The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: exploring the myth of the original sinners

Stephen Greenblatt's book is a pellucid and absorbing account of the Biblical tale's great significance.

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According to the story, God created Adam and Eve in a garden where they could eat freely from all but one of the trees. Entranced by a serpent, which told her that disobeying the divine prohibition would make them like gods, Eve ate fruit from the forbidden tree and gave it to Adam, who also ate it. Their eyes were opened and, realising that they were naked, they covered themselves with fig leaves. The punishment exacted by God was that they were expelled from the garden and forced to labour until they died, when they returned to the dust from which they had been made.

How could a tale featuring these incredible events have seized the imagination for so long? As interpreted by Christians, the lesson it conveyed is barely coherent. Why would a benign God deny any knowledge of good and evil to the creatures it had created and then, when they acquired such knowledge, condemn them to a life of misery? If this God was omniscient, it knew in advance that they would breach the prohibition. The first humans, on the other hand, were too innocent to understand the punishment that God threatened; they knew nothing of death or labour, by which they would be cursed when they were expelled from the garden. A God that devised and enacted such a cruel drama would be a capricious tyrant, wreaking senseless suffering on the world it had created.

Yet the story lived on, inspiring some of the greatest poets and painters. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt shows in this pellucid, absorbing and for many contemporary readers surely definitive account, the biblical image of Adam and Eve was repeatedly transformed in Western art. In Renaissance Europe, the lifelike naked figures of the 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck – showing Adam’s hands reddened from labour and Eve’s prominent belly – became in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Fall of Man (1504) an incarnation of perfect beauty in a world that had not yet fallen into sinfulness and mortality. In Milton’s Paradise Lost – “the greatest poem in the English language”, as Greenblatt and many others believe – the Genesis story was transmuted into a tragedy shaped by Satan’s pride and the mutual love of Adam and Eve.

All of these artists struggled with a Christian orthodoxy that asserted that the Genesis story was literally true. But for many centuries, the story was not read as a factual report of events. In the early fifth century, Saint Augustine, the founding theologian of Western Christianity, devoted 15 years to composing The Literal Meaning of Genesis, in which he argued that the biblical text need not be understood literally if it goes against what we know to be true from other sources. More radically, the first-century Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria presented Genesis as an allegory: an interweaving of symbolic imagery with imagined events that contained a body of meaning that could not easily be expressed in other ways.

Throughout much of its long life, the story of Adam and Eve was understood to be a myth – and myths can have many meanings. Third- and fourth-century Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt portray Eve – later condemned for staining all humankind with original sin – as the hero of the story, wiser and more courageous than Adam, while showing the serpent as a liberator offering the first humans freedom from the rule of a jealous God.

In a fascinating appendix, Greenblatt goes on to cite some of the “vast archive” of interpretations that the story has evoked. Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-215) wrote of Adam’s and Eve’s “happy blindness – happy, of course, because they did not know that they could not see” – and suggested it was this that explained their transgression, “since it must have been difficult for them to distinguish the forbidden fruit from all others”. According to Martin Luther (1483-1546), on the other hand, when offered the fruit by Eve, “Adam immediately took it and ate. Why? He could scarcely have put it into words, but if compelled, he might have said: an eternity in this condition is unendurable. I hate the contemplation of the One who made me. I hate the overwhelming debt of gratitude. I hate God.”

What is most striking about the story is its capacity to express contradictory attitudes to the experience of being human. This is not because those who have told and retold it have been confused. The story expresses universal conflicts within human beings, rendered into a vernacular language of monotheism. The power of this inexhaustible myth comes from it not having any univocal meaning. Yet in recent times the Genesis story has come to be regarded as an erroneous theory of human origins invented before humanity received the modern scientific revelation. Reviving a simple-minded 19th-century philosophy, contemporary campaigners against religion dismiss the Genesis story along with all other myths as rudimentary exercises in scientific theorising.

Identifying myths with superseded theories was the core of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: a study in comparative religion, first published in 1890, in which the late-Victorian Scottish anthropologist located mythic thinking in the infancy of the human species. Frazer drew heavily on the work of the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who believed that human thought went through three phases: religious, metaphysical and scientific. Belonging in the first of these stages, the story of Adam and Eve was a hypothesis that could be discarded now that the truth had been discovered by Darwin. In this view, which seems self-evident to the “new atheists” who are currently peddling a reheated version of it, religion is only a primitive sort of science. Yet the positivist notion that myths are primitive forms of thought is itself extremely primitive. As Wittgenstein put it in a lecture on religion, “Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages… His explanations of primitive observances are much cruder than the meaning of the observances themselves.”

Frazer’s view of “primitive” societies can now be seen as a relic of Victorian rationalism, which legitimated the colonial structures of the time in terms of an ersatz-Darwinian theory of cultural evolution. By representing the contingencies of power as stages in an imaginary process of human development, Frazer became a myth-maker.

In his chapter on Darwin, Greenblatt observes that the role of chance in natural selection left the theory of evolution “resistant to narrative coherence”, producing “repeated attempts to impose a satisfying plot of one kind or another on Darwinism”. Evolutionist defences of imperialism and racism were among these attempts. Yet the renewal of myth in rationalist philosophies goes back further, appearing in some of the central figures of the Enlightenment.

The Christian insistence on the factual truth of the Genesis story left the myth vulnerable to new discoveries. The expanded vision of the globe and of the variety of its human inhabitants that came with the discovery of the New World threatened the belief that all of humankind originated in just two parents. At the same time, the Genesis story was undermined by the recovery of lost texts such as the Roman poet Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things – whose re-discovery was the subject of Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) – in which the cosmos is pictured as everlasting and species emerge as a result of random shifts in matter. As Greenblatt shows, one of the boldest responses to these new challenges came from Isaac La Peyrère, a theologian born in Bordeaux in 1596 and brought up in a Calvinist family.

In 1655, La Peyrère published Prae-Adamitae, translated into English as Men Before Adam, in which he argued that when God created Adam and Eve, the world was already full of human beings. Adam was not the father of all humankind but only of the Jewish people, who had been chosen by God to receive the divine law and, through Jesus, to bring all humankind redemption. As an interpretation of Genesis, this could hardly have been more provocative; the book was burned and its author arrested for heresy. After a long interrogation and an interview with the pope, La Peyrère recanted, converted to Catholicism and passed the rest of his life in retirement.

In the work of La Peyrère, what came to be known as pre-Adamism was an expression of freedom of thought. His family had been Marranos – Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, many of them leaving Portugal for other parts of Europe or the Americas to escape continuing persecution by the Inquisition. La Peyrère used pre-Adamism to argue for tolerance and did not rank different types of humans in any hierarchy.

Later, pre-Adamite theory was used for different purposes. As Greenblatt indicates, La Peyrère’s account of multiple human origins was revived in the late 18th and 19th centuries by racists, who invoked it to promote ideologies of racial inequality.

At this point, there is a missing link in Greenblatt’s history of ideas. He fails to note how pre-Adamism was taken up by some of the key thinkers of the Enlightenment to become one of the inspirations of modern racism. Chief among them was Voltaire, whose Philosophical Dictionary (1764) Greenblatt discusses at some length. The Dictionary abounds in slighting references to Jews – the entry on Abraham describes them as “a small, new, ignorant, crude people” – not cited by Greenblatt.

It is Voltaire’s use of pre-Adamite theory that is more interesting, however. He ridiculed the Genesis myth, which in classic rationalist fashion he dismissed as a defective theory of human origins. Instead, he advocated a version of La Peyrère’s polygenetic theory, in which only Jews are Adamites and the rest of humankind belong in several distinct groups.

Unlike La Peyrère, Voltaire viewed these groups as inherently unequal. He believed that Europe owed its civilisation not to the Hebrew descendants of Adam, whom he regarded as thoroughly barbaric, but principally to the Greeks and the Romans. Any prospect of progress in civilisation required that the influence of Adamites – exercised through Judaism and Christianity – be curbed and ultimately eliminated.

Not all pre-Adamites could be civilised, however. Some were essentially brutish. In a letter to a correspondent, Voltaire asked whether Africans were descended from monkeys, or monkeys from Africans. Detaching pre-Adamism from theology and identifying it with ideas of racial hierarchy, Voltaire was a pivotal figure in the emergence of modern Western racism. Writers such as the American physician, ethnographer and “craniologist” Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) – who argued that there were several species of humans with differently sized skulls and correspondingly different levels of intellectual ability, with Africans being the least intelligent – followed a path that Voltaire had opened up.

The claim to be based in science is one of the defining features of modern myths. After the collapse of European imperial power, the pseudo-Darwinian mythology that propped up colonialism fell into disrepute. But it was soon followed by other myths claiming a basis in social science. A progressive mythology developed that viewed racism and imperialism as exclusively Western vices and the flaws and conflicts of post-colonial states entirely as consequences of colonial rule. These myths were channelled through theories of modernisation, which posited a future fundamentally different from anything that existed in the past.

Like the story of Adam and Eve in Christian orthodoxy, modern myths claim to be objective truths. If we read the story as it was read in subtler times by scholars such as Philo, however, it teaches us that human beings become myth-makers when the increase of knowledge threatens to thwart their need for meaning. If science reveals a world without any overarching purpose or direction – as Darwin’s theory of natural selection does – science is distorted to promote a vision of evolution that satisfies the demand for narrative coherence.

This is what happened when Darwinism was appropriated by racists, and later by humanists such as Julian Huxley who reinterpreted the aimless process of evolution as the spiralling advance of intelligence in the cosmos.

With their babble about a godlike humanity taking charge of its future evolution, today’s campaigners against religion do much the same. Since living without myths is unendurable, these rationalists cover themselves with fig leaves of cod-science, close their eyes and return to a state of happy blindness. As part of its unfathomable richness, the story of Adam and Eve reveals the nature of myth itself.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
Stephen Greenblatt
Bodley Head, 419pp, £25

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move