Q. Is original sin hereditary according to Romans 5:12? How did the idea of original sin develop?
A. The idea of original sin—a sexually-transmitted fatal condition passed from parents to the unbaptized newborn—was the invention of the early fifth-century North African church, and Augustine was its premier architect.
Rom 5:12 was introduced in support; but Christians for centuries before Augustine had read Paul’s sentence without ever devising the elaborate theological scaffolding that Augustine did.
Prior to Augustine, most theologians had read Paul as saying that humans inherited Adam’s mortality (itself a punitive condition), and a propensity to sin. Augustine, however, insisting that all subsequent human generations were in a literal way “in Adam,” insisted that all future generations inherited not only his penalty, but also his actual guilt.
For this reason, Augustine also argued, unbaptized babies died in Adam’s sin, and so could never attain salvation but were instead eternally condemned. Christ alone was born without the stain of original sin, because he was conceived without sexual intercourse. For a lengthier tour of this theological terrain, and a comparison with other religious thinkers, see Paula Fredriksen, SIN: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton 2012), pp. 114-34 and 141-46.
Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, now teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Paul features prominently in her books about Jesus (From Jesus to Christ, 1988/2000; Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, 1999) and about Augustine (Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, 2010). In Sin: The Early History of an Idea (2012), she compares the ways in which Jesus and Paul speak about sin, forgiveness, and redemption.
The Christian idea that humanity is inherently sinful because of Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden, found in the very first chapters of the Bible.
A hypothetical source of sayings about Jesus conceived to explain common materials in Matthew and Luke.
Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.
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