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Evolving Ideas of Sin

Paula Fredriksen’s new book traces views from Jesus to today

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Paula Fredriksen’s new book says early Christians took Jesus’ ideas about sin and adapted them to changing circumstance. Photo of The Temptation and Fall of Eve by William Blake courtesy of Jim Forest

What is sin?

That seemingly simple question drew a surprising array of answers from Christian thinkers in the religion’s first four centuries, and current American culture adds its own gloss, says Paula Fredriksen in her latest book, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2012). Each era defines sin based on its own cultural assumptions; for example, Jesus’ notions, molded by his exclusively Jewish audience and his belief in the approaching end of time, differed from the great Church Father Augustine, who in the fourth century was living in a Christian empire and knew that the end of time hadn’t come yet, says Fredriksen, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion and William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture Emerita. In her epilogue, she argues that current American culture downplays the whole idea of personal responsibility.

Fredriksen, currently on leave from BU and a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written several books on religion, among them Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life. She recently spoke to Bostonia about her new book.

Bostonia: Why are changes over time in the Christian conception of sin important, to Christians and non-Christians?

Fredriksen: Ideas about sin are like radioactive isotopes: you can trace them as they course through theological systems, to see the ideological architecture of the whole. So by looking at ideas of sin, we end up seeing how other ideas—about God, about humanity, about the universe—also correspond. The second point is that these ideas vary greatly between different religious thinkers in the same period, and certainly between different religious thinkers across different periods. Following the development of ideas of sin gave me a way to trace the changes across time within Christianity itself.

You write that Christian thinkers invoked sin to account for myriad things, from the physical universe to “the grammatical structure of a sentence.” How did sin explain such things for them?

Origen of Alexandria believed that in the time before time was created, there was a precosmic fall of the soul. His God, who loves his creation and who wants everyone to be saved from sin, then calls the material universe into existence to serve as a learning device for each fallen soul. Stars, planets, angels, demons, humans—all these beings have (fallen) souls. Their respective positions in the material universe are the index of their respective failures: the soul of a star, for example, “sinned” less/“fell” less, than my soul did, and Origen would know this because star-body is superior to fleshly human body. The goal of having these various bodies was that the soul in each body would learn what its error was, repent, and so turn back to God.

Augustine, 150 years later, held that one of the measures of humanity’s universally fallen state after Adam is that people have a dislocated consciousness: we are stuck in time, and can only know the meaning of something once we travel a narrative/temporal path from beginning through middle to the end. In eternity, angels and God “know” everything immediately; we know only gradually, by listening, remembering how something (whether a word or a sentence) began, and then integrating it all into an interpretation (which could always in turn be inaccurate or wrong). So, for Origen, physical cosmos measures “sin”; for Augustine, the structure of a sentence measures “sin.”

Photo courtesy of Princeton University Press

Some laypeople think the novelty of Jesus’ message was tempering Jewish scriptures’ harshly judgmental view of sin with mercy and forgiveness. Is that true?

That’s a stereotypically Christian way to characterize Judaism. If you look at the New Testament gospels, you’ll see that Jesus makes his pitch for mercy by quoting from Jewish scriptures about God’s mercifulness, and you’ll also see that Jesus occasionally speaks harshly and condemns people (especially if they’re not listening to him). The God of the Bible, in the New Testament and Old Testament alike, both redeems and judges; judgment serves as a prompt, in both, to spur the sinner to repentance. Forgiveness follows from repentance—a strong theme, again, in both strophes of scripture.

What did Jesus teach about sin and redemption from it, and how did Christian theologians from Paul to Augustine amend his ideas?

Jesus spoke to fellow Jews, so largely about “Jewish” sins, framed by reference to the Ten Commandments. Paul spoke to pagans, and so he concentrates on “pagan” sins, the foremost one, in his (Jewish) view, being idolatry. Jesus tells his Jewish audience to repent, and to forgive others who repent of wrongs directed at them; Paul tells his pagan audience to repent of worshiping pagan gods via their images (“idols’) and to commit to worshiping exclusively the God of Israel, enabled by their baptism into that God’s son.

Both Jesus and Paul are motivated to declare their message by their conviction that time was about to end, that final judgment approached: they preached, in brief, that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Four centuries later, Augustine is not an apocalyptic thinker, he lives in a Christian empire, he believes that sin is less something that we do than a condition—“original sin”—that humans are universally born into. He also held that the vast majority of humanity was predestined to damnation. His ideas would have baffled both Jesus and Paul—though Augustine thought that his theology simply captured what both Jesus and Paul had been saying.

In what ways do you see contemporary society minimizing personal responsibility and sinfulness?

“Sin” is in the eye of the beholder, and our society is richly multiperspectival: we don’t have a single definition of anything, “sin” included. And religious language, particularly in political discourse, often gets abused, and thus devalued. (This is how gay marriage, for example, an issue of social justice and civil law, becomes theologized by opponents as a “sin.”) Finally—and this is true of ancient discourse no less than of modern—it always seems easier to identify someone else’s activity as “sinful” than to be successfully self-critical about one’s own actions (which tend to be regarded as “mistakes” rather than as “wrongs”). I’d be happier if we just had a clearer definition of “crime.”

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