The Seven Deadly Sins - A Very Brief History
There used to be eight. That is the way of things. I often equate theology as a strange game of telephone. It’s like Mary Magdalene. For centuries she was a follower of Jesus, probably wealthy, hung out with his mother and then the story changed. Gregory I (more on him later) gets her confused with the famed washer of Jesus’ feet and the next thing you know Mary Magdalene is a prostitute. To be fair it could have been a confusion with Mary of Bethany, and then a double confusion with Mary Magdalene. There are a lot of Marys in the Bible.
Good thing Dan Brown came along and reminded us that these were not the same woman. He also upgrades her from being a follower of Jesus to his wife. Next came a best-selling book and a Tom Hanks movie with way too much narration. And there is more. She is not just the wife but the Holy Grail. (Sorry should have had a spoiler alert) and a lot of folks are looking for her body. Somehow Dan and his readership skipped over the fact that her skull is in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, in the south of France. It is said that one of her feet is in Italy and her left hand is in Greece.
So, with Mary Magdalene on my mind, I decided to dig back to the source of the seven deadly sins and found before there were seven, there were eight. And they weren’t called sins. They were called the eight evil thoughts or sometimes translated as evil temptations. My first reaction was thoughts are harder to avoid than sin. Sin seems more action-oriented than thought. Which is truly gluttony; thinking about eating an entire key lime pie or actually eating an entire key lime pie? I think a lot about eating a whole key lime pie without actually doing it; damned for eternity or redeemed through restraint?
So, what were the original eight? They were gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, acedia [new word, translates to despondency or listlessness], anger, vainglory, pride.
Before you start worrying if listening to Sarah McLachlan is a sin, sadness means something different in this list. Think about your great aunt still talking about her “bastard” ex-husband. She is still talking, and he has been dead for 20 years. Another side of this thought is Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. A perpetual feeling that “I coulda been a contender”.
You also may be puzzled by the word vainglory. Webster’s definition implies it is close to pride. There is a slight difference; pride is feeling pretty smug about yourself, and vainglory is telling others why you have a right to feel pretty smug about yourself.
This list was originally compiled by a monk named Evagrius Pontius in his book, Antirrhetikos (available on kindle- I am not kidding) which means “Talking Back”. He was a monk in the fourth century. After a colorful life he ended up a monk living an ascetic life in the Egyptian desert. He was so extreme that he never ate meat, fruits, vegetables, or cooked food. I believe that leaves sand. Not surprisingly, he died of a digestive malady.
We don’t directly get these eight evil thoughts from Evagrius. A student of Evagrius, John Cassian included the list in his book, The Institutes (available in paperback). He doesn’t mention Evagrius as the source, but this was before the footnote was invented. He kept essentially the same list.
This brings us to Gregory. Gregory I, or Gregory the Great as he is called by many of his friends, was Pope from 590 to 604. He was a prolific writer and, apparently, a sometimes editor. After reviewing the list of 8 evil thoughts in John Cassian’s book he made a few revisions. He kept gluttony, lust, greed, and anger (wrath is a better word). He combined vainglory and pride into just pride (making that simpler for all of us). He clarified acedia and made it just simply sloth. He dumped sadness for envy. (I want to be fair to Evagrius. Evagrius may have underrated envy. If you live in the desert, never bathing and eating sand envy is a rarer reaction than bitterness.) Gregory got the list down to a manageable seven. His final change substituting sins for thoughts. Six centuries later you have Thomas Aquinas labeling them “capital” sins and a century after that capital is translated into deadly.
A few final bits of trivia. All 4 of these men were eventually canonized as saints. Poor John Cassian’s feast day falls on 29 February. Strangely, Gregory the Great is not the patron saint for copy editors but he is for choirboys. That is a subject for another post.