For no particular reason several days ago I began wondering what acts or attitudes are specifically named as sin in the Bible (amartia in the New Testament). The writers, of course, use an assortment of words to describe acts or attitudes on which they frown—for example the deception of Eve was called a transgression (parabasis, 1 Timothy 2:14), but not a sin. I was only interested, however, in acts or attitudes that were specifically designated as sin.
I was surprised to discover that very few acts or attitudes are specifically designated sin. While the Bible uses the generic word sin quite frequently very few specific acts or attitudes are ever specifically named as sin. That is to say, few authors write: "X is sin." This lack of specificity raises the question: exactly what do the biblical writers have in mind when they use the general word sin or describe someone as a sinner with no specific acts or attitudes being described? For example, when people came to John the baptizer for baptism (Mark 1:5) "confessing their sins," exactly what did they confess"? Or when the "woman of the city," who washed Jesus' feet with her hair (Luke 7:37) was described as a "sinner" (Luke 7:39) what exactly had she done to earn such a harsh condemnation? And when Jesus later in the narrative "forgave her sins" (Luke 7:48) exactly what was he forgiving? The New Testament writers seldom give specific reasons for why certain people are described as sinners.
My research was quick and sloppy, so I am sure I missed some of the specific acts that are described as sin, but that will enable you, gentle reader, to pick up your concordance and add to my list. In order to make the survey manageable for a blog I limited myself to Hebrew and Greek words that English translators of the Bible decided to render by the English word sin. Note that there are a number of different Hebrew terms with subtle differences which translators chose to render as sin.
Old Testament/Jewish Scriptures/Hebrew Bible
Unfulfilled vows to God (Deuteronomy 23:21)
Witchcraft/divination and rebellion, stubbornness and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23)
Idol worship (1 Kings 12:30; 16:26)
Rebellion and speaking without knowledge (Job 34:37)
Haughty eye and proud heart (Prov 21:4)
Speaking against the Lord and Moses (Num 21:7)
Killing David without a cause (1 Sam 19:5)
David's numbering of Israel (1 Chron 21:8)
The beginning of Pride (Sirach 10:13)
Always swearing and uttering the Name (Sirach 23:10)
Proud speech (Sirach 32:12)
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29)
Immorality (unlawful sexual acts) (1 Cor 6:18)
Whatever does not proceed from faith (Rom 14:23)
All wrongdoing (1 John 5:17)
Lawlessness (1 John 3:4)
Betraying innocent blood (Matt 27:4)
Knowing to do good and not doing it (James 4:17)
Looking over this strange list, I am caused to wonder at the arrogance of contemporary religious leaders who seem to know a much longer list of acts or attitudes they regard as sin.
The use of the word sin with no specifics seems to be similar in content and style to a general slander charge in Greco-Roman antiquity. For example, the first charge against Socrates was that he did not pay customary respect to the Gods of the city of Athens (vomizein, Apology 24b, which is equivalent to a general charge of impiety or atheism). Actually Socrates was very pious and diligently sacrificed to the Gods. Dutiful respect for the Gods of one's family and community is one way of describing a respectable citizen of the community and carries the general idea of devout, pious, or upright (Daniel 11:37-38).
The charge against Socrates is the same sort of calumny leveled against the early Christians. Among other general accusations against them, they were called atheists in that they did not participate in the worship of the traditional Gods or make sacrifices in behalf of the emperor.
Calling someone a "sinner" works in a similar slanderous way. Jesus, for example, was accused of being a sinner (John 6:19, 24); it was a malicious misrepresentation and was tantamount to a slur designed to ruin his reputation. The reason given was that he didn't keep the Sabbath—in other words, it was not something he did, but something he did not do, and it lacked in specificity Even Paul was apparently accused of being a sinner (Rom 3:7).
James 4:8, like the other two examples above, has the earmarks of a general slur made by someone on one side of an argument against those on the other side, and the obscure accusations accompanying the slur lack specifics (cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, double minded).
It appears that calling someone a sinner or accusing someone of committing sin, both in the abstract, may be the equivalent of a Christian slur. The charge "sinner" without specificity has no more significance than affirming that people so designated do not agree with my way of thinking.
What is sin, anyway? Is it possible that it is simply a figment of the pious imagination? At least one ancient text claimed that there was no such thing as sin (Gospel of Mary, 3:3-5). Paul, on the other hand, seemed to think that sin is built into our DNA (Romans 7:11-23).
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University