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The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

Nick Spencer reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve’ by Stephen Greenblatt, an examination of the story’s cultural, artistic and theological impact. 30/08/2018

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Here’s an idea. Find a churchgoer and mock them mercilessly for believing in a talking snake. Once they have been reduced to tears, follow up by pointing out that scrumping an apple is hardly the kind of crime that merits millennia of pain and misery. That should bring them to their knees. You can then finish them off by asking who Adam and Eve’s children mated with. No one ever recovers from that kind of intellectual savaging.

The tactic, so favoured by atheistschoolboybloggers, is not, alas, a new one. The Greek philosopher Celsus mocked the Jews’ “incredible and insipid” stories in the second century. Emperor Julian the Apostate did the same in the fourth, wondering what language the serpent used when he talked to Eve. (parseltongue?) At the other end of Christendom, the exquisitely understated Pierre Bayle raised dozens of niggling questions about the creation stories in the multiplying footnotes of his Historical and Critical Dictionary, making straight the way for Voltaire’s claw hammer subtlety half a century later.

There is nothing new under the sceptical sun. Still, if the sceptics keep using the same weapons it’s because the Christians keep on forging them. That, in essence, is the argument of Stephen Greenblatt’s hugely readable history of the story of Adam and Eve. Greenblatt is a literary historian, with a particular expertise in Shakespeare and the Renaissance period (which shows in the book’s three chapters on Milton and one on Renaissance art). Brought up Jewish but, in as far as I can tell, wholly agnostic or atheist now, he brings to his analysis of the story of Adam and Eve a literary eye which is precisely what it needs.

His contention is that whatever the story first meant, a question to which we shall turn, it became, in the hands of the Church Fathers, supremely Augustine, a literal story that explained everything that was wrong with the world once the alternatives of other gods behaving vengefully (polytheism) or a dualistic cosmology (Manicheism) had been rendered unviable by the commitment to the oneness and goodness of God. Pain, suffering, loss, grief, hell: all can be explained by a real man and a real woman eating a real fruit in a real garden and being punished by a real God who was really cross.

This was the view that held for a millennium although far from the only view. Indeed, most mediaevals, like most Church Fathers, were more interested in the moral, typological and anagogical readings of the story, which told them how to live, what it had to do with Jesus, and what they should hope for. But none of these, they believed, were tenable without its literal truth.

With the advent of brilliantly lifelike representations of the story by, among others, Masaccio and van Eyck in the 15th century, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach and Titian in the 16th, and of course Milton in the 17th, that literal truth became ever more untenable, as the holes, improbabilities and injustices in the story opened up like badly healed wounds. The result was mankind finally reaching maturity. Or not. Because, as you don’t have to be a world–renowned Shakespeare scholar to realise that a story does not have to be literally true to be meaningful. Which invites the question: what does it mean?

This, of course, is not easy to answer, partly because (good) stories are by nature polyphonic, offering subtly different harmonies to those with ears to hear them, and partly because this particular story was written down we don’t know when, by we don’t know who, having been transmitted orally for we don’t know how long. Meaning is thus doubly elusive.

What we do know is that the Bible’s is one of many similar creation stories that circulated in the ancient near east. Most of these have been lost for ever but some (relevant ones) have survived. This is sometimes portrayed as a mortal threat to the biblical story: ‘Your Genesis 1–3 is really little more than a Frankenstein’s monster of Enuma Elish and Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and merits no more respect than any of those.’ That, however, is rather like saying, “Mr Shakespeare, this King Lear of yours is really not much more than a patchwork of Holinshed’s Chronicles, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and… oh, what’s it called… yes, that anonymous play entitled True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters (you might at least changed the title, for goodness sake).”

In reality, what the author(s) of the two Genesis creation narratives appear to have done is soaked up the creation stories of their world, probably the Babylon of exile but all suggestions here are really guesswork, and retold them in such a way as would narrate their beliefs in their God and the world he intended, rather than those of the host culture. They were massive – or rather, miniature – narratives of subversion. This is how Greenblatt puts it, and he is well worth quoting in full:

“The sublime simplicity of the opening of Genesis was polemical. Creation for the Hebrews was not a tangle of incest, conspiracy, and intergenerational bloodletting; it was the act of Yahweh and Yahweh alone. He did not grapple with a rival to impregnate a goddess. Indeed there was no one else in all the vastness at the beginning of things, no consort, no assistance, and no resistance. The humans were created in God’s image and likeness, animated not with the blood of a murdered rival but with his own breath. He did not produce these creatures in order to serve him and make his divine existence easier. God did not need servants. The building of cities, the digging of canals, the tending of the flocks, and the exhausting work in the fields were or no interest to him. Rest – the repose of the seventh day – was important to Yahweh, as it was to [the Mesopotamian god] Apsu, but it could not be impertinently threatened or disturbed. When Yahweh decided to take his rest, he simply took it.”

You can dispute some of these interpretations. You add others. You could accept them all and still believe the story has little authority because the picture is paints does not reflect your understanding of reality. Or you could believe that the Genesis narratives in their subversive simplicity reveal something profound, inspiring and challenging about God, humans and the nature of our existence.

Greenblatt largely avoids the confessional but does say, towards the end, that he, like millions of others, retains a peculiar satisfaction from the story, in particular from its ennobling if frightening insistence that our fate is our own responsibility, rather than us simply being the playthings of gods, stars, genes, socio–economic forces…

However one reads it, the ‘you believe in a talking snake’ line entirely misses the point. The story of Adam and Eve is an exquisite miniature of simplicity, memorability, and endless fecundity. It has been used to influence how we think about “crime and punishment, moral responsibility, death, pain, work, leisure, companionship, marriage, gender, curiosity, sexuality, and our shared humanness”, not to mention science and technology, one oversight in Greenblatt’s excellent book. It helped ground the Western world in concepts of human dignity, equality and liberty. It has been read and enjoyed by children and philosophers, poets and politicians. It has made us what we are today.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt is published by Bodley Head

Image ‘Adam and Eve’ by Albrecht Dürer, 1504, available in the public domain. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 30 August 2018

Art, Bible, Gender, Theology


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