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REPENTANCE . The noun repentance and the verb repent came into modern English via Middle English and Old French from the Latin verb paenitere, meaning "to be sorry, to grieve, to regret." As a religious term repentance denotes a change in a person's attitude, will, and behavior, sometimes accompanied by feelings of sorrow and regret for past transgressions and perhaps accompanied also by some form of restitution.

Morphology of Repentance

Repentance is a phenomenon found in some, but not all, religious traditions. When present it can range along a continuum from informal but socially recognized practices (for example, the repentance preceding conversion in modern Protestant revivalism) to very complex formal institutions (for example, the sacrament of penance in Roman Catholicism). Whether formal or informal, repentance is a ritual procedure; it exists to repair a breach in relations between the gods and an individual (orsince ritual and moral pollution are communicablebetween the gods and a group). The establishment and maintenance of good relations with the supernatural order is thus a central preoccupation of religion. The interruption of these relations, when it occurs, is either inferred from the experience of misfortune (frequently thought the result of conscious or unconscious transgressions), or discovered through divination (for example, in the Roman senate, reports of prodigies could be either accepted or rejected; if accepted, some form of divination was used to discover the mode of expiation). Repentance belongs to a constellation of restorative religious techniques (for example, confession of sins, restitution, purification, expiatory sacrifice) that lie at the frontier leading from impurity to purity, from sin to salvation, from the community of the lost to the community of the saved. The primary function of these techniques is to objectify and rectify the cause of the breached relationship. Since many important human activities must be undertaken in a state of ritual and perhaps moral purity (warfare, hunting and fishing, childbirth), taboo violations as well as ritual and moral infractions are often confessed and expiated in preparation for such activities.

Confession of sin and accusation

The confession of sin, nearly always a characteristic of repentance, is the verbalization of wrongs committed and the acceptance of blame for their personal and social consequences. Confession can be made privately (to the gods directly as a penitential prayer, or to a specially credentialed representative of the gods), or it can be made publicly. In many cultures the act of confession is inherently cathartic, the sincerity of the penitent being irrelevant. Confession and accusation are sometimes closely connected, particularly when witchcraft and sorcery are involved; in parts of Africa where the onset of witchcraft is thought involuntary (in contrast to sorcery, which is regarded as a skill to be learned), confessions of witchcraft double as accusations against those who imposed it. Among the Ashanti of Ghana, women often confessed acts of involuntary witchcraft at shrines whose presiding spirits troubled them. The Bete of the Ivory Coast think that confession of witchcraft automatically involves absolution. Among the Iroquois of New York State and Ontario who follow the Good Word religion of Handsome Lake, witchcraft is a serious offense requiring public or private confession. During the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials of 1692, many publicly accused witches acknowledged their culpability and were publicly forgiven and reintegrated into the community. Confession may be seen as self-accusation: During the revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening, which began in 1734 in New England, many people publicly accused themselves of various moral offenses (thereby avoiding accusation by others) and experienced religious conversion.

Penitential rites

Repentance may take form as a ritual presentation, made by the penitent person to observers, of outward expressions of remorse and sorrow. Penitential sorrow often takes the form of customs associated with mourning for the dead: wearing sackcloth and rags, smearing oneself with ashes or mud, self-inflicted pain, fasting, and sexual abstinence. Confession may be formalized both as a rite with its own efficacy (as among the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest), and as part of a more elaborate expiatory protocol perhaps concluding with a sacrifice (as among the Nuer or the ancient Israelites). Restitution or compensation is often an integral feature of penitential rites, particularly in cases wherein others have been harmed or their property damaged or taken away. Confession is sometimes regarded as the necessary prerequisite for formalized types of expiation, such as public sacrifice or public penitential discipline.


Repentance is an institutionally approved means of eliminating excessive guilt stemming from the awareness of having transgressed in thought, word, or deed, and thus its public and ritually prescribed protocol exists for the formal recognition and removal of guilt. In order to understand the ritual removal of guilt, it is useful to bear in mind that an anthropological distinction was formerly made between guilt cultures and shame cultures. This distinction was an attempt to reify the fact that in some (generally small-scale) societies self-control is based primarily on external sanctions, namely, fear of shame, ridicule, and punishment, while in other societies (often more complex and stratified) self-control is determined primarily by internal sanctions, in particular the desire to avoid painful feelings; this is known also as the inner value-structure of the individual conscience, a phenomenon Freud labeled "the censor."


The word conversion may be defined as the voluntary entry into a religious movement having exclusive claims that are buttressed by a system of values and norms at variance with the outside world; and for conversion repentance is often a necessary precondition, for it involves abandoning the old in order to embrace the new. Particularly with respect to revitalistic or millenarian movements, repentance is often a necessary step for entry. After the rebellion in 1944 of the Bagasin cult of New Guinea (one of the cargo cults), its members were required to confess all past transgressionsprimarily sorcery and quarrels over womenin order to demonstrate their genuine conversion to the new order. Two rebel leaders, Kaum and Dabus, had confessional services each Monday; adherents were told that when God-Kilibob was satisfied with their new intentions he would turn their skins white and send cargo through the spirits of the dead. Another cargo cult, the so-called Vailala Madness of Papua, was characterized by both public accusation and public confession as preparations for reform. (Transgressions included stealing and adulterythe established fine for each was one pig; positive injunctions included Sunday observance and the provision of feasts for ancestors.) The rite of public confession may in this instance have been adapted from Roman Catholicism; whatever its origin, it served to ritualize the embracing of the new morality and abandonment of the old. Again, emphasis on conversion to a new life characterizes the Good Word (Gaiwiio) religion, whose belief system is based on the revelatory visions received from 1799 forward by the Seneca chief Handsome Lake (Ganio ʿDaí Ioʿ), and whose tenets are still maintained by half the fifteen thousand Iroquois in New York State and Ontario. The codification of these visions articulates an ethical and cultural program of accommodation between white person and the Indian. Converts to this religion are required to abstain from drinking, gambling, witchcraft, gossip, vanity, boasting, and pride; in short they are to abandon many aspects of the past. In place of these the precepts of the code are tendered, which require the adoption of the white people's mode of agriculture (including working in the field), the learning of English, and a respect for family life and children.

Classical Greek Traditions

Among the ancient Greeks, the causes of illness, injury, or other misfortunes were variously diagnosed as (1) the result of chance, (2) the effect of sorcery, (3) divine revenge for affronting a particular divinity's honor, or (4) a punishment for having committed ritual or moral transgressions. In the event that guilt was incurredfor which the main term was miasma (pollution, defilement)a state of purity might be regained by katharsis (ritual purification). Consciousness of sin, that is, guilt, was rarely understood in terms of emotional suffering alone. The views of the Athenian orator Antiphon (fifth century bce) expressed in On the Murder of Herodes 5.93 are a striking exception to this rule; more commonly, guilt looked not inward, but outward in anxious anticipation of the consequences of the deed, that is, physical misfortune. After the fifth century bce the term enthumios ("weighing on the mind") and cognates thereof were often used of religious scruples or anxiety, but used in the sense of anticipating an evil fate to result from evil deeds. Thus Euripides interpreted the Erinyes as hypostatized projections of guilt who pursued Orestes in the form of avenging spirits, symbols of his uneasy conscience over past transgressions (acknowledged in Orestes 396).

For the existence of repentance and confession among the Greeks, as for the existence of inwardly directed guilt, only limited evidence can be adduced. For example, Lydian and Phrygian inscriptions of the second and third centuries ce may be cited that were dedicated by persons believing themselves punished with illness for specific transgressions (usually ritual offenses); in their belief, healing was obtained by identifying and confessing the sin. Evidence may be claimed also in Plutarch's description of the superstitious people who confesses numerous transgressions and subjects themselves to various ritual expressions of repentance: wearing sackcloth and rags, rolling in mud, and using various magical means of purification (On Superstition 168d). However, these repentance rituals appear to be of Asian origin rather than Greek; Plutarch's example is perhaps borrowed from the cult of Dea Syria, which he is known to have held in general contempt. Again, some might cite the conclusion of the first Hermetic treatise (Poimandres 28), a call for repentance very similar to Jewish and Christian appeals. But the phenomenon perhaps closest to the idea of repentance is found in certain rites of purification practiced in the Greek cults, including Orphism and the Samothracian, Eleusinian, and Dionysian mysteries. It must be stressed that ritual, not moral, purity was demanded of initiates; in particular they must be free of blood guilt. Entrance to the mysteries therefore required purification rites, such as smearing oneself with mud lest one wallow in mire in the afterlife. In the mysteries of Samothrace initiates were expected moreover to confess any significant crimes (Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica 217d, 229d), a requirement involving the expiation of ritual pollution. The phenomenon of conversion existed not in cults but in philosophical schools, which were ideologically exclusivistic and thus made conversion possible. For the idea of conversion Plato uses the word epistrophē (Republic 518dff.): Cicero calls it conversio (De natura deorum 1.77). Finally, in the Pinax of Cebes (a philosopher of the first century ce), wherein the life of vice and virtue are described, repentance personified as Metanoia provides deliverance from the bad life (chap. 26).

Near Eastern Traditions

Repentance is a particularly important aspect of many ancient Near Eastern religions including Mesopotamian religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Among these religions illness and misfortune were widely attributed to transgression, whether ritual or moral, deliberate or unconscious. Similarly, Akkadian and Sumerian penitential prayers enumerate ethical as well as ritual transgressions. Ancient Egyptian religion is an apparent exception, if one accepts Henri Frankfort's claim that Egyptians had no real consciousness of sin; certainly they had no conception of original sin. Chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day contains a script for recital by the deceased person on entering the hall of judgment, and within this script is the very opposite of a confession of sin, that is, a declaration of innocence, using a stereotyped list of the many kinds of crimes and transgressions not committed. Siegfried Morenz, however, correctly insists that this display of innocence is actually funerary magic in which the deceased identifies himself with Osiris to evade judgment. The lengthy protestations of innocence provide indirect evidence of a consciousness of sin; nevertheless the phenomenon of repentance is wholly lacking. (Ceremonial avowals of innocence can be found also in the All Smoking ceremony of the Blackfeet Indians and in the Old Testament (Dt. 26:1314, Ps. 26:45, 1 Sm. 12:3).


In ancient Israel, as in the rest of the Near East, fear existed concerning the possibility of committing unconscious sin and incurring guilt thereby (Dt. 29:28, 1 Sm. 26:19, Ps. 19:13, Jb. 1:5). But the Bible deals more extensively with guilt incurred by conscious and deliberate sin, described several ways. Guilt may be a motion of the heart: 1 Samuel 24:5 and 2 Samuel 24:10 use the expression "David's heart smote him." Guilt may be physical suffering: In an investigation of the asham (guilt) offering, Jacob Milgrom has shown that the verbal root ʿshm denotes the pangs and remorse brought on by guilt and that it should be translated as "feel guilty" (cf. Lv. 5:2425, Nm. 5:67). The Hebrew root shav ("turn, turn back") eventually came to denote repentance, that is, a turning back to God. The same root was used to denote sin or apostasy, that is, a turning away from God (Jos. 22:16). Shav meaning "repent" is emphasized by the eighth-century classical Israelite prophets (Am. 4:611; Hos. 3:5, 5:4; Is. 1:27, 6:10), and becomes more popular after the sixth century (variant forms occur twenty-seven times in Jeremiah, twenty-three times in Ezekiel, and twenty-eight times in the postexilic books). The earlier prophets addressed Israel as a whole and demanded national repentance, but later prophets like Ezekiel emphasized individual repentance (Ez. 18:21, 18:27, 33:9, 33:11). The Israelite prophets did not distinguish sharply between ritual and moral transgressions, but called Israel back to an earlier, better relationship to God as defined by the terms of the covenant. For the Deuteronomist historian repentance or conversion is primarily a turning away from cultic sins such as idolatry (1 Sm. 7:3, 1 Kgs. 13:33, 2 Kgs. 17:718).

The repentance demanded by the Israelite prophets is linked to ritual manifestations of repentance, as may be seen in Joel 2:1213: "Return to me [Yahveh] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." These manifestations accord with traditional Near Eastern rites of repentance: fasting, wearing sackcloth or mourning garb, rending one's clothes, strewing earth on one's head, sitting in ashes (Est. 4:16, 1 Kgs. 21:27, Neh. 9:1, Jon. 3:59). These manifestations also include the offering of a sacrifice (Mi. 6:68, Is. 1:1017; occasionally, as in Jl. 2:14, the sacrifice is a gift or blessing rather than an expiation). For the prophets forgiveness of sins is dependent on repentance, by which they mean the shunning of evil (Is. 33:15) and the practice of good (Am. 5:1415, Jer. 26:13).

For sacrificial expiation to take place, there must first occur confession (hitvaddut ), restitution of goods to persons, and atonement (asham ) for offense to God (Nm. 5:68). In the case of deliberate sin, moreover, remorse must be verbalized (cf. Dn. 9:520, Neh. 1:637; sacrificial expiation is not possible for the sinner who does not confess or repent (Nm. 15:2731). In the wisdom literature, confession, a prerequisite for sacrificial expiation, includes admitting having committed a specific sin and accepting the blame for it (Ps. 32:5, 38:18; Prov. 28:13).

During the Second Temple period (516 bce-70 ce), the notion of repentance or conversion (Heb., teshuvah ; Gr., metanoia ) was of central significance to Judaism. The conception could involve the prophetic notion of restoration as well as the conversion of pagans. The Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (d. 4550 ce) viewed the Jewish tradition of conversion or repentance through the spectacles of Greco-Roman philosophy, whereby a proselyte (epelus ) underwent a conversion (metanoia ) from a life of vice to one of virtue (On the Virtues 175186, On Abraham 17, Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.83.) In every age, the mark of the pious Jew is to turn continually to God. Repentance means a permanent break with sin (Eccl. 34:2526, Sibylline Oracles 1.167170; Philo, On the Special Law Books 1.93, 1.240). In rabbinic Judaism repentance (teshuvah ) and good deeds together describe the ideals of Jewish piety (Avot 4.214.22). In modern Judaism the Days of Awe (Roʾsh ha-Shanah, followed by a week of repentance, culminating in Yom Kippur), is a period of communal contrition and confession of sins. The ritual blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, beginning a month before Roʾsh ha-Shanah and ending on the festival day itself, comprises four symbolic sounds: teqiʿah (the waking call), shevarim (the sobbing of the contrite heart), teruʿah (the weeping of a heart aware of guilt), and teqiʿah (the awakening sound again). On Yom Kippur sins are confessed through statutory prayers recited privately and in unison publicly.


The most important theological conception in Islam is that God is compassionate and merciful. Repentance has therefore played a central role throughout the history of Islam. Throughout history messengers from God have tried with little success to call people to return to God, that is, to repent; the Arabic word for repentance, tawbah, literally means a "returning" to God. Those who reject the message are unbelievers (Arab., kuffār, literally "ungrateful ones"). Nevertheless sinners can always repent, be converted to the truth, and do good deeds (Qurʾān 6:54, 42:2526). They are cleansed from all sins and restored to their original sinless state. Repentance must be followed by faith and good works (Qurʾān 25:70). Zakāt (almsgiving) is a continuing sign of repentance, which must be manifest throughout life (Qurʾān 66:5, 9:112).

Traditional Islam is not as concerned about repentance as the ūfīs and the Muʿtazilah. According to the ūfīs, who are the mystics of Islam, the first station (maqamāh ) on the mystical path begins with repentance. A spiritual guide (shaykh ) enrolls the penitent as a disciple (murīd ) and assigns him a regimen of ascetic practices. ūfīs recognize three degrees of repentance, namely, in ascending order, (1) tawbah (turning to God), which is motivated by fear; (2) inābah (returning), motivated by the desire for reward; and (3) awbah (returning), motivated by the love of obedience. For the ūfī, life is a constant struggle against the nafs ("self," i. e., lower nature). The Muʿtazilah, proponents of a liberal theological view within Islam, emphasized three elements in repentance: (1) restitution, (2) the importance of not repeating the offense, and (3) continuing remorse. In most forms of Islam, repentance is a relatively informal institution.


The religious reform movements led by John the Baptist and by Jesus of Nazareth were revitalistic or millenarian in character. Both emphasized the necessity for repentance or conversion, and took from Judaism the dual means of restoration and proselytism. Even though the activities of John have been christianized in gospel tradition, it is apparent that John summoned fellow Jews to a repentance that he sealed with a ritual bath reminiscent of the washing of Jewish proselytes (Mt. 3:112; Lk. 3:120; Acts 13:24, 19:4). Those who underwent this baptism were initiated into an eschatological community preparing for the imminent visitation of divine judgment. Jesus, too, is presented as summoning fellow Jews to repentance (Mk. 1:1415; Lk. 13:15, 15:7), and the ritual of baptism inherited from John was perpetuated as a rite of initiation into the community of the saved. Thus this emphasis on repentance, which was to characterize many strands of Christianity throughout its history, was inherited primarily from Judaism.

There are two Greek words used in early Christian literature that convey the basic notion of repentance, namely, metanoia and metameleia. By the time of the Christian era both words had come to convey a change of attitude or purpose as well as a sorrow for past failings, whereas in non-Christian Greek texts the terms are not used in an ethical or religious sense until the late Hellenistic period.

As in Judaism, in early Christianity forms of the term metanoia (occurring approximately fifty times in the New Testament) continued to mean conversion to a new faith and abandonment of the old, or restoration within the new faith by confession and rejection of sins. Employing the same word, the Revelation to John reports a series of visions in which the risen Jesus demands repentance of Christians in Asia Minor who have made accommodations to paganism (Rv. 2:5, 2:16, 2:21, 3:3, 3:19); the ritual protocol involved (if any) is unstated. John uses the same term for the conversion of pagans (Rv. 9:2021, 16:911). The ethical rigorism expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 6:46, 10:2631, 12:1417) reveals a problem with postbaptismal apostasy.

The ideal of moral purity in the Christian church was contradicted by reality. During the second and third centuries Christianity underwent a penitential crisis. By the second century baptism was thought to confer sinlessness as well as the forgiveness of all previous sins. Since baptism or martyrdom were the only two means of eradicating postbaptismal sin, the practice of adult baptism and deathbed baptism became common. Many reform movements arose. The prophet Elkesai (fl. 100 ce) summoned people to repent and submit to a second baptism to expiate sin. The Marcionites and the Montanists (middle of the second century) proclaimed different forms of ethical rigorism. In a complex document called the Shepherd of Hermas (compiled c. 100150 CE), revelatory visions legitimate the possibility of a second and final repentance. Forms of the word metanoia are found therein nearly a hundred times. The prophetic author urges Christians to repent the abuses stemming from the possession of wealth and the conduct of business affairs (Visions 3.6.5; Commandments 10.1.4; Similitudes 9.20.1). Throughout the document there is no explicit connection of the appeal for repentance with a formalized ritual procedure. Tertullian (c. 160225 CE), before converting to Montanism, wrote De paenitentia, in which he dealt both with the repentance required of candidates for baptism (chaps. 46) and with a single final opportunity for repentance following baptism (chap. 7), after which the penitent must never again return to sin (chap. 5). The ritual behavior of repentance described by Tertullian includes lying in sackcloth and ashes, severe treatment of the body, restricted food and drink, and weeping (chap. 9). The orthodox tradition developed the practice of auricular ("to the ear") confession to a priest as a surrogate for God. By the third century a system of public penance came to be regarded as a second baptism. Excluded from the Eucharist, the penitent went through a regimen of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The Council of Trent (15451563) reaffirmed that repentance must involve three elements, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction.

Traditions of Small-Scale Societies

Among the Nuer of the Sudan, certain acts are regarded as bad because God punishes them. Faults (dueri ) are against God and he is the one who punishes them. Such faults include incest and adultery as well as offense against certain prohibitions, such as eating with those with whom one's kin have a blood feud and milking one's own cow and drinking the milk. In Nuer belief the person who commits dueri places himself in physical danger, for moral faults accumulate and predispose the offender to disaster. Thus faults destroy a person, but they can be "wiped out" (woc ) by sacrifice. The Nuer have a custom of confessing sin at certain sacrifices, wherein the worshiper must reveal all the resentments and grievances that he or she holds against others if his sacrifice is to be efficacious. (In effect the worshipper confesses the shortcomings of others.) The faults and the feelings of aggrievedness are wiped out by the blood of the sacrificial victim. Such sacrifices are regarded as effective only when accomplished with the will and desire of the sinner.

Among the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest ritual confession was practiced early in the sect's history (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), but was later abandoned. The founder, John Slocum, emphasized the necessity of confessing sins and asking for forgiveness in order to attain salvation. Every Friday Slocum would hear the confession of individual penitents privatelythough he rang a bell all the while so that he would be unable actually to hear them. Early Shakers believed that the ability to hear confessions was a gift. Louis, a Shaker leader possessing this gift, received penitents who came each carrying a bundle of sticks, a mnemonic device representing their sins. As each sin was confessed (while Louis rang the handbell), a stick was placed on the table, and all were burned at the conclusion of the confession. For the Shakers confession was a catharsis for immediate personal relief and was not connected with spiritual regeneration.

The phenomena of confession and repentance are culture traits indigenous to American Indian cultures quite apart from Christian influences. This conclusion is supported by the early character of the evidence as well as by the fact that tribal confessors are native functionaries. Examples abound. The Aurohuaca Indians of the Columbian Sierra Nevada regard all illness as a punishment for sin. When a shaman is summoned for curing, he will not treat patients until they confess their sins. The Ijca of Columbia abstain from salt and alcohol before confession. In the manner of the Pacific Coast Shakers, when they visit the priest (mama ) they bring mnemonic devices made of corn shucks and knotted strings to help them remember each sin. Similarly the Huichol of southern Mexico confess sexual transgression on their way north in search of peyote (híkuri ). Women knot palm-leaf strips for each sin and throw them into the fire after reciting the name of each lover. Among the Maya of Yucatan, women in labor summon native shamans to confess their sins, particularly those of a sexual nature. The Inuit (Eskimo) are anxious lest by conscious or unconscious violation of taboos they offend Sedna, the mistress of animals, who resides at the bottom of the sea and whose displeasure might threaten the food supply. As Weston La Barre has observed, the wages of sin are starvation. If the guilty party confesses, all is well: Seals and caribou are caught. If not, the shaman (angakkoq ) must ferret out the offender and secure a confession.

See Also

Confession of Sins; Conversion; Merit; Purification.


The most comprehensive study of the phenomenon of confession, which includes a great deal of information about the related notion of repentance, is Raffaele Pettazzoni's La confessione dei peccati, 3 vols. (19291936; reprint, Bologna, 1968). However, Pettazzoni's hypothesis proposing an evolutionary development of the notion of confession, from the magical to the theistic, is unconvincing. A more theoretical discussion of the phenomenon of repentance in Albert Esser's Das Phänomen Reue: Versuch einer Erhellung ihres Selbstverständnisses (Cologne, 1963). For a shorter discussion from a history of religions perspective, see Geo Widengren's Religionsphänomenologie (Berlin, 1969), pp. 258279). For a critique of the shame-culture or guilt-culture typology, see Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer's Shame and Guilt (Springfield, Ill., 1953).

For an overview of the notions of confession, repentance, and guilt in antiquity, see Franz Steinleitner's Die Beicht im Zusammenhänge mit der sakralen Rechtspflege in der Antike (Leipzig, 1913). For Greco-Roman religions and philosophical systems, see Arthur Darby Nock's Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford, 1933). An exceptionally complete study of Greek pollution and purity with full bibliography is found in Robert A. Parker's Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford, 1983). Still indispensable is Kurt Latte's "Schuld und Sünde in der grieschischen Religion," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 20 (19201921): 254298. For the Roman world, see Anna-Elizabeth Wilhelm-Hooijbergh's Peccatum: Sin and Guilt in Ancient Rome (Groningen, 1954).

Henri Frankfort outlines the ancient Egyptian concept of sin and sinlessness in his Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York, 1948), pp. 7380. Frankfort's treatment of the topic has been corrected by Siegfried Morenz's Egyptian Religion (Ithaca, N. Y., 1973), pp. 130133. For the relationship between repentance and sacrificial expiation in ancient Israel, see Jacob Milgrom's Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentance (Leiden, 1976). Also important is William L. Holladay's The Root Subh in the Old Testament (Leiden, 1958).

One of the only detailed studies of the Christian concept of repentance within the context of Judaism, Greco-Roman sources, and subsequent patristic evidence is Aloys H. Dirksen's The New Testament Concept of Metanoia (Washington, D. C., 1932). A philologically oriented study of Hebrew and early Christian terms and concepts related to repentance, together with a wealth of references to primary sources, is found in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1967), pp. 9751008. The most important study of the second- and third-century penitential crisis is Hans Windisch's Taufe und Sünde im ältesten Christentum bis auf Origenes (Tübingen, 1908). For a selection of important early Christian texts on repentance in Greek and Latin with German translations, see Die Busse: Quellen zur Entstehung des altkirchlichen Busswesens (Zurich, 1969).

On the phenomenon of confession and repentance among small-scale societies, see Weston La Barre's well-documented "Confession as Cathartic Therapy in American Indian Tribes," in Magic, Faith, and Healing, edited by Ari Kiev (New York, 1964). Kiev's book contains many relevant essays. Robert I. Levy's Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands (Chicago, 1973) is an important study. Bryan R. Wilson's Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples (New York, 1973) is an important synthetic study of revitalistic or millenarian movements.

New Sources

Al-Ghazzali, Muhammad. On Repentance. Chicago, 2003. Translation of Al-Ghazzali's classic tract on repentance.

Etzioni, Amitai, et alii. Repentance. Lanham, Md., 1997.

Hommel, Hildebrecht. "Antike Bussformulare." In Sebasmata, vol. 1, pp. 351370. Tübingen, 1983.

Nave, Guy D. The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke Acts. Leiden, 2002.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert. A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1987.

Zinniel, Klaus. "Busse." In Handbuch religionwissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, edited by H. Cancik, B. Gladigow, and M. Laubscher, vol. 2, pp. 188190. Stuttgart, 1990.

David E. Aune (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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Repentance is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness: God will not pardon man unconditionally but waits for him to repent. In repentance man must experience genuine remorse for the wrong he has committed and then convert his penitential energy into concrete acts. Two substages are discernible in the latter process: first, the negative one of ceasing to do evil (Isa. 33:15; Ps. 15; 24:4), and second, the positive step of doing good (Isa. 1:17; 58:5ff.; Jer. 7:3; 26:13; Amos 5:14–15; Ps. 34:15–16; 37:27). The Bible is rich in idioms describing man's active role in the process of repentance e.g., "incline the heart to the Lord" (Josh. 24:23), "make oneself a new heart" (Ezek. 18:31), "circumcise the heart" (Jer. 4:4), "wash the heart" (Jer. 4:14), and "break one's fallow ground" (Hos. 10:12). However, all these expressions of man's penitential activity are subsumed and summarized by one verb which dominates the Bible, שוב (shwb, "to return") which develops ultimately into the rabbinic concept of teshuvah, repentance. This root combines in itself both requisites of repentance: to turn from the evil and to turn to the good. The motion of turning implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain but a straying from the right path, and that by the effort of turning, a power God has given to all men, the sinner can redirect his destiny. That this concept of turning back (to yhwh) is not a prophetic innovation but goes back to Israel's ancient traditions is clear from Amos, who uses it without bothering to explain its meaning (Amos 4:6–11). Neither he nor Isaiah stresses repentance, except in his earliest prophecy (1:16–18 – to which the prophet adds 19–20 by way of interpretation – and 27), not because they believe it is insignificant, but because in their time the people had sinned to such an extent, that they had overstepped the limits of divine forbearance and the gates of repentance were closed (Amos 7; Isa. 6). For Isaiah, the need to turn back indeed continues to play a role, but only for the few who will survive God's purge. This surviving remnant will itself actively engage in a program of repentence to qualify for residence in the New Zion (e.g., Isa. 10:20–23; 17:7–8; 27:9; 29:18ff.; 30:18–26; 31:6–7; 32:1–8, 15ff.; 33:5–6). Indeed, the name of this prophet's firstborn was imprinted with this message: "[Only] a remnant will return" (Shear-Jashub; Isa. 7:3).

In the teaching of both Hosea and Jeremiah, on the other hand, the call to turn back is never abandoned. When Jeremiah despairs of man's capability of self-renewal, he postulates that God will provide a "new heart" that will overcome sin and merit eternal forgiveness (31:32–33; 32:39–40; cf. Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26–27).

[Jacob Milgrom]

Rabbinic Views

The rabbis are eloquent in describing the significance of repentance. It is one of the things created before the world itself (Pes. 54a); it reaches to the very Throne of Glory (Yoma 86a); it prolongs a man's life and brings on the Redemption (Yoma 86b). God urges Israel to repent and not be ashamed to do so because a son is not ashamed to return to the father who loves him (Deut. R. 2:24). God says to Israel: My sons, open for Me an aperture of repentance as narrow as the eye of a needle, and I will open for you gates through which wagons and coaches can pass (Song R. 5:2 no. 2). On public fast-days the elder of the congregation would declare: "Brethren, it is not said of the men of Nineveh: 'And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting' but: 'And God saw their works, that they had turned from their evil way' [Jonah 3:10]" (Ta'an. 2:1).

The rabbis were not unaware of the theological difficulties in the whole concept of repentance. Once the wrong has been done how can it be put right? The general rabbinic answer is that it is a matter of Divine Grace, as in the following passage, in which it is incidentally implied, too, that the concept of teshuvah has only reached its full emphasis as a result of a long development from biblical times: "They asked of wisdom? 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' Wisdom replied: 'Evil pursueth sinners' [Prov. 13:21]. They asked of prophecy: 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' Prophecy replied: 'The soul that sinneth it shall die' [Ezek. 18:4]. Then they asked of the Holy One, blessed be He: 'What is the punishment of the sinner?' He replied: 'Let him repent and he will find atonement'" (tj, Mak. 2:7, 31d). The third-century Palestinian teachers debate whether the repentant sinner is greater than the wholly righteous man who has not sinned, R. Johanan holding the opinion that the latter is the greater, R. Abbahu that the repentant sinner is greater (Ber. 34b). R. Simeon b. Lakish said, according to one version, that when the sinner repents his sins are accounted as if he had committed them unintentionally, but, in another version, his sins are accounted as virtues. The talmudic reconciliation of the two versions is that one refers to repentance out of fear, the other to repentance out of love (Yoma 86b). Even a man who has been wicked all his days who repents at the end of his life is pardoned for all his sins (Kid. 40b). The ideal, is for man to spend all his days in repentance. When R. Eliezer said: "Repent one day before your death," he explained that since no man can know when he will die he should spend all his days in repentance (Shab. 153a).

The Day of *Atonement brings pardon for sin if there is repentance (Yoma 8:8), but Judah ha-Nasi holds that the Day of Atonement brings pardon even without repentance except in cases of very serious sin (Yoma 85b). The Day of Atonement is ineffective if a man says: "I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement." If a man says: "I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent" he will be given no chance to repent (Yoma 8:9). The second-century teacher R. Ishmael is reported as saying (Yoma 86a): "If a man transgressed a positive precept, and repented, he is forgiven right away. If he has transgressed a negative commandment and repented, then repentance suspends punishment and the Day of Atonement procures atonement. If he has committed a sin to be punished with extirpation (karet), or death at the hands of the court, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment, and suffering cleanses him from the sin. But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it." This scheme contains all the tensions resulting from the different aspects of atonement mentioned in the Bible.

Repentance involves sincere remorse for having committed the sin. The third-century Babylonian teacher, R. Judah, defined a true penitent as one who twice more encountered the object which caused his original transgression and he kept away from it. R. Judah indicated: "With the same woman, at the same time, in the same place" (Yoma 86b). The penitent sinner must confess his sins. According to R. Judah b. Bava a general confession is insufficient; the details of each sin must be stated explicitly. But R. Akiva holds that a general confession is enough (Yoma 86b). Public confession of sin was frowned upon as displaying a lack of shame except when the transgressions were committed publicly, or, according to others, in the case of offenses against other human beings (Yoma 86b). Confession without repentance is of no avail. The ancient parable, as old as Ben Sira (34:25–26), is recounted of a man who immerses himself in purifying waters while still holding in his hand a defiling reptile (Ta'an. 16a).

The sinner must be given every encouragement to repent. It is forbidden to say to a penitent: "Remember your former deeds" (bm 4:10). If a man stole a beam and built it into his house, he was freed from the obligation of demolishing the house and was allowed to pay for his theft in cash, in order to encourage him to repent (Git. 5:5). It was even said that if robbers or usurers repent and wish to restore their ill-gotten gains, the spirit of the sages is displeased with the victims if they accept the restitution, for this may discourage potential penitents from relinquishing their evil way of life (bk 94b).

[Louis Jacobs]

In Jewish Philosophy

Repentance was a favorite subject in medieval Jewish ethical and philosophical literature. *Saadiah discusses repentance in section five of his Emunot ve-De'ot. Baḥya ibn *Paquda devotes the seventh "gate" of his "Duties of the Heart," and *Maimonides, the last section of Sefer ha-Madda, "Hilkhot Teshuvah." to repentance.

Saadiah, Baḥya, and Maimonides agree that the essential constituents of repentance are regret and remorse for the sin committed, renunciation of the sin, confession and a request for forgiveness, and a pledge not to repeat the offense (Emunot ve-De'ot, 5:5; Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 7:4; Yad, Teshuvah, 2:2). In the case of sins perpetrated against other people it is necessary to beg forgiveness from the person one has wronged before one can receive divine forgiveness (Emunot ve-De'ot, 5:6; Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 7:9; Maim. Yad, Teshuvah, 2:9). Maimonides in particular, emphasizes the importance of verbal confession, or viddui (Yad, Teshuvah, 1:1), maintaining that one should publicly confess those sins that one has committed against one's fellow men. Of course, a verbal confession without inner conviction is worthless (ibid., 13:3).

The conditions necessary for repentance, according to Baḥya, are:

(1) recognition of the evil nature of one's sin;

(2) realization that punishment for one's sin is inevitable, and that repentance is the only means of averting punishment;

(3) reflection on the favors previously bestowed by God; and

(4) renunciation of the evil act.

There are different gradations of repentance. The highest level of repentance, according to Saadiah, is the repentance which takes place immediately after one has sinned, while the details of one's sin are still before one. A lower level of repentance is that which takes place when one is threatened by disaster, and the lowest, that which takes place just before death. According to Baḥya, the highest level of repentance is the repentance of one, who, while still capable of sinning has conquered his evil inclination entirely. The next level of repentance is the repentance of one who, while managing to refrain from sin, is nevertheless constantly drawn toward sin by his evil inclination. The lowest form of repentance is the repentance of one who no longer has the power or opportunity to sin. Maimonides maintains that he has achieved perfect repentance (teshuvah gemurah) who, upon finding himself in the position of repeating his sin, is able to refrain from doing so (Yad, Teshuvah, 2:1).

Among the many other medieval works on repentance are Iggeret ha-Teshuvah ("Letter on Repentance," Constantinople, 1548) and Sha'arei Teshuvah ("Gates of Repentance," Fano, 1583) by Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi (c. 1200–1263), and Menorat ha-Ma'or ("The Candlestick of Light," Constantinople, 1514) by Isaac *Aboab (14th century).

[Samuel Rosenblatt]

Post-Medieval Period

The idea of repentance continued to play a central role in the life of the Jew in the postmedieval period, reinforced as it was by both the penitential liturgy and the rituals of the High Holidays. External stress, pogroms, and expulsions turned the Jew in on himself and led him to ask forgiveness of God for the sins which he assumed were at the root of his suffering. Messianic movements, often largely a consequence of the tribulations which beset Jewish communities, gave further incentive to renewed religious fervor and "re-turning" to God. Pietist movements, such as that of Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, practiced ascetic penitential techniques to scourge the sinful flesh.

Against this background kabbalistic speculation, which associated repentance not merely with the salvation of the individual soul but with the cosmic drama of redemption, gained ground. This doctrine reached its climax in Lurianic Kabbalah, where repentance was one step, but a most essential one, in the process of tikkun, or rectification. Through repentance, the Jew was able to assist God in the elevation of the holy sparks entrapped in the shells and thus usher in the messianic age – the work of creation having been completed and perfected.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of two important movements in Eastern European Jewry in which the idea of repentance played somewhat different theological roles. In Ḥasidism, where the highly personal and anthropomorphic relation to the Deity, either on the part of the ḥasid himself or at least on that of the ẓaddik, was emphasized, the severity of the doctrine of repentance was toned down. Confidence in the loving response of God and His forgiveness helped lessen the sense of overburdening sin. By contrast the Musar movement, which may be regarded as the response of the Mitnaggedim to the challenge that Ḥasidism presented to traditional Judaism, played up the factor of sin, and thus repentance became the persistent task of the Jew, day after day, year after year. The turning inward to scrutinize one's deeds and motives – in essence the heart of the Musar movement – gave the follower of this movement an awareness of sin of which the average Jew or the ḥasid would be totally oblivious. This process of self-scrutiny and repentance reached its pinnacle for the follower of the Musar movement in the month of Elul, preceding the High Holidays. This month was wholly given over to soul-searching, and there are well attested cases of great exponents of the Musar movement who inflicted discomfort and even suffering on themselves as part of the self-punishment involved in genuine repentance.

Modern Developments

In the modern period, marked by a drift of Jews away from traditional forms of religion and belief in God, the idea of repentance appears in two guises. On the one hand, there is the traditionalist interpretation which still sees repentance as something of which the believing, as well as the unbelieving, Jew is in need. On the other, there is the re-interpretation of repentance as the way back to God for those who have weak roots in Judaism, or have at some stage abandoned whatever roots they had.

The traditionalist interpretation takes its most original form in the writing of A.I. *Kook who devoted a whole work to the subject of repentance (Orot ha-Teshuvah, 19705). Kook weaves together three themes in his concept of repentance: the kabbalistic idea that repentance is not merely something on the personal level, but partakes of cosmic proportions; messianic Zionism; the "re-turning" of the individual to God. By sinning, man isolates himself from the Deity and disrupts the potential unity and harmony of all existence. Repentance is the overcoming of this isolation, and communion with God, the ideal point of man's striving. In repentance, the harmony of the world is reestablished, for the repentance of one man helps to bring the whole world back to God. Israel's return to its ancestral land is seen by Kook as repentance (returning) on the national level and a further step in the reestablishment of the unity of the creative process. The repentance of the individual Jew strengthens national repentance and return, for righteousness is the very soul of Israel.

The importance of Franz *Rosenzweig for the modern reinterpretation of the idea of repentance is first and foremost the example of his own life. Rosenzweig's personal experience of finding his way back to Judaism has come to be the paradigm of the modern ba'al teshuvah ("one who repents"). In 1913, he was on the verge of converting to Christianity, but while attending a Day of Atonement service in an orthodox synagogue he changed his mind and ultimately his whole life. From then on his mode of life and his writings represent the struggles and ideas of a man on the way back ("re-turning") to Judaism. Rosenzweig gradually took upon himself the yoke of the mitzvot and tried to find means, mainly educational, to bring other assimilated Jews to an awareness of the "inner fire of the Jewish star of redemption." Rosenzweig's conception of repentance turns on his portrayal of existential man facing God and the dialectical tension between man's anticipation of the call of God and God's love which is ultimately at the basis of such a call. Having been called by God, the man of faith enters into dialogue with Him. The turning to God is not simply this dialogic openness to Him, it also involves the attempt to fulfill the mitzvot as far as one can, in the hope and belief that one's ability to fulfill mitzvot will widen. Rosenzweig's attitude to those mitzvot he did not keep was "not yet," i.e., although he was at the moment not ready to observe these commandments, he hoped that at some future time he would be.

Unlike Kook, who dealt with the subject of repentance in relation to Israel's return to God and nationhood, Rosenzweig was concerned with the turning away of the individual from Western culture, specifically Christianity, back to Judaism. This feature of his thought, typical of existentialism where biographical experience and philosophy meet, colors his whole discussion of the subject. Whereas Kook is concerned with the repentance of the Jew, orthodox or otherwise, Rosenzweig speaks only to the "hyphenated" Jew, i.e., one who has been strongly influenced by non-Jewish cultural values.

In the thought of Martin *Buber the idea of repentance is essentially the turning of the whole man to God, the Eternal Thou. Though God is revealed to man in his dialogic relationships to other men and the natural world, these relationships continually move from the plane of the "I-Thou" to that of the "I-It." The relationship with God is always, and necessarily, that of "I Thou" since God is the Eternal Thou who can never become It. Yet in order to maintain this relationship with God, a total response is called for from man, a response which is often only partially forthcoming. Repentance, "re-turning" to God, is thus the renewed total response of "I-Thou." The influence of ḥasidic thought on Buber is apparent both in the highly personalistic approach to the Deity and in the idea that turning to God involves a relationship with him not merely in religiously separated times and places, but even in the most mundane of situations. Unlike both Kook and Rosenzweig, Buber is addressing man as man, not qua committed or even uncommitted Jew but qua "I." This is true despite his attempt to locate his philosophy within a distinctly Jewish framework – rejecting the Christian framework of an already achieved redemption.

[Alan Unterman]


C.R. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953); E.F. Sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (1955); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–495; J. Milgrom, in: vt, 14 (1964), 169–72. rabbinic views: S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293–343; G.F. Moore, Judaism (1958), 507–552; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (1949), 104–10; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1970), 408–15; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Authority (1938), 315–33. jewish philosophy: C. Nussbaum, The Essence of Teshuvah: a Path to Repentance, (1993); C.G. Montefiore, in: jqr, 16 (1904), 209–57; A. Rubin, in: jjso, 16 (1965), 161–76; J.J. Petuchowski, in: Judaism, 17 (1968), 175–85; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1961), 55–141; M. Buber, I and Thou (19582); A.I. Kook, Orot ha-Teshuvah (19705; Eng. tr. Rabbi Kook's Philosophy of Repentance, 1968); N.N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (1953, 19612); idem (ed.), On Jewish Learning (1955); F. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption (1971), N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (1968), 175–238; S. Schwarzschild, Franz Rosenzweig: Guide of Reversioners (1960).


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Repentance and penance are imperfect and unsatisfactory equivalents of μετάνοια of the Greek New Testament and poenitentia of the Latin Vulgate. The Greek form directly signifies the change of mind or of heart that occurs in conversion. The Latin poenitentia, with which the Vulgate (often joining with it some form of the verb agere ) translates the Greek term, connotes regret for one's past sins as well as penalties undertaken on their account; it represents penance as something to be done, a work to be performed. By contrast, Protestant insistence upon the idea of μετάνοια (translated by "repentance" in the AV) in the sense of the beginning of a new life, a new way of looking at things and feelings about them, has often been understood as requiring no special attitude with regard to moral lapses of the past. For the teaching of Catholic theology that sorrow and regret for past sins is always included in true conversion, see contrition.

See Also: conversion, i (in the bible); penance, sacrament of; reparation.

[t. a. porter/eds.]


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Repentance ★★★ Pokayaniye; Confession 1987 (PG)

A popular, surreal satire of Soviet and Communist societies. A woman is arrested for repeatedly digging up a dead local despot, and put on trial. Wickedly funny and controversial; released under the auspices of glasnost. In Russian with English subtitles. 151m/C VHS, DVD . RU Avtandil Makharadze, Zeinab Botsvadze, Ia Ninidze, Edisher Giorgobiani, Ketevan Abuladze, Kakhi Kavsadze; D: Tengiz Abuladze. Cannes '87: Grand Jury Prize.


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