Is it “debts” or “trespasses”?

by K.W. Leslie, 30 September

Matthew 6.12.

I used to be in a small group which consisted of Christians from various churches in town. So, different denominations and traditions. Most were Baptist, partly ’cause there are a lot of Baptists in town, partly ’cause we met at a nondenominational Baptist church, so their members came out to represent. And many weren’t Baptist; I’m not. But we all have the same Lord Jesus, so we tried to avoid the churches’ doctrinal hangups and focus on what unifies us in him.

Anyway one of the unifying things we did was, at the end of each meeting, we’d say the Lord’s Prayer together. We have that in common, right?

Except… well, translations. Most of us have it memorized in either the Book of Common Prayer version or the King James Version. A few know it best in the NIV or ESV, or whatever’s their favorite translation. (Or their pastor’s favorite.) But the majority know it in either the BCP or KJV.

Spot the differences.

Book of Common Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Matthew 6.9-13 KJV
9B Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever. Amen.

Some of the differences go largely unnoticed: “Who art in heaven” and “Which art in heaven” is a minor difference in pronunciation, same as the “on earth” and “in earth.” There’s a bit of confusion at the end when the BCP has “for ever and ever” and the KJV only has “for ever.”

But the real hiccup is where the BCP has “trespasses” and the KJV has “debtors.”

At first you might think (’cause some have): “Well the Lord’s Prayer is also in Luke, so let’s see what word Luke used,” but that’ll just frustrate you: Luke has Jesus say,

Luke 11.4 KJV
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.

So it’s half a vote for “debts,” because the second part of the verse describes debtors. But it doesn’t matter what people are voting: Those who say the Book of Common Prayer version have a really strong traditional bias in favor of “trespasses,” since it’s what they’ve been praying all their lives, every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer. And those who quote the King James Version have a likewise strong traditional bias in favor of “debts,” because it’s what they’ve been praying all their lives… and I’m not gonna even get into the type of KJV worshiper who thinks the KJV is the one true bible and every other variant is satanic.

Okay. Is this minor difference of wording a big deal? Of course not. But not every Christian has the maturity to recognize this, and they want to pick a fight. They wanna be the prayer leaders, largely so they can impose their favorite version of the Lord’s Prayer on everybody, and make everyone say “debts” or “trespasses” as they please.

And somehow they don’t notice everybody is pretty much saying whatever translation of the Lord’s Prayer they’re accustomed to saying anyway: For one second of cacophony, the BCP fans are saying “trespasses” and the KJV fans are saying “debts,” because nobody’s following the prayer leader: As usual, they’re reciting by memory.

And y’know what? That’s okay.

And y’know what else? If it’s not okay—if it’s making you nuts—go back and read the Lord’s Prayer again: “As we forgive those who trespass against us,” or “As we forgive our debtors,” or “As we forgive every one that is indebted to us.” We’re supposed to forgive the people who “say it wrong,” same as we’re supposed to forgive everyone. If you can’t do that, you’re doing it wrong.

So… which is the better translation?

Luke does use the word ἁμαρτίας/amartías, “sins,” but most Christians go with the Matthew version of the Lord’s Prayer, and insist we properly translate whatever word Matthew used.

But I’m gonna stick a pin in that and remind you of the old Christian principle of using the scriptures to interpret other scriptures. Both Matthew and Luke were directly quoting Jesus. So why are they different? Simple: Jesus taught this prayer in Aramaic, the language he spoke; and the authors of the gospels recorded it in Greek, the language everyone in the eastern Roman Empire spoke. They translated Jesus’s original words. Luke felt amartías, “sins,” best translated Jesus’s idea; and Matthew felt ὀφειλήματα/ofeilímata, “obligations” was a better interpretation. And the editors of the Book of Common Prayer likewise felt “trespasses” best defined ofeilímata; and the editors of the KJV thought the same of “debts.”

Yeah, obviously I think “obligations” is a better translation of ofeilímata than “trespasses” or “debts.” There are all sorts of things we have to do, or ought to do, whether they’re God’s commands or society’s expectations, and so long that we don’t sin, it’s wise to stay on the good side of people, and stay obedient to God. And when we don’t, we kinda need forgiveness. And when others don’t, we kinda need to be gracious.

“Debts” might be closer to the proper idea… and no I’m not just saying that because I like the KJV. “Debts” still isn’t the right idea—not anymore. In the 1600s when the KJV was translated, debt was considered immoral, and a crime: You could even go to prison over your debts. In bible times you could wind up in slavery. It was a way bigger deal than it is today; today debt is entirely seen as a financial transaction, not an issue of morality. (Maybe it oughta be, but that’s another discussion.) So “debts” lack the impact of the meaning Jesus means to convey: We have moral obligations throughout our lives, both to God and other people—and if we don’t meet those obligations, we need forgiveness. Which is why we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses/debts/obligations,” and why God forgives ’em.

Matthew 6.12 KWL
“Forgive us our obligations, like we likewise forgive those obliged to us.”