Monday, January 15, 2018

To sin is to miss your target: the Greek verb αμαρτανω (hamartano)

The verb αμαρτανω (hamartano) means to miss in the sense of to miss a target, road or direction (not in the sense of missing a friend). It describes the difference between aim and impact, purpose and application, or intent and realization.

To sin is to miss your target

In the classics this verb originally described the failure of some ballistic weapon to hit where one was aiming at. In the Iliad, Homer describes how Pandarus hurls his spear at Diomedes, penetrating his shield. Pandarus starts to boast but Diomedes calmly informs him that he missed and not hit (Il.5.287). Athenaeus (3rd c AD) quoted Aeschylus (6th c BC) who complained that at a banquet someone hurled a foul smelling vessel at his head, which "missed me not" but shattered on impact and stank up the room something awful (Deip.1.30).

Over time our verb evolved to also include a difference between intended speech and what one ultimate utters (a slip of the tongue), a failure to possess or hang on to a desired quality (like eye sight), or the fruitlessness of a vain request. But more significantly, our verb became associated with a failure to relate to an ideal absolute and took on the familiar meaning of to err, to do wrong and ultimately to sin. But there's a problem.

Our English verb "to err" and noun "error" come from the Latin verb erro, which is cognate to the Sanskrit arsati and ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European root ers-, meaning to be in motion, to wander around. Our Latin verb erro means precisely the same thing as our Greek verb hamartano: namely to miss a target, or to wander from the right way. The Latin word error, meaning a wandering or deviation from the route to the objective, is therefore a perfect equivalent of our Greek noun αμαρτια (hamartia).

Our word "sin," on the other hand, comes from an ancient root that means "to be" — hence the German verb sein and the Dutch verb zijn; both meaning to be. This root also relates to the Latin noun sons, meaning guilty or criminal, which in turn derives from the participle sum (meaning "being"), of which the infinitive is esse, hence our word "is." All this indicates that our cultural understanding of "sin" is static, intrinsic or even possibly imposed by someone who declares: "he is [guilty]!" possibly despite pleadings and evidence to the contrary. In our world, someone might be "guilty" without having done anything, or "innocent" while stealing all day long.

In most modern societies one is innocent until declared guilty by some authority, which ultimately means that in our world being a sinner has nothing to do with actually doing something wrong, but rather with getting found out. The medieval church was largely an instrument of government, and the idea of ontological sin was conveniently connected to the concept of original sin (we're born wrong; Psalm 51:5, Ephesians 2:3) and to the Great White Throne judgment on judgment day (Revelation 20:11-15). It worked marvelously and money rolled in from everywhere. But it wasn't Biblical, of course.

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