Differences in the Lord's Prayer - Debts and Sins
Does this show change or inaccuracy or completeness and full meaning?

For a more detailed look at the Lord's Prayer and this question, 
please see this later article.

Matthew 6:12   'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  (NASU)

Luke 11:4a   'And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (NASU)

The words "debts" and "sins" appear to be far different to us in English, both in sound and in meaning.  Those who love to point out perceived discrepancies in the Bible often thrust examples such as this into the forefront claiming such as "proof" that the Bible is somehow unreliable. 

From a Christian perspective, its amazes me that they could think that an all-powerful God could have His word written down but somehow fail to make sure it was done so accurately, let alone account for the fact that it would have to transmitted throughout future history by copying and translation.  Because I do believe in this revealed sovereign God, it always drives me to give further examination to any of these perceived deficiencies or contradictions, looking for the higher unity that is always part of the meaning and intent of God's unified and perfect revelation. 

Scholars who disparage Scriptures by viewing it as book that has undergone revision typically hold the version in Luke as being an earlier form of the Lord's prayer that had been subsequently reshaped into the one in Matthew.  They claim this with little cause and a few even assert that it could have been the other direction.

Commentaries having a higher view of Scriptures often state something to the effect of "More likely the two reflect similar teachings of Jesus from two different occasions in his ministry. (New American Commentary, article on Matthew 6:9-13)"  This is quite probable as repetition in various circumstances, in whole or in part, is certainly found throughout the Bible, including the gospels.  The specifically recorded contexts of these citations in Luke and Matthew do not presuppose a single event, nor do they preclude it.  If two separate events, it perhaps leaves us a primary question of why Jesus would change from sins to debts (or the reverse) in His example prayer.  Many expositors view debts here as being primarily spiritual debts to God, with other commentaries directly associating the word "debts" as being merely alternate wording for "sins" (e.g. Hendriksen-Kistemaker NT Commentary). 

Certainly the context of Matthew 6:12, where Jesus immediately returns to the topic of sins in verse 14, draws the reader to the conclusion that sin is in view.

Matthew 6:12-15   Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'  14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.  (NIV)

Verse 14, utilizes a different Greek word for sins (or trespasses) than Luke, but both are legitimately translated as sins in English.  But, if sin was in view in Matthew 6:12, why use the word "debts?"

An answer worthy of consideration deals with language and translation issues.  Matthew, who certainly wrote for a primarily Jewish audience, himself an eyewitness and participant in the events he recorded, would have memory of these events in the language he normally used.  The common language of Jesus and the disciples, indeed of Israel in New Testament times, was Aramaic (a related Semitic language to Hebrew, also found in the Bible especially in the book of Daniel). 

Aramaic never really died out, continuing on through history in a form called Syriac which subsequently was retained as a liturgical language in eastern churches.  Missionary endeavors spread this translation from Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai, and Mesopotamia, to Armenia, India, and China (by the 8th century).  In fact, there are a few isolated populations in the Middle East or western Asia that still use Aramaic as their native first language.

God had the New Testament written and distributed originally in Greek mostly because it was a common language spread widely throughout the Roman world.  And yet, the need to have these same books translated back into Aramaic for regional purposes still existed in the early church.  This translation, known as the Peshitta (meaning "simple version"), is one of the earliest, dating to the 2nd century.  This Old Syriac translation became the standard for Aramaic populations even to this day - sometimes being called the "Syriac Vulgate" equating it to the longstanding Latin text that held predominance for most of church history in the west.

The Syriac of Matthew 6:12, perhaps better revealing the wording that would have been native to Matthew (as an Aramaic speaker), is quite interesting.  The Greek word which is translated "debts" in English, in Aramaic is a word that had dual meaning.  The text utilizes a single Aramaic word that means both "debts" and "sins."*  Here there is no need to infer that "debts" pertains to "sins," the text reflects this directly.  This Syriac rendering provides us a clue that Jesus' original wording in Aramaic may have been this word, meaning "debts" and "sins."  This left both Matthew and Luke to express it in Koine ("Common") Greek, providentially each choosing one of the two alternatives - making sure that the New Testament included both meanings.

Rather than viewing this difference between Matthew and Luke as being something to disparage Scriptures, I see it as God working to assure that the fullness of meaning and intent, of His original words, would be carried into all future translations by having this built-in comparative duplication.


* An English translation of the Syriac Peshitta can be found in The Antioch Bible by Gorgias Press.  This specific occurrence and word usage in the Lord's Prayer is highlighted in the translator's introduction.