The Pauline Concept Of Original Sin, In Light Of Rabbinic Background -- By: Stanley E. Porter

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 41:1 (NA 1990)
Article: The Pauline Concept Of Original Sin, In Light Of Rabbinic Background
Author: Stanley E. Porter


The Pauline Concept Of Original Sin, In Light Of Rabbinic Background1

Stanley E. Porter

I. Original Sin In The Rabbinic Material

The received tradition in rabbinic studies, both of the more conservative and of the more progressive sort, is that rabbinic thought does not have a concept of original sin.2 Surely this is one of few large topics on which G. F. Moore, W. D. Davies, E. E. Urbach and E. P. Sanders fully agree. It is particularly interesting that such unanimity of opinion can be found, but it is also noteworthy that not one of these major scholars takes time to define what exactly original sin is. Even so extensive a recent work as E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism says categorically: ‘It is not necessary to discuss here Rabbinic speculation on the origin of sinful disobedience. This sort of theological speculation, like speculation concerning the nature of the world to come, lies outside the scope of the Rabbinic pattern of religion’.3 Sanders continues:

Yet it is important to note that the Rabbis did not have a doctrine of original sin or of the essential sinfulness of each man in the Christian

sense. It is a matter of observation that all men sin. Men have, apparently, the inborn drive towards rebellion and disobedience. But this is not the same as being born in a state of sinfulness from which liberation is necessary. Sin comes only when man actually disobeys; if he were not to disobey he would not be a sinner.4

Surely Sanders is right that the rabbis did not have a definition of original sin in the Christian sense. But, more importantly, what is of concern is whether the rabbis had any sustained or developed reflection on where sin came from, regardless of whether one is willing to call it original sin or not. Indeed, it appears that they did.

The discussion referred to is that of the bad and good natures or impulses (focusing upon use of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov).5 The evidence for this concept is developed to its largest extent in Talmudic and Midrashic writings, and thus is rightly seen to be late, although several scholars argue that occasional reference in earlier Jewish literature either shows its origins or reveals its earlier existence as part of a general discussion in the Jewish world.6 The most likely source of course would be the O...

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