Rob Hardy on books


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Ancient Views on a Constant Topic



Rob Hardy


"Yes, sir," says Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife to the minister as he is coming out of church and others, too, are complimenting the minister on his sermon. "That's just one subject you just can't talk enough about. Sin." Barney must have been asleep, for that wasn't the minister's subject, but it was a good guess. Sin has been a point of concern before the beginning of Christianity. In Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton University Press), Paula Fredriksen considers seven important figures in the early church and reveals that sin was a foundational concept for all but that it was as well different for all. In addition, the ideas about how God could have created imperfect beings, and how they can be saved, and when they would be saved, all changed between the thinkers during the first four Christian centuries. Fredriksen, a professor who is regarded as an expert on early Christianity, here provides what she says is "an aerial survey of the idea of sin" during that period. It is a pithy, enjoyable tour of a concept that even in the beginning was malleable depending upon circumstances. Fredriksen's book is also useful for showing us how even in the earliest formation of ideas about sin, it was what "those other people" do. 




Naturally, the first teacher Fredriksen takes up is Jesus. He emphasized the sins as understood in his Jewish culture; he knew the audience to whom he was speaking. Sin was, especially, breaking the ten commandments. He may have had extreme additions, like advising his listeners to give away all their possessions and follow him, but he sounded a theme from Jewish theology that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Fredriksen makes much of his relationship with the temple in Jerusalem; although the later gospels seem to show his hostility to the temple, earlier ones show that, for instance, he believed that God dwelled in the temple. His disciples continued to worship there after he was gone, and would have expected him to have returned there as the center of God's new kingdom. He said that this kingdom was coming soon. 




Paul, too, thought that the end times were coming soon, and expected to see the second coming. He delivered his message on sin mostly to gentiles who lived among the Jewish diaspora, and his concept of sin was aimed at them. The gentiles tended to worship native gods, "a huge panoply of pagan deities, whose powers stretch from earth and below the earth up to the planets and stars of the firmament." Paul was horrified by the sin of pagan idolatry, but his view was a novelty. The Jews in the diaspora had accepted pagans as patrons and even had them participate in synagogue activities. Pagans didn't have to repudiate their gods unless they wanted to enter the synagogue community as members. Paul linked fornication to idolatry as the two paradigmatic pagan sins. Give up those sins, he taught, and enter God's imminent kingdom though baptism courtesy of God's son. And they did, or at least some did, and those gentiles who gave up all idols and took on the God of Israel only confirmed for Paul that the end times were at hand. Both Jesus and Paul were compelled to get their ideas across because time was fading fast. 




"Though many ancient Christians continued to hold a vivid belief in the imminent End throughout the four centuries that we review (indeed, many modern Christians hold it still,) the later gentile theologians... did not." After Paul's time, when it was clear that the end times were still sometime in the mysterious future, theologians began to teach about the meaning of sin in relation not about how to get a good seat for the Apocalypse but how to get salvation after death. Paul had expanded Jesus's vision of what sin was, and then the Gnostics like Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin in the second century made sin inclusive of a huge range of activities. They taught that sin came from ignorance of God, and stressed an intellectual approach of bashing ignorance by study of the scriptures. The study, however, had to be done with just the right allegorical and mystical interpretations. Justin in particular might have warned about demons that were zipping about and causing turmoil, but he also maintained that sin happened when someone acted "contrary to right reason." The rightness was eternal, he taught; if Socrates or Plato happened to get something right, it was because of the influence of the preincarnate Christ. Valentinus and Marcion taught that saved souls would zoom through the cosmos into the world of the highest god; Justin taught that there would be a fleshly convention of saints in the restored Jerusalem.  




In her final chapter, Fredriksen considers the rival ideas of Origen of Alexandria and the far more famous St. Augustine of Hippo. Origen thought that everything had souls, even stars and demons, and that these souls all were fallen. They had fallen long before time had started. One of the infinities of Origen's God, however, was that he was infinitely generous, and he was intent on saving all those souls because he loved them all. To do this, he set in motion the material universe with souls inhabiting all its diverse parts, and the different parts would learn their respective errors, repent, and turn again to God. There was no evil, just learning situations, and all the souls learned, because if any of them failed in gaining salvation, that would be a failure on God's part. Since he wanted universal salvation, and since he is God, he would get his way. If Origen's God is infinitely generous, Augustine's was infinitely angry. Augustine's God had created humans born in sin since Adam's fall. Jesus had been born of a virgin and without any male orgasm, and Augustine "theologized" every subsequent male orgasm as being a point of shame-producing pleasure that made any resultant infant a branch of the sin started by Adam. Augustine taught that no one could know how God made the decision in individual cases about who to save and who not, but that the great majority would be damned to a hell of eternal torment. Well, Augustine became a saint and a founder of the church's outlook; and Origen, against whom Augustine deliberately wrote, is regarded as a father of the church, but he is not a saint and his ideas were declared heretical. The ideas of both these men seem peculiar to me, but I can't help thinking we'd have a jollier world if Origen had prevailed. 




Ancient ideas of sin, Fredriksen teaches, are culturally constructed, and so must our modern ideas be. She gives an amusing epilogue to show how we moderns are far more likely to confess "I made a mistake," rather than "I did something wrong," and asks, "How can anyone punish anyone for making a mistake? Everyone makes mistakes." She also points out that even people who merely make mistakes don't have much problem knowing sin when they see other people sinning. It's not just us. She says that Justin held that "the correct notion of God (that is, Justin's notion) leads to virtuous behavior," and that Origen recommended "the teachings of the true (that is, Origen's) church," and that Augustine said that some healing might be extended to "a member of the true (that is, Augustine's) church." You can't rely on any definition of sin to be unchanging. Fredriksen doesn't say it, but I will: use kindness towards others as much as you possibly can, and you won't go far wrong.  




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