In the version of the Lord's Prayer that appears in the Gospel of Matthew, we're instructed to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." What follows from the metaphor of sin as debt? How does it differ from the Old Testament's governing metaphor for sin? How is the logic of sin as debt related to the strong emphasis on almsgiving in the early church, and what light does it shed on Reformation debates over meritorious good works? How does it bear on the meaning of the Atonement? These are some of the questions Gary Anderson explores in his thought-provoking book Sin: A History (Yale University Press).
Anderson is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Bible in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He spoke with Books & Culture editor John Wilson about changing conceptions of sin and forgiveness in the Old and New Testaments, and the consequences of those changes.
You recount a time many years ago when you were reading one of the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and you were struck by a metaphor that surprised you—a discovery that became the genesis of this project.
I was reading a Qumran text called the Damascus Covenant, and I noticed several instances in which the scroll described forgiveness of sins using a Hebrew verb that in the Hebrew Bible never has that meaning. The scroll used the verb 'azab, which generally means "to forsake." It struck me as quite odd.
As I pondered it, I realized that the Aramaic verb for "forgiven" means exactly that. It means "forsake" in the literal sense, because in Aramaic to forgive a sin is to remit what you have coming to you in the sense of a debt. You're forsaking an obligation. Someone who holds a debt over someone else technically can collect ...1