"Forgive Us Our Trespasses." Where'd That Come From?

Because this is the sort of thing I do for fun I thought I'd share a bit of sleuthing regarding the Lord's Prayer.

Have you ever noticed when praying the Lord's Prayer aloud that everybody does good until you get to the line "forgive us our..."?

At that point in the prayer cacophony breaks out as some people say "debts" and others say "trespasses."

The other day I got curious about that and went in search of the translations that render this differently. I started with the NIV:
NIV:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors...
Okay, so the NIV has "debts." So I went on to look at other translations. And guess what? There is almost universal agreement among the major translations, all having "debts" like the NIV:
ESV, ASV, NASV, KJV, NRSV, NJ:
our debts...our debtors.
To be sure, some more modern, dynamic and contemporary translations have "sins" or "wrongs." But none of these, along with the more established translations, have "trespasses."

So that left me scratching my head. Where in the world did "trespasses" come from?

Given that I use the Book of Common Prayer I knew it had "trespasses." So my hunch was that "forgive us our trespasses" came from the BCP rather than from the bible translations. I'm using the 1979 BCP. But just to make sure I went back to the 1549 edition, the very first BCP. And sure enough, "forgive us our trespasses" is there:
Book of Common Prayer (1549):
OURE father, whiche arte in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kyngdom come. Thy wyll be done in earth as it is in heaven. Geve us this daye oure dayly bread. And forgeve us oure trespasses, as we forgeve them that trespasse agaynst us. And leade us not into temptacion. But deliver us from evell. Amen. 
But that raises another question. Where did the 1549 BCP come up with this translation? Recall, the Authorized (King James) Version didn't appear until 1611.

After some sleuthing I learned that the 1549 edition of the BCP used the Tyndale Bible (1526). And checking the Tyndale Bible I think we find the origin of "forgive us our trespasses":
Tyndale Bible (1526):
And forgeve vs oure treaspases eve as we forgeve oure trespacers.
In short, from the KJV onward the translation of Matthew 6.12 has gone with "debts." But the 1526 Tyndale Bible had it as "trespasses." This translation was used in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and is preserved in the BCP to the present day.

It's a Tyndale vs. King James thing.

And thus the cacophony in our churches.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

32 thoughts on “"Forgive Us Our Trespasses." Where'd That Come From?”

  1. Thank you. I have always wondered where it came from. Weird, most groups I have been with who say it together use trespasses and I have been the odd one out and get the looks like "where'd that come from?" At least I know I'm not crazy.

  2. Although it sounds so archaic, I quite like the term trespass. Rather than implying punitive censure, it reflects the folly of sin - our straying into areas where we not really belong...

  3. I've always thought that for our modern society trespasses was the superior term.  Debt is used too commonly and with too specific a meaning which focuses the mind on specific transactions.  Trespass on the other hand refers in our society to an infringement on another which seems closer to the goal.

  4.  That said using the same metric from monday if you go back to the Vulgate the word used was debita which according to other sources did seem to have carried the same transactional association as our modern debt.  Not sure further back what it would look like.  The Catholics however have kept trespasses and have a rather nice teaching on the whole bit http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PAB.HTM

  5. I originally learned the "sin" version, so I've since learned to add a little pause or really draaaawww ouuutt  the word "sins" to allow everyone else to get through all the syllables in trespasses. Haha.

  6. The term "trespass" makes sense given it's root meaning(s), 'to go beyond'.  The idea of going beyond has some great imagery attached to it- going where we have no business being or going too far (in other words taking a good thing too far).  However, I think those meanings are disappearing in our culture, so "debt" & "debtor" works too.  That said, people are so casual about debt in our culture, I wonder if that isn't telling too.

  7. I've always wondered about this. All three of the churches I've belonged to as an adult recite the Lord's Prayer, and they say this line differently. (I blogged about it here: http://katieleigh.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/the-lords-prayer/.) Thanks for the info.

  8. To me, "trespass" expresses a mild annoyance, but not a sense of being wronged.  I find the idea of forgiving someone's "trespasses" rather easy.  But debt -- that implies that I have been wronged and am owed something.  To forgive a debt involves sacrifice, and a relinquishing of power over another person.  That connotation is much more in line with what forgiveness really is.  Perhaps both words are fine, but to me the connotation of debt is much stronger and more challenging.

  9. And then there's transgressions! I think Colbert has a line about this, regarding the difference because Episcopalians and Presbyterians...

  10. Haha, I've always fumbled as to what to say each time. I usually change it up when I get to that point.

  11.  Matthew 6:14 uses the Greek for trespasses, right after the Lord's prayer. My guess is the Tyndale was shooting for consistency.

  12. I tend to like using "sins" best, but given the yoke of being a Presbyterian pastor with a congregation hooked on debts (take that however you will), I pray it with "debts" on Sunday morning. "Sins" is Biblical--being the Lukan version of the prayer. Also, given our culture, sin has a more consistent meaning within the church without modern understandings of finance or property clouding up what we are praying.

  13. I've grown fond of "trespasses." It makes me imagine myself stepping out of line, of going too far, of stumbling and falling, which I can apply metaphorically to a great many areas in my life, large and small. I think these physical images make the term carry a personal weight for me that the comparatively abstract "sins" and "debts" do not. "Sin" is such a commonplace theological term that it rings blandly in my ears, and "debts" even moreso. 

    (On another note, I wonder if the choice of "tresspasses" says something about Tyndale's translation style.)However, I think the three main terms for wrongdoing all have a strong place in the Lord's Prayer and should be appreciated for their similarities and their subtle differences.

  14. I wonder if it's just coincidence that this change in language coincides with a wider historical-theological shift towards penal substitutionary atonement.  The shift from trespass to debt (in the context of Norman tax laws) is also a move towards a god who resembles the divinely-anointed kings of the time, who themselves 'translated' almost every law of the land from a crime against the victim to a crime against the crown as a way to legitimise a wholesale amassing of wealth.  To trespass has become synonymous to be in debt to the ultimate authority.  Crime is no longer the breaking of a social bond, requiring restoration and reconciliation; it has been divorced from its relational, social context; it is no longer a specific behaviour necessitating a specific response but rather a shift in one's relationship to God - from pure to impure, if you like.

    Luther graduates from law school in 1503.  A couple of years later he has rebelled against his father's dream of a respectable career and enrolled himself into the monastic life. Calvin, the son of a lawyer, comes under similar paternal pressure.  Finishing his studies around 1529, he is given freedom to pursue his theological interests in a death-bed concession from his father two years later.  Both of these men whose theology coloured the KJV had complex psychological relationships with the law, their fathers, guilt, sacrifice and death.  Is it too much of a stretch to wonder whether these neuroses were played out in their theology on the field of contemporary political thought?

  15. Very interesting. I was wondering about that. I prefer debts, because it captures the economic element present in Jesus' time and ours that 'trespasses' elides.

  16. "The well-known petition in the Lord's Prayer is of course traditionally understood as a request for the forgiveness of sins, and in deed is expressed that way in Luke's version and in Matthew's record of Jesus's own further comments. But most scholars believe that matthew has preserved a form of the petition which shows that Jesus had real debts in mind also. Since his parables linked debt and forgiveness, it is very likely that Jesus had both concrete and spiritual dimensions in mind. There is no reasons why we should have to make an exclusive choice, in interpreting the prayer, between literal debt and spiritual sins, any more than we have to spiritualize 'Give us this day our daily bread' or deny that elsewhere Jesus did use literal bread to symbolize spiritual nourishment" --Christopher Wright "Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (231).


    My Greek instructor is doing his dissertation on economic language in the New Testament and he's vehement about Jesus' use of 'debts' here. I tend to think Wright's got the (W)right idea, though, because Jesus is always using spiritual reality to predicate social behavior. Substituting sins and trespasses, in my mind, affirms a lot of things that the Church has gotten wrong throughout history. Namely, the Church's longstanding alliance with property over the poor (trespass connoting violation of property rights) and substituting literal, social truths for metaphorical, spiritual ones (sins). Debts sounds less good to my Episcopalian ear, but holds the double truth of literal and spiritual best.

  17. Andrew, have you read William Cavanaugh's stuff on the nation-state creating a 'simple society'? It's eerily similar to your first paragraph (which is awesome).

    That's interesting to note about the legal element of the Reformers. Anselm's soteriology comes to mind as well, though he's more complex than mere penal substitution. Anyway, I'd thought that it was a distinctly American preoccupation to read the Bible legally, but I now see that it's been a longer process. Thanks!

  18. Thanks Timothy.  I think you're absolutely right about Anselm, who was archbishop when all this centralising of justice was first taking place.  I'm fascinated by the way soteriological evolution has mirrored political expediency and have often wondered about the private motivations of and political pressures upon church leaders who seem to have been otherwise well-meaning.  The Norman conquest and the dissolution were both fascinating times in English history.  I'm not familiar with Cavanaugh, but my ego is intrigued...!  Blessings

  19. It is - that's the whole point. We're all in debt, either individually or as an entire country, and so debt forgiveness is very relevant in a way that 'trespass forgiveness' is not. Although since you mention it, perhaps we should also be more forgiving towards Occupy Wall Street when they trespass on church property.

  20. I like "trespasses," I think in part because there's a great line from a Dylan song that I've always thought has the trespass translation of the LP behind it:
    I've always been the kind of person who doesn't like to trespassBut sometimes you just find yourself over the line

  21. I found this very informative. I too was scratching my head in wonder as to where the wife and I got our translation! Our kids learned this in bible school with debts/debtors and we knew it with trespasses. Thanks for the informative article.

  22. Zondervan - some ancestry from Netherlands - can't find where the brothers
    Peter Zondervan and Bernard Zondervan originated from - no article talks about their ancestry. The cover of the book '

    The House of Zondervan' shows two men who look VERY Jewish...

  23. There was debt then - Ever hear of the story of Jesus overturning the Money Changers (Jews) tables. Guess who published the edition where it's changed to forgive DEBTORS - A jewish owned publication company who also distributes pop music. Guess who collects most Debt and Gold, Jewish organizations. Who owns the federal reserve...

  24. Thanks for your helpful research: Roger Harned http://talkofJesus.com -+- Christian Social Witness

  25. Richard, I was just doing exactly what you described doing, and in followup to the translation research found this blog. Very nice! I would make a couple of further observations: Matthew 6:14, which immediately follows his recording of Jesus' prayer (yes, here it is, the *Lords* prayer), the word trespasses is used, in most translations. Luke, however, records a prayer requested by the disciples (thus, as some would have it, the *disciples'* prayer), the word is translated neither as debts nor as trespasses but as sins. So we really have three choices, and I think we're on solid ground with debts or sins, and certainly not far enough off to matter with trespasses.

  26. Thanks - just preparing for Sunday kids group and couldn't find the "trespasses" anywhere!

Leave a Reply