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Sin: A History

gary a. anderson
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    What is sin? Is it simply wrongdoing? Why do its effects linger over time? In this sensitive, imaginative, and original work, Gary Anderson shows how changing conceptions of sin and forgiveness lay at the very heart of the biblical tradition. Spanning nearly two thousand years, the book brilliantly demonstrates how sin, once conceived of as a physical burden, becomes, over time, eclipsed by economic metaphors. Transformed from a weight that an individual carried, sin becomes a debt that must be repaid in order to be redeemed in God's eyes.

    Anderson shows how this ancient Jewish revolution in thought shaped the way the Christian church understood the death and resurrection of Jesus and eventually led to the development of various penitential disciplines, deeds of charity, and even papal indulgences. In so doing it reveals how these changing notions of sin provided a spur for the Protestant Reformation.

    Broad in scope while still exceptionally attentive to detail, this ambitious and profound book unveils one of the most seismic shifts that occurred in religious belief and practice, deepening our understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of human experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15487-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. part one: introducing the problem

    • 1 what is a sin?
      (pp. 3-14)

      It is not easy to define a sin. If we pay attention to how people talk, we notice that metaphors are impossible to avoid. For example, slavery in the United States is said to have left a “stain” upon our hands that still awaits “cleansing.” To speak in this fashion is to assume that sin is much more than a violation of a moral norm and that the effects of sin are more extensive than a guilty conscience. A verbal declaration of regret may be fine, but the way a culture grapples with the enduring legacy of sin is another...

    • 2 a burden to be borne
      (pp. 15-26)

      Setting the stage for the texts I discuss requires a chronological framework. The majority of events recorded in the Old Testament take place within what is known as the First Temple period, which refers to the era in which the temple erected by King Solomon stood in Jerusalem. The temple was built in the mid-tenth century BCE and was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies in 587 BCE. That national tragedy led to a period known as the exile, during which many of Israel’s leaders were carried off to Babylon and attempted to refashion Jewish life while bereft...

    • 3 a debt to be repaid
      (pp. 27-40)

      Sin, I wish to argue, has a history. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Old Testament contains a number of metaphors for sin, the most pre - dominant being that of sin as a burden. This concept changed dramatically, however, during the Second Temple period, an era in which some of the youngest books of the Old Testament were written, as well as a number of nonbiblical books. During this time the metaphor of sin as a burden was replaced by that of sin as a debt.¹ Although there is little evidence in the Hebrew texts of the...

  6. part two: making payment on one’s debt

    • 4 redemption and the satisfaction of debts
      (pp. 43-54)

      I resume the exploration of sin as a debt by returning to the Hebrew Bible. By the time we get to materials from the later Second Temple period, such as those at Qumran (second century BCE through the first century CE), the metaphor of sin as a debt has become well established. The dialect of Mishnaic Hebrew, which I assume is close to the Hebrew Jesus would have spoken, illustrates how complete the transformation had become. The usage ofnās’ā’‛ǎwōnas an idiom to describe culpability has by and large fallen out of use in these works.¹ One does not...

    • 5 ancient creditors, bound laborers, and the sanctity of the land
      (pp. 55-74)

      In the previous chapter I traced the origins of the metaphor for sin as a debt back to the prophet Second Isaiah. I did not mention, however, that the rootrāṣâhalso occurs in Leviticus 26. Although the usage is similar, Leviticus 26 adds one important detail: it assumes that not only Israel but the land as well must repay a debt. The responsibility of the land for its own debt comes as a surprise, for the main concern has been Israel’s responsibility to the commandments she has been given.

      To make sense of this new concept, I turn to...

    • 6 lengthening the term of debt
      (pp. 75-94)

      Poring over the law codes of Leviticus 25 and 26 regarding the redemption of land and persons may seem to have no relevance for contemporary life. But ancient readers were drawn to these chapters because of their detailed accounts of why Israel had been sent into exile and what had to transpire before redemption could occur. As we shall see, even though the exile came to closure in 538 BCE, when Cyrus the Persian announced that the Judean captives were free to return to their homeland and to begin restoring Jerusalem and its temple (see II Chron 36:22–23 and...

    • 7 loans and the rabbinic sages
      (pp. 95-110)

      Up to this point I have examined how the metaphor of sin as a debt functioned in late biblical material and some early postbiblical texts. These texts adapted the classical Hebrew vocabulary to fit a radical new way of thinking about sin. But to get the best perspective on this metaphor, I turn to the two living languages of first-century Palestine, the era of Jesus of Nazareth and the early rabbinic sages: they are Mishnaic Hebrew and the Palestinian and Babylonian dialects of Aramaic. Mishnaic Hebrew, in its limited sense, refers to the Hebrew of the Mishnah itself, a relatively...

    • 8 early christian thinking on the atonement
      (pp. 111-132)

      As New Testament scholars have long noted, reading about Jesus of Naza - reth in Greek is problematic. Although this text represents our most ancient witness to his life and teaching, it is one step removed from the historical person. There can be no question that Jesus addressed his disciples and the larger circle of his fellow Jews in their own tongue, either Hebrew or Aramaic (or most likely, some combination of the two). Evidence of the underlying Semitic flavor of Jesus’s teaching comes through from time to time in the form of the Greek we presently possess. As I...

  7. part three: balancing debts with virtue

    • 9 redeem your sins with alms
      (pp. 135-151)

      Almost as soon as the idea of sin as a debt appears on the scene, so does its financial counterpart, credit. These two ideas are a natural pair in the commercial world, and they continue to be such in religious thinking. In this respect the idiom of sin as a debt represents anovum, or new idea, in biblical thought, since previous idioms for sin such as stain or weight did not produce such obvious counterparts. Although it is theoretically possible to imagine a virtuous person such as a Mr. Clean, who could have scoured away the blot of sin...

    • 10 salvation by works?
      (pp. 152-163)

      Many readers will find something unsettling about the matter-of-fact way I have interpreted Daniel’s advice to King Nebuchadnezzar. Is the act of giving alms simply a financial exchange between the debtor and his God? If so, it would seem that human beings can “buy” their way out of their sinful state and that the critique of the Protestant reformers applies: humans save themselves by their good works.¹

      Roman Garrison has confronted this problem head-on in a book that examines the various ways the work of Christ can be described in the early church.² In it he illustrates those differences through...

    • 11 a treasury in heaven
      (pp. 164-188)

      In the previous chapter, I noted that one of the principal characteristics of the treasury in heaven is its outstanding rate of return. As St. Augustine exclaimed: “Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give earth and gain heaven.” In this chapter I pursue this theme more deeply. One of the most distinguishing features of almsgiving is the way it dramatically alters the balance between one’s debits and credits. For every unit of debt we take on, owing to various forms of wrongdoing, we...

    • 12 why god became man
      (pp. 189-202)

      No book on the history of sin as debt would be complete without a discussion of St. Anselm of Canterbury, who served as archbishop there from 1093 to 1109 and is perhaps best known among philosophers for his ontological argument in favor of the existence of God. As such, his work has spawned an enormous literature. Among theologians, however, he is best known for his classic workCur deus homo(Why God Became Man), in which he articulates why it was necessary for the incarnation to take place.¹ In developing his argument, he provides an account of the sin of...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 203-236)
    (pp. 237-243)
    (pp. 244-253)