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Why the meaning of sin changed radically during the first centuries of Christianity 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, Why the meaning of sin changed radically during the first centuries of Christianity 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.


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Why the meaning of sin changed radically during the first centuries of Christianity 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, Why the meaning of sin changed radically during the first centuries of Christianity 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.

30 review for Sin: The Early History of an Idea

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    Sin: The Early History of an Idea examines sin as defined by early figures, including John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Justin, Origen, and Augustus. Fredriksen finds that each figure defines sin slightly differently according to various contexts. To give a brief example of the sort of context she means, Fredriksen notes that Jesus's audience was the Jews, while Paul's audience was pagans and from that difference she explores how their idea of sin diverged. Sin is adapted from a set of lectures, whi Sin: The Early History of an Idea examines sin as defined by early figures, including John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Justin, Origen, and Augustus. Fredriksen finds that each figure defines sin slightly differently according to various contexts. To give a brief example of the sort of context she means, Fredriksen notes that Jesus's audience was the Jews, while Paul's audience was pagans and from that difference she explores how their idea of sin diverged. Sin is adapted from a set of lectures, which usually means that the work will be accessible to a casual reader. That was not the case for me here because I do not know enough about the early history of Christianity to read Sin as effortlessly as I might have preferred in the middle of summer. (Neither my flesh nor my mind was up to the task.) Readers coming to this book as casually as I did might consider reading the epilogue before tackling the first chapter. Some random notes on early Christianity... God has no body, but Jesus is said to have had a body and in fact even appears to ascend into Heaven, body and soul. This was a big problem for the early theologians and it can also be a useful starting place for thinking about sin (or, more accurately, sin as it is understood in some historical/ cultural contexts). So far as I know, everyone refers to God's rules given to Moses as the Ten Commandments, but the Jews spoke about two tablets of rules; the first five guide human relationships with God while the latter five guide human relationships with each other (honor thy parents seems to belong on the latter, but maybe they were in a rush and threw it in with the former group--or maybe they mean something deeper). Lesser gods and idolatry were a huge problem for Christians back in the day, though no one seems to care about it now. The Second Coming was considered imminent, something that would happen before people died (so repent!), but the Second Coming now seems to refer to "the end is nigh" cardboard signs. At first, I thought it must have been quite exciting to be alive as a Christian in those early days. (That is, putting aside castrating yourself to focus on non corporeal existence.) But then I realized that it was probably less exciting in the moment--mostly a bunch of wonky theists worrying over dogma on a subreddit. In fact, I kept thinking about Monty Python's rivalry between the Front for the People of Judea and the People's Front of Judea. For whatever reason, Durkheim's notion that religion is best understood as a way to divide in-groups from out-groups has been in the back of my mind lately, and Fredriksen's work did not undermine that notion for me. If we take Durkheim seriously and then take Fredriksen seriously, Christian sin is a culturally contingent means of identifying out-groups and then governing behavior within in-groups. So Christians should be just as excited today as they wrestle with how to treat each other, outsiders, and their desires. Nothing is settled, nor should we expect it to become settled. A final note: Fredriksen uses 'synecdoche' at one point--not a word I encounter daily.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joe Cummings

    Review Sin "Sin: The Early History of an Idea"[2012] by Paula Fredriksen is an interesting but challenging read about how the concept of sin changed over the first four hundred years of Christian history. Fredriksen looks at Scripture and other the extant writings concerning seven people: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus in the first century, Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin the Martyr of the second century, Origen of Alexandria in the third century and Augustine of Hippo in the fourth. Jesus Review Sin "Sin: The Early History of an Idea"[2012] by Paula Fredriksen is an interesting but challenging read about how the concept of sin changed over the first four hundred years of Christian history. Fredriksen looks at Scripture and other the extant writings concerning seven people: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus in the first century, Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin the Martyr of the second century, Origen of Alexandria in the third century and Augustine of Hippo in the fourth. Jesus and Paul were two first century leaders that believed that the apocalypse was at hand. Jesus, as he is recorded in the gospels, was concerned with the fate of the Jewish people. Paul, on the other hand, concerned himself in his writings with the fate of gentiles and the rest of creation. So their ideas on sin differed. After the rise of Constantine and his conversion to Christianity in 312 CE, the church in Rome sought to “orthodoxize” the extant writings of earlier Christian writers. In Marcion, they practically succeeded; very few of his works remain. As a result, this type of analysis is particularly difficult when it comes to the second century writers. Nevertheless there remain plenty of writings by orthodox writers condemning his “heresies,” and it is from those writings that the author has made some interesting conclusions about him, Valentinus and Justin. Each represents a different view based on the facts that Jerusalem had been destroyed and Jesus had not yet returned. Finally she looks at the prolific writings of Origen and Augustine. Both are worthy of examination. Augustine was the last great mind of the early Christian era. The Vandals who had earlier sacked Rome were practically at his door in Hippo as he lay on his deathbed. Nevertheless, his writings survived him and “became a font of subsequent Latin Christian doctrine.” As such, they continue to affect modern definitions of sin and virtue, condemnation and salvation, and the nature of a severe, all-powerful God, etc. Origen also remains important. Starting from the same sources as Augustine, his writings and conclusions represent “a road not taken by the church.” People who enjoy reading about theology, philosophy, language, ideas and early church history will enjoy this book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michael Greer

    John the Baptist called out for repentance. The Kingdom of God "is at hand." Jesus was baptized by John and someone spoke these words: "This is my son with whom I am well pleased." Purity rituals are now called standards of hygiene. Some men come into this world in order to set it right, while the vast majority set it wrong. A sinless man is a stranger to anger. A sinless woman is a stranger to lust. The world is dominated by anger and lust. Where does this leave the sinless man and woman? Paul's John the Baptist called out for repentance. The Kingdom of God "is at hand." Jesus was baptized by John and someone spoke these words: "This is my son with whom I am well pleased." Purity rituals are now called standards of hygiene. Some men come into this world in order to set it right, while the vast majority set it wrong. A sinless man is a stranger to anger. A sinless woman is a stranger to lust. The world is dominated by anger and lust. Where does this leave the sinless man and woman? Paul's message is that all are and should be damned, living in intentional ignorance of a Father who ought to be celebrated. Origen, reversing gears, praises the loving Father who offers salvation to all despite their indifference, which is morally offensive in any case, and their hostility to the Father's authority. Let's set the record straight: The Father dwells in unapproachable light. We live in darkness. Turn toward the light. If you choose to ignore this message, you perish. You can't turn toward the light without the Father's help. Accept that grace is actively involved in your life right now. Everything you know through the senses will perish, only the soul, destined to be reunited with an uncorrupted body, remains. You, reader belong to the community of rational souls. You will inherit the body already provided for you in Eternity. The Sickness Unto Death is a nausea that nonbelievers are plagued with. The journalistic word for such nausea is "despair." All are in despair. Not to be in despair is the most obvious condition of despair. Freedom of choice is what makes the difference. If you can't reform yourself, if you cannot reconstitute your will, then you have chosen to delay your own redemption. Beyond the historical facts reported in this work, lies buried the faith and hope first articulated for us by Origen.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    This lucidly written book reviews the ideas from Jesus to Augustine. Focused on the idea of sin, it provided helped me understand the evolution of Christianity from Judaism. If you are interested in that complex story, this book is a good place to begin.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Marfita

    It took me way too long to read this. The notes were slowing me down, so I saved them until the end (when they don't really make as much sense). The material is very dense and requires too much brainpower from my little grey head. But here are some of my thoughts: The cosmology of the universe showed upper and lower levels, so even the Bible had upper and lower levels of meaning: earthly/bodily meanings and heavenly/spiritual meanings and something inbetween I don't recall because the whole syste It took me way too long to read this. The notes were slowing me down, so I saved them until the end (when they don't really make as much sense). The material is very dense and requires too much brainpower from my little grey head. But here are some of my thoughts: The cosmology of the universe showed upper and lower levels, so even the Bible had upper and lower levels of meaning: earthly/bodily meanings and heavenly/spiritual meanings and something inbetween I don't recall because the whole system is ludicrous. When you read the Bible there are things that are contradictory or difficult to understand due to translations or the passage of time and instead of admitting that they are contradictory or no longer sensible, apologists have to reconcile them and end up twisting themselves into knots over it. Then someone else comes along, decides the last tangle doesn't fit in with their situation or preconceived notions and instead of saying that and positing a better idea, declares the past idea heretical, burns all copies, and anathematizes the originator and anyone who liked the old ideas - unless they are still alive and can be tortured and killed, you know, as a lesson to them and anyone else who can't move forward with the times. We are caught in this quagmire even now, with people entrenching into their own personal interpretations of what someone thought so important in a time so utterly unlike our own. And while after much research and interpretation we might get a handle on what the writers' time was like, our world would be inconceivable to them. Yet we still kill people en masse who don’t think like us and call it Divine Justice, so maybe we haven't changed so much since Bronze Age or Classical Age even if the world itself has changed so much. If we don't actually kill those who think or believe differently, we still anathematize them, and then proudly point out how we at least didn't kill them and how morally superior we are to our more bloodthirsty contemporaries. Then there are those of us who take pride in not anathematizing "heretics." We deign to allow them to live in our communities, but either don't fully accept them or passively exclude them. There are very few who celebrate differences or even make allowances for them. The history of the early Christian Church only points up how easily we slip into this attitude, how easily we can move from the oppressed to the oppressor - and call it Just.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lawrence

    Ms. Frederiksen provides a very interesting and enlightening discussion of seven figures of the ancient Christian past --- Jesus, Paul, Marcion, Valentinian, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Eventually, I was delighted by the information and its presentation. Ms. F provides a fresh interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans. She also provides an overview of the fascinating thinking of ancient Christian "intellectuals", like Justin and Origen. These expositions were simply excellent eye-o Ms. Frederiksen provides a very interesting and enlightening discussion of seven figures of the ancient Christian past --- Jesus, Paul, Marcion, Valentinian, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Eventually, I was delighted by the information and its presentation. Ms. F provides a fresh interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans. She also provides an overview of the fascinating thinking of ancient Christian "intellectuals", like Justin and Origen. These expositions were simply excellent eye-openers. Ms. F., for me, was at her best with Paul and with Origen. I particularly liked the contrasting between Origen's thought and Augustine's. I found Origen's conclusions to be inspiring, but his thought-process alien. On the other hand, I found Augustine's thought-process familiar, and his conclusions dreadful. There is a very nice epilogue in which Ms. F summarizes all that has gone on before --- in case one fears one has lost track even in the course of this relatively small book. Nice work. I feel I should note that this is an academic book and not a pastoral book. Therefore, it is heavy on structure/history of thought, but light on pastoral "stuff". That is, the book is a very nice recap of ancient Christian views of the origin of an imperfect world, salvation, and end times. Sin, of course, may provide the necessity for salvation, but there is not very much here on what sin is in the particular circumstance. Hence, structure without "stuff".

  7. 4 out of 5

    Naomi

    The history of theological development of ideas (yes, doctrines or teachings) can help us better understand our own beliefs and doctrines/teachings, and those of others. Fredriksen's brief overview of seven important Christian thinkers in early Christianity on the understanding of sin - what it is, how it functions, how the beliefs about sin relate to end times, God, and salvation - gives contemporary readers a greater handle on the diversity of beliefs about sin in early Christianity....not unl The history of theological development of ideas (yes, doctrines or teachings) can help us better understand our own beliefs and doctrines/teachings, and those of others. Fredriksen's brief overview of seven important Christian thinkers in early Christianity on the understanding of sin - what it is, how it functions, how the beliefs about sin relate to end times, God, and salvation - gives contemporary readers a greater handle on the diversity of beliefs about sin in early Christianity....not unlike the diversity of beliefs we have today, though what we believe may we very different. By giving us historical context for belief and teaching, Fredriksen gently asks us to locate our own context for our own battling out of what is true and faithful.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jengordon

    Interesting history of the idea of "sin" as it developed from the Jewish "doing something against what the Torah says" to the Christian "the state you're in if you're not 'saved'." The middle chapters about ideas chronologically between Paul and Augustine are a little wishy-washy, mostly because the evidence of what exactly these theologians thought is scanty. They ended up branded heretics and their works burnt, so the details of what they thought? who knows. The material about Augustine vs Ori Interesting history of the idea of "sin" as it developed from the Jewish "doing something against what the Torah says" to the Christian "the state you're in if you're not 'saved'." The middle chapters about ideas chronologically between Paul and Augustine are a little wishy-washy, mostly because the evidence of what exactly these theologians thought is scanty. They ended up branded heretics and their works burnt, so the details of what they thought? who knows. The material about Augustine vs Origen was interesting, and led me to wonder what our modern world would look like, had the Church followed Origen's thinking, rather than Augustine's.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rick Edwards

    Fredriksen does an excellent job of showing the shifting perspectives on human nature, freedom of the will, sin, and the characteristics of God's grace over the first four Christian centuries. She begins with Jesus and Paul, and takes the reader on through the perspectives Valentinus, Marcion, Justin Martyr, Origin, and Augustine. We've all heard these names in our reading of church history and the early development of doctrine. What Fredriksen does is offer them through the primary lens of thei Fredriksen does an excellent job of showing the shifting perspectives on human nature, freedom of the will, sin, and the characteristics of God's grace over the first four Christian centuries. She begins with Jesus and Paul, and takes the reader on through the perspectives Valentinus, Marcion, Justin Martyr, Origin, and Augustine. We've all heard these names in our reading of church history and the early development of doctrine. What Fredriksen does is offer them through the primary lens of their understanding of sin, on the one hand, and divine grace on the other. It's not a long book--a fairly quick read--and was well worth my time.

  10. 4 out of 5

    False

    I should have liked this book, but I didn't, and I'm hard put to say why. I truly felt you would need to write ten other books, to fully comprehend even one paragraph. It isn't that I'm not versed in theology, but the book felt unreadable, and it should have been highly readable. Being academic is fine, but when you can only reach a tiny community in that field, you've missed the mark. Kudos from your university, though. I should have liked this book, but I didn't, and I'm hard put to say why. I truly felt you would need to write ten other books, to fully comprehend even one paragraph. It isn't that I'm not versed in theology, but the book felt unreadable, and it should have been highly readable. Being academic is fine, but when you can only reach a tiny community in that field, you've missed the mark. Kudos from your university, though.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Fred Kohn

    Lots of good material, but it was too disjointed for me. I felt it just leaped from one chapter to the next without much continuity. This book would have been better if the ideas had been fleshed out a little more. I also feel that Fredriksen attributes too much Greek influence to Paul, although her notion that his idea of Christ was influenced by Plato's demiurge is intriguing. Lots of good material, but it was too disjointed for me. I felt it just leaped from one chapter to the next without much continuity. This book would have been better if the ideas had been fleshed out a little more. I also feel that Fredriksen attributes too much Greek influence to Paul, although her notion that his idea of Christ was influenced by Plato's demiurge is intriguing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Austen

    A pretty good introduction to the concept, but only within the first four centuries of the church, this book covers ideas about sin held by seven different people: Jesus, Paul, Valentinus, Marcion, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Overall I found this book to be a very helpful overview! I look forward to delving deeper into this subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Fariba

    Read this book for an intro to the Jewishness of Paul's teachings and the difference between Augustine's and Origen's soteriologies. Very fascinating. The West could do with a bit more Origen I think. Read this book for an intro to the Jewishness of Paul's teachings and the difference between Augustine's and Origen's soteriologies. Very fascinating. The West could do with a bit more Origen I think.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Although I had to breeze through this looking for specific info for a research paper, I found myself wishing I could give it more time. The depth and breadth of the topic of sin is huge, and I think the thinkers and history that shape modern ideas on religion should be more widely understood.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Darrol Pierson

    Although relatively short, still a little repetitious. Good material on Paul, Origen and Augustine.

  16. 5 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

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  17. 5 out of 5

    Denis Felipe

  18. 4 out of 5

    Radu Dorin Micu

  19. 4 out of 5

    Elka

  20. 5 out of 5

    Johan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ted Morgan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jason Fritz

  24. 4 out of 5

    Peter Alberts

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bette

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Anderson

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jim Abbott

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia Daniels-Hall

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jim Sherblom

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alex Cooper

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