523: Bible scholar explores sin & grace in our Jewish-Christian scriptures

“I‘ve had Jewish scholars thank me for this book, because ideas about sin and debt and Judaism have a very unhappy history,” says Dr. Gary Anderson in our interview today.
    He’s describing the significance of his new book, “Sin: A History,” by Yale University Press. Anderson is professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
    What’s inside this little black book? This is NOT a cultural history of “sin” down through the centuries. This IS a history of how ideas about “sin” evolved through the Hebrew Bible and into the Christian New Testament—then, kept evolving past Jesus’ death into the early Christian church.
    In telling that story, Anderson’s book is a 200-page summary of a vast history. To reduce that summary to a couple of sentences: Anderson’s basic conclusion is that the earliest Jewish concepts of “sin” were much like a “burden” that had to be carried away. Over time, ideas about sin evolved into concepts closer to “debt,” rather than physical weight. That helps to explain a lot of Jesus’ parables. It also helps to explain early church disciplines about repaying sin with penitence—as one might repay a debt.

    Those powerful, traditional concepts about sin are different than what many people think about today when they use the word “sin.” Today, Anderson argues, people tend to trivialize “sin” as ranging from impolite misbehavior to shameful indulgence. Traditional ideas of sin actually were more useful, Anderson argues—encouraging people regularly to repay their sinful debts by helping the poor and, over time, supporting important community institutions.
    Anderson’s book is full of fascinating connections readers can draw to other cultures and moral questions. For example, he points out that in the ancient era when rabbinic Judaism was arising, two terms became crucial in thinking about sin: One was the term, hob, which referred to sin as “debt,” and the opposite of hob was zekut, whicht referred to the “credit” involved in repaying such a debt.
    Muslim readers immediately will recognize that term for credit in their own word, which often is spelled zakat in English—a sacred form of alms-giving in Islam that millions of Muslims around the world just performed during Ramadan.
    So, this evolution of “sin” expands outward in many directions and touches many faith traditions.
    In this Third Millennium, when the whole notion of global debt—and moral responsibility—is turbulently changing all around us, there’s not a more timely theme for adult Bible study this year.


    DAVID: We’re in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays, as we publish this interview, and you’ve just published this brand-new book about ideas of “sin” in Jewish and Christian history. Considering that the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation are so central to the High Holidays, this is a great week to talk about your book.
    We should clarify that you’re not a Jewish scholar. You’re a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame. But I think there are some very important ideas in your book for Jewish-Christian dialogue.
    GARY: I’ve had Jewish scholars thank me for this book, because ideas about sin and debt and Judaism have a very unhappy history. One only needs to think of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”—Shylock demanding his pound of flesh for the debt that’s owed him.
You’ll find throughout the history of biblical interpretation the notion that Jewish concepts of sin and redemption are linked to financial metaphors. And a lot of Christian writers expanded on this until it becomes a part of anti-Semitic prejudices.
    DAVID: Talking about this theme, we’re jumping right into the middle of your book. And, I think this is very important for readers of all faiths to understand. You argue strongly that Judaism was unfairly tarred with this hateful brush.
    In fact, the idea of God’s mercy—what Christians today would call “grace”—also was a crucial part of ancient Jewish ideas about sin. We just published an interview with a Jewish Bible scholar, Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum, who argues the same thing. In fact, she argues that we can’t understand the early Christian church—or the writings of Paul—without understanding the importance of “grace” in Jewish teachings.
    GARY: It’s wrong to say that there is no “grace” in Jewish history, but we see this idea in works like “Merchant of Venice,” where it is argued in a very strong fashion—this idea that every sin an individual commits requires that consequences be repaid in full.
    In my book, I try to point out that, on the contrary, there was an extraordinary space for Divine grace in Judaism. Once one conceives of sin as a kind of debt, then this opens the doors for concepts of God as releasing us from debt. This idea runs through much of Judaism—and there’s not a more graceful idea than thinking of God as forgiving us our debts.
    This is what Jesus was talking about in a story like the one where Jesus compares God to a rich man summoning a servant who owes this rich man a lot of money—and, instead of punishing the servant, the rich man rips up his bill and sends him away free of debt.
    That’s the extraordinary tradition of Divine grace within Judaism.

    DAVID: This certainly is a richly rewarding subject for Christian-Jewish dialogue. Plus, I think we might even find Muslims interested in this discussion. You don’t really write about Islam in your book, but you do offer some intriguing connection points. For instance, you talk about a Hebrew term for this process of building credit by repaying these sinful debts—zekut. I assume that’s related to the Muslim concept of zakat, which Muslims around the world were thinking about especially as Ramadan was ending.
    GARY: The Arabic word zakat is directly dependent on the Jewish source. In fact, scholars of Islam know that the term is spelled in Arabic in such a way that gives away its origin in Hebrew and Jewish practice. The importance of alms-giving in Islam finds its deeper historical origins in Jewish and Christian practice.
    DAVID: You make it clear in your book that we’re not talking about this old debate over “works” vs. “grace.” You make it clear that we’re talking about a basic approach to faith that sees charitable acts—alms-giving—as a natural part of our faith, right?
    GARY: Yes. Giving alms declares that you are a believer in a system of charity.
    That may be one of the biggest surprises in this book: Giving to the poor isn’t a trivial matter—just one more thing we do in our lives because we want to right social wrongs. No, alms-giving is very important.
    In Judaism and early Christianity alms-giving becomes an early touchstone of one’s religious identity. That level of significance is something that surprised me as I worked on this book.
    DAVID: I agree. I found it startling in the way you lay it out. You point out lots of indications that this is really a pillar of Christianity and Judaism, much as Muslims would describe it as a pillar of Islam.
    GARY: You can see it in the vocabulary. The word in Hebrew for commandment is mitzvah, which means commandment, but it has two meanings in rabbinic writing—one is commandment and the other is alms-giving, which is a very revealing feature of the term. That means the most weighty of commandments is alms-giving and there are rabbis who say precisely that—that, when we give alms, we are doing something that adds up to the other commandments in the Torah.
    DAVID: This flows right into Christianity. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and, when we begin to understand more about these concepts of sin and debt, we see new urgency in many of Jesus’ teachings.
    GARY: Yes, this is present in early Christian thought. One of the most important texts in the early church is the story of the last judgment in Matthew where Jesus talks about entering Heaven. Jesus says that what’s important is clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and so on.
    Jesus says that whenever this is done for a poor person or a hungry person—you do this for me.
    This indicates the extraordinary importance of alms-giving—giving to God through the agency of the poor. That’s the way you do it.

    DAVID: After reading this book, I’m eager to see what you’ll produce next. You open up a lot of doorways for dialogue in this book. Where will you take these themes next?
    GARY: I want to work on where we just ended this conversation—the notion of alms-giving and building a treasury in Heaven. I’m interested in the way that giving alms becomes a way of understanding faith and belief itself.
    You know, our current economic crisis often is described as a crisis of “credit”—bankers not feeling confident to loan money to borrowers and, because they don’t extend loans, businesses can’t start or keep running and the whole system grinds to a halt. But, many commentators have called this a crisis of “belief.”
    When you look at early Jewish and Christian writers, you find alms-giving described as very important because it’s evidence of your belief. The surest sign of your belief is not stocking away a 401K for yourself—it’s giving it away to those who need it. You can only understand the world this way if you have a real belief in God’s goodness.
That’s a very prominent theme in the early church and the early synagogue and it’s a lesson that we could find very useful in this economy we’re experiencing today.
    Today we tend to think of this issue of alms-giving—of sharing with the poor—as maybe one among 10 things that religious people can work on. But, for the early church, this was 10 of 10—distributing goods to the poor, housing the sick and taking care of the whole community. And this all was grounded theologically in the life of faith. To show that kind of generosity was to demonstrate what one truly believed about our gracious Creator. We could use some more of that kind of faith.

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