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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Gary Anderson about the biblical understanding of sin as they explore the following questions:

  • How do we define sin?
  • Why is it important to examine the metaphors we use to understand the world?
  • What are some metaphors for sin the Bible uses and why?
  • Where does Gary Anderson think the biblical metaphors for sin came from?
  • What does entering the underworld have to do with how we understand sin?
  • What accounts for the transition in the Bible from understanding sin as a burden to understanding sin as a debt?
  • How did Aramaic influence Hebrew in regards to understanding sin?
  • Where did the economic influence of understanding sin as a debt come from?
  • How should we carry metaphors from antiquity to our modern day?
  • Is the “missing the mark” metaphor helpful for understanding sin?
  • Is there a way to earn the forgiveness of sins? 
  • Do Jews and Christians conceptualize sin differently?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Gary Anderson you can share. 

  • “If you have a dictionary of Hebrew in Jesus’ day and looked up the word for sin… there would be no sin generically understood.” — Gary A. Anderson
  • “It’s not because the rabbis and Jesus shared this particular and peculiar interests in mercantile imagery, it’s in essence, what their native language demanded because that’s what the word for sin and forgiveness, that’s the world out of which they came.”— Gary A. Anderson
  • “Any good New Testament scholar that you read on the Lord’s Prayer, they will all make the point that the language of this prayer would hardly make sense to a Hellenistic individual whose only way of thinking is in Greek terms.” — Gary A. Anderson
  • “When one gives alms, you’re participating in that love that God showed the world in creating it in the first place and sending his son. That’s why it’s so significant.” — Gary A. Anderson
  • “We need to participate in this cycle of divine generosity, we can’t just stand there.” — Gary A. Anderson

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Introduction]


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today we’re talking about how the Bible talks about sin and we have Gary Anderson with us. Tell us a little about Gary.

Pete: Yeah. Gary is a great guy. He’s a professor at, at Notre Dame, which is pretty cool. And he’s a professor of Old Testament, like Hebrew Bible, but he really focuses a lot on, like, Judaism, and the rise of Christianity, which is a topic after my own heart and the topic today is sin. And you know, we thought, Jared, we thought we’d do something on this topic because it’s one of those things that if you stop and think about it, like, frankly, most things in the Bible, it’s words we use all the time and take for granted, but what does it mean?

Jared: Yeah, it’s foundational to how we think about the world, frankly, for a lot of us. But maybe something we haven’t taken the time to stop and think about what we’re saying and where did it come from.

Pete: Yeah, what do we mean by sin? What do we mean by God?

Jared: Right.

Pete: What do we mean by messiah? What do we mean by forgiveness? What do we mean by crucifixion? You know, atoning for sins and things like that. These are all words that, really, people spend a lot of time thinking about and fleshing out and Gary is one of those people and we talked about the big thing is the metaphors that are used for talking about sin. And, you know, right away there may be a glassy-eyed look from some of you, but don’t. This is really important because, you know, as we talk about in the podcast, metaphors are how we communicate. You know, we’re always, metaphors are like stand-ins for the real thing, so to speak.

Jared: Well, I would challenge that a little bit, in a sense that a lot of us think it’s just a metaphor.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: The word just. But the reality is, yeah, the more we talked about this with Gary and the more we reflected, metaphors are so foundational to how we actually think about the world.

Pete: Right.

Jared: I mean, in some ways most everything we think about, the language we use, is metaphor. So, it’s not just a metaphor. It’s actually extremely important to how we actually behave in the world given some of these metaphors that we’ve inherited.

Pete: And isn’t it true that the metaphors that we use are, in part, shaped by the world we live in, but also, they shape how we see the world. Right?

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: And so, if you have metaphors for like, sin is a dirty, gross thing. That’s a metaphor, you know. If that’s a metaphor, well that will shape how we think about what God is like and how does God take care of sin and things like that, and you know, we talk about mainly two big metaphors that the Bible uses which are different, they don’t really come at it from the same angle.

Jared: Well, and just to drive the point home, like, you saying sin is a “dirty thing”. What do we mean? Is sin literally full of dirt?

Pete: Dirt? Right.


Jared: No. That’s a metaphor. So, we can’t get around it.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: And so, it’s important to understand where we inherited these metaphors from. What’s appropriate about them? And the thing about metaphors is they all come to an end somewhere.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, when do we take it too far? How do we utilize it in our everyday life with other people? I mean, it’s just a great conversation with Gary.

Pete: Yeah. And as we’ll get into it, the two big metaphors are sin is a burden or a weight that we carry or it is a debt that we owe. Those don’t mean the same thing. Those conjure up different images.

Jared: And yet, they’re both in the Bible.

Pete: And they’re both in the Bible. So, and, sort of getting those straight, it’s leading, it’s opening up a path for us to follow to think more deeply about the metaphors the Bible uses and why it uses those metaphors and the metaphors that we use.

Jared: Right.

Pete: So, stay tuned. That’s what we’re talking about folks.

Jared: Good. Alright, well, let’s jump into this conversation with Gary.

[Music begins]

Gary: You have a dictionary of Hebrew in Jesus’ day and looked up the word for sin, well, there would be no sin generically understood, there would be the Hebrew word chov, which means debt, and you’d have to determine by virtue of context whether we’re talking about debt conceived of as a sin or we’re talking about a real material debt.

[Music ends]

Pete: Alright, so Gary, can you define sin for us? Because you know what, that’s like defining God, define Messiah, define Truth, define Love, defining sin. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do, so can you help us? Maybe give us just a sketch, a working definition of what that word even means.

Gary: Well now, that’s the $64,000 question. I think perhaps, the easiest answer to give is that it’s an offense, either directly against God or indirectly against God but directly against our neighbor in the Bible. Sins of, you know, both characteristics of course are taken with, you know, utter seriousness.


Pete: Yeah, and, you know, a lot of what you’ve talked about and written about has to do with metaphors for sin. Let’s get into that because first of all, I mean, this may seem really elementary, but it’s not. Like, what do you mean by talking about sin as metaphor? What are metaphors and why do we even use metaphors to talk about sin at all?

Gary: Well, we use metaphors, I think, generally when we’re speaking about concepts that are so, we might want to say abstract, that they’re always in danger of disappearing into nothingness. People often tell the story that Einstein, when he came up with his theory of relativity, imagined him travelling you know, on a cloud in the sky. I mean, he didn’t just think it in pure, you know, unadulterated thought form, he had to have his own kind of mental image to construe what he thought he was discovering, and I think the same is true with abstract theological notions. Sin is always in, certainly biblical texts, grounded in specific metaphors that writers use to give some kind of color and realism to the notion. So, sin is like a stain that adheres to your skin or your clothes or you know, you think of all the frequent New Yorker cartoons where individuals have their shoulders slumped. They’re in, you know, you can obviously see you know, a fit of depression of some sort, it looks like the whole world is weighing on them. So, artists certainly understand that, well, Biblical writers did too. Sin was understood as a weight, that if not dealt with, would crush you or finally the last thing I deal with in my book is that sin is a debt that has to be repaid. All of these, you know, images, give, I think, this abstract idea, kind of tangible and visible face that we then can look at and discuss.

Jared: So, before we go into each of those, because I think those are fascinating ways of looking at, or angles for, sin, but what I’m hearing you say is sin, to say, what is it literally versus what is it metaphorically is a question maybe we can’t answer and that the Bible seems to always use it metaphorically. Would that be a fair way to say that?

Gary: I think that’s true. I mean, if you look at, you know, the great patristic and medieval theologians, they always talk about the whole of theological speech as being this grand, what they would say, condescension of God. Not condescending in a demeaning way, but its etymological sense of God coming down to our level, conveying truths about, you know, God’s self in language that we can apprehend. Thomas Aquinas was famous for referring to human beings as rational animals, really with an emphasis on the animals. I mean, we are animals, and we require, you know, kind of pictorial form to grasp intelligible notions.

Jared: Alright, so then, let’s go back to what you said earlier. These metaphors of sin as a weight or a burden and sin as a debt. Is there any rhyme or reason to where those show up or they sort of like, we move from one metaphor to the other chronologically or, how do those interact with each other?

Gary: It’s a great question and it’s actually, you know, often a misunderstanding of my book and what I’m trying to do. I think a lot of people think of metaphors along the lines of, you know, what a great poet or prose writer will think up to describe, you know, something unfathomable. And that’s certainly one level at which metaphors work. Great writers are masters of, you know, incredible metaphors. Shakespeare, being a prime example of that. But the metaphors that I trace in my book are actually embedded in the language. They’re not the choice of a virtuoso poet. So, if you looked for example, if you have a dictionary of Hebrew in Jesus’ day and looked up the word for sin, well, there would be no sin generically understood. There would be the Hebrew word chov, which means debt and you’d have to determine by virtue of context whether we’re talking about debt conceived of as a sin or we’re talking about a real material debt. And the same phenomenon happens with the Bible with the idiom nasa’ ‘avon, to bear a sin, to be guilty. That’s, you know, that’s just the common way of speaking about sin. Frequently, biblical, you know, readers will say, well I don’t see the image of sin as a weight that often in the Bible or the Old Testament. Well, the reason you don’t is that the metaphor, to bear the weight of sin, is just rendered “sin” in English, so you don’t see it, but if you were looking at the Hebrew, it’s everywhere.


Pete: And sin is rather abstract, right? It doesn’t really, like, what do you do with a sin? What is it? And that’s what I asked at the beginning, like, how do you define it? Sins are just sort of forgiven, but that’s very abstract language, isn’t it, as opposed to, like, a burden to be lifted.

Gary: No, I think that’s exactly right, it’s also, you know, maybe analogous to why you have, you know, mourning rituals when someone dies. You know, family, someone deeply beloved to you, you obviously grieve, but you need a structure for that grief. And it’s the ritual fasting, whatever, sackcloth and ashes, that’s going to both help you experience the grief, but also manage it. And you might want to say the metaphoric nature of sin also gives you a handle on it. You know, what is it, but also, how can I be relieved of it?

Pete: Well, okay, let’s get into some of these metaphors a little more deeply. Can, what’s a good Old Testament example, let’s say, of thinking of sin as a burden or as a weight that you bear?

Gary: Well, there’s a number, like I mentioned, it’s the most frequent idiom in the entire Old Testament, so it’s everywhere, but it’s not always obvious when you read these texts that we’re talking about a weight unless you’re looking at the Hebrew. But for an English reader, the obvious example would be that of Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, in which the scapegoat is brought forward and the sins of Israel are offloaded on this animal, and this animal then carries them out into the wilderness. There could be no better image of sin as a weight than that.

Pete: Okay, so, what lies behind, because I’ve always thought of that metaphor, and I have to be honest, not completely understood it. So, there’s a weight on top of the scapegoat, or whatever that is, you know, whatever that word means. But, what’s the point, you know, of going into the wilderness with this weight? Is it just to remove it from the Holy Presence?

Jared: Or the community?

Pete: The community? Or is there something more to that?

Gary: Well, I think, I mean to go back to your, just the basic question, why this notion of weight, I think we just have to imagine again, I think of cartoons in the New Yorker of the person, you know with the shoulders slumped, a kind of gray cloud over his head. We know something is wrong. People look like, you know, the burdens of the world are on their shoulders, that works fine in English. We understand that people are burdened by what they’ve done wrong. Once we understand it as a burden, then when someone, we receive forgiveness from someone, another person for example, that burden lifts. Everyone’s had that experience of the relief of someone graciously overlooking what we’ve done when we apologize, and, if we were to continue that kind of cartoon metaphor, if it was being drawn, you’d see the individual stand up erect and the cloud over his head would be removed. That’s not metaphor, I think if we interviewed people on the street, they would say they know that experience extremely well.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Gary: And it’s that, you know, I think basic universal human experience that is, you know, in a sense, made into a form of ritual theatre in Leviticus. In other words, if that’s what happens, you know, so obviously when I confess, let’s say something wrong I’ve done to my spouse and she overlooks it and I go from, you know, being down-trodden to happy because this burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Well, I can extend that to the sins and the offenses against God; they must be similar. They must, as a weight, accumulate somewhere and need to be removed. And that’s, I think, the logic that governs Leviticus 16.

Pete: Yeah, I like the phrase, did you say liturgical theater?

Gary: Yeah!

Pete: I think that’s a great phrase because it’s a way of further concretizing the metaphor which it just, it’s relatable. You know, you can feel it rather than just reading words on a page, and that’s maybe one of the defenses for liturgy.

Gary: Well, I think, if I can just add one more thing.  You mentioned, why do they send this animal off. Well, then we have to add one more detail to the picture in the ancient Near East and certainly in the Bible, there were two ways to enter the underworld, the place furthest removed from God. One was through the axis-mundi, we all know that from the word Gehenna, which simply means the Valley of Gehinnom in Jerusalem, the entrance to the underworld is reached, you know, via the axis-mundi that goes through Jerusalem or the other way of entering the underworld was at the periphery of the wilderness.


That’s what Leviticus 16 is building on, that animal is being sent, you know, into the netherworld, where the furthest removed from God, as the Psalmist says, to remove my sins like the east from the west, as far away as possible, so that God can’t, again, we have to use anthropomorphic language. He can’t see it. If God sees it, he gets angry. If he doesn’t see it, he ignores it.

Pete: Right. And just, before we leave this, because we want to get to the other metaphor, especially debt. But, can you say something more about this goat?

Gary: What would you like to know about the goat?


Pete: Well, anything you want to say, but I do recall this word, Azazael, right, in Leviticus 16 and that represents something that isn’t always handled well in English translations as I recall.

Gary: Well yeah, we get the word scapegoat from the putative etymology of that word azaz, to go. The etymology is uncertain, some people have parsed it or understood it as a, as representing a demon who inhabits the desert world and certain, you know, post-biblical texts. Certainly, the figure was imagined that way, but in the Bible if we’re looking at the evidence of the Bible, it’s just, we’re looking into the void, there’s no explanation. We’re just left to guesses as to the meaning of that word and what it connotes religiously.

Pete: Yes. Welcome to the Bible, right? A lot of questions aren’t answered.

Jared: So, Pete mentioned this debt, and so, it raised the question for me of, if we take a few minutes just to look at the New Testament, it’s very clear that there’s this sense of debt related to sin. But, what accounts for that transition? Because I would say the dominant metaphor, if you read through some of the older texts, seems to be sin is a burden. And we get a lot of this scapegoat, you know, liturgy out of this metaphor, but at some point, it transitions to sin is a debt and it becomes more economic. Is there any sense in which, you know, what accounts for that transition?

Gary: So, that’s a great question and I don’t know if I can answer it fully. I can give you my guess –

Jared: Mm hmm.

Gary: Not everyone will accept my guess, but it’s my guess. If you look, again, so, sin is a burden. There are many, many metaphors for sin in the Bible. Sin is a stain, for example. Sin is a weight, and, you know, even others. Sin as a debt is not very common in the Old Testament, only at the very end of the Old Testament period do we see it appear, but when we look at the Hebrew and, especially, the Aramaic of the second temple period, that is the period a few centuries before the birth of Christ, all of a sudden, the word for debt becomes the standard idioms. So, we’re talking about both in Hebrew, well, in Hebrew itself a major change in the language when we move from the biblical to the post-biblical period. Probably as a result of Aramaic influence, because in Aramaic, Jewish-Aramaic, as well as Christian-Aramaic, if you look at the dictionary, you’ll see that the standard word, the word used nine times out of ten for sin, is debt. That actually is how I came upon this project in the first place. I was reading a lot of Christian and Jewish Aramaic and I was just amazed by how the language for forgiveness changes so dramatically from the Bible to the post-biblical period. You see the first intonations of this shift in 2nd Isaiah and parts of Leviticus, but it’s most obvious when we look at Second Temple Jewish texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ben Sira, and the like. For me, the kind of aha moment where the light bulb went off was when I was first reading the Dead Sea Scrolls and I came across this idiom for the forgiveness of David’s sin that used the Hebrew verb azab, most biblical readers actually are going to know that word from its Aramaic translation sabach and the citation of Psalm 22 on the cross, sabachthani, why have you forsaken me. That would be Hebrew azab; it means to not, it can mean to forsake, it can mean to divorce, it also mean to not collect on a claim. And this Dead Sea Scroll text was very peculiar because it was using azab with the sense of forgiveness. I knew from the sentence that’s what it meant, but azab never means that in the Bible.

Pete: Hmm.


Gary: And so, I was sitting there scratching my head. How could this be? How could this be? And then it occurred to me that, well, azab translates Aramaic sabach, that’s what we have in Psalm 22, and that this is an example what linguists would call a calque, or a writer here is a bilingual individual and he’s transferring a meaning from Aramaic into Hebrew. Anyone who has spoken with someone who is bilingual will, if you talk long enough, even if the person is a master of the other language, you’ll hear mistakes. It’s impossible not to make mistakes where their own language interferes with their second language. And that’s essentially what was happening in Second Temple, these Second Temple texts, you could see this, the influence of spoken Hebrew, spoken Aramaic changing the way in which authors who are trying to write in the biblical idiom were writing.

Pete: Mm hmm. Well, is there something in the transition from burden to debt, first of all, I mean, two-part question: give us, help us with the time frame, perhaps, if possible, to nail that down and, you know, debt is economic, right? So, are there any economic turns in the world that might have made debt a pleasing metaphor to use that people would understand?

Gary: [Light laughter]

Yeah, I’ve wondered that too. Well first of all, maybe, on that topic I’ve always reacted somewhat negatively to New Testament scholars especially who want to use the economic language that Jesus employs in the Gospel in a very specific economic way. I can’t say that that’s absolutely wrong. In interpreting any text, one can never be 100% sure of anything.

Pete: Right.

Gary: But what always makes me worried or suspicious is the presumption there is that Jesus is choosing these metaphors because, you know, he’s siding with the poor. He sees the oppression of Rome, so on and so forth. Now, I agree with all of that, Jesus does side with the poor, he does see the oppression of Rome, but the problem with, you know, emphasizing the importance of the debt language that way is that’s the way everybody talked in his day. In other words, if there was a Roman overlord who knew Hebrew, he’d talk that way as well. That’s just the language, that’s just what the dictionary gives you. That’s what you learn with your mother’s milk.

Pete: Right.

Gary: So, it’s just the way you talked. That goes back to what I said earlier, you know, there’s metaphors that people invent to reflect, you know, their unique way of construing the world, and then there’s metaphors that we just inherit as, you know, part of the language we learn.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Gary: And that’s what’s happening here. Now the origins of it? I don’t know. The only example, the only answer I can perhaps give, and it’s just a stab in the dark, I wouldn’t want to go to the bank with it as it were, no pun intended.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Oh, it is intended, the pun is intended.

Jared: Intended, yeah.

Gary: Well, you know, these idioms for debt appear in the Persian period at the earliest and that is the time in which we have the circulation of coinage for the first time.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Gary: Widespread utilization of coinage. So, perhaps there’s a relationship there, but even if that’s its deep origin, this idiom lasts for a millennium, and it’s clearly, you know, functional apart from any kind of putative economic origin.

Pete: Right.

Gary: Explaining its origin is not going to explain, you know, the way in which it was viable for so many centuries in Jewish and Christian texts.

Jared: Okay, so before we get to some of the New Testament language, because I think it’s really vital that we talk about the way Jesus and the atonement participates in what I might say, this metaphoric world. And I use that intentionally, because I can’t help but think of writers like Lakoff and Johnson who talk about metaphoric worlds. So, in all of this discussion, we kind of think of metaphor as like, I might say, a first order. Like okay, it’s fine to talk about sin as a debt, but if you talk about sin as a debt, but there are other things that we might say map onto that metaphor. Like, there are other things related to that metaphor that leads to other metaphors and eventually you kind of construct this whole metaphoric world, and I couldn’t help but think maybe Jesus’ life and death and resurrection participates in the language that people are using at the time. So, if economy, coinage, and debt is the language that people are familiar with and using in everyday language, it seems that they might use that language to explain Jesus’ death and resurrection in that way. Is that what we see when we think of things like ransom and other ways of explaining the significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection? Is it in this, they’re participating in this “metaphoric world”?


Gary: No, exactly. So, one of the things I try to trace in the book is that it’s one thing to identify the metaphor, and I learned this from Paul Ricoeur, but the metaphors give rise to a certain shape to a story. So, we know in the Lord’s Prayer, at least in the original, the way in which the Greek reads, we ask that our debts be forgiven. Both the word for sin there, which is debt in Greek, and the word for forgiveness, I mean Raymond Brown, the great New Testament scholar who knew Greek and knew Aramaic and Hebrew, remarked that this word for remitting sin in the Lord’s Prayer is very peculiar. No native-Greek speaker would’ve thought of this word as a natural word for forgiveness, because what it really means is to remit a debt. So, there’s the metaphor in its bald, clear form, but then when we look in the New Testament, as you just mentioned, when Jesus starts telling parables about the forgiveness of sins, he so frequently turns to images of individuals who are debtors in their relationship to creditors, like the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. That reads like a commentary, actually, on the Lord’s Prayer; an individual who is forgiven by his king won’t forgive those underneath him. Well, why does Jesus choose an image like that? Well, again, here’s where the Jewish evidence, I think, is very, you know, useful. If you look at the Second Temple Hebrew, especially rabbinic Hebrew, the types of stories, parables that the rabbis would tell about sin and debt, they are the same character. They were of a financial shape and idiom and it’s not because the rabbis and Jesus shared this particular and peculiar interests in mercantile imagery, it’s in essence, what their native language demanded because that’s what the word for sin and forgiveness, that’s the world out of which they came.

Pete: Yeah. It’s interesting, you know, the remission of sins, which is something that people say in church on a regular basis, just understanding that that has behind it, this debt kind of metaphorical world and it means something. It’s not one we necessarily participate in, in our culture. Maybe we do, but not necessarily, but just even knowing that is really important, I think. Another thing I hear you saying, Gary, is that the language of debt is Jewish language.

Gary: Correct.

Pete: It’s not something that’s gleaned from the Greco-Roman world, of say, the influences of the century or two before the time of Christ. It’s something that’s more deeply embedded in a Jewish way of thinking.

Gary: No, that’s exactly right. In fact, you know, that’s Ray Brown, but any good New Testament scholar that you read on the Lord’s Prayer, they will all, you know, make the point that the language of this prayer would hardly make sense to, you know, a Hellenistic individual whose only way of thinking is in Greek terms. It comes out of a decidedly Semitic background. The other text that was very influential on this project of mine, it actually was a carryover from my previous book on the fall of Adam and Eve. I was very struck when I wrote that book that when you look at early Christian writers, all of the early church fathers and the iconography that follows from this theological thinking, the favorite text of the early church to describe the atoning act of Jesus Christ is Colossians 2:14. A verse that describes the atonement as God erasing a bond, a Greek cheirographon or Aramaic shtar hoba,that is a deed that someone holds against you, a debt instrument that somehow on the cross, Jesus rips a debt instrument held against us and that constitutes the atonement. Well, I can’t tell you how important that verse is. In fact, when you look, try to look it up in various, you know, dictionaries that will give you biblical verses and all the patristic writers that will cite that verse, you’re not going to get a full catalog because this verse is so important it actually becomes part of the native idiom of the writers themselves, so they’ll use the clause without citing the verse; it’s simply their language. You might want to say it’s like certain Christian hymns that come out of, let’s say, texts from the Apostle Paul or the Psalms, but we know the hymns so well we’ve forgotten the Biblical texts out of which they, you know, came from. That’s the kind of atmosphere, the importance, we might want to say, of Colossians 2. It’s just everywhere. And why is it everywhere, that’s the –

Pete: Yeah, why?



Gary: Well, the why is pretty easy to answer because everybody is so imbued with the notion that sin is the debt, so here you have the text that describes, you know, very clearly how that, you know, debt is going to be voided, voided by Christ on the cross by, you know, ripping it in two.

Pete: Right. Side issue here with the Lord’s Prayer, I don’t know if you can help with this, but you know, I know some churches say debt and debtors and others say trespasses, is there any biblical sort of support for saying trespasses rather than debt?

Gary: Well, now we’re getting into, you know, a more complicated issue, and really we’re kind of outside my range of expertise and that’s how do we carry all of this material from antiquity to the present-day? I’m not opposed to forgive us our sins, forgive us our trespasses; the problem with using debts in our own day is people aren’t going to understand it as sin. In fact, they would be like the Greeks hearing the Lord’s Prayer for the first time themselves, they would be puzzled that Jesus, when he was translated into Greek, would express, you know, himself in this fashion. And I think many people in churches today, if we were to revert to a literal translation of that prayer, would be puzzled and maybe many of them would be offended.

Pete: True.

Gary: I think of when I mention this financial, you know, imagery frequently to lay people, they don’t like the association of money with God.

Pete: [Laughter]

Gary: They find it offensive, which it certainly doesn’t have to be, but I can see why they do. It’s not difficult to figure that out.

Jared: So, I think at some point here, it would be great to move to, okay, what metaphor do we use today, but before we get there, I just, again, in the spirit of Pete going off topic here. Growing up, I might have heard a half dozen sermons on, you know, the real Greek root is hamartia, which is missing the mark, which is actually an archery metaphor.

Gary: Right.

Jared: So, how does that fit into all this? It just came to mind as we were talking about this, I was thinking, oh, I heard about this other metaphor quite a bit and there’s been many a sermon fodder for this missing the mark metaphor. How does that fit into this debt metaphor?

Gary: Well, of course, that is the standard Greek word, so it’s not wrong, but it’s not really taking the landscape of, we might want to say, the Semitic background of the New Testament and it wouldn’t understand, why then isn’t Jesus talking about marksmen and arrow shooters or whatever every time he wants to give you a story. You know, to tell you in the most concrete fashion imaginable, how sin works, why does Jesus always turn then, to financial contexts? Or why is it then in the early church that Colossians 2:14 is so extraordinarily important if sin is really basically this missing the mark. I think missing the mark is there, just like sin as a stain, there are a lot of other images for sin, I’m not denying any of those. They’re all there and they all have, you know, their own significance, but my point in my book is that, you know, when we’re looking at Jewish material and Jewish-influenced individuals, like Jesus of Nazareth, in Hebrew, in Aramaic, when you look up in the dictionary the word for sin, it’s not hamartia, it’s hob/hoba and it’s that Semitic world that you need to bear in mind and the Greek of the New Testament is trying, you know, its best to render that Semitic world, but the world of early Christianity, certainly of the first, you know, followers of Jesus, are not, you know, they’re not defined by the Greek lexicon.

Jared: I just want to make sure that we pause on that point, because I think it’s actually really significant, that what I hear you saying is sure, Jesus in our New Testaments that are translated into Greek is using a Greek word hamartia, but it’s a little bit, I mean sure, it’s there maybe as a secondary, tertiary way of understanding, but we really have to think the fuller context of that metaphoric world or the language. Frankly, the language that Jesus and these Semitic peoples would’ve been speaking, and there’s some things that are just lost in translation. So, if the dominant metaphor we see throughout Jesus’ ministry is sin as a debt, and we see the word hamartia, which is a Greek word, we can’t just impute all of these Greek connotations there, we have to really understand, which is kind of nuanced, that Jesus is using this dominant metaphor of sin as a debt more often than not and give weight to that. Is that fair?


Gary: That’s certainly how I would see it and for me, you know, it was what really quickened, we might want to say, my imagination on all of this was my deep reading in the Syriac church fathers, that is that branch of early Christianity for which Syriac was their native language, especially for the first three or four centuries when the Syriac was itself was not overly influenced by Greek, you know, the debt material is extraordinary. All the words are the same as they are in the Mishnah and Talmud, I mean, the Christians and Jews share the very same vocabulary for sin and atonement. Now, there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between Syriac and the language of Jesus. Some people, I think, you know romantically like to say that, they want to study Syriac so they can study the language of Jesus. I’m not saying that, but I am saying this, when you read the Syriac church fathers from third and fourth centuries, you’re entering into a language that retains that deep, you know, debt-structure to the idiom of sin that Jesus himself used. So, you definitely can get a good sense of the landscape of the language for sin and atonement from attending to these materials, not without nuance mind you, I’m not saying read the church fathers and you’re in first century Palestine. People do say that, that’s ridiculous, but you are closer to capturing, you might want to say, the Semitic background of Second Temple Hebrew than you are if you’re only reading Greek and Latin church fathers.

Pete: Mm hmm. Well, okay. So you and your book, you tie this metaphor of debt to a couple of things. One is the atonement, which we touched on already, maybe we’ll have time to come back to that, I hope we do, but also to this idea of merit or credit and what Christians actually do in their lives. Can you, I just introduced that in a very convoluted way, can you explain that? Because that’s a very fascinating concept, like acts of virtue are merits or credits which, right away you see the debt language in that.

Gary: Right, and it’s important to say a couple of things here when I mention this frequently, especially some Protestants and perhaps especially on the Lutheran side, their hair stands on end. I always like to say though, my colleague Joseph Wawrykow at Notre Dame who works on the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas, wrote a very fine article on the place of good deeds in the Christian life comparing Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin. And, you know, he could find, hardly, you know, any difference between them. Both would speak very emphatically that we are saved by grace alone, but both would also say, very emphatically, that that grace, you know, isn’t inert, that, you know, it reshapes people, there’s something called sanctification of growth in the Christian life. And that’s really what’s, you know, the church fathers to an end, to hear in imagining if sin is a debt then the kind of merit-worthy practice that one can engage in to offset the deleterious effects of sin is almsgiving to the poor because it funds, as Jesus says, a treasury in heaven. Now, it’s important not to get too mechanical here. It’s not as though we just have a big chalkboard and I have to give away enough alms to cover the amount of debts or sins I have. It’s not conceived that crudely. Almsgiving, I think, has the value it does both in early Judaism and in early Christianity because it’s an act of unmerited mercy that I bestow on someone else, it has an incalculable value. That’s why it’s a treasury in heaven, not an earthly treasury. That’s why it will never rust. That’s why thieves can’t break in and take it. When one gives alms, you’re participating in that love that God showed the world in creating it in the first place and sending his son. That’s why it’s so significant. In a sense, yes, it’s tit for tat, debt, merit, credit, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think it’s these merits, these credits have the value they do because a God gave them that value, but also they participate in God’s inexhaustible mercy.


Pete: Yeah, I think participate is sort of an important word because I’m looking at, I know a passage you mentioned in Daniel 4 talking about, I guess talking about Nebuchadnezzar, but to redeem your sins by giving alms. That’s in the Bible, right? So, but it’s not the kind of passage that, at least the Protestants that I’ve hung around with my whole life would run to, to preach a sermon on. It sounds too much like, Jesus did it all and you have nothing to contribute to that. But, maybe, I think, if I’m channeling you correctly Gary, maybe we do have something. Maybe our actions mean something, and we do have something to contribute.

Gary: I think that’s, you know, exactly right. Saint Augustine, I think, said it best, he said, you know, when Christ crowns our merits at the heavenly banquet, he’s simply praising his own gifts, that is what he gave to us in the first place. The example I used in my book, and I think it’s as good as any, is the parent who gives their four or five-year-old five dollars to go buy the other parent a Christmas present in the store, that happens in every family I know. Anyone who receives a gift from a four or five-year-old knows that they didn’t earn the money to purchase the gift, but they’re moved anyway, because the child, by virtue of the money the father or mother has given them, they participate in the love of the family, and that’s important. That’s super important, and I think that’s how the language of merit and credit works in Christianity, is that, you know, we need to participate in this cycle of divine generosity. We can’t just stand there. You know, righteousness is not just imputed. It’s not just forgiveness isn’t just amnesty, the judge saying you’re innocent and then you walk out the door.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Gary: I think that really fails to capture what we might want to call the theatrics of grace, to return to that image, that we’re pulled onto a stage, into a world we’ve now re-understood by the virtue of the grace of Christ as animated by this unfathomable love and we start giving away our money as almsgivers, sometimes in a reckless fashion because we’re trying to mirror, imitate, participate in the reckless love that God has shown towards us.

Pete: Mm hmm. Well, okay. Just, I mean, we’re getting close to sort of our time. We want to be respectful of your time too, but something I read in the book that just fascinated me and I want to make sure I asked you about this, was how Jesus is depicted on the cross in iconography –

Jared: Define what iconography is.

Pete: Just, stuff that has Jesus on it and other kinds of holy things.

Jared: [Laughter]

It’s just a word that maybe people wouldn’t understand. Like pictures and things throughout church history.

Pete: Yeah, holy relics and things like that, drawings and paintings and things. So, I think, again I’m going to try and riff a little bit, but break in any time you want to and stop me. In traditions that emphasize the debt metaphor, you might see Jesus, you might emphasize Jesus’ suffering on a depiction of Jesus on the cross. In other traditions, and I think you mentioned the Syriac tradition, the image of Jesus is very, very different. That’s, could you talk about that? Because I find that absolutely fascinating how different traditions emphasize different things talking about Jesus on the cross.

Gary: Well, what I, you know, really learned as I, you know, dived into this subject, I finally understood one of the most popular books of the 20th century on the atonement, Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor, I don’t think you could find a theologian worth his salt who doesn’t, you know, not only does he not own that book but the book would be dog-eared. Maybe in the last generation it’s not read as much, but when I was in divinity school at Duke, if you went down into the stacks, you would’ve seen ten or fifteen copies of it. I always liked to go and look at what books the library owns multiple copies of because that’s a good indication of their importance.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: That’s a good tip for people.

Gary: Yeah, it really tells you something. So, what does Gustav Aulén talk about in Christus Victor? Well, Christ is the victor over Satan, and again, it’s a plot line. Satan is trying to figure out, you know, who Christ is and whether Christ falls under the terms of the bond that he holds going back to Colossians 2:14. If Christ is a man, then as a result of the fall Satan can justly take him; if he’s not a man, he can’t take him. So, according to this theory of the atonement, Satan is trying to figure out during Jesus’ earthly life whether he is a man or a God. On the cross when he sees him, you know, utter the cry of dereliction he figures he’s got him, he takes him, and of course then he’s in for a big surprise. Then Christ can affect the atonement, redeem us from our sins, how? Because Satan, who held that bond, has now overreached. He’s violated the terms of that bond and so God can now justly clear everybody out of Hell by virtue of Christ’s work. So, it’s a beautiful image, I think. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily want to recreate it for our own day, but I certainly appreciate in its own and it certainly was, let’s say for the first thousand years of Christianity, one of the most popular, widely influential depictions of the atonement you could find.


Pete: Yeah. So, it’s not emphasizing the suffering of Jesus to –

Jared: Appease.

Pete: Not so much to appease, but to pay.

Jared: Oh, okay.

Pete: You know, tying it into the debt metaphor but it is, the emphasis is on Jesus’ victory over the devil and over death.

Gary: Right, because the devil, the devil, and many church fathers made this point, that he had a legitimate claim on the human race. In other words, God issued a commandment, vis-à-vis

the tree of good and evil that had a penalty attached to it that Adam and Eve voided. Because God is just, he can’t just say that doesn’t matter; it matters. Satan is the one who was appointed to, you know, kind of like Satan and Job, to oversee the execution of the justice that God looks like he’s responsible for. But here’s what I think is really so beautiful about the whole image: God has to somehow justly deprive Satan of his rights, and that’s how the Christus Victor model then emerges. Satan has a bond, he extracts the price of sin by way of our death, but he has no rights to take the Son of God who hasn’t sinned. He takes him, that’s Christ dying on our behalf, you know, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” All of that stuff neatly applies here, but so does God’s justice. In other words, God isn’t violating his justice in forgiving sins, but he’s, you know, in a sense vacating Satan of the rights he has over us.

Jared: So, final question here. With all of these metaphoric worlds and metaphors we use for sin, what are the implications for today? Is it appropriate to adopt new metaphors that make use of the language we have today and what are some of the common ones or maybe ones you feel most comfortable with that are faithful to that tradition, but also capture our way of talking today?

Gary: If I go back to the very theme I began with of things, sin is a thing. It’s something that’s durable. Something that lasts over time, you think of a stain, how difficult it is, sometimes impossible, to remove a stain from a piece of clothing. That’s deep in the Bible’s sensibility, it’s reflected, you know, in statements we have, for example, in the Ten Commandments that God visits the sins on the fathers and the sons and the grandsons, there’s something durable, lasting about sin. It’s serious. Sometimes Bible readers take offense at that imagery. In the courses I teach at Notre Dame, I always use the lines from Barack Obama when he was first running for President, before he was President, and he referred in an address in Philadelphia to what he called the original sin of slavery or the original stain of slavery, the stain of sin, I can’t remember exactly what he used, but his point was well-taken. He didn’t always use religious vocabulary, but he used it here. Why? Because religious vocabulary was uniquely capable of conveying a sense of human wrongdoing that has a reach that stretches over centuries. Certainly, over the last few weeks, I think all of us, if anyone has even a modicum of interest in the news, we can see that the effects of slavery are very much with us today. That it is a stain, it is a debt, there is a kind of thingness to the grave wrong that’s been done that will take some time and some effort to undo. I think the Bible was very attentive to the character of grave social evils like that and one of the reasons why it, you know, takes the ordering of the body politic so seriously because when people screw up at that, you know, level of behavior, the consequences are not only grave immediately, but they’re grave for a long time.


Jared: Gary, thank you so much for talking with us about sin and I think we could just keep going down this rabbit-hole for a long time, but in the interest of time, is there any places where people can learn more about this world of sin and metaphor and maybe be in touch with you about that, ask questions or where can people find you?

Gary: Well, they certainly can find my books and if they wish to find me, the best way to do that is via email. I don’t have a webpage I’m sorry to say, but I’m easily locatable if you search for my name at the Notre Dame website or, if you can remember that, and if you mention that you heard me on this podcast, I’ll be happy to entertain any question you might send me.

Jared: That’s great. So, I have a few more questions so if I email those to you, you’ll respond, you’ll be okay with that?

Gary: Yeah.

Pete: Or just show up at your house, where do you live? I mean, we won’t tell anyone we promise.

Jared: [Laughter]

We’ll put your physical address in the show notes so if anyone actually goes searching for it, they’ll –

Pete: No, we wouldn’t do that, we’re nice people.

Jared: But thank you so much for being on, Gary, we really appreciate it.

Gary: Thank you. My pleasure.

Pete: See you, Gary.

Gary: Bye bye.

[Music begins]

Pete: Hey folks, thanks for listening to another episode, hope you got a lot out of this, we certainly did. Hey, one big announcement, you don’t even need this announcement because I know you think about this every day. It’s on your mind and it occupies your thoughts from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, but Jared has a book coming out in about a month, right? What’s the name of the book? How the Bible Actually Works? No, that’s my book.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Sorry, I did it again, I keep bringing myself into this. It’s always about me. Go ahead, Jared, this is about you.

Jared: It’s called Love Matters More. Love Matters More, which is why I keep forgiving Pete for bringing himself into the center of things.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. I would really appreciate your support. If you could go to you can preorder it and that gives us a real boost as we head into this launch season with the book. So again, if you could, it’s called Love Matters More. You can find it on, you can preorder it, and that gives us a real boost as we head into this launch season with the book. So again, if you could, it’s called Love Matters More, you could find it on or just go to wherever you would normally buy your book, you’ll find it, just search for it. Again, really appreciate your support. And if you’re really inclined, you can leave an Amazon review –

Pete: Oh yeah!

Jared: Which goes a long way. It’s really appreciated.

Pete: Yeah. Alright folks, thanks for listening. Talk to you soon.

Jared: See ya.


Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Producer: Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhardt; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing and Administration, Reed Lively; Transcriptionist, Stephanie Speight. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends] [Beep]

Pete: Okay, and now the outro.

Jared: Outro, hold on Dave.

Pete: What are we –

Jared: I have it on my list Dave, that by season five I will have this printed out so that every time I don’t have to pause and pull up the roster and see what we’re promoting. Okay?

Pete: This is the Fall, right?

Jared: Okay. Okay. So, get off my back, Pete and Dave.

Pete: I’m tired Dave, so tired.

Jared: Geez. You guys are always on me.

Pete: [Laughter] [End of recorded material]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.