14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
"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
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
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.