Ancestral sin

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Ancestral sin, or ancestral fault (Koinē Greek: προπατορικὴ ἁμαρτία; προπατορικὸν ἁμάρτημα; προγονικὴ ἁμαρτία), is the doctrine that individuals inherit the judgement for the sin of their ancestors. It exists primarily as a concept in Greco-Roman religion[disambiguation needed] and Christian hamartiology.

Classical scholar Martin West draws a distinction between an ancestral curse and an inherited guilt, punishment, adversity or genetic corruption.[1]


The most detailed discussion of the concept is found in Proclus' De decem dubitationibus circa Providentiam, a propaedeutic handbook for students at the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens. Proclus makes clear that the concept is of hallowed antiquity, and making sense of the apparent paradox is presented as a defense of ancient Greek religion. The main point made is that a city or a family is to be seen as a single living being (animal unum, zoion hen) more sacred than any individual human life.[2]

The doctrine of ancestral fault is similarly presented as a tradition of immemorial antiquity in ancient Greek religion by Celsus in his True Doctrine, a polemic against Christianity. Celsus is quoted as attributing to "a priest of Apollo or of Zeus" the saying that "the mills of the gods grind slowly, even to children's children, and to those who are born after them".[3] The idea of divine justice taking the form of collective punishment is also ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible, e.g. the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the destruction of Shechem, etc. and most notably the recurring punishments inflicted on the Israelites for lapsing from Yahwism.[4][incomplete short citation]

In ChristianityEdit

The formalized Christian doctrine of original sin is a direct extension of the concept of ancestral sin (imagined as inflicted on a number of succeeding generations), arguing that the sin of Adam and Eve is inflicted on all their descendants indefinitely, i.e. on the entire human race. It was first developed in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, in his struggle against Gnosticism.[5][incomplete short citation] Irenaeus contrasted their doctrine with the view that the Fall was a step in the wrong direction by Adam, with whom, Irenaeus believed, his descendants had some solidarity or identity.[6]

Eastern OrthodoxyEdit

Ancestral sin is the object of a Christian doctrine taught by the Orthodox Church as well as other Eastern Christians. Some identify it as "inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors".[7] But most distinguish it from this tendency that remains even in baptized persons, since ancestral sin "is removed through baptism".[8]

St. Gregory Palamas taught that, as a result of ancestral sin (called "original sin" in the West), man's image was tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam's disobedience.[9] The Greek theologian John Karmiris writes that "the sin of the first man, together with all of its consequences and penalties, is transferred by means of natural heredity to the entire human race. Since every human being is a descendant of the first man, 'no one of us is free from the spot of sin, even if he should manage to live a completely sinless day'. ... Original Sin not only constitutes 'an accident' of the soul; but its results, together with its penalties, are transplanted by natural heredity to the generations to come ... And thus, from the one historical event of the first sin of the first-born man, came the present situation of sin being imparted, together with all of the consequences thereof, to all natural descendants of Adam."[10]

Roman CatholicismEdit

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Greek translation of which uses "προπατορική αμαρτία" (literally, "ancestral sin") where the Latin text has "peccatum originale", states: "Original sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted' and not 'committed' – a state and not an act. Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants."[11] Eastern Orthodox teaching likewise says: "It can be said that while we have not inherited the guilt of Adam's personal sin, because his sin is also of a generic nature, and because the entire human race is possessed of an essential, ontological unity, we participate in it by virtue of our participation in the human race. 'The imparting of Original Sin by means of natural heredity should be understood in terms of the unity of the entire human nature, and of the homoousiotitos[12] of all men, who, connected by nature, constitute one mystic whole. Inasmuch as human nature is indeed unique and unbreakable, the imparting of sin from the first-born to the entire human race descended from him is rendered explicable: "Explicitly, as from the root, the sickness proceeded to the rest of the tree, Adam being the root who had suffered corruption" (St. Cyril of Alexandria).'"[13]


In the Hebrew Bible there is an apparent contradiction between two passages of scripture:[14]

The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth … Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:7

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

The Talmud, however, rejects the idea that people can be justly punished for another person's sins and Judaism in general upholds the idea of individual responsibility. One interpretation is that, even there is no moral guilt for descendants, they may be negatively impacted as a consequence of their forebear's actions.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ West 1999, p. 33f: "Critics have often spoken of an inherited curse when what they mean is inherited guilt, or some kind of genetic corruption, or persistent but unexplained adversity."
  2. ^ Renaud 2013, pp. 23–25.
  3. ^ Renaud 2013, p. 60: "Ὀψὲ, φησι, θεῶν ἀλέουσι μύλοι, και Ἐς παίδων παῖδας τοί κεν μετόπισθη γένωνται."
  4. ^ Brill 1999, p. 113. Explicitly in Isaiah 14:21, Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:6-7, Jeremiah 32:18. Krašovec, Jože, Reward, punishment, and forgiveness: the thinking and beliefs of ancient Israel in the light of Greek and modern views
  5. ^ ODCC 2005, p. Original sin.
  6. ^ J. N. D. Kelly Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978) p. 171, referred to in Daniel L. Akin, A Theology for the Church, p. 433
  7. ^ The Nature of Sin; same text also at The Nature of Sin
  8. ^ St Nikodemos the Hagiorite: Exomologetarion; cf. "Το βάπτισμα ... αποβάλλει την παλαιά φύση της αμαρτίας (το προπατορικό αμάρτημα)" (Ανδρέα Θεοδώρου: Απαντήσεις σε ερωτήματα δογματικά (εκδ. Αποστολικής Διακονίας, 1997), p. 156-161).
  9. ^ A Discussion of the Orthodox Perception of the Nature of God Archived January 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Archpriest Alexander Golubov: Rags of Mortality: Original Sin and Human Nature
  11. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404-405
  12. ^ The correct word form is homoousiotes; the quoted text erroneously uses its genitive form homoousiotetos, and confusingly uses an 'i' instead of an 'e' in the penultimate syllable following a mixed Greek transliteration scheme with both modern and classical elements.
  13. ^ Archpriest Alexander Golubov: Rags of Mortality: Original Sin and Human Nature quoting John Karmiris, A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. from the Greek by the Reverend George Dimopoulos (Scranton, Pa.: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973), p. 36
  14. ^ a b Jonathan, Sacks (24 August 2015). "To the Third and Fourth Generations (Ki Teitse 5775)". Rabbi Sacks. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  • Gagné, Renaud (2013). Ancestral Fault in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-03980-3.
  • Martin L. West, 'Ancestral Curses', in: Jasper Griffin (ed.), Sophocles Revisited. Essays presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oxford University Press, 1999, 31–45.