Sin: The Early History of an Idea
Fredriksen, a noted scholar in the field of Jesus and early Christian research, bases Sin on the Spencer Trask Lectures that she gave at Princeton University in 2007. In the book she describes “the [early] development of Western Christian ideas about sin” (p. 2). Throughout her treatment, Fredriksen draws the connection between the various Christian ideas of sin and how they relate to God, humanity, and the world. Her aim is to sketch “a staccato history of early Christian ideas about sin by focusing on those moments that represent evolutionary jumps—points of ‘punctuated equilibrium,’ as evolutionary biologists say” (p. 4). To do this she traces the concept of sin through seven figures from Jesus to Augustine.
Chapter 1 addresses the continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and Paul. Jesus, working within a Jewish context, “defined sin as breaking God’s commandments” (p. 16), and repentance was tied “into long traditions of purifications and sacrifices” (p. 20). Fredriksen maintains that for Jesus, the temple and sacrifice led to atonement and forgiveness, and then after the destruction of the temple, Christians interpreted Jesus’ death as sacrifice in the place of the temple and inserted Jesus’ critique of the temple within the Gospel texts. Paul’s letters, unlike the later Gospel texts, she says, suggest that earlier Christians shared the same respect for the temple. Even though Jesus and Paul shared a Jewish heritage, Paul’s Hellenistic outlook created a different perspective on sin for Paul than for Jesus. According to Paul, sin represented a cosmic revolt against God that Christ conquered through His death. Fredriksen, however, overstates the contrast between Jesus and Paul, portraying Jesus as a Jewish wisdom teacher with no apocalyptic perspective and Paul as proto-Gnostic. She maintains that apocalyptic elements within the Gospel narratives that appear to parallel Paul actually reflect the theology of the early church.
Chapter 2 discusses second-century writers Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin Martyr. All three capitalize on Paul’s interaction between flesh and sin. According to Marcion and Valentinus, flesh impedes one’s ability to live as God intends. “ ‘Salvation’ for both Valentinians and Marcionites meant redemption from the flesh” (p. 78). For Justin, “salvation meant redemption of the flesh” (p. 79), which would come in the last days. Unlike Justin Martyr, Valentinus and Marcion have been misunderstood because much of their writing is no longer available and their position is characterized in contrast to orthodoxy. Fredriksen attempts to correct the record.
Chapter 3 by itself is worth the price of the book. Fredriksen does a masterful job of comparing Origen and Augustine on original sin, free will, the justice of God, and redemption, among other things. For Origen and Augustine, sin “begins not with ignorance but with choice” (p. 141). In Origen’s thinking, rational spiritual beings made sinful moral choices before conception. However, for Augustine, a sinful nature is inherited at conception as a consequence of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3. “Original sin mitigates the will’s freedom for the primal parents, and for every generation thereafter” (p. 143). Fredriksen’s summary of Augustine on God’s justice is quite moving: “We can neither see nor know how God is just; we can only affirm by faith that he is just. If out of pure mercy God chooses to save some from their justly deserved penalty of eternal damnation, then the only appropriate and pious response is to be grateful for his compassion” (p. 126). She summarizes the book in a short epilogue.
Fredriksen’s Sin provides a helpful overview of how the concept of sin has been interpreted through the early church and subsequently impacted western culture. Relying on Walter Bauer’s theory that Christianity evolved from several alternatives to a singular orthodoxy in the fourth century, she overplays the differences between Jesus, Paul, and the early church. She brings needed exposure to the ideas of certain marginalized ancient figures (e.g., Valentinus, Marcion). Her work on Origen and Augustine in chapter 3 is superb. Her treatment of Jesus and Paul, however, detracts from the overall effectiveness of this volume. Her views on these figures tangle the historical and theological discussion in a number of places.