Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How the Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth

by Alan F. Segal

(Columbia University Press, 2012), 296 pp., $29.50 (paperback)

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

by Paula Fredriksen

(Princeton University Press, 2012), 220 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Brian E. Daley, S.J.

Referring to sin in the title of a new book is a sure way to attract interest and perhaps even to sell copies; it raises at least the suspicion that there is something deliciously dangerous between its covers. Both these volumes may disappoint the reader looking for sensational material. Each is a sophisticated survey, by an outstanding scholar of the Biblical epoch, of ancient religious and literary questions, aimed at an educated but non-specialist audience; each shows the maturing effect of years spent in the classroom, explaining, clarifying and synthesizing; each is perhaps more a distillation of what respectable contemporary scholarship has to offer on the subject, than a bold expedition into new territory. As such, each is perhaps more useful—but less daring—than its title might suggest.

Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, the posthumously published volume by Alan Segal (1945–2011), professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College, is really not a treatise on Biblical views of human wickedness so much as a gracefully written introduction to the narrative contents of the Hebrew Bible. After a brief opening chapter summarizing contemporary scholarly approaches to the growth and cohesion of the Biblical text, Segal takes several of the more shocking stories of gross misbehavior by some of the Bible’s protagonists—Abraham’s offering of his wife Sarah for sexual exploitation to local chieftains on the pretext that she is his “sister”; Aaron’s encouragement of the people at Sinai to worship a Golden Calf; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the story of the Levite’s murder of his concubine in Judges 19; Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in fulfilment of his vow; and several episodes of sexual dalliance by members of the Davidic family—as starting points for an examination of how story functions in the Hebrew tradition, and how the present canonical collection of writings is shaped by the theological and moral concerns of exilic and Second Temple redactors. Segal’s underlying thesis is that the “terrible stories” of the Biblical narrative seem to be used to reinforce allusions and warnings that are found scattered through the earlier prophetic books; they serve as myths—“oft-told tales”—within a larger national saga of fidelity and infidelity to the covenant with the Lord that was the foundation of Israel’s identity, despite all its national fragility, for more than a thousand years. The author’s interest is not so much in the crimes reported, or in the divine acts of justice they provoke, as in the national self-understanding they help to embody: shocking emblems of what it meant to be in formation as the Lord’s own people.

Segal’s way of reading these ancient scandals critically as a historian is to analyze their use in the redactional units that modern Biblical scholars have been able to identify—tentatively at least—in the canonical text, and to offer in counterpoint the results of archaeological, epigraphic and textual historical research that provide a context for the Biblical narrative. The book that results is a clear, engaging, yet slightly offbeat survey of our knowledge of Israelite history and literature since the work of Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth and William Foxwell Albright. It could serve well as a concise and readable text for an introductory course on the Hebrew Bible at the collegiate or graduate level.

Sin, by Paula Fredriksen, deals more frontally with the theme its title invokes. Fredriksen is an emerita professor of Boston University and an expert on early Christian theology and scriptural interpretation, particularly on the thought of Augustine. This short book is based on her Spencer Trask Lectures given at Princeton in 2010 and—like Segal’s work—makes no claim at comprehensiveness or original investigation. It is a work of learned, well-informed synthesis and interpretation, surveying the transformations of a religious understanding of human misbehavior and its possible healing within the continuous yet richly varied tradition of late Second Temple Judaism and the first four centuries of Christianity.

Although she looks at other religious figures, such as Philo and John the Baptist, in passing, Fredriksen approaches her subject by considering mainly the understanding of sin—as far as we can reconstruct it—of seven figures whose influence on the formation of the Christian tradition was decisive: Jesus of Nazareth, who seems to have shared the late Jewish view of sin as impurity incurred by human disobedience, to be purified by rituals and temple sacrifice; Paul, who interprets both the continuing validity of Jewish law and the opportunity for the salvation of pagan Gentiles through the blood of Jesus in the strictly apocalyptic context of the approaching end of things; Valentinus, who read the Biblical story of creation and fall as cloaking a more conspiratorial narrative and read the Christian gospel of salvation in terms of a body-soul dualism not unlike that of Plato; Marcion of Sinope, who expanded that dualism into a spiritualized moralism that totally rejected Jewish law and practice; Justin, who emphatically accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as relevant to Christian faith but interpreted their meaning as pointing simply to the redemption of the world from sin by Jesus; Origen, the influential third-century exegete, who optimistically saw in the Biblical narrative hints of a primordial “fall of souls” from contemplative union with God, and of the eventual salvation of all spiritual creatures through the teaching of Jesus; and Augustine, whose darker reading of Scripture concludes that all human beings have inherited the debilitating results of their first ancestors’ sin, and deserve eternal condemnation, but that some—through faith in Christ and membership in his Church—will be saved by God’s gracious, unpredictable intervention to reshape the human heart.

Fredriksen’s book is engaging, abundantly documented and elegantly written—though its prose, generously spiced with French phrases, can be a trifle pretentious at times. Her aim is not so much to offer a coherent view of ancient understandings of sin and redemption, with all its variations, as a developing theological theme, as to demonstrate “that ancient ideas of sin—as modern ideas of sin—are, like all human products, culturally constructed.” Diversity of viewpoint, and suspicion toward any narrative of a developing Christian orthodoxy, are (perhaps predictably) emphasized. Puzzlingly, Fredriksen suggests at the end that her main point “is not to argue that the idea of ‘sin’ requires an idea of ‘God.’” One wonders, then, what the basis of using the category is, or how the language of sin might point to something tragically different from civil crime, nonconformity, or simple unpleasantness. Smart and informative as her survey is, Fredriksen—much more than Segal—leaves the reader wondering, in fact, whether her ancient authors offer the modern reader any substantial message at all.

Brian E. Daley, S.J. is the Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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