Out with the Old (Testament)?
Paula Fredriksen, professor of comparative religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has provided readers with a fascinating history of the idea of sin. In her latest book, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton University Press), Fredriksen (also the author of a study on Augustine's relationship to the Jewish faith) focuses on seven figures: Jesus and Paul (chap. 1); Justin Martyr, the Gnostic theologian Valentinus, and the eventual heretic Marcion (chap. 2); and Origen and Augustine (chap. 3). Together, these figures are meant to emphasize what Fredriksen takes, somewhat exaggeratedly, to be a significant degree of diversity within the early Christian community on the subject of sin.
Her choice of figures is interesting, but highly selective. For the beginnings of the Christian movement, Jesus and Paul are good choices, since about two-thirds of the appearances of "sin" and related words found in the New Testament come from the Gospels and Paul's letters. Many of the remainder appear in the Book of Hebrews, whose contribution is not taken into account. Fredriksen's second-century choices are curious. Including Valentinus and Marcion, whose views the early church rejected, exaggerates the diversity, which seems to be the author's point. Origen is a good choice for the third century and Augustine is an excellent choice for the late fourth/early fifth century.
What struck me as odd at the outset is that Fredriksen's "early history" of sin begins with Jesus and the New Testament, not with Israel and the Old Testament. Jesus and the early church's theologians presupposed Old Testament teaching on sin. Perhaps this explains Fredriksen's omission of Hebrews, whose treatment of sin is closely tied to its teaching regarding the atoning value of Jesus' death in light of Old Testament teaching. Accordingly, readers must recognize the limited and highly selective nature of Fredriksen's history of the idea of sin. It is not so much a history of sin but an analysis of the views of a number of influential thinkers in the Christian tradition.
Fredriksen rightly acknowledges that much of the diversity in the understanding of sin was due to different settings and audiences. Jesus spoke to Israel. Paul spoke to Gentiles. True enough. But I wonder if her comparison of the teachings of these two figures sufficiently takes into account how much these different settings shaped the discussion of sin. Jesus did not simply speak to Israel, he engaged critics whose understanding of sin—what it was and what the remedy was—differed significantly from his views. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the debates that arose from Jesus' practice of associating with "sinners and tax collectors." The challenge Paul faced in the Gentile setting was quite different, for he encountered people who did not presuppose the ethics of the Old Testament. Their view of what constituted sin would have been very different from the views of the scribes and Pharisees encountered by Jesus.