by Paula Fredriksen
Reviewed by John Cowan
The second question is, “Is this a very good book?” My answer is
“Certainly!” This is the second book I have read by Paula and it carries all
of the characteristics of the first. I was charmed by the first. Looking for one
word it is: “Lucid!”
She covers sin briefly in the Jewish scriptures, which was not sin in our
sense of the word, but impurity. Which impurity could be cleansed through
rituals and sacrifices. A brief time on Jesus and Paul, particularly Paul’s
letter to the Romans, and then on to the early years in the Second Century
and then to the years when Christianity was nearly Christianity in the
Fourth Century. On the way introducing us to Valentinus, Marcion and
Justin Martyr and with a flourish wrapping up with Origen and Augustine.
She prefers giving us a few characters in depth rather than a shallow
painting of many. Some reviewers do not like this. Most apparently do like it
since they do not mention it. I like it. I prefer anchoring my learning in a few
people. Somehow the hook sinks deeper.
The nature of sin varies from the Jewish scriptures to our own day, but
throughout this so also does the concept of sin influence every concept
from the nature of the universe to the nature of humans to the nature of
But this is not the first question. The first question is, “Why do you want to
read about “sin?” Is not sin passe ? For those of us who believe in no
God? Or even those of us who are Pantheists or Panentheists?
I suspect a feeling of sin lingers on even for those most radically
disconnected from the moral atmosphere that prompted this history-long
study in the first place. The hedonist for instance, who while in the eyes of
people with my upbringing is filled with sin, simply sees him or herself as
fulfilling the will of God, that she or he be happy.
As a Panentheist I recognize that while my God is unlikely to be offended
by my actions there are actions that do not suit God’s purpose and that I
should and do regret. I still believe my purpose is to aid God, not thwart
him. Why do I believe that? Sister Mary Thomas told me so. And perhaps
more importantly, it rang true. It works for the same reason swimming
against the current creates more hardship than swimming with it.
One unexpected benefit for me was the correction of ideas I have held a
very long time. For instance, I was taught that Augustine was a hero, and
Origen a numskull. Origen came first and Augustine was born a century
after Origen’s death. Origen was a heretic and I should delight that his
heresy was stamped out. Augustine was a Saint, canonized for that matter
which made it official, and he deserves veneration.
Paula tells me Augustine thought God would save only a few. Unbaptized
babies among other innocents, such as any unbaptized person, were hell
Paula tells me Origen thought nobody was going to hell. We were put on
earth to work out our place in heaven. Do lots of good and we will be
parked on easy street. Do none and we will still be in heaven. Ultimately it
is God’s fault that we are who we are. He likes us anyway. How could he
Nice to get that one straightened out. Solves many problems posed by the
Augustinian position. The problem of evil, for instance. I never did like
Augustine all that much. (However I have here a golden nugget, shared by
Frank Sheed of Sheed and Ward, in a recorded talk back in the day.
Augustine comes off as a bit of a twit as he writes about his adolescent
theft of pears from a pear tree. What is so terrible about that? What is
terrible is that he does not like pears. Did not desire the pears, but wanted
to steal something and cause pain. Been waiting for decades for a chance
to share that. Why has no one asked?)
I recommend this book for others similar to me who made it through the
study of the early Church with little understanding or at least little
understanding that perdured to this day and have reason to appreciate a
deft guide to that time.
Other than that, with the present day realization that character is a product
of the luck of the draw emerging from environment, heritage, education,
relationships, finances, et al., I am less confident that SIN in capital letters
exists, or ever existed. That might explain why willingly Jesus hung out with
sinners. He did not see them that way. The people who angered him were
the self-aggrandizing good guys.
If Origen were here to update his theory, he might point out that a guy born
from a drug addicted mother and an alcoholic father in a crowded high rise
filled with other people struggling to stay alive got an easier street in
heaven despite his own mob affiliations than I, who had a much softer road.
Besides at age seventeen he was killed in a drive-by shooting by
somebody who thought he was wearing another gang’s colors when it was
the sweatshirt his mother got from Goodwill for his birthday.
I do not even begrudge him heavenly good fortune. He earned it! He
carried a heavy cross I did not.
I like Origen.
I like Paula Fredriksen.
I like SIN. (The book.)