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Not a "Sin" but a Mistake
Today, let us look at the words translated as "sin," and "sinner," and "to sin." In order to understand some of the fun in what Jesus says, we have to get the real meaning of these words because “sin” drains the fun out of everything. This expands on an earlier article on "forgiving sin." The Greek words translated as “sin,” like our English ones, are all from the same root, but they do not mean the same things as our word "sin."
The Greek words come from the core idea of a "miss," as in our word “mistakes.” It literally means "missing the mark" in archery. From the idea of a “miss,” it also has the sense of "failure," "fault," and "error."
The verb translated as “to sin” is hamartanô (ἁμαρτάνω, which) means "to miss the mark," "to fail in one's purpose," "to err," "to be mistaken," and "to neglect." Jesus only used this word in seven verses. The noun, hamartia (ἁμαρτία), means "missing the mark," “mistake,” "failure," "fault," and "error." Jesus used this word in twentry-eight verses. The word translated as “sinner” is actually the adjective, hamartolos (ἁμαρτωλός) that means "erroneous," “mistaken,” or "erring." It also has the sense of being a slave or low-born. A definite article before the adjective makes it act like a noun, “the erring,” and “the mistaken.” Jesus uses it in fifteen verses.
This meaning of hamartia as "missing the mark" is a well-known fact, so much so that many preachers refer to it that way. They do this because many of Jesus’s quotes do not make much sense with the word “sin” in them, with its clear sense of moral failing and disobeying God. However, this idea of “missing the mark” is somehow forgotten in translating the NT, where it is almost without exception translated in its different forms as "sin," "sinner," and "sinning."
There i a Greek word from Jesus’s time that mean sin. The Greek word that means “sin” is alitros (ἀλιτηρός). This word means "sinning against the gods." Different forms mean “sin,” “sinner,” and “sinful:” alitria ("sinfulness"), aliterios ("sinning"), and aleites ("sinner") However, Jesus never uses any of these words. Strange for a man who is portrayed as railing against sin.
Examples of “Sin” Not Making Sense
When translating, we determine the meaning of words by how they are used. While we may be able to substitute the word “sin” for “mistake” the two ideas are clearly different. We can say, “It was a sin how seldom he brushed his teeth,” but we really mean “mistake.” However, there are many times where “sin” and “mistake” are not interchangeable. This is how we can tell what Jesus really meant by this word. “Sin” implies an intentional moral evil. A “mistake” means an accident, often arising from stupidity or carelessness. There are many verses where translating hamartia as “sin” actually destroys Jesus’s meaning.
Let us look at John 16:8. Jesus sets up this verse by saying that the “Comforter/Advocate” is coming and then:
KJV: And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
The Greek word translated as “reprove” is always used by Jesus in the sense of “accuse.” So how well does sin work here? We might want to accuse the world of “sin,” but how do we accuse it of “righteousness,” and “judgment” in the same breath? We can’t really have sins of righteousness, can we?
Modern Bibles realize the problem here, so they add a lot of words that Jesus didn’t say to make “sin” fit better:
NIV: When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:
They added the words “to be in the wrong about.” Jesus never said them, and I consider it a mistake (a sin?) to put any words in his mouth. But their addition may mean that the translators actually understood the verse but wanted to us the word “sin.” This confusion makes the following verses where Jesus explains his meaning in more detail absolutely cryptic.
What did Jesus really say?
Literal: And, showing up, that one there will accuse this social order of mistakes, not only concerning justice but also concerning judgment.
When we change the word “sin” to “mistakes” (its form can be singular or plural), Jesus’s meaning becomes clear. The world is accused of mistakes concerning justice and judgment. There may be no “sins” of justice and judgment, but there are certainly mistakes.
Or consider John 8:21, in a line spoken to his opponents:
KJV: I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.
We have to ask ourselves, what sins they are committing in seeking him? However, it is easier to understand what Jesus is saying if we translate the Greek word as “mistake.”
Literal: I myself go away and you will seek me and you will die in that error of yours. Where I myself go away, you yourselves don't have the power to show up.
They are making an error in seeking him because they don’t have the power to follow. This is an error but hardly a sin.
In Luke 13:2 and Luke 13:4 where Jesus compares hamartia to debt, a comparison that is erased in translation. The discussion is about those who died when the tower of Shiloam fell. Luke 13:2 refers to those who died as the hamartolos, translated as “sinners:”
KJV: Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners…
This sounds reasonable. Isn’t Jesus arguing against the idea they were being punished? Maybe not. To give this impression, the translators repeat the idea of “sinners” when they translate the next verse, Luke 13:4:
KJV: …think ye that they were sinners above all men…
But this '“sinners” is a different word, opheiletes, which means "debtors." Jesus taught that debt was a mistake, not a sin. The sense is, not that the Divine was punishing them, but that their deaths were collecting a debt, that we all own our lives to the Divine as a debt, a very different idea, and one that ties much more directly to Jesus’s teaching.
If we analyzed every verse where “sin” is used, we could find similar problems. These examples were collected at random, from where I was translating as I write this article. Calling everything a sin, however, destroys much of Jesus’s message. Jesus taught that we all make mistakes. He taught us that we have to let go of the thoughts and habits that lead us to make mistakes and left go of those who harm us by their mistakes.
Making Jesus as judgmental as the preachers of the seventeenth century does not get us closer to his message. It drives many of us away.Jesus didn’t condemn everyone as sinners, burdened with a guilt that drags us down to eternal punishment. Both are mistakes in the translation of his words, designed to promote religion, that is, the traditions of men, not the ,message of the Divine.