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At the end of the parable of the unmerciful servant, the master has him jailed and handed over to be "tortured".

And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. (NASB)

I find this disturbing, as these are Christ's own words.

What exactly is meant by this word "torture" in this specific passage? I have studied social reactions to "torture" over the centuries and realize that it has a much broader definition than during Christ's time, so I actually find it terribly ambiguous. What is the original word used in our oldest manuscripts and how has that word been traditionally used?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

This may be related to another question about the parable that is the context for this question on Matthew 18:34 in particular.

OP: What is the original word used in our oldest manuscripts and how has that word been traditionally used?

The word used here for "torturers" is τοῖς βασανισταῖς or, in its lexical form, βασανιστής (basanistēs). There are no textual variants in the manuscript tradition affecting this word/reading (if that is what lies behind the question about "oldest manuscripts").

As you will see from the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexion entry linked, it has a reasonably wide range meaning, from one who "examines by close questioning" (so, "interrogator", I suppose) through to outright "torturer".

This is the only occurrence of this noun in the Greek Bible (Septuagint [LXX], or NT); the related verb form is used about 41 times in the LXX and NT.1 In LXX 1 Sam 5:3 (= "1 Kingdoms") it appears in an interesting "plus", in which God torments the Philistines who have taken away the Ark of the Covenant. (The rest of the LXX occurrences are in 2 Maccabees (4x), and 4 Maccabees (19x!).) In the NT, it is also used, for example, of various torments in the book of Revelation (9:5; 11:10; 12:2; 14:10; 20:10).

The word has a history, of course.2 It was used of inspection of coins, and this meaning co-existed alongside being "tormented" by disease, through to the more harrowing kind of testing that involves the rack, and so on.

OP: What exactly is meant by this word "torture" in this specific passage?

It looks like it means what it says: the unmerciful servant is being "tormented" as a result of his lack of forgiving-ness. Schneider (see note 2, p. 563) simply states that it means "tormenter" rather than "tester" without further discussion - presumably because that more benign meaning would make no sense in the context of the parable.

Donald Hagner has some useful comment on this verse:3

Torturers, though disallowed by Jews, were common in Roman prisons; in the case of unpaid debt, friends and relations would have accordingly been more urgent in raising money. Given the enormity of the debt, the imprisonment would have been permanent.This together with the reference to the torturers may hint (cf. v 35) at eschatological punishment.

And, of course, it needs to be remembered that Jesus is drawing this word-picture in a parable.

OP: I find this disturbing, as these are Christ's own words.

Jesus is recorded in the gospels as saying many disturbing things, and it seems especially so in some of Luke's parables. Compare this to, e.g. Luke 12:47 on hearing and not doing, or Luke 19:27 when the king slaughters those who rejected him, or Luke 20:16 on the tenants in the vineyard. Jesus not so gentle, meek, and mild.


  1. The related verb form is βασανίζω (basanizō).
  2. Here I'm drawing on the useful article by Johannes Schneider, "βάσανος, etc.", in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by G. Kittel & G. Friedrich (Eerdmans, 1964), vol. 1, pp. 561-563.
  3. D. A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary, 33B; Dallas: Word, 1995), p. 540.
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The English term "the torturers" in the NASB seems to be a mistranslation of the Greek ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙΣΤΑΙC (τοις βασανισταις) seen in codex Sinaiticus (c. 375-425 CE) and the earlier codex Vaticanus (c. 325-375 CE).

According to the NASB, the man was handed over to a person(s) who inflict severe physical pain as a means of either punishment or coercion. However, βασανισταις may be better understood in English as inquisitors or tormentors (cp., e.g., Strong's G930; Moulton's Analytical Greek Lexicon--Revised at βασανιστης; Mounce's Expository Dictionary #991, "a keeper of a prison, jailer").

If you've ever been tormented by numerous telephone calls or letters from bill collectors, then you might have a better idea of what ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙΣΤΑΙC (τοις βασανισταις, "the tormentors" in KJV) likely meant to Jesus.

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Personally, I doubt whether a Roman βασανιστής mercilessly rang the phones of the inmates. ;) The analogy is much too weak; the sharper sense is not only more in keeping with semantics in context, it coheres all too well with Jesus' many other hard-edged word-pictures. (And there are no variants: the Greek text of Sinaiticus is simply the common reading.) – Davïd Mar 2 '14 at 9:54
@Davïd: my analogy is apropos and based on earlier content of Matt. 18:34 as seen in codex Vaticanus (ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙCΤΑΙC, τοῖς βασανισταῖς), which was later copied in Sinaiticus. – Pat Ferguson Mar 7 '14 at 23:03
We'll agree to differ, then. :) My sense of the analogy's inappropriateness is based on contextual considerations (if you are right, then Jesus ends his parable with an anti-climax) and broader historical background of Roman culture. I am puzzled at your practice of bringing the uncials into this (and other answers, too, I believe), as that is entirely (sorry!) beside the point. When there is a common reading in the MS tradition, citing individual mss as if they contribute something of evidential value carries no weight at all. Of course they read ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙCΤΑΙC! What else would they have? – Davïd Mar 8 '14 at 9:37
@Davïd: P25, dated approx. to B and version 1 of א. Why uncials? Because I prefer earliest reading for its respective probative evidentiary value rather than orthodox (commonly accepted, "common," churchy) reading. Now, if I'm wrong, then prove me wrong; if not, let's move on :) – Pat Ferguson Mar 8 '14 at 18:57
But there is no "evidentiary value" if there are no variant readings in the MS tradition. It's that simple! – Davïd Mar 8 '14 at 19:04

Modern day tormenting carries with it a connotation devoid of love and devoid of helping the person themselves. Because the Lord is interested in people repenting and receiving salvation not wishing that anyone should perish, the word tormenting falls short based on our own misconceptions of the God induced form of "tormenting". How much pain or emotional "torment" is God willing to allow or inflict on a person until they turn, repent and forgive others for their sin and thus have the free gift of eternal life which contains all the fore-mentioned blessings? Of course, that varies on the individual. Therefore, God disciplines (scourges) those whom He loves until they receive true repentance and true forgiveness because then there will be reconciliation between all. With tormenting in a modern sense, there is no idea of bringing the person to repentance, salvation and blessing, but rather it seems to only include punishment for the sake of payment measured by an equality in suffering for wrong. God is certainly not devoid of love and thus could never be involved in such a modern sense of torment. Nevertheless, if they never repent, they will suffer in hell, in the Great White Throne Judgment and in the Lake of Fire where they will be destroyed. Yes, this will be tormenting but not by God's choosing and simply a result of not receiving the free gift of salvation which includes a resurrection body which will resist such a destruction as experienced in the 2nd death.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Due to the nature of this site, references may be required in order to support your conclusions. – Paul Vargas Oct 9 '14 at 14:09
There are two Christianity based sites on the SE network. This one, BH for short, focuses strictly on the texts. In this case, the answer should point to the word translated "torture" and make a case for what it meant to the author and what he expected his audience to believe about the word. Your answer here is more theologically founded, which is where the other site comes in: Christianity.SE. Both are great sites to be a part of and offer excellent researched answers. Just be sure to tailor your posts to the specific goals of each. – fredsbend Oct 9 '14 at 21:20

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