The Origin of Sin                                  


Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston University wrote “Sin: The Early History of an Idea.”[1] Her book is scholarly and informative.

There is no concept of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible as a distorting stain upon the soul that requires a kind of supernatural atonement process, as the concept is understood today. To the contrary, wrong behavior is seen in a rational, natural way. The Hebrew Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep, literally meaning “missing the mark,” as if one were shooting an arrow and hitting the outer rims of the target and missing its center. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, 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; 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.

Jesus, according to Professor Fredriksen, retained this ancient understanding. The Gospels do not report him requiring special unnatural methods of atonement. “Jesus of Nazareth announced the good news that God was about to redeem the world. Some 350 years later [but not before that time], the church taught that the far greater part of humanity was eternally condemned.” Even John the Baptizer did not believe that baptism removed wrong behavior. Fredriksen quotes Josephus who lived during this time. In Antiquities 18:116-19, Josephus writes, “The immersion was for the purification of the flesh once the soul had previously been cleansed through right conduct.”[2] “Jesus never intended to change any biblical concepts or laws, not even the smallest biblical letter. Jesus, Fredriksen writes, “defined living rightly as living according to the Torah.”

Contrary to the thinking of some other scholars Fredriksen states that Paul, who did not know Jesus and who brought his understanding of Jesus’ message to non-Jews, also wrote that Jesus taught that converts to Judaism must obey the Torah. He was an observant Jew. He wrote in Phil 3:6, “As to righteousness under the Law, I am blameless.” In Romans 7:21-31, he said, “Do we overthrow the law by this faith? Of course not! On the contrary, 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, the primary message of the Torah, was “to turn away from idols.” “Paul opposes circumcision for gentiles-in-Christ” since they were not converting to Judaism, only accepting 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 even as it is required of all other Jews. Fredriksen writes, “The God of Jesus and of Paul had been, emphatically, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Jewish history; the God of Israel.”

The second century Christian thinkers agreed. Valentinus (around 130) defined “sin” in his “The 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.” As Fredriksen explains, “For Justin as for the Jewish tradition that he draws on, the paradigmatic pagan sin is the worship of false gods and their images – a theme strongly present in Paul’s letters as well.”

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 left to its own devices [without God’s mercy] can only sin.”

Rather than seeing the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory, Augustine accepted the tale as historical reality and gave it a new interpretation. Adam was the originator of sin. Augustine believed that “Adam had all humanity in some special way ‘in’ him. His sin was ‘our’ sin and ‘we’ sinned when he sinned…. In this way, according to Augustine, God’s justice… fell on all humanity equally…. After Adam the will is defective: a person now functions with a sort of diminished capacity, unable if unassisted by grace to achieve the good…. After Adam, Augustine urged, all humanity, is condemned; indeed, condemnation is all anyone deserves.” In his City of God 13:23, he wrote, 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 radical view, saves only a small part of humanity, not all, and we have no idea why God selects some people and abandons others to hell because of Adam’s sin. “Augustine’s god, justly angry at sin, redeems only a small number of people, just enough to show his mercy.” God is no longer the creator of what is good, but is emotional, angry, and vindictive. Yet, Augustine adds, somehow in some unknowable way, despite punishing innocent people, God is just.

Many Christians and many Jews who, living in a Christian culture have absorbed Christian ideas, have forgotten the biblical concept of wrong behavior, the concept taught also by Jesus, and call Augustine’s invention of “original sin” a mystery that is an integral part of religion. But, as Professor Fredriksen has shown, it is only a mystery because it is inexplicable, and it is not basic to religion.


[1] Princeton University Press, 2012, 209 pages, Paperback Cost: $14.28.

[2] Uniquely, only John, which differs with the other Gospels in many ways, and which was composed some seventy years after Jesus’ death, reports that Jesus immersed penitent sinners.