Excerpt from James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pp. 147-156.

[This is part four of chapter five, "The Intelligence of the Victim and the Distortion of Desire." The opening sections of this chapter have primarily dealt with the word skandalon in the N.T. as signaling the distortion of desire.]

The Pauline Understanding of Desire (1)

Where the other texts of the apostolic witness we have examined refer sinful origins preferentially to Cain and Abel, either explicitly or by implication, Paul works out his understanding of sinful origins with relation to Adam. The same basic idea is behind both: that Christ, in his death and resurrection has overcome the human order based on whichever of the two "beginnings" is in question; so the beginnings are only invoked as a help to understanding what we are now on our way out of in Christ: the chronologically later is the determinative pole of the argument, the former is the illustrative pole (see specifically Rom. 5:14, where Adam is typos tou mellontos). In chapter 9 I conflate the Cain and Abel version of sinful origins and the Adam version -- what one might call respectively the concentration on murder itself and the concentration on desire leading to murder. Here I merely hope to illustrate the Pauline analysis of the latter.

There is a quite specific reason behind Paul's option to discuss sin in terms of Adam. This is related to the polemic about the Law that underlies and occupies so much of both Romans and Galatians. By re-reading the Adam story, which contains an original prohibition (Gen. 2:15-17), in the light of the cross, Paul is able to show the relationship between desire and the (mosaic) Law, which is seen as an explicitation and elaboration of the original prohibition, in such a way as to demonstrate the caducity of the latter and the universally death-bound nature of the former.

I am not seeking to make an exegesis of the Pauline texts. Nor am I seeking to prove that Paul "already" has a doctrine of Original sin. Rather I am trying to show that for Paul, starting from Adam rather than from Cain and Abel, it was no less apparent (and maybe even more apparent) than it was for the rest of the apostolic tradition that what we have been brought out of by Christ is a human condition (a) constituted by distorted desire (b) and lived out in a mimetic interdividuality, in which it is the "other" who forms and moves the "I." This human condition (c) comes from and leads to death and (d) is from the beginnings of, and affects the whole, human race. That is to say, that for Paul as for the other witnesses a certain sort of anthropological understanding is a necessary consequence of, and basis for, the understanding of the salvation that has been wrought in Christ.

Let us look at this claim point by point:

a) the human condition is constituted by distorted desire. Adam appears explicitly in Romans only in 5:12-21, in lines that are infamously central to the Augustinian interpretation of original sin. However it is not there alone that the early chapters of Genesis make their appearance. The early chapters of Genesis are the vital allusive framework of the whole of Romans 1-8, and it is in the light of them that Paul argues with his interlocutors, for whom the text would not only have been familiar but an authority held in common with Paul. In Romans 1:32 Paul shows that he considers that all humans know of the primal prohibition that is found in Genesis 2:15-17. This law is to be found inscribed on the hearts of both Jews and gentiles (Rom. 2:15). It is thus reasonable to read Paul's understanding of the fulfilment of the law as love of neighbor (Rom. 13:10) as the positive command made necessary by, and in direct contraposition to, the negative command of Genesis 2:15-17. The primal prohibition is being read in the light of Jesus' commandment.

The use Paul makes of the primal prohibition is to be found in Romans 7:7-20, which involves an implicit reading of the Adam story. It is necessary to fill in some steps which Paul jumps (presumably because of the familiarity of what is being described to his interlocutors). The primary positive commandment is to love the neighbor as oneself. The encapsulation of the Mosaic decalogue is in the commandment not to desire (ouk epithuméseis, which we normally translate by "covet" or "envy"). It is this prohibition which is read as being the content of the prohibition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is to say, it was an initial act of covetousness, or envy (the suggestion into being of envy is marvellously conveyed by the eritis sicut dii of Genesis 3:5), which broke the original prohibition, cast God in the rôle of a vengeful rival and introduced humans into the world order in which envy governs human relationships. It is in this world order that the commandment to love the neighbour as oneself fulfils the original prohibition, by aiming at restoring fractured human relationality. Behind this understanding is the reading (well attested within Jewish circles, see Wisdom 2:23-24) of the Genesis story as the way in which envy came into the world, and its consequences for humanity.

The primary problem, according to this reading of Genesis, which Paul's shorthand enables us to intuit, was that God gave a prohibition for the benefit of human beings (not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil), and this same prohibition was treated by human desire, turned (by imitating the suggestion of the serpent) to envy, as a sign of God withholding something of his being from humans. Envy turned a prohibition given for our benefit into a sign of divine rivalry with, rather than divine love for, us, and humans were thereafter constituted in rivalry, the fruit of envy. This reading of Genesis lies behind Romans 7:7-12. Paul explicitly says that the law itself is not sinful, but was meant to bring life, "but sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness" (7:8), where "me" is Adam, Paul, and everyone. He goes on: "I (Adam, Paul, omnes) was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life (2) and I died" (7:9). Paul interprets the serpent of Genesis in terms not of the devil, but of sin: It was sin which found opportunity in the commandment to deceive humans. Human desire, in itself good, turned to envy. Making use of the commandment, it deceived itself and led to death.

Paul demonstrates this because his argument is that the Law of Moses is the continuation and explicitation of the original prohibition. That is to say, the Law, which in itself is good, was, from the beginning, the occasion of the distortion of desire, and since then is not only the occasion of the distortion of desire, but actually contributes to the further distortion of desire. The Law has, as it were, become prisoner to, and works as a function of, the world of sacralized violence that has resulted from the breaking of the original prohibition. I say sacralized violence since the twin effects of the rupture of the original prohibition were to produce an envious and vengeful perception of God, and a human race constituted in envy and rivalry leading to death: it is the conflation of these two elements which produce the "sacred violent" that is at the root of all idolatry, and thus of all human culture. The combination of a rivalistic notion of God and a rivalistic living of humanity constitutes the sphere of death from which God has sought to set us free in Christ. Paul's argument is essentially that desire has turned the original prohibition into a stumbling block, such that all human beings live in the mode of stumbling through distorted desire. This same distorted desire affects even the Law, which was meant to reveal and control the desire, and as such turns the Law into an instrument of death. For this Paul's own experience as a law-inspired persecutor of Christ was paradigmatic.

This enables us to see the structure of Paul's analysis of universal sin in Romans 1:18-32. The first effect of human transgression following the Adamic model set out above was to provide a distorted image of God, and simultaneously to divinize things that were not God (1:18-23). Envious desire turns what should have been a pacific model (God) into an obstacle, and then seeks out obstacles, turning them into models (gods). The next step is that, just as Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness, and human erotic life became complicated by distorted desire, so human bodies and passions become perverted and distorted (1:24-27). The final step, corresponding to the life of humanity once expelled from the Garden (and thus to Cain, Lamech, Babel, and so on) is that the whole of human life and culture is utterly infected with distorted desire leading to strife and murder, and all under the sentence of death resulting from the original prohibition (1:28-32).

Before turning to the interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 let us look at the underlying psychology by which this distorted desire is present among humans. That is, the claim above (b) that the human condition is lived out in a mimetic interdividuality in which it is the "other" who forms and moves the "I."

That it is the "other" who forms the human "I" is already implicit in the account of desire distorted to envy which we have seen above. From God pacifically forming the "I" by means of his righteous commandment, it is now the order of sin which forms a conflictual "I." That Paul understands human consciousness in this way is shown by the metaphors he uses for sin. He insists in chapter 6:15-23 on the fundamental heteronomy of the human condition: we are slaves either to sin or to righteousness. Which is to say that our "I" is formed by our relationality with that which masters us, be it God, or the sinful order following on from Adam's sin (5:12). What Christ has made available, in revealing the righteousness of God, is human faith in that righteousness. Hence the rôle for Paul of faith: it enables us to recover the perception of God's goodness that distorted desire had destroyed, by turning God into a jealous rival. Faith, whose importance for Paul can scarcely be underestimated, is that form of knowing adhesion to the righteousness of God that has been revealed in Christ's self-giving. This divinely given ability to resist believing anything evil or rivalrous in God permits the complete reconstitution of the self which had been formed as a result of rivalistic desire. This enables "an obedience from the heart" (6:17) to this newly revealed other, and thus the reconstitution of the whole human "I" governed by the new other, in a "slavery" (6:19) whose end is eternal life, rather than death.

It is the same understanding that underlies the metaphor of the indwelling of sin to be found in 7:13-25. Sin is a force which moves every person so that they cannot obey the law they know to be true (the fundamental prohibition against envy and its positive counterpart, love of neighbor as self). Thus the existential condition of every person is that of a conflictual self moved from without. The "I" is not something which controls, but which is controlled by sin which has reached within (7:20). (3) The only force capable of undoing this constitution of the self by the violent other of sin is God as revealed and made available by Jesus Christ (7:25). Exactly what this change might consist in can be shown by reference to Galatians 2:19-21, part of a passage dealing with many of the same themes as Romans. The other in question, God working through Jesus Christ, is able to re-form the "I" of Paul so completely that his "I" is actually replaced by Christ: "It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). There could be no clearer indication of a mimetic psychology than the de-possession of the "I" formed by the world, and the constitution of an "I" that is possession by Christ.

We can therefore talk about Paul's understanding of the human subject in terms of triangular desire, whether a beneficent or a maleficent triangle. This can be seen in three steps: Initially the subject lived in a relationship of pacific imitation of (obedience towards) the model (God) and was able to love Eve and creation (the object designated by the model) in a non-rivalistic fashion. This constituted the first Adam. Then, when free desire distorted itself to envy, the model became a rival, and its will (the prohibition) an obstacle, the object became conflictual (nakedness, work, strife), and the subject was constituted by the sinful other. Now, with the coming of Christ, and by producing an imitation of Christ, the Holy Spirit forms a new "I" that is at peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

R. Hamerton-Kelly illustrates the same Pauline understanding of the triangularity of the mimetic structuring of the self, centered around the sort of desire that is at work in the sexual relations discussed in 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 (Sacred Violence, pp. 116-117). Using the terminology made popular by Nygren, (4) he shows that the relationship with the Lord is one of "agapaic" mimesis, while the relationship with the prostitute is one of "erotic" mimesis. In both cases desire forms the subject through the other: it is through the subject being formed in agapaic (non-rivalrous) love for the Lord that God is able to "raise us up" (reconstitute the subject); while the erotic mimesis (founded on rivalry, seeking to fulfil a felt lack in the subject) which binds a subject to a prostitute causes the subject to sin "against his own body." That is to say, acquisitive desire by reducing the other to a function of my feeling of lack (envie, envy), reduces the "me" who is formed by my relationality with the reduced other.

In this way we begin to see how the various images and metaphors used by Paul to describe sin (indwelling, enslaving, deceiving) rather than being merely mythical descriptions of some abstract power are all relational metaphors working within an interdividual mimetic anthropology. This is for no other reason than that it is within this framework that Paul is able to account for the way in which the resurrection of Christ, opening up the goodness of God, and the possibility of faith in that goodness, is able to reconstitute the human "I" in such a way that we are enabled to inherit eternal life. We are enabled to see once again that it is the structure of salvation that yields an anthropology of human involvement in sin. The same structure that gives us the proto-Trinitarian formula of salvation in Galatians 4:4-6 accounts for the passage from sin to salvation within the terms of reference of a triangular mimetic and interdividual understanding of human desire.

This enables us to move on to look at my claim above (c) that in Paul's view the human condition constituted by distorted desire and lived out in mimetic interdividuality comes from and leads to death.

One of the many reasons for the complications in interpreting Romans 5:12-14 is that it is the place where Paul conflates two different accounts of the relationship between sin and death. These two accounts are present in different parts of Romans. The first account, which is the one which most suits his argument concerning the law, is what one might call the extrinsic account of the relationship between sin and death. Adam transgressed a prohibition; this transgression carried an explicit death penalty from God, so death came into the world, and everybody else ever since has lived in the realm of death. In this account, left to its own devices, sin is a separate reality from death. Death is merely an extrinsic punishment for sin: because we all sin, so we all die. In Romans 5:12-21 this understanding is clearly present in the reference to the transgression of Adam (parabaseôs, 5:14), and the judgement following the one trespass bringing condemnation (5:16, 18). In Paul's shorthand the presence of this extrinsic account is important since it permits him a series of arguments from objective transgression to objective salvation, and enables him to proceed with his argument about the Law.

Simultaneously there is present an intrinsic account of the relationship between sin and death: death and sin are involved in each other without any necessary recourse to some divine sentence. From the moment envy distorted desire, desire has been towards death. Death is, as it were, the content of sin, and so is capable of reigning by the presence of sinful desire, and itself producing sinful desire. This understanding is clear in the use of the word "reign" where death is a dynamic reality which is the content of the sins of those between Adam and Moses, even where those sins were quite different from Adam's, with its formal sentence (5:14). Death reigns again in v. 17, and in v. 21 sin reigns in death, again showing the interchangeability, and thus the intrinsic co-implication of these two realities. This intrinsic understanding of the relationship between the two realities is important since it permits Paul to give the content of salvation. So, in v. 15, the free gift and the trespass are compared: the content of the trespass consists in the exact opposite of a free gift, that is to say, desire distorted to envy, acquisitive grasping. In v. 17 it is the content and end of the trespass and the content and end of the free gift that are compared. The content of the acquisitive grasping is death, while the content of gratuitous self-giving is life.

This distinction between the extrinsic and the intrinsic understandings that are being conflated by Paul in Romans 5:14-21 enables us to make some observations concerning Paul's vocabulary in this passage. In Paul's usage the word parabaseôs (RSV: transgression) has the objective sense of a violation of a command or prohibition. The word paraptôma (RSV: trespass) combines the objective sense with the desirous involvement that leads to it and is its content. The word hamartia/hamartano (RSV:sin) refers to a desire-and-death formed state of affairs which is of course made actual in particular sins. Given this, we can now apply what we have learned from the rest of the passage to the understanding of the notorious 5:12-14 and see how it can be interpreted. I would suggest that it is fair to interpret the verses as follows:

Therefore just as through one man the sinful state of affairs was brought about in the world, and through this sinful state of affairs, the reign of death, just so did the reign of death penetrate all men, involving them all in the sinful state of affairs. The world indeed lived in a sinful state of affairs before the Mosaic Law, however, while there was no Law no sort of moral assessment was possible, but that did not stop the reign of death dominating, in the period between Adam and Moses, over those also whose active involvement in the sinful state of affairs was not in the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come.
J. I. González Faus, in his treatment of Romans 5:12 (in Proyecto de Hermano: visión creyente del hombre [Santander: Sal Terrae, 1987], 329-331), posits three principle differences of interpretation of this verse, according to whether the antecedent of the famous eph'hôi is Adam (following Augustine), death (thanatos, following Photius), or non-existent (i.e., eph'hôi is a simple link clause). Of these the first is the least plausible. I have used the second, implying that death is causative of the sinful state of affairs, but the third (which commands the widest reading particularly among Greek fathers) would make very little difference to that. It would read "...just so did the reign of death penetrate all men, given that all were involved in a sinful state of affairs." What is important is that in both cases the reign of death and the sinful state of affairs are mutually implicatory, their counterparts being the mutually implicatory gratuitous self-giving of Christ, and the reign of life.

Thus we can see how Paul melds two understandings of the relation between sin and death together: one which I have described as extrinsic, but which might also be described as mythical, relying as it does on an interpretation of Genesis involving God in active punishment (which goes against the whole grain of Paul's thought), but which has its use in Paul's polemic about the Law; the other which I have described as intrinsic, but which I might describe as anthropological since it relies on a mimetic understanding of distorted desire as constituting us all interdependently in death-oriented patterns of desire.

In this context it is worth noting that Ephesians, which, if not by Paul (as is probably the case) is certainly a canonically valid interpretation of certain Pauline themes, gives a similar picture of death being already present in our lives. We are characterised as sons of disobedience and children of wrath because, respectively, of the "prince of the power of the air," or the "desires of body and mind," where the content of these two principles is exactly the same: our being involved in death, were it not for God making us alive with Christ. (5)

This enables us to turn, finally, and very briefly to my claim (d) that in Paul's view, the human condition which I have been outlining above has been from the beginnings and affects the whole of the human race.

This in a sense is too obvious to discuss, since Adam clearly plays a double rôle in Paul's thought. He is the first human, and thus all other humans are necessarily affected by the condition of living in the reign of death which he bequeathed us ( Romans 5:12: pantes, "all"; 5:18: pantas...pantas, "all...all"). He is also the archetypal human, such that his experience is paradigmatic of that of all humans (7:7-24). Paul is, in any case, apart from any reference to Adam, perfectly clear that he understands that "all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin" (Romans 3:9) and that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

The universality of sin is not in question. It is also quite clear that this understanding, of the universality of sin, proceeds directly from Paul's understanding of the uniqueness of Christ's resurrection in opening up the righteousness of God, not from his understanding of Adam. To put this another way: it is not that Paul starts with Adam, and so deduces the universality of sin. He deduces the universality of sin from the particular contingent revelation of God's righteousness in Christ. Adam then becomes a convenient way of talking about this universality, particularly given that, by means of Adam, Paul can show that constitutive sinful desire goes deeper than the Law, and tends to manipulate the Law towards its own death-ridden ends. That enables him to teach the universality of sin especially to those who might think themselves to have been exempted from the universality of sin owing to their keeping of the Law. That is to say, Adam owes his place in Paul's thought to his relationship with desire, not owing to his being the originator of universality. We might say that because sin is universal, so it goes back to the beginnings of the human race. Adam is a useful way of illustrating this under the polemical circumstances in which Paul is writing because of the relationship between desire and prohibition which is so well illustrated in Genesis 2-3. It would be quite wrong however to imagine that Paul was making some historicist claim about Adam by using him in this way. Paul, as rabbinical exegesis in general, was perfectly capable of a highly subtle and knowing use of myth to demythologize, as witness his freedom in interpreting the serpent of Genesis 3 as sin. Paul's primary interest is in an anthropology illustrative of salvation.

The analysis of the way the apostolic witnesses work from the intelligence of the victim made available by the resurection shows that, at root, the Pauline understanding and, for instance, the Matthaean have a common insight into the human condition. Matthew 5 shows the way in which the human condition is more drastic than anything that can be protected by the Law, and only a re-casting of desire understood in terms of a radical reciprocity that is imitative of the Father will find reward. This is exactly the same insight into anthropology as Paul shows where he indicates that desire is anterior to and manipulative of the Law, so that only a recasting of desire made possible by faith in the righteous, and not rivalistic, nature of God (as revealed by the self-giving and resurrection of Jesus) will enable us to inherit life.

This perception of a common anthropological insight, cast in very different language and examples, permits us a third approximation to Original Sin: that the doctrine of Original Sin describes the universal human distortion of desire towards death within an interdividual, or mimetic, understanding of human psychology.


1. For a more detailed look see P. Grelot Péché originel et rédemption à partir de l'épître aux romains (Paris: Desclée, 1973), as well as R. Hamerton-Kelly Sacred Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chapters 4 and 7. See also R. Hamerton-Kelly "Sacred Violence and Sinful Desire: Paul's interpretation of Adam's Sin in the Letter to the Romans" in R. Fortna and B. Gaventa, eds., The Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John in Honour of J. L. Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 35-54. See J. Alison "Justification and the Constitution of Consciousness: A New Look at Romans and Galatians," in New Blackfriars 71 (1990): 17-26.

2. Anazaô here does not mean "revived," pace the RSV, since there was nothing to revive from. For the meaning with the force of the ana diminished see Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 53.

3. No less an authority than St Thomas has this to say about this verse: "That the carnal man be sold to the power of sin as if he were in some way the slave of sin is shown by the fact that he does not move himself, but is moved by sin [ex hoc aparet quod ipse non agit, sed agitur a peccato]. In fact, one who is free moves of himself; he is not moved by another" (Super Epistolam ad Romanos Lectura). St Thomas thinks, of course, that real freedom consists precisely in being moved from within by God, who is not "another" in any normal sense, precisely because there is no rivalry between the Creator and any of his creatures, thus they can occupy the same "space" (for instance, a human will) without displacing each other.

4. Neither Hamerton-Kelly nor I, however, accept the "sharp Protestant edge to Nygren's argument, that cuts away the Catholic idea of grace perfecting rather than replacing nature" (Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 162).

5. The Epistle of James is unquestionably non-Pauline (!), yet even here we find a passage which alludes both to the Adam and Eve story and to that of Cain. In James 1:12-15 the temptation leading to sin is the work of a person's own desire (so the serpent, and sin couching at Cain's door seeking to master him, are both interpreted as the subject's own desire, and no responsibility can be shifted onto any one else). Desire gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. Once again distorted desire is the motor of death, which is the child of desire. James' tendency to demystify, not permitting worldly values to influence theological understanding (for instance, 1:20, "the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God"), is at one with the tendency to an anthropological understanding of sin we have seen in the Pauline texts.