Forgiveness in History

The oldest preserved accounts of person-to-person forgiveness are found in the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps the best and most obvious example is in Genesis 37-45 where Joseph was left for dead by his jealous brothers, yet he rose to power in Egypt. Having the opportunity to punish those same brothers years later, he instead offered unconditional forgiveness before they ever repented. Islam’s Koran has a somewhat similar story using the same names.


Of the ancient literature, the Christian New Testament has the most references to forgiveness. The story most often cited (Luke 15:11-32) is of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance and then crawled back to the family. To his surprise, his father unconditionally accepts and loves him despite his moral failings. Some of the many other New Testament examples with implications for person-to-person forgiveness include:

  • Matthew 18:23-35- the unforgiving servant
  • Matthew 6:9, 14-15- Jesus’ commentary on the Lord’s Pray with particular emphasis on forgiving
  • John 15:12-14; 13:34-35 – “Love as I have loved you.” His forgiving love is to be our forgiving love
  • Matthew 5:43-47- we are to pray for those who hurt us
  • 1Peter 4:12-14, 19- we are to share in Christ’s suffering; he suffered for the unjust; we are to do the same.


Click for a list of Bible verses on forgiveness. Click this link for “5 Bible Lessons About Forgiveness” from the website What Christians Want to Know.


Buddhist (notably, a story of a hermit who is savagely beaten by a jealous king and yet he unconditionally accepts the king), Muslim (afo) and Confucian (shu) perspectives all make room for forgiveness and see it as a morally worthwhile activity. In fact, we have never examined an ancient text with a moral basis to it that did not value forgiveness. Forgiveness cuts across virtually every religion and philosophy.