I've often heard some really cool explanations around the meaning for the greek word Τετέλεσται in the New Testament where Jesus said, "It is Finished". I love what I've heard, and have even preached it myself, but at times I've also wondered whether it is accurate, since I have no scholarly reference for the illustration, and I know how preachers sometimes use things in sermons that sound good without checking out whether they are legit.

The particular illustration I'm talking about I've heard pulled from Colossians 2:13-14, where Paul talks about the "handwriting of debts against us." What I've heard is that Paul is actually referring to a common practice at the time where criminals serving time in jail would have their crimes listed on a note that was posted at the prison where they were kept, and it correlated the crimes to the amount of punishment they were to serve. Then, at the end of their sentence, the jail keeper would stamp the paper with "Τετέλεσται", meaning "PAID IN FULL."

So the apparent correlation with Christ's redemptive work of atonement is that He served our prison sentence for us, and when He cried out, "IT IS FINISHED", this is exactly what he was alluding to.

While it make plenty of theological sense to me, can anyone say whether that "practice" of posting prisoners sentences on their cell, and then stamping it with "Τετέλεσται" is a historically accurate portrayal? And are there any references that you can point me toward to learn more of this supposed practice?

EDIT: another assertion about the supposed background of the word can be found here, where the writers claim Τετέλεσται was used on business documents and receipts as a bookkeeping term to show a bill was "PAID IN FULL". There does seem to be a source listed in this example.

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    This is a fascinating question. The deeper I dig, the more elusive the answer seems to be!
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 15:36
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    I would recommend asking someone in the Greek Orthodox Church about this. If any community would be familiar with this interpretation it would be the Greeks themselves. Surely if "paid in full" is the correct meaning, there would be an understanding of this by the Greek Orthodox. I suspect they dont read it this way. Here is an American Orthodox theologian who understands this phrase totally differently in his lecture: youtube.com/watch?v=jaZmvyzOj04 Peace; -Mark
    – user16240
    Commented Aug 6, 2016 at 10:20
  • "I love what I've heard, and have even preached it myself, but at times I've also wondered whether it is accurate." Are you not troubled by this? The Holy Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of Truth.
    – user33515
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 21:37

6 Answers 6


Was "Τετέλεσται" stamped across documents? Maybe. But I wouldn't think about translating this as "Paid in Full".

Support for this phrase

I have yet to find any true support for this phrase being used on tax documents. The closes I could come was from The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan, which says:

“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner...” (p. 630)

(This is actually from the link you mention in the question, I just realized.)

Consummatum est

I've seen many references that claimed that there was "archaeological evidence" of old Roman tax receipts had consummatum est "scrawled" on them.

This Latin phrase is the same phrase that (in the Vulgate) Jesus spoke while on the Cross. While it's not the Greek Τετέλεσται, it could be considered the same phrase that was used for the tax receipts.

Actual historical evidence

I have yet to find any valid historical evidence that either "Τετέλεσται" or "consummatum est" was added to any tax receipt or business document.

I want to believe that Moulton and Milligan had actually seen these documents instead of just hearing about them second hand. However, while they seem to be the most reliable source for this, I can't quite come to believe that they have seen the historical evidence.

Paid in Full

Throughout all my researching, I have yet to see where Τετέλεσται means "Paid in Full". Everything seems to point to the fact that "It is finished" is a much better translation. Even while writing "It is Finished" across a tax receipt or business document makes a lot of sense, that does not mean that it should be translated as "Paid in Full".

I believe that using "Paid in Full" is taking a bit too much liberty with the translation of these phrases (both the Greek and Latin).


Everything I've read seems to come from sermons or some other Christian source. I've read several places that claim there is archaeological evidence for either Τετέλεσται or consummatum est being added to documents, but have yet to see any myself. Also, every source that claims there was evidence seems questionable to me (even the most reliable). They all have the strong persuasion of the Christian agenda and seem to be slanted towards those beliefs without any evidence.

Because of this and because of the fact that these words are almost exclusively translated as "it is finished", I strongly discourage the translation of these as "Paid in Full". That translation seems far too loose and idiomatic to be sufficient.

See also for a more complete the argument against this translation.

  • Thanks for your answer Richard. How about the jail cell version of the illustration? Any insights there? Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 20:34
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    I can find even less support for that. The closest that I found was someone's sermon on a forum site (ie very unreliable) that said that people put in prison for debts owed had a paper with a running total owed. Once the debt was paid, they got the "It is finished" scrawl. Realistically, that sounds sounds just as possible as the tax receipt issue, but it could have been taxes that landed them in jail in the first place. There could be something to it, but only in the sense that it could have been used for tax receipts (not dealing with jail terms specifically).
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 20:46
  • +1 This is a really interesting and valuable answer. One thing that the paid-in-full translation misses is that the idea of τελος (from which τελεω and τετελεσται come) is actually quite an important concept in the gospels. See, for instance, John 13.1, which I read as being directly related to the final words of Jesus on the Cross. Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 17:13
  • Whether or not Jesus' word, "Accomplished!", is somehow connected to the notion of "paid in full" may be a good question for this site. The fact remains that when Jesus said what He said on the cross, our sin debt was paid for in full. I am not encouraging preachers to play fast and loose with the text. Instead of saying, "Jesus EITHER said and meant __, OR Jesus meant and said ___," perhaps we should be saying "When Jesus cried 'Finished,' it meant that BOTH His work of redemption was accomplished AND our sin debt was paid in full." As is so often the case, it's not either/or but both/and. Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 13:53
  • there is documented evidence of tetelestai being used on tax and customs receipts either by its full use or abbreviated. ia600502.us.archive.org/27/items/newclassicalfrag00gren/… pg 80 and following shows from papyri where these are found. there are papyri where the term has been used too. p.rein.2.95 is an example
    – Alderney
    Commented Aug 19, 2021 at 0:29

τετέλεσται is in the perfect tense, making it say something more like "It has been finished." It comes from the root verb τελέω, which comes from the noun τέλος. τέλος represents a completed end, often a goal or a final realization of something. The fact that this verb is in the perfect is a pretty big deal. The perfect tense designates a completed action with consequences into the future. In the same way that "I have broken my leg" means that there is still a problem, but "I broke my leg," or "my leg was broken" just alludes to a fact, so "it has been finished" means that it still is finished, there are still effects of that completion. If Jesus had just said "it is finished," then there would be nothing left to do, but since he said "it has been finished," we can keep on living in that completion, loving til the τέλος! Check out my blog @ www.astudentsmusingsonjesus.blogspot.com for more like this.

It has been pointed out, and rightly so, that I didn't answer the question with my "answer" above. Sorry about that. Let me fix the problem.

Yes, τετέλεσται was really stamped on paid bills and debt certificates in the first century. Not all the time was the root τελέω in this same third-person perfect passive form, but from the earliest records, including works of Plato (e.g. Alcibiades), Aristophanes and Xenophon, this verb has been used to refer to the payment of debt or (usually) taxes. In papyri fragments dating from the first century (as well as other centuries) the same verb is used with reference to debt complaints, receipts of payment and tax documents (see "THE OXYRHYNCHUS PAPYRI").

Since the word in its passive form means "has been brought to an end," "finished," "paid," and so on, it would not surprise me if this were also hung in prisons when a sentence had been completed, although it would be impossible to really know this for sure, since we don't have any first century prisons with notes hanging on the cell doors with which to test our hypothesis. Was it "debt payment" language, sometimes with connotations of payment of punishment for crimes? Absolutely.


Here's what I discovered about this:

According to Moulton and Milligan's The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, "Receipts are often introduced by the phrase τετέλεσται, usually written in an abbreviated manner, e.g., P Grenf II. 50(a)(b)(c) al., mostly belonging to ii/A.D."

You can view Bernard Grenfell's (and Arthur Hunt's) publication of these receipts online: https://archive.org/details/newclassicalfrag00gren/page/78/mode/2up. They are customs tax receipts from the second and third centuries C.E. for transporting goods between the Fayoum and Memphis, Egypt. As the lexicon indicates, these customs tax receipts begin with the abbreviation τετελ, "tetel", except for P Grenf II. 50 f 2, which contains the word fully written. This publication transcribes the word as τετέλεσται, "tetelestai", and appears to be the basis for reading the abbreviation on the other receipts as τετέλ(εσται), "tetel(estai)". (The transcription is on p. 82 of the publication and labeled as Bodl. MSS. Gr. class g. 27 (P).)

However, a correction has been made to this reading since the publication. The fully written word is now transcribed as τετελώνιται, "tetelonitai," which is a different verb meaning "tax has been paid": http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.grenf;2;50f. As such, the abbreviated word is now transcribed as τετελ(ώνιται), "tetel(onitai)": E.g., http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.grenf;2;50a.

I have not been able to find a picture of P Grenf II. 50 f 2 available online yet, but there are other customs tax receipts published since P Grenf II. 50 f 2 that have the fully written word as τετελώνιται, "tetelonitai"—-or the correct spelling of τετελώνηται "tetelonitai"—-and they are viewable online: E.g., https://berlpap.smb.museum/02707/; http://berlpap.smb.museum/02710/; and http://berlpap.smb.museum/04802/?lang=en.

In my assessment, because (1) these receipts are specifically customs duty receipts and not receipts for a debt or bill payment, and (2) the abbreviated and fully written word indicating that the tax has been paid appears to actually be τετελώνηται "tetelonitai" rather than τετέλεσται, "tetelestai", it does not seem that there is a connection between these receipts and John 19:30, or Col 2:13–14 for that matter.

  • This is well researched answer and hopefully a clarifying response to a common belief. Thanks for the contribution.
    – Daniel
    Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 0:24
  • @Daniel Thank you for taking the time to read it and expressing your appreciation. Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 1:20

Sin is not reckoned as debt, transgression of law is reckoned as debt. " Sin is not put to ones account where there is no law" Ro 5:13. So those who have a debt are those who were under the law. Those under the law failed to fulfill their part of the contract. They never fulfilled the contract in full and the penalty for failure was death. What Jesus did was not pay the contract in full, He payed the penalty for their failure to perform the contract and the proof is He died. He died on their behalf and now the contract is, NOT paid in full, it is cancelled, nailed to the cross. Co 2:14. That contract which has death as a penalty; " it is finished".


I do not think there is any credible support for this interpretation.

First, we might consider that it is most likely that the words that Jesus spoke were in Aramaic, not Greek, so any etymological investigation should probably be carried out in that language in addition to or perhaps in place of Greek.

Second, there seems to be no support for your hypothesis in any of the secular works cited in the Greek lexicons of Lidell-Scott-Jones, Middle Liddell, or Slater.

Third, there is no support for the usage you suggest in the Septuagint, where the root verb appears 24 times.

Finally, interpreting John 19:30 as somehow being related to the payment of a debt would be incongruent with the interpretations of the verse given by the Greek Church Fathers. These would include the interpretations given in the Homily on John by John Chrysostom and in the 13th Catechetical Lecture of Cyril of Jerusalem.


Another way of looking at the meaning of this word is to consider Psalm 22 which Jesus refers to on the cross with the words "My God My God why hast thou forsaken Me?" the first line of Psalm 22:1. The last verse of Psalm 22 ends with "that he hath done this." The Hebrew word is 'asah meaning completed or finished. Compare 2 Chron 4:11. The Psalm itself lists things that happened while Jesus was on the cross. It appears that Jesus is referencing this Psalm as being fulfilled, quoting the first and last verse, or reciting the entire Psalm but not fully recorded in the gospel. In any case, devout Jews of the time would recognize the reference. Therefore, the meaning of the word would be clear to the Jews who heard it, referencing a Hebrew word written far in advance of the usage of the word in Koine Greek.

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    Except... the LXX has ἐποίησεν ὁ κύριος in Psalm 21:32 (English 22:31), not Τετέλεσται. If the words were spoken quoting the Hebrew Psalm (22:32 there) as you suggest (unless I’m misunderstanding), the person who translated the words into Greek evidently didn’t recognize the reference. I’m very curious if there’s anything to this hypothesis, though. Do you have any references who have suggested this connection?
    – Susan
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 8:14
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    Note that 'asah does not mean "completed or finished" it means "to do". Thus the Septuagint translation (poieō = "to do"), not "complete, finish".
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 9:32

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