Search the Site


Original Sin

How did the idea of original sin develop?

St. Augustine of Hippo

Q. Is original sin hereditary according to Romans 5:12? How did the idea of original sin develop?

A. The idea of original sin—a sexually-transmitted fatal condition passed from parents to the unbaptized newborn—was the invention of the early fifth-century North African church, and Augustine was its premier architect.

Rom 5:12 was introduced in support; but Christians for centuries before Augustine had read Paul’s sentence without ever devising the elaborate theological scaffolding that Augustine did.

Prior to Augustine, most theologians had read Paul as saying that humans inherited Adam’s mortality (itself a punitive condition), and a propensity to sin. Augustine, however, insisting that all subsequent human generations were in a literal way “in Adam,” insisted that all future generations inherited not only his penalty, but also his actual guilt.

For this reason, Augustine also argued, unbaptized babies died in Adam’s sin, and so could never attain salvation but were instead eternally condemned. Christ alone was born without the stain of original sin, because he was conceived without sexual intercourse. For a lengthier tour of this theological terrain, and a comparison with other religious thinkers, see Paula Fredriksen, SIN: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton 2012), pp. 114-34 and 141-46.

  • Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has authored seven books on Christian origins and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman empire and was a featured speaker in the PBS television special, From Jesus to Christ.