Adam and Eve in historical survey—learn but be leery
A review of: The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve by Stephen Greenblatt
The Bodley Head, London, 2017
Reading the title of this book, one might expect the author to be a scientist with Christian beliefs, or else a theologian. Stephen Greenblatt is neither, rather a historian and Harvard University professor, distinguished for his non-fiction literary works by such awards as the Pulitzer Prize (2012) and the Holberg Prize (2016).1 And The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve (hereafter RFAE) is certainly a very satisfying read from a literary standpoint. But what made Greenblatt tackle this subject, and does it add anything useful to the burgeoning pile of books on the subject?
While not mentioned in the book, Greenblatt is known as one of the founders of a literary theory called ‘New historicism’ (a word he coined in 19822), a sort of postmodernist approach to interpretive history, thus germane to the author’s treatment of Adam and Eve. One suspects that the ‘new historicism’ is not so new, and it raises the spectre of a materialistic ideology influencing Greenblatt’s work under the guise of literary objectivity. Certainly, he does approach the waxing and waning of belief in Adam and Eve as largely influenced by the social and political milieu of the times in which various commentators on Adam and Eve lived—whether theologians, philosophers, poets, or artists.
Writers like Greenblatt himself, of course, are not immune to the contaminating influences of today’s culture, which should be borne in mind when reading masters of literary prose, whose ‘power of writing’ can seduce the unwary. This warning sounded, RFAE—divided into prologue, 14 chapters, an epilogue, and two appendices—is a valuable addition to the recent treatments of Adam and Eve.
Why is the story of Adam and Eve so enduring? Greenblatt denies the historicity of the Genesis account of their origin but he does believe we are made in the story’s image. He rightly points out that it has shaped how people view morality, ethics, crime, punishment, pain, death, sexuality, marriage, leisure, and more. Indeed, there is much to commend in RFAE, which is far from a simple rehash of topics covered frequently elsewhere—and is all meticulously documented.3
Texts and tablets
Unfortunately, however, the latter does not hold true for chapters two and three. Greenblatt accepts the modernists’ claims that the Pentateuch dates to the sixth century BC. While acknowledging that this is controversial and that he is not qualified to defend or critique this position, he does not let this prevent him from retelling the higher critical story of how the Hebrew exiles supposedly developed the ‘Mosaic’ writings in their Babylonian captivity, influenced by such texts as the Enuma Elish, “with its praise of Marduk, who created the first humans” (p. 33). This holds that in order that the God-fearers among the Hebrews might keep people true to Jehovah, they changed the stories as needed (including that of Adam and Eve).
Tediously, he outlines Julius Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis with its alleged redaction of four document strands (J, E, D, P), concluding that it is no longer tenable to insist that Moses authored the early chapters of Genesis. Instead, someone in Babylon (the ‘Genesis storyteller’) pulled together all the stories of the time to create a Hebrew counter-narrative. Moreover, “Yahweh was … the Genesis storyteller affirmed, the Creator of the universe; he was everywhere and all-powerful” (p. 38). He goes on to recount the discovery of various clay tablets (notably Gilgamesh) that informed and reinforced modern scholars in their prejudiced view of Genesis; this review passes over these well-trodden paths of enquiry.
Perhaps less familiar to some readers of this journal are the ancient texts that Greenblatt delves into, such as the cache of ancient Coptic texts (discovered in 1945) known today as the Nag Hammadi Library. For example, the Apocalypse of Adam professes to be Adam speaking to his son Seth, while The Testimony of Truth is written from the Serpent’s perspective. Greenblatt seems particularly taken with The Life of Adam and Eve, a Greek text which began doing the rounds in the first century. With many imagined scenes that are absent from the Genesis record, it was never part of the ‘biblical’ Apocrypha, let alone considered as a candidate for the scriptural canon. Unsurprisingly, Greenblatt views Genesis as just another ancient literary account, believing the ‘elaborations’ contained in The Life of Adam and Eve satisfied people’s craving for more detail.
His tour of ancient texts covers rabbinical commentators, such as Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman (third century AD), early Muslim ideas, the heretical antisemitic bishop Marcion (born c. AD 85) who taught that Yahweh was indeed Creator but an evil one, and Ireneaus’s Against Heresies (AD 180), which countered Marcion and his followers. Irenaeus made clear that “Christians were not permitted … to forswear the story of the first humans. No Adam, no Jesus” (p. 75). Less well known is the fact that Roman emperor Julian “the Apostate” (fourth century AD) derided the story of Adam and Eve. In his Against the Galileans, he saw the serpent as benefactor rather than destroyer.
Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC – 50 AD) was perhaps one of the earliest advocates of an allegorical view of Genesis, influencing the famous early church scholar Origen (c. AD 184–253). While arguably reverential of the Adam and Eve account, Origen’s ‘interpretations’ sound as absurd to many Christians today as doubtless they did to many of his contemporaries—such as ‘Eden’ representing Jesus Christ, or ‘the woman’ conveying sense perception. But is the lack of traction of Origen’s fanciful ideas a sufficient explanation for the endurance of the literal understanding of Genesis?
Saints and sinners
Noting that surveys confirm millions of people still profess belief in a literal Adam and Eve, Greenblatt stops short of saying that this is through ignorance, although he believes it to be contra scientific evidence. Why then the persistence of a literal understanding? An interesting excursus on the life of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) attempts to inculcate readers with the ‘Augustine originated Original Sin’ view. Supposedly, Augustine managed to convince himself of the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story, and, “Through intellectual mastery, institutional cunning, and overpowering spiritual charisma, this one man managed slowly, slowly to steer the whole, vast enterprise of Western Christendom in the same direction” (p. 97). Greenblatt works hard to build his case that the Fall is a legacy both of Augustine’s pre-conversion experiences of sexual arousal and misconduct, and his post-conversion over-thinking and theorising.
Certainly, theistic evolutionists are fond of claiming that the doctrine of Original Sin was invented by Augustine. Yet he himself was aware of this deceit, protesting:
“It is not I who made up original sin! The catholic faith has believed it from its beginnings. But you who deny it are undoubtedly a new heretic.”4
Greenblatt argues that Augustine was motivated by the fact that he didn’t want to live in a universe in which there was no reckoning of moral behaviour, whether punishments for wickedness or rewards for piety. Be that as it may, he correctly shows that the hard truth of a human’s moral wrongness from birth was a cornerstone of Christian orthodoxy. Predictably, we read of the contrary views of Pelagius (AD 354–418) and of his followers (like Julian of Eclanum), plus Augustine’s retorts; an engaging discussion nonetheless.
Misogyny and marriage
Another thread in Greenblatt’s picture of the history of Adam and Eve is the way in which thinkers perceived and portrayed Eve: merely ‘the weaker vessel’5 or, as second-century theologian Tertullian taught, ‘the devil’s gateway’ (p. 122), guilty of a greater wickedness than Adam for having followed the enticements of the serpent. Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome (AD 347–420), went even further and seems to have disparaged marriage. For a time, the view that marriage was as holy as virginity was deemed by some a punishable heresy, this in spite of the fact that the Genesis account seems to be “an ecstatic celebration of marriage” (p. 124) as one Christian writer of the times, Jovinian, believed. Jerome wrote Against Jovinian, adamant that Eve’s role in the Fall meant that women were rightly to be ruled over by men (cf. Genesis 3:16). Greenblatt’s ensuing discussion of how this tension developed is fascinating. He does grant that Christians over the centuries generally believed Adam to be the more culpable of the pair since he had transgressed God’s command wilfully (1 Timothy 2:14).
Aesthetics and politics
RFAE has two sections of glossy colour plates (29 images) depicting how Adam and Eve have been variously depicted through the ages in sculptures, reliefs, paintings, sketches, and frescos. This certainly adds some dimensions that are rarely addressed, one of which might be summarised as ‘nudity or prudity’—Adam and Eve’s nakedness displaying the glorious innocence of their perfect pre-Fall bodies, or else tastefully obscured by well-placed shrubs or leafy branches. Was marital sex solely/primarily for procreation? What of the design for intercourse in the pre-Fall Eden? Many thinkers mulled over these things, as Augustine had done.
A chapter entitled ‘Chastity and its discontents’ further develops these murmurs of uncertainty about human sexuality. It is a biographical sketch of famed English poet John Milton, a contemporary of many Puritan theologians. Greenblatt views Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (figure 1) as “the greatest poem in the English language” (p. 163). It is surely uncontroversial, he suggests, that Milton’s own high ideals, coupled with his rather disastrous experience of wedlock, greatly coloured his views of women and marriage. Milton’s pamphlet The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the Good of Both Sexes (1643) was incendiary, some considering his arguments blasphemous.6 Actually, Milton’s first marriage did not end in divorce, but Mary Milton died shortly after the birth of their fourth child in 1652—just 27 years old.7 Doubtless, however, the published views of someone of Milton’s stature carried influence.
Those were heady times, with civil wars across England (collectively the English Civil War) between 1642 and 1651. Upon the execution of Charles I (30 January 1649), the irrepressible Milton was quick to publish another polemic condemning ‘the divine right of kings’ and arguing that “All men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God Himself” (p. 193)—Genesis employed as political statement. Others on the Parliamentarian side were also pleased to appropriate the early chapters of Genesis for their times:
“On April 1, 1649, [Gerrard] Winstanley led a small group of likeminded men and women to dig and plant crops on St. George’s Hill in Surrey, about twenty miles from London. They were Adam and Eve, their leader said, and together they would re-create the Garden of Eden” (p. 194).
Similarly, Winstanley recast the Fall for their post-monarchy period.
Milton, who seemingly admired Winstanley, accepted a responsible position within the new ‘Republican Council of State’ and became a European champion of Parliamentary rule. Consequently, upon the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (29 May 1660), Milton was forced into hiding for many years as a traitor. Greenblatt outlines other features of Milton’s life—including two more marriages, the effective estrangement from some of his children, his blindness from 1652—and traces these influences through to his publishing triumph, Paradise Lost.
Paradise and pre-Adamites
For Milton, as Augustine, the Genesis record of human beginnings was absolutely key to sound faith and ethics, but also to human psychology, anthropology, and politics. Moreover, “the literal truth of Jesus Christ was bound up with the literal truth of Adam and Eve. The Savior’s actual blood canceled the debt incurred for all of us by the actual transgression of the actual first humans” (p. 205). Greenblatt insinuates that Milton sought to rival the stature and motive of other great poets: Homer (in his Iliad) sought to make the Trojan prince Hector real, while Virgil toiled to bring Aeneas to life (in Aeneid). In like manner, he reasons that Paradise Lost was Milton’s extravagant attempt to vivify Adam and Eve, no longer the ethereal beings or allegorical emblems of humanity as argued by certain writers.
Likewise, with the establishment of the Fall as a real historical event. Milton’s machinations, motives, and methodology within Paradise Lost are intriguing, and Greenblatt’s thesis merits reading. But how to answer the question that intrigued Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676),8 “Where … did the woman Cain married come from? The traditional answer, scandalously enough, was that she was one of his sisters, though no daughters of Adam and Eve had been mentioned up to this point in Genesis” (p. 232). It would be prosaic to respond to this time-worn question here but suffice it to say, this question is the author’s cue to introduce ideas of other “Men before Adam” (chapter 12).
European explorations of the New World led to encounters with ‘primitive’ tribespeople whose state of apparent innocence seemed reminiscent of that of Adam and Eve—at least to some colonists and chroniclers. Bartolomé de las Casas, writing in 1542, agreed with Christopher Columbus that the Americas were likely where the lost Garden of Eden might be found—and thought the victims of the Spanish conquests there resembled our first parents. For La Peyrère, the diversity of human beings—including “the fashionable ladies of Paris and the naked natives of the New World” (p. 237)—was a formidable challenge to the credibility of Genesis. Certain Greek philosophers of the pre-Christian era (such as Epicurus and Lucretius, even Plato) had already proposed evolutionary ideas of civilized humans developing from savages. La Peyrère believed Adam and Eve had by no means been the first humans. Long before their Fall, there were other humans struggling to survive, enduring famines and plagues, painful childbirth, ending in death—he published his ideas about ‘pre-Adamites’, first in Latin (1655), then in English, as Men before Adam (1656).9 “If so few readers of the Bible have understood these simple truths, it is, La Peyrère wrote, because the Bible is such an imperfect document” (p. 243).
Less well known is that La Peyrère believed in a coming Jewish Messiah through whom all people, descended from Adam and from pre-Adamites, would be saved. Regardless, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike roundly condemned his book and La Peyrère was forced by the authorities in Catholic Brussels to publicly recant his views (1656). Greenblatt adds the interesting comment that “His notion of multiple human origins—polygenesis, as opposed to monogenesis—gave the racists just what they needed” (p. 248).
Falling and doubting
The ‘fall’ in the title of Greenblatt’s book is seemingly a double entendre, representing both the waning of belief in a literal account of Genesis, and especially Adam and Eve’s rebellious falling from innocence and perfection (Genesis 3). Greenblatt gives a historical overview of (dis)belief in a historical Fall, starting with Origen (AD 184–285). We read of French philosopher Pierre Bayle, whose bestselling A Historical and Critical Dictionary (first edition 1697, plus many more) increasingly eroded confidence in the historicity of Genesis; he struggled with why God permitted mankind to sin. The outspoken Voltaire (1694–1778) called the whole account a ridiculous lie, using his satirical wit to trash both Original Sin and the ‘Supreme Being’ in equal measure. By the late eighteenth century, churchmen were hastily retreating from a literal interpretation.
In the newly formed USA, both Bayle and Voltaire were admired by Thomas Jefferson (president 1801–1809), while most successors to the Puritan founders stuck to their guns on Original Sin. Mark Twain, a Presbyterian and Freemason, in his Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1892), used his humourist talent to mock belief in a literal Adam and Eve; he later added Eve’s Diary. Holding back from publishing his full thoughts in his lifetime, posthumous pieces by him deny that Adam and Eve could have grasped God’s warning of the consequences of rebellion (Genesis 2:15–17), thus denying their culpability for sin.
Once Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideology had gained a firm foothold, doubt about the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall were commonplace:
“Paradise was not lost; it had never existed. Humans did not have their origins in the peaceable kingdom. They were never blessed with perfect health and abundance, a life without competition, suffering, and death. … Danger was rarely far off, and if they managed to hold the major predators at bay, they still had to reckon with army ants, and intestinal parasites, toothaches, broken arms, and cancer. … As a species, humans were neither unique nor created once-for-all” (pp. 269–270).
Although Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) makes no mention whatsoever of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, or the Fall of Man, Greenblatt notes that Darwin was fully aware of the belief-destroying consequences of his theory of evolution. Descent of Man grappled with the very same questions about human origins.
The author of RFAE acknowledges that growing doubts and disbelief regarding the biblical origins account have greatly influenced today’s society. The acceptance of Darwin’s theory:
“ … confirmed the pagan intuition that our earliest ancestors had no divine guidance, no assurance that their species would endure, no God-given laws, and no innate sense of order, morality, and justice. Social life as we know it, a life governed by a dense web of rules, agreements, and mutual understandings, was not a given but a gradual achievement [emphasis added]” (p. 273).
Evidently, however, although Greenblatt approves of Darwin’s doubts concerning Genesis, he does appreciate the ‘myth’ of Adam and Eve for its influence of thinkers throughout the ages.
By all means, read RFAE but recall the warning given in the second paragraph of this review about the author’s worldview convictions. Yes, he finds the Adam and Eve story ‘fascinating’, even ‘indispensable’ for thinking about moral choices, temptations, sexuality, marriage, and death. Nevertheless, he celebrates that “The Enlightenment has done its work, and our understanding of human origins has been freed from the grip of a once-potent delusion” (p. 284). There’s much to learn here while being leery of the author’s underlying philosophical commitments.
References and notes
- The Holberg Prize is an international prize with a monetary award of 6 million kroner, awarded annually by the Norwegian government—arguably the world’s most prestigious prize within the social sciences. Return to text.
- In his introduction in: Greenblatt, S., The power of forms in the English Renaissance, Pilgrim Books, 1982. Return to text.
- Indeed, the detailed chapter notes, bibliography, and index together comprise almost 100 pages on top of the 324 pages of the text proper. Return to text.
- Augustine, Marriage and Desire 2.12.25, cited in: Madueme, H. and Reeves, M. (Eds.), Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, biblical, and scientific perspectives, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 86, 2014. Return to text.
- 1 Peter 3:7, ESV, KJV; a literal translation from the Greek. NIV has ‘weaker partner’. Return to text.
- Initially published anonymously. Return to text.
- Milton was married twice more, first to Katherine Woodcock (12 Nov 1656 until her death on 3 Feb 1658), then to Elizabeth Mynshull (24 Feb 1663, until Milton’s own death on 8 Nov 1674), the last marriage reputedly an irenic one. Return to text.
- A trained lawyer and son of pious French Calvinists, he later turned to Roman Catholicism. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Pre-Adamic man: were there human beings on Earth before Adam? Creation 24(4):42–45, 2002. Return to text.