Priest claims John 20:23 mistranslated


John 20:23

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

The priest claimed that this verse should be translated differently so that the meaning is that the sins are forgiven, and then as a result of that forgiveness the people are then retained. According to him, those sins are forgiven prior to seeking any kind of sacrament of reconciliation, by the way. So, there would be no way for anyone to “retain sins” in the first place (according to him, once again.)

I’ve looked at the Greek Interlinear, and I suppose that the subject of the second part of the sentence isn’t explicitly stated (the word “sins” is written only once). But, I don’t have any knowledge of Greek grammar, so I suppose it could be that it really is explicit but I wouldn’t be able to tell.

I’d like to close the loop on this with CAF to see if someone can shed more light on this for me.

Thanks - in advance!


I don’t know Greek but the Council of Trent, Session 14, says:
CANON III.–If any one saith, that those words of the Lord the Saviour, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, are not to be understood of the power of forgiving and of retaining sins in the Sacrament of penance, as the Catholic Church has always from the beginning understood them; but wrests them, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, to the power of preaching the gospel; let him be anathema. (source)


Sounds pretty conclusive to me.

OP, is this priest in good standing with the Church?

Perhaps you should just show him this quote and see what he says. Be careful with unorthodoxy.


I read Koine Greek, and I am not sure what your priest is completely saying. However I have heard this argument, and you can render the text to sound like the “people” are being “retained.” But the context doesn’t recommend it.

The text is:


If of any you may forgive their sins, they are forgiven of them.


If of any you may hold [them] fast


they stay.

So literally speaking, the text could be read as if the people are being retained, not the sins. But it can equally read that the “sins” are what are being spoken of as being “retained,” and the previous use of “sins” in the beginning of the text suggests this.

Translation is a methodology. Like all analytical methods, including science, your results have to be verified, especially by disinterested parties. As with all methods, the “correct” results are the ones that keep coming up, again and again, despite who keeps testing things. You might get a few variables, but in the end it is a majority rule, cold and simple.

The majority of translators agree that the subject being spoken of throughout this verse is the “sins.” These sins can be forgiven or “retained,” they can be “released” or the Apostles can make them “stay.” That’s also the way I read it. You don’t have to be a scholar to read Greek. I’m of Jewish ancestry, and along with Hebrew and Ladino I have been reading Greek since I was a boy. Even if I wasn’t a Christian I would understand that “sins” are the subject.

I would render the verse: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. And if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Simple.

Again, one scholar out of twenty or more might come up with something else. But since translation is a method, the results have to be verified. Look up all the different translations. How do they read? Like in any other method, the majority rules.


A long time ago when I was a young girl in CCD, I remember a priest telling us what the Lord meant by those words.

I am paraphrasing of course…The priest said that when a person needed forgiveness for sin (absolution), if the priest was certain the penitent was repentant, he would be forgiven.

However, if a person went to a priest for forgiveness, and the priest could determine that the person was not truly repentant, the forgiveness could not be forgiven. (the person’s sins were retained.).

I hope I remembered that correctly.


WOW! How very enlightening! Thank you!


There’s also the oral tradition as well as verbal. If for about 2000 years, continuous and consistent tradition held to an interpretation, then it should not be sneezed at.


Thanks for the comments.

The priest is in good standing, but he has to be careful in where he lives (aka under which bishop) and when he chooses to teach what he does. He has said he’s been in hot water in the past with certain bishops that hold the line on Church teaching.

The Council of Trent reference does put this to bed for Catholics.

Thanks for the commentary on the Greek translations - that was also very helpful.


As an aside, this is an interesting article that talks about scriptural interpretation. As most of us are aware, the Church has remained largely silent on defining particular passages of Scripture-- many reasons for this are talked about in the article. However, as we have seen from the quotation of Trent this verse has been given an interpretation. According to Jimmy Akin, who wrote the article, there are only seven passages of Scripture that have been so defined. It’s a good article to peruse and bookmark for future reference:)


I remember Tim Staples in one of his videos telling a story about how he would have lunch with 3 or 4 Protestant friends of his. And they would discuss lots of things. And when they had talked about this passage in John 20 and kindof gone back and forth with it…one of his friends said something like “Well, Tim, some passages are just difficult to understand.” And Tim responded, “Yeah…but this isn’t one of them! This is about as plain as it can get!”

I bet CA has some stuff that clears this up.


I’ll let you know if I can find which video that was from.


Just a side note, I find it interesting that the words of verse 23, where here after his resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit, and then immediately tells them they have been granted the authority to forgive sins or retain them (in the name of Jesus). Most non-Catholics I believe, reject this statement by Jesus as referring to any authority here on earth to do such a thing, but I find it very hard to understand how one can view it any other way.



*Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (Jn. 20:23 NAB)

thanks for a most interesting post.

I think you priest may be correct.

You give the NAB translation it is correct if ‘them’ refers to those who sinned, but incorrect if ‘them’ refers to the sins.

A less ambiguous translation is given in the New American Standard Bible.

  • “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”*


The only thing I’d add is that in the OT, our Lord used His priests to forgive sins. Back then it was in terms of offering animal sacrifices, but it was the priests that made the offering to God.

I think it makes sense that our Lord would continue to use His priests for this service, but now in the confessional, no blood required.


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