We translated Matthew 18 for Greek class tonight, and an issue arose that I was previously unaware of. In Matthew 18 Peter asks Jesus how many times he is to forgive his brother. Peter seems to suggest that forgiving his brother, 7 times at the most, would be adequate. Jesus responds by saying in verse 22: "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." (ESV)
The most common interpretation of this verse is that Christians are to forgive those who wrong them 490 times before they hold a brother's offense against them. The point that Jesus is making is that Christians are to forgive their brothers always. He uses a big number to communicate the fact that forgiveness is supposed to be the standard, not holding a grudge or taking revenge. Jesus was most definitely not saying that Christians should have a checklist and count the number of times that Christians forgive their brothers and sisters until they've reached 490. He's being overly dramatic. Because if you're counting the number of times you've forgiven someone, you haven't really forgiven.
The trick is that, in Greek, there is no way of expressing multiplication. The Greek in verse 22 literally reads "hebdomékontakis hepta." The first word means "seventy times" and the second word means "seven." In all other places where numbers are communicated in New Testament Greek, numbers in multiples of ten are communicated by saying "seventy and seven," which seems to be the case here. So the translation, "seventy times seven" (as in multiplication) is most likely not accurate. Rather, Jesus probably meant "seventy and (plus) seven" giving us a total of 77 times that a Christian should forgive his brothers.
Here's how some modern translations render the verse:
NIV: Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
NASB: Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
ESV: Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
KJV: Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
TNIV: Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
77 is a lot less than 490, but Jesus' point is the same: how many times should I forgive my brother? Answer: a lot of times. In fact, don't stop. Always forgive.