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Matthew 12:30-32:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

This passage causes a lot of people to worry, and it seems to contradict other passages such as 1 John 1:9 which say that God will "forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness".

ἀφίημι is the word usually translated as 'forgiven'. Should it be translated that way?

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While this topic is usually called the "Unforgivable Sin" I believe that is a bad translation and it should really be called the "Unignorable Sin".

Verse 32 is:

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

The Greek word for 'forgiven' is ἀφίημι (aphiémi). It has several non-relevant senses, but the relevant one is 'forgive'. But that sense also has the idea of disregarding, letting go, or overlooking. All these phrases are very near synonyms: to forgive an offence is to disregard it and let it go. But just because these words are synonymous when positive, does not mean they remain positive when they are negated. To not forgive is very different to not disregard or to not overlook.

When we turn to Jesus in repentance and faith he forgives all sins, even those we don't specifically repent of. There are many sins we have forgotten or don't think of as sin, and they can be dealt with as a package deal. What this verse is saying is that blaspheming the Holy Spirit, whatever that means (see this question) cannot be dealt with along with all the others, but must be specifically repented of, at which time it can then be forgiven.

I propose this alternative translation:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be overlooked, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be overlooked. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be overlooked, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be overlooked, either in this age or in the age to come.

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    It is translated in KJV as follows: leave 52, forgive 47, suffer 14, let 8, forsake 6, let alone 6, misc 13 You have an uphill battle trying to prove that it shouldn't be translated as "forgive." – user862 Dec 9 '13 at 4:39
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    The word 'overlook' has a host of potential side implications in English that would do nothing but muddy the waters and even introduce theological contradictions. While 'forgive' may not be a perfect fit, translation never is. What we do know is that its a reasonable approximation in dozens of other contexts that does't set off any theological landslides. – Caleb Dec 9 '13 at 10:40
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    I'd be interested to hear what downsides 'overlook' has. – curiousdannii Dec 9 '13 at 10:43
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    @SomeFreeMason It has been tried ... to disastrous effect. You can't divorce the text from its religious implications any more than you can divorce words from their meanings. The primary motivation for this is a proclivity to reject the meaning as true. As most multilingual folks realize that is a bad recipe for accurate translation. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 12:50
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    @curiousdannii A holy God who can get away with just not looking at a known fault is a radically different picture than we get is other passages. The Bible has an elaborate story of God creating a mechanism by which he can forgive (hint: see redemption). 'Overlooking' transgression has the implication in English that its not really a big deal to begin with and ignoring it is enough to make the problem go away. Unless you have support for that as a theological position in this passage, the wording is a very problematic choice. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 12:57
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The word "forgive*"(aphiemi-to send forth*) implies a legal action: it holds one 'harmless' from a legal debt. To be declared "aphiemi", means one's debt has been satisfied; in the case of Matt. 12:30-32, one's penalty of 'sin and blasphemy' shall be "aphiemi" them-following, of course, the prescription of 1 John 1:9,"If we confess our sins; He is faithful and just to forgive(aphemi) our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Therefore, the consequence of Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost is "ouk aphiemi" or "not forgiven". This implies impending legal action, in which a consequence of not satisfyng the debt has occured. In Mark 3:29, a parallel passage, the word "aphesis" denotes freedom or liberty, "ouk" in front of it means being held "bound for trial". We see this action in Matt. 18, when after the servant who owed his Master much, was forgiven; he instead refused to "hold harmless" one who asked him forgiveness, rather, (vs 30)"...he went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt."

The Master was furious when he found out servant whom He had "aphiemi" and "delivered him over to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due Him."(vs 35) The debt was 10,000 talents-more than anyone could pay in a hundred lifetimes.

We see then the consequence for "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is severe, and so it would be important to know what it means to do such a thing. We get the implication from the parallel account in Mark 3:30, where it says,"He hath an unclean spirit"; in other words, attributing the works of God which they saw before their own eyes, to the devil. To blaspheme God, is forgiveable; to blaspheme His Son, is forgiveable; the only way one can blaspheme the Holy Spirit is if the Holy Spirit is present, and then one blaspheme's that Presense(ie: attributes that Presense to Satan). The closest example we have of that is in Acts 5:3 where Peter tells Ananias,"Why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?" The consequence was immediate judgement, as Ananias fell down dead.

"Overlooking" does not carry a legal definition; when we are 'forgiven' we are set free from a legal obligation, of which there are legal consequences for not fulfilling. To be told "You are forgiven", is to be before the Court of Heaven, where the Lord is the Supreme Judge, and have your '10,000 talent debt' which is due cancelled, and now you are 'free to go' and enjoy your freedom.

Ref. for 'aphiemi' from letter of Demosthenes: If any man has remitted [aphiemi] to you any part of what was due him, no wrong is suffered by either party to the arrangement. But we have not remitted [aphiemil anything to you, nor have we consented to your voyage to Rhodes, nor in our judgment is anything more binding than the agree­ment.

  • "The word "forgive*"(aphiemi-to send forth*) implies a legal action" - I'd be careful to not be quite so explicit as this, because the word definitely has broader connotations. Josephus uses the word occasionally in his writings, and has other uses of it. For example Antiquities 1, ch12, 3 uses it when describing Hagar and Ishmael on the brink of death. – Steve Taylor Nov 14 '16 at 13:39
  • @SteveTaylor The Context for forgiveness is the Court of Heaven. We must make the adjustment from the Perfect Judge, vs the imperfect worldly courts, where other factors(influence, breeding, impressions) all make a difference. The Perfect Judge is absolute in His Pronouncements and there is no impartiality in His decisions. The challenge of language isn't because of what the term means, but how it is applied by human vessels, which are subjective. – Tau Nov 16 '16 at 1:48
  • Again, you'll need to do much more work in this answer to make a case for any of those claims. Ancient Israel wasn't particularly known for its multiplicity of courts and judges - in fact more decisions were typically made by elders or landowners. Just because you see a word used in a firmly legal context three hundred years later and in a city 1700 miles away doesn't give you sufficient justification for its usage in an advanced agrarian culture. Your whole second and third paragraphs capitalise on a vassal-servant society like that of 1st Century Israel, and have nothing to do with judges. – Steve Taylor Nov 16 '16 at 8:05
  • @SteveTaylor Again, you're ignoring the context. Words back in biblical times meant more then the jargon you read in aspirin bottles; wars, treaties, covenants, were sealed with words. To "forgive" is to absolve from guilt: case in point-the woman caught in the act of adultery. Not only was the consequence(stoning) removed, but her shame as well, which means her sin was truly forgiven. Are you going to retry her, because of some perceived 'vagueness' of the translation? Look at the action, and the consequence of the action; this tells you what the words are intended to indicate. – Tau Nov 19 '16 at 15:14
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I'd like to add something to @curiousdanni answer (and his comments) but from Aramaic perspective. In Aramaic Peshitta the word forgiven in Matthew 12:30-32 is ܢܶܫܬ݁ܒ݂ܶܩ which can also have meanings of left, ignored, omitted, dismissed (see William Jennings' Lexicon to the Syriac New Testament) and it is used in other verses in such meaning. For example:

Luke 17:36 (and similarily in Matthew 24:40)
(KJV) Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
(Murdock) Two men will be in the field; one will be taken, and the other left.

(Murdock = Murdock's translation from Peshitta)

I think that it is possible that in days of Jesus people had different concept of forgiveness than we have now and also Jesus might have used some word-play here. It seems he commonly used word-plays - or so it seems in Peshitta.

  • Which meaning of the Peshitta word would you use here in Matthew? Also, would you be able to transliterate that? I'd like to look at its cognate in Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. (And, you're right, Jesus used word plays all over the place. It's a very Hebrew thing to do.) – Frank Luke May 30 '14 at 13:34
  • I tried to transliterate it by using translitration table and come up with נשׁתבק. I don't know if I did it right, I might have done something wrong. But, I tried to transliterate root of the word which is ܫܒܩ and in hebrew letters it would be שׁבק which happens to be H7662 in Strong's Hebrew Lexicon: studybible.info/strongs/H7662 – Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:21
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    Also, if I was to translate this word to modern English or my native language, Polish, then I wouldn't use forgive as this is too strict. I agree with @curiousdanii that some words have changed meanings over time. In Polish our word for forgive is przebaczyć and what is strange is that przebaczyć literally means to not notice, to overlook and old Polish dictionaries explain that word with that meaning but in modern usage this word has very strict meaning which is very similar to English forgive. – Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:26
  • So, modern Polish people have the same problems reading Matthew 12:30-32 as English readers, but Polish people one or two centuries earlies wouldn't have it! – Grzegorz Adam Kowalski May 30 '14 at 14:27

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