Sin: The Early History of an Idea

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

Synopsis

Ancient Christians invoked sin to account for an astonishing range of things, from the death of God's son to the politics of the Roman Empire that worshipped him. In this book, award-winning historian of religion Paula Fredriksen tells the surprising story of early Christian concepts of sin, exploring the ways that sin came to shape ideas about God no less than about humanity.


Long before Christianity, of course, cultures had articulated the idea that human wrongdoing violated relations with the divine. But Sin tells how, in the fevered atmosphere of the four centuries between Jesus and Augustine, singular new Christian ideas about sin emerged in rapid and vigorous variety, including the momentous shift from the belief that sin is something one does to something that one is born into. As the original defining circumstances of their movement quickly collapsed, early Christians were left to debate the causes, manifestations, and remedies of sin. This is a powerful and original account of the early history of an idea that has centrally shaped Christianity and left a deep impression on the secular world as well.

Excerpt

Jesus of Nazareth announced the good news that God was about to redeem the world. Some 350 years later, the church taught that the far greater part of humanity was eternally condemned. The earliest community began by preserving the memory and the message of Jesus; within decades of his death, some Christians asserted that Jesus had never had a fleshly human body at all. The church that claimed the Jewish scriptures as its own also insisted that the god who had said “Be fruitful and multiply” now actually meant “Be sexually continent.” Some four centuries after Paul’s death, his conviction that “All Israel will be saved” (Rm 11.26) served to support the Christian belief that the Jews were damned.

What accounts for this great variety in ancient Christian teachings? The short answer is: dramatic mutations in Christian ideas about sin. As these ideas grew and changed in the turbulence of Christianity’s first four centuries, so too did others: ideas about God, about the physical universe, about the soul’s relation to the body, about eternity’s relation to time; ideas . . .

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