Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
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's used a modest 43 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, but the primary noun αμαρτια (hamartia), meaning error (see below) occurs a whopping 174 times.
Is such-and-such a sin?
People often wonder whether certain behavior might be a sin or not, but an easy test gives the answer. Whether we believe in mindless evolution or a willful Creator, the universe produced life so that living things would live. The universe did not produce life so that living things might die. Dying is not what living things are made for. Living things are made to live.
One of the main differences between living things and inanimate things is that living things are able to absorb light, turn it into a chemical equivalent and store it for later use. When inanimate things absorb light they heat up, and radiate it out again without being able to hold on to it. Living things grow, whereas inanimate things heat up.
Darkness is not the opposite of light but the absence of it. Darkness is the absence of light but not the presence of something else. Darkness is not a thing. Light is, but darkness isn't.
Light comes before all things and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). Light is both a birthing agent and a binding agent, and it is substantial: light is a thing. Darkness is the absence of all that: darkness is the lack of a birthing agent, and the lack of a binding agent. Darkness holds nothing together, because darkness is not a thing but the absence of it. Light comes in colors and contains data, but darkness doesn't because darkness is the absence of colors and data.
Darkness is emptiness, vacancy and death, whereas light is fullness, application and life. Foolishness, war and death are all manifestations of darkness, which is the absence of light, not the presence of something else. Wisdom, peace and life are all manifestations of light, and are manifestations of the joining of things by a substance. Wisdom, peace and life are buildings. And they take time to be built.
In Romans 6:23, Paul declares that the wages of sin is death, so if we want to know whether something is a sin or not, we should simply see whether this thing increases our chances of getting killed or sick or in any way impaired, or whether this thing causes or increases the chance of death and impairment in others. This simple test tells us that humanity should invest in careful lifestyles, pursue monogamy, clean technology, wisdom and understanding of all our different kinds of fellow men, and move toward a plant-based and thus meat-free diet. And we should be diligent to keep the Sabbath.
Life is the purpose of life, and death is a lingering characteristic of the period of transition between a universe without life and a universe with eternal life. As long as we keep dying, we haven't figured out how life works, and are still building this amazing building called the eternal City of God, where there is neither death nor darkness. The purpose of life is to do just that: to learn how life works, and to eradicate death by living right.
Death, in turn, is a temporarily needed mechanism that allows "the universe" to breed out death-seeking behaviors in living things. Since living things must die until they have learned how to live, there should also be predation and carnivory and such, but these will be bred out along with death itself (Isaiah 11:6-9, 65:25, John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15:55, Hebrews 2:14).
The problem of sin
Our verb αμαρτανω (hamartano) describes the difference between aim and impact, purpose and application, or intent and realization. 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.
The truth about sin
The difference between (medieval) human law and God's law is that God's law is natural law (Romans 1:20, Colossians 1:16-17) and human law derived from the whims of some king who simply followed his own appetites (rather like Korah, the cousin of Moses).
Natural law is what binds atoms into molecules and molecules into objects. Natural law brings natural compounds together and forms living creatures (Genesis 2:7). Natural law governs the biosphere and forms each creature according to its personal constitution and its place relative to the others (Psalm 50:10-11, 104:10-14, Matthew 6:26). Likewise, God's law aims for people to grow into fruit-bearing adults who fit perfectly into the greater global human ecosphere. Unfortunately, we're all stuck in this transitional period between a humanity consisting of tribal chiefdoms and an integrated global economy where everybody is free — which is why Christ is slowly but surely bringing an end to all rule and dominion (Daniel 7:27, 1 Corinthians 15:24).
Sinning has nothing to do with breaking some formal law and everything with getting in nature's way (Ephesians 4:30). Sinning has nothing to do with being guilty and everything with being in a situation in which you don't belong or even want to be. Kings, popes and CEO's will want you to believe that sin has to do with being uppity, but capitalism is of course the greatest enslaver of all, and the imposition of poverty the most evil of evils (Zechariah 13:5, 1 Timothy 6:10).
The ultimate sin
Rich people cannot inherit the living Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:21-24, Luke 16:25). Rich people might helpfully suggest that these are mere metaphors, but they aren't. Rich people literally cannot inherit the living Kingdom of God.
Life can only exist when chemical compounds do not use absorbed energy for their own kinesis, but rather disperse it among all other chemical compounds and let it transmute into chemical bonds — because yes, photosynthesis also works in the human monetary economy.
Excessive private wealth can only exist when there are others poor, and we live in a world in which folks are forced to watch their children die because others found ways to turn their food into Lamborghinis (Mark 3:24-29, 2 Samuel 12:1-5). There must be some degree of inequality for any economy to properly function but the earth holds about 15,000 USD worth of wealth per capita, so nobody should be without basic resources and normal access to the human community. Physically, humanity has been ready for the digital age (and beyond) for a very long time, but for the last ten thousand years or so, an uneven dispersal of collective wealth has arrested our precious development.
Both excessive wealth (or "financial obesity") and extreme poverty limit freedom of motion and prohibit people from growing highly into God's clean air and bearing the fruits of their yearning hearts. But getting obese has much more to do with one's private choices than getting poor. Nobody wants to be extremely poor and nobody should want to be extremely rich, but the fact is that very few rich people realize what a great source of economic disease they are.
In order for rich people to stay rich, poor people need to stay poor. Hence rich people want poor people to believe that their fate is absolute and righteous or even due to their own inaptitude. They'll try to make the poor trust the power of lighting candles in church, hours of quiet prayer and angelic helpers from outer space (read our article on αγγελος, aggelos, meaning "angel") because when poor people would be properly informed, they would quickly throw off the yoke of their servitude, and invest their precious concerns into the people of their neighborhood rather than in movie stars, distant heads of state and aliens.
Along with an extremely uneven distribution of wealth comes a culture of misinformation, misdirection and sedative surrogates: whiffs of plastic luxury and base entertainment, which are all "part of their enslavement" (in the words of Tacitus; Agricola.1.21). It's what made YHWH cry out through the prophet Hosea: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (4:6).
Fortunately for all of us, in Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3), and wisdom and knowledge will buy us all out of the slave market (see our article on the verb αγοραζω, agorazo, meaning to redeem).
The bottom line: slavery comes with ignorance and freedom comes with knowledge (Proverbs 18:15, Isaiah 11:9, Malachi 2:7, Luke 1:77, 1 Corinthians 12:8, Colossians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Philippians 1:9, Ephesians 3:9, 2 Timothy 2:7, 2 Peter 1:5).
The gospel of Jesus Christ
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about a personality cult of some ancient hero (which is what rich people preach) but about the absolute law of nature; the knowledge of which will set us free (John 8:32). The effect of preaching the gospel is not the formation of yet another legion of quietly compliant people (which is what rich people preach) but poverty relief and a Cambrian explosion of mental life.
The sole measurable effect of preaching the gospel is a fair distribution of wealth and the freedom that hence ensues. As Jesus himself said: preaching the gospel is the opposite of poverty the way seeing is the opposite of being blind, the way walking is the opposite of being lame, the way health is the opposite of being leprous, the way hearing is the opposite of being deaf, and the way death is the opposite of life (Matthew 11:5).
Sin is not anything else than being restricted and confined. Freedom is God's most splendid gift and autonomy is the ultimate working principle of creation (formally called Heisenberg's uncertainty principle). The word Christ means "anointed" and marks anyone who is the boss of his or her own life (1 John 2:20-27). Don't allow anyone to tell you who you are and what you should do with your life. It's for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).
Note the curious similarity between our word group and the adjective αμαρτυρος (amarturos), meaning without witness. Errors come in many guises but Truth only in one, which is the one on which everybody can and ultimately will agree (Isaiah 40:5, 45:23).
Officially this word has nothing to do with our word group — it consists of the negating α, a, plus the word for witness — but either by merit of coincidental conversion or else as a long lost ancestor of our word group, it describes precisely the one thing that was not good prior to the fall: "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18), which is a sentiment that returns in the important rule of the minimal two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), and Jesus' promise that he would be there where two or three were gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20).
This important rule is of course also one of the main pillars of the scientific method: an experiment is only valid when it can be duplicated and confirmed by a third party. And it sits at the heart of the Great Commandment, which states to love one's neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39-40). Since this rule appears to imply that a neighbor must exist (or else you can't love him, and the rule is violated), it even glances at the reason for creation, and God's ultimate position toward it, namely love.
The Great Commandment is the most condensed form of the Word of God, who is God and who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1). Unfolded, this Word of God describes everything about everything (John 21:25), including the truth about the great human objective the Bible calls the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).
Derivations of the verb αμαρτανω (hamartano)
- The noun αμαρτημα (hamartema), meaning an erring, missing or failing to hit the bull's-eye. It describes the action of the verb and is used 4 times; see full concordance.
- The noun αμαρτια (hamartia), meaning an error, a missing or a failure to hit the bull's-eye. As strongly emphasized above, our words do not describe doing something wrong or being found out about, but rather an existing in a condition of being restricted. You could be on your best behavior but if someone has chained you up in the basement, you are certainly restricted and thus "in error." Even though you didn't commit the error, the error is still very much yours because it is also your restriction. Our word certainly does not only describe one's own errors but also the effect of someone else's errors. When someone sins against you (Matthew 18:15, Luke 17:4), that person takes liberty away from you and restricts you in some way (Genesis 42:22). Our noun is used 174 times; see full concordance.
- The adjective αμαρτωλος (hamertolos), meaning erroneous, askew or deviated. It's often used as substantive (the erroneous; the people that err) and occurs 48 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the common prefix of negation α (a): the adjective αναμαρτητος (anamartetos), meaning not erroneous, askew or deviated; spot on, bull's-eyed. This adjective occurs in John 8:7 only, where it features prominently in Jesus famous invitation for anyone anamartetos to cast the first stone.
- Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προαμαρτανω (proamartano), meaning to miss on forehand or at an earlier occasion. This verb occurs only twice, in 2 Corinthians 12:21 and 13:2 only, both times in the form of a substantively used participle describing people who previously erred.