Reflection: “Sin: The Early History of an Idea” by Paula Fredriksen

Without a doubt, Paula Fredriksen’s Sin: The Early History of an Idea is a classic, must-read book on, well, the history of sin. Her masterful study insightfully and thoroughly explores how concepts of sin shifted in the first four centuries CE: Jesus’s focus on Jews and the ten commandments as how to avoid sin, repent, and join in the kingdom to come; Paul focusing on pagans as part of a universal redemptive plan including “celestial powers, the lower cosmic gods of pagan pantheons” (138), and their eventual submission to the god of Israel (including the cosmic force called Sin); Valentinus’s claiming that ignorance and not knowing God’s will causes sin via the inability to receive revelation; Justin Martyr’s claiming that intellectual “misapprehension of the divine” leads to sin; Origen’s somewhat sympathetic approach to sin as being caused by beings, who were contingent on God, wavering (i.e., unreason leads to sin); and Augustine’s well-known original sin as linked to Adam. While scholars have undoubtedly spilled many pixels and much ink on Fredriksen’s work and the history of sin with regard to the texts she examines, I want to focus instead on her broader methodology and framework. That is, how does Fredriksen approach sin in the first four centuries CE, and how does that approach impact her discussion?

First, Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach to sin is instructive for approaching any ancient concepts in religious studies. In the epilogue, Fredriksen notes that “ancient ideas about sin provide a point of orientation from which we can move out examine other concept clusters that defined early forms of Christianity” (135). Although she does not explicitly identify a cluster-based approach, she suggests as much by noting “other” concept clusters, implying that sin’s concept cluster serves as a helpful orientation. So, rather than simple lexical studies on specific terms, scholarship should focus more on conceptual categories and mapping those concepts. Admittedly, writing about concept clusters well can be difficult without a broader theoretical framework. While certain critical theorists may prove helpful in this regard, scholars ought to lean more into cognitive studies to map these concept clusters. To be clear, I am not suggesting scholars lean into cognitive studies when it is convenient; rather, religion scholars ought to be well-read in that field, knowledgeable about the specialty more broadly. Moreover, leaning into such a field does not necessitate abandoning theorists. Rather, as Lisa Zunshine articulates so well in Why We Read Fiction, critical and literary theory can and should inform cognitive studies and vice versa. Thus, Fredriksen’s approach is instructive but should be paired with more rigorous analytical models and theoretical frameworks.

Second, while I appreciate Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach, she does not clearly articulate what terms and ideas function as indices for early Christian and Jewish concept clusters of sin. For example, she cites Josephus’s discussion of the Ten Commandments (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116–119) to reconstruct Jesus’s ideas on sin. In citing Josephus, she focuses primarily on the language of “justice,” “piety,” and “immersion” (i.e., tshuvah, or repentance) in relation to the Ten Commandments. From here and in conjunction with Jesus’s mention of the Ten Commandments (e.g., Mark 10:19), she concludes: “We can infer from all this that Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments; that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments” (16). But this claim is problematic on multiple fronts: Josephus’s language; Jesus’s language; and the absence of sin within these passages.

  1. In the passage that Fredriksen cites, she excludes what is arguably central to identifying Jesus’s concept cluster of sin, and this exclusion complicates her subsequent assertion that “he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments.” The problem? Antiquities of the Jews 18.117 explicitly identifies baptism and tshuvah (repentance) as not for the forgiveness of sins: “for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him [i.e., God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body” (LINK). Put another way, the Ten Commandments, namely, Josephus’s piety toward God and justice toward others (Antiquities of the Jews 18.117), are indeed linked to immersion/baptism but are importantly decoupled from the remission of sins. As such, this text is a weak foundation for claiming that Jesus’s central idea of sin was that sin meant breaking God’s commandments, especially the Ten Commandments. For while John the Baptist explicitly links baptism and confession of sins, Josephus does not link baptism with sins but rather with purification. And while Josephus links purification with the Ten Commandments, John the Baptist does not explicitly do so (Mk 4:1–6). Therefore, the disjunction between John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and John the Baptist in Josephus problematizes using the texts in conjunction to reconstruct Jesus’s concept cluster of sin because Josephus and Mark’s John (whom she uses to substantiate claims about Jesus’s perspective on sin) seem to use slightly different concept clusters for sin.

    At the same time, Fredriksen rightly highlights that Josephus presumes the immersed individuals “had previously been cleansed by right conduct” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186; italics original) or, in William Whiston’s translation, “that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” (https://lexundria.com/j_aj/18.117/wst). Put another way, Josephus’s understanding of baptism links with purification and presumes the baptized individual follows the Ten Commandments. By contrast, John baptizes individuals for the forgiveness of sin, a situation in which they confess their sins (Mk 1:4–6). Fredriksen blends these distinctive processes: “Repentance and sincere contrition before God, John and his contemporaries believed, would gain forgiveness” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186). While this generalization is not necessarily untrue, she nonetheless elides that Mark’s representation of John and Josephus’s representation of John understand and nuance the immersion process in distinctive ways: for Mark’s John, baptism is about the forgiveness of sins, although what constitutes sins is not explicit; by contrast, for Josephus’s John, baptism is about purification and presumes righteous behavior in line with the Ten Commandments, although immersion is explicitly not about remitting sin and implicitly not about confessing sin. As such, Josephus and Mark have somewhat distinct conceptual clusters around sin that ought to be discussed in more detail and recognized as unique conceptual clusters with overlap.
  2. A few pages after Fredriksen discusses how Josephus and Mark represent John in Sin, she suggests that Jesus’s mentioning the Ten Commandments in Mark 10:19 implies that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments. Indeed, her initial step is undoubtedly correct: according to Mark 10:19, “Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments” (16). However, the broader context implies that Jesus’s speech is not necessarily concerned with sin. After Jesus responds to the man’s question by affirming the value of living by the Ten Commandments, the man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth” (Mk 10:19, RSV). Jesus responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21, RSV). In the broader context of Fredriksen’s prooftext, textual absences problematize her assertion that breaking the Ten Commandments constituted sin. First, a term for sin does not appear in Mark 10. As such, to simplify Jesus’s notion of sin to breaking the Ten Commandments is untenable without additional discussion and data. Second, the apex of Jesus’s speech in Mark 10:19 links the Ten Commandments with entering the kingdom of God, not repentance or sin. Thus, while Mark 10:19 conceptually overlaps with notions of sin, ignoring how the Ten Commandments function in the broader context of Mark 10:19 is untenable and requires additional textual support.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Fredriksen’s book; however, her work still retains a problematic trend in scholarly discussions about sin: treating sin as a universal term encompassing social transgressions in religious contexts. While the category of sin can be a helpful heuristic category, distinguishing between a philologically based approach (i.e., indexing how sin as an ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic term functions) and a philosophical approach (i.e., working with something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, which shapes discourse about sin) is imperative. When the philology- and philosophy-based approaches mix and we blur the borders, we quickly lose the ability to self-reflect on our methodology and the results that our scholarship yields.  

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Some Thoughts on the History of Sin

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?