Original biblical languages suggest forgiveness is something akin to waiving one’s rights.
What is it that we do when we forgive? Are we forgetting, disregarding, overlooking, ignoring wrongdoing? Are we giving up on our desire to pursuit revenge, retribution, even justice? How can I tell if I have really forgiven someone? The fact that we have a hard time answering these questions makes it evident forgiveness is multi-faceted and difficult to explore. It has oftentimes been historically (and tragically) confused with a vague understanding of reconciliation as the submissive acceptance of rather unacceptable states of affairs.
This is probably because forgiveness was not entirely considered a philosophical problem until the interwar and postwar periods of the 20th century, when genocidal war ushered in the question of the unforgivable — Can humanity forgive Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Bomb, the Apartheid? Who forgives? Who is forgiven? What are the limits of forgiveness? What constitutes an unforgivable fact? Is there such thing as “the unforgivable”? In more ways than one, forgiveness is a relatively new intellectual concern. And even if the topic became somewhat relevant in the second half of the past century, it is not exactly a modish preoccupation among most scholars today. Chances are it has never really been — perhaps not even among noted Christian thinkers.
Take Augustine, for example. Of the more than five million words making up the Augustinian canon, only the sixth chapter of the Rule and a few Lenten Sermons address forgiveness explicitly. The Rule gives instructions on how monks should deal with offenses in monasterio — that is, in monastic environments. These directions do not differ from what is found in the sermons, which address laymen and monks alike: the same behavior is required from all. In short, in these texts Augustine understands forgiveness as almsgiving (elemosynas): “Anyone who forgives another who has sinned against him, undoubtedly performs a work of mercy [elemosynam facit] in pardoning the sin [ignoscendo peccatum].” The Rule demands monks who have offended one another with insults (convicio), injuries (maledicto), or grave accusations (criminis objectiu) to make amends as soon as possible (quantocius, “immediately”). The offended is required to condone the offense without reserve (sine disceptatione) and wholeheartedly (ex animo). The sermons follow the same prescription.
But the Latin Augustine spoke had no single word for forgiveness. He referred to the remission of sins (remissionem peccatorum), the condoning of offenses (offensis condonandis), to things that demand petenda venia (an expression often translated as a “prompt or solicitous demand” for either “indulgence” or “benevolence”), to the “ignorance” of sins (ignoscendo peccatum) and, perhaps more importantly, to the letting go of debts (as in the Latin formulation of the Lord’s Prayer, dimitte debita nostra). The late Latin perdonare is, most scholars agree, a calqued transliteration of the Frankish firgeban that began to permeate Vulgar Latin and proto-Roman languages almost a century after Augustine’s death in 430.
The original Greek text of the Gospels uses a number of different expressions for the concept of forgiveness, rather than one single word. What we do find in biblical texts, the Our Father included, are different expressions that can be translated as the waiving of one’s right over a debt, or to being unburdened. In that sense, Augustine’s understanding of forgiveness is thoroughly biblical: forgiveness as almsgiving and the scriptural notion of sin as debt go hand in hand, as the former covers the latter: “for almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin” (Tobit 12, 9).
As Gary Anderson explains in his book Sin: A History, “the Bible’s most common metaphor for sin is that of a weight an individual must carry [but] in much of the New Testament, as much as in all of rabbinic literature and Aramaic-speaking Christianity, the primary metaphor for sin is that of a debt.” This shift marks a major transition in biblical thought — one that will find its climax in the original Greek form of the Lord’s Prayer, which reads “forgive us our debts, just as we forgive our debtors.” It is only when sin begins to be considered a kind of debt that human virtue is consequently understood as merit — or credit.
Let’s look at the rite of the Day of Atonement as described in Leviticus (cf. Lev 16, 21–22). The ceremony for the removal of the sins of the Israelites involved a scapegoat. Anderson explains it was not really a goat at all but rather “some sort of pack animal,” one capable of carrying a considerable weight on its back. According to the biblical text, the high priest would put both hands on the animal’s head, confess the sins of Israel over it, and then send it into the wilderness, never to return. The beast is supposed to have assumed the weight of the sins of the people, carrying them deep into the desert —where they would be beyond God’s reach. This is the biblical example of sin as burden par excellence. Forgiveness would be, consequently, a (moral, spiritual) unburdening .
But Deuteronomy 15 provides with a different kind of inspiration. This is the famous passage known as the Remissionis Domini, the Shmita — the Jubilee. The text mandates that every seven years the wealthy must remit the debts they hold against those of lesser means. This was common Mesopotamian practice, which the Israelites adopted. Jesus’ first sermon (as found in the gospel of Luke) presents him unrolling the scroll of Isaiah on a Saturday in the synagogue, and announcing he had come to proclaim “the Year of the Lord,” the Jubilee Year when debts are to be forgiven. The text reads as follows:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is the spirit that informs the Greek formulation of the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts,” kae aphes hēmin ta opheilēmata hēmōn. True, the institution of the Jubilee Year (“the year of the Lord’s favor”) implied nothing regarding the forgiveness of sins. Moreover, the verb the Gospels use, aphiemi, strictly indicates the letting go of a debt one is owed. In the prayer, the verb is used as a “financial” metaphor. Anderson has noted that “the words of the Our Father, ‘forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors,’ would have sounded somewhat odd for a native speaker of Greek in the first century, for sins were not customarily thought of in financial terms […] if we retrovert the Greek to Aramaic or Hebrew, the resulting idiom would have fit in perfectly in the Palestine of Jesus’s day. Indeed, the form of the Our Father found in the Peshitta —the Syriac or Christian Aramaic Bible— is probably a closer approximation of what Jesus might have said: šbûq lān hawbayn, where the verbal imperative šbûq means ‘to waive one’s right [to collect]’ on the ‘debt’ (hawbayn) that we are owed.”
Clearly the Greek opheilēmatadoes not necessarily (or exclusively) mean financial obligations. The same word is used in other biblical passages (in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, in particular) to refer to the forgiveness of sins. In a way, what this “financial” understanding of forgiveness shows is that, when one sins, one is improperly “borrowing” from God something that belongs to him only — namely, the authority to ultimately decide what is good and what is bad for us. This is what the Genesis tale suggests happened in Eden: the snake usurped God’s authority to convince Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of good and evil. What the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer could be asking, then, is the humility to recognize God’s authority (“forgive us our debts”), our being indebted to him, and the willingness to imitate his magnanimity (“as we forgive our debtors”).