Original Sin goes into the Bin (i)

With regard to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, I’m inclined to agree with Professor John J. Collins of Yale Divinity School, that “more than most stories, these chapters have been overlaid with theological interpretations that have little basis in the Hebrew text”. (*) This certainly applies, in my view, to the concept of “original sin”, which continues to surface from time to time. The chief elaborator and advocate of this flawed hypothesis, in the 5th century CE, was the Christian ‘church father’ Augustine but, in fairness to him, this path had undergone previous preparation. 

In the late 1st century CE, in the Jewish book, 4 Ezra, the writer asks, “Oh Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants”. Happily, and perhaps characteristically, there’s an entirely contradictory view in a contemporaneous Jewish book, 2 Baruch, in which the author tells us that, “Adam was responsible for himself only; each one of us is his own Adam”. Well said, that man !

In the Christian context, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 5, climbs onto the bandwagon when he writes, “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all” and “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners”. In his favour, however, Paul was almost certainly not the author of the even worse idea which is found in 1 Tim. 2:14. “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”. A precedent for this further obnoxious notion can be found in the early 2nd century BCE, in the Jewish book of Ben Sira, “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” Now that’s a very heavy burden to so lightly lay on the world’s womenfolk.

I think it is quite certainly the case, that neither of these ideas appear, in the clear light of day, anywhere in the text of Genesis itself. They are interpretations which must presumably be sourced in the preconceptions, predispositions and predilections of their purveyors. Such interpretations constitute confirmations for minds that have already been made up. As ever, it’s easy, in the Bible, to discover whatever we wish to find. 

The question remains, why is this concept of ‘original sin’ not only fallacious but pernicious? To do this justice, space, which is now running out, is needed, so I’ll take this up in my next post, but here are three quotations to be going on with :

Pope Pius X in a 1904 catechism – “Babies dead without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer because, having Original Sin alone, they do not deserve Paradise, but neither do they merit Hell or Purgatory.” Well now, isn’t that a welcome relief ?!

The 18th-century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke – “Guilt was never a rational thing; it distorts all the faculties of the human mind, it perverts them, it leaves a man no longer in the free use of his reason, it puts him into confusion.” Guilt also gives power to those who choose to exploit it for their own ends.

The late Bishop John Shelby Spong – “The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.” Hallelujah for Darwin (and Spong)!

To be continued …..

(*) Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. John J. Collins. Fortress Press. 2004.

4 responses to “Original Sin goes into the Bin (i)”

  1. The writer on the one hand approves of mythology; on the other he hurrahs Bishop Spong who from his quotation s incapable of understanding what mythology is. He treats the Genesis story as if it purports ridiculously to be an actual historical account; praising Darwin who has nothing to say as far as I know of man as one who seeks significance in meaning. Spong’s obsession is to refute Biblical literalists but in fact his reading is as one dimensional as their’s . The virtue of this piece was in annoying me sufficiently to get me to listen to Dr jordan Peterson- an agnostic- in his Genesis lectures. It is a pity the writer here has not considered him for this series. In Peterson there is deep respect for myth and no scorn of interptretation which is of course inevitable with any writing of the kind of depth of significance he shows.. Peterson knows that the search for meaning is essential to the development of consciousness; he shows how the Genesis myth has all to do with the arousal of man from animal unconsciousness to consciousness of his vulnerability, of the future of separation, alienation and loss. Do these define “original sin”perhaps in their effects they do.


    1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be doing here what occasionally appears to me to be the case – you make a sweeping, negative assumption about someone based on some particular thing they’ve written or said – in this case, apparently, a quote from Bishop Spong. The latter was a highly intelligent, highly erudite, and much loved and respected Christian leader over a period of around 50 years. Anyone who has read some of his books, and listened to some of his lectures, will know that he has a clear and accurate understanding of what mythology is – perhaps a better understanding than some of his critics.
      He lived, of course, in the USA, where biblical literalism, though thankfully declining, is still the view held by a significant percentage of the population, so it is, in my view, entirely appropriate for him to present an alternative view, and I was sorry to see the way in which you seem to dismiss, with “annoyance”, both the man and his message. I think both merit greater respect than that. You describe him as a man who displays “obsession” in what he writes. All of us, including you and I, should examine our own writing, particularly perhaps around things that “annoy” us, to see if the same might be true of ourselves.
      May I also just say that “man” is not separable from “animal” – we are all animals, and to say that our fellow animals are “unconscious” seems to me to be defining that term in such a narrow way that it might well seem to demonstrate the ‘speciesism’ that we recently talked about. In 2012, a group of neuroscientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which “unequivocally” asserted that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neural substrates.” Just as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘scientism’ continue to need to be argued against, so does “exceptionalism”. It serves well, in my view, neither ourselves nor our fellow creatures. It should follow, I think, original sin into the bin.


  2. Well I did the arguing on “exceptionalism” in a previous post of mine that i think you went along with in the main: ie Man lives in a Mythological Universe”. Not that I was clever enough to think up the argument but I followed wise thinkers in doing so. Perhaps Iam sweeping on Spong. I remember you recommended him once so I got a book of his on Kindle and it was the kind of haranguing displayed in the quotation. We can of course line up our list of impressive thinkers: mine obviously would be radically different from yours. However I did put forward a thinker who had thought very deeply about the mythological implications of the whole Genesis story (Ch 1-11)-a Jungian indeed. His argument is of a depth I do not see reflected in Spong’s summing up which if adequate to his argument as a whole seems to me to reflect a kind of smug moderrnism. I would very much like to see you deal with what Dr Peterson has to say.


    1. I’ve watched a good number of videos of Bishop Spong addressing Christian congregations and mixed audiences, as well as debates with conservative colleagues, and I simply don’t recognise the accuracy of the word “haranguing”. I see and hear someone who is a model of courtesy and mutual respect when dealing with views other than his own, and who carefully and patiently develops his own ideas with clarity and good humour. I wonder if you are allowing your dislike of his point of view to inappropriately colour your view of the man himself. That’s not for me to decide, but I certainly feel that you do a good man an injustice as far as “haranguing” is concerned.
      To me, one of the joys and richness of myth is, that like great art of all kinds, it can be approached and interpreted in a wide variety of ways, and returned to, again and again, for fresh ‘revelations’. I read and listen to Peterson and, while not always agreeing with him, find him stimulating and challenging. Some people who don’t agree with him might well accuses him of “haranguing”, but I wouldn’t go along with that. His ideas fire him up, and good for him. He comes at myth from an angle that is grounded in psychiatry and analytical psychology, hence his references to Freud and Jung. Other people come, equally legitimately, from other angles. Let’s learn from all of them.
      Although I make references to Bishop Spong, I don’t do ‘book’ or ‘lecture’ or ‘debate’ reviews on him, and won’t be doing any on Jordan Peterson. My blog posts are about my ongoing formulation of my own ideas, however much indebted I am to all those who have helped fill my ‘reservoir’ of life reading and hearing. And the fact that I am limited to 500 – 750 words means that each post has many things that haven’t been written about, in addition to those that have. Rome can only be built one day at a time.


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