The Seven Deadly Sins - A History

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

       Seven is a Biblical number. Creation was seven days; seven times seven years is a jubilee; there were seven churches in Asia; seven candlesticks; seven trumpets.

It will surprise some to learn that the "Seven Deadly Sins", as commonly understood, are not in the Bible. The Bible does describe sin in many of the OT books, and many sins are detailed in Proverbs, but the more familiar list of seven represents early century Catholic teaching combined with a literary tradition.

In the late 500's, Evagrius Scholasticus, Byzantine church historian and legal adviser to Pope Gregory the First, (he of the Gregorian chant, not the Gregorian calendar, which belonged to Gregory XIII in 1582) composed a list of the eight most wicked human passions, naming them Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Sadness, Anger, Acedia (indifference), Vainglory (boasting), and Pride, the list meant to incline upward from the least wicked to the most: Pride. Later, Gregory reduced the list to seven, dropping vainglory and acedia and adding Envy, and reversed the order so that Pride was first, though still the most sinfull.

St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval theologian (1225-1274), disagreed with the notion that sin could be "ranked" in a particular order. He balanced the Sins with Seven Virtues, they being: Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. The first three are called the "holy virtues."

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1395, concluded his epic poem, "The Canterbury Tales", with the Parson's Tale, which, unlike the others, is neither a tale nor a narrative, but a sermon on penitence containing a full analysis of each of the Seven Deadly Sins, listed as: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Covetousness, Anger, Lust, and Sloth.

In the last half of the 16th Century, English poet Edmund Spenser (he of the Spenserian stanza, rhyme scheme: ababbcbcc) wrote "Faerie Queene", an allegorical vindication of Protestantism, in which the Red Cross Knight encounters imaginative representations of Seven Deadly Sins, namely: Idleness, Gluttony, Avarice, Wrath, Lechery, Envy, and Pride.

The list that survives, in the sense that it is the list given in a modern encyclopedia, is a blend of all of the above, and consists of: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Avarice, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth.

--= The Hartman Web Site © , 1996 All rights reserved. =--