From the St. Nicholas monthly bulletin…
On the Christian Life
Debts vs. Trespasses
Question: Fr George, in our services whenever we read the Lord’s Prayer we say, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Now in my old Prayer Book, and once upon a time here at St Nicholas, and also in my friend’s parish, X, we would say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us." Which is right?
Answer: The line in question is Matthew 6:12:
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
The original Greek has:
Καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφίεμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν.
Compare this to the Latin:
Et dimitte debita nostra sicut dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
And to the Slavonic:
и остави нам долги наша, якоже и мы оставляем должником нашим.
In each case I have highlighted the relevant words. The Greek opheilemata means something which is owed, which we must pay, metaphorically, a burden of guilt. The Greek word does not have the connotation of crossing over into places where we should not go. The word trespass is from the French (and ultimately from the Latin) meaning to over-step and hence metaphorically be at fault before the law. The Latin debita has the same meaning as the Greek, something owed, as does the Slavonic долги. Therefore debts and debtors is the correct reading and the one that we use in church.
Q: But where did "trespasses" come from, and why do so many use it?
A: A lot of our religious phraseology in English comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (first edition 1549), where the word, trespasses, is used. This is because English as a member of the Germanic family of languages had no native word for debt and debtor. These words were borrowed from Latin in the 16th century. Bible texts in other Germanic languages use some word meaning transgression, guilt, or fault. Obviously, if the word debt is not available, these will have to do. For example, the Anglo Saxon (Old English, 10th century) Gospel uses gyltas and gyltendas, literally "guilts" and "guilters." Martin Luther’s first German Bible uses Schuld and Schuldegern, meaning guilt or fault. The translators of the King James Bible (1611) had the words debt and debtor available to them by recent borrowing from French or Latin, and since this is the exact translation, this is what we find in that Bible.
Q: But I am so used to "trespasses," and so that is what I say in my own prayers. Am I doing wrong in this? Is it heretical?
A: No, you are not doing anything wrong, and it is not heretical, it is just not as accurate. If you feel more comfortable with trespasses in your private prayers, you are most welcome to use it. However, for our common prayer in church, we will use debts and debtors.∎
Fr George Lardas