This early article examines the words translated as "sin", "sinners", and "forgiveness of sin." Newer versions are available as separate articles:
The standard translation of these concepts really misses the mark, to borrow a phrase. Some might say that this mistranslation is a sin. This article was once part of a larger one that also included the Greek concepts translated as "good" and "evil. That article is here. That article has also been divided now into separate articles, one on "good" and another on "evil."
Since the same root word is used for the words translated as "sin", "sinner", and "to sin," No English word is used in quite the same way. Though "mistake" comes closest to the idea in English, translating it is much wordier because we must say "a mistake", "a mistake maker", and "to make a mistake". Similarly, "failure" works but their is a confusion between the error itself and the person committing it, "a failure", "a failure (as a person)", and "to fail."
Is Hamartia Sin?
The word translated as “sin” in the Gospels is either the verb, hamartanô, or the noun, harmartia. which mean “to miss the mark,” “to fail in one’s purpose,” “to err,” “to be mistaken,” "to fail in having," “to neglect,” "failure", "fault," and "error."
In the text, Jesus gives us a good idea of his view of this word when he equates it with going into debt. He does this in Luke 13:2 and Luke 13:4. In the first of these verses, Luke 13:2, he uses the adjective form of harmartia, translated as "sinner", hamartolos, which means "the erring" or "the erroneous". However, the word translated as "sinner" later in Luke 13:4 is a different word, opheiletes, which means "debtors". In translating both of these words as "sinner" the KJV translators are recognizing the Jesus is using them both to mean the same type of people in the context of these verses, but what is hidden in that their shared meaning is not a reference to a sin against God, but the idea of making bad decisions, making mistakes leads directly to falling into debt.
This real meaning of hamartia as "missing the mark" is a well-known fact, so much so that many preachers refer to it that way. It is commonly mentioned in modern-day sermons that quote verses referring "sin." However, it is somehow forgotten in translating the NT, where it is almost without exception translated in its different forms as "sin," "sinner", and "sinning".
You should also know that there are well-known Greek words in the era that do mean sin. In Greek, the word that actually means “sin” is alitros, which means “sin,” “sinner,” and “sinful.” However, Jesus never uses this term. It is impossible that Jesus and the Gospel's authors didn’t know it. Words from this base are it often used. We see alitria ("sinfulness"), alitêrios ("sinning"), and aleitês ("sinner") in the NT. Most amusingly, we even see alêtheia, which means "sincerity." The term captures the Greek idea that sinners are good at lying.
The best English translation for hamartia is "a mistake" or "failure." After all, this is the way we say "missing the mark," which is the word's primary meaning. It also works best because the verb most commonly used with the noun hamartia is poieo, which primarily means "to make." The phrase "make mistakes" is a much better translation for what is commonly rendered in Bible translations as "to do sin" or "to practice sin."
This meaning of "mistake" is supported all the other words Jesus says must be "forgiven". For example Jesus uses the Greek word, paratoma, which means "blunders" that we "forgive" in Matthew 6:14 (For if you forgive men their trespasses...) . Again, with this word, there is nor real religious dimension. It is simply a Greek synonym for harartia. Note this is not the same word that some biblical translations translate as the "trespasses" that are "forgiven" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12). That word, opheilema, simple means "debts" very much in the financial sense. In a sense, we might infer that debt is a mistake or misstep from Christ's perspective.
A lot of things that Jesus says make much more logical sense when we replace "sin" with "mistake." For example, Christ says in John 8:21 that he is going away and that they would seek him and "die in [their] sins" because they cannot go where he is going. We have to ask ourselves what sin have they committed in seeking him? However, it is easier to understand if Jesus is saying that they will die, "within their failure" because they do not know how to follow. This makes much more obvious sense.
"Forgiving Sin" or "Letting go of Mistakes"?
"Forgiving sins" is one of the most common phrases in which hamartia appears. This phrase is not only misleading because hamartia is translated as "sins", but because the word translated as "forgive" doesn't mean that except in the most philosophical sense.
The Greek term translated as "forgive" is aphiêmi, which means "to let fall", "to send away", "give up", "hand over", "to let loose", "to get rid of", "to leave alone", "to pass by", "to permit," and "to send forth from oneself." It means literally “to go from. One of the reasons that Christ really like this word is because he loved double meanings like this. This same word is usually translated as "leave", "forgive", "suffer," and "let" in the New Testament, but a phrase like "Father, forgive them" could also be translated accurately as "Father, give up on them" or "Father, get rid of them". From his use, Christ uses it most consistently to mean "let it go".
Another word that comes close in English is "pardon" because it has the same sense of "letting loose" and "sending forth" but it doesn't have the same sense of "leaving alone" or "letting" someone do something. Most importantly, however, "pardon" doesn't have the sense of "letting go". When applied to "mistakes", "letting go" had the double meaning of "stop the habit of making" and "stop dwelling on past mistakes".
This word has the sense of both leaving something alone and leaving a place. Apiemi is the verb version of the noun meaning “letting go,” aphesis. This is Christ’s first word in the Gospel (Matthew 3:15) when he responds to John's concerns by saying, “Let it be” or "suffer this" (depending on the translation) and baptize him. It is usually translated as "to leave" or "to let" in the Gospels. It is first translated as "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12) where it is applied to forgiving debts.
Aphiemi is also sometimes translated to mean “to send forth” or “go forth” even though that meaning is a little misleading as well. Christ “sends forth” the apostles. The shepherd looking for the lost lamb “goes forth” into the mountains. Both are a translation of aphiemi.
The sense of the Greek phrase translated as "forgiving sin" is "letting go of failure." To let go, we must realize that we are holding on to our mistakes in one way or another. We must accept that all of us will always make mistakes. We must let go of our errors in the sense of not dwelling on them, but also in the sense of leaving them behind, that is, putting those behaviors in the past.
"Forgiveness," in the Christian sense didn't exist in Greek anyway, before Christ. But there are others words in Greek at the time that are used for various ideas of "forgive." Many are based on the root, aidôs, which means "respect for others", "reverence", "compassion," and "forgiveness." It is the most saintly form of forgiveness. Sunchôreô is another root which means "assent" or "concede" and is used to mean the economic forgiveness of debt.