The Origin of Sin and Death in the Bible

Who sinned first—Adam or Cain?

dore-cain-abel

Primeval Murder. The Bible recounts that Cain murdered his brother Abel. Gustave Doré’s illustration shows the moment after this deed has been committed. In antiquity, some believed that this was the first sin in the Bible—and how sin and death entered the world. The Wisdom of Solomon is one text that expresses this view.

What is the origin of sin and death in the Bible? Who was the first sinner?

To answer the latter question, today people would probably debate whether Adam or Eve sinned first, but in antiquity, it was a different argument altogether. They debated whether Adam or Cain committed the first sin.

John Byron of Ashland Theological Seminary explores ancient interpretations of the origin of sin and death in the Bible in his Biblical Views column “Who Sinned First—Adam or Cain?” published in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

So, who sinned first in the Bible?

According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans. Cain was their first son, and Abel their second. The majority of Biblical interpreters—throughout the ages—have considered Adam and Eve’s disobedient act of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6) as the first sin in the Bible—the moment sin and death entered the world. However, in antiquity, some believed that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8) was the first sin; certainly, this was the first human death in the Bible. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon is one text that expresses this view.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
 

 
hult-adam-eve

Original Sin? This scene by Adolf Hult depicts Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Most would consider Adam and Eve’s disobedient act of eating the forbidden fruit as the first sin in the Bible—the moment sin and death came into the world.

The Wisdom of Solomon credits Cain’s unrighteousness as ushering in death—and the Biblical flood:

“Wisdom protected the first-formed father [Adam] of the world, when he alone had been created; she delivered him from his transgression and gave him strength to rule all things. But when an unrighteous man [Cain] departed from her [Wisdom] in his anger, he perished because in rage he killed his brother [Abel]. When the earth was flooded because of him, Wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man [Noah] by a paltry piece of wood.” (Wisdom of Solomon 10:1–4)

John Byron explains that in the Wisdom of Solomon’s interpretation of Genesis, “neither mortality nor bad consequences resulted from Adam’s sin. Rather, Wisdom saved Adam, and his sin is glossed over.” It is Cain who rejects Wisdom, sins and ushers in death.

To learn more about the ancient interpretation of Cain as the first sinner in the Bible, read John Byron’s Biblical Views column “Who Sinned First—Adam or Cain?” in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “Who Sinned First—Adam or Cain?” by John Byron in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Cain and Abel in the Bible
Bible Review’s Supporting Roles by Elie Wiesel

The Adam and Eve Story: Eve Came From Where?

How the Serpent Became Satan

What Happened to Cain in the Bible?

Who Was the Wife of Cain?

Understanding Israel’s 10 Commandments by Shawna Dolansky
 


 

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  • Alan says

    The definitive answer is found in the Book of Jubilees, which from a frequency standpoint in Dead Sea Scroll discoveries was sixth behind Psalms, Deuteronomy, 1 Enoch, Genesis, and Isaiah. See http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/jub/index.htm. Note that the Fall occurs BEFORE Cain killed Abel. Of course, you will require this from the DSS as well: http://www.haderech.info/DSS/Calendar/4Q319.pdf.

  • jim says

    I think there may be a difference here between and original sin .didn’t God question it by saying who told you that ?.and satanic spiritual infusion .when God asked about able Cain lyed and then there was the murder of able .these two sprits are from Satan .he was a lyer and a murder from the beginning. Were did Cain get this ? Not God ! Now it’s everywhere .like a plague . and there’s the order from God not to harm Cain and obvious killer . was it because God knew he was a victim of Satan ?.

  • jim says

    I agree by two or three things a thing is confirmed. A pattern of communication and confirmation . not confusion . like a type of crystal growing keeps to the same construct . the beginning and the end …the aleph and the tal…the fire by night and the cloud by day…Adam and Eve… The silver and the gold in the temple… The water and the blood out of his side..faith that works by sacrificial love. We over come him by the blood of the lamb and the word of. God in our speech.logos..the two pillers in front of the temple one named Boaz the other cloud .all the pathways of God truth and mercy . to believe with the heart and speak with the mouth .the Yom the I’m…cloud by day and fire by night. The golden pomegranate bells on the priests robe .the mix of colloidal gold from Moses grinding the calf to dust and the moving water .water being living water the word and sprit of God the gold tuning the water red a symbol of blood or sacrifice .two gether reflecting God’s spirit ..

  • David says

    A Jewish belief is that Adam and Eve didn’t actually sin in eating the fruit. By so doing, they were indeed cast out of the Garden, but it was in order to create a world of accomplishment. In other words, that we would have to struggle against a world that conceals godliness to get back to the Garden.
    The other option was to remain in the Garden for eternity as lotus-eaters, perpetually following orders and achieving nothing for ourselves or for God. And that’s why we’ve never believed in “original sin”. Because it wasn’t.

  • Wes says

    If a young student were to come up to me and ask for a recommendation on which to read from the Bible: Joshua or Wisdom of Solomon, what should I say?
    Granted, the two books are very different. The first is a nationalist vision of taking control of a homeland with Providence at one’s side. The other is a compilation
    of Judaic philosophy under the same authority over a millenium later.

    As to the issue of where or when sin issued into the world and by what agency, I’ll pass on that for now, since it’s a discussion that’s tied us down for centuries.
    But the matter of whether the Wisdom of Solomon is a legitimate source for discussing Biblical meaning or content, I disagree with the previous correspondents.

    I believe it is. It is to many, if not the majority, an inherent part of the Bible.

    Here is a brief description of it from on line encyclopedic entry.

    “The Wisdom of Solomon or Book of Wisdom is a Jewish work composed in Alexandria (Egypt) around the 1st century CE, with the aim of bolstering the faith of the Jewish community in a hostile Greek world It is one of the seven Sapiential or wisdom books included within the Septuagint, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach. It is included in the canon of Deuterocanonical books by the Roman Catholic Church and the anagignoskomenon (Gr. ἀναγιγνωσκόμενον, meaning “that which is to be read”) of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    While admittedly since the 19th century, Deuterocanonical books have disappeared from Protestant Bibles, obviously they are inherent in Jewish and Christian Bibles – in their tables of contents. If the label “Deuterocanonical” suggests a different level in a hierarchy of scripture – well, I have often heard it argued that there are hierarchies among angels or messengers of God.

    But at the very least, it gives an indication of what the Judaic community was thinking at the time of Christ about their religious heritage at one of their centers of learning where they were printing and distributing scrolls.

    Archeology is the study of the past based on artifacts recovered. As a science it
    tests by casting doubt on ideas and then attempts to verify or else using evidence it poses hypotheses.

    .

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