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.