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I converted to the Presbyterian faith from a Catholic upbringing a while back and have always wondered - but never had anyone to ask - why Catholics use "Trespassers" in the Lord's prayer (Please forgive our trespasses, as we forgive our Trespassers) and the Presbyterians use "Debtors". I'm sure someone has to have asked this question somewhere before me :-)

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Good question, although choice of translation is always variable; there are a lot of other versions of this too (Matthew 6:12, and in common usage) - "wrongs", "sins", etc. In my RC upbringing it was "those who trespass against us" (rather than "trespassers") –  Marc Gravell Feb 14 '12 at 6:44
    
This has been asked at Biblical Hermeneutics. (Or at least the translation of Matthew 6:12 though not the liturgical issue.) –  Jon Ericson Feb 14 '12 at 16:49
    
What is a "Hermeneutic"? –  geoffmpm Feb 15 '12 at 2:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There's a great analysis by Dave Armstrong that goes into a lot more detail, but it comes from trying to best capture the point of the Lord's Prayer—as it's rendered in the Bible—in English.

There are two forms of the Lord's Prayer found in the Bible: one in Matthew and another in Luke.

In Matthew 6:9–13, the Lord's Prayer is rendered as (emphasis mine):

9“This is how you are to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread;
12and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors;

13and do not subject us to the final test,
but deliver us from the evil one.

But in Luke 11:2–4, it's rendered as (emphasis mine):

2He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3Give us each day our daily bread
4and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,

and do not subject us to the final test.”

Given it's more fleshed out, most Christians favor Matthew's version. In the original Greek, the word used in Matthew 6:12 is ὀφειλήματα, which means "debts". The word used in Luke 11:4 is ἁμαρτίας, which means "sins".

So, to be in line with the original manuscript, "debts" is the correct word, and indeed, most Christians (including all non-English Catholics) use "debts".

In English, however, "debts" and "debtors" usually refer to a loan: a monetary debt to a bank, for example. But later on in Matthew, it says:

14If you forgive others their transgressions1, your heavenly Father will forgive you
15But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions1.

So while the actual word is "debts", it's clear the point of the Lord's Prayer is to say that one ought to forgive those who wrong us, just as God forgives us our sins and transgressions, not that we ought to forgive loans made upon us (i.e., God doesn't "loan" us sins).

To make clear the point of the prayer,"debts" was replaced with "trespasses". This translation became popular in 16th century England, even making it into the Book of Common Prayer. The Roman Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer is almost identical to the Book of Common Prayer's version at the time, and has not been changed since then.

Interestingly, the English version of the Missal recently underwent a fairly dramatic change as things were retranslated to better correspond to the original meaning of words, but the Lord's Prayer was skipped. I could not find any explicit justification for the omission, which suggests to me that the Vatican still considers the use of "trespasses" to accurately convey the intent of the prayer.


Note 1: Also translated as trespasses, depending on the translation.

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I heard the explanation (for not changing the Lord's Prayer) from a priest on relevant radio who very meticulously went over the reasons for all the changes in the liturgy in the year leading up to it. He said it was because of long standing tradition (500 years, rather than 50 years) that the words were not going to be changed to fit the Latin (debitoribus). –  Peter Turner Feb 15 '12 at 14:50
    
Are you sure about "all non-English Catholics" using "debts"? As far as I know, the word used here in German is "Schuld," which (conveniently) can mean either debt or guilt. And as far as I know the word commonly used in French is "offenses". –  Andreas Blass yesterday

This is an English translation issue, not a Protestant/Catholic issue.

Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church and the Latin says:

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris

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Being raised Catholic, I was taught trespasses vs debtors. As a child, I was also taught to use the shorter version without:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever

When Freemasons say the Lord's prayer we use debtors. Which was the first time I had heard it done that way. I thought that we (Freemasons) were wrong until I researched and found out that it's very plausible that debtors is the correct translation.

My research showed that John Wycliffe in 1382, debts and debtors was used. Only the Tyndale version of 1525 used trespasses. I was completely perplexed! Ultimately we probably mean something like:

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

But change is not something we do well :)

In line with what Mark Trapp said, please see this

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