The Original Sinners: How the Myth of Humanity's Expulsion from Eden Shaped the History of Western Thought

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), September 8, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Original Sinners: How the Myth of Humanity's Expulsion from Eden Shaped the History of Western Thought


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

Stephen Greenblatt

Bodley Head, 419pp, 25 [pounds sterling]

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 Durer'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". …

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