Suicide and Sin by Paula Fredriksen

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Suicide for modern people seems like a sin. But suicide didn’t really become a sin in Christian tradition until the fourth, fifth century and it was specifically part of the accomplishment of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is functioning in a North Africa that is divided energetically between two different forms of Catholic Christianity. And Augustine has the Catholic Roman Empire on his side.

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Both sides had very strong reasons for regarding themselves as correct and the other side as wrong; but only one side can win. The side that wins is called the orthodox or the Catholic side and the side that loses, which is doctrinally an angstrom unit different from the side that triumphs, the losing side are called not Christians but Donatists, after Donatus, one of their bishops. The Donatists were a group of Catholic Christians who continued to vigorously embrace an ethic of martyrdom.

Catholic bishops end up advising the emperor whom to muscle to get into the orthodox camp. What happens is that Augustine’s Christian opponents embrace martyrdom as an ethic, as a form of protest against these imperial politics, and Augustine in an effort to delegitimize his Christian opposition says that what they’re doing they call martyrdom but it’s actually suicide and suicide is a sin. So, it’s awkward because the traditions of martyrdom that shape fourth, fifth century Christianity look at self-death as a form of heroic witness and it becomes problematic in the specific political context of the Donatist controversy in North Africa. If it weren’t for Augustine, suicide very likely would not be a sin. is a non-profit organization with a list of international suicide prevention hotlines available to anyone in suicidal crisis. Please seek help.


Paula Fredrikson

Paula Fredriksen
Professor, Hebrew University

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.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A set or system of moral principles.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

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