Sin: The Early History of an Idea

August 16, 2012

Paula Fredriksen, a highly regarded authority on early Christianity, here presents the array of views of sin held by seven figures: Jesus, Paul, Justin, Valentinus, Marcion, Origen and Augustine. The variety of positions held is her theme. For example, from Paul onward, the scope of sin widens from a merely Jewish failing to a universal and then a cosmic one. Sin comes to cover, she argues, "an astonishing range of things". For the Gnostics Valentinus and Marcion, salvation of the flesh becomes salvation from the flesh.

Fredriksen does not define sin. True, she does note that the intellectualist conception of sin held by Valentinus, Marcion and Justin was challenged by some of the others, for whom sin stemmed from weak will rather than ignorance. The intellectualist view, which goes back to Plato, was sometimes even charged with substituting error for sin. But Fredriksen herself takes no stand and therefore does not question whether the Gnostic position is still a position on sin. When she observes that some modern thinkers question whether sin even requires God, here too she takes no stand. The better-known flip side of the question is whether morality requires God.

In making her subtitle "the early history of an idea", Fredriksen can be taken to imply that sin begins with Judaism and Christianity. This view, which she may not be espousing, has been a standard one in the history of religions. Here morality, under which sin falls, is considered a sophisticated idea that our forebears were incapable of concocting. Where "higher" religion focuses on morality, "lower" religion supposedly concentrates on ritual - or, for some, on magic rather than religion.

For example, it is regularly assumed that in the Iliad, any action is acceptable to the gods as long as it is accompanied or succeeded by an animal sacrifice. The gods reward ritual, not morality. This view of the Iliad as "primitive" is one that the English classicist Hugh Lloyd-Jones famously tried to counter in his aptly titled 1971 book The Justice of Zeus. He contends that even in the Iliad, not just in the Odyssey or in Hesiod, Zeus punishes those who violate moral conventions. For Zeus, Troy deserves to fall because of the abduction of Helen by Paris, and Achilles deserves punishment because of his refusal to accept the compensation offered by Agamemnon and to rejoin the fighting. Zeus is therefore no different from Yahweh.

The same demeaning view that Lloyd-Jones rejects has long been held by Christians of Judaism. Where, we are told, Christianity espouses ethics, Judaism espouses rituals. The Hebrew Prophets, misread as uniformly pitting ethics against sacrifices, are seen as Christians before their time. The fact that Jesus sometimes sets Pharisaic rituals against his own radicalised ethics is wrongly generalised as the advocacy of ethics exclusively. Fredriksen firmly rejects this view of Christianity, especially of the Christianity of Jesus, John the Baptist and even Paul. Ironically, the same caricature of a religion of rituals versus a religion of ethics is, in turn, made of Roman Catholicism vis-a-vis Protestantism.

Fredriksen emphasises that not only the historical Jesus but also Paul tie Christianity to the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus sees sin as an impure action that must be remedied by action and not just by a plea for forgiveness. Sin, for Jesus and Paul and others, presupposes the bedrock belief in an imminent end of the world. By contrast, sin for Gnostics operates spatially: the end of the world - the physical world - comes whenever the primordial godhead is reunited.

In this incisive and pellucid survey, Fredriksen no more seeks to explain the concept of sin than she seeks to define it. But then, doing so would have taken her beyond her set subject.

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

By Paula Fredriksen. Princeton University Press. 208pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780691128900. Published 26 June 2012

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