Gary Anderson’s book chronicles the evolution of sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, showing how early metaphors of sin as a burden or stain became understood primarily as a debt. It’s also a case for works-righteousness and even indulgences being based strongly on biblical tradition.
As we often forget, metaphors don’t say the same thing just because they’re eventually conflated:
“When one sins, something concrete happens: one’s hands may become stained, one’s back may become burdened, or one may fall into debt. And the verbal expressions that render the idea of forgiveness follow suit: stained hands are cleansed, burdens are lifted, and debts are either paid off or remitted. It is as though a stain, a weight, or bond of indebtedness is created ex nihilo when one offends against God.” (p 4)
It’s of course the last metaphor that came to dominate for Christians as much as Jews. “Although it is theoretically possible to imagine a virtuous person such as Mr. Clean, who could have scoured away the blot of sin upon Israel’s body, or a St. Atlas, who was sufficiently strong to bear up under the weight of the nation’s sin, no such images exist in scripture” (p 135). Jesus was primarily a redeemer, even if metaphors of expiation and heavy-lifting occasionally filtered though that of payment.
But in Israel’s earliest period, sin was mostly understood as a weight. Anderson notes the frequency of metaphors in the Hebrew Bible (pp 16-17): “to bear away a sin (weight)” has 108 occurrences; “to forgive a sin (debt)” has 17 occurrences, and “to wipe away a sin (stain)” has only 6 occurrences.
The idea of sin as a weight is underappreciated due to poor translations of the Hebrew text. Consider the example of Cain, where “the weight of my sin is too great for me to bear” (Gen 4:13) is more accurate — and makes more sense — than, “my punishment is too great for me to bear” or “my sin is too great to be forgiven”. According to Anderson, Cain doesn’t mean that his sin is beyond forgiving nor that his punishment cannot be borne. He’s simply owning up to the severity of his offense. When he first asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, we see a man who has not yet felt the weight of his crime. When God imposes the severe penalty on him, he suddenly does feel its weight (p 24). An accurate translation portrays a man grappling with the terrible nature of his offense, instead of just whining about his punishment (p 26).
The idea of sin as a debt evolved when Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire (in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes from the world of commerce), and traces to Lev 26 and Second Isaiah. For the latter, Israel’s sins at the close of the first temple period had drowned her in debt, and decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms. This may make God sound legalistic, but human sins have consequences, and when people sin, “a tangible form of evil is created in the world that must be accounted for”. This is even more true when an entire society goes astray (p 54). This would seem to cohere with recent attempts to relocate legalism, or at least a degree of it, into ancient Judaism. Commercial metaphors don’t necessarily imply a crass soteriology.
For the author of Leviticus, Israel will remain in her current plight until the land has repaid the debt of its sabbath years and the Israelites have repaid the debt accrued through their iniquity. The only difference is that Isa 40:2 looks backward on a debt that has already been repaid, while Lev 26:43-45 anticipates what sort of repayment will be required should Israel not respond to God’s warnings (p 65). By now — the exilic/postexilic periods — the metaphor of sin as a debt is firmly in place, with atonement the means of repaying on a debt.
Anderson stresses that the idea of sin-as-debt wasn’t understood univocally, and notes II Maccabees’ ingenious solution to the problem of theodicity. If God favors Israel, then why does she receive continual punishment while the pagan nations continue on in their evil ways? This is the answer:
“I beg the readers of my book not to be disheartened by the calamities but to bear in mind that chastisements come not in order to destroy our race but in order to teach it. If the ungodly among us are not left long to themselves but speedily incur punishment, it is a sign of God’s great goodness to us. With the other nations the Lord waits patiently, staying their punishment until they reach the full measure of their sins. Quite otherwise is His decree for us, in order that He should not have to punish us after we have come to the complete measure of our sins. Consequently, God never lets His mercy depart from us. Rather, though He teaches us by calamity, He never deserts His people. Let this be enough as a reminder to my readers.” (II Macc 6:12-17)
In other words, God never allows Israel’s sins to reach a level that would require him to disown her. Instead he frequently intervenes and punishes his chosen people — thereby extracting payment from them — so that a tipping point will never be reached. Israel suffers more visibly because God wants to make sure that her register of debts never rises too high (pp 90-91).
There are other creative ways of handling the potential of impossibly high debts. Against Strack and Billerbeck, Anderson shows for the rabbinic tradition that while God keeps an account of merits and demerits, and demands payment for the latter, he doesn’t administer his ledger in a one-for-one fashion. He found sufficient reason to suspend payment in the case of Cain for a full seven generations, and for Joseph he rescinded the bond altogether when the brothers made amends. God is often willing to overlook financial obligations to save his people — and even cook the books in Israel’s favor (p 106).
How did Christians work this out? If Jesus was the heavenly redeemer who paid the price as a once-and-for-all eternal sacrifice, did he completely do away with the human component to redemption?
Not according to Anderson. Christians still had to work at redeeming their sins on their own, primarily through almsgiving, the roots of which idea go back to Dan 4:24 (p 141). While Isaiah believed that debt caused by sin could be repaid only by suffering the consequences of the sin, Daniel offered almsgiving as a way out. Somehow the act of giving goods to the poor allowed one to raise a form of spiritual currency that could pay down the debt of sin accrued in heaven (p 144). (Prov 19:17 is much to the same point.) But Daniel never explained how it does that.
The book of Tobit explains it, through a creative interweaving of Prov 10:2 and 11:4, each of which speaks of improperly valued wealth. Having urged his son to give alms in proportion to his wealth, Tobit says that by doing so he will “be laying up good treasure for himself against the day of necessity; for almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from entering the darkness”. Tobit explains what Daniel assumes: that almsgiving directly funds a treasury in heaven. And this idea carries over into early Judaism and Christianity (Sir 29:9-13; Mt 6:19-21/Lk 12:33-34; Mk 10:17-31/Mt 19:16-30/Lk 18:18-30; Lk 12:13-21), not to mention the rabbinic and later Christian periods.
This leads to the real question: Does the wisdom of Proverbs, Daniel, Tobit, Sirach, and the synoptic gospels imply a salvation by works? Criticizing Roman Garrison’s claim that Clement of Alexandria’s endorsement of almsgiving as a means to purchase salvation is a departure from earliest Christianity, Anderson claims that almsgiving was taken soteriologically seriously from the get-go. He claims that Protestant fears over a text like Dan 4:24 can be laid to rest, as almsgiving needn’t be construed as a purely human work. “God has gamed the system, so to speak, in a way that allows our small donations to count against the immeasurable debt of our sins” (p 160). When doing business with God, either via sacrifice or through the medium of the poor, it was never a matter of a one-for-one exchange. The tiny amount given to God is repaid a thousandfold. How else could Nebuchadnezzar have repaid the colossal debt he owed?
Fair enough, but what about the indulgences of medieval Catholicism? When the pope granted an indulgence, he was authorizing the use of a portion of the treasury of merits left to the church by Christ and the saints. As we’ve seen, this idea has roots in 2nd-Temple Judaism (esp. Proverbs and Tobit) and the rabbinic idea of the “merits of the patriarchs”. When he nailed his theses to the wall in 1517, Luther himself still believed that works of mercy towards the poor were meritorious (what offended him at this stage was the act of granting indulgences for the restoration of St. Peter’s in Rome). So the idea isn’t as draconian as we might think.
The best aspect of this book is its timeliness. At a time when the New Perspective on Paul is being seriously called into question, it has been reasonably suggested that we reincorporate legalism into the framework of covenantal nomism. While Anderson is cautious not to fall back on caricatures, his emphasis on the metaphor of redemption puts New Perspective advocates on the spot — though I seriously doubt he intended this! Put simply, redemption is all about legalism. It’s a commercial metaphor. It says that one’s debts to God will be paid down, either through the sacrificial system or almsgiving. The legalism isn’t crass, to be sure, but it is what it is. One gets one’s desert by paying down debt.
How much of this carried over into early Christianity, however, remains murky. I don’t have the author’s confidence that almsgiving retained a meritorious function so ubiquitously. For the synoptic writers definitely, but not the post-I Corinthians Paul — not even when he advocated mercy to the poor. That Jesus became understood as an eternal sacrifice rendered at least one form of redemption superfluous. Surely some Christians drew the same corollary as Paul: redemption was effected by the savior alone.