Original Sin Originates with St. Paul–not St. Augustine.

It is often pointed out that within the development of Christian doctrine through primarily St. Augustine came forth the developed concept of Original Sin. However, this post’s goal here is to explain that although Augustine primarily influenced by Platonism developed the idea of the deprivation in human nature which resulted in the concept of the source of evil. Augustine’s contribution is an unfolding of Christian doctrine of ideas already existent from S. Paul.

Any discussion of St. Augustine and Original Sin always begins with the famous “Pear Story” from the Confessions gives an anecdotal experience that led Augustine to the epiphany of human deprivation:

Surely, Lord, your law punishes theft, as does that law written on the hearts of men, which not even iniquity itself blots out. What thief puts up with another thief with a calm mind? Not even a rich thief will pardon one who steals from him because of want. But I willed to commit theft, and I did so, not because I was driven to it by any need…For I stole a thing which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality. Nor did I wish to enjoy that thing which I desired to gain by theft, but rather to enjoy the actual theft and the sin of theft.

 …We took great loads of fruit from it (orchard), not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs;

 …Behold, now let my heart tell you what it looked for there, that I should be evil without purpose and there should be no cause for my evil but evil itself. Foul was the evil, and I loved it[1].

At the heart of Augustine’s pear narrative is a retelling of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Jonathan Yates, Associate Professor at Villanova University, asserts that Augustine’s story of stealing the pears is one that parallels Genesis 3 and the fall of man. Yates examines that “In Books 1-9, it is the trees and the fruit from Genesis 3 that are most frequently referenced…by Augustine.”[2] The most important parallel between the two stories is the ownership of the tree. In Genesis 3, God gives the command that no one should eat from the tree of Good and Evil. God gives the law, as he has created an orderly world, so Adam and Eve, also being creatures, are subordinate to this order like the laws of nature. What particular separates us from the laws of nature or the animals is the powers of the soul—the intellect. Again, Augustine illustrates that humanity falters when it attempts to supplant God by disregarding its duty toward His order, and instead asserts its desire to choose whatever desires of the human will rather than God. Original Sin, often associated with the first sin, should to some degree be understood that original in the sense of its nature is the pride of choosing what one desires over the duty—or right relation—toward God.

It is in book 7 of the Confessions where Augustine gets at the heart of sinfulness being a deprivation of original holiness. Augustine is primarily influenced by Platonism of his age. Augustine is examining is his continuing development away from Manichean dualist theology on the nature of God into the higher forms of being within the platonic understanding of forms it appears—hence is why Augustine explains God in the manner of sunlight permeating a room. As such the highest forms within platonic philosophy are in a sense metaphysical forms, Augustine appears to understand God within the framework. In fact, the highest form within the Platonic framework being goodness, Augustine ultimately understands God as the supreme goodness in form. Therefore, God cannot be the originator of evil, because God’s existence as goodness and all his creations being created good indicates his very nature as existence. If God is the form of goodness itself then evil cannot have form because it would take away, or be a deprivation, from the good form. Augustine’s particular synthesis of platonic thought and Christian scripture is recognizing that all creatures must possess some form of Good within themselves as creations of the eternal goodness, so there can be no purely a manifestation of evil or it would cease to exist.

However, as Scripture informs the faithful that nothing is new under the sun, I wondered if there was any evidence of Augustine’s propositions found in Sacred Scripture. Now, while It’s true that Augustine formed and codified Original Sin with a notion of transmission of sin through propagation but it is an idea tied inherently to the Pauline understanding of sin in “the flesh.” It is a concept that originates from Paul—not Augustine. Augustine is merely plainly reading from Paul and applying terminology.

E.P. Sanders considered one of the great authorities on comparative scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in his monumental work Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion asserts that Rabbinic Judaism had no concept of original sin. (E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 114.)  Rabbinic Judaism maintained that those who lived in such a system the possibility existed that one might not sin. The understanding that free will is the catalyst to sin, the possibility to use that free will to not sin must also be granted. The premise of that system of free will is the framework of Pelagianism. In fact, it is a reworking of the Pelagius argument that our nature—without original sin need not a physician—counter to Holy Scripture Augustine replies, “Men no doubt seem to urge acute opinions on these points, but it is only word-wisdom, by which the cross of Christ is made of none effect.”[3]

What is interesting is that comparing the author in the dialogues of IV Ezra with the writings of Paul, Sanders does not see an agreement with the “Paul’s pessimism concern life in ‘the flesh.’ Sanders, 546) The Qumran is compared to the writings of Paul where in the Qumran “the weakness of sinful flesh is not a power out of the hands of the elect.” In comparison to Paul, “on the matter of sin, the ideas are fundamentally different.” (Sanders, 547) The differences have to do with Judaism atoning for transgressions—not death. Sanders goes into to explain, “However close the feeling of corporate unity with Judaism there are no expressions parallel to Paul’s statement that Christians become one person in Christ…the body of Christ is not analogous to Israel.”(Ibid.) It’s clear from Sanders that Paul’s teaching is something innovative and must be separated from the lens of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

Finally, Sanders concludes, “This in all essential points—the meaning of ‘righteousness, the role of repentance, the nature of sin, the nature of the saved ‘group,’ and most importantly, the necessity of transferring from the damned to the saved—Paul’s thought can be sharply distinguished from anything to be found in Palestinian Judaism. (Sanders, 548).

The importance of Sander’s work is the understanding that one cannot simply use Judaism to jump over Jesus Christ and St. Paul in an attempt to abrogate central doctrines of orthodox Christian teaching because they find disagreement with them for whatever reasons. Augustine did not originate the idea of sinful flesh that is transmitted to every human. The idea is very much in the writings of Paul that Augustine plainly put into terminology. Judaism cannot be used in a manner to reinterpret what Paul really meant against Augustine because the idea originated in Paul’s own work, thus Divine Revelation of Holy Scripture, that made the separation from Judaism.

[1] Augustine, and John K. Ryan. The Confessions of St. Augustine. (New York: Image Books, 2014), 28.

[2] Dr. Jonathan Yates, “Augustine and Genesis 3” Confessions Version 2.1.4 Villanova University.

[3] Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Nature and Grace,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 123.