On Fridays, we’re doing a series on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In this book, he examines how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”
In chapter 4, Greenblatt writes about a first century Jewish midrash on the early chapters of Genesis, “The Life of Adam and Eve.” This work focuses upon the problems Adam and Eve encountered after their expulsion from Eden.
Probably originating in a Jewish milieu and composed in a Semitic language, this account of the first humans quickly migrated to early Christian communities and appeared in an array of other languages, from Latin to Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Slavonic. It continued to be read for centuries. (p. 67)
The popularity of this work, along with a “massive body of commentary, both rabbinic and patristic,” show an increasing interest in questions about what happened to Adam and Eve beyond the few details recorded in Genesis.
This period, in the early centuries CE, was a time when people of faith of many varieties speculated on many aspects of this story. Some communities even blamed God and celebrated the serpent. In The Life of Adam and Eve, the first humans came to understand their kinship with the animals because, after being exiled from the garden, they found they had to forage for food like them. It explains the devil’s deception as a reaction to having been cast from heaven because he refused to bow down before the humans as superior beings. The work tells of Adam and Eve being separated because of marital conflict but reunited when Cain was born. Works like these “wanted what in the theater is called a backstory, a hidden history that would make sense of behavior that in the Bible’s terse narrative seemed to come from nowhere” (p. 70).
Some focused on certain theological questions in the early chapters of Genesis. When God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image,” what did the plural “us” indicate? Some created other elaborate backstories of angelic rebellion behind Satan’s temptation of the first couple. There are stories about Adam and Eve’s deaths and other conflicts between them. Eve is even credited with the idea of writing so as to transmit their story to future generations.
Some, like Marcion, ultimately concluded that the God depicted first in Genesis and then throughout the Hebrew Bible was an evil creator. His views were deemed heretical and other Christian interpreters developed typological interpretations that read the first Adam’s story in the light of Jesus, the last Adam, who was the firstborn of a new creation.
Still, others found the details of the story difficult to swallow and, taking their cues from the Jewish philosopher Philo and later from Origen read the story allegorically. This was a much more culturally acceptable way of reading the texts, akin to the way Hesiod and Plato were understood.
But though allegory seemed to some like the perfect solution to the discomfort and risk of literal readings, soon after Origen’s death treating the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory came under sustained and devastating attack. Contemporary surveys indicate that many millions of people even now, in the wake of so much scientific evidence, still profess to believe int he story of Adam and Eve not allegorically but literally. The reason for this literal belief has little or nothing to do with ignorance. It has everything to do with the history of Christianity, a Christianity stamped by a still more durable philosopher than Origen the Unbreakable: Augustine of Hippo. (p. 79f)
Next time, we’ll look at Augustine and his legacy.