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Where Did the 7 Deadly Sins Come From?

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Human beings have struggled with sin since Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord’s wishes in the Garden of Eve. But we’ve struggled to categorize and organize sins in order to understand their gravity.

Enter the concept of the the seven deadly sins. “The vices can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or also be linked to the capital sins which Christians experience . . . they are called capital because they engender other sins, other vices,” the Catechism says.

But did you know that the list of the seven deadly sins has changed over the centuries?  Here’s a quick glance over the history of the seven deadly sins and how we ended up with the list we know today!

 

Early origins

While the original list of deadly sins originated from Christian tradition, conversation about the subject started with the Greeks and Romans.

Aristotle wrote lists of human excellence and virtue. He argued that at the end of each extreme of the virtue, two vices could be found. Virtue, he insisted, was found in the middle. He called this concept “the golden mean.”

 

Eight evil thoughts

Evagrius Ponticus was a a monk and ascetic who lived in the fourth century. One of the most influential theologians in the late 300s and was a gifted writer, Evagrius also taught Saint John Cassian and Palladius of Galatia (a devoted disciple of Saint John Chrysostom).

In his writings, Evagrius lists eight evil thoughts in Greek. They are as follows:

  • Γαστριμαργία (gastrimargia) gluttony
  • Πορνεία (porneia) prostitution, fornication
  • Φιλαργυρία (philargyria) avarice
  • Ὑπερηφανία (hyperēphania) pride
  • Λύπη (lypē) sadness at another’s good fortune
  • Ὀργή (orgē) wrath
  • Κενοδοξία (kenodoxia) boasting
  • Ἀκηδία (akēdia) acedia

 

A Western understanding

Saint John Cassian later went on to translate Evagrius’ thoughts into Latin. John’s translation became the Western understanding of the deadly sins. His list reads:

  • Gula (gluttony)
  • Luxuria/Fornicatio (lust, fornication)
  • Avaritia (avarice, greed)
  • Superbia (pride, hubris)
  • Tristitia (sorrow, despair, despondency)
  • Ira (wrath)
  • Vanagloria (vainglory)
  • Acedia (sloth)

These sins were categorized into three different types. The first was sins that had to do with a lustful appetite, which included gluttony, fornication, and avarice. Secondly were sins that dealt with anger, which included wrath. Finally, the sins that caused corruption of the mind were vainglory, sorrow, pride, and discouragement.

 

Pope Gregory I and seven sins

In 590 AD, Pope Gregory I adjusted John Cassian’s list to look more like the list we’re used to today.

Gregory combined Tristitia (sorrow, despair) with Acedia. The Catechism defines acedia as “spiritual sloth”. In the fourth century, Catholic monks believed that those in the throes of acedia suffered from a state of spiritual depression resulting in spiritual detachment. 

Gregory also combined Vanagloria (vainglory) with Superbia (pride). Gregory saw unjustified boasting as a form of pride, so he included it with pride in his list of sins.

Lastly, he added Invidia (envy). After his revisions, the Catholic Church was left with seven deadly sins, which we still recognize today. 

Gregory’s list considers sins as less or more deadly depending on how they offend against love. From most serious to least his list read:

  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Avarice
  • Gluttony
  • Lust

Don’t recognize ‘sadness’ on the list? This is because, in the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church clarified by calling it ‘sloth’.

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