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I have listed the seventeen biblical occurrences of αφεσις recorded in Young’s Concordance and have tabulated the translation of the word in six different versions, namely The Wycliffe (1388), The Vulgate (1592), Tyndale (1534), the AV (1611), Young’s Literal (1864), The Bagster Interlinear (1887) and J N Darby (1884). [* See below for PDF location.]

Largely, it is translated ‘remission’ or ‘forgiveness’ but in Luke 4:18, in which Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61: 1-2, translators have chosen, I would say, not to define the word as it will be used in transition from Hebrew prophecy into New Testament reality, but have preferred to translate two Hebrew concepts (by ‘deliverance’ and ‘liberty’) as a Greek quotation of the prophet’s words.

The Septuagint, notably, uses αφεσις in relation to αἰχμαλώτοις in Isaiah 61:1, as does Luke in 4:18.

Scripture uses αφεσις in all seventeen places and Jerome uses ‘remissionem/remissio’ throughout the Vulgate but English translators have chosen to, sometimes, use ‘forgive’ which copies the Dutch vergeven and/or the German vergeben (OED) and the meaning ‘stop feeling angry’ (OED), in my own view, neither expresses the Hebrew concepts of Isaiah 61: 1,2 nor the meaning of αφεσις in Greek.

‘Forgiveness’ appears only once in The Wycliffe, perhaps indicating that by 1388, it had not, yet, become as much used as the word ‘remission’.

My edition of Liddel & Scott is the one thousand page 1854 American volume in which it is suggested that the derivation of αφεσις is απο-ιημι. But Strong cites the derivation of αφεσις (859) as αφιεμι (863). And there is a possibility that it is from α-φερο, although Liddel & Scott, whilst being abundant in cataloguing φερο - devoting a whole page to it and giving it a variety of meanings which, generally, suggest the conveying or carrying of something adverse or burdensome - do not list αφερο at all.

It may be that απο-ιημι underlies αφιεμι , which in turn underlies αφεσις. And in the background is the word φερο; which adds meaning without being a direct derivative. But it is also possible that αφιεμι is a direct negative of φεμι, in which case αφεσις is a matter [Young and L&S] of ‘un-saying’ something, thus releasing an obligation. Which would be very close to, and an enhancement of, the meaning of αφερο, ‘unburden’, if such a word ever existed.

Liddel & Scott make it clear that the usage of αφεσις in non-biblical literature is, sometimes, a matter of release, both of horses from a starting post and of waters from a sluice gate. The result of αφεσις, therefore, appears to be - in those particular usages - a gushing out, a pouring out, a rushing forth.

The fact that Luke uses αφεσις, twice, to convey two slightly different concepts in the Isaiah quotation, agrees with the idea that αφεσις is a broad concept which encompasses other, subsidiary meanings.

So my Question is - what English word can be used to convey, consistently, the word αφεσις ? for ‘remission’ refers to things, not persons, and Luke 4:18 makes it very clear that, although (twelve times, listed by Young) the expression ‘the aphesis of hamartia’ is stated in the bible, nevertheless the effect of αφεσις is upon persons.

Does the ‘un-saying’ of sins then ‘unburden’ the recipient; and thus αφεσις, with its varied heritage, expresses both concepts within one word ? And what word in English would do such a thing ?

If no word can be suggested, then I would be minded, in the future, to transliterate the Greek and thereafter use ‘aphesis’, without italics, as an English word; and to simply bear in mind the wealth of association that is clustered around it.

[* For the Aphesis Table, go to belmontpublications.co.uk and type ‘aphesis’ in the search box.]

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I find acquittal or setting free [from guilt] to fit every usage in the New Testament, of which there are 17 (of which 10 are used by St. Luke), except for one in in Luke 4:18, but it falls into the category of a generic release or relief from a situation (which definition also fits well non-personal subjects), not a more personal ('forgiveness'); 'forgive' or 'acquit' being a more implicit nuance to the more literal meaning.

That is, 'release' would work for all uses (the "subsidiary" uses being injured somewhat by the literalness, though, in which cases 'forgive' is usually used).

As to its derivation, it is said to be derived from apo ([away] from) heimi (send, put), hence ἀφίημι (send away).

Our English 'forgive' is actually of a similar etymology, in that the Old English forgiefan, derived from 'for' (away, opposite, completely) and 'geifan' (give [up, away]). That is, take away the need or exercising of just exactment on someone or something for a crime or debt. And in the case of a captive, send them free from whence someone else had imprisoned them; or in the case of a non-personal entity, to issue forth or release to empty/clear out from.

Thus, acquit or set free from some form of debt, obligation, sin, crime. In short, forgive.

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    Thank you for your input. I particularly notice your meaning "un-assert [the guilt of]". Very pertinent. And "release" agrees well with L&S horse/starting posts and sluice gates.Hence you have provided two meanings here and I would still like to see both meanings incorporated into one English word.Yes, "acquit" is close. – Nigel J Sep 30 '17 at 19:09
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    I have a feeling a single English word will be hard to get the hold of. You may look along the lines of redeem, rescue, ransom. I believe Jesus makes draws a parallel between, or equates, redemption found in Him and recieving what we could call aphesis or being 'set free' in John 8:33-36. – Sola Gratia Sep 30 '17 at 19:59
  • Wasn't me. But I forgot to upvote anyway. Upvoting :) – Sola Gratia Sep 30 '17 at 20:19
  • There's nothing wrong with your question at all. Some might think it's too long at worst, but that's not against the rules. Good luck on an answer :) – Sola Gratia Sep 30 '17 at 20:27
  • I suggest you ditch the last paragraph of your answer. ἀφίημι has nothing to do with φημί, – fdb Sep 30 '17 at 20:58
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As you note (I think), the phrase ἀπέσταλκέ με ... κηρῦξαι αἰχμαλώτοις ἄφεσιν in Luke is nothing more than a verbatim quote of the Septuagint version of Isaiah 61:1, wherein ἄφεσις translates the Hebrew דרור - vowelized as דְּרוֹר (derôr) in the Masoretic Text.

Derôr usually describes "release" or "proclaim liberty" in general, but it also refers specifically to the liberation of slaves and release from debt that occurred during the Jubilee year:

Leviticus 25:10 (JPS Tanakh)

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.

Although ἄφεσις seems to be used predominantly in the New Testament in the sense of forgiveness, this does not seem to be the case in either the Septuagint or in Greek literature. Examples:

Leviticus 25:10 LXX (Brenton)

And ye shall sanctify the year, the fiftieth year, and ye shall proclaim a release upon the land to all that inhabit it; it shall be given a year of release, a jubilee for you; and each one shall depart to his possession, and ye shall go each to his family.

Numbers 36:4 LXX

And if there shall be a release of the children of Israel, then shall their inheritance be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which the women marry, and their inheritance shall be taken away from the inheritance of our family’s tribe.

1 Maccabees 10:34

Furthermore I will that all the feasts, and sabbaths, and new moons, and solemn days, and the three days before the feast, and the three days after the feast, shall be all days of immunity and freedom for all the Jews in my realm.

Demosthenes, On the Crown XVIII.77

Philip, King of Macedonia, to the Council and People of Athens, greeting.—Your ambassadors, Cephisophon and Democritus and Polycritus, visited me and discussed the release of the vessels commanded by Leodamas.

I actually could find no indication that ἄφεσις was ever used in Greek to mean something like "forgiveness" other than in the New Testament. I think you yourself confirmed this in your description of the Lidell-Scott entries, which include:

  • letting go
  • release
  • dismissal
  • discharge
  • relaxation
  • divorce
  • starting (of horses in a race)
  • emission

It may be that the remission of debts and indenture that occurred during the Jubilee release became a byword for "forgiveness" and came to be used that way by Hellenic Jews sometime prior to the first century. But I admit this is just speculation on my part.

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    Up-voted. Thank you. Very useful. – Nigel J Dec 24 '17 at 5:56
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Given that

  1. the linkage between the metanoia for the aphesis of hamartia (sorry I'm mashing the Greek and English together in a very unscholarly way, as I've not properly studied Greek and am also relying on Young's, but bear with me);

  2. the subsequent verses in Luke 3: 10-14 - esp vs 10 where they are asking John for help in what they should do differently (which are missing from the RCL readings for Advent 2 Yr C, which finishes at vs 6);

  3. hamartia can be sin-offerings as well as sins according to Young;

it is possible that the initial call from John the Baptist was in effect to 'change the way you think, send erroneous thoughts/deeds away and stop making penance for them, and concentrate on doing what God wants you to do'.

John the Baptist's call was not just for confessional action (the once and for all, baptism with water), but on actively and practically doing things differently in line with God's will.

  • Welcome to BH. It is remarkable that John the Baptist requires no religious works from his audience whatsoever. Share food/don't over-tax/don't over-bully just about sums up what he tells the populace. And to Herod - marrying someone else's wife is improper. That's it. Your last paragraph does not agree with what I read of John. And metanoia is always unto aphesis, I think you will find. The preposition is eis. (It is not, as you suggest, 'for'.) – Nigel J Dec 9 '18 at 12:22
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I don't have time to unpack all of the theological basis but I believe the word is used to describe the work of Christ in not only releasing us from our debt of sin (forgiveness, often described by athiemi) but in delivering us from its power also, in contrast to what was possible under the Old Covenant which is why I believe the word is not used in relation to sins before the New Testament. A close examination of aphesis and athiemi in the New Testament bears out in my view the different implications of each word in relation to sin. I think remission is the best translation of aphesis which I understand to mean liberty or release from the power of sin (in line with its use in Luke 4:18).

  • Regarding your emphasis on 'release' : In Mark 15:37 (Jesus cried) ιησους αφεις the word 'cried' is actually aphiemi, which is often translated 'remit' or 'forgive'. The words he cried, we know from the other evangelists, are 'It is finished !'. I take it that, here, aphiemi is conveying, as you say, a 'release'. – Nigel J Feb 15 at 10:49
  • Nigel I havd edited my comment because you are right, but my comments were only in relation to the use of aphesis and aphiemi where they are used in scripture in relation to sin. – Straight Feb 16 at 12:48
  • Nigel lol apparently I need 50 reputations to comment on your comment above about John the Baptist so I will comment on it here instead! I couldn't agree more with your point that John the Baptist's baptism was UNTO remission of sins. This is vitally important because in my view remission (aphesis - as opposed to forgiveness only described using aphiemi) only came in post Calvary with the New Covenant (Heb 10). – Straight Feb 16 at 13:03
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What is the meaning of αφεσις, aphesis, in Luke 4:18?

From the interlinear on Biblehub we have: aphesei =ἀφέσει =deliverance.

Basically English translations are divided into three categories, some use "liberty," others use "deliverance" or "release".

As a matter of interest the word "αφεσις, aphesis," is still in use today and Greek/English dictionaries translate it into "forgiveness". However , three Greek bibles I have with me use the word " ελευθερία, eleutheria," the other uses the word "απελευθερία, apeleutheria" both words are translated into english "liberty". Απελευθερία, apevleutheria is a synonim of "αφεσις, aphesis ," and it is translated "to set free,or liberty".

The word "eleutherōsei ,ἐλευθερώσει =will set free or make free, or liberate is to be found in John 8:32: "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Obviously Jesus did not descend from heaven to release captives from literal jails, but to liberate mankind from the bondage of sin and death, and in view of what Jesus said in John 8:32, I suggest that the closest translation to "αφεσις, aphesis," in context to Luke 4:18 is "LIBERTY"

Some renderings of Luke 4:18

Luke 4:18 (GNT)

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,to set free the oppressed."

Luke 4:18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free."

King James Bible

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruise

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Along with the good answers yet given I may add some points to the issue, hoping they will be useful for you.

If we agree that the generator verb of αφεσις is αφιεμι, we may - collating all its occurrences - establish that the basic meaning of αφιεμι is 'to let go away'. From this conceptual basis we may reach specialized meanings (applicable to specific context) as "to forgive", "to release (from jail, and so on)", "to emit", et cetera.

As regards the derivative meaning "to forgive" we found in the Bible an effective graphical show of this concept inside the rite about 'a goat for Azazel' (Lev 16), on the occasion of the Atonement Day. The assembly of the Israelites had to give to the high priest two goats. By lots, one of them was designated to be sacrificed to IEUE (יהוה), and the other 'for Azazel'. This last one wasn't sacrificed but it "shall be set alive before the LORD [IEUE, יהוה], to make atonement over him, to send him away (שׁלח) for Azazel into the wilderness." (16:10, JPS) So, this show did help the Israelites to stick in their mind the love IEUE (יהוה) demonstrates to them - as sons of Abraham - He being disposed to 'transfer' their sins on the 'shoulder' of the goat for Azazel, since that goat had to send away carrying with him the transgressions of the sons of Israel. Interestingly, the LXX uses in this instance the same verb we are expatiate on: αφιεμι > αφησει. So, IEUE (יהוה) was disposed 'to let go away' the sins of the Israelites, forgetting them.

A last point. In Italian language the sense of the English phrase "I won't forget that!" is expressed - idiomatically - with the expression "Me la lego al dito!", that literally means "I tie it around my finger!". This is another clue confirming the link between the αφιεμι basic meaning 'to let go away' and the derivative (specialized) meaning of "to forgive".

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