Sin is a word which has been ransacked and pillaged in the modern day, used in association with ice cream, chocolate truffles, lingerie, sex toys, cocktails. Taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are ‘sin taxes’. Sin has come to refer to the pleasurable consumption of something, and at the same time, always has some sort of connotation of sex. Would you ever see anything advertised aimed at children using the word sin? No. It would simply be creepy.
It’s not that the sex is always literally there, rather that the idea is behind it, even if it has been transferred to some other bodily function. All in all, sin has become trivialised in the modern day, and maybe this is no bad thing.
But where did the idea of ‘sin’, real sin, start? Well, the simple answer is of course, when Adam and Eve ate the apple. What could be more of a turning point than the origin of sin itself, as viewed by two thousand years of Christian history? But unless you actually believe in a literal Garden of Eden, the turning point we’re after is the moment when the Fall became a Big Thing.
It certainly wasn’t always one. Sure, the Bible pretty much starts with it, right there in Genesis chapter three, but you can search the Old Testament up and down and not find another mention. The bottom line is, it didn’t matter. It was just myth, explaining why humans are in the condition they’re in, nothing more. The sense of a fallen, sinful humanity is very Christian. Jews have no such ideas. Saul Bellow’s Herzog cuts to the truth when he says that Christians always see in the present moment “some fall from classical greatness, some corruption or evil to be saved from”, quite foreign to his own Jewish viewpoint.
The idea of original sin starts, really, in the letters of Paul, who saw Jesus as a “second Adam”, and one can trace the concept developing over the next three or four hundred years. It perhaps comes to a head, and is most famously associated, with St Augustine of Hippo, who developed it in, to the modern mind, a rather unappealing way. Augustine saw all humanity as tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve, and because of this we are all damned (unless
God chooses, in a predestined arbitrary sort of way, to save us). Of course, being a Christian church father, he wasn’t content to leave it at that. He saw this original sin as passed on through procreation; sex became, in his eyes, an evil. In fact, the evil. Rather more unappealingly, women were implicated rather more than men, as being the cause of sin as temptresses (it appeared to Augustine that women had control of their bodies, whereas men, in the most crude way, did not).
Already, sex and sin seem to have been bound together; even now, we still take it for granted that sin and sex make a natural, if outdated, pairing; hence the word being used to refer to consumable products: ‘sex sells’. But isn’t this odd? Judaism practically celebrates sex; Rabbis are of course married and should have as many children as possible.
If anything, the vague, modern concept of sin reminds us just how much our ideas have grown out of a Christian tradition, with a distinctive view of sin, springing up directly out of ‘New Testament’ times