The Jubilee Year and Matthew 18.22

A friend once asked me about forgiveness and the “sevens” of Matthew 18.22. Here’s a portion of my friend’s email:

. . . I have a question. I always learned Matthew 18:22 (how many times should I forgive my brother?) as, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Now – in my new NIV Bible, it doesn’t say “seventy times seven” but “seventy-seven times.”

I understand both numbers just play on the “seven” number, but what are your thoughts there?

This is my response:

Translating numbers in Greek (and Hebrew) sometimes can be a bit tricky. Especially when the Greek text we have is based on an Aramaic saying of Jesus. So what we end up with is something that looks kind of funny in Greek, and translators often don’t know what to do with it. What Jesus did in Matthew 18.22 was remind Peter of forgiveness based on the concept of the Jubilee Year in the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah (Leviticus 25) the Jubilee year came around every 49 years. The forty-ninth year was the sabbatical year when fields were to be left fallow. The fiftieth year was the Jubilee year. During this year any Israelite who had incurred a debt from a fellow Israelite was released from his obligation to repay the debt. No questions asked. It was unconditional. This included endentured servitude and land transactions. Family lands were restored to the original family. The intent was to keep the original gift of the land allocated to the original twelve tribes as God first gave it. According to Leviticus 25, this was to remind the Israelites of the one who gave them the land; in other words, it was to stress the fact that the land belongs to God. (Human realities quickly changed this!) The point in Matthew 18 is that Peter was trying to put conditions on the forgiveness he was willing to show his fellow human being. Jesus, on the other hand, in Matthew 18.22 reminded Peter of the Jubilee Year concept and the unconditional release of all debt/obligation. But why does the text of Matthew 18.22 use both the Greek word for the number “seventy” and the Greek word for the number “seven”? There appears to be a combined allusion to Leviticus 25, which stresses the forgiveness of debt (where the Jubilee is calculated as “seven weeks of years” or seven times seven = 49 years) and Daniel 9 where there is a reference to the “seventy weeks” (which is calculated, but not in a millenialistic sense, as seventy times seven = 490 years). Daniel 9 highlights that the “seventy weeks are decreed . . . to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting rightousness” (Dan 9.24). By conflating allusions to Leviticus 25 and Daniel 9, Jesus is able to drive home with Peter his point about forgiveness. For Jesus, it wasn’t just an economic issue, it was also a matter of the righteousness that comes with the eschatological appearance of the messiah. Note the reference to “an anointed one” in the immediate context at Daniel 9.25. It was also a moral/ethical issue for Jesus, having to do with the way we treat each other and the sins we commit against each other in our daily lives. According to Jesus in Matthew 18.22, forgiving someone who sins against you is an unqualified act. You can’t place conditions on it. Otherwise it’s not forgiveness.

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