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Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21-22 (NLT)
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

The NIV has 77 whereas the NLT has 490. Interestingly enough, the footnotes for each on BibleGateway say that it could also be translated the other way. So, in this case, the difference between 77 and 490 seems to be purely the translator's decision. This suggests that the Greek is ambiguous somehow...and I'm curious as to why.

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The ambiguity comes from a difference between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint (a Greek translation). Jesus is teaching to forgive by reversing the statement of Lamech in Genesis 4.

Gen 4:24 "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold." (NASB)

The NASB follows the Hebrew which has שִׁבְעִים וְשִׁבְעָֽה (shib'iym wshib'ah), which means "seventy-seven."

Instead the Septuagint has ἑβδομηκοντάκις, (hebdomekontakis), which means "seventy times seven."

If Jesus quoted the Septuagint, then He said "seventy times seven." If He quoted the Hebrew, then He said "seventy seven (times)." A case could be made for either as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek translations of the same were in use in the Land.

A more important question than "which did He quote?" is "what is He teaching by it?" And in this case, whether He quoted the Hebrew or Greek, the teaching is the same.

The common thinking in Jesus' day was that you only had to forgive three times. Peter obviously thinks he is being very generous by saying he will forgive seven times when someone has hurt him. This is double the teaching plus one and is also the perfect number in Hebrew thought. Peter may have been drawing on such verses as Lev. 26:21; Deut. 28:25; Ps. 79:12; and Prov. 24:16, which speak of revenge and loss. Peter is saying that if revenge should be taken seven times, then forgiveness should also be offered seven times.

Jesus then raises the stakes. He alludes to Gen 4:24 where Lamech says that he is avenged more than Cain. Jesus turns the statement of revenge around and says that is the number of times we must forgive.

Though there is great numerical difference between seventy-seven and seventy times seven, it is not an important theological difference. Jesus is saying that His disciples should forgive as many times as it takes. If someone wrongs you once, you can recall that easily. If they wrong you three times, you can still number those rather easily. If you can list off seven times the person has wronged you, you are either keeping track or have an exceptional memory. But for either 77 or 490 wrongs, you are keeping track, and the question could be put to you have you ever forgiven even once?

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    The final sentence reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13: "Love...does not count up wrongdoing". Well said all around. – Jon Ericson Sep 20 '12 at 19:12
  • neat explanation i hadnt connected lamech to it before. makes sense. – Garet Claborn Sep 17 '17 at 16:30
  • Thanks Frank, I also wanted to add, Luke 3, the genealogy from Adam to Jesus. Jesus is the 77th generation. No coincidence. – seth Jan 18 '18 at 22:38
  • @Frank Luke. I fully agree that Jesus wanted to exchange the revenge we see in the OT with the forgiveness we see in the NT. But I cannot see how Jesus would quote from the LXX when he knew the Hebrew text more or less by heart. And I do not agree that the Greek ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά means 70 times 7. What is the basis for that claim? It is most likely that it does mean 77 times and that the translator of the LXX knew both Hebrew and Greek at that time. You said that ἑβδομηκοντάκις means "seventy times seven". You probably know that it only means "seventy-fold".. – Iver Larsen Dec 25 '20 at 20:23
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It is complicated in Greek to add the suffix -kis meaning -fold on a number with two parts like seventy seven. Should it be seventy sevenfold or seventyfold seven. It is most likely that seventy sevenfold would mean seventy times seven (you take 70 seven times) and seventyfold seven would mean seventy times and seven (more). In Greek this would be ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά.

There is no doubt that Jesus wanted to make a contrast to what Lamech said in Gen 4:24:

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. (KJV)

If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (ESV)

Jesus wanted to teach a change from the revenge attitude of Lamech to the forgiveness attitude to be followed in the kingdom of God.

In the Hebrew text of Gen 4:24 there is no ambiguity. It is seventy-sevenfold. This is translated by the LXX as ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά where the -kis or -fold suffix is added to the first number as in seventyfold [and] seven. We can therefore conclude that the Greek way of writing 77 is seventyfold seven.

The confusion comes in when we look at how KJV translated the very same Greek words in Matt 18:22:

I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (KJV)

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (ESV)

Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you up to seven-times, but up to seventy-times [and] seven. (DLNT)

There is no doubt that Jesus would have quoted the Hebrew text and Matthew would have reflected this, so the intended meaning is clearly 77.

The problem was introduced in English translations which used the word "times" and interpreted it according to English usage. I do not know why they used "times" in Matthew and "fold" in Genesis. That obscures the link between Matthew and Genesis. The problem could have been avoided, if the translators had recognized that this was indeed a clear reference to Gen 4:24. Many commentators and translators have realized this now, so the error of the KJV is slowly being corrected in many newer translations. For instance, Good News Bible had 70 times 7, but the newer CEV corrected this to 77. The older version of ESV from 2007 had 70 times 7, but a newer version from 2016 has 77 times.

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Matthew 18:21-22 has a direct link to Daniel 9:24-26. It should be seventy times seven = 490 years when the Messiah, according to the prophecy in Daniel, was due to come and make reconciliation for sins. A partial list-> (Gal. 4:4-5, Matt. 1:21, Heb. 2:17, 10:1-18, Luke 24:44-47, 2Cor. 18:-21) Any other rendering is an error.

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    You need to expand this answer, quoting each of the verses that you cite, and explaining why each of these verses is pertinent to the question in the OP. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Feb 18 '18 at 10:47
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There is no ambiguity. the original form of the New Testament is ancient-greek, and says ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά. In ancient-greek ἑβδομηκοντάκις means seventy times, it doesn't mean anything else, no ambiguity. hence, "ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά" means "seventy times seven" ie 490. Of course, forgiveness, is not mathematical. the more we forgive, the better. The translations of the original, have many disagreements between them. Even a different letter, may change the original meaning. Lamech says seventy seven, God says "seventy-times seven" ie always. Love.

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  • Even though your answer is, from a spiritual perspective, great, and it reveals your correct vision - we should always forgive, and forget, and start loving afresh - still it does not explain why this ambiguity was created so as to make some authoritative translators translate in one way, whereas the others - in another way. You just say affirmatively: "There is no ambiguity!" Period. But you should explain, that is the gist of the matter, why do you think there is no ambiguity and why some experts thought it otherwise. I guess, perhaps, because one of the mss has it ἑπτάκις instead of ἑπτά? – Levan Gigineishvili Feb 2 '18 at 22:09

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