Question: Is original sin a biblical doctrine?

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Question: Is original sin a biblical doctrine?

Many authors have noted that the modern doctrine of "original sin" is at variance with much of both the Old and New Testament

James Barr wrote:

Our ideas about the origin of evil have an effect on our ideas about humanity and its potentialities and limitations in the present-day world” (59-60)...

For the traditional Christian conception of the origins of evil, the dominant passages are in St. Paul [Rom 5.12; 5.18; I Cor 15.21-22, 47, 49]….

The most noticeable thing about them is the stress they throw upon the disobedience of Adam…. Its effect was instant and completely catastrophic. There is no matter of degree or development. The slightest sin was total and universal in its effect: sin, it seems, completely, and not partially, altered man’s relation to God…. Later theologians worked out, on this basis, the doctrine of original sin” (60-1).

“All this has been the familiar and traditional Christian position. It is so familiar, so deeply implanted in our traditions, that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is after all a rather rare emphasis within the New Testament itself; and, in particular, it is an emphasis that seems to be lacking from the teaching of Jesus himself….

There is no doctrine of original sin to be found in Jesus’ teaching…. And, if it is not in Jesus’ teaching, it is equally absent from many other parts of the New Testament…. It is intrinsically Pauline” (61-2).

“Nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is the disobedience of Adam and Eve cited as explanation for sin or evil in the world. This reference…simply does not occur…. The Old Testament, far from taking the universal sinfulness of man as an obvious and ineluctable fact, seems rather, taken as a whole, to insist upon the possibility of avoiding sin” (67).

“The main Jewish tradition, as we know it since the Middle Ages, has refused to accept any sort of doctrine of original sin…. Moral problems are serious choices for the Jew, and they are serious choices because one has freedom to sin or not to sin. There is indeed the idea of the two yesers, formations or inclinations, the good and the bad, both of which are implanted in man and between which he has to choose…. Adam, like the other men of the first beginnings, was often regarded with admiration: he was a very great man. As Ben Sira put it, looking back over the worthies of the Bible who should be remembered: ‘Shem and Seth were honored among men but Adam is above every living being in the creation’ [Ecclesiasticus 49.16]” ;(68). “all this then raises the serious question: was St. Paul really at all right in his understanding the story of Adam and Eve as the cataclysmic entrance of sin and death?” (69). [1]

A better question may be, is the understanding of St. Paul adopted by the western Christian tradition actually correct? Where did this reading of Paul come from? Why would "Paul's" conception of original sin vary so profoundly from both the Jewish and New Testament tradition?

Interestingly, it all starts with one man, well after the death of Jesus and the apostles—Augustine of Hippo.

Notes

  1. James Barr, “The Authority of Scripture. The Book of Genesis and the Origin of Evil in Jewish and Christian Tradition,” in Christian Authority: Essays in Honor of Henry Chadwick, ed. G.R. Evans (Oxford, 1988), 59-75. Italics added; citations from pages as indicated.