Shortly after graduating from U of Chicago and into the present, one of my greatest contentions with biblical scholarship has been the uncritical use of “sin.” Simply put, folks often describe any action against God or negative action against people as a sort of sin. Such perspectives are, indeed, justifiable in certain cases. Even so, I find the sin category’s uncritical application in so many circumstances problematic. Beyond the differing Hebrew (and Greek!) terms that folks sometimes group within the broader semantic category of sin, the nature of sin differs based on context. David Lambert put forth such an argument most recently.
The problem of how scholars use sin as a category to describe actions perceived as negative, though, raises another, perhaps more integral question: To what extent do broader cultural understandings of sin influence the interpretive choices that scholars make? Only by addressing this question can we begin to reassess the nature and history of sin as a concept/action/idea/etc. in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, Christian tradition, and the ancient world more broadly.
One excellent starting point for such work is in Jean Delumeau’s Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture; 13th-18th Centuries. Although I just started reading Delumeau’s book this morning, thus far the French historian has put forward a well-articulated argument that the contempt for the world, an idea often paired with sin and less commonly known as Du Contemptu Mundi, began with Christian monastic circles in the eleventh century and become popularized especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such contempt for the world frequently explained that man “was but ‘dung’ and ‘filth” (31).
Although I’ve yet to finish the book (it is over five hundred pages long), Delumeau’s work thus far shows how sin (as a category) has existed within a particular Christian constellation of theological ideas for nearly one thousand years. This constellation undoubtedly impacted sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century biblical scholarship. Therefore, interrogating how those ideas, forged through the trials of time, continue to influence biblical scholarship is imperative.
Moreover, his work raises questions about twenty-first-century religion more broadly. For example, to what extent does sin’s conceptualization in the thirteenth through eighteenth centuries continue to influence, directly or indirectly, contemporary discourse around sin? And although I avoid questions like the following, how might recognizing such influence enable religious communities to reconceptualize and reframe sin such that they can strive for a more equitable, healthy world?