Sunday, July 28, 2013


Paula Fredriksen, Sin: The Early History of an Idea. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. vii, 209. ISBN 9780691128900. $24.95.

Reviewed by Phillip Michael Sherman, Maryville College (

Version at BMCR home site

Sin remains a popular topic. In much of modern society—religious and secular alike—to speak of sin risks profound misunderstanding. Sin has become a foreign term for many and to others an empty vessel to fill with selected personal or societal ills. The range of meanings attributed to the term sin and the much larger religious systems which provided various meanings for the term are fragmented in the modern context.

How to conceptualize sin and to tell its story is far from being an easy task. A recent work by Gary Anderson (also entitled Sin) explores ancient notions of sin by examining the metaphorical language associated with sin in the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple literature, the New Testament, early Christian and rabbinic texts.1 The main thesis of Anderson's work is that the dominant metaphor for sin in these literatures shifts during the exilic and Second Temple periods from "burden" or "stain" to the fiduciary metaphor of "debt". Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor Emerita at Boston University, is more concerned to sketch changing notions of sin and its place in emerging Christian theological systems, beginning with Jesus of Nazareth and ending with the imposing figure of St. Augustine. She does not pretend to be definitive in her approach, but rather to provide a "staccato history" (4) or an "aerial survey" (147), by highlighting moments of disjuncture in ancient Christian discourses concerning sin. Her approach is less focused on the metaphorical language used of sin and more with attempting to place sin into the larger theological and cosmological systems which provided its various meanings. The current work began life as the Spencer Trask Lectures at Princeton University in October 2007.

Jesus and Paul, the subjects of Chapter One, provide the first two case-studies of the definition of sin and its place in Second Temple Judaism(s). After allowing for the necessary distinction between the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and his presentation within the canonical Gospels, Fredriksen places him together with John the Baptist as an example of an apocalyptic preacher within a Jewish restoration movement. For such thinkers, sin is active disobedience to the commands of the god of Israel; it is violation of the covenant which bound the ancestors. Repentance is a return to the teachings of the Torah and presages the final in-gathering of the Jewish people and their liberation from oppression, political and spiritual. This earliest layer of reflection could be concerned with the larger Gentile world, but such concern was always secondary and mediated through traditional scriptural models of "the Nations" turning to worship the God of the Jews at the end of time (e.g. Isa 2:2-3). The discourse of sin remains particular to a certain group of people and defined in relational terms. Paul the Apostle, by way of contrast, is thinking about and constructing models of sin on a much larger scale. Fredriksen provides a concise reading of Paul's expanded cosmology. Sin is always and everywhere the singular act of idolatry, the quintessential Gentile sin. Where Jesus was concerned with calling out to his own co-religionists to return to the teachings of the Torah, Paul's mission is to turn the Gentile world away from the worship of false gods (their falsity an index of the fact that they are not the Creator, not that they do not exist). Only with the ingathering of the Nations can the final moment of Judaism's redemptive history take place. Paul remains convinced that the return of Jesus is imminent. In the meantime, he struggles to understand how and why the vast majority of Jews remain unconvinced by the message concerning Jesus which he delivers. In the course of his theological peregrinations, he will lay the framework for much of the later reflection on the nature of sin.

As Christianity emerges as a Gentile religious movement, the specifically Jewish conceptions of sin will undergo profound shifts as thinkers struggle to articulate an 'orthodox' perspective that is consistent with the biblical tradition and widely accepted Greek and Roman philosophical traditions. The second chapter begins with a broad overview of the Hellenistic notion of the cosmos as a necessary backdrop for understanding many of the internal conflicts of developing Christian theology during the second century. Subsequent theologians drew upon and developed various strands of Pauline thought, often refracted through neo-Platonic philosophical systems. Valentinus and Marcion, eventually declared heretical by later orthodoxy, and Justin Martyr provide the focus for Fredriksen's discussion of shifting options for understanding sin. All three thinkers view sin as related to improper knowledge. They differ in terms of whence they see 'true' knowledge deriving and the purpose or role of the material (fleshly) world. How to appropriately relate to the Scriptures of Judaism is another fundamental question. For Valentinus and Marcion, sin is a way of speaking about the ignorance which surrounds rational beings and prevents them from perceiving the truth about themselves. True nature is spiritual, not material. Valentinus and his followers, for example, saw in Jesus a teacher of esoteric truth. Only those who were enlightened, the pneumatikoi, could achieve saving knowledge and return to their ultimate source, the Father of Jesus Christ. They read the Hebrew Bible in a highly allegorical fashion. Marcion and his movement shared much in common with the Valentinians, but held a radically different attitude towards the Hebrew Bible and the God presented there. Marcion famously rejected the notion that the god of the Hebrew Bible was the High God of philosophical speculation; such a rejection was based on a straightforward and literal reading of the God present in the text. The God of the Hebrew Bible exhibits emotions, seems to lack knowledge, engages in violent reprisals against individuals and nations. Marcion held that such a god was unworthy of the name and that the deity worshipped by the Jews was actually the demiurge. Jesus came to reveal saving knowledge of the true God. Marcion produced a purified canon of Scriptures, expunging the Hebrew Bible entirely, claiming only Luke as Gospel, and editing a collection of Pauline letters. Both Marcion and Valentinus reconfigured notions of sin along epistemological lines—ignorance of true (spiritual) reality is the ultimate source of sin; it is being trapped in the inferior material realm. Justin Martyr, the third thinker surveyed, would qualify such an assertion. Sin is irrationality. "Sin occurs when someone does something 'contrary to right reason' (Trypho 114): intellectual error precedes moral error" (80). Christ is the true incarnation of Reason/Logos itself. Justin can then argue that the Logos of God has always existed and that Christ speaks already in the Hebrew Bible. The problem of the role of flesh or materiality is a key element in all three thinkers. In Marcion and Valentinus, flesh is to be transcended; Justin actually saw flesh in a more positive fashion. "Flesh was not intrinsically alien to redemption . . . (it) was the good divinity's chosen medium" (89). Even divine Reason takes on human flesh in order to redeem it.

The final chapter examines two of the largest names in Christian thinking: Origen and Augustine. All previous thinkers explored have thought of sin primarily in terms of individual human beings. Both Origen and Augustine are thinking on a much grander, more universal, scale. In On First Principles, Origen constructs out of neo- Platonic thought a notion of a pre-existent original sin whereby spiritual beings turned from the true God and continued to fall into the realm of the material. The extreme diversity of created things—from stars to the smallest creatures—can be explained by Origen as a means of explaining the distance rational souls fell from contemplation of God. All rational beings—by their nature—have free will and if they only understood the truth would choose to turn in love to the contemplation of God. "No one would ever knowingly turn from truth or willingly make a mistake" (104). The only rational soul which did not "fall" from contemplation of God was the soul which became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The cause of much later debate and a source of Origen's designation as a heretic by the later Church was his assertion that God was both just and merciful and that he would not permit a rational soul to ultimately be given up to eternal damnation. "God is patient and infinitely resourceful; his provenance micromanages the material universe; he has all the time in the world. And since rational beings are eternal, so do they" (106). Materiality will ultimately come to an end and all rational souls will freely choose to return to the loving contemplation of God; most famously, Origen held that even Satan would one day be redeemed. Origen's speculative theory is ultimately a type of theodicy, attempting to explain how the mercy of God could not ultimately fail.2

Augustine is far different. Fredriksen suggests that Augustine's role as a bishop and the "public policy" implications of doctrine during his time led him to be far less speculative and more restrictive in his notions of sin and salvation. "His first-order awareness of the sexual, social, and political dimensions of human life profoundly affected the ways that Augustine understood sin" (113). She also points to Augustine's limitation to (often poor) Latin translation of biblical texts as a significant aspect of his teachings concerning sin. The driving aspect of Augustine's teaching concerning sin was an attempt to explain how God was just in punishing all subsequent generations for the sin of a single individual (Adam). In Augustine's thought, unlike in Origen, punishment is never meant to improve or educate, but is rather a function of God's absolute justice. While Origen taught that all will ultimately be saved, the ultimate mystery for Augustine was than any descendants of Adam (massa perditionis/condemned lump) could ever be saved. There was nothing unjust with eternal punishment for those who deserve it (including unbaptized infants!); the fact that God chooses to be merciful on some occasions is the truly amazing teaching of the Church. God's reasons are occultissimi (most hidden: 125), their justice a matter of doctrine.

Fredriksen concludes with a short epilogue that looks very briefly at what these ancient discourses of sin might contribute to modern discussions of the topic. She suggests that modern discourses of sin and wrongdoing often "often minimize or even efface personal agency, thus responsibility" (147). Beyond this perceptive observation, she raises the real question of whether sin as a concept or term remains much relevant in a world marked by the absence of a robust and generally shared notion of sin. In each of her test-cases, sin is always a deeply embedded part of a much larger cosmological and theological drama: the story of Israel as narrated in the Hebrew Bible, a grand gnostic drama of the fall of rational beings in the material realm, a massive and all-encompassing story of creation itself. What are the defining narratives of our age? In what story (or stories) does sin find its proper home in the modern world? Perhaps the sociologists, psychologists, or evolutionary theorists can suggest newer narratives?

Fredriksen has written an engaging work which demonstrates the multitude of ways in which early Christians received the teachings of the earliest Jesus movement in ancient Palestine and, over the course of five centuries, debated and reconstructed entire theological systems. At the center of these various stories was often the question of the origin, nature and ultimate solution to the problem of sin.


1.   Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
2.   Mark S. M. Scott, Journey Back to God: Origen and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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