Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Anderson, Gary A., Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Pp. xv + 253. Hardback, $30.00. ISBN 9780300149890.

Anderson's book proceeds in three parts. Part one introduces the problem by looking closely at the linguistic and conceptual background of terminology associated with the idea of sin in the Bible. After noting that defining sin is not as easy as one might think, Anderson moves to an explanation of his assertion that “sin has a history” (6), one most commonly expressed through metaphor. The different metaphors at work in Leviticus (the scapegoat tradition) and the Lord's Prayer in Matthew (metaphor of debt) demonstrate sin's multifarious background.

Sin as a burden comprises the most common metaphor for sin in the First Temple period (17). Anderson notes that the important component of the idiom in the Hebrew Bible is not the noun but the verb, either כבס or נשא. When the emphasis is on human culpability, the phrase should be translated as “to bear the burden of one's sin” (20). In other contexts, נשא has a secondary meaning, and the idiom can mean to remove the burden of sin (20). The idiom of bearing or removing a burden renders to sin a certain “thingness,” which helps further contextualize the goat ritual on the Day of Atonement, in which the weight of Israel's sins is placed on the animal. In this ritual, the “physical material wrought by the sin (its ‘thingness’) had to be removed” (23).

Anderson then addresses an entirely new metaphor for sin that develops in later texts and contexts: sin as a debt to be repaid. In the Targumim and elsewhere, he finds that the traditional metaphor of sin as bearing a weight has been changed to assuming a debt. Sin becomes a “bond of indebtedness deducted from one's balance sheet” (29). In the Qumran scrolls, Anderson finds evidence of places where the traditional Hebrew Bible understanding of sin as a weight has been influenced by the “contemporary idiom” of sin as debt (34).

Part two of the book takes up the broader concept of making repayment for debt. Anderson focuses first on Isa 40:2 and its usage of the word רצה. A word that originally meant a debt made in the context of a vow “naturally comes to mean someone who is quit of his obligation to repay debt that has accrued through sin” (53). This concept is then further explored in the study of Lev 25–26, which discusses the role of the payment of debt by the land itself, especially as exemplified in the exile.

Reflections from Jeremiah are further added to the conversation. Jeremiah makes explicit (70 years) the length of probationary suffering hinted at in Leviticus. Anderson further explores this phenomenon of predicting and calculating the end in Daniel and some literature from Qumran as well. What emerges is the metaphor of sin as a “debt to be paid” can be found across a wide swath of Israel's scriptures. To this evidence Anderson adds a considerable discussion of early rabbinic literature, finding an overlap between the language of sin and forgiveness and commerce (96). In rabbinic literature, the interchange between commercial and religious terminology is “altogether organic and harmonious” (96).

Anderson ends section two of the book with examples of early Christian thinking on the atonement. The starting point for this is Col 2:14, a text that connects the death of Jesus with language of indebtedness. This text proved generative, however, in the examples Anderson provides from Syriac Christianity and from Augustine in the West. Anderson is resuscitating the Christus Victor model of atonement by showing its biblical roots and its pervasiveness within nascent Christianity. His assessment of the evidence leads to the conclusion that there is a “slow but steady penetration of the metaphor of sin as debt into every aspect of Greek- and Latin-speaking Christianity” (131).

In part three of the book, Anderson addresses the conceptual opposite of debt, the metaphor of credit. Close examination of Nebuchadnezzar's ability to redeem his sins by almsgiving (Dan 4:12–13) and of the Book of Tobit's insistence that almsgiving “directly funds a treasury in heaven” (146) coordinates well with many of the synoptic gospel sayings about storing up treasure in heaven in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 19:16–30). Such a metaphor raises the specter of salvation by works, which Anderson does not shy away from. He does, however, make observations intended to nuance its traditional formulation. For instance, the texts clearly demonstrate that almsgiving is not purely a human work; humans are playing by God's rules, and God has gamed this system to benefit humans (160). Thus, acquiring merits through benefaction to the poor need not be an “ecumenical stumbling block” because of its grounding in biblical and later tradition.

Anderson's book ends with an analysis of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. Anderson thinks that Anselm's treatise has been too readily dismissed in recent theological conversation. A big reason for this has been the lack of ability to see the biblical roots of the debt metaphor. On the contrary, based on the work of Anderson's book, he claims that Anselm's argument seems “deeply biblical” (190) and that Anselm's argument should remain a “point of departure” for understanding the atonement today (202).

There is much to commend this volume. Its ability to work diligently with the trees, while being guided by the forest, is laudable. Anderson attends to close textual, philological, and historical matters with a keen insight for theological implications that is almost unmatched in the guild today. The evidence leads him to reconsider and recast theological ideas many today find unpalatable, especially Anselm's atonement theory and the idea of salvation by works.

There are lingering questions when one fishes this book, however. One might ask: are there any historical/cultural reasons why these metaphors developed and changed over time? At times, Anderson will hint at such inducement, but never with significant detail. The concept of sin and the remission of debt certainly gained currency in the Second Temple period, but Anderson's access to it is at the level of detailed linguistic, lexical, and grammatical analysis. For example, with regard to 11QMelchizedek (pp. 33–39), he demonstrates that the concept of sin as debt is established over a more dated one. He notes that the text had been following biblical Hebrew idioms quite closely, but when a metaphor for sin is needed, “in rushes the colloquial Hebrew from the Second Temple period” (37). This makes his argument sound as if the change is simply a matter of phraseology. His linguistic analysis provides evidence for how “deeply the metaphor [of sin as debt] had penetrated,” but this leaves unanswered questions of how or why (38).

This book's acumen, clarity, and penetrating analysis make it a must read for all biblical scholars who are in any way interested in the connection between texts and theology. It is commendable not only for its own argument, but also as a model for how critical exegesis of biblical texts may be brought to bear on modern, pressing theological issues.

Micah D. Kiel, St. Ambrose University, Davenport, IA