The Original Meaning Of Original Sin

In an overview of Judaism and Christianity, Kenan Malik contrasts their understandings of evil and sin:

The story of Adam and Eve, and of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but it does not condemn humanity as a whole, and nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God. In the Christian tradition, God created humanity to be immortal. In eating the apple, Adam and Eve brought mortality upon themselves. Jews have always seen humans as mortal beings.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve were as children. Having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. This is seen not as a ’fall’ but as a ‘gift’ – the gift of free will. As the Hertz Chumash, the classic Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, observes, ‘Instead of the Fall of man (in the sense of humanity as a whole), Judaism preaches the Rise of man: and instead of Original Sin, it stresses Original Virtue, the beneficent hereditary influence of righteous ancestors upon their descendants’.

The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of the Adam and Eve’s transgression that Christianity has perhaps secured its greatest influence.  The true legacy of the doctrine of Original Sin is not as an explanation of evil, but rather as a description of human nature, a description that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place.