Monday, March 08, 2010

Review of Sin: A History

SIN: A HISTORY, by Gary Anderson, is reviewed by Walter Brueggemann in The Christian Century:
Sin: A History

reviewed by Walter Brueggemann

Sin: A History
by Gary A. Anderson
Yale University Press, 272 pp., $30.00
Anderson suggests how the Anselm tradition might be recovered in ways that are socially alert and systemically demanding.

Gary Anderson, professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame, has written an astonishing book that, in ways typical of his work, moves from close textual reading to the widest vistas of interpretation. As usual, he exhibits uncommon erudition, careful method and disciplined imagination that evokes connections his readers surely would not have otherwise noticed. The general idea of the book is that "sin has a history"—that over time understandings of sin reflected in the Bible and in nonbiblical literature changed in dramatic and significant ways.

Anderson identifies three ways of speaking of sin in the Bible—as stain, as burden and as debt. He scarcely mentions stain (only in his introduction), and he handles burden in one brief chapter, so the focus of his compelling study is on sin as debt. He judges that the transfer of interpretive energy from burden to debt can be traced chronologically, with burden evident in the earlier materials and debt becoming dominant in the Second Temple period and exercising immense influence on rabbinic and early Christian interpretation.

He suggests, in too offhand a way, that the change from burden to debt happened because of the move from Hebrew to Aramaic, and that the vocabulary for sin in Aramaic tilted in the direction of economic imagery. Anderson is a most capable scholar of linguistics, but I find his explanation of the change less than persuasive. Whatever may have been the cause of the transfer from one meaning to another, however, his attention to a mass of detailed texts makes clear that meaning does shift in exactly the way he reports.