Paul & the Sin of Adam

Contents


Introduction

The concept of ‘original sin’ is pervasive in Western Christianity. The historical teaching is this: When Adam sinned in the garden of Eden, his act corrupted humanity’s very nature so that all of his descendants suffer an innate desire to disobey God. Further, Adam’s guilt was not his alone. All humans inherit not only his ‘sin nature’, but the guilt for Adam’s sin as well; every human is born — even conceived — already guilty of sin.

This doctrine didn’t take hold in Eastern Christianity. It grew to dominate the West because largely depends on the way Augustine, a Western theologian, interpreted Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Specifically, it comes down to the way Augustine understood a verse in Romans. Augustine was an admittedly poor interpreter of Greek, so he relied on a Latin translation of the verse.

Rom 5.12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all, in him all have sinned (in quo omnes peccaverunt)

When Adam sinned, all humanity sinned ‘in’ him; his sin was everyone’s sin, therefore his guilt was everyone’s guilt. However, the Latin version Augustine’s interpretation depended on contained an error. The Latin translator had misread the Greek as εν ω παντες ημαρτον (in whom all have sinned), when it actually said εφ ω παντες ημαρτον (because all have sinned). The wording that Augustine — and subsequently all of Western Christianity from him — built his theology upon in fact said the very opposite of what he tought it said. Augustine attributed everyone’s guilt to Adam’s sin, where Paul actually wrote that everyone’s guilt comes from their own sins.

With this one (exceptionally influential) typo cleared up, what does Paul mean overall, though? He doesn’t impute Adam’s guilt to all of humanity simply for being born, but he still says that Adam’s sin brought death to all people: ‘sin came through one man, death through sin, and death spread to all’. The rest of humanity may not share in Adam’s guilt, so why does everyone share in his punishment?

Paul’s argument in Rom 5.12–21 is just a component of his prevailing thesis found in Rom 1.16–11.36: sin is a universal problem for humanity regardless of ethnicity; Judeans have the Torah, but Judeans and non-Judeans are equally guilty of sin before God; and Jesus is the Messiah, so faithfulness to him justifies a person before God. Rom 5.12–21 begins with ‘therefore’ (δια τουτο), showing Paul is leading off a previous point, but there is disagreement whether ‘therefore’ builds from the previous paragraph, or perhaps the entirety of Rom 1.16–5.11. I think the latter reading makes more sense, and not just in how we try to understand Rom 5.12–21 as a unit or in relation to the previous four chapters.

Contrary to the way some scholars attempt to sever Paul’s way of thinking from the world of Judaism he grew up in,1 the best way to understand Rom 5.12–21 is to see how the ideas underlying this passage are entirely at home within early Judaism. Paul was not completely fabricating a ‘problem’ (an inborn sin nature) to explain a ‘solution’ (Jesus’ death).


The Text in Romans

Here is the full text of Rom 5.12–21 (NRSV).

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the coming one.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul’s argument here is that something Jesus did defines the future, in contrast to how Adam’s life defined the past. His intention is not to provide readers a systematic theology of Adam’s sin, but to illustrate God’s overflowing grace.2 Paul’s seven authentic letters have several points of conceptual overlap, and here Paul builds on an idea he first expresses in 1 Corinthians when discussing the resurrection of the dead.3

1 Cor 15.21–22 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a man; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in the Messiah.

The idea that Adam’s sin brought death onto the rest of humanity is not unique to Paul, even though it’s not spelled out in Gen 2–3. Judean writers and theologians had come to this conclusion centuries earlier.4 One example is the Book of Wisdom, composed about a half-century before Paul wrote Romans, but shares key phrases when discussing this introduction of sin and death to humanity.5

Wis 2.23–24 God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered into the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.

Before and after Paul, other writers frequently invoked Adam as the ‘first father of Israel’, showing Adam as a pattern they followed.6 Romans is addressed to non-Judeans, so Paul universalizes Adam’s influence beyond just Israel; he needs to connect the biblical story to them for it to be relevant to how his gospel pertains to non-Judeans.7 Past this, there are many other smaller points that shape Paul’s message. His teaching that Adam’s sin affects all humanity, while insisting every individual is responisible for their own sins, is ‘paradoxical’.8 The word ‘law’ in 5.13 cannot refer to the Torah, because Paul’s argument is how sin is a problem before Israel received the Torah, as well as the problem of sin outside of Israel.9 His description of death ‘reigning’ is his own innovation, implying death is a cosmic enemy to be overthrown (again found earlier in 1 Cor 15.26; cf. Rev 20.14).


‘A Type of the Coming’

One point of possible ambiguity in the Greek text is Rom 5.14c.

Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the coming one (ος εστιν τυπος του μελλοντος).

Adam is usually understood as the antecedent of ος (who), while του μελλοντος (the coming one) is read as Jesus, and τυπος (type) is then taken to mean Adam (directly or inversely) parallels Jesus: ‘Adam pre-figures the coming Jesus’. But there are other possible ways of reading the Greek.

One suggestion is that 5.14b should be read as parenthetical.

Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses (even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam), who is a type of the coming one.

This could make the antecedent of ος be Moses instead of Adam; it was Moses who foreshadowed Jesus, since Moses helped give the Torah in an effort to deal with sin and death. Scholars generally reject this view, because of, again, the Adam-Jesus contrast being found in both Rom 5.12–21 and 1 Cor 15.21–22, 45.10

Another reading is that ος should be translated as ‘which’ rather than ‘who’, and its antecedent is not simply ‘Adam’, but ‘the transgression of Adam’. In this view, Adam’s sin foreshadowed future ‘coming’ sins.11 A major flaw in this interpretation, acknowledged even by those who propose it, is that the Greek word ος is masculine, while ‘transgression’ is feminine παραβασις, which requires jumping through syntactical hoops to explain away.12 Further problems are that the view anticipates many transgressions in the future while ‘the coming one’ is singular, and that the flow of Paul’s thought in this verse becomes redundant and circular: ‘death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like Adam’s trangression, which transgression is a type of the coming transgression’.

For now it is easier to accept the common understanding that ‘who’ refers to Adam, and ‘coming one’ refers to Jesus.


Adam as Precursor

There was a wide variety of eschatological traditions about Adam going into the final decades of the Second Temple period, such as the idea that Adam’s pre-sin glory would be recaptured by the Messiah’s clothing, an idea which may have found its way into the Gospel of Mark.13

Another was to reflect on a pattern of behavior between Adam and Israel. Where Adam’s sin brought death onto humanity, and Abraham was thought to have received promises that would remedy this dilemma, Moses then brought the Torah, which would guide Israel toward the solution.14 Near the end of the first century CE we find two apocalyptic texts invoking this approach while reflecting on a recent catastrophe, the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple in 70 CE. The first apocalypse, 4 Ezra, was written circa 95 CE, just about the same time as the biblical Revelation of John. The second, 2 Baruch, appears to have been written not long after 4 Ezra, and may be literarily dependent on it.15

Fourth Ezra’s narrative has the biblical Ezra (the author’s pseudonym) mourning the 587 BCE destruction of Jerusalem and its first temple by Babylon. When Ezra laments the city, the angel Uriel is sent to shift Ezra’s focus from the present calamity to a future restoration. Ezra, though, can’t resist voicing his problem with how Israel’s history turned out, while Uriel continues attempting to change his mind. The debate between the two reflects the author’s own theological struggle with 70 CE; Ezra in the book represents a viewpoint the author thinks is tempting to hold, while Uriel represents the viewpoint the author wants his readers to adopt.

Part of Ezra’s view is that Israel turned out poorly directly because of Adam. The first man was created with an ‘evil heart’, which became a ‘permanent’ fixture in all his descendants (4 Ezra 3.22,26).16 Israel was given the Torah in an attempt to solve this problem. Yet, despite having both good and evil in their hearts, good eventually faded away while evil surged, leading to Israel’s sins bringing punishment of conquest by ‘Babylon’, i.e. Rome (3.17–22).17 Invoking Adam’s sin in connection to this event is meant to ‘heighten’ the suffering Jerusalem has undergone.18 Ezra goes so far as to suggest God is the one at fault for having made Adam, or at least for not having stopped Adam from sinning (7.116). Fourth Ezra’s theology lacks any hint of a satanic agent like we find in the New Testament, which leads to the author implying it was God himself who ‘sowed’ in Adam a ‘seed’ which caused his inclination to sin (4.30; 7.92; cf. Apocalypse of Abraham 23.14).19 This corrupted nature was then passed on to his descendants. Ezra exclaims that Adam’s sin denied Israel their future ‘immortal age’ and ‘everlasting hope’.

4 Ezra 7.118–120 ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an immortal age has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? Or an everlasting hope has been predicted to us, but we are miserably shamed?’

Here we have a non-Christian text which calls the consequence of Adam’s sin a ‘fall’ which all of his descendants (literally all humanity, but thematically Israel) now share in. The Latin word here, casus, may mean ‘fall’ or perhaps ‘misfortune’ (as it is translated in the Syriac).20 While ‘misfortune’ is probably the better translation choice, the idea being communicated — restating what is directly said in 4 Ezra 3.21–2221 — is that Adam’s sin not only brought death to all humans, but infected them with a ‘hereditary sinfulness’.22 Uriel rejects Ezra’s blame of God or Adam, instead telling him that every person runs the same ‘contest’ as Adam, where their ‘defeat’ is eternal punishment in Gehenna while ‘victory’ brings them reward in the Age to Come (7.127–131), a plan God determined before he created Adam (opposite of 2 Baruch, below).23 The end result is a book where ‘the conceptions of hereditary sinfulness and individual responsibility are juxtaposed’, though Uriel (and therefore the author) possibly rejects the idea of ‘hereditary sinfulness’ altogether.24

The other apocalypse to discuss Adam at length is 2 Baruch. This book presents Adam in three contexts: that he is the historical person responsible for the death of all humans;25 that he is the spiritual father of anyone who sins; and, that he represents freedom of choice and personal responsibility.26 In a similar vein to 4 Ezra, the author of 2 Baruch indicates that Adam’s sin somehow corrupted human nature, calling this hereditary sinfulness the ‘darkness of Adam’ (18.2). While the author regards Adam as the literal first man, and hence forefather of all humans, he also emphasizes a more direct lineage based on the spiritual connection forged through the act of ‘imitating’ Adam; to sin is to be Adam’s offspring (48.42–48). This includes one of 2 Baruch’s verbal echoes of 4 Ezra.27

2 Bar 48.42 ‘O Adam, what did you do to all who were born after you?’

However, we soon arrive at a passage which seems to be a direct response to 4 Ezra 31.21–22 and 7.118–120,28 and the author takes the side of Uriel.

2 Bar 54.15–16,19 ‘For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory. […] Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam.’

There is an internal tension in both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch between Adam inflicting all humans with death, Adam passing on a ‘sin nature’ to all humans, and every individual being punished for their own sins, not Adam’s sin. When we come back to read Rom 5.12–21 (written by another Judean with a highly apocalyptic worldview), we find the same tension, and Paul does not show any attempt to reconcile the two,29 which may indicate it wasn’t much of a concern to him.30

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned

Adam’s sin brought death to all humans, death spreads through sin, but all die because all sin. When reading Paul’s letter in light of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, we seem to now have three texts from the first century with a shared belief that Adam’s sin not only afflicted all people with death, but with a ‘sin nature’.31 However, we lack the traditional Western Christian understanding of ‘original sin’, that all people are reckoned guilty for Adam’s sin. Some scholars think we even lack the ‘middle’ item required to make the ‘sin nature’ concept work, namely, that Paul doesn’t directly say Adam passed on a corrupted human nature.32 Still, the conceptual overlap with 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch may hint Paul did have this in mind, and a few scholars point to an obscure text in Joshua to justify imputing Adam’s sin to all humanity.33


Rabbi Yose in the Sifra

A passage in the Sifra, Vayikra Dibbura d’Ḥova 12.10, is attributed to Rabbi Yose ben Halafta:

Rabbi Yose says: If you wish to know the reward given to the righteous in the Age to Come, you may learn this from Adam: He was given only one commandment, a prohibition, which he transgressed, and see how many deaths Adam was condemned: his own, and those of all his descendants and his descendants’ descendants to the end of all generations. Now, which measure is greater, the measure of benevolence or the measure of punishment? Certainly, the measure of benevolence is greater. If, then, the lesser measure, that of punishment, resulted in Adam and his descendants and his descendants’ descendants being condemned to so many deaths, someone who refrains from eating piggul or notar and who fasts on the Day of Atonement, how much more does such a person acquire merit for himself and for his descendants and all his descendants’ descendants to the end of all generations!34

Adam’s sin was disobedience to a command from God, which brought death to him and all his descendants; conversely, a person who obeys God’s commands will bring the eschatological reward to him and all his descendants, where the chief message is that God’s mercy is greater than his condemnation.35 The rationale of using a small item to argue in favor of a larger item, a minori ad maius, is fairly typical in Judean theology.36 It can be found in sayings attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels.37 A few other texts in the Talmud contain comparable arguments (b. Yoma 87a; Sifre Deuteronomy 323), with the ultimate inspiration for it possibly being the combination of Exo 20.5–6 and Deut 12.28.38 The framework of the teaching is obedience to God’s commandments.39 A surprisingly close argument was made by a contemporary of Rabbi Yose, a Christian bishop of Antioch named Theophilus. His one surviving book, Defense to Autolycus, says the following:

What man did not acquire for himself through his neglect and disobedience, God now freely bestows upon him through love and mercy, when man obeys him. For as by disobedience man gained death for himself, so obedience to the will of God whoever wills can acquire for himself eternal life. For God gave us a law and holy commandments; everyone who performs them can be saved.40

Along with Paul, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch, we see from Rabbi Yose just how widespread it was in early Judaism to conceptualize Adam’s sin as bringing death on all humanity. Except Yose’s specific teaching on the subject is remarkably similar to Paul’s train of thought in Rom 5.12–21.41 We have several independent texts whose thought processes are so like one another, that it raises the possibility they were drawing on a common source (whether a carefully articulated oral tradition or a written text),42 and not just a nebulous idea floating along. Each writer adapted this hypothetical source to their own perspective.

With this in mind, we turn back to Rom 5.12–21 and notice that Paul never actually mentions the death of Jesus as being the means by which God saves anyone. Paul begins the block talking about ‘the Law’ and ‘Moses’, and goes on to frame the entire unit around disobedience and obedience. If Paul is indeed dependent on a source here, it would explain why he doesn’t mention ‘Christ crucified’: his source was about obeying or disobeying God’s commandments in the Torah.43 A hypothetical source for these three texts would have mentioned the Law (Torah). Yose took ‘law’ in the direction of Judean dietary restrictions, while Theophilus has it as a generalized moral ‘law’. As for Paul, he identified the obedient person not as anyone who keeps God’s commandments, but as a specific someone, Jesus.

Yose

Theophilus

Paul

Adam ate forbidden food and was condemned to death

Man was neglectful and disobedient

Adam sinned and was condemned to death

Adam’s transgression brought death to humanity

Adam’s sin brought death to humanity

Any man can obey God’s commandments

Jesus was obedient to God

If Adam’s transgression brought condemnation all his descendants

If a man’s disobedience acquired death

If Adam’s sin condemned all

How much more another man’s Torah-observance can bring merit to all his descendants in the Age to Come

How much more a man’s obedience to God acquires eternal life

How much more Jesus’ righteous act will justify and bring grace to all

Part of the conceptual parallelism may bring a bit of clarity to the phrase we looked at earlier in Rom 5.14c, ‘who is a type of the coming one’. This parallelism reinforces that the ‘who’ is Adam, but it opens up the possibility that του μελλοντος refers not to Jesus, but to the same ‘Age to Come’ mentioned by Yose. That is, Paul is saying ‘Adam is a type of the coming age‘ (cf. Heb 6.5 μελλοντος αιωνος, ‘coming age’), meaning that Adam’s punishment pre-figures the even greater reward of the Age to Come. The text of Rom 5.14c is just ambiguous enough that του μελλοντος could be either Jesus or the Age to Come. Paul’s overall point would not change to any significant degree, but the ‘coming age’ interpretation would bring him a little closer to the eschatological premise of Yose’s message.44


Conclusion

Every piece of what Paul articulates in Rom 5.12–21 has semblance to an idea found in other texts of ancient Judaism. As with most of them, Paul also believed Adam’s sin sentenced all of humanity to death. Similar to 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, he thought that Adam’s sin bent human nature toward a compulsion to disobey God’s commandments. Alongside various thinkers, he compared Adam’s disobedience to Israel’s violation of the Torah. He, Yose, and Theophilus each reasoned that Adam’s punishment warranted a reward being superior to the punishment. To a degree, Paul seems to share 4 Ezra’s rather pessimistic expectation that no one can remain perfectly obedient to God’s commandments,45 hence why he concluded that Jesus was the solution to such a problem. Even the earlier argument that ‘death reigning’ is totally unique to Paul is untrue; a similar teaching is also attributed to Rabbi Yose (who again connects it to Adam).46

This leads us to the only truly unique part of Rom 5.12–21: that, due to Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death as the catalyst for salvation, he reshapes the ‘lesser to greater’ rationale around Jesus: if Adam’s disobedience brought death to all humanity, how much more Jesus’ obedience will bring salvation to all humanity. Paul inserts a specific man in the place of any man.

When evaluating the doctrine of ‘original sin’, it can be seen it has no basis in what Paul says in Rom 5.12–21. The idea that all humans die because of Adam’s sin is not remotely unique to Paul, instead being essentially universal to Judean theology from the late Second Temple period and after. That point was not under contention, though. The concept of Adam’s sin resulting in all humanity being afflicted by a ‘sin nature’ might be part of Paul’s thought process in Rom 5.12–21 — as it may have been for 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch — but if it is part of Paul’s theology, it is implicit here at best. However, the notion that God imputes the guilt for Adam’s sin to anyone other than Adam himself is just as foreign to Paul as it is to every Judean before and after him. Just as much for Paul as for his peers, ‘each of us has become our own Adam’. The central item of ‘original sin’, the imputation of Adam’s guilt to all humans, is non-existent in Paul’s theology.


Footnotes

1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, 408.

2 Robert Jewett, Romans, 370.

3 Jewett, 373.

4 Michael Stone, Fourth Ezra, 64–65.

5 Jewett, 373–374.

6 Ibid., 374.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 376.

9 Jewett, 377; Mark Nanos, ‘Romans’, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (ed. Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Zvi Brettler), 264.

10 Jewett, 378; cf. Ryan S. Schellenberg, ‘Does Paul Call Adam a “Type” of Christ? An Exegetical Note on Romans 5,14’, Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 105.1, 61.

11 Schellenberg, 54–57.

12 Ibid., 58–60.

13 Joel Marcus, Mark 8:22–16:8: A Translation, 636.

14 John R. Levison, Portraits of Adam in Early Judaism: From Sirach to 2 Baruch, 130.

15 Matthias Henze, ‘4 Ezra and 2 Baruch: Literary Composition and Oral Performance in First-Century Apocalyptic Literature’, Journal of Biblical Literature 131.1, 196; Stone, 61.

16 Henze, 191.

17 Stone, 60.

18 Ibid., 61.

19 Ibid., 63–64, 95.

20 Levison, 123.

21 Stone, 258.

22 Contra Stone, 65.

23 Jason M. Zurawski, ‘The Two Worlds and Adam’s Sin: The Problem of 4 Ezra 7:10–14’, Interpreting 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch (ed. Gabriele Boccaccini & Jason M. Zurawski), 97.

24 Levison, 122–123; Stone, 257.

25 Paul certainly also thought Adam was the literal first man and forefather of all humanity, cf. Fitzmyer, 407–408. There was virtually no doubt on this point in early Judaism or Christianity.

26 Levison, 130.

27 Henze, 192.

28 Levison, 137; Stone, 257.

29 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 324.

30 Moo, 322–323.

31 Ibid., 326.

32 Ibid., 326.

33 Ibid., 327. The passage in question is Joshua 7.1,11, where the sin of a single man, Achan, causes God to declare that ‘Israel has sinned’ and hold the entire population responsible.

34 Menahem Kister, ‘Romans 5:12–21 against the Background of Torah-Theology and Hebrew Usage’, The Harvard Theological Review 100.4, 395–396.

35 Ibid., 395–396.

36 Ibid., 397.

37 E.g., Matt 6.26–30: ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?’

38 Kister, 393–394.

39 Ibid., 397–398.

40 Ibid., 417.

41 Ibid., 392, 400.

42 Ibid., 400, 415.

43 Ibid., 406.

44 Ibid., 407.

45 Levison, 129. This may explain Paul’s claim that the Torah made the situation worse rather than better (contrary to 4 Ezra 4.31–32, cf. Kister, 410).

46 Kister, 409; cf. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20.16.2: ‘Rabbi Yose says: They stood on Mount Sinai on this condition, that the angel of death would not reign over them, as it is written, ‘I said (when I gave you the Torah) […] like Adam you will die”‘.

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