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Good Friday is coming later this week and I’ll be preaching on Jesus’ “Word of Victory” from the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). In this connection, I did some research into the meaning of the one Greek word behind the English, tetelestai. For those interested in things grammatical, that’s the third person singular, perfect tense, of the verb teleo. Now what stirred me up to research this was something I read a while back in Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality (see my review here). Koukl writes:
When a debt was owed in the first century, a “certificate” of the debt was made, much like the notice placed about Jesus’ head. When the obligation was settled, it was officially resolved with a single Greek word placed upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai. It meant completed, paid, finished, done. Archaeologists have unearthed ancient receipts that have been “canceled out” in this way using the word tetelestai or its abbreviation. (page 127)
When I first read this, I thought, “I’ve never heard that before. Hmm…interesting.” I placed a mark in the book and made a note of it. I knew I was going to preach on John 19:30 shortly, so I would come back to this and take another look at it.
Koukl has a footnote with this paragraph and it points to a website, Bible.org. The particular page can be found here. For our purposes, this is the relevant section:
The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times to show indicating that a bill had been paid in full. The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan says this:
“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630). The connection between receipts and what Christ accomplished would have been quite clear to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins.
So now the plot thickens! The anonymous author of this page points us to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyrii and Other Non-Literary Sources, by James Moulton and George Milligan.
The relevant page from Moulton and Milligan can be found online here. There we find the words quoted by Bible.org, but also some words left out. Crucially, Moulton and Milligan relate that these papyrii are mostly belonging to the second century A.D. (I’m thinking: “What do you mean by “mostly”?”) Moreover, Moulton and Milligan provide their source: New Classical Fragments and Other Greek and Latin Papyrii, by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt. Now we’re getting somewhere.
As the saying goes, “Ad fontes!” (to the sources). The relevant pages from Grenfell and Hunt begin here. The papyrii in question come from the second and third century A.D. — not exactly “New Testament times.” Moreover, they come from receipts “for various taxes paid by persons transporting goods on baggage animals from Fayoum to Memphis and vice-versa across the desert road.” For the geographically challenged (or curious), Fayoum and Memphis are located in Egypt. I trust you can see the problem.
I can only say, “This myth is busted.” These paypyrii have to do with the paying of taxes, not of debts. You might argue that a tax is a kind of debt, but we generally distinguish between the two. More importantly, these papyrii are from a time and place removed somewhat from the New Testament. Koukl also said that there was a “single Greek word” on the parchment’s face. When you look at the text of the papyrii in Grenfell and Hunt, there’s definitely more than a single Greek word to signify the payment of the tax. It is highly unlikely that Jesus said “tetelestai” (or that John translated his Aramaic to this word) with the idea that there’s a direct reference to the cancellation of a debt. Certainly when Jesus says, “It is finished,” he does mean that the work of our redemption on the cross has been fully accomplished. However, any reference to the full payment of our debt is only indirect.
UPDATE: After posting the link to this blog post on Facebook, I had some discussion with a colleague and did some further research. There is a papyrus from somewhere between 180 and 168 BC which is a receipt for “payments of an unspecified nature.” This papyrus uses tetelestai. See here. There is also a customs receipt from 49 AD — see here — and a number of others. However, there are still questions regarding: 1) How widespread this technical usage was, 2) whether the original Greek readers of John’s gospel were indeed familiar with this technical use of tetelestai, 3) Whether this word in this form was actually used for payments other than taxes, 4) The fact that tetelestai never occurs by itself as a word in isolation. Furthermore, I surveyed a number of commentaries on John. I found one that mentioned the “bill paid” interpretation (Richard Phillips in the Reformed Expository Commentary series). The others (Carson, Hoskyns, Ridderbos, Hendriksen, Michaels, Morris) I surveyed make no mention of this. Finally, there’s no mention of this in a number of standard references including Dictionary of New Testament Background, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Considering also the overwhelming reticence of commentators and scholars on this point, it is best to simply understand tetelestai in John 19:30 as meaning, “It is finished” or “It is accomplished/completed.”