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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Debt, Debtor

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The Acts and the Epistles give few glimpses of the trade of the time (cf. James 4:13 ff., 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:8 ff., Acts 19:24 ff., 1 Corinthians 7:30, Romans 13:7 ff., Revelation 18:4-20). This may seem all the more remarkable since Christianity touched the commerce of the Roman world at so many points and used the fine Roman roads (see article Trade And Commerce). The allusions to debt are quite incidental, and come in generally in the metaphorical use of words.

1. Literal use.-The word ‘debt’ signifying a business transaction is found in Philemon 1:18 (ὀφείλει), where St. Paul delicately refers to money or valuables stolen from Philemon by Onesimus. St. Paul here uses the technical language of business-τοῦτο ἑμοὶ ἐλλόγα. We meet ἐλλογέω in pagan inscriptions and in an Imperial papyrus letter of the time of Hadrian (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East2, 79f.). Dibelius (‘Kol.’ in Handbuch zum NT, 1912, p. 129) quotes various examples, as ὑπὲρ ἀρραβῶνος [τῇ τ]ιμῇ ἐλλογουμέν[ο]υ (Grenfell and Hunt, ii. 67, 16ff.). In the rest of St. Paul’s half-humorous sally with Philemon (ἔγραψα τῇ ἐμῇ χειρί) he probably has in mind τὸ χειρόγραφον (Colossians 2:14). The debtor could have another to write for him if unable to write himself (cf. specimen of such a note by an ἀγράμματος from the Fayyûm papyri [Deissmann, op. cit. p. 335]). The common word for ‘repay’ is ἀποδίδωμι (cf. Romans 13:7), but St. Paul here uses ἀποτίσω, ‘which is much stronger than ἀποδώσω’ (Deissmann, p. 335 n. [Note: . note.] ; cf. also Moulton and Milligan, in Expositor, 7th ser., vi. [1908] 191f.). St. Paul thus gives Philemon his note of hand to pay the debt of Onesimus. In Philippians 4:18 St. Paul uses, perhaps in playful vein again, the technical word for a receipt, ἀπέχω, in expressing his appreciation of the liberal contribution sent to him by the Philippians (cf. ἀπέχω for a tax-receipt on an ostracon from Thebes [Deissmann, p. 111]). The term εἰς λόγον ὑμῶν (Philippians 4:17) has the atmosphere of book-keeping (cf. also εἰς λόγον δόσεως καὶ λήμψεως in Philippians 4:15). In Romans 4:4 we find the figure of credit for actual work as a debt-κατὰ ὀφείλημα. This is simply pay for work done (wages). The word ὁ μισθός, hire for pay, is the common expression (cf. the proverb in 1 Timothy 5:18 and μίσθωμα (hired house) in Acts 28:30).

In James 5:4 the curtain is raised upon the social wrong done to labour by grinding employers who kept back (ἀφυστερέω) the wages of the men who tilled the fields. James rather implies that there was little recourse to law in such cases, but consoles the wronged workers in that God has heard their cries. There was imprisonment for debt, as was the case in England and America till some 50 years ago, but it was only with difficulty that the workman could bring such a law to bear on his employer. In Romans 13:6-8 St. Paul expressly urges the Roman Christiana to pay taxes, a form of debt paid with poor grace in all the ages. Christianity is on the side of law and order, and recognizes the debt of the citizens to government for the maintenance of order. ‘For this cause ye pay tribute also’ (Romans 13:6), φόρους τελεῖτε. In Romans 13:7 he urges the duty of paying (ἀπόδοτε) back in full (perfective use of ἀπό as in ἀπέχω above) one’s taxes. φόρος is the tribute paid by the subject nation (Luke 20:22, 1 Maccabees 10:33), while τέλος represents the customs and dues which would in any case be paid for the support of the civil government (Matthew 17:25, 1 Maccabees 10:31). So Sanday-Headlam, Romans, in loco.

In Romans 13:8 St. Paul covers the whole field by μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε. We are not to imagine that he is opposed to debt as the basis of business. The early Jewish prohibitions against debt and interest (usury) contemplated a world where only the poor and unfortunate had to borrow. But already, long before St. Paul’s time, borrowing and lending was a regular business custom at the basis of trade. Extortionate rates of interest were often charged (cf. Horace [Sat. i. ii. 14], who expressly states that interest at the rate of 5 per cent a month or 60 per cent a year was sometimes exacted). Jesus draws a picture of imprisonment, and even slavery, for debt in the Parable of the Two Creditors (Matthew 18:23-35; cf. also Matthew 5:25 f.). But the point of view of St. Paul here is the moral obligation of the debtor to pay his debt. In few things do Christians show greater moral laxity than in the matter of debt. Evidently St. Paul had already noticed this laxity. He makes this exhortation the occasion of a strong argument for love, but the context shows that liberal financial obligations (ὀφειλή, common in the papyri in this sense) are in mind as well as the metaphorical applications of ὀφείλω.

2. Metaphorical uses.-The examples in the apostolic period chiefly come under this heading. The debt of love in Romans 13:8 is a case in point. It may be noted that ἀγάπη can no longer be claimed as a purely biblical word (cf. Deissmann, op. cit. p. 70). None the less Christianity glorifies the word. The debt of love is the only one that must not be paid in full, but the interest must be paid. For other instances of ὀφείλω see Romans 15:1-27, 1 Corinthians 5:10. In Romans 13:7 ὀφείλω covers all kinds of obligations, financial and moral (cf. also 1 Corinthians 7:3 [conjugal duty]). The metaphorical me of ὀφειλέτης appears in Romans 1:14, Galatians 5:3 etc. The metaphor of debt is found in various other words. Thus, when St. Paul speaks of Christians being ‘slaves of Christ,’ he is thinking of the obligation due to the new Master who has set us free from the bondage of sin at the price of His own blood. The figure need not be overworked, but this is the heart of it (cf. Romans 6:18-22, Galatians 2:4; Galatians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23, Romans 3:24, 1 Timothy 2:6, Titus 2:14; cf. also 1 Peter 1:18, Hebrews 9:12). (See Deissmann, op. cit. pp. 324-44 for a luminous discussion of the whole subject of manumission of slaves in the inscriptions and papyri, as illustrating the NT use of words like ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀγοράζω, τιμή, ἐλευθερόω, ἐλεύθερος, ἐλευθερία, δοῦλος, δουλεύω, καταδουλόω, etc.) The use of ἀποδίδωμι with the figure of paying off a debt is common (cf. Romans 2:6; Romans 12:17, etc.). ἀρραβών (Ephesians 1:14) presents the idea of pledge (mortgage), earnest money to guarantee the full payment (Deissmann, op. cit. p. 340). In Hebrews 7:22 in the same way ἔγγυος is surety or guarantor. It seems clear that διαθήκη in Hebrews 9:16 f. has the notion of a will (testament) which is paid at death. Deissmann (op. cit. p. 341) argues that ‘no one in the Mediterranean world in the first century a.d. would have thought of finding in the word διαθήκη the idea of “covenant” St. Paul would not, and in fact did not,’ That sweeping statement overlooks the Septuagint , however. Cf. article Covenant. The figurative use of ἐλλογάω occurs in Romans 5:13.

Literature.-articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , Jewish Encyclopedia , and Catholic Encyclopedia , and Commentaries on the passages cited; A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, Eng. translation , 1901, and Light from the Ancient East2, 1911; A. Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Edersheim).] ii. p. 268ff.; E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] ii. i. 362f.

A. T. Robertson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Debt, Debtor'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/d/debt-debtor.html. 1906-1918.

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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