Sin: A Book Review

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Ancient ideas of sin—as modern ideas of sin—are, like all human products, culturally constructed. Heavenly revelations may stand as their source; but since these revelations were either mediated by incarnate, temporally bounded individuals or were preserved and presented in texts—in Genesis and in Exodus, in the gospels, in Paul’s letters—they are also read or heard, thus understood, by historically embedded human interpreters.”

Paula Fredriksen, a brilliant New Testament scholar and expert on St. Augustine, tackles ancient Jewish and Christian ideas about sin in her book, Sin: The Early History of an Idea.

She does this by looking at the theology of seven figures ranging from Jesus to Augustine. I’m going to sum up the bits I thought particularly interesting, but to actually grasp her argument, dear reader, you will have to get a copy of Sin and read it for yourself.

Jesus viewed sin as primarily a “Jewish thing,” something that happens when one breaks Torah. He taught repentance as a means to restoration, and he taught that God was about to establish his kingdom and those who accepted Jesus and his authority would be allowed entrance. Essentially.

Paul’s version was little more universal; actually it was a lot more universal. For Gentiles, sin was the worship of false gods and all the sins—like fornication or a sacrifice for the Emperor’s health—that went along with this worship.  Gentiles gained a place in the kingdom through forsaking false cultic worship, living by Jewish ethics, and being baptized into Christ. For Paul, God will eventually save all Israel and make good on his promise to Abraham about the Gentiles.

Valentinus (130 CE) saw sin as ignorance of God’s will. Misreading Revelation as a book about an alien invasion from Mars would count as such a sin, I’m sure. Redemption, then, is the ability by those who are either “spiritual” or “soul-ish” to receive revelation. Everybody else is “fleshly” and out of luck. Jesus came to enlighten those who would hear him, angering “Error,” who had him crucified. Incidentally, Valentinus also believed the God of the Jews was a lower, malevolent god, and the God of the NT was the high God or supreme God of the universe and Greek philosophy.

Marcion (140 CE) and Valentinus both believed that Christ looked human but was actually entirely spiritual. Flesh is, after all, inherently sinful and not compatible with the Divine. Paul’s letters were his favorite proof text, although Marcion had to edit them (and the gospel of Luke as well after throwing the other gospels out) to achieve a “de-judaized” version of the NT that supported his theology. Marcion also believed that the God of the Jews and the God of the NT were different. Christ is the agent of the High God on earth to bring redemption to the world. Both Marcion and Valentinus believed that redemption involved a spiritual release from the corporal world after death to return to the higher cosmos above.

Justin Martyr (150 CE) saw sin as ignorance or incorrect notions about God. Christ, as the Logos, guides people into correct understanding of the Divine. Thus, Plato, who had some great ideas about God, was one so guided. Justin also saw “flesh” as a code word for sin, particularly all things Jewish. He accused the Jews of misreading their scriptures (i.e. not reading them allegorically but rather in “fleshly” ways.) He agreed with Marcion and Valentinus that the God of Jewish history couldn’t possibly but the untouchable, totally separate High God. However, the Jewish God wasn’t a lower deity, rather Christ himself. Thus, Justin validated Jewish scripture and history in a way his two predecessors did not.  Christ, through his death on the cross, saves those who believe in him from the consequences of sin, ultimately defeating humanity’s “last enemy,” death itself.

Origen (187- 254 CE) was really an interesting guy. Sin for him was a cosmic thing. He believed that we are sinful before birth not because of original sin (Augustine’s brain-child) but because we are eternal, rational, spiritual beings who made the choice to drift from God long before there ever was an earth. This departure was sin. God’s solution was the creation of human bodies and lives on earth, which would act as a training ground until we learned what we needed to know in order to return to God. God through Christ accomplishes the redemption of humanity. Eventually, every spiritual being (including the Devil) will be redeemed.

Augustine (354- 430 CE) was far more pessimistic about the fate of humanity. (He would have loved Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon.) Augustine imagined sin as a state of being imparted by Adam, and, although we still have free will, our free will was inhibited by the fall. Because of Adam’s poor choices, our defective free will only allows us to choose bad even if we wish to choose good. The deck is stacked against us so to speak. However, God, through Jesus and as a showcase for his mercy, chooses some people to be saved, to have their defective wills fixed so they can  not only chose good but can’t choose evil. Unfortunately for the majority of humanity, mercy is limited and justice is hellish. Pun intended.

Anyway, “Sin” was a fascinating read, filled with a myriad of things I’d love to share but don’t have the time or patience to sum up. So if you’re looking for a great overview on 1st to 3rd century ideas about sin and redemption or even a succinct overview of these early contributors to the Christian faith, Paula Fredriksen is the woman to read.

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