The Magazine

Mortal Error

Pondering the idea, and reality, of sin.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By DAWN EDEN
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It is said that there are no new sins; the old ones just get more publicity. Likewise, it seems, there are no new titles for books on sin; the old ones just get amended. Three years after Gary A. Anderson’s critically acclaimed Sin: A History, another American academic, Paula Fredriksen, offers her own take with Sin: The Early History of an Idea.

Charlton Heston and  the Ten Commandments, 1956

Charlton Heston and the Ten Commandments, 1956

Everett Collection

The extra words in Fredriksen’s subtitle give a hint of how her approach differs from that of Anderson. For Anderson, sin, understood as the act by which man willfully separates himself from God, is objective; what changes is the language used by Jews and Christians at different times in religious history to describe it. For Fredriksen, although wrongdoing is real, “sin” itself can truly exist only in scare quotes, as a subjectively appropriated idea. One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s remark on Grant Allen, who had written a book about The Evolution of the Idea of God. Chesterton observed that “it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen.”

Sin, then, does not judge Paula Fredriksen; rather, she judges “sin” and finds it to be a cultural construct—one that, in the Christian world, underwent “dramatic mutations” during the first four centuries after Jesus’ birth. To chart those changes, she analyzes the teachings of “seven ancient figures who together represent flash points in the development of Western Christian ideas about sin.” These are: Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Valentinus, Marcion, Justin, Origen of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo.

Those who have read the author’s contributions to “historical Jesus” scholarship, such as From Jesus to Christ, will be familiar with Fredriksen’s portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher whose “mission proclaiming the kingdom .  .  . ended with his execution.” Why, then, did St. Paul teach that Christ would return? Jesus’ “followers, prompted by the vindicating experience of his resurrection, injected a specific, and specifically Christian, innovation into the
traditional sequence of end-time events: the messiah, they now held, would have to come not once, but twice.”

To accept the “vindicating experience” of Jesus’ resurrection while asserting that his disciples “injected” his second coming into the Gospel of Mark, is, to put it mildly, a problematic historical approach—if not outright incoherent. Apparently, Fredriksen believes it is more likely that Jesus would rise from the dead than that her own and her colleagues’ historical-­critical tools would steer them astray.

John the Baptist functions for Fredriksen not as Christ’s precursor so much as his mentor; his message “apparently had a major impact on Jesus.” Like John, Jesus preaches repentance from sin—and “sin is ‘Jewish’ sin, primarily, breaking the (ten) commandments.” Paul, directing his mission to the nations, effectively creates a new category of “gentile” sin—“also defined by appeal to Jewish scripture [but] imagined differently from ‘Jewish’ sin”:

Gentiles worship gods other than Israel’s god, and they do so by recourse to idols. The traditional Jewish rhetoric against such worship that Paul mobilizes deals at lavish length with the sins attendant on idol worship: theft, adultery, murder, and (especially) fornication. Gentiles who want a place in God’s coming kingdom—now linked for Paul as for other early apostles with the second coming of Christ—enter through baptism into Christ; thereby infused with pneuma, divine spirit, they renounce their idols, withhold cult to false gods, and live according to idealized Jewish ethics.

Fredriksen is able to distinguish Paul’s “idealized Jewish ethics” from what she deems Jesus’ simpler and more authentically Jewish message of adherence to the Ten Commandments, because she has established that “Paul’s world was not Jesus’ world. His biblical tradition was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. His rhetorical education and the imagined architecture of his cosmos were incontrovertibly pagan.”

With these words, the author makes a subtle shift that raises serious problems. It is one thing to say that Paul and Jesus came from different places and different backgrounds, with Paul receiving a thorough Greek education. It is another to imply, as Fredriksen does, that the apostle’s “biblical tradition,” being based on the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), places him in a different theological milieu than that of Christ. Whether or not Jesus relied upon the Septuagint—and the Gospels suggest that he was at least familiar with it—the translation was deeply woven into the fabric of Jewish life in his time.

In that light, citing Paul’s Greek biblical tradition as evidence of a radical discontinuity between him and his Savior is an odd tack for an author who seeks to uncover the “historical Jesus.” The Christ of the Gospels cannot be de-Hellenized without being de-Judaized as well.

Fredriksen’s analysis of Paul’s theology of sin, with its repeated contrasts between fleshly desires and spiritual ones, leads into her consideration of Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin. Of those three, only Justin is a Church Father; Marcion, a schismatic, and Valentinus, the most influential of the Gnostic teachers, were condemned. But where the Church saw heresy, Fredriksen sees “energetic diversity.” With a tone reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, she informs us that, in light of recent historical scholarship, all the best minds reject “the self-claim of the heresiologists for their own communities”:

For example, scholars now question the analytical utility of such terms as Gnostic (especially as regards Valentinus) or heretical. .  .  . [In] the second century, there was no “orthodoxy” in Rome or anywhere else, just a wide variety of different communities, all of which represented differing trajectories developing over the course of time and none of which exercised a generally recognized authority.

Where is the basis for such a sweeping claim? Fredriksen cites the first chapter of David Brakke’s 2011 work on The Gnostics, which takes the postmodernist line that there has never truly been “orthodoxy” among Christians, only an ever-evolving flow of changing narratives and self-definitions.

Finally, Frederiksen returns to territory familiar to readers of her previous Augustine and the Jews, this time focusing on Augustine’s understanding of sin and its consequences, and contrasting the Bishop of Hippo’s theology against that of the earlier ecclesiastical writer Origen. Here, her mission is to show that whereas Origen, who “represents the road not taken by the Church,” held that all creation, including the devil, would be redeemed, Augustine held that only human beings would be redeemed, and “only some small portion of humanity at that.”

Considering the extensive amount of research she has done on Augustine, it is surprising to see Fredriksen make an error that any student who has read the Confessions would catch: She claims Augustine “had been a married man.” (Father of a son, yes; married, no—a major part of the bishop’s history is that, prior to his conversion, he refused to marry his longtime concubine.) One even gets the feeling that the author is sick of writing about Augustine. Her treatment of him carries an undercurrent of resentment that ultimately bubbles over into open mockery when, writing of his death, she describes him as “going to the inscrutable and angry god he had created.”

The author’s talent lies in expressing complex theological concepts in everyday language, and she applies it capably in explaining the intricacies of Augustine’s theology of grace. Unfortunately, her broad strokes sometimes gloss over important nuances, particularly when she compares Origen’s and Augustine’s views on God’s justice and mercy. She claims that while Origen believes God to be always simultaneously just and merciful, “Augustine’s god expresses these attributes serially and selectively: he is either just or merciful.” Such a reading ignores Augustine’s writings on divine simplicity, which assert that God’s attributes cannot be divided into Manichean-style opposites; he is his essence. Theologians can (and do) argue over whether Augustine contradicts himself; even so, given her insistence that early Christianity was defined by diversity, Fredriksen should welcome the fact that Augustine in himself contained multitudes.

Dawn Eden is the author, most recently, of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.