An important, related word is opheilomata which is interpreted as debt – what is owed – and is found in both versions of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ (Lk 11:2-4; Mk 11:25). These other words interpreted as ‘sin’ will be the subject of a later column.
Susan Frykberg, BTheo, BA (Ancient Greek), MA, is a pastoral care worker for Nazareth Rest Home, Whanganui.