Sin is Bad
In response to a recent post, several readers commented that the word sin has some connection to an archery term for “missing the mark.”
The connection is a tenuous one.
The Greek word hamartia can mean “missing the mark” in the sense that an arrow misses its target. Aristotle used the word in Poetics to mean error that could include mere accident or mistake.
In the context of Greek drama, hamartia is the hero’s tragic flaw. It can be an injury committed through ignorance.
The English word sin, on the other hand, has its roots in proto-Germanic and has always been associated with guilt, crime, and wrong-doing.
When the Greek books of the New Testament were written, Christians were using the word hamartia to mean “moral flaw” and it was in that sense that it was translated into English as sin.
So, while hamartia can mean an accidental lapse, or “missing the mark,” in English sin is sin and sin is bad.
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8 Responses to “Sin is Bad”
In trigonometry, one of the basic functions is called the “sine” – from an obscure translation of very old works in Arabic and Hindi.
My math teacher in the 10th grade, Mr. David Archer, told us: You Baptists will enjoy this one. The abbreviation for sine is “sin”, as in y = sin(x). [I believe that Mr. Archer was a Lutheran.]
David Archer, all about slings and arrows, and the hero of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is David Bowman, too.
A couple of other basic trigonometric functions are y = cos(x), the cosine function, and y = tan(x), the tangent function.
The Hebrew and Greek words translated “sin” throughout the Bible revolve largely around two major concepts. The first is that of transgression. To transgress means “to step across” or “to go beyond a set boundary or limit.” This concept can be compared to an athletic playing field with lines delineating the boundaries within which the game is played. When a player crosses over those boundary lines, he has committed a “transgression” and gone out of bounds. Limits are set that define the playing area, and the players are to stay within the limits of that area.
Most of the other words translated “sin” in the Bible involve a second concept, “to miss the mark.” Again, to use a sports analogy, if a player aims for the goal and misses, how many points does he get? None. He missed the goal, missed the mark at which he was aiming.
This view of sin includes the concept of our going in one direction but straying off course to the side and not continuing in the direction we intended to go, with the result that we don’t reach the goal we intended. We miss.
This concept also encompasses the idea of failing to measure up to a standard. For example, most academic courses and tests are graded or judged according to a minimum standard. If we don’t meet that standard, we fail that test or course. A minimum level of performance is expected, and anything less than that standard is failure. By not meeting that standard, we “miss the mark” and don’t pass. We can miss the mark by either missing the goal at which we were aiming or by falling short of that goal. In either situation we fail to reach the mark set for us.
Both of these concepts, transgressing and missing the mark, involve a basic requirement. If we transgress, which means to cross over a set boundary or limit, then we must have a boundary or limit to cross over. If we miss the mark, we must have a mark, target or standard to miss. Sin, then, is to transgress those boundaries God has set for us or to miss the target He set for us.
This is where the biblical definitions of sin become important, because these scriptures define the boundaries and standards God set for us. They define the playing field on which we are to live our lives. They also define the goal we are to aim for, the minimum standard we are expected to meet. In other words, the biblical definitions of sin show us the standards God has given us that define what is acceptable to Him and what isn’t acceptable. They show us what measures up and what falls short of those standards, the fundamental principles God has given us to live by.
The definitions of sin in the Bible are not simply arbitrary dos and don’ts. Instead, they show us the way God lives. They show the spiritual principles by which He lives, the same standard of conduct He expects His human creations to live by.
The word “sin” in English most likely derives from the Old Norse word “sinum” which means to seek revenge from an enemy.
However, the Bible was first translated into Latin where the word “sons” means “guilty” and the word “hamartia” was translated as “sons.”
The word “hamartia” was coined by Aristotle (in his book “Poetics) to mean a “fatal flaw” or a “moral deficit.” He used the term to describe how a character failed to learn from past mistakes with tragic consequences.
It seems to me that the original meaning could be described as “sin is tragic” and that it is only more recently that the “sin is bad” meaning has been attached.
However, the notion that “hamartia” was used to mean “missing the mark” is somewhat like saying that Hamlet was a little confused. The true meaning is missed.
I think your take on Romans 3:23 is interesting. I’ve never considered it to mean two states of being.
I’ve always thought of it as “All have sinned, [and in so doing have] come short of the glory of God.” Outside of sin (as Adam and Eve once were in the Garden) man does not “miss the mark” or fall short of God’s glory. We do not have two actions “sinning” and “falling short.” One [sin] causes the other [fall short].
James D. Magee> So, Paul probably would have written that part of the Bible in Greek, right? And so he probably used the word ‘hamartia’. Was he punning on the word’s dual meaning?
Orthodox Christian prayers talk about forgiveness for sins committed in knowledge or in ignorance. So, “missing the mark” can sometimes be seen as a sin of laziness or not paying attention. Slothfulness. Isn’t that on the list of sins? The bottom line is, you know when you’ve done something wrong — no matter what you call it.
It’s awesome to know where these things come from and when they “lose something in the translation.” 🙂 Thanks, Maeve, for sharing some interesting word knowledge!
James D. Magee
It is possible that those who try to connect the word “sin” with “missing the mark” may also be referring to a verse in the Christian Bible (Romans 3:23) that says: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” If you take the verse literally, it states that all (mankind) have sinned (committed moral transgression), and (conjuction) have come short (missed the mark) of the glory of God. This refers to two different states of being. It says that everyone has:
1. sinned (committed moral transgression) and also
2. come short of the glory of God (missed the mark; fallen short of the standard that God expects for us)
It doesn’t say that sin means “missing the mark.”
Interesting post on the word sin. You never know where the ‘root’ of a word comes from unless you investigate it!