Sin: The Early History of an Idea (NOTE: McCosh Hall 10)
October 9, 10, 11, 2007 – 8:00 p.m. Spencer Trask Lecture, cosponsored by Princeton University Press
Jesus of Nazareth announced that God was about to redeem the world. Some 450 years later, the church taught that the far greater part of humanity was eternally condemned. The early community began by preserving the memory and the message of Jesus; within decades of his death, some Christians asserted that Jesus had never had a fleshly human body at all. The church that insisted that Jewish scriptures were Christian scriptures also insisted that the god who said “Be fruitful and multiply” actually meant, “Be sexually continent”. Some four centuries after Paul’s death, his conviction that “All Israel will be saved” served to support the Christian conviction that the Jews were damned. What accounts for the great variety of these and other ancient Christian teachings? The short answer is the following: dramatic mutations in ancient Christian ideas about sin. In the gospels, sin’s remedy is repentance, immersions, prayer, and sacrifice, we are still in the world of Late Second Temple Judaism. In Augustine’s writings, only God is sin’s remedy. People can repent, but God alone decides whose repentance to accept. And between these two extremes we see “sin” invoked as a way to account for an astounding range of things, from the physical structure of the universe to the grammatical structure of a sentence.
These three lectures provide an aerial survey of the vibrant vitality of the idea of sin in the first Christian centuries. Come see how an impulsive bite of fruit came to explain absolutely everything else, from the death of God’s son to the power politics of the empire that eventually worshiped him.
Lecture 1: God, Blood, and the Temple (Philo, John the Immerser, Jesus, Paul, Josephus)
Lecture 2: Flesh and the Devil (Gospel of John, Valentinus, Thecla, Origen)
Lecture 3: A Rivalry of Genius (Origen and Augustine on Paul)