The Biblical conception of “sin”
There is no concept of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible in the sense of a distorting stain upon the soul that requires a kind of supernatural atonement or cleansing process, as the concept is understood today. To the contrary, wrong behavior is seen in Scripture in a rational, natural way. The Hebrew Bible speaks of three distinct categories of wrongs. There is cheit, the misstep, literally meaning “missing the mark,” as if one were shooting an arrow and hitting the outer rims of the target and missing the shooter’s goal, its center. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second, pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, or 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, needing clergy or a psychiatrist to erase it. 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. This is the rational understanding of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva.
The New Testament and early Christians agree
The New Testament describes Jesus retaining this understanding of resolving wrong behavior by physical acts. Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew 5:17–18 that he did not come to change the law: “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth shall pass away, not one dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (In the Greek, the word for “dot” is “iota.” It refers to the Hebrew tenth letter yud, which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, just a little larger than a dot.)
Paul, who did not know Jesus and who brought his understanding of Jesus’ message to non-Jews, wrote that Jesus taught that converts to Judaism must obey the Torah. He was an observant Jew. He wrote in Philippians 3:6, “As to righteousness under the law, I am blameless.” In Romans 3:31, he said, “Do we nullify the law by this faith? Not at all. Rather, 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, a message of the Torah, was to turn away from idols. Paul, who felt he must convert pagans, opposed the need for circumcision for “gentiles-in-Christ” since he was not converting them to Judaism, but only having them accept 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, as it was required of all other Jews.
The second-century Christian thinkers agreed. Valentinus (around 130) defined “sin” in his “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.”
Original sin – a new notion
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 was created with an ingrained disability; left to its own devices, without God’s mercy, people can only sin.
Rather than seeing the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory, as Maimonides did in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:2, Augustine accepted the tale as historical reality and gave it a new interpretation that is not explicit in the text. Adam was the originator of sin. Augustine believed that Adam, in some mystical way, contained all humanity in him. His sin, according to this mystic view, became his descendants’ sin – they sinned when he sinned. After Adam, human will is defective: people
function with a diminished capacity, unable to achieve the good if unassisted by divine grace. Humanity is condemned. In his City of God 13:23, Augustine wrote that 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 and radical view, saves only a small part of humanity, not all; Augustine does not explain why God selects some people and abandons others to hell because of Adam’s sin. Augustine’s god is violently and arguably irrationally angry at sin and perhaps even at God’s own creations, and redeems only a small number of people, enough to show divine mercy. God is no longer the creator of what is good, but is emotional and vindictive. Yet, Augustine adds, somehow in some unknowable way, despite punishing innocent people, God is just. It seems reasonable to suppose that psychiatry is an outgrowth of the acceptance of original sin’s notion that people should feel guilt and anguish when they do something they think is wrong, rather than accepting the ancient view that mistakes can be rectified by recognizing the error, deciding not to repeat it, and doing all that is reasonable to repair what was wrong, such as apologizing for an insult one made and by paying back the money stolen.
Augustine’s effect on society
Many Christians, as well as many Jews who have absorbed Christian ideas, have forgotten the biblical concept of wrong behavior, and call Augustine’s invention of “original sin” a mystery and an integral part of religion. But it is only a mystery because it is inexplicable, irrational, indeed harmful, and not part of original Judaism or Christianity.
A tragic example is the philosopher Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (c. 1340–c. 1410), who wrote a book entitled The Refutation of the Christian Principles (Suny Series in Jewish Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992). He wrote the book because many Jews were murdered by Christian riots, including his only son.
Jewish communities were destroyed and a host of Jews converted to Christianity to avoid future persecutions. As a leader of Spanish Jewry, he felt obliged to do what he could to return the converts to Judaism. Yet, without realizing what he was doing, he included the Christian idea of original sin in his Light of the Lord (Or Adonai, Nabu Press, 2010 – in Hebrew). He states that Jews were absolved of the original sin when they were circumcised.
This idea about being absolved was also a Christian teaching – that prior to the appearance of Jesus circumcision saved the Jews from the impact and punishment of the original sin. Some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, in Avoda Zara 22b, Shabbat 145b–146a, and Yevamot 103b, also accepted this notion despite it not being Jewish.