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"Letting Go" Not "Forgive"
This article examines the Greek verb that is translated variously as "forgive," "leave," and "let." However, the word means primarily to "leave" or "let go." This is an extension of an earlier article on “forgiving sins.”
The Greek Word Aphiemi
The Greek verb is aphiemi (ἀφίημι) which means "to let fall," "to send away," "give up," "hand over," "to let loose," "to get rid of," "to leave alone," "to pass by," "to permit," and "to send forth from oneself." With a dative object, it means "remit" a debt or "excuse" a fault. Jesus uses it in seventy-three verses. This makes it the eleventh most popular verb that Jesus uses. This verb is Jesus's first word in the Gospels (Matthew 3:15) when he tells John to "suffer" baptizing him. In the KJV, it is most commonly translated as “leave” or “let” and similar ideas like the “suffer” above.
But this same verb is also translated as “forgive” forty-six times in the KJV Bible. This is almost always copied in other English version. This is a translation we don’t see outside of the Bible and its related texts. This verb is first translated as "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12) where it is applied to forgiving debts. This “debts” also gets commonly mistranslated as forgiving “trespasses,” which is another way of saying “sins.”
One of the reasons that Jesus really liked this verb is because he loved words that are full of different shades of meanings like this one. There are perhaps a dozen or more such words that he uses simply because they cast various shades of meaning on what he was saying. In this, Jesus is just the opposite of those who teach Christianity today and those who translated his words. They want everything to be simple. Jesus wanted to simplify the hundreds of rules imposed by the Pharisees on people, but he did not want to simplify our thinking about the deeper dimensions of human existence.
This verb can be used both with direct(accusative), possessive(genitive) and indirect (dative) objects. The case of the object and the indirect object determines the word’s meaning. Having a person as the object or indirect object also changes its meaning. The direct object is the thing released while the possessive person is who it is released from. With a dative person as an object, it means "remit" a debt or "excuse" a fault. The dative is the person excused and the genitive is the things being excused. With an accusative person as an object, it means"to permit one." A genitive object is a thing “let go.” However, with a genitive object, it typically means “excuse” a fault or “remit” a debt.
The biblical translators ignore all this complexity. I don’t blame them because this word is complicated. Their method of simplifying it is simply to translate the word as “forgive” whenever it appears with the word they want to translate as “sins.” For example, John 20:23:
NIV: If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Listeners Heard: When you excuse for some those mistakes, they should be excused for them. When you over rule them, they are over ruled.
The word translated in the NIV as “forgive” means “excuse” because it has a genitive object, “from them” and the accusative object is “those mistakes.” The word translated as “sins” actually means “mistake.s” See this article. There are a lot of other mistakes in the English translation, which is more about religious doctrine than Jesus’s words.
Apiemi has the sense of both leaving something alone and leaving a place. It is the verb version of the noun that means “letting go,” aphesis. Jesus responds to many of our worldly concerns by saying, "let it be” or "suffer this," depending on the translation. Aphiemi is also sometimes translated in the Bible to mean “to send forth” or “go forth” even though that meaning is a little misleading as well. Jesus “sends forth” the apostles. The shepherd looking for the lost lamb “goes forth” into the mountains. Both are translations of aphiemi, with its sense of “leaving.”
As with all multi-meaning words, its translation depends on its context. For example, this word is usually translated as "forgive" when associated with the noun translated as "sin," hamartia. Conveniently, the translation as "forgive" also works with other objects such as the Greek word for "debt" (ὀφειλήματα, opheilema) or the word translated as "trespasses" (παραπτώματα, paratoma). In all of these cases, the more literal translation of the verb as "let go" works just as well, but the sentiment is different. The idea of “letting go” or “letting something drop” is a relaxation of tension. The word “forgive” is a granting of a favor, a pardon, a lifting of a burden.
Use in Septuagint
While it is clear that the idea of "forgive" is not associated with aphiemi in most ancient Greek texts, what we care about is the Greek of Judea in Jesus's time. To research this use of this word, we need first to look at the Greek Septuagint. This is what the Greek-speaking Judeans read in the time of Jesus to understand their religion. Whenever Jesus quotes the OT, he uses the words of the Septuagint, often exactly, but always with the same key vocabulary. So the question is, did Jesus get his words for "letting go of mistakes" from somewhere in the Septuagint? In translating this verb as “forgive,” are English translators following its traditional use in Jesus’s time?
The answer is clearly no.
Aphiemi is used about half as much in the Greek Septuagint than the NT Greek, 75 times as compared to 143 times, even though there are about three times more verses in the OT. In the Greek Septuagint, there are only a handful of verses that express the concept of "forgiving sins." None of these phrases seem to use the same Greek words that Jesus does that is translated as "forgive sins," specifically the verb, aphiemi, with the noun, hamartia. All these verses translate the Hebrew verb nosa (nosah, נָשָׂא), as "forgive." The problem is that this word means "to lift," "to carry," and "to take." This Hebrew word is usually translated into Greek was some form of the Greek word, airo, which to mean "lift" and "remove." This is another one of Jesus’s favorite “multi-meaning words and number eighteen on his most popular verbs list. So this is not a word that he didn’t know. It is not usually translated into English as "forgive." This translation is used only when associated with some sort of wrongness.
The Hebrew nasa is only translated as the Greek alphiemi in three OT verses, Genesis 50:17 (the Greek), Psalm 32:5 (Greek), and Psalm 85:2 ( Greek). None of these verses use the noun, hamartia. Genesis uses the word usually translated as "lawless" (ἀδικία, adikia), which means "injustice" or "not virtuous." The Psalms use the Greek word translated as "inequity" (ἀνομίαν, anomia), which means is "without law" or "lawless."
Interestingly, two other verses that express the idea "forgiving sins,” Exodus 34:7, and Numbers 14:18., do not use apheimi, but a verb that starts like it, aphaireo, (ἀφαιρεθήσεται). This is a form of airo, mentioned above meaning "lift." The most common verse cited as referring to "forgiving sins," Micah 7:18 (in the Septuagint) uses a different form of this same root, exairo (ἐκαἴρω), which means "to lift up," "to lift away," and "to remove." This Greek word is interesting because it is most commonly translated into English as "pardon." In the OT, this word is used over a hundred times, but it is also never associated with the Greek word translated as "sin." In Micah, it is used with adikia.
There are many Septuagint verses using the Greek hamartia, but only one, Numbers 14:18, cited above, refers to the concept of "removing" or "lifting up" the word translated as "sin," hamartia.
In Jesus’s time, the idea of “forgiving sins” was described by entirely different Greek words. The idea of “forgiving” was more often associated with the idea of “lifting” and “removing.” The idea of “sin” was associated with “lawlessness,” or more simply, disobeying the hundreds of Biblical rules. To avoid lawlessness, one could never relax. This is a life filled with tension and dread.
Jesus's focus was much, much broader, letting go of what doesn't do anyone any good. This idea of “dropping” and “leaving,” is more relaxing. His first use of this “letting go” idea was telling the Baptist not to worry about whether or not dunking Jesus was the right thing. He told us in many different ways to let go of our worries, starting with his Sermon on the Mount. He also wanted us to our habits of making mistakes and guilt about past mistakes and concerns about what others have done in the past. We must stop clinging to the past, and moving on from it.