The Evolution of Sin
Sin: A History
Anderson, Gary A.
Yale University Press
September 29, 2009
272 pp., $26.46
In the version of the Lord's Prayer that appears in the Gospel of Matthew, we're instructed to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." What follows from the metaphor of sin as debt? How does it differ from the Old Testament's governing metaphor for sin? How is the logic of sin as debt related to the strong emphasis on almsgiving in the early church, and what light does it shed on Reformation debates over meritorious good works? How does it bear on the meaning of the Atonement? These are some of the questions Gary Anderson explores in his thought-provoking book Sin: A History (Yale University Press).
Anderson is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Bible in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He spoke with Books & Culture editor John Wilson about changing conceptions of sin and forgiveness in the Old and New Testaments, and the consequences of those changes.
You recount a time many years ago when you were reading one of the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and you were struck by a metaphor that surprised you—a discovery that became the genesis of this project.
I was reading a Qumran text called the Damascus Covenant, and I noticed several instances in which the scroll described forgiveness of sins using a Hebrew verb that in the Hebrew Bible never has that meaning. The scroll used the verb 'azab, which generally means "to forsake." It struck me as quite odd.
As I pondered it, I realized that the Aramaic verb for "forgiven" means exactly that. It means "forsake" in the literal sense, because in Aramaic to forgive a sin is to remit what you have coming to you in the sense of a debt. You're forsaking an obligation. Someone who holds a debt over someone else technically can collect that debt whenever he wishes. And if by dint of merciful circumstance he decides not to collect, he forsakes or abandons that right.
For me this was an epiphany. What we're witnessing in that little Qumran text is a new way of thinking about sin and forgiveness. It's not found anywhere in the Old Testament, but, strikingly enough, it becomes quite common in the New.
I was well aware of the long discussion of the variance of the Lord's Prayer in the New Testament. Matthew uses a Greek idiom that corresponds with the Aramaic—that is, to remit a debt-—whereas it's changed in Luke to "forgive our sins," so that the Lord's Prayer will sound more intelligible to a Greek audience. And there you really have the same thing. The modern reader of the Bible in translation doesn't have any feeling for this, but in first-century Greek, sins were not thought of as debts, nor was forgiveness thought of as a remission or non-collection of a debt. When the New Testament has Jesus speak that way [of sins as debts], it's telegraphing to the intelligent reader that Greek is not this guy's native tongue. His native tongue is Hebrew or Aramaic.
So that was the spark. I thought, There's a major change going on here. Is there a story that can be told about that change?
There's a refrain in your book: Sin has a history. And that's a way of encapsulating the story that was suggested to you by this experience. Could you briefly sketch that history?
In conversation about the book, friends will often ask, "Isn't it the case in the Bible that we have all kinds of metaphors that are in circulation about sin? Why have you settled on just two of them?" And it is true that there are many metaphors in the Bible with respect to sin. But it's also true—and this is what I think most readers didn't realize—that certain metaphors clearly take pride of place.