Is sin “missing the mark”?

Have you been told that the word for “sin” literally means “missing the mark” in the original Greek? In fact, it does not.

The verb “hamartano” (αμαρτανω) was sometimes used in pre-Classical and Classical Greek to refer to missing a target. Homer uses it in the Iliad to speak of a man who failed to hit his opponent with a spear (Iliad 5.287, using the archaic form ημβροτες): “But Diomed all undismayed made answer, ‘You have missed, not hit.’” In other contexts it was used to speak of losing one’s way on a road.  More generally it meant, “to do wrong, err or sin” (see Liddell, Scott and Jones, abbrev. LSJ). By the time they were writing the New Testament, the average reader would not have heard the word as “miss the mark,” unless he or she was thinking about Homer’s Iliad, written 800 years earlier.

To import the use of the word from spear throwing to theology is about as much as a leap as the following: a century ago, a poultry farmer would have typically used the word “comb” to refer to the red crest on top of the rooster’s head. Today we usually mean a hair comb. To say that sin is literally “to miss the mark” is about as useful as saying “a hair comb is literally the top of a rooster’s head.” It gives no help, and is misleading.

The Bible does not teach that sin is literally or really “missing the mark.” That is misapplying the use of the verb in one field (spear-throwing) to another field (theology). The Bible defines sin as offense against God, either through neglect or through conscious intent. This “missing the mark” viewpoint can give the idea that sinners try their very best but somehow fall short. They goofed. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: sinners are not doing their best, even by human standards. They are doing pretty much what they want to do, which is to live for themselves and not for God.

When I was being trained in how to share my faith, I was told to take people to Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I was instructed to ask them, “Now, haven’t you made some mistakes? Is anyone free from wrong?” Of course the correct, and easy, answer was “No, of course not, we all make mistakes.” From there we would go on to the truth that God would save us from our sin.

This is to distort the Bible’s teaching on sin. “We all make mistakes!” is what a kindly grandfather says when a 5-year-old knocks over his glass of milk. But that kind of slip-up has nothing to do with what we call “sin.” Sin is rebelling against a loving and just God, the kind of treason that would be unpardonable were it not for the cross of Christ. It is not the “oops” that is implied by this “missing the mark” exegesis.

Additional thought: the Greek language is, like astrophysics, Irish literature or cabinet-making, an area of knowledge that may be studied and mastered. Those who wish to tell others about what the Greek means should do what it takes to really get a grasp of it; a basic understanding may be attained through two years of part-time study from a qualified instructor. See also http://openoureyeslord.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/greek-a-science/

“Is sin ‘missing the mark’?” by Gary Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t know why this is a problem. Literally, we are missing the mark (God) when we are focusing on our own wants. That is, in itself, violating God’s will (current usage of sin).
    There are many other words that are not perfect renderings, but they convey the original concept.
    Why is everyone so hyped up about a word that isn’t even in the original languages – it is there for edification.

    Also: To “hit with a spear” is easily a parable, just as much as is to “gouge out an eye” or “cut off a hand”. I think it’s perfect for helping people understand that Sin is not a scale of bad and less bad, as if one’s sin is less damaging than another. God created us for his companions, and if we choose to focus on anything other than that companionship, it is all Sin… Missing the mark of focusing on God in all aspects of our lives. It’s not right to categorize it as actually hitting someone with a spear any more than it is correct for someone to gouge out his own eyes to avoid lust (which doesn’t work, by the way).

    • Hi, thanks for writing, and blessings. I took the liberty of combining your two comments.

      You first mention that sin is “literally missing the mark.” But this is not something you would have gotten simply by reading the Bible. It has only entered into popular teaching because at some point somebody thought he saw that as the root meaning of hamartia. And people who use it don’t take the meaning that you do: they say that “well, we tried our best and missed.” As you point out, that’s not what sin means. Google hamartia missing the mark and you’ll see how it misleads people.

      “Hit with a spear” could be a parable, I suppose, but it’s a poor one if we’re trying to summarize what the Bible says. And it’s not the equal of cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye, since those two illustrations are found in the Bible, where the spear idea is not.

      “It’s not right to categorize it as actually hitting someone with a spear”? Well, I don’t know how you could conclude that – look up any Classical dictionary and you’ll find that that’s precisely what it means, when we are speaking of marksmanship. I quote the Iliad where it uses this meaning.

      The problem is that people invent parables that don’t capture the Biblical teaching, and it results in a misunderstanding of the Bible itself. The hamartia one is an example, as is the (in)famous “explanation” of the Trinity that “Your father is a father, he is a son, he is a husband” – it’s best left unused, since it leads to a false teaching of the nature of the Trinity.

      Blessings!

  2. Thanks Gary! We all know the truth about ourselves. Seldom is our sin “accidental”. All to often we sin because we want to sin.

  3. […] MYTH: the word for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” Therefore sin is basically missing the mark of God’s righteousness. FACT: nowhere in the New Testament does it mean missing the mark, it means an offense against God. See Is sin “missing the mark”? […]

  4. I really appreciate this article. I have been trying to reconcile the “to miss the mark” definition with the theological explanation of sin and had been unable to do it. However, in examining the Old Testament words for sin, I am again stumped. What about the Old Testament word “chata”? In some instances it means “to miss the mark”. So, if sin can mean “to miss the mark” in the Old Testament, why wouldn’t it mean that in the New Testament?

    • Hi Kurt. In my Hebrew lexicons, “miss the mark” is not a definition of chata (חֲטָאָה). I see that one online lexicon lists that as a possibility, but my impression is that “sin, offend” is the better definition. Strong’s dictionary is not always reliable.

  5. Well put Dr. Shogren. I’ve wondered about how that english and classical greek word for sin came to be. So without knowing what the etymology of the word sin was, in the past I’ve kidnapped the idea of missing the mark and falling short of the glory of God in evangelism to say this. – The arrows are our allegiences, desires, actions, attitudes and character. Upon seeing the “target” a loving, just, holy, righteous and good God, instead of trying to even aim at the target we turn a completely different direction in autonomy and rebellion. This metaphor isn’t very personal but I think it gives a distinction of trying and rebelling. What do think of that for evangelism.

    • Hi Daniel, blessings.

      Your description of sin is more biblical, yes. For my part, I would skip the arrow metaphor entirely, since that use of hamartano really has nothing to do with the Bible’s use of it.

  6. Thanks Gary, I thinks is one of the most comun use that many people give to this word, thanks to put it clear as you did

  7. Thanks for this helpful reminder, Gary! You will probably agree that etymological misconceptions like this may be multiplied, even from sources who should know better. My personal favorite is “repentance is just a change of mind” , from “metanoein”, and “metanoia”. I have found Trench’s “Synonyms of the New Testament” (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 255-261, to be a helpful source in countering this reductionism concerning “repentance”. The following are recommended as more modern additions to what Thayer wrote on this subject: Jurgen Goetzmann, “metanoia”, in “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology”, gen. ed. Colin Brown (Zondervan, 1975), I:357-359; and Johannes Behm, “metanoew and metanoia in the New Testament”, in “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1967), IV:999-1006.

    • Hey bro! Yeah, metanoia is an annoying one, not to mention damaging. Have you read my article about Thayer on this blog? just look up “Thayer”. I ranted a bit when Logos promoted it as a wonderful and reliable tool.

      • From my rereading of Thayer on the Koine terms for “repentance” , and comparing him to the more recent treatments in TDNT and NIDNTT (all cited in post above), I conclude that at least in this case his work is still on track, and reliable.

        • Well…my experience of Trench hasn’t been as positive.

          His work predates the bulk of the new discoveries of the Greek language from the papyri. He also has the tendency of making fine distinctions between synonyms that don’t really reflect the actual usage of the language.

          Trench mistakenly states that stephanos always significes a prize, and that diadema always a royal crown. He states that agape was invented by the Jews to describe divine love, and that the word’s meaning is not that of phile.

          I have a copy of Trench, but rarely use it. Why would I want to spent a dozen hours, trying to figure out where Trench is right and where he is wrong, when I could read a book that takes into account the explosion of new data from the late 19th century to today?


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