The changing notions of sin

Sin can seem like an antiquated concept in the contemporary world, Paula Fredriksen *79 writes in her new book. Yet, she notes, it still holds a prominent place in the public imagination.

“Sin is one of those concepts that is in our genetic material in Western culture,” says Fredriksen, the author of Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton University Press). The book examines how early Christian writers including Paul, Augustine, Valentinus, and Origen understood sin and how their ideas about sin influenced their understanding of God. 

Fredriksen, who earned a Ph.D. in religion at Princeton and is on the faculties of both Boston University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, argues that the idea of sin is conditioned by the times. Paul’s belief in the imminent coming of the kingdom of God colored everything he wrote about sin in his letters in the New Testament. Paul used “flesh” as a metaphor for sin because flesh was so closely aligned with death, Fredriksen writes. He also argued that sin infected the whole cosmos. 

Paula Fredriksen *79
Paula Fredriksen *79

Later, in the fourth century, Augustine’s ideas on sin were shaped by Christianity’s new role as the imperial religion. Augustine made the case that sin was part of human nature, passed down through Adam, who first sinned in the Garden of Eden. The means of transmission for “original sin,” as Augustine called it, was sex, which he considered inherently sinful. Since Christianity was the official ­religion of the Roman Empire, and “doctrine translated into public policy,” Augustine had to be clear about doctrine, writes Fredriksen. In such an environment, there was little room for debate about church teaching. 

Fredriksen contrasts Augustine with Origen, a third-century Christian martyr who offered multiple interpretations of Biblical texts. Where Augustine believed that “humanity left to its own devices can only sin,” she writes, Origen believed in free will and that human beings could choose not to sin. They had different ideas about God, too: Origen believed that even Satan will be shown God’s mercy; Augustine wrote that God would not save unbaptized babies due to the stain of original sin.

Augustine’s ideas shaped Christian theology for centuries. His ideas about sin are not widely held today, but they float beneath the surface of contemporary culture. Fredriksen was surprised to find them re-emerge in the recent controversy over the national health-care law and its requirement for contraception coverage. Some pundits equated access to birth control to an unseemly appetite for sex. “Sex as sinful ... that’s something of Augustine’s theological legacy that has cast an incredibly long shadow,” Fredriksen says.  

Today’s culture largely plays down the ideas of sin and personal responsibility, she says. As a result, figures like Augustine and Jesus have been “reformatted” to “better fit our culture’s comfort zone.” Jesus is presented as battling not ancient demons, but sexism and racism. Augustine is seen through a Freudian lens as sex-obsessed. Ideas of sin, repentance, and punishment are watered down in the process, says Fredriksen.


Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, edited by David Stone Potter and David J. Mattingly 

What she likes about it: “Terrific essays on [the] Roman family, Roman religion, and reality, like how to get enough grain to a city of 1 million so no one starves or starts a riot.”