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It seems that there are three popular versions of this passage in the Lord's prayer. "Forgive us our sins", "Forgive us our debts", and "Forgive us our trespasses".

I see one version here in the NIV:

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

There's the "sin" version in the New Living Translation:

Matthew 6:12 (NIRV)
Forgive us our sins, just as we also have forgiven those who sin against us.

Where does the "trespasses" version come from? Also, which of these three translations is the closes to the original?

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3 Answers 3

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How it has been translated into English

The Greek word is a form of ὀφείλημα (3783), which according to Strong's has been translated

1) that which is owed 1a) that which is justly or legally due, a debt 2) metaph. offence, sin

The word comes from ὀφείλω (3784):

1) to owe 1a) to owe money, be in debt for 1a1) that which is due, the debt 2) metaph. the goodwill due

Lexical sources

According to BDAG (and Moulton & Milligan), the primary meaning of ὀφείλημα is

that which is owed in a financial sense, debt, one’s due.1

It can also refer to an "obligation in a moral sense, debt" (and is used in a similar way to the Aramaic חוֹבָא in rabbinical literature).2

Analysis of usage in biblical literature

The other appearances of ὀφείλημα in biblical literature support the primary meaning of this noun according to BDAG.

  • Deuteronomy 24:10

Ἐὰν ὀφείλημα ἦ ἐν τῷ πλησίον σου, ὀφείλημα ὁτιοῦν, οὐκ εἰσελεύσῃ εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ ἐνεχυράσαι τὸ ἐνέχυρον (LXX, emphasis mine).3

If there is a debt with your neighbor, whatever kind of debt, and you shall enter into his house to take in pledge his pledge.4

  • 1 Esdras 3:20

καὶ πᾶσαν διάνοιαν μεταστρέφει εἰς εὐωχίαν καὶ εὐφροσύνην καὶ οὐ μέμνηται πᾶσαν λύπην καὶ πᾶν ὀφείλημα (LXX, emphasis mine).5

It turns every thought to feasting and mirth, and forgets all sorrow and debt.6

  • 1 Maccabees 15:8

καὶ πᾶν ὀφείλημα βασιλικὸν καὶ τὰ ἐσόμενα βασιλικὰ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν καὶ εἰς τὸν ἅπαντα χρόνον ἀφιέσθω σοι (LXX, emphasis mine).7

Every debt you owe to the royal treasury and any such future [debts] shall be canceled for you from henceforth and for all time.8

  • Romans 4:4

τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ὀφείλημα... (NA27, emphasis mine).9

Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.10

This last use by Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans makes it clear that in the first century (the same approximate historical time frame in which the Gospel commonly attributed to Matthew was likely written), the meaning of ὀφείλημα was in contradistinction to a gift (χάριν).

Analysis of usage in extrabiblical literature

The distinction between χάριν and ὀφείλημα brought out by Paul of Tarsus is elucidated several hundred years earlier by Thucydides (4th-5th century BCE), when he writes

οὐκ ἐς χάριν, ἀλλʼ ἐς ὀφείλημα

not as a favor but as payment of an obligation.11

The primary meaning as given by BDAG is supported by numerous other extrabiblical writings as well.12

Conclusion

Both Matthew Black and Bauer, Danker, & Arndt suggest that ὀφειλήματα means 'sins' in Matthew 6:12.2 The parallel reading in Luke 11:4 has "τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν" ('our sins') which lends support to this reading. In addition, analysis of the verb form of this noun (ὀφείλω)13 and its relationship to חוֹבָא and corresponding חַיָּב in rabbinical literature also lend support to this reading (particularly if the prayer was originally composed in Aramaic).

The strongest support, however, comes from the immediate context of the prayer, recorded in vv. 14-15:

Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν, ἀφήσει καὶ ὑμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος· ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ἀφήσει τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.14

This context makes a clear comparison between ὀφειλήματα and παραπτώματα, the latter meaning "a violation of moral standards, offense, wrongdoing, sin" (clearly not solely restricted to financial debt).15

For these reasons (but particularly the contextual support), it is likely that 'sins' are the intended 'debts' in this context, but the actual reading is that word generally used for financial 'debts', i.e. 'that which is owed.'


1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 743.

2 Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd ed., ed. Patrick H. Alexander (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 67, 140.

3 Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Dt 24:10.

4 Rick Brannan, Ken M. Penner, Israel Loken, et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Dt 24:10.

5 Septuaginta, Esd A 3:20.

6 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), 1 Esd 3:20.

7 Septuaginta, 1 Mac 15:8.

8 NRSV, 1 Mac 15:8.

9 Eberhard Nestle, Erwin Nestle, Barbara Aland, et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 415.

10 NRSV, Ro 4:4.

11 cp. Thu. 2, 40, 4. From BDAG, 743.

12 "Pla., Leg. 4, 717b; Aristot., EN 8, 15, 1162b, 28; 9, 2, 1165a, 3; SIG 1108, 10 [III/II B.C.]; PHib 42, 10 [262 B.C.]; PLond III, 1203, 4 p. 10 [113 B.C.]; POxy 494, 10 ὀφειλήματα." Ibid., 743. Also cf. Moulton and Milligan, 468.

13 Cf. especially the verbal form (ὀφείλετε) in Romans 13:8.

14 Nestle & Aland, 27th ed., 13-4.

15 BDAG, 770.

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1  
I think the noun is ὀφείλημα (with φ rather than πη, then η not ε) and the verb is ὀφείλω (same difference + ω rather than ο). I'm totally baffled by what's going on at the NET bible links to Strongs (you quoted the main entries exactly as they are there, even 2 yrs later). @Frank Luke answered later and didn't mention this so I'm wondering if I'm missing something? (I also can't make edits without one of you approving anyway...) –  Susan Jun 8 at 15:42
    
@Susan: Feel free to suggest an edit and one of us will very likely approve it. The Blue Letter Bible seems to agree with you. My guess (given only a small amount of understanding of the Greek language) is that this is was an error caused (somehow) by transliterating the word to Latin characters and back to Greek. φ => ph => πη –  Jon Ericson Jun 9 at 16:01
    
Done. I checked out a few more of the entries in the NET bible Strongs links, and the spelling of the main entries is frequently wrong in similar ways, I suppose due to some systematic errors related to the transliteration chain as you suggested. For the consonantal changes this is often obvious if you look at the example uses below. The other frequent error is verbs ending in ο which I think is safe to say is never correct for a lexical form - ω is usually meant (μι and μαι are also possible but usually correct there). –  Susan Jun 10 at 0:29
    
I know this is old and represents a bygone era of BH.SE, but for future readers it bears repeating that Strong's is a concordance, not a lexicon. Strong is showing how the words are translated, but that doesn't mean that the words should or can be translated that way. I've edited the answer to cite better resources and to glean insights from analysis of other usages of the word. –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jun 10 at 3:07

In sensus plenior it appears that the prayer is an interpretation of Ps 23:

The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Father and Shepherd

David was shepherd who was the ruler of Israel. The word 'ab' means both 'father' and 'ruler'. He was the shepherd father of Israel. Jesus teaches us to pray to the father ruler of all.

I shall not want vs. Hallowed be thy name.

The word for 'want' is 'void'. In the beginning God created the void and then filled it with his light, which represents holiness. " I shall not be the void, but God's holiness will be made manifest in me." "Holy be your name"

Peace with God

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 3 He restoreth my soul:

10 Thy kingdom come.

One can lie down when there is peace with God in his kingdom.

Trusting God

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Bread

he leadeth me beside the still waters.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

Water is the word of God. In flood it destroys. The still water is the dead Word of God, Christ in the grave. He said his body was the bread given for us.

Leading

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

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.

Forgiveness

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

In middle eastern cultures one does not eat with your enemy. Since the Psalm has the enemy at the table, all things have been forgiven. You have been filled with God's spirit (anointed with oil) and the life he has given you, you give to your enemy (cup runneth over).

In this context, if Jesus was interpreting the 23rd Psalm, the original meaning is that you should love your enemy. The translation alone does not do it justice.

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The word used is the word for "debt" (as Jon states), but in rabbinic teachings and parables, a person's sin before God was often symbolized by debt owed to a king, landowner, or other person.

An excellent example of this can be found in Matthew 18. Peter asks Jesus how often to forgive when a brother sins against him. Jesus responds with a parable about debt and directly links the two in the conclusion with "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

Matthew 18:21-35 Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

23 ¶ "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 "When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 "But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' 27 "And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' 29 "So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' 30 "But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 "So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 "Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' 34 "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

The word for debt is the same one in the Lord's prayer.

From the rabbinic literature, Sifre Deut. 26

A parable: A man borrowed from the king a thousand kor of wheat per year. Everyone said, "Can it be possible for this man to manage a loan of one thousand kor of wheat in one year? It must be that the king has made him a gift of it and has written him a receipt!" One time the man had nothing left over and could not repay anything to the king, so the king entered the man's house, seized his sons and daughters, and placed them on the auction block, whereupon everyone knew that the man had received no pardon from the king.

Added on Edit "Blessed art thou O Lord our God King of the Universe who grants grace to debtors" (Jerusalem Talmud Berakot 14a ch. 9, halakah 2 and parallels)

Also the texts in Exodus Rabbah 31:1 and Pesik Rabbah 44.

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Very interesting connection to Talmudic sources. –  Jon Ericson Feb 6 '12 at 7:52

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