trespass / sin / debt

Many people wonder about the word choice in different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. One version, favored by Roman Catholics and Anglicans, uses the phrase forgive us our trespasses. To the modern ear, trespass seems an odd word to use. Another version, favored by Protestants of the Reformed tradition, says forgive us our debts, another odd choice to the modern ear. Many modern translations simply use the word sin instead. Why the difference? It has to do with translation.

Let’s take on trespass first.

Trespass is from the Old French trespas, meaning a passing across or transgression of the law. (The word transgression exhibits the same semantic development. The roots literally mean a passing across, but it has come to mean a violation of law.) It appears in English c.1290 in the South English Legendary:

He [St. Dunstan]...for-ȝaf hem [his servants] heore trespas...And a-soylede hem of heore sunnes.
(He [St. Dunstan]...forgave them [his servants] their trespasses...And absolved them of their sins.)

The sense of trespass meaning to enter private property without permission appears somewhat later and was often fashioned trespass to land in legal documents. From the Acts of the Scottish Parliament, c.1455:

Of trespas in forest of Baron.

The use of trespass in the text of the Lord’s Prayer is from William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of Matthew. Tyndale chose trespass in the more general sense of transgression. The liturgy of the church maintains this sense, even though it has fallen out of common use elsewhere.

Other translators chose the word debt. The author of Matthew, writing in Greek, uses the word opheilemata, which has a literal meaning of financial debt, but which also has a metaphorical sense of spiritual obligation. This sense of debt meaning spiritual obligation is also present in Aramaic writings of the period and Jesus, who spoke and taught in Aramaic, uses this metaphor in various parables. So debt is an excellent choice that preserves the original metaphor.

The word debt is from the Old French dete. The letter b began to be inserted in the 16th century in an attempt to make it conform to the Latin debitum, that which is owed, or debere, to owe. The financial sense of debt appears at the end of the 13th century. From Cursor Mundi, c.1300:

Dauid...wightli wan o þam his dete.
(David...quickly discharged of him his debt.)

But the word also has a spiritual sense in English use, meaning sin. This sense is actually attested to earlier than the financial one, but it is probably not the original sense of the word. From Ancren Riwle, a book of monastic rules written sometime before 1225:

We siggeð forȝif us ure dettes, al so ase we uorȝiueð to ure detturs.
(We say forgive us our debts, just as we forgive our debtors.)

Like trespass, this spiritual sense of debt does not have much currency in modern English, being pretty much limited to liturgical use.

As a result, many modern translators prefer to use the straightforward sin. The word sin may be related to the Latin sons, meaning guilty, although this is by no means certain. Of the three choices, this is the oldest in terms of English. The word is used in the Vespasian Psalter from c.825, which contains the oldest extant translation into English of any portion of the Bible.

There is a belief that sin comes from some archery term meaning to miss the target. This tale stems from confusion and misunderstanding of preachers giving Sunday sermons. The English word sin has no such etymology. The Greek hamartia, however, can literally mean to fall short or miss, especially in the archery context. Since hamartia is often the word being translated, preachers sometimes use this Greek etymology as a sermon illustration and people confuse it with the etymology of the English word. The sermon illustration, however, is somewhat flawed. By the time of Christ the archery sense of hamartia was obsolete, so the sermon illustration is anachronistic. To Christ and his contemporaries hamartia would simply mean a violation of God’s law and would not have conveyed a metaphorical sense of falling short, as an arrow falls short of its target.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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