Hamartia is the most frequent word used for sin in the Bible. It’s in the text over 200 times. In ancient language it originally meant “to miss the mark” in archery. To not hit the target one was aiming at. However Aristotle in the 4th century BCE used it in his work “The Poetics”.
The way he used it was to describe an action that occurred in a “Tragedy”. It was a story that made a decent person (the protagonist or main character of the story) basically in the end become miserable at no real fault of their own due to, not depravity or purposely doing something wrong, but error in judgment due to ignorance or lack of correct knowledge. This caused the audience to have pity on the protagonist. Hence the reason it is called a tragedy. The audience, you see, did not hold the mistakes of the person against him, even though it caused bad things to happen, because it really wasn’t the person’s fault due to lack of knowledge. They felt pity instead. The “hamartia” in this, is the act of the fault due to ignorance and lack of knowledge.
One such “Tragedy” outlined by Aristotle was the story of “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. The back story is that a King and Queen, Laius and Jocasta, receive a prediction from an oracle that their soon to be born son will end up killing King Laius and marrying his own mom, Jocasta. Disturbed by this, Laius tells his wife Jocasta, to murder him. But Jocasta couldn’t herself bear to do this to her own son so she put the murder in the hands of a a slave. The slave does not kill the child but gives him to a Sheppard on the mountains who in turn gives the child to a childless king and raises Oedipus as his own son. As he grows into a man he is told by an oracle that he will marry his mom and kill his dad. Not knowing these are not his real parents he leaves the city to avoid this from happening. In his travels he runs into a man and has a dispute with him and ends up killing this man to protect himself. This man was actually his birth father, Laius. But didn’t know it at the time. Through other circumstances he ends up marrying the queen of Thebes, which happens to be Jocasta, his mom. So, back to the story of Oedipus Rex. In it the main character Oedipus, King of Thebes, tries to find the murderer of Laius (the Former king as seen above) to end a plague raging in Thebes. Through his research Oedipus discovers that he is the murderer and that he did marry his mother, fulfilling the prophecy of the oracle. Distraught over the situation, Queen Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus gouges his own eyes out.
Forgive me father for I have hamartia(d)
What we see is the Hamartia (sin) in this story caused the murder of his dad Laius and marriage to his Mom. We see these were all done not because he was a bad person but because of prior circumstances that he didn’t have control over and was ignorant of. His hamartia was that he was ignorant. We know he wouldn’t have killed his father if he would have known it was him, nor would he have married his mother. The same can be said for his parents. His dad would not have tried to kill his son and his mom would not have married him. None of this would have happened if Oedipus would have known his own back story.
This same hamartia can be seen in the Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The hamartia can be seen when Romeo kills himself thinking his love has done the same, not knowing she has only faked her own death, finding this out when she awakens, she too kills herself. When we see sin in this way, the way I believe is meant by the writers of the scriptures, it opens up a world of new understanding of what being a sinner means and sinning means. It’s not a condition to be damned or punished for, we see hamartia has its own punishments and consequences, but instead it’s something to be saved from. To have our eyes opened to the truth from. So when we, rightly, ask for forgiveness (I’ve talked about on another blog that forgiveness in this context actually means liberation, you can check that out here.) from sin, we are asking to be liberated from our ignorance.
Ignorance from what? This is, I believe, what the writer of John means when he says “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin(hamartia) of the world. (John 1:29)” Jesus fully reveals the Father, and humanity’s true value through the incarnation and especially on the cross takes away our ignorance of believing in an angry retributive God who is for some and against others and exposes the principalities and powers as idols, all the while ushering in the kingdom of God through forgiveness, peace and mercy. This is how Jesus takes away our sin(hamartia).
Sin is not a “moral citation” or an act of immorality. It is true that at times immoral acts happen when one sins but the act itself isn’t the problem, sin (hamartia) is. Expanding hamartia to a theological perspective we can conclude that sin(hamartia) comes from a false identity or concept of our true selves which is a loved image bearer of the Divine.
Try this, replace the word sin/sinner with “forgotten identity” or “one who forgot/forgets their identity” when reading scripture. Sin goes from being a moral problem, which it was never intended to mean, to an identity problem which Jesus came to expose, restore and save us from.