Book Reviews

Paula Fredriksen, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 209pp.Paula Fredriksen, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 209pp.

           Paula Fredriksen (b. 1951) is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She's best known for her studies in ancient Christianity, and in particular for her emphasis on the Jewish context of the historical Jesus (she's also a convert to Judaism from Catholicism). This book originated in her 2007 Spencer Trask Lectures at Princeton University. It's a technical book written in an academic style, even though it's intended for a general audience. And she admits that it's about ideas of sin rather than the tragic experience of sin. The three chapters of the book explore "the dramatic mutations in Christian ideas about sin" in seven thinkers in whom we see "evolutionary jumps," "disjunctures," or "flash points."

           Chapter 1 considers Jesus and Paul. Jesus's mission was almost exclusively to Jews, and so he understood sin as violations of the covenant and Mosaic law. Paul, ministering to pagan Gentiles, construed sin as idolatry. Chapter 2 considers three Gentile theologians of the second century — Valentinus, Marcion, and Justin Martyr. Chapter 3 then examines two of the most brilliant thinkers in the entire history of the church, Origen and Augustine. For Origen, all will be saved. For Augustine, all should be damned, although in God's inscrutable will a minority will be saved from the "mass of perdition" (99).

           In a short epilogue (135–150), Fredriksen summarizes this "staccato history of early Christian ideas about sin." She then considers contemporary applications to American culture, lamenting how we downplay human agency and responsibility with our excuses and explanations. We might admit to mistakes, but rarely to sin or sins. We're happy to get therapy but can't imagine the repentance that Jesus invited with his announcement that God's kingdom was at hand. On the last page, she concludes with the obligatory scholarly trope that her "main point" is that all ideas about God, sin and redemption are culturally constructed, and understood by "historically embedded human interpreters." And so she concludes, "historical context arbitrates meaning. At the end of the day, however defined, 'sin' suits its time" (150).