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Review

"Paula Fredriksen's vivid little book is calculated to make even the most inert churchgoer sit up."--Peter Brown, New York Review of Books

"In her characteristically brisk and engaging prose, Fredriksen explores the evolution of the idea of sin in the first four centuries of Christianity, asking hard questions about what various ideas of sin tell us about the corresponding ideas of God and humanity. . . . Fredriksen's eloquent study traces the early development of the idea of sin, illustrating the intricate patterns woven by the many colorful threads of culture and religion and the ways that those patterns influence contemporary Christian religion."--Publishers Weekly

"[I]ncisive and pellucid."--Robert A. Segal, Times Higher Education

"[E]legant. . . . Fredriksen recomplicates the relationship between early Christianity and Judaism, and offers sharp close readings of the Gospels, the Gnostics et al. She draws out the profound differences between Augustine (who created an 'inscrutable and angry god') and Origen (for whom God loves even 'the rational soul of Satan')."--Steven Poole, Guardian

"[A] concise and elegantly written history of how the early church understood the sinful character of humanity and the solutions it provided."--Gary A. Anderson, Jewish Review of Books

"[Sin] is an erudite study of related ideas of sin, salvation, human destiny, the messianic role, and the influence of worldview and political context on conceptual ideas that those who ponder or teach such matters may well find rewarding."--Library Journal

"For something referred to so often by Christians of every stripe, 'sin' is a remarkably changeable and debatable concept. Religious historian and author Paula Fredriksen (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews and Augustine and the Jews, among other distinguished titles) traces the frequent and often bewildering shifts in the meaning of 'sin' in the four centuries between Jesus and Augustine, especially the enormous change from the belief that sin is something one does to the belief that sin is something one is born into. The journey takes her from John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul of Tarsus to the Gnostics, Origen and Augustine. It amounts to an original and entertaining history of early Christianity."--Globe & Mail

"Paula Fredriksen . . . has provided readers with a fascinating history of the idea of sin. . . . Sin is a lively and engaging study. It interacts with almost everything that has anything to do with sin (sacrifice, atonement, forgiveness, salvation, God). . . . It is well worth reading."--Craig A. Evans, ChristianityToday.com

"Fredriksen, an eminent American religious scholar, notes that Jesus announced good news to his world: God was about to redeem it. Yet 350 years later, the Church founded in his name proclaimed that the greater part of humanity was condemned for all eternity. Sin is Fredriksen's take on how Christianity got from one pole to the other."--Brian Bethune, Maclean's

"The author's talent lies in expressing complex theological concepts in everyday language."--Dawn Eden, Weekly Standard

"This is an informative text on the development of the Christian concept of sin, and a valuable source of juxtaposition for Jewish scholars seeking the root of the two faiths' different philosophies."--Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh, Charles Middleburgh Blog

"Though this book is short . . . and directed towards an audience of general, well-educated readers, it re-reads a topic that many had previously assumed to be a monolith. As a result, Fredriksen's work offers an invaluable addition to the scholarly discourse about sin during the early centuries of Christianity, not only because she underscores the Jewish roots of this concept, but also, and more significantly, because she emphasizes the diversity present in early Christian circles in relation to the idea of sin."--Deborah Forger, Reviews of the Enoch Seminar

"Fredriksen covers a huge amount of ground in a compact book which provides swift initial orientation for the newcomer and is also sufficiently provocative to stimulate those who know the subject well."--Timothy Carter, Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"It is a work of learned, well-informed synthesis and interpretation. . . . Fredriksen's book is engaging, abundantly documented and elegantly written."--Brian E. Daley, Biblical Archeology Review

"Fredriksen has accomplished a difficult task: to produce a highly readable and accessible survey of early Christian thought, one that discusses much more than the specific topic of 'sin.' Most patristic scholars will be familiar with most of the material here, but Fredriksen's synthesis is her own, and it is worth reading. Moreover, the book will be a useful resource for non-specialists, including college students, in need of a reliable account of the diversity of ancient Christian theology."--David G. Hunter, Journal of Early Christian Studies

From the Back Cover

"Paula Fredriksen's new book offers a masterfully clear and readable exposition of complex issues, showing how traditional Jewish views of sin were transmuted by the Christian theologians Origen and Augustine in nearly opposite ways, to create startlingly different views of human nature."--Elaine Pagels, author of The Origin of Satan

"Paula Fredriksen's Sin is a gripping book on an immense theme. Fredriksen makes us realize that what is at stake is not simply 'sin' (as we usually think of it) but what it is to be human, to live in a material universe, and to expect redemption from a God of many faces. To follow the idea of sin from figures such as John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and Paul of Tarsus, through the Gnostics to Origen and Augustine is to travel along the high peaks of religious thought in the ancient world. It is a magnificent ride."--Peter Brown, Princeton University

"In Sin, Paula Fredriksen takes readers on a lively trip through the early Christian theological landscape, making strategic stops that clarify divergent convictions about sin and redemption. This is a book that offers surprises as well as startling illumination."--Karen L. King, author of The Secret Revelation of John

"Writing with verve and flair, Fredriksen makes a complex subject accessible to general readers. Few scholars are able to handle both New Testament and early Christian sources as clearly and effectively as Fredriksen."--Anne McGuire, Haverford College


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Amazon.com: 8 reviews
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Probably not what you expect. 12 Jun. 2012
By N. Brasfield - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fredriksen is one of my favorite scholars. Her writing is lucid, engaging, and authoritative in its assertions. I was already familiar with the material in this book from the lectures that preceded it, the 2007 Spencer Trask lectures at Princeton University. Videos of these fine lectures are available online.

This book is not what you would expect, however. Though the book art includes the theme of the bitten apple and the Eden snake, this is an atypical of the discussion of sin. You won't come away with a robust biblical understanding of sin, necessarily, but you will come away having been guided through some of the thought processes of early Christianity's theologians as they flesh out themes such as cosmology, flesh, death, ancient monotheism, conversion, etc. What Fredriksen is able to offer here are some of the key observations she has made about these topics in a scholarly career spanning from Jesus to Paul to Augustine. Though I strongly disagree with her at points (particularly on her reading of Romans), what she does here is truly fascinating.
40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Interesting and very readable intro to a complicated topic 9 Jun. 2012
By Maxwell Grant - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
O.k., so let me start out by saying that it was the first Amazon review of this book that got me to buy it--no offense to anyone, but I felt like there just had to be more to it, and judging after a paragraph or two didn't sit right with me.

There was.

I thought it was a terrific book--very well-written, and technical in its way without requiring a master's degree to decipher.

Fredriksen's Prologue begins:

"Jesus of Nazareth announced the good news that God was about to redeem the world. Some 350 years later, the church taught that the far greater part of humanity was eternally condemned. The earliest community began by preserving the memory and the message of Jesus; within decades after his death, some Christians asserted that Jesus had never had a fleshly human body at all....What accounts for this great variety in ancient Christian teachings? The short answer is: dramatic mutations in Christian ideas about sin. As these ideas grew and changed in the turbulence of Christianity's first four centuries, so too did others: ideas about God, about the physical universe, about the soul's relation to the body, about eternity's relation to time; ideas about Christ the Redeemer--and, thus, ideas about what people are redeemed from."

Fredriksen takes the reader through the words of Jesus and Paul, then second-century thinkers including Valentius, Marcion, and Justin Martyr, and culminating brilliantly in a comparison of the thought of Origen and Augustine.

"Uh...o.k., who?" you might be saying as you see some of those names.

They're some of the important historical voices in a wide-ranging debate spanning centuries on the topic of sin. Some of their views became important to the teaching and understanding of the church. Others represent intellectual roads not taken.

What emerges is some fascinating digging into a complex philosophical topic that connects Christian and non-Christian thinking, and the growth of the church as an institution seeking to respond to different challenges, some of them perennial, others not.

Frederiksen did not set out to write a book that was devotional or dogmatic; she has no particular stake in an apologetic approach that supports or critiques how Christians "should" or "should not" think about sin. Reverence is not its aim; that said, neither is irreverence its guilty pleasure. But readers in search of faith-oriented teaching about the doctrine of sin need to place this work properly in the field of intellectual history and be open to the notion that doctrines are--or at least were--debated and contested, and that Christian teaching is far from uni-vocal on many questions.

I will say that Chapters 1 and 2 were very good, but the real "ta-da!" came for me in Chapter 3 and the Epilogue. These are the moments when all of the detail in the first two chapters blossoms most fully. If you get the book, DON'T MISS Chapter 3.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Ancient Views on a Constant Topic 1 Sept. 2012
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Yes, sir," says Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife to the minister as he is coming out of church and others, too, are complimenting the minister on his sermon. "That's just one subject you just can't talk enough about. Sin." Barney must have been asleep, for that wasn't the minister's subject, but it was a good guess. Sin has been a point of concern before the beginning of Christianity. In _Sin: The Early History of an Idea_ (Princeton University Press), Paula Fredriksen considers seven important figures in the early church and reveals that sin was a foundational concept for all but that it was as well different for all. In addition, the ideas about how God could have created imperfect beings, and how they can be saved, and when they would be saved, all changed between the thinkers during the first four Christian centuries. Fredriksen, a professor who is regarded as an expert on early Christianity, here provides what she says is "an aerial survey of the idea of sin" during that period. It is a pithy, enjoyable tour of a concept that even in the beginning was malleable depending upon circumstances. Fredriksen's book is also useful for showing us how even in the earliest formation of ideas about sin, it was what "those other people" do.

Naturally, the first teacher Fredriksen takes up is Jesus. He emphasized the sins as understood in his Jewish culture; he knew the audience to whom he was speaking. Sin was, especially, breaking the ten commandments. Paul delivered his message on sin mostly to gentiles who lived among the Jewish diaspora, and his concept of sin was aimed at them. Paul was horrified by the sin of pagan idolatry and the fornication connected with it; give up those sins, he taught, and enter God's imminent kingdom though baptism courtesy of God's son. After Paul's time, when it was clear that the end times were still sometime in the mysterious future, theologians began to teach about the meaning of sin in relation not about how to get a good seat for the Apocalypse but how to get salvation after death. Gnostics like Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin in the second century taught that sin came from ignorance of God, and stressed an intellectual approach of bashing ignorance by study of the scriptures. The study, however, had to be done with just the right allegorical and mystical interpretations. In her final chapter, Fredriksen considers the rival ideas of Origen of Alexandria and the far more famous St. Augustine of Hippo. Origen thought that everything had souls, even stars and demons, and that these souls all were fallen. They had fallen long before time had started. There was no evil, just learning situations, and all the souls learned, because if any of them failed in gaining salvation, that would be a failure on God's part. Since he wanted universal salvation, and since he is God, he would get his way. If Origen's God is infinitely generous, Augustine's was infinitely angry. Augustine's God had created humans born in sin since Adam's fall. Jesus had been born of a virgin and without any male orgasm, and Augustine "theologized" every subsequent male orgasm as being a point of shame-producing pleasure that made any resultant infant a branch of the sin started by Adam. Augustine taught that no one could know how God made the decision in individual cases about who to save and who not, but that the great majority would be damned to a hell of eternal torment. Well, Augustine became a saint and a founder of the church's outlook; and Origen, against whom Augustine deliberately wrote, is regarded as a father of the church, but he is not a saint and his ideas were declared heretical. The ideas of both these men seem peculiar to me, but I can't help thinking we'd have a jollier world if Origen had prevailed.

Ancient ideas of sin, Fredriksen teaches, are culturally constructed, and so must our modern ideas be. She gives an amusing epilogue to show how we moderns are far more likely to confess "I made a mistake," rather than "I did something wrong," and asks, "How can anyone punish anyone for making a mistake? _Everyone_ makes mistakes." She also points out that even people who merely make mistakes don't have much problem knowing sin when they see other people sinning. It's not just us. She says that Justin held that "the correct notion of God (that is, Justin's notion) leads to virtuous behavior," and that Origen recommended "the teachings of the true (that is, Origen's) church," and that Augustine said that some healing might be extended to "a member of the true (that is, Augustine's) church." You can't rely on any definition of sin to be unchanging. Fredriksen doesn't say it, but I will: use kindness towards others as much as you possibly can, and you won't go far wrong.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
"Sin" is not what most people think it is 19 Oct. 2014
By Israel Drazin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston University’s book on the development of the concept of sin begins with the view of Jesus and not with the prior Jewish concept on the subject. Her book is scholarly and informative. She focuses on seven ancient Christian figures beginning with Jesus. But the book would have been more informative, in my opinion, if she would have shown how the Christian idea developed from Jewish thought in the Hebrew Bible.
There is no concept of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible as a distorting stain upon the soul that requires a kind of supernatural atonement process, as the concept is understood today. To the contrary, wrong behavior is seen in a rational, natural way. The Hebrew Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep, literally meaning “missing the mark,” as if one were shooting an arrow and hitting the outer rims of the target and missing its center. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an error, an unintentional act that nevertheless has harmful consequences. Understood in this natural way, it should be clear that the misdeed is something that shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt and prayerful recitations; individuals should recognize what they did wrong, think why they did the wrong, take actions that remedy the consequences, and assure that there will be no repetition.
Jesus, according to Professor Fredriksen, retained this ancient understanding. The Gospels do not report him requiring special unnatural methods of atonement. “Jesus of Nazareth announced the good news that God was about to redeem the world. Some 350 years later [but not before that time], the church taught that the far greater part of humanity was eternally condemned.” Even John the Baptizer did not believe that baptism removed wrong behavior. Fredriksen quotes Josephus who lived during this time. In Antiquities 18:116-19, Josephus writes, “The immersion was for the purification of the flesh once the soul had previously been cleansed through right conduct.” “Jesus never intended to change any biblical concepts or laws, not even the smallest biblical letter. Jesus, Fredriksen writes, “defined living rightly as living according to the Torah.”
Contrary to the thinking of some other scholars Fredriksen states that Paul, who did not know Jesus and who brought his understanding of Jesus’ message to non-Jews, also taught that Jesus taught that converts to Judaism must obey the Torah. He was an observant Jew. He wrote in Phil 3:6, “As to righteousness under the Law, I am blameless.” In Romans 7:21-31, he said, “Do we overthrow the law by this faith? Of course not! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” He, like Jesus, attended the temple and he made no statement that contradicted the three-part biblical understanding of wrong behavior. Paul’s main message, the primary message of the Torah, was “to turn away from idols.” “Paul opposes circumcision for gentiles-in-Christ” since they were not converting to Judaism, only accepting the teachings of Jesus, but if the convert wanted to become fully Jewish – for Christianity at the time was a branch of Judaism – circumcision was necessary even as it is required of all other Jews. Fredriksen writes, “The god of Jesus and of Paul had been, emphatically, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the god of Jewish history; the god of Israel.”
The second century Christian thinkers agreed. Valentinus (around 130) defined “sin” in his “The Gospel of Truth” as “a function of ignorance,” “error,” a mistake. Marcion (around 140) and Justin Martyr (around 150) agreed. As Justin Martyr wrote in Trypho 141, sin is when someone does something “contrary to right reason.” As Fredriksen explains, “For Justin as for the Jewish tradition that he draws on, the paradigmatic pagan sin is the worship of false gods and their images – a theme strongly present in Paul’s letters as well.”
When then did Christianity change? It did so with Augustine (354-430). Contrary to Jewish teachings that God is good and God’s creations are good, as stated in Genesis 1, Augustine taught that people are born with the stain of sin. “According to Augustine, humanity left to its own devices [without God’s mercy] can only sin.”
Rather than seeing the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory, Augustine accepted the tale as historical reality and gave it a new interpretation. Adam was the originator of sin. Augustine believed that “Adam had all humanity in some special way ‘in’ him. His sin was ‘our’ sin and ‘we’ sinned when he sinned…. In this way, according to Augustine, God’s justice… fell on all humanity equally…. After Adam the will is defective: a person now functions with a sort of diminished capacity, unable if unassisted by grace to achieve the good…. After Adam, Augustine urged, all humanity, is condemned; indeed, condemnation is all anyone deserves.” In his City of God 13:23, he wrote, the “inheritance of sin and death [is] conveyed to us by birth.” All people of all faiths are “part of massa damnata [the massive damnation], justly condemned because of Adam’s sin.”
God, according to Augustine’s new radical view, saves only a small part of humanity, not all, and we have no idea why God selects some people and abandons others to hell because of Adam’s sin. “Augustine’s god, justly angry at sin, redeems only a small number of people, just enough to show his mercy.” God is no longer the creator of what is good, but is emotional, angry, and vindictive. Yet, Augustine adds, somehow in some unknowable way, despite punishing innocent people, God is just.
Many Christians and many Jews who, living in a Christian culture have absorbed Christian ideas, have forgotten the biblical concept of wrong behavior, the concept taught also by Jesus, and call Augustine’s invention of “original sin” a mystery that is an integral part of religion. But, as Professor Fredriksen has shown, it is only a mystery because it is inexplicable, and it is not basic to religion.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Excellent Introduction to the Topic 5 Feb. 2013
By peobus - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Fredriksen presents a wonderful introduction to some of early Christianity's important theologians. I wish more historical background was provided concerning the lives of these men. She might also have included some examples of the communities which adhered to these various religious philosophies.
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