Biblical theologian Gary A. Anderson has written on the changing ideas of sin in Judaism and early Christianity. His intriguing research findings are that the concept of sin in Judaism changed from earlier metaphors of stain and burden to the idea of sin as being in debt to God and other creditors.
Whenever Jewish persons could not repay their debts they were condemned to suffer and work off their obligations by becoming enslaved to their creditors or suffering other punishments. Sin became increasingly identified with being in debt to God as the ultimate creditor. Such concepts and practices are referred to in the parables of the New Testament and explain the plea to forgive us our debts in the Lord's Prayer.
To be forgiven one’s debts was a freedom and life restoring event. A family member may pay up for you or the debt can be cancelled by a generous creditor who no longer demand what is owed. Earlier Biblical concepts of sin as stain or burden were removed by the weight being taken away, perhaps by a scapegoat, or being washed clean.
Such metaphors for sin and its remission can be seen to influence different theological interpretations of how Jesus saves his people and takes away the sins of the world. Ancient Semitic practices of using credit to help others in need have also played a role in ideas of how God, Jesus and the saints can be called upon to extend help to the hard pressed sinner from their rich treasury of grace.
Experientially sin is a heavy burden and we can feel stained and soiled. To be washed clean as snow and relieved of weighty depressing burdens renews life. The painful condition of being in debt and enslaved to debt also still works as an idea for sin. This image works literally in this debt laden economy and symbolically in understanding how much addiction is like the despair of being a debt slave.
FULL BLOG: Changing ideas of sin? (Sidney Callahan / America Magazine)
Sin: A History, by Gary A. Anderson (Yale University Press)
Review: Sin: A History (Joel M. Hoggman / God Didn’t Say That)
A conversation with Sidney Callahan (calledtoholiness.org)