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Matthew 12:30-32:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

This passage causes a lot of people to worry, and it seems to contradict other passages such as 1 John 1:9 which say that God will "forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness".

ἀφίημι is the word usually translated as 'forgiven'. Shouldit be translated that way?

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3 Answers 3

While this topic is usually called the "Unforgivable Sin" I believe that is a bad translation and it should really be called the "Unignorable Sin".

Verse 32 is:

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

The Greek word for 'forgiven' is ἀφίημι (aphiémi). It has several non-relevant senses, but the relevant one is 'forgive'. But that sense also has the idea of disregarding, letting go, or overlooking. All these phrases are very near synonyms: to forgive an offence is to disregard it and let it go. But just because these words are synonymous when positive, does not mean they remain positive when they are negated. To not forgive is very different to not disregard or to not overlook.

When we turn to Jesus in repentance and faith he forgives all sins, even those we don't specifically repent of. There are many sins we have forgotten or don't think of as sin, and they can be dealt with as a package deal. What this verse is saying is that blaspheming the Holy Spirit, whatever that means (see this question) cannot be dealt with along with all the others, but must be specifically repented of, at which time it can then be forgiven.

I propose this alternative translation:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be overlooked, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be overlooked. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be overlooked, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be overlooked, either in this age or in the age to come.

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What I'm suggesting is that our English word 'forgive' has a very specific meaning which is distinct from the Greek word ἀφίημι, and that perhaps 'overlook' might be a better translation. If I'm right, then it would be best to alter how it is translated throughout the NT, not just in this one passage. –  curiousdannii Dec 9 '13 at 3:09
It is translated in KJV as follows: leave 52, forgive 47, suffer 14, let 8, forsake 6, let alone 6, misc 13 You have an uphill battle trying to prove that it shouldn't be translated as "forgive." –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 9 '13 at 4:39
I'd be interested to hear what downsides 'overlook' has. –  curiousdannii Dec 9 '13 at 10:43
@SomeFreeMason It has been tried ... to disastrous effect. You can't divorce the text from its religious implications any more than you can divorce words from their meanings. The primary motivation for this is a proclivity to reject the meaning as true. As most multilingual folks realize that is a bad recipe for accurate translation. –  Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 12:50
I mean a temporary overlooking - overlooking the lack of repentance but not overlooking the need for it to be dealt with on the cross. I think the idea does have scriptural backing in the idea of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement which was used to deal with all the sin of the nation. Christians believe that sacrifice was a picture of what Christ did, whose death dealt with all sins. My hypothesis is that while every other sin can be dealt with by his death without explicit repentance, blaspheming the Holy Spirit cannot. –  curiousdannii Dec 10 '13 at 14:00

The word "forgive*"(aphiemi-to send forth*) implies a legal action: it holds one 'harmless' from a legal debt. To be declared "aphiemi", means one's debt has been satisfied; in the case of Matt. 12:30-32, one's penalty of 'sin and blasphemy' shall be "aphiemi" them-following, of course, the prescription of 1 John 1:9,"If we confess our sins; He is faithful and just to forgive(aphemi) our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Therefore, the consequence of Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost is "ouk aphiemi" or "not forgiven". This implies impending legal action, in which a consequence of not satisfyng the debt has occured. In Mark 3:29, a parallel passage, the word "aphesis" denotes freedom or liberty, "ouk" in front of it means being held "bound for trial". We see this action in Matt. 18, when after the servant who owed his Master much, was forgiven; he instead refused to "hold harmless" one who asked him forgiveness, rather, (vs 30)"...he went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt."

The Master was furious when he found out servant whom He had "aphiemi" and "delivered him over to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due Him."(vs 35) The debt was 10,000 talents-more than anyone could pay in a hundred lifetimes.

We see then the consequence for "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is severe, and so it would be important to know what it means to do such a thing. We get the implication from the parallel account in Mark 3:30, where it says,"He hath an unclean spirit"; in other words, attributing the works of God which they saw before their own eyes, to the devil. To blaspheme God, is forgiveable; to blaspheme His Son, is forgiveable; the only way one can blaspheme the Holy Spirit is if the Holy Spirit is present, and then one blaspheme's that Presense(ie: attributes that Presense to Satan). The closest example we have of that is in Acts 5:3 where Peter tells Ananias,"Why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?" The consequence was immediate judgement, as Ananias fell down dead.

"Overlooking" does not carry a legal definition; when we are 'forgiven' we are set free from a legal obligation, of which there are legal consequences for not fulfilling. To be told "You are forgiven", is to be before the Court of Heaven, where the Lord is the Supreme Judge, and have your '10,000 talent debt' which is due cancelled, and now you are 'free to go' and enjoy your freedom.

Ref. for 'aphiemi' from letter of Demosthenes: 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.

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I'd like to add something to @curiousdanni answer (and his comments) but from Aramaic perspective. In Aramaic Peshitta the word forgiven in Matthew 12:30-32 is ܢܶܫܬ݁ܒ݂ܶܩ which can also have meanings of left, ignored, omitted, dismissed (see William Jennings' Lexicon to the Syriac New Testament) and it is used in other verses in such meaning. For example:

Luke 17:36 (and similarily in Matthew 24:40)
(KJV) Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
(Murdock) Two men will be in the field; one will be taken, and the other left.

(Murdock = Murdock's translation from Peshitta)

I think that it is possible that in days of Jesus people had different concept of forgiveness than we have now and also Jesus might have used some word-play here. It seems he commonly used word-plays - or so it seems in Peshitta.

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Which meaning of the Peshitta word would you use here in Matthew? Also, would you be able to transliterate that? I'd like to look at its cognate in Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. (And, you're right, Jesus used word plays all over the place. It's a very Hebrew thing to do.) –  Frank Luke May 30 '14 at 13:34
I tried to transliterate it by using translitration table and come up with נשׁתבק. I don't know if I did it right, I might have done something wrong. But, I tried to transliterate root of the word which is ܫܒܩ and in hebrew letters it would be שׁבק which happens to be H7662 in Strong's Hebrew Lexicon: studybible.info/strongs/H7662 –  Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:21
Also, if I was to translate this word to modern English or my native language, Polish, then I wouldn't use forgive as this is too strict. I agree with @curiousdanii that some words have changed meanings over time. In Polish our word for forgive is przebaczyć and what is strange is that przebaczyć literally means to not notice, to overlook and old Polish dictionaries explain that word with that meaning but in modern usage this word has very strict meaning which is very similar to English forgive. –  Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:26
So, modern Polish people have the same problems reading Matthew 12:30-32 as English readers, but Polish people one or two centuries earlies wouldn't have it! –  Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:27

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