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Question

In Luke 6-7, What is the Difference Between the Three Greek Words for "Forgive"? How should these differences impact the interpretation of the text?

  1. Is it simply that different terms are used simply for poetic effect, (meter, diversity, consonance, etc), and these terms can be used interchangeably?
  2. Or perhaps, do the word choices suggest that only the "lower form" of forgiveness is expected from man, (carrying a financial sense), and Jesus was simply stating that God would reciprocate with "divine forgiveness" in return?
  3. Or ...

Right or wrong, it seems the people at the table held the latter view:

Luke 7:49, NASB - Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?”

But neither view really answers the question:

What is the actual semantic differences between these words? And how would these differences impact the interpretation of the text?

The Text

Luke 6:37, NASB - “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, (ἀπολύετε), and you will be pardoned, (ἀπολυθήσεσθε).

Luke 7:40, NASB - And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” (41) “A moneylender had two debtors, (χρεοφειλέται, (also in Luke 11, below)): one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. (42) When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave, (ἐχαρίσατο) them both. So which of them will love him more?” (43) Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave, (ἐχαρίσατο) more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” (44) Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. (45) You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. (46) You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. (47) For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, (ἀφέωνται), for she loved much; but he who is forgiven, (ἀφίεται), little, loves little.” (48) Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven, (Ἀφέωνταί).” (49) Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives, (ἀφίησιν), sins?” (50) And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The Odd Part

The Lord's Prayer also seems to suggest a distinction in roles reciprocating "divine forgiveness, (ἄφες)" for "earthly forgiveness" to release indebtedness, (χρεοφειλέται, which carries a financial sense).

Luke 11:4, NASB - ‘And forgive, (ἄφες) us our sins, (ἁμαρτίας), For we ourselves also forgive, (ἀφίομεν) everyone who is indebted, (ὀφείλοντι), to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

But then, later, this distinction between roles is completely erased:

Luke 17:3, NASB - 3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, (ἁμάρτῃ), rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive, (ἄφες), him.

  • It is not firmly established that there is any nuanced significance to the different words for love used in John 21, – Jonathan Chell Sep 10 '15 at 7:37
  • Regarding comment above + another notable passage: Is there any significance behind Jesus' use of the word “love” in “John 21:15-17” | I think it’s an interesting question, but not sure it’s exactly the same context - χαρίζομαι here is about canceling monetary debt; ἀφίημι is about pardoning sin (although Paul, at least, certainly uses the former in the latter sense). (Incidentally, χρεοφειλέτης - partially bolded above - appears to be unrelated to either word.) – Susan Sep 10 '15 at 7:56
  • @JonathanChell Although I see significance in the word choices in from John, I removed the reference from the question to avoid the distraction. – elika kohen Sep 10 '15 at 21:25
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In Luke 6:37, the word is a form of "ἀπολύω". As LSJ points out, it comes pretty directly from "ἀπο" (away from) + "λύω" (loose), with various uses including "undo", "release", "dismiss", etc. Because the previous two clauses use "κρίνω" (decide) and "καταδικάζω" (judge against) I tend to prefer A.I.2.b in this case:

freq. in legal sense, ἀ. τῆς αἰτίης acquit of the charge, Hdt.9.88, X.An.6.6.15; opp. καταψηφίζω, Democr.262; τῆς εὐθύνης Ar.V.571: c. inf., ἀ. τινὰ μὴ φῶρα εἶναι acquit of being a thief, Hdt.2.174; so ἀπολύεται μὴ ἀδικεῖν Th.1.95, cf. 128: abs., acquit, Ar.V.988,1000, Lys.20.20, etc

In Luke 7:42-43, the word is a form of "χαρίζω". LSJ has a long, rambling entry on this word, which I always take as a hint that our culture (and therefore language) doesn't share enough of the values of the original to make sense of it. I tend to side with sociologists who consider this term (and "χάρις", the noun form) to primarily refer to the patron-client relationship, in which case the closest English term is "do a favor for". The remainder of the LSJ entries are then various ways someone in some text has done a favor for someone else. In our case, the creditor (patron) did a favor for the debtors (clients), which we can infer is a nullification of the debt.

In Luke 7:47-49, the word is a form of "ἀφίημι", which according to LSJ is also a compound but of "ἀπο" (away from) and "ἵημι" (let, allow). There isn't much to distinguish the roots of "ἀπολύω" from "ἀφίημι"; if anything, the former carries a broad sense of leaving things alone while the latter carries a broad sense of actively undoing something. In the context of "sins", the implication is that they have been left alone/behind rather than actively dealt with one way or another.

Concentrating on the use of "χαρίζω" and "ἀφίημι" in chapter 7 (since they are complements in an extended analogy), it's clear that they are not the same word. It's tempting in the fluidity of language to then say that they must be synonyms, but this is far from a truism. If I make the analogy that my dog drinks like a kid playing in a sandbox, that does not make "drink" and "play" synonyms by any stretch. On the other hand (especially noting that some translations use the same English word "forgive" for both) it's also tempting to invent a kind of divine taxonomy where both words are subcategories of a larger concept. But this would be equally misleading: "drink" and "play" may be said to be subcategories of "act", but the categorical meaning of the analogy lies in the gestalt, not the individual word choices. Jesus compared a creditor doing a favor for his debtors with letting a woman's sins go, in order to help Simon the Pharisee understand why the woman was doing what Simon would not.

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