Nonfiction Books » History Books » Religious History Books

The best books on Sin

recommended by Paula Fredriksen

Tortured by the sins of your past? Or contemplating new ones? The historian of ancient Christianity recommends five books to understand the role of sin in Christian thought.

Buy all books

Before we look at your five book choices, how would you define sin?

I think three elements recur in discussions about sin. The first is a human moral agent. The second is some sort of revealed standard of behaviour. And in the West, of course, the third component is God – “sin” would be the human violation of a divine command. But modernity isn’t antiquity. “God” is a concept that’s been out of focus in Western culture since Nietzsche, and in modern Western democracies legislation draws on traditions other than the Bible. The civil idea of “crime” is quite different from the religious idea of “sin”. And, of course, depending on your point of view, something can be a crime without being a sin, and a sin without being a crime.

In the modern Western context, sin doesn’t have the clarity that it did in an ancient context, though different ancient cultures did not always share the same view. For example, ancient Christians and ancient Jews might consider homosexuality a sin, but for majority culture it was an unremarkable behaviour. Until quite recently such a sexual preference was considered criminal – actually against state law, in the US – and now, of course, same-sex marriages are legal, in some states. And some people on the contemporary political spectrum still consider such sexual preference as sinful, and wish it were criminal. “Sin” nowadays is very contextual and perspectival.

Well, for the context of this interview your five book choices relate to a monotheist system and those ideas about sin. Let’s start with God: A Biography, by Jack Miles, which tries to define what sort of “person” God might be.

This is not a book of theology or a book of biblical criticism – it’s a brilliant literary and psychoanalytically informed thought experiment. Miles treats the arc of biblical writings in their Jewish sequence (the order of books in the Christian Old Testament is different). He reads from Genesis to Second Chronicles, interpreting these texts as if they formed one continuous narrative tracing the trajectory of “God’s” personality development. As “God” interacts with humanity in general, and with Israel in particular, his “personality” grows and changes in startling ways.

What does this book say about God’s attitude to sin?

Miles actually makes a more interesting statement. His main character, “God,” is himself a sinner – unstable, brooding, given to grand gestures of generosity as well as to terrifying fits of violence. Miles’s “God” is a creator, a destroyer, a warrior, a father, a mother – too much to pack into one stable character. And at the very end of his book, Miles unravels what he has done, sorting out these various aspects of “God’s” personality and assigning them to different individual ancient Semitic gods. All the dramatic tension of biblical narrative disappears. And Miles, by letting this divine character dissolve into polytheism, is also able to dissolve the problem of evil.


The creator god of traditional Western monotheism is all good and all-powerful. So why is the world that he made so bad? The problem of evil is the problem of defending this definition of “god” in the face of so much evil. When you have multiple gods, the problem dissolves, because no single god is in charge, thus no single god is responsible. But Miles also plays with a different idea: What happens if “God” himself is morally flawed? If he himself is morally defective? You don’t have to be a theist to find the idea absolutely terrifying. And as an explanation for evil, it’s terrifying.

But do you think it’s plausible?

That would be a theological question: I do not know the mind of God! But Miles’s book is not theology – it is an incredibly imaginative meditation on not only the issue of sin, but also the problem of evil.

Let’s move on to Peter Brown’s seminal book, Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine is the architect of the Western Christian idea of Original Sin. He lived in the late fourth to early fifth century, but his ideas cast a very long shadow over medieval and even over modern culture. I have been fascinated listening to some of the current American debate about federal funding for contraception. Some opponents of such funding take positions that seem to me to be avatars of Augustine’s.

How do they connect?

Through the idea that sexual activity is intrinsically bound up in sin, and must at all costs be monitored and controlled. According to Augustine, pleasure itself is an index of sin. He had a very austere philosophical concept of the human body and how it should behave, were it not for Original Sin. This idea that sexual intercourse is an intrinsically morally compromised activity, and that only procreation excuses it, has lasted down through the centuries – and it gets sounded particularly during American election years! Much of this idea of sexuality and sinfulness being part of the same package traces back in many ways to Augustine.

Presumably this came from his reading of Genesis.

Yes, he looked at the story of the Garden of Eden. As soon as Adam and Eve taste the fruit they realise they are naked and cover up their private parts. Augustine gives a brilliant blow-by-blow description of this moment in City of God, where he explains how Adam’s body, up until that point, had been completely under the control of Adam’s mind. And all of a sudden, the moment that Adam transgresses the commandment not to eat the fruit, he gets an involuntary erection – that’s Augustine’s gloss. And, Augustine continues, the fact that the erection is involuntary is itself shame-producing. And yet, he continues, that lack of control is now necessary for every act of conception. This is how, from generation to generation, and in this precise way, Original Sin is passed on. It is a sexually transmitted fatal disease – or at least, that is how Augustine saw it!

Brown’s biography presents these ideas, but Brown does so while relating a life story that lets us understand Augustine, to sympathise with Augustine and even – perhaps despite ourselves, and despite some of Augustine’s theological positions – to like and to respect Augustine. That’s great writing.

And it’s amazing to think that those views persist to this day and can influence public policy. As well as choosing Brown’s biography of Augustine, you’ve also decided to put one of Augustine’s own works on your list – Confessions. How does this work help our understanding of sin and evil?

This is a very complex book. It’s actually a book about God more than it is about Augustine himself. Only about 60% of the book is what we think of as the Confessions, the autobiographical part. The rest of the book contains meditations about time and eternity, and about how to read the first verses of the Book of Genesis. But if you can look through or put aside all the fourth-century philosophy, Confessions still has this bright thread of amazing autobiographical reflection running through it.

The author is a man in early middle age who looks back on his life and narrates his story to God – who, of course, knows all about it already. For the reader it’s somewhat like crashing a session of classic psychoanalytic therapy: Augustine speaks, God just listens, and we overhear. Augustine brilliantly describes the dynamics of hindsight. When he was young he thought he was doing one thing, now that he looks back he realises that something else entirely was actually at stake. At the time he thought he knew what he was doing, but now he is baffled by his own lack of understanding.

I think that’s something many of us can relate to, looking back at our teenage years. But what kinds of things was he doing?

As a young professor he made a choice to go from Carthage, where his appointment was, to Rome and then to Milan. At the time he thought he was doing it for his career. In retrospect, he understands, as he puts it, that God was pulling him closer to Himself – to that moment of conversion in Milan. He explores the idea that we are opaque even to ourselves, and that we only really understand ourselves long afterwards, retrospectively. His ideas are still fresh all these centuries later.

And are there any examples of sin that he’s meditating on?

Yes, there’s a remarkable scene, very deftly sketched. He talks about stealing pears as a boy. He says that the fruit wasn’t particularly good, that it didn’t taste very good, and that none of them, this gang of young adolescent boys, really wanted the pears. They end up throwing the stolen fruit to pigs. But what Augustine focuses on is teenage male gang psychology: “If I were alone,” he says, “I never would have done this.” It was just the opportunity to do something together that they all knew was wrong, and that they were therefore all irresistibly drawn to. They would have been ashamed in front of each other not to do it. Augustine goes on to wonder what is it about human society that makes us want to sin when we are part of a social group, even though we know it’s wrong. He also says that he sinned knowingly simply for the pleasure of sinning – itself a frightening thought.

Your next choice takes us away from antiquity to World War II. What does Herman Wouk’s book War and Remembrance tell us about changing attitudes to sin?

Wouk writes an enormous panoramic novel about World War II. War and Remembrance is the second half of this two-volume novel – the first half is The Winds of War. He gathers a cast of characters who lead the reader across continents into different theatres of the conflict. His prose is very clear and unsentimental as he narrates one horror after another. This war really was a global convulsion, and not that long ago. Then suddenly, halfway through the second volume, a main character gives an amazing soliloquy, set in one of the Nazi camps. It’s a lecture on Job, delivered to a group of Jews the night before many of them will be deported to Auschwitz.

This character calls God down to judgement, the way that the biblical Job did. He urges that unless humanity is in some kind of dialogue with God, there is no possibility of transcendence and no possibility of justice. It’s a very religious moment in the novel and a very moving moment. And then the scene ends and Wouk moves on. God doesn’t show up again until the last couple of paragraphs of the novel. In his finale, Wouk plays with the idea of fiction and history, saying that none of his characters really existed – but that 50 million real people did die in the war. And then he ends by summoning his readers with a call to justice, to moral behaviour, the way his character earlier on had done. God doesn’t show up much in modern fiction. Wouk very deftly and briefly conjures the character, to great effect.

And gives us some horrific modern-day examples of evil and sin.

Finally, you’ve chosen Carlo Levi’s intriguing book, Christ Stopped at Eboli.

This is such a beautiful memoir. Levi was in political exile for a year under Mussolini, sent to a very impoverished town in the south of Italy. Levi himself is from Turin – aristocratic, well educated, left-leaning politically, very urban and urbane. This tiny dusty town shocks him, both its poverty and its class structure. Its bourgeoisie exploits the peasants, who toil throughout the book, always dressed in black, as if mourning their own lives. They are unthinkably poor and constantly labouring. Meanwhile the church is the preserve of the bourgeoisie and the peasants are not really involved in Christianity. They deal with the evil in their lives by practising ancient magic. No sense of responsibility bridges the gap between these two worlds coexisting in the same stony space.

What does Levi think about it?

He has some medical training. He ends up serving as a doctor for the town, but especially for the peasants. In this way, to my mind, he works a kind of cross-class penance – despite his “high” class, he takes responsibility. Levi’s title, too, is particularly brilliant, because Eboli is a town some 80 miles to the north of Gagliano, his place of exile. Gagliano is so lost in time and so trapped in its own poverty that even Christ couldn’t reach it.

Why didn’t the bourgeoisie want everyone involved in the church, because traditionally everyone in a small village gets involved in the church?

It didn’t occur to these people to do anything about the class structure, the poverty – nor did the peasants expect anything. Things were the way that they had always been.

You’ve recently written a book about sin. How do you think the early Christian understanding of the word changed across the centuries?

Sin turns out to be an incredibly plastic concept. One of the things that intrigued me most, when I was writing the book, is how much and how essentially the concept alters as its social and cultural context changes. I start with the figure of Jesus, a first-century Jew talking to other Jews and living in the Jewish homeland. His culture dealt with sin through a process of repentance and atonement, involved with a system of biblically mandated offerings at the temple in Jerusalem. Traditions about the Last Supper depict Jesus presenting his own work in terms of a blood sacrifice. I take that to mean, not that Jesus was opposed to such offerings, but rather that he saw them as so important that he took them as the central metaphor for his own mission. The Gospels, of course, were written after the destruction of the Temple, some 40 to 70 years after Jesus’s execution. They both preserve this idea of the importance of sacrifice and alter it.

Paul, whom I treat next, is a main author of New Testament texts. He is a diaspora Jew, whose first language is Greek. By the time he writes his letters, mid-century, Paul has spent almost two decades taking the message of the risen Christ to pagans. Jesus had spoken primarily to other Jews about “Jewish” sins – things to do with breaking the Ten Commandments. Paul talks to pagans about a different kind of sin, pagan sins, most specifically idolatry – not one of Jesus’s concerns.

Despite these differences, though, both Jesus (up until the year 30) and Paul (around the year 50) converge on the same message: The Kingdom of God is at hand, and people should prepare for that event through repentance. In other words, they both thought that God was about to bring history to an end. They speak with great urgency. Once time has more time, so to speak, the urgency dissipates, and the concept of sin changes.


Theologians from the second century have different views of what the Kingdom of God means, and also about God’s timetable. These thinkers are gentiles – former pagans, philosophically well educated – who look at Jewish biblical tradition and reformat it. There is no single Christian orthodoxy in the second century. Each of these theologians represents a different Christian community, each has his own particular construction of sin, of evil, of redemption and, for that matter, different ideas about God. Their various definitions differ not only because of their independent readings of the Bible, but also because of the three-way argument that they have with each other.

Which version won through in the end?

In the second century, there was no clear winner. In the early fourth century, the Emperor Constantine became the patron of one particular church and these other Christian communities were suppressed, their books destroyed or simply not recopied. The imperial church looked back and saw the second-century Justin [Martyr] as most compatible with its own theology, and thus Justin, retroactively, becomes an orthodox “winner”.

The third chapter of my book, which is my favourite, compares the work of two brilliant men: Origen of Alexandria in the third century and Augustine in the fourth century. Both of them look at the same New Testament texts written by Paul and at the same texts in Genesis, and they come to two diametrically opposed definitions of sin. Origen foregrounds human free will; Augustine foregrounds predestination. Origen thinks that God loves his whole creation, so that ultimately even Satan will be saved. Augustine’s God is furious at the family of man because of Adam’s sin, and he condemns most people to damnation, saving only enough to demonstrate the grace of his mercy. So Origen and Augustine differ not only in their definitions of sin, but also in how they imagine the personality of God.

And from all those years ago those definitions still live on today.

Yes, and resonate. And to close this circle, the differences in the “personality” of God as imagined by these two master theologians is why I was so intrigued by Miles’s approach in his book. Miles says that if you read the Old Testament as one continuous “case history”, the character of “God” displays too many personalities to form a single morally coherent person.

You could argue he had some kind of multiple personality disorder.

It’s one explanation for why things are the way they are.

July 23, 2012

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen is a historian of ancient Christianity. She is the Aurelio Chair Emerita of Scripture at Boston University, and also teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Fredriksen’s latest book, Sin, explores how ancient concepts of sin have shaped Christian ideas about humanity, the universe and God

Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen

Paula Fredriksen is a historian of ancient Christianity. She is the Aurelio Chair Emerita of Scripture at Boston University, and also teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Fredriksen’s latest book, Sin, explores how ancient concepts of sin have shaped Christian ideas about humanity, the universe and God