The Usage of the Greek Words Translated Forgive and Forgiveness

A continuation of our great words of the bible series.

V. NORSKOV OLSEN, President, Newbold College, England


Of the about five thou­sand words in the Greek New Testament, approxi­mately three thousand are found in the ancient or classi­cal Greek writings from Homer to Demosthenes cover­ing a period from about 700 B.C. to 300 B.C. Until fifty years ago New Testament scholars reckoned about 550 words to be peculiar to the New Testament. Through the discovery of the Koine Greek, especially in the papyri, the number of Greek words peculiar to the Bible has been reduced to less than fifty.

In the study of the New Testament, whether doctrinal or devotional, a word study of the papyri becomes valuable. Adolf Deissmann wrote: "The great part of the essence of the New Testament lies hidden in its language. Whoever has understood the nature of the language of the New Testament has also understood a great deal of the essence of the New Testament and of Early Christianity." The papyri show that the Greek of the New Testament is not a language that stands by itself,' but "its main feature was, that it was the ordinary vernacular Greek of the period."

The New Testament writers often make use of the Septuagint version instead of the Hebrew text. There is a close connection between the general phraseology of the LXX and the New Testament. "Thus we may see that the study of the Septuagint is almost needful to any biblical scholar who wishes to estimate adequately the phraseol­ogy and usus loguendi of the New Testa­ment."

The four Greek words that are under study have also been examined in the apoc­ryphal books. The value of this is stated in the following words:

These books called Apocrypha, though destitute of all authority, have much value in connection with the Hellenistic phraseology of the New Testa­ment, The Septuagint version had been formed on a Hebraic mould, so that Hebraisms were sure to manifest themselves; but in those books of the Apocrypha which were originally written in Greek, we find just the same Hebrew cast of thought and expression. Thus the Hellenistic phraseology of the New Testament was not a new thing, even when applied to original composition.

Even though a Greek dictionary gives the various usages of a New Testament word, it is of great value to the student of the New Testament and of Christian doctrines to obtain for himself illustrations of the usage of a specific word directly from the sources available. This is the attempt of this short study in regard to the Greek words translated "forgive" and "forgiveness."


Xenophon in the Anabasis is accused of giving certain false orders. He uses apoluo to describe the declaration of his innocence of this accusation.

For my own part, therefore,—for I hear that Dexippus is saying to Cleander that Agasias would not have done what he did if I had not given him the order,—for my own part, I say, I relieve [apoluOJ both you and Agasias of the accusation.4

One named Diphridas is described by Xenophon as a successful warrior in Asia, where he received a large ransom for re­lease of some captives.

Diphridas accordingly set about these things, and he was successful not only in his other undertak­ings, but particularly in capturing Tigranes, the husband of Struthas' daughter, and his wife also, as they were journeying to Sardis, and in obtain­ing a large ransom for their release [apoluo]

From a late second-century papyrus apoluo is translated "canceling." The papyrus describes a modification of an agree­ment.

I acknowledge that the contract of representation has been made with you for the sole purpose of your issuing a receipt to the officials without receiv­ing anything, and for cancelling [apoluo] the mort­gage. . . .6

An official of fairly high rank requests his brother in a letter from about 100 B.c. to take steps for the release of someone who had been arrested for debt.

As soon as you receive this letter go with Horus son of Kotys to see Hermias the komogrammateus about the person he had arrested, and to Chaere­mon the collector, and let him be released [apoluo] and not be troubled by anybody.8

As an addition to these two illustrations of the word apoluo in the papyri could be mentioned the idea of "liberation," "dis­charge," and "release" from prison.

In the Septuagint, apoluo appears only three times and is the translation of three different Hebrew words. ApoIna appears in Genesis 15:2, "I go," and in Exodus 33:11, "he turned."

The third place in which apoluo appears in the LXX is in Numbers 20:29: "And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead {apoluo] . . ." The idea of the Hebrew word gawa` is "to expire," "to breathe out one's life." When this takes place, the person, in a metaphorical sense, is said to "have gone" (apoluo), or as the English Bible expresses it, "was dead." Thus when sin is forgiven (apoltiO) it should be dead.

The twenty-seven passages in which apoluo appears in the apocryphal books have been examined. It has been noticed that the ideas assigned to apoluo are: "put away," "release," "discharge," "set free," "dismiss," and "be delivered from death," that is that apoluo in the apocryphal books expresses the general ideas conveyed by this word in the papyri and the classics.


Demosthenes, in his oration against Dio­nysodorus, speaks of certain creditors, and uses aphiemi in the following connection:

If any man has remitted [aphiemi] to you any part of what was due him, no wrong is suffered by either party to the arrangement. But we have not remitted [aphiemil anything to you, nor have we consented to your voyage to Rhodes, nor in our judgment is anything more binding than the agree­ment.8

Other Greek writers use the word to express "release from peril," "discharge," "divorce," and "set free."

An excellently preserved papyrus from A.D. 156 contains the will of a certain Acusilans. This papyrus expresses Acusi­lans' desire that his slaves obtain their free­dom after his death.

But if I die with this will unchanged, I set free [aphiemi] under sanction of Zeus, Earth and Sun, for their goodwill and affection towards me, my slaves Psenamounis.9

A very interesting text was discovered on a Christian amulet. It contains a petition in which the Lord's Prayer is offered. A part of the prayer is here quoted:

To say the prayer of the Gospel (thus): Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth. Give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive [aphi-emi] us our debts, even as we also forgive {aphiemi] our debtors."

In the Septuagint, aphiemi is the trans­lation of sixteen different Hebrew words, but it has been noticed that the idea of "take away" and "separation" is predomi­nant. Thirty passages have been examined in the apocryphal books, and the general ideas expressed are the same as in the LXX.


Twenty-two passages have been exam­ined in the classics where charizomai and its derivatives appear. It is interesting to notice that in nine of these, charizomai is translated "show or grant a favour." In the other passages the underlying idea is still the same even though it is translated "to please," "to indulge." "to gratify," "to be obliged to," et cetera.

What has been said about the usage of charizomai in the classics could also be said about the LXX and the apocryphal books.

In the LXX, charizomai appears only once, namely in Esther 8:7: "Then the king Ahasuerus said unto Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew, Behold, I have given (charizomai) Esther the house of Haman, and him they have hanged upon the gallows, because he laid his hand upon the Jews."

The Hebrew word of which "charizomai" is the translation is nathan. The basic idea of nathan is "to give," "to place," and "to make." When the LXX makes use of chari­zomai in Esther 8:7, then the reason is, no doubt, to express the favor the king ex­tended to Esther.


In the New Testament "forgiveness" and "remission," with one exception, are trans­lated from aphesis. The basic use of aphesis is the same as the verb aphiemi, namely "release."

One example is taken from the writings of Polybius in speaking of the release of certain captives:

'It is not,' he said, 'with the intention of sparing their lives that he has taken this course regarding his captives, but by releasing [aphesis] them he de­signs to get us into his power, so that he may take vengeance not on some, but on all of us who trust him.'"

The LXX is a most valuable commen­tary to the understanding of the real mean­ing of the word forgiveness, and it ap­pears in about forty-two passages, being the translation of nine different Hebrew words."

Aphesis is given twenty times for yebel, and each time is translated "jubilee." Yo'bel appears twenty-seven times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated "jubilee" twenty-one times, once "trumpet" (Ex. 19:13) and "ram's horn" (Joshua 6:5), and five times as "ram's horns" (Joshua 6:4, 6, 8, 13).

According to Leviticus 25:9, 10 a loud trumpet should proclaim liberty through­out the country on the tenth day of the seventh month each fiftieth year. The He­brew Bible calls this year the "year of yo'bel." The translators of the LXX call this year "the year of aphesis," and by using aphesis they no doubt express the religious significance of the year, namely that it was "the year of liberty," or "the year of re­lease."

The year of jubilee restored personal lib­erty to those who had become slaves (Lev. 25:39-41, 54). A full restitution of all prop­erty also took place (Lev. 25:23-28, 31, 47­54