Question: Does Psalm 51 teach Original Sin?

Original sin is primarily gleaned from chapter 5 of Paul's epistle to the Romans which contrasts Jesus with Adam in Genesis 3. There are a few other proof-texts that theologians point to in favor of this view. One of them is Psalm 51:5 or 51:7 if you include the heading in the numbering. Hans Madueme (Original Sin Five Views) said:

"From childhood, sin pervades our souls (Gen 6:5; 8:21); indeed, we are sinful at birth (Ps 51:5)."
I absolutely adore this Psalm. How can you not resonate with verse 10? "Create in me a clean heart, oh God." Verse 17 tells us "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart." I am reminded of the sorrowful tax collector in Luke 18 "who wouldn't even look at heaven but was beating his breast." Nonetheless, I think part of this Psalm has been misused by a great number of Christian exegetes:
"Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." [Verse 5 or 7]
While consistent with the notion of original sin, this verse needs not be interpreted as anything more than hyperbolic self-flagellation. The New Jerome Biblical commentary says:
"Being "born in sin" is poetic hyperbole meaning "thoroughly sinful" (cf Ps 58:4; Isa 48:8)."
This passage then is scarcely an argument for original sin but instead expresses the feeling of one very remorseful individual. If we read the account from the beginning, it appears to be about David who had a man killed by moving him to the front line in battle so he could take his widow for himself (1 Samuel 11-12). Clearly this is meant to portray extreme sorrow though it was most likely not originally about David despite the heading. Robert Alter writes:
"If the reference to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the penultimate verse is an integral part of the original psalm and not an editorial addition, the text would have to date to sometime after 586 BCE. In any case, the idea of offering God a broken spirit instead of sacrifice looks as though it may have been influenced by the later prophetic literature." [Excerpt From: Robert Alter. "The Book of Psalms." Apple Books]
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees:
The psalmist concludes by looking forward to the rebuilding of the Temple and the inauguration of its cult. These verses are clearly late. Given the allusion in vv 17-19 to a destroyed Temple and an interrupted cult, they are probably not an addition to the ps (as many commentators believe); rather the whole poem is exilic or postexilic.
The Jewish Study Bible agrees it was exilic or post-exilic and defends it as follows:
See 2 Sam. ch 12, where Nathan rebukes David for two grave offenses: committing adultery with Bathsheba, and having her husband, Uriah, murdered. Given the tremendous guilt expressed in the psalm, and the specific request to be saved "from bloodguilt" (v. 16), it is understandable that tradition would explicitly connect this psalm to those events.
Alter doesn't think it supports original sin:
Christian interpreters through the ages have understood this verse as a prime expression of the doctrine of Original Sin. Some of the early rabbis register a similar notion-as they put it, David's father, Jesse, did not have relations with his wife to fulfill a higher obligation but rather out of sheer lust. Such a reading may be encouraged by the fact that the verb attached to the mother, yaam, is typically associated with animals in heat. It may, however, be unwarranted to construct a general theology of sinful human nature from this verse. The speaker of this poem certainly feels permeated with sinfulness. He may indeed trace it back to the sexual act through which he was conceived, but there is not much here to support the idea that this is the case of every human born." [idib]
The Jewish Study Bible says:
So extreme are the psalmist's guilt feelings that he sees himself as sinful even before birth; in other words, he is, by nature, a sinful being. The idea of the inherent sinfulness of humans is rarely expressed in the Bible, though see Gen. 8.21: "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth" (see also Job 25.4). Christianity developed the notion of original sin.
We see something similar in Psalm 58:3 which says, "The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies." This need not be anything more than an idiomatic trope describing the wicked or unrighteous. Note that this passage is contrasting the wicked with the righteous so clearly it could not apply to everyone which saws off the branch that the original sin interpretation is sitting on. There could be no righteous (vs 10-11) in that interpretation, so it actually is an argument against interpreting it as teaching original sin. This is similar to Isaiah 48:8 which is not meant to say everyone is a rebel from birth! Any verses which implicitly or explicitly contrast the righteous and the wicked can hardly be used to defend the Christian doctrine of original sin. See, as a further example, Jesus in Matthew 5: 44-45:
But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
The penitence of Psalm 51 is a model to emulate. We should feel remorseful when we sin. Though I naturally wonder why, if a person is born a sinner, and has no control over it, do they need to actually be remorseful for it? If it's not their fault then there is no need for penitence. How can humans be guilty of anything if they are destined to sin due to something a person did thousands of years ago? You can't fault a person inflicted with original sin for sinning any more than you can fault a person for being born with six fingers for having six fingers. The entire basis for remorse is removed from this beautiful Psalm if we interpret it in the context of original sin. The human being who is genuinely sorry for the evil he has committed of his own volition is stripped from the Psalm. In other words, using it to justify that babies are born sinful turns the psalmist's confession into an excuse. An alcoholic born with alcoholism and a strong and uncontrollable predisposition to drink is to be pitied, not condemned. In the end, Psalm 51:5 cannot and should not be used to support the notion of original sin. While it is consistent with it, using it in defense of it is nothing more than confirmation bias.

Comment on this article here

Back to the Main Page

Christianity Q&A Page