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At the end of the parable of the unmerciful servant, the master has him jailed and handed over to be tortured:

34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. NASB, 1996

ΛΔʹ καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν τοῖς βασανισταῖς ἕως οὗ ἀποδῷ πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον. NA28

I find this disturbing, as these are Christ’s own words. What exactly is meant by the word βασανισταῖς (translated “torturers”) in this specific passage? I have studied social reactions to torture over the centuries and realize that it has a much broader definition than during Christ’s time, so I actually find it terribly ambiguous. What is the original word used in our oldest manuscripts and how has that word been traditionally used?

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This may be related to another question about the parable that is the context for this question on Matthew 18:34 in particular.

OP: What is the original word used in our oldest manuscripts and how has that word been traditionally used?

The word used here for "torturers" is τοῖς βασανισταῖς or, in its lexical form, βασανιστής (basanistēs). There are no textual variants in the manuscript tradition affecting this word/reading (if that is what lies behind the question about "oldest manuscripts").

As you will see from the Liddell-Scott-Jones lexion entry linked, it has a reasonably wide range meaning, from one who "examines by close questioning" (so, "interrogator", I suppose) through to outright "torturer".

This is the only occurrence of this noun in the Greek Bible (Septuagint [LXX], or NT); the related verb form is used about 41 times in the LXX and NT.1 In LXX 1 Sam 5:3 (= "1 Kingdoms") it appears in an interesting "plus", in which God torments the Philistines who have taken away the Ark of the Covenant. (The rest of the LXX occurrences are in 2 Maccabees (4x), and 4 Maccabees (19x!).) In the NT, it is also used, for example, of various torments in the book of Revelation (9:5; 11:10; 12:2; 14:10; 20:10).

The word has a history, of course.2 It was used of inspection of coins, and this meaning co-existed alongside being "tormented" by disease, through to the more harrowing kind of testing that involves the rack, and so on.

OP: What exactly is meant by this word "torture" in this specific passage?

It looks like it means what it says: the unmerciful servant is being "tormented" as a result of his lack of forgiving-ness. Schneider (see note 2, p. 563) simply states that it means "tormenter" rather than "tester" without further discussion - presumably because that more benign meaning would make no sense in the context of the parable.

Donald Hagner has some useful comment on this verse:3

Torturers, though disallowed by Jews, were common in Roman prisons; in the case of unpaid debt, friends and relations would have accordingly been more urgent in raising money. Given the enormity of the debt, the imprisonment would have been permanent.This together with the reference to the torturers may hint (cf. v 35) at eschatological punishment.

And, of course, it needs to be remembered that Jesus is drawing this word-picture in a parable.

OP: I find this disturbing, as these are Christ's own words.

Jesus is recorded in the gospels as saying many disturbing things, and it seems especially so in some of Luke's parables. Compare this to, e.g. Luke 12:47 on hearing and not doing, or Luke 19:27 when the king slaughters those who rejected him, or Luke 20:16 on the tenants in the vineyard. Jesus not so gentle, meek, and mild.


Notes

  1. The related verb form is βασανίζω (basanizō).
  2. Here I'm drawing on the useful article by Johannes Schneider, "βάσανος, etc.", in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by G. Kittel & G. Friedrich (Eerdmans, 1964), vol. 1, pp. 561-563.
  3. D. A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary, 33B; Dallas: Word, 1995), p. 540.
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I would translate Matthew 18:34 like this:

Then being enraged, his lord surrendered him to the tormentors, until such time as he should repay the entire debt.

Details:

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In this parable, the king is a merciful man who responds to the pleas of his servant by forgiving him his debt. He is contrasted with the same, who, even though shown mercy, responded to the pleas of a fellow servant by throwing him into prison until the debt was repaid. How he imagined the man being able to repay the debt while incarcerated, is anyone's guess.

No, the king didn't have prison in mind for this fellow, or the rack or thumb screws or hot irons, only what he had said he would do in the first place:

But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
-- Matthew 18:25 KJV

Here are the tormentors!

Debt collection has been around as long as there has been debt and goes back to the ancient civilisations, starting in Sumer in 3000 BC. In these civilisations if a debt was owed that could not be paid back, the debtor and his wife, children or servants were forced into "debt slavery", until the creditor recouped losses via their physical labour.
-- Debt Collection Wikipedia

The king in the parable had the wicked servant delivered to a place that specialized in enforced labour. Such agencies were as merciless as the wicked servant, and would have given the man first hand experience of what it was like in a world surrounded by people like himself.

βασανισταῖς could be used to describe any agents whose hearts are not inclined towards mercy, precisely as the wicked servant had shown himself to be.

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The English term "the torturers" in the NASB seems to be a mistranslation of the Greek ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙΣΤΑΙC (τοις βασανισταις) seen in codex Sinaiticus (c. 375-425 CE) and the earlier codex Vaticanus (c. 325-375 CE).

According to the NASB, the man was handed over to a person(s) who inflict severe physical pain as a means of either punishment or coercion. However, βασανισταις may be better understood in English as inquisitors or tormentors (cp., e.g., Strong's G930; Moulton's Analytical Greek Lexicon--Revised at βασανιστης; Mounce's Expository Dictionary #991, "a keeper of a prison, jailer").

If you've ever been tormented by numerous telephone calls or letters from bill collectors, then you might have a better idea of what ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙΣΤΑΙC (τοις βασανισταις, "the tormentors" in KJV) likely meant to Jesus.

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    Personally, I doubt whether a Roman βασανιστής mercilessly rang the phones of the inmates. ;) The analogy is much too weak; the sharper sense is not only more in keeping with semantics in context, it coheres all too well with Jesus' many other hard-edged word-pictures. (And there are no variants: the Greek text of Sinaiticus is simply the common reading.) – Dɑvïd Mar 2 '14 at 9:54
  • @Davïd: my analogy is apropos and based on earlier content of Matt. 18:34 as seen in codex Vaticanus (ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙCΤΑΙC, τοῖς βασανισταῖς), which was later copied in Sinaiticus. – Pat Ferguson Mar 7 '14 at 23:03
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    We'll agree to differ, then. :) My sense of the analogy's inappropriateness is based on contextual considerations (if you are right, then Jesus ends his parable with an anti-climax) and broader historical background of Roman culture. I am puzzled at your practice of bringing the uncials into this (and other answers, too, I believe), as that is entirely (sorry!) beside the point. When there is a common reading in the MS tradition, citing individual mss as if they contribute something of evidential value carries no weight at all. Of course they read ΤΟΙCΒΑCΑΝΙCΤΑΙC! What else would they have? – Dɑvïd Mar 8 '14 at 9:37
  • @Davïd: P25, dated approx. to B and version 1 of א. Why uncials? Because I prefer earliest reading for its respective probative evidentiary value rather than orthodox (commonly accepted, "common," churchy) reading. Now, if I'm wrong, then prove me wrong; if not, let's move on :) – Pat Ferguson Mar 8 '14 at 18:57
  • But there is no "evidentiary value" if there are no variant readings in the MS tradition. It's that simple! – Dɑvïd Mar 8 '14 at 19:04

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