Original Sin: an Excert from "Byzantine Theology"

From Paredwka by Benjamin Harju

The following is an excerpt from John Meyendorff's Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. It is from the chapter on original sin and treats the translational issue at play in Romans 5:12.

The scriptural text, which played a decisive role in the polemics between Augustine and the Pelagians, is found in Romans 5:12 where Paul speaking of Adam writes, "As sin came into the world through one man and through sin and death, so death spreads to all men because all men have sinned [eph ho pantes hemarton]" In this passage there is a major issue of translation. The last four Greek words were translated in Latin as in quo omnes peccaverunt ("in whom [i.e., in Adam] all men have sinned"), and this translation was used in the West to justify the doctrine of guilt inherited from Adam and spread to his descendants. But such a meaning cannot be drawn from the original Greek — the text read, of course, by the Byzantines. The form eph ho — a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho — can be translated as "because," a meaning accepted by most modern scholars of all confessional backgrounds.22 Such a translation renders Paul’s thought to mean that death, which is "the wages of sin" (Rm 6:23) for Adam, is also the punishment applied to those who like him sin. It presupposed a cosmic significance of the sin of Adam, but did not say that his descendants are "guilty" as he was unless they also sinned as he did.

A number of Byzantine authors, including Photius, understood the eph ho to mean "because" and saw nothing in the Pauline text beyond a moral similarity between Adam and other sinners in death being the normal retribution for sin. But there is also the consensus of the majority of Eastern Fathers, who interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with 1 Corinthians 15:22 — between Adam and his descendants there is a solidarity in death just as there is a solidarity in life between the risen Lord and the baptized. This interpretation comes obviously from the literal, grammatical meaning of Romans 5:12. Eph ho, if it means "because," is a neuter pronoun; but it can also be masculine referring to the immediately preceding substantive thanatos ("death"). The sentence then may have a meaning, which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning which most Greek Fathers accepted: "As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned..."

Mortality, or "corruption," or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed since Christian antiquity as a cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is "the murderer from the beginning" (Jn 8:44). It is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense "corrupts" nature.

For Cyril of Alexandria, humanity after the sin of Adam "fell sick of corruption."23 Cyril’s opponents, the theologians of the School of Antioch, agreed with him on the consequence of Adam’s sin. For Theodore of Mopsuestia, "by becoming mortal, we acquired greater urge to sin." The necessity of satisfying the needs of the body — food, drink, and other bodily needs — are absent in immortal beings; but among mortals, they lead to "passions," for they present unavoidable means of temporary survival.24 Theodoret of Cyrus repeats almost literally the arguments of Theodore in his own commentary on Romans; elsewhere, he argues against the sinfulness of marriage by affirming that transmission of mortal life is not sinful in itself, in spite of Psalm 51:7 ("my mother conceived me in sin"). This verse, according to Theodoret, refers not to the sexual act but to the general sinful condition of mortal humanity: "Having become mortal, [Adam and Eve] conceived mortal children, and mortal beings are a necessary subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred."25