Sin v. Hubris & Atê

One of the fundamental building-blocks of the Judeo-Christian belief is that there is sin in the world.  Everything underpins this belief.  If you don’t believe in sin, there is no need for a savior.

In the Bible, sin has a variety of meanings, but “gives no formal definition” of this all-important concept.  It’s described as rebellion, “transgression of the law,” “to miss the mark,” and unbelief. [1]  In all senses, it is an unimaginable and tragic falling-short of what it would take to reach a holy and blameless God.

Most other religions do not have this supposition.  They have morals, certainly, and the belief in right and wrong.  However, they shy away from the word sin.  It’s similar to our modern usage.  We say we “made a mistake” or “messed up.”  We seldom say “I sinned.”  It’s just not done.

It was the same in Greek culture.  Now, obviously the Bible was written in Greek, and the Bible talks about sin.  Unfortunately, I’m not a linguistic scholar (I really wish I was!), so I can’t go into the minutiae of what they used in the Septuagint (which would probably bore you anyway).  As for the New Testament, suffice it to say that God inspired his authors with known Greek words and gave them new meaning within His context.

For example, the most common word used for sin in the New Testament is harmatia, which (before the New Testament) was simply “an error of the understanding,” and used since Pindar (so about the 400s BC).  After the New Testament, it became “a bad action, [or] evil deed,”[2] which is clearly our concept of sin.[3]

Anyway, we can fairly say that our concept of “sin” was not generally used in Greece.  However, as I established last week, the Greeks and Israelites had an extensive history of contact.  Also, knowing how our God uses even the worst occurrences to teach the world of His deeds (i.e. think of Joseph), we can almost surmise that the Greeks knew of the concept of sin.

But did they recognize it as legitimate?

Yes, and no.  They did not use “sin,” but they did try and think themselves around “sin” – explaining the effects while not using it at all.  It was very Greek of them, really.  They had a tendency to try and think their way to God.  Although they failed, they did come very close to knowing His truths.[4]

Hubris and Atê

Instead of sin, the Greeks had hubris (or hybris) and atê.  These two culprits work together to make the perpetrator ignorant of the fact that what they are doing is wrong (which is especially evident in the tragedies).  We still have the first concept, hubris, in our day.  We define it as “pride,” but it is much more than that.  Hubris is an overbearing pride causing acts of heinous violence.[5]  In Ancient Greece, it was always paired with atê, which is “delusion, infatuation, blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse.”[6]  If one is present, the other is always there, too.  Heinous acts are committed out of a blindness to right and wrong, and blindness to what is right causes heinous acts.

This certainly tells the effects of sin, if not the actual “definition.”

The poster-child for this sordid cocktail of hubris and atê was the family of Tantalus.  The “family members” we are most familiar with are Agamemnon and Menelaos.  Those two, however, are quite tame and polite compared to their forebears, and I don’t believe Menelaus was ever accused of hubris and atê.

Their forefathers, however, are another story.  Each new generation perpetrated crime after inhumane crime.  Child sacrifice, murder, rape, incest, adultery, and of course the infamous “feast” Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus’ father) fed his brother Thyestes.  I won’t go into the sordid tales – their one-word descriptions are enough to evoke horror.

But those are the crimes that hubris and atê “make” one commit…

Sin AND Hubris and Atê?

And that is the tragic beauty of those words.  They “make” someone.  Sin doesn’t make you.  It is always a choice.

Yes, it’s certainly the perpetrator’s fault for committing those crimes in the Greek tales.  Yes the perpetrator is almost always punished accordingly.  In fact, the typical tragic hero deserves his fate, even though he doesn’t mean to do wrong (i.e. think of Oedipus, who DOESN’T want to sleep with his mother).  However, the bottom line is that these two agents are blamed as the cause of the crime.  It’s similar to our “the-devil-made-me-do-it” excuse.  The devil can’t make you do anything!  You can be tempted and tricked, but the action is of your own free will.

A good Christian analogy is Adam and Eve in the Garden.  They were certainly tricked by the devil, and it was certainly a tragedy.  However, the bottom line was they should have known what they were doing was wrong.  They tried to shift the blame – but God wouldn’t have any of it.  They deserved the punishment they got – and more.

HubrisAtê, and the Bible

I think this is why those two dangerous culprits aren’t found in the Bible as blindness and pride.  Atê is nowhere to be found, and it is noteworthy that the writers of scripture steer away from that exact word.  They didn’t want this “blindness” to be a convenient excuse.

Hubris, on the other hand, is used three times, twice in Acts translated as “damage” (Acts 27:10, 21) in relation to the damage of the ship and cargo in Paul’s shipwreck, and once in 2 Corinthians as “insults” (v. 12:10).

The latter is more significant.  In the Greco-Roman era, hubris was used to describe the crimes themselves, rather than the pride which caused them.  Thus, when Paul says he is “well content with weaknesses, with insults [hubris], with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake,” he is making quite a statement.  He is saying that even if the worst crimes should happen against him, he is still strong in Christ!

How this Applies to Us

Looking at the world around us, I’d say we ourselves would rather blame hubris and atê rather than “sin.”  We don’t like the ‘sin’ word.  It’s safer to say, “I was blinded with an overbearing pride.”  It completely shifts the blame, even if you have to pay the punishment.  There is a self-righteous tinge to it.

And on that point, the Bible is clear.  Interestingly enough, this topic is one of the few that almost combines hubris and atê

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded [typhloō][7] the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:3-4

“‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” [indicative of pride leading to destruction, or hubris!] and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind [typhlos][8] and naked” ~ Revelation 3:17

So you see, our world isn’t entirely different from the ancient Greek world.  We may use different words, but the concept is the same.  As Christians, we are meant to be different from the world.  That means pursuing the hard things – like saying “I sinned against you,” and “Forgive me for my sin.”

Don’t be like the Ancient Greeks, who thought their way around this issue.  Be a Christian – a little Christ – to this world, and admit your sin.

 

 

Sources

[1] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1505-1506.

[2] “Hamartia,” Blue Letter Bible, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G266&t=NASB

[3] If you are interested in a more lengthy exposition of the different words used for sin, you can check out this article here (https://bible.org/article/thirty-three-words-sin-new-testament-part-1).

[4] Because of the spread of the Christian culture, the word “sin” saturated translations of Greek and Roman literature for centuries.  Now, other words are often used (such as “nefarious” (Seneca, Thyestes, Penguin Books, 1966, 233)).

[5] Aaron J. Atsma, “Hybris,” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hybris.html.

[6] Aaron J. Atsma, “Atê,” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Ate.html

[7] “To blunt the mental discernment, darken the mind” (“Typhloō,” Blue Letter Bible, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5186&t=NASB).  It was used from Pindar down (c. 400s BC), so perhaps it was more “in vogue” to use this word rather than atê.  However, the fact that it isn’t atê is still important.

[8] Root word of typhloō, see above

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