Sin: A History

Jonathan Wright looks at the way that attitudes to sin have affected Judaeo-Christian societies in history

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Reviewed by: Jonathan Wright
Author: Gary Anderson
Publisher: Yale UP
Price (RRP): £20

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Through intricate analysis of biblical texts, Gary Anderson explores how sin has been conceptualised in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Metaphor, it seems, is everything: sin is a burden to be carried, a debt to be paid, or a stain to be expunged. Anderson argues that the way we depict and think about sin determines how we deal with its consequences. He identifies a revolutionary moment in this process. 

In earlier Judaism, the notion of sin as a weight to be carried was dominant: this was summed up by the ritual of sending a scapegoat, burdened with all the transgressions of the Israelites, into the wilderness. Then, in the Second Temple period, there was a radical shift in perceptions. Between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, the Persians ruled the Near-Eastern roost and they brought Aramaic languages with them. This linguistic transformation opened up new metaphorical vistas. Sin was now conceived as a debt that had to be settled: it was very similar to an economic transaction. 

The Israelites thus saw their Babylonian exile as a way of paying off their sinning past and, a few centuries later, Christians identified Jesus’s sacrifice as the most epochal transaction of them all: Christ paid the ultimate price for centuries’ worth of errant human behaviour. This might look like an insignificant change in word-play. 

In fact, it had major theological consequences.

It put human action at the heart of the divine economy. It was no longer sufficient to send a goat to the ends of the earth, out of God’s sight. There now had to be specific acts of personal expiation — and, out of this, the roster of Christian penances gradually emerged. On the plus side, it was now possible to guard against future lapses. Doing good works allowed you to build up credit in the heavenly treasury, helping to balance the books when you went off the moral rails. So it was that alms-giving – a rite which involves giving materially to another person as an act of religious virtue – became a Christian obsession.

This way of confronting sin infuriated 16th-century Protestants. They scowled at the notion of people’s actions influencing their chances of salvation: deciding between the saved and the damned was entirely down to the bestowal or withholding of God’s inscrutable Grace. Anderson’s hope that a nuanced analysis of the biblical sources “should dispense with” such theological controversies is overly optimistic, but he certainly shows that previous analyses have failed to capture the subtlety and mutability of Christianity’s encounter with the subject.

This is not a wide-ranging history of sin: it is a specialised treatment of one chapter in that long story. However, if anyone decides to take on the larger project, they will rely heavily on Anderson’s innovative monograph.  

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Dr Jonathan Wright’s books include The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories (HarperCollins, 2004)