It was once said of President Calvin Coolidge, a perfunctory churchgoer and notoriously short-spoken, that when questioned by his wife about the theme of the sermon he had just heard, he answered in one word: “Sin.” When asked to elaborate on what the preacher had said, all he vouchsafed was: “He was against it.”
Paula Fredriksen’s vivid little book is calculated to make even the most inert churchgoer sit up. In three chapters she traces the history of the idea of sin in the first centuries of Christianity. She does this by taking major figures from each century and expounding their distinctive notions of sin: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul for the first chapter; Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr for the second chapter; Origen and Augustine for the third chapter.
They make a strong cast of characters. Some, like Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Paul, and Saint Augustine, need no introduction. But Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr (who flourished around the middle of the second century), and even the great Origen (who lived half a century later) belong to a Christianity that is deeply unfamiliar to most modern people. Justin Martyr was accepted as orthodox by later generations of Christians. But several of the others came to be considered as heretics. Marcion was condemned for treating the Jewish past as irrelevant to Christianity. Valentinus regarded the universe as a vast mistake, caused by the rebellion of envious supernatural powers. Origen’s enemies claimed that he had castrated himself in his enthusiasm for the ascetic life, and that he was prepared to believe that even the Devil would be saved.
In particular, those who wrote in the Greek East in the second and third centuries CE were a remarkable group. They were fierce intellectuals, engaged in teaching intense coteries of disciples. They were deeply engagé, and often at considerable risk. Justin was martyred because he was denounced as a Christian by a rival teacher of philosophy. Origen was the son of a martyr. When he was a boy he wished to follow his father, and his mother had to hide his clothes to prevent him from running out to defy the pagan authorities. Many years later he would die (in 254) as a direct result of the mistreatment that he had received in prison for his beliefs.
In her presentation of these persons, Fredriksen goes for the big picture. For her, sin is not a set of actions to be castigated or exonerated. Rather, sin is a situation thrown into high relief by the emergence of fierce hopes of deliverance and redemption. Her book is “about what people are redeemed from.” An entire world is involved: What is the nature of the bondage from which humanity craves deliverance? What is the means of gaining that freedom? Above all, how much new freedom can be gained? How much of the old world …