Loving the Sinner, part 2: Sin


Recall one of the premises of the first installment of this essay: the main reason to care about accurately assessing guilt and innocence is the goal of punishing people whose behavior we want to deter, and only them.  This point of departure led to the conclusion that our best strategy is to deter anyone who perpetrates a crime without looking too closely at patterns in his behavior, with the corollary that the instinct to treat each crime as evidence of the perpetrator’s criminal character is healthy.  (And if the instinct is healthy, so are the punitive habits that the instinct ingrains and the juridical institutions that grow up around the habits, all of which lead to a stable system of deterrence.)

However, I would not have needed to stand in defense of the punitive instinct if there were no reason to think it might need defense.  This instinct is healthy even though it comes from a general bias to explain actions with inner attributes rather than external circumstances, even though it may generate some inconsistent or inaccurate beliefs, even though it may dissipate if someone rubs your nose in all relevant extenuating circumstances.  The formula “X, even though Y” expresses a tension between X and Y, or some sort of incongruity between asserting both at the same time.  These three even though’s represent the tension between approval of the tit-for-tat strategy of retaliation and an ironic assessment of the beliefs that go along with it. 

This tension is why a concept of sin is necessary, as distinct from related concepts like wrong, crime, and guilt.

You can think of the tension between the attribution of guilt and the ironic ambivalence about the accuracy of that attribution as producing a kind of reciprocal pressure.  If one approves of a system of deterrence undergirded by anger at the guilty, one’s anger chases off detachment whenever a question of guilt arises in the context of crime and punishment.  If this approval is bestowed with a touch of ironic contempt for one’s own beliefs about the guilty, beliefs which cannot be taken at face value but have a role to play nonetheless, then one’s ambivalence will blanche the intensity of righteous anger as soon as it’s function has been fulfilled and it has no role left to play.

In other words, this tension channels as much of the anger as possible towards meting out justice for the crime committed, and dissipates any additional anger which goes beyond that end.  

molluscum-freezing-cryotherapy1The more one’s vengeful anger is focused narrowly on the appropriate punishment for a particular crime, the more it comes to seem that it is not a person who is being punished, but rather his act: the sin.  In the first part of the essay (yesterday’s post) we took a strategic, game-theoretic view of guilt, and that helped us see that deterrence promotes law and order and retaliation deters effectively because it takes into account the (possibly malicious) strategies the perpetrator could be pursuing.  This perspective makes it easy to see punishment as directed against a person who makes decisions (the person whom tit-for-tat deters).  But from the ironic point of view, which endorses tit-for-tat not because it is the one strategy that successfully sifts the guilty from the innocent but because its approach to guilt does a better job than any alternative system, it is natural to separate out a sin which is punished from a sinner who suffers when his sins are punished, just as children with warts suffer when their warts are frozen off.


Anger which cannot be channeled towards participation in the punishment (even if only participation as a spectator), anger which goes beyond an appropriate, proportionate punishment, or anger which continues beyond the time of punishment is superfluous, even impertinent.  Play Officer Krupke, if you like!  Once the guilty have been punished you can look at the causal explanation of their criminal behavior from multiple perspectives, sine ira et studio. And to the extent you come to see the sin as the target of punishment, not he who sinned, you can feel other, milder emotions towards any aspect of the sinner other than his crime and its punishment.  If he is talented, you can admire his talents (and hate his sin).  If there are bonds of family, friendship, or citizenship between the two of you, you can love him as a brother, a bff, or a patriot (and hate his sin).

Christians say “love the sinner, hate the sin”.  Cf.  Augustine, Letter 211 (“with love for mankind and hatred for sin”) ; Jude’s Epistle, ch. 1 (“And indeed, have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; and to still others, show mercy tempered with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh.” N.b., antilegomena.)

Sins deserve hatred, anger and indignation, the emotions that inspire us to resist dangers by destroying them.  Sinners deserve whatever love we would ordinarily owe them in their capacity as neighbors, cousins, mentors, and so on.  The sinner is the primate puppet whereby a particular sin is accomplished, but the sinner does not cause the sin any more than the sin causes the sinner.  The sinner is a person, a real human being with all the traits and characteristics personhood entails.  The sin is a hateful act, which has the sorts of qualities acts have.  A sin might have consisted in swinging a baseball bat, for example.  There are many innocent acts that consist in swinging a baseball bat, like hitting a home run.  A sin differs from such innocent acts both in precise details (like: swinging a bat into a man’s skull) and in its moral evaluation (like: swinging a bat in a harmful, criminal, or unnatural way).

The cause of both sins and sinners is sinfulness, a broad and nebulous category.  When the illusion that guilty acts must be explained by guilty minds (and vice versa) has been scoured away, what remains is a flexible grasp of all the possible sources of sin.  This category of causes overlaps with personal traits and aspects of actions without including any persons or acts: the sinner and the sin are the explananda, not the explanans.

Sins we can hate and punish (or institute magistrates who can punish them for us). 

Sinners we must love and cannot punish; in the first place because we are all sinners, and in the second place because a person is too complicated to punish, other than indirectly in their sins.  Deciding which sinners to punish, and how, simply is not appropriate for the capacities of human beings. 

Sinfulness we can hate, but it is an impotent, yipping hatred, since we cannot hope to destroy sinfulness.  This task, too, is beyond the powers and authority of mankind.

The reward of a properly nuanced understanding of sin is not the resolution of some minor intellectual tension or the pleasure it affords.  A proper distinction between sins, sinners, and sinfulness helps us avoid talking ourselves into labyrinths of the spirit where we cannot escape the urgent desire to punish what we have no right or ability to punish, and reform what we cannot reform.  In ordinary cases this labyrinth is populated by overbearing mothers and nosy, gossipy busybodies.  But the danger of these twisted passages is that they culminate in the attempt to construct an earthly paradise and an earthly hell.

Series: Loving the Sinner

  1. Part I (Introduction) 
  2. Part II (Sin) < You are here
  3. Part III (Ecology)
  4. Part IV (Parties)
  5. Part V (Postscript)

Religious phylogeny and the “Kike on a stick”

Our text for the day is from the prophet Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”


For a very long time, the poz people have been insinuating nasty things about the origins of Christianity to raise doubts about its theological content and psychological effects, and to demoralize Christians.  A relatively recent attack — initiated by Voltaire, but taken up with relish by Friedrich Nietzsche — has tried to associate Christianity with the unpleasant habits and principles of Ashkenazi jews, in particular.  But the attack is not only intermittently demoralizing to Christians: it breeds spectacular ignorance about the history of religions!

The question comes down to this. Was Jesus Christ a jew? Is a Bible consisting of an Old and a New Testament therefore Judeo-Christian? If the members of the ethno-religious group who have been called “jews” since there has been an English language are jews, then the answer to both questions is No.  If the answer to those questions is Yes, then the “jews” are not jews.

Allow me to explain.


JudenhutIlluminatedThe word jew was originally used to refer to a non-Christian religious group that has lived in and traveled through Europe without belonging to any European nationality; often living in ghettoes and engaging in commercial activities prohibited to Christians; speaking a peculiar dialect of German (in Central and Eastern Europe) or Spanish (in Iberia and other Hapsburg possessions).  Jew, and similar words in other modern European languages, is derived from the Latin word iudæorum, reflecting the fact that this community descends partly or mainly from emigrants from Iudæa.  In the early modern period, this was so well-understood that the translators working on the English Bible (and other Latin texts) translated iudæorum as “jews” rather than “Judæans”.  An innocent enough translation choice, but one that has contributed to an absurd conflation.  In the first place, jews are not Judæans: that is, they are not inhabitants of the Roman province of Iudæa, nor of the eponymous kingdom of Judah which preceded it.  More significantly, the jews have never (since the name existed) practiced the same religion as the Judæans.  The Judæans’ religion was administered by a hereditary priesthood and revolved around a sacrificial cult at a central and unique temple complex.  The jews’ religion has no priesthood, no sacrificial cult, no temple complex; instead it revolves around encyclopedic knowledge of an immense body of texts composed in the Middle Ages, whose earliest elements date back only to the century after the Judæan religion was put down by the Romans (who destroyed the temple complex and its priesthood in 70 AD).  The two religions only share two elements; the creators of the jewish religion continued to use a dialect descended from classical Hebrew as a liturgical language, and the jews also continued to revere some texts which originated with the Judæans (the “Tanakh”, i.e. the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the books of Wisdom) along with their medieval inventions (the Talmud and the Mishnah).

SPQRManhole.jpgIn other words, the religion of the Judæans is as dead as the senatus populusque romanorum (whatever Rome’s manhole-covers say).  It does have living descendants, though.  In fact, the situation is rather more complicated than “descendants”, which implies a family tree.  The graph of religious communities inspired by the beliefs expressed in the Book of Genesis would resemble a mangrove swamp.


The word Abiru (our “Hebrew”) appears in various ancient sources as a sort of pejorative for the loathed herder/robbers who existed in the interstices of the Near East’s irrigation-centric agricultural empires.  If we take Genesis as a record of these herders’ attitudes towards the urban priesthood and its empire, the loathing was mutual.  Of the people following this early desert religion, we can tease out at least two strands; the Jebusites, whom the Judæans considered to practice the same religion, and the Chaldean Abiru, who all claimed kinship through the patriarch Terah, the father of Abraham. The Moabites and

Canaan, in the time of Moses.

Ammonites were recognized as descendants of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.  The Arabs were recognized as descendants of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael.  The Edomites, even more closely related to the author of Genesis, were acknowledged to be cousins to Jacob’s descendants.


The descendants of Jacob or Israel, the Israelites, are an intriguing historical enigma — but the origin of these tribes and the circumstances under which they decided to adopt one another as descendants of a single band of brothers is a topic for another day.  For our purposes the important point is that twelve tribes living in historical Palestine forged a relatively long-lasting military-religious federation, and part of the symbolism of this federation was the belief that the founding patriarchs of each of the tribes were brothers, and that their father was Jacob/Israel.  (These were the people who codified the Pentateuch.)

One of these tribes was the tribe of Judah, which later gave its name to the Kingdom of Judah and to the region of Judæa. The division of Israelites into Judæans and non-Judæans is the first division of this family tree with multiple surviving branches.  The northern tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel, which was eventually destroyed as a

The Divided Kingdom, from circa 930 BC to 722 BC. Judah survived until 586 BC.

political unit, but its non-Judæan inhabitants continued to practice their traditional religion in the region known as Samaria. We meet the “Good Samaritan”, who aids a Judæan ignored by his own tribesmen, in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37).  As the story hints, relations between Samaritans and Judæans were proverbially frosty, so it is a small irony that recent anthropologists have labelled the surviving members of this group “Samaritan Jews”. (Samaritan Judæans?!?)



Now, according to the history recorded in the Old Testament, after the political destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem (at a minimum) were deported to the Assyrian Empire and remained there several generations before a new Persian dynasty permitted the Judæan elite to return to Judæa in order to refound Jerusalem and its temple cult.  (This was the time at which Ezra and Nehemiah compiled the Old Testament in its present form.)  The Persian-sponsored Judæa was short-lived; Persia fell to Alexander’s armies and Judæa was held by the diadochē until the Maccabean revolt founded the Hasmonean kingdom.  (This was the period of the LXX translation.)

The exposure of the Judæans to the culture of their conquerors — first the Persians, then the Greeks — produced a cultural split between Judæans who continued to hold a clannish loyalty to the temple cult and its priesthood, and those willing to conform to the new political dispensation.  The very word for “apostate” which survives from late-classical Hebrew is apikouros: i.e., Epicurean, after the most influential and popular philosophy of the Hellenistic era.  But divisions were also beginning to show among traditionalist Judæans; some remained loyal to the priesthood and the temple cult, while others, the so-called Essenes, escaped into the desert to live a life more centered on personal asceticism and a direct relationship with God unmediated by the temple cult.  These Essenes gave rise to new cults whose characteristic ritual was symbolic immersion; the most famous practitioner of this branch of Judæan religion was Iokaanon, or John the Baptist.

Religious splits within the temple cult continued towards the end of the Hasmonean dynasty.  The two major currents were the Saducees (the traditional hereditary priestly aristocracy, the “sons of Zadok”) and the Pharisees (self-styled religious gurus).  The Pharisees might best be compared to astrologists, numerologists, witch-doctors, psychics, and other popular entrepreneurs of the paranormal.  The Sadducees encouraged the Judæans to worry as little as possible about the trivialities and perplexities of religious revelation and the rituals it commanded; their attitudes towards religious requirements might best be described as “don’t call us, we’ll call you”.  But if someone with a religious preoccupation went to the Pharisees, they would be happy to humor any superstition and offer a satisfyingly complex solution – for a modest consideration, of course!  The Pharisees also seem to have been more receptive to foreign religious and magical doctrines, in particular Babylonian numerology and Zoroastrian mythology; their base of support may have been among the large Judæan communities which remained behind in the Persian Empire.

Enter the son of man.  Jesus of Nazareth was not, technically speaking, a Judæan; rather, He was a Galillean.  Nor was He a Hebrew-speaker; available evidence suggests that sayings of Jesus were originally recorded in the Aramaic language. But He was a member of

Jesus with a whip, Jn 2:15/Mt 21:12

the tribe of Judah and a practitioner of the traditional Judæan religion, well-versed in its prophetic texts and attentive to the dignity of the temple cult.  (For example, He was notably unhappy about the impropriety of conducting forex operations on temple premises.) Theologically, He endorsed and amplified the mild pietism of the Sadducees, as against the superstitious orthopraxy of the Pharisees; but He also showed a strong affinity for the ideals and practices of the ascetic Essenes.  His distaste for the Pharisees was strong enough that “pharisee” is still, two millennia later, a term of abuse.


The crucifixion of Jesus ended His personal ministry in Galilee, but His message was kept alive by His apostles.  It was the Sadducees, ironically, whom the Romans were to extinguish.  The destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the active persecution of the priesthood decimated both the Sadducees themselves and the source of their religious authority (control of the sacrificial temple cult).  Over the next century, most Judæans and Judæan expatriates either abandoned Judæan religion entirely, or converted to the more universalistic Christian strand of it.  These Judæans and their descendants ceased to have a distinct Judæan ethnicity, and blended in to the host population.  However, at the same time the remaining Pharisees were compiling their superstitions and esoterica in two collections, the Talmud and the Midrash.  As they reached peak complexity in the high Middle Ages, the religious doctrine of these books proved capable of preventing the Pharasaic diaspora from (a) converting to other religions or (b) mingling with non-Pharisee populations to the point of losing their distinct Judæan ethnicity.  As a result, the small fraction of the Judæan communities around the Mediterranean which had not yet assimilated when the Talmud and Midrash became available, and who subsequently adopted them, became the foundation of medieval Judaism, the stable form which brought the Pharasaic strain forward through the next dozen centuries.

Was zealotry the last stand of implicit Sadducee identity?


A “jew”, to my way of thinking, is a member of that tribe whose ancestors lived in the medieval Talmudic ghettoes.  Jesus of Nazareth may have been Rex Iudæorum, but not even Pontius Pilate accused him of being King of the Talmudic ghettoes.  Christianity may have suffered Zoroastrian, Manichæan, and Mithraic influence; but Jesus was no more influenced by the Talmud than Plato was, or Arjuna.  And while there is not shame in scrutinizing our favorite writers for the long shadow of “deplorable ghetto inbreeding”, the Fathers of the Church hammered out Christian doctrine centuries before the first wall was build around the first ghetto.