Monday, July 20, 2015

Sins, Debts, and Trespasses

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the different lengths and translations of the Lord's Prayer in English-speaking churches:

Q:  Why do some churches say the Lord’s Prayer with the line, “Forgive us our debts” while others use “Forgive us our trespasses,” and why do some stop with “deliver us from evil” while others have an additional line afterward?

While the Lord’s Prayer is considered the universal prayer among Christians because it was given by our Lord Himself, the differences noted in the question are matters of text and translation. 

The account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer is told twice in the Bible—once by Matthew, and once by Luke.  Many ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s account include the line “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen” at the end of the prayer.  The ancient manuscripts of Luke, in comparison, do not typically show this line.  In fact, many of the manuscripts of Luke are also missing the line, “but deliver us from evil.” 

These differences between Matthew and Luke’s recording of the Lord’s Prayer account for the diversity of length in the prayer.  The most likely explanation is that the line, “deliver us from evil” is original to the prayer, but that those who copied Luke’s Gospel accidentally omitted it on a few occasions. 

The longer ending of Matthew’s prayer probably arises because as it was used in the liturgies of the early church of the first century, similar to the way that “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.”  is typically added to the end of Psalms among Christians. 

Since Matthew’s Gospel was intended as a catechism for instructing people who had come to Christianity from Judaism, he would likely have included the prayer in the form it was said in the liturgy.  Some liturgies of the time even included an even longer ending “…and the glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for ever.  Amen.”  And on rare occasions, an ancient copy of Matthew is even found with this very long ending included in the prayer. 

So, when churches use a longer or shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer, it is primarily just the difference between the version of the prayer recorded in Matthew and the version recorded in Luke—and both are Biblical. 

The difference between “forgive us our debts” and “forgive us our trespasses” is one of translation in addition to synonyms used for sin by Matthew and Luke.  The Matthew version uses a Greek word very similar to the English word “debt,” while the Luke version uses the word that is the typical word for “sins” in the New Testament.  Some more modern attempts at translating the Lord’s Prayer have even attempted to use the translation “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” but they have not been widely accepted. 

When the word “debts” is used in the Lord’s Prayer, it is because that particular translation is based on the King James tradition of translating the Gospel of Matthew.  The translation of “trespasses” has its roots in the Tyndale Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, which pre-date the King James Bible by several decades, so it is actually the older translation into English, although it may seem new to some who grew up hearing the petition with the word “debts.” 

Because of its use in the Book of Common Prayer for Anglican worship, “trespasses” became the default translation of all the natively-English traditions of Christianity.  For Lutherans (who spoke German upon arriving in America) and Catholics (who conducted the Mass in Latin until recent years), they also picked up the translation “trespasses” upon beginning to worship in English, making it the majority version of the prayer in the present day. 

Regardless of the translation, though, the meaning of the petition is the same.  When we sin, we trespass against the boundary of God’s law, and sins committed by humans create a debt that we owe both to God and the neighbors we sin against, which can only be paid back by Jesus crucified death.  Each of the words emphasizes a different nuance of this truth, but all point to the same problem and the same Savior who is its remedy. 

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