BMCR 2022.12.17

The origin of sin: Greece and Rome, early Judaism and Christianity

, The origin of sin: Greece and Rome, early Judaism and Christianity. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781350278585 $81.00.

“The argument of this short book is easy to state: sin begins with the Bible. And, in one sense, it ends there” (viii). Much depends on how sin is defined, and that is the book’s true subject matter. In a nutshell, it was not sin in any general or familiar sense that began and ended with the Bible—both the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh and the New Testament. It was a particular meaning of sin, one which was bound up with the possibility of forgiveness. In the Hebrew Bible, this meaning attaches to the Hebrew word ḥaṭa’ and “typically involves an offense against God’s insistence on exclusive loyalty; he punishes any hint of regard for other gods, but is prepared to redeem those who have strayed, provided that they confess their sin and humbly acknowledge the justice of their punishment” (37); only members of the covenant can commit and repent this form of sin. That changes in the New Testament, where the Greek word hamartia is argued to refer specifically to lack of belief (pistis) in Christ’s divinity and corrected through conversion rather than atonement (e.g., pp. 117-118). There are exceptions, of course, and alternative interpretations, for which the author refers readers to “virtually any commentary on the Bible” (xi). In order to demonstrate his argument, however, that particular meanings of sin both began and ended with the Bible, Konstan takes a broadly chronological approach, starting with non-Biblical texts and concluding with late antique Christian and Jewish exegetes.

Classical authors, whose texts serve here as proxies for pagan beliefs and practices, had plenty of words for failing, missing the mark, or transgressing norms, be they human or divine. Chapter 1, “The Greco-Roman World: The Unwritten Laws of the Gods,” focuses mainly on the Greek word hamartia and its variants, and to a lesser extent on Latin peccatum. Even when the gods or their laws were involved, the meaning was always closer to error or transgression than to sin, particularly if we associate sin with guilt, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness, which Konstan has investigated in Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), turn out to be crucial components of sin’s origin in this book.[1] When classical authors used hamartia or peccatum, they didn’t mean what authors of the Hebrew Bible usually meant when they used ḥaṭa’ and its variants. The difference wasn’t simply reducible to the lack or presence of repentance and forgiveness, either. Chapter 2, “The Hebrew Bible: Chasing after Foreign Gods,” traces the rise of a particular meaning of sin that pertained only to Jews who betrayed the covenant through idolatry. In this sense, sin was part of a “tripartite script” along with confession and pardon (59), whereby the sinner returned to God. Repentance was key here, but not for long. Jesus, the Evangelists, and for the most part Paul effectively rewrote the script, replacing confession with faith and idolatry with faithlessness. Instead of repenting sins, argues chapter 3, “The New Testament: Jesus’ Sense of Sin,” Jesus’s followers were called to convert to trust in him and his miracles. The final chapter, “The Church Fathers and the Rabbis: The Transformation of Sin,” shows how both these meanings of sin particular to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and discussed in chapters 2 and 3 were quickly abandoned if not forgotten. Christian and Jewish rabbinic writers alike found other sins than idolatry or disbelief in miracles to be more urgently in need of attention and correction, while repentance returned as an important component of spiritual life for individuals and whole communities. Thanks to those writers’ shift of focus away from what Konstan argues to be its principal scriptural meaning, “scholars and theologians” ever since “have failed to identify […] the original meaning of sin” (viii), until now.

Konstan is very clear that this short book is not intended as an exhaustive historical or theological account of sin’s origin, despite its title and overall structure. He is not addressing the varied meanings of sin in relation to “actual events” (55) or “the ambient world” (127) or exploring “the important theological implications” (159) of his findings. Instead, he often reminds the reader that his focus is far narrower. In “A Final Word,” for example, Konstan writes that “this book is rather an exercise in philology, a study of words” (159-160). This is a fair description. The method throughout is one of “accumulation” (51), adducing long series of passages from the texts (with occasional, humorous apologies for trying the reader’s patience), usually quoted directly in translation and often at length, that can be interpreted in a way that supports the author’s point. As much as possible, he tries “to allow the texts to speak for themselves,” even when the circumstances of their composition and transmission are complex and contested (xi-xiii). He refers more often to modern dictionaries, lexicons, and commentaries on the Bible than to recent scholarly literature on sin. This literature he chooses not to engage, because he does not think such scholars pay attention to the “special sense of sin in the Bible” that he believes to be its true but forgotten meaning (xi). Whether that is a fair characterization of the scholarship is left for readers to determine, if they choose. In that way this is not a very scholarly book, even though it is full of scholarly learning and insight. Perhaps it will inspire more careful and systematic studies, either to support or challenge its central thesis. On its own, this book is a good reminder to anyone who needs it that the most familiar words and concepts can sometimes be the most easily misunderstood.



[1] A glaring omission here is Laurel Fulkerson’s No Regrets: Remorse in Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),