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I've often heard some really cool explanations around the meaning for the greek word Τετέλεσται in the New Testament where Jesus said, "It is Finished". I love what I've heard, and have even preached it myself, but at times I've also wondered whether it is accurate, since I have no scholarly reference for the illustration, and I know how preachers sometimes use things in sermons that sound good without checking out whether they are legit.

The particular illustration I'm talking about I've heard pulled from Colossians 2:13-14, where Paul talks about the "handwriting of debts against us." What I've heard is that Paul is actually referring to a common practice at the time where criminals serving time in jail would have their crimes listed on a note that was posted at the prison where they were kept, and it correlated the crimes to the amount of punishment they were to serve. Then, at the end of their sentence, the jail keeper would stamp the paper with "Τετέλεσται", meaning "PAID IN FULL."

So the apparent correlation with Christ's redemptive work of atonement is that He served our prison sentence for us, and when He cried out, "IT IS FINISHED", this is exactly what he was alluding to.

While it make plenty of theological sense to me, can anyone say whether that "practice" of posting prisoners sentences on their cell, and then stamping it with "Τετέλεσται" is a historically accurate portrayal? And are there any references that you can point me toward to learn more of this supposed practice?

EDIT: another assertion about the supposed background of the word can be found here, where the writers claim Τετέλεσται was used on business documents and receipts as a bookkeeping term to show a bill was "PAID IN FULL". There does seem to be a source listed in this example.

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This is a fascinating question. The deeper I dig, the more elusive the answer seems to be! –  Richard Oct 5 '11 at 15:36
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Was "Τετέλεσται" stamped across documents? Maybe. But I wouldn't think about translating this as "Paid in Full".

Support for this phrase

I have yet to find any true support for this phrase being used on tax documents. The closes I could come was from The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan, which says:

“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner...” (p. 630)

(This is actually from the link you mention in the question, I just realized.)

Consummatum est

I've seen many references that claimed that there was "archaeological evidence" of old Roman tax receipts had consummatum est "scrawled" on them.

This Latin phrase is the same phrase that (in the Vulgate) Jesus spoke while on the Cross. While it's not the Greek Τετέλεσται, it could be considered the same phrase that was used for the tax receipts.

Actual historical evidence

I have yet to find any valid historical evidence that either "Τετέλεσται" or "consummatum est" was added to any tax receipt or business document.

I want to believe that Moulton and Milligan had actually seen these documents instead of just hearing about them second hand. However, while they seem to be the most reliable source for this, I can't quite come to believe that they have seen the historical evidence.

Paid in Full

Throughout all my researching, I have yet to see where Τετέλεσται means "Paid in Full". Everything seems to point to the fact that "It is finished" is a much better translation. Even while writing "It is Finished" across a tax receipt or business document makes a lot of sense, that does not mean that it should be translated as "Paid in Full".

I believe that using "Paid in Full" is taking a bit too much liberty with the translation of these phrases (both the Greek and Latin).

Summary

Everything I've read seems to come from sermons or some other Christian source. I've read several places that claim there is archaeological evidence for either Τετέλεσται or consummatum est being added to documents, but have yet to see any myself. Also, every source that claims there was evidence seems questionable to me (even the most reliable). They all have the strong persuasion of the Christian agenda and seem to be slanted towards those beliefs without any evidence.

Because of this and because of the fact that these words are almost exclusively translated as "it is finished", I strongly discourage the translation of these as "Paid in Full". That translation seems far too loose and idiomatic to be sufficient.

See also for a more complete the argument against this translation.

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Thanks for your answer Richard. How about the jail cell version of the illustration? Any insights there? –  Joel Glovier Oct 5 '11 at 20:34
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I can find even less support for that. The closest that I found was someone's sermon on a forum site (ie very unreliable) that said that people put in prison for debts owed had a paper with a running total owed. Once the debt was paid, they got the "It is finished" scrawl. Realistically, that sounds sounds just as possible as the tax receipt issue, but it could have been taxes that landed them in jail in the first place. There could be something to it, but only in the sense that it could have been used for tax receipts (not dealing with jail terms specifically). –  Richard Oct 5 '11 at 20:46
    
+1 This is a really interesting and valuable answer. One thing that the paid-in-full translation misses is that the idea of τελος (from which τελεω and τετελεσται come) is actually quite an important concept in the gospels. See, for instance, John 13.1, which I read as being directly related to the final words of Jesus on the Cross. –  lonesomeday Oct 19 '11 at 17:13
    
Whether or not Jesus' word, "Accomplished!", is somehow connected to the notion of "paid in full" may be a good question for this site. The fact remains that when Jesus said what He said on the cross, our sin debt was paid for in full. I am not encouraging preachers to play fast and loose with the text. Instead of saying, "Jesus EITHER said and meant __, OR Jesus meant and said ___," perhaps we should be saying "When Jesus cried 'Finished,' it meant that BOTH His work of redemption was accomplished AND our sin debt was paid in full." As is so often the case, it's not either/or but both/and. –  rhetorician Dec 5 '13 at 13:53
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τετέλεσται is in the perfect tense, making it say something more like "It has been finished." It comes from the root verb τελέω, which comes from the noun τέλος. τέλος represents a completed end, often a goal or a final realization of something. The fact that this verb is in the perfect is a pretty big deal. The perfect tense designates a completed action with consequences into the future. In the same way that "I have broken my leg" means that there is still a problem, but "I broke my leg," or "my leg was broken" just alludes to a fact, so "it has been finished" means that it still is finished, there are still effects of that completion. If Jesus had just said "it is finished," then there would be nothing left to do, but since he said "it has been finished," we can keep on living in that completion, loving til the τέλος! Check out my blog @ www.astudentsmusingsonjesus.blogspot.com for more like this.

It has been pointed out, and rightly so, that I didn't answer the question with my "answer" above. Sorry about that. Let me fix the problem.

Yes, τετέλεσται was really stamped on paid bills and debt certificates in the first century. Not all the time was the root τελέω in this same third-person perfect passive form, but from the earliest records, including works of Plato (e.g. Alcibiades), Aristophanes and Xenophon, this verb has been used to refer to the payment of debt or (usually) taxes. In papyri fragments dating from the first century (as well as other centuries) the same verb is used with reference to debt complaints, receipts of payment and tax documents (see "THE OXYRHYNCHUS PAPYRI").

Since the word in its passive form means "has been brought to an end," "finished," "paid," and so on, it would not surprise me if this were also hung in prisons when a sentence had been completed, although it would be impossible to really know this for sure, since we don't have any first century prisons with notes hanging on the cell doors with which to test our hypothesis. Was it "debt payment" language, sometimes with connotations of payment of punishment for crimes? Absolutely.

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