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.

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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.

In the Old Testament, the metaphor that gets 80 or 90 percent of the textual space pictures sin as a weight or burden that has to be carried. But this recurring motif isn't reflected in English translations of the Bible. That is one metaphor in the Hebrew that is not systematically rendered literally in English. So in many, many texts in the Old Testament, where forgiveness is conceived of as taking away a burden, the conventional English translation is just "forgive a sin."

When we move to the Second Temple period (the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament and so forth), that image of sin as a weight disappears almost completely. I have to be careful here. It doesn't disappear altogether, because we have those canonical texts from the Old Testament that remain on the table. But the complete absence of this metaphor is particularly striking in the teaching and parables of Jesus. He never talks about sinful individuals bearing enormous weights on their shoulders, as you might have expected from the Old Testament. Instead, he talks about debtors and creditors and building up treasures in heaven. None of those images can be found in the Old Testament proper, especially for the First Temple period. But they're common in Second Temple Hebrew and Aramaic, and it's no surprise that this becomes the predominant way for Jesus to speak about sin.

So, yes, there are a variety of metaphors, but there's pride of place both in the Old and the New, and that pride of place changes.

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Many contemporary translators deliberately take out the metaphors because they say they may obscure the simple meaning of the text.

Yes, and I have no problem with that. I think that's a good policy in translation. Of course, what's lost then is the feel for how ancient Israelites thought about sin. So when the reader comes to Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement, for example, and sees Israel loading sins on the back of a pack animal, erroneously called a scapegoat, they find that a very peculiar image. They wonder, Where does this come from? They don't recognize that in the world of the Old Testament, that's not an odd image at all. That's exactly what you'd expect. Sins are weights and burdens. What better way to get rid of them than to find an animal to carry them away?

The logic of your argument suggests that in many cases there's a danger in translation that programmatically takes the metaphors out. Part of the reason I found your book so interesting is that it argues for a certain understanding of the way metaphor works—an approach to metaphor that would be applicable to many other topics. Early in the book, you say, "Apart from attention to the concrete particularity of human language, there is no access to the categories of sin and forgiveness." Could you say more about what you meant by that?

I was thinking particularly of the relationship of metaphor to narrative, an insight I borrowed from Paul Ricoeur. His book The Symbolism of Evil was extremely important to me. Ricoeur argues that many theologians have failed to see how our understanding of sin is deeply imbedded in particular narratives, and the narratives, in turn, are dependent on governing metaphors. These metaphors are not simply literary ornaments. Ricoeur's thesis really is, in some sense, the major thesis of my book.

The problem with Ricoeur's book is that he didn't know Hebrew. In many respects you could say my book is a return to Ricoeur's seminal insight and an attempt—on the basis of a complete survey of metaphors for sin and forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament—to tell the story Ricoeur couldn't.

One finding that emerged from my work on the book—and it actually came as a considerable surprise—is that once the Second Temple period Jewish writers and Christian writers began to think of sin as a debt, this led immediately to the correlative idea that meritorious actions, virtuous actions, create a credit.

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Here the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on the logic of conceptual metaphors is very important. If sin is a debt, that means we owe money. And if virtuous activity is going to be a credit, well, the most obvious way to accumulate credits is by giving away money—hence almsgiving. Within synagogue and church, it's true that one can gather merits by any act of charity. Matthew 25 is a classic instance of that, of clothing the naked, feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and so on. But pride of place in this period is reserved for actually giving away your coins and funding what Jesus calls a treasury in heaven.

And as I show in the book, that's not an idea unique to Jesus. That's something he inherited from Second Temple Jews, who in turn created this extraordinary metaphor based on the way in which they conceived of human culpability.

In the Old Testament, one of the deficits of the weight metaphor is that it doesn't create its correlative, a virtuous individual who is, let's say, like Atlas, who can hold the world or hold the sins of others. We don't have that notion at all. Whereas as soon as you have the image of a sinner as a debtor, you immediately get the notion of a virtuous person as someone who has an enormous treasury in heaven.

One of the most striking passages in your book was when you quoted a poem from Saint Ephrem, the fourth-century Syrian poet and theologian, where he talks about making a loan to God. You pull a phrase from that poem: "The enricher of all borrows from all."

Almsgiving was construed in the divine economy as an act of making a loan to God. It was very early on tied to Proverbs 19:17: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done."

I've been going to church my entire life, and I've never heard a sermon on that passage, which is a very provocative text.

It's incredibly provocative, and in the early church almost every commentator on Matthew 25, that famous text about the Last Judgment, saw it as a fleshing out of the text from Proverbs. By the time we get to Ephrem, we have a very sophisticated theological mind taking this inherited speech about sin as debt and virtue as credit and configuring it in profound ways. What he's trying to address here is the challenge of anthropomorphic speech.

Why is it, for example, in the Old Testament that we offer to God sacrifices? Does he need food? Well, the psalmists and many of the prophets say no. But then one might say, "If God doesn't need food, why do it in the first place?" Ephrem is certainly on to why: Because as embodied creatures, we need some mechanism to offer worship and service to God. So as Ephrem says, in the Old Testament, God presents himself as a kind of hungry man who wishes to be fed by our sacrifices, though not in need of those sacrifices.

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And then, Ephrem says, in the New Testament, God has taken on a new face in a new dispensation. Now he presents himself as a poor person desiring your money, but he himself, we know, is not poor at all. He's the enricher of all. He, in fact, provides us with the very gifts that we are going to return to him. Giving money to the poor is part of what God has ontologically made the very structure of the universe. That is, the universe operates by a principle of charity. That God loves the world. That God loves the poor. We're to love the world and love the poor, and if we do such we will benefit from acting in a way in which God himself acts.

So it's an aspect of divine condescension but it also shows how God desires us to be like him.

Absolutely. And I think there's another important thing that should be emphasized here.

A lot of the texts that I go through in this book, especially when we touch on the theme of treasures in heaven, became points of considerable disputation between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. The conflict revolved around the question of whether human works could be meritorious in the eyes of God. And the quote from Ephrem is very much to the point in trying to settle that question in a way I think both traditions could be happy with. Ephrem certainly sees it as important for individuals to give alms, to follow that work, and to benefit from its meritorious effects. But, as Ephrem says, the very merits we would acquire by virtue of giving alms are really the merits that God has, in a sense, provided in the first place. So it's a human work at one level, but an act of pure divine grace at another.

I think many readers will have the same thought I had when I finished the book: What would Gary say are the dominating metaphors for sin and forgiveness in the church today?

I think the dominant language of sin and forgiveness is that of the therapeutic. And this would go both for evangelical and mainline Christians: the seriousness of sin is often dramatically underplayed. What might have been seen as sin in the past is now understood as something reflecting my upbringing or other formative circumstances. It's much easier to talk about fulfillment and human flourishing than it is to talk about sin.

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Having said that, though, the evidence of horrible human sinfulness is still present, and from the most unlikely quarters one will find a return to the biblical idiom.

In what was to become a celebrated address on racism, then-candidate Barack Obama referred to slavery in this country as our original sin—a sin that had left a stain on our national character. Well, there we have an individual rhetorically reaching back into the Bible to make the point that sin really has a certain "thingness" to it—it has a very unfortunate habit of hanging around long after it has been committed. So even within the contemporary realm, the need to reach for biblical metaphors can still be found.

Related Elsewhere:

Sin: A History is available from and other book retailers.

Previous Christianity Today articles on sin include:

Sin: The Rest of the Story | What the snark-infested news media just don't seem to understand. (October 29, 2009)
Grace Amid the Vices | Exploring the seven deadly sins doesn't have to be depressing. An interview with Glittering Vices author Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. (September 25, 2009)
Amazing Sin, How Deep We're Bound | Finding the courage to trust in grace. (May 1, 2004)
Let God Handle Your Sin | The Christian life isn't so hard when you let God do all the work. (March 1, 2004)

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Sin: A History
Sin: A History
Yale University Press
272 pp., 48.15
Buy Sin: A History from Amazon