Sin has a history, and the history of the use of words for sin sheds light on the current debate about the new perspective on Paul. Gary Anderson, in his superbly written Sin: A History , demonstrates that the oldest and most predominant Old Testament idea about sin was that it was a load to carry and a load to remove.
By the time of the New Testament, however, sin had shifted in its primary meaning to sin as a debt for which one must pay (or be punished) and a debt that can be cancelled (remitted) or released. Alongside this shift, of course, comes the idea that good works are merits that outweigh sins.
Here is where the new perspective issues arise: I have argued that the complaint against the new perspective can often be coagulated around an anthropology — that humans are full of pride and want to justify themselves. The new perspective, as you may know, contends that Judaism is not a works-based religion. Anderson’s work on sin, however, suggests that debt language became the common metaphor for sin. Which leads to this question:
Is sin-as-debt “just” a metaphor and not a realistic depiction of a bookkeeping God and Israelites/Judahites seeking to gain merit or is this a metaphor that captures this merit-shaped perception both of our debt to God and our response and God’s forgiving by way of “releasing us from our debts”? Anderson’s study on the development of sin as debt in the Second Temple period speaks into these new vs. old perspective issues. One most interesting of points is that “load” language was retranslated into “debt” language in the New Testament period.
Anderson demonstrates, also, that as soon as one finds language of sin as debt one will find language of atonement as satisfaction — and he dips into (Second) Isaiah to show this. (By the way, he critiques in passing the theory of many that satisfaction theory is a later Western development, and he argues this by showing that is clearly biblical!) Nothing is clearer than Isaiah 40:1-2:
40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
40:2 “Speak kindly to Jerusalem, and tell her
that her time of warfare is over,
that her punishment is completed.
For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins.”
Anderson translates “for her punishment is completed” with “the debt owed for her iniquity has been satisfied.” Here Israel is depicted as a debt-slave in Babylon; her time of imprisonment is over; she can now be forgiven/released from her debt. (Anderson will go on in other chps to discuss Lev 25-26 and its indebtedness theme impacting Jeremiah’s 70 years and Daniel 8-9. He also examines the misplaced Christian critique of works in rabbinic Judaism and an insightful study of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which he contends is thoroughly biblical and not the same as penal substitution.)
Anderson is also sensitive to the theological issue here, for indebtedness and payment make God look like a bookkeeper — but he makes this observation:
“Human sins have consequences. When individuals disobey moral law, a tangible form of evil is created in the world that must be accounted for. … Would it not be a word of grace to hear that our communal suffering [here he points to the American impacts of slavery] has been brought to closure, the debt satisfied?” (54)