NKJV - 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
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We might guess that this discrepancy was due to variant readings in the Greek manuscripts, but that is not the case. The manuscripts are in strong agreement. The Greek of Matthew 18:22 clearly reads “seventy times seven.” The reason some scholars and translators favor the reading “seventy seven” is due to how the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) rendered a phrase in Genesis. In Genesis 4:19-24 we read about Lamech. Verses 19-22 tell about his two wives, his brother and his sons. Verses 23-24 relate a poetic statement he made to his wives. He reveals in verse 23 that he killed a man who hurt him, and verse 24 expresses the vengeance he will take on his enemies. “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” The Hebrew text clearly uses the normal Hebrew terms for “seventy-seven.” However, when the passage was rendered in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek did not say “seventy-seven,” but rather “seventy times seven,” using Greek construction nearly identical to that in Matthew 18:22. This has led scholars to three common opinions. Most interpreters and translators take Genesis 4:24 to mean “seventy-seven,” as the Hebrew text reads, and they understand Matthew 18:22 to be “seventy times seven,” or 490. They see little relevance in the Septuagint reading. Perhaps it was just a mistake. They minimize the connection between Genesis 4:24 and Matthew 18:22. Other scholars recognize that the Hebrew text of Genesis 4:24 reads “seventy-seven,” but they are influenced by the Septuagint reading of “seventy times seven.” Perhaps the Septuagint translators were aware of different readings extant at that time, or had grammatical insights which have been lost over time. Because they respect the Septuagint translators, they give some credence to their rendering of the passage. They point out how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament generally quote from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text, and consider it likely that Jesus answer to Peter in Matthew 18:24 was connected to the LXX of Genesis 4:24. As Lamech promised to take revenge 490 times, Jesus turns that around and tells Peter he must forgive 490 times. Of course, Jesus did not mean it was not necessary to forgive on the 491st time, but implied forgiveness has no limits. A third group of translators and interpreters give great weight to the “seventy-seven” of Genesis 4:24. They speculate that perhaps the Septuagint reading is an unusual way of expressing “seventy-seven.” Some suggest that even though the LXX reads “seventy times seven,” it really means “seventy plus seven.” Since the Greek construction of Matthew 18:22 is so close to the LXX of Genesis 4:24, they think it is reasonable to understand Matthew 18:22 to mean “seventy-seven,” like the Hebrew of Genesis 4:24. That is why some translations read “seventy-seven” in Matthew 18:22, while most read “seventy times seven.” Fortunately, whether the number is 77 or 490, the meaning is clear: we are to forgive our brothers and sisters over and over and over again. The Jews taught you should forgive an offense three times, but no more. Peter probably thought his suggestion of seven was extremely generous, over twice the normal Jewish teaching. But Jesus’ point was that there is not some number we must wait for before we can withhold forgiveness. We must forgive as many times as we are offended – the way God forgives us. Aren’t we glad God doesn’t limit us to a number of times he will forgive us?
Galen gave a great explanation. I would just add that my NIV study Bible adds in parenthesis "(or seventy times seven)". Some translations are word for word translations and some are thought for thought. In this case, as Galen points out, the word for word probably points to seventy times seven but the thought for thought would work either way. The point is we put too small a limit on our forgiveness.
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