Paul, Original Sin, and Rabbinic Theology

Posted By on August 5, 2009

I’ve had a request for the two articles on the idea of “original sin” and rabbinic material.  Here they are:

S. Porter, “The Pauline Concept of Original Sin in Light of the Rabbinic Background,” Tyndale Bulletin 41:1 (1990): 3-30

Kister, “Romans 5:12-21 Against the Background of Torah-Theology and Hebrew Usage,” Harvard Theological Review 100:4 (2007):391-424

Again, one will note the lack of discussion on why the OT ITSELF doesn’t make the connections the traditional view of Romans 5:12 wants to see Paul making with regard to Adam, all the while including the idea of corporate responsibility.  What do I mean? Maybe a chart will help:

The other thing to note is that the connections between what Paul says and contemporary non-canonical material and rabbinic material raise the interesting possibility that Paul, in Romans 5, was deliberately referencing Jewish thinking for the purpose of addressing and countering those ideas — namely to argue that Christ was the solution for sin (i.e., the focus wasn’t on how Adam’s sin “worked”; it was on Christ as the solution). This would mean NOT that Paul held the same ideas, but that he used those ideas to draw attention to the contrast between Judaism’s righteousness and the righteousness which comes through Christ. An interesting possibility indeed.

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37 Responses to “Paul, Original Sin, and Rabbinic Theology”

  1. jjslater says:

    Were we not in Adam when he sinned ? just as we were in Christ when He died and rose again. Then we are guilty no ?

  2. dwmtractor says:

    the focus wasn’t on how Adam’s sin “worked”; it was on Christ as the solution). This would mean NOT that Paul held the same ideas, but that he used those ideas to draw attention to the contrast between Judaism’s righteousness and the righteousness which comes through Christ. An interesting possibility indeed.

    You’re not kidding that’s an interesting possibility. In fact it has been a compelling thought for me for quite a while. Ever since I did a 30,000-foot survey of Paul by just reading his letters back-to-back, I have been gripped with the feeling that most of the stuff in Paul’s letters from which atonement theology is derived, is actually Paul’s mostly-unsuccessful (apparently) attempt to show that with Jesus’ new, finished work, we don’t have to worry about the old sin-sacrifice paradigm, but can get on about the business of following Jesus.

    If I’m right, Paul would be livid over the systematic-theological uses to which his writings are now put…

  3. Nobunaga says:

    Does this lead to the age of responsability ? i thnk in Jewish cuture it’s 13 ? and when does a human become guilty before God, is it the first time he/she breaks the law of God, there are two ways to be saved is there not ? by keeping the Law (impossible) and through faith in Christ Jesus.

  4. cwmyers007 says:

    Thank you, Thank you! Wanted to add also that there are allusions in the Apocrypha of a rabbinic type of original sin doctrine (interestingly, blame is attributed to all three characters, Eve, and the Devil and humanity in general, which of course includes Adam indirectly).

    See Ecclus. 25:24

    24 Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die.
    ( Sir 25:24) Eve blamed

    and Wisd. 2:23-24, 14:12-14

    23 For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. 24 Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.
    (Wis 2:23-24) Devil blamed

    12 For the devising of idols was the beginning of spiritual fornication, and the invention of them the corruption of life. 13 For neither were they from the beginning, neither shall they be for ever. 14 For by the vain glory of men they entered into the world, and therefore shall they come shortly to an end.
    (Wis 14:12-14) humanity in general blamed

  5. cwmyers007 says:

    I finished reading Porter’s article: I really enjoyed this one:

    One thing that stood out to me is when he looks at vv. 16, 18 and says,

    “If above (vs. 12!) there was any doubt whether death was physical or spiritual, these statements by Paul show that he sees it as spiritual as well as spiritual.” (pg. 28, parenthesis mine)

    My question to you then becomes, why do you find Porter unconvincing here? It seems you have to because it does not mesh well with your view.

    And yes, in Porter’s labeling I am clearly a ‘federalist.’ This is why I lept in joy when he said, “…and in this regard his (Paul’s profound concept of original sin) seems most compatible with a federalist view of original sin.” (pg. 30, parenthesis mine)


    The federalist solution to your “Jesus problem” is obvious. I’ll set it in propositionally form for you:

    1. Jesus could only inherit original sin if he was born under the covenant headship of Adam.
    2. Jesus was not born under Adam’s covenant headship, but God sent Jesus as the head of a new covenant to redeem a new humanity, a new creation, of all who are covenantally united ‘en to christo’
    3. Therefore, Jesus could not have original sin

    You see, for me, the federalist, original sin is not innate to humanity, but to our organic relationship to Adam as the covenant head. Christ did not have such a covenantal union with Adam, but with his Father; and this is why he could not have contracted the corruption of Adam, which we all originally contract as covenant descendants of Adam. This is basic Covenant Theology 101

  6. cwmyers007 says:

    The correct quote is “If above there was any doubt whether death was physical or spiritual, these statements by Paul show that he sees it as spiritual as well as PHYSICAL.”

    I apologize for the typo.

  7. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: “covenant headship” is a man-made idea and theological construct. It proposes a relationship between Adam and humanity that must be read into Scripture. But regardless, how does one enter into the covenant headship of Adam? Uh . . . you have to be born a human. I think that describes Jesus pretty. This solves nothing at all. Extraordinarily weak.

  8. MSH says:

    @jjslater: No. Human beings are not “in” any man in terms of a biological (“seminal”) relationship. That is contrary to biology 101 (where babies come from, and how the product of a woman’s genes and a man’s genes are only joined in the WOMAN). I blogged on this earlier. And we have to make a decision to be in Christ; there is nothing “natural” about that.

  9. MSH says:

    @Nobunaga: There IS something to be said in regard to this “age” of accountability. But it really isn’t about AGE. For example, a man could be 50 and yet so severely retarded he cannot believe the gospel. I would still say that he is an innocent. But I follow your thought with respect to children. Frankly, I don’t think an answer to this question matters, since we ought to be giving children the gospel the same way I am guessing most readers of this blog have done or will do. Only God knows when the child is able to believe and crosses that threshold.

  10. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: You’re welcome – hope you do well on the paper!

  11. Nobunaga says:

    So bang goes my Calvanisim then ! So men are Not totally depraved, not from birth at any rate, i have problems with this as all my favourite preachers seem to be calvanists, They seem to preach the Gospel with all the more urgency with this thinking that man is evil from birth. Could this lead to a apathetic preaching of the Gospel if you dont quite know how guilty a man is before God ? just thinking aloud.

    I take the points and cannot see any reason to argue with them especialy regarding Jesus and His humanity and guilt, but as preachers of the Gospel should everyone be considered on their way to Hell and take it from there ? falling in line with calvanisim for the sake of the Gospel call. As Paul sets out in Romans to show how sinfull man is Rom 3 then goes on from there.

    • Ed Roberts says:

      I don’t see your point… if you have the tendency to sin… and will in your lifetime… that does require a Savior for you… and since most people when they hear the gospel have already sinned… why would you need to align yourself with Calvinist thought on this?

      • MSH says:

        I don’t. I think God can and does choose, but I don’t believe foreknowledge necessitates predestination (like Calvinists). These ideas are separable. You’d have to read my series on election for why I think this.

  12. slowpickr says:

    If original sin (inherited guilt) were a true, Biblical concept, wouldn’t God have commanded the Jews to offer sacrifices for the sin of their children (babies)? I have never found anything like this commanded or inferred in my OT. I think this and the points that Dr. Heiser makes clearly demonstrate that the traditional concept of original sin is a man made doctrine with no legitimate Scriptural authority.

  13. rode says:

    might be off topic but
    I’ve just thought of something…if what we inherit from Adam’s sin is only the penalty of death, then why did Enoch or Elijah (who also sinned, its pressumed) never experienced death (at least not yet, right?)?

    • Ed Roberts says:

      for Elijah… it says God took him… but that could have been just to another part of the earth… there is a letter written to Jehoram after this that is in scripture 2 Chron 21:12f… if it is the same Elijah then he was just somewhere else on the earth…

      • MSH says:

        2 Kings 1:17 has Elijah alive before his “translation” to heaven after Jehoram became king. That means that 2 Chron 21:12 need not be read as occurring after that “translation” — they could just as well be contemporaneous, as they’d be very near in terms of chronology. There’s nothing that requires the Chronicles reference to come after the chariot of fire episode.

  14. cwmyers007 says:

    @MSH: No, actually covenant theologians do not say that you merely have to be born human to be considered under Adam’s headship. Rather, we say that you have to be born with a corrupted nature–a nature with an absolutely guaranteed propensity to sin. Born with this kind of nature is what puts you under Adam’s headship, not merely being human–there is nothing naturally evil about humanity. I believe that Jesus was more human than any one of us. Because he was born with an unmarred nature like the original humanity in Eden–this is why your Jesus problem is resolved in the mind of covenant theologians because Jesus was not born with a corrupted nature. If he was, then he could not be a covenant head, but instead he would be a covenant member under the head of Adam (which would be against Scripture). If you could accept the definitions that I have laid here, then you should also see why a covenant theologian has all of your questions answered in their minds. You would also know why they read your musings with befuddlement because they will not understand that you are not accepting definitions and a theological worldview that they accept.
    As to you accusing covenant headship as “a man-made idea and theological construct. It proposes a relationship between Adam and humanity that must be read into Scripture,” I can only say this: I think that covenant headship is taking seriously the original ancient Israelite covenant corporate mind-set by which they related to one another and their God. I think the theological construct is the result of systematic exegesis of Scripture. But I am sure that this debate cannot be resolved through this forum.

  15. cwmyers007 says:

    Moreover, I think that the OT did not speak much on the covenant solidarity that they had with Adam because they thought that their covenant solidarity that they had with Abraham trumped that one and the covenant with Abraham became as valuable and precious to them as our new covenant that we have in Christ.

    On “in Christ”: if you did a scholarly study of Paul’s “in Christ” theology, you would have a hard time making any sense of the data without having a covenant solidarity mind-set sculpted after the ancient Israelite mind-set of covenant headship. That study is a challenge that I propose for you. If you had the energy to embark on such a study, then you might become a covenant theologian!…LOL

  16. Nobunaga says:

    Genesis 8:21
    And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

    now what is deemed to be youth.

    na`uwr (naw-oor’)
    (only in plural collectively or emphatic form) youth, the state (juvenility) or the persons (young people) — childhood, youth.

    Childhood is mentioned here ?

  17. MSH says:

    @Nobunaga: kind of a slippery slope idea, and one that doesn’t make sense. Since all humans are without hope without Christ in my non-traditional view of Romans 5:12, how would that make preachers any less concerned? Makes no sense.

  18. MSH says:

    @slowpickr: an interesting trajectory

  19. MSH says:

    @rode: this is (I think) a bit more related to the topic of Old Testament salvation — how were people “saved” in the OT before the messiah came, died, rose, etc.

  20. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: Jesus is still a son of Adam despite all this. Jesus cannot be exempted from this covenant relationship between God and HUMANS as though he were not human.

  21. MSH says:

    @Nobunaga: right – humans are evil “from their youth” – when they start sinning. Not from the time they are a four-celled zygote. This *may* be an interesting sidebar, though, to the “age of accountability” issue – thanks for this!

  22. rode says:

    just this past weekend i spoke with a person who believed that we are born sinners and that it is passed down to humanity by Males only and via their Semen!!
    i was honestly shocked..

    ever heard that before? i haven’t…

    • MSH says:

      sure; that is the logical outcome of thinking that Jesus was virgin born so he wouldn’t have original sin (he had no human father, therefore sin must be transmitted by males). Utter nonsense that doesn’t work anyway because Mary was born of two human parents. (This is also part of the reason the catholic church says such goofy stuff about Mary).

  23. Patrick says:


    Just got around to reading all this Romans 5 discussion. How about all the references in Paul’s writings about “putting off the old man” relating to living via the spirit as opposed to our natural selves?

    Do you take the “old man” in those cases as something we acquired after we first knowingly sinned? The original sin idea then being our construct instead of sound exegesis?

    • MSH says:

      I consider “old man” to be either the flesh or our guilty status prior to conversion (depending on the context it could be either). My point regarding Romans 5 is that we are guilty because of what we do, not anyone else.

  24. Patrick says:


    Just thought of this. Isaiah said, “I came out of my mother’s womb lying”. Wouldn’t that infer the original sin idea?

    • MSH says:

      It doesn’t argue at all that the person who emerged from the womb was guilty for anyone else’s sin (including Adam’s). Rather, I would take it as pointing to the inevitability of our own sinfulness.

  25. JBarruso says:

    MSH says:
    August 14, 2009 at 10:43 AM
    @Nobunaga: right – humans are evil “from their youth” – when they start sinning. Not from the time they are a four-celled zygote. This *may* be an interesting sidebar, though, to the “age of accountability” issue – thanks for this!

    If evil only happens as a result of sin in “youth” then what is mean by “your seed and her Seed;” in Gen 3:15

    “seed” suggests from conception to me

  26. Micah says:

    MSH, thank you for this comprehensive discussion on this highly controversial verse and the twisting, pulling and manipulation to make it say what it doesn’t. You have given me some additional points to use in my “verbal observations” while speaking to my Calvinist friends.

    I’ve responded on this particular thread because it is the last you’ve replied to since the inception of this discussion in 2009.

    My question, that I hoped you would get to in above threads, is the difference between two terms, one of which you’ve spoken frequently and the other none at all. You’ve spoken extensively about “being saved,” but have made no mention in your very valid arguments as to “being born again.”
    The reason I bring this up is a teaching I heard a few months ago that states the number of times been or being saved are small compared to the term born again. I contend that we aren’t saved until after we die because the context of the savedness is the fact we don’t endure the second death and so we don’t experience “being saved” from it until the first death occurs. On the other hand, the bible speaks much about being born again which happens in the here and now while alive. I won’t go into all the rabbit trails associated with this term as to it’s evidenced by our obedience to Christ after being born again and the fact that there’s a huge difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus in an intimate and personal born again relationship.
    Can you please share if you’ve previously written about this distinction elsewhere and if not will you consider writing in detail about it?
    Sorry if I haven’t made myself totally clear here.

    Thank You

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