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Critical Review by Robin Lane Fox
SOURCE: "Sweet Are the Uses of Original Sin," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, pp. 15-6.
In the review below, Fox states that Adam, Eve, and the Serpent contains the best elements of Pagels' writing, but contends that Pagels' arguments are not always plausible.
The Bible begins with two accounts of the creation, written by different authors at different times. We do not know their dates, but the likeliest guesses are the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. We do know that they were later combined by a third person, the patron saint of relaxed editors. The two stories contradicted each other and each said the bare minimum. The editor did his best, which was next to nothing. He put the stories one after another and left an Eden of unanswered questions, in which posterity has wandered and made its own discoveries ever since.
Elaine Pagels's Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is the latest heir to these stories that suggest so much more than they state. Why did God say, "Let us make man," if only He existed? Why did He create man twice? Why was Adam given a woman as a helper, not another man? Was it because Adam and Eve were supposed to make love from the start? But if so, was wicked Cain conceived in Paradise? What exactly was the "knowledge" that did such harm: was it carnal, moral or psychedelic? Whatever was bothering the serpent? According to one view, he was jealous because he had seen the human couple making love in the garden. On another, he was disgusted with God's behavior: Why should a single tree be put out of bounds? Why should intelligence be classified as an official secret? One little slip by Adam and Eve, and God appears to weigh in with the death penalty. There were some imaginative early Christians who thought the serpent was the hero of the piece.
Unkind to serpents, the second of the two stories has not been kind to women. In the 17th century, just before the Mayflower sailed, good Englishwomen were still being encouraged to apologize in their prayers for the sin of their grandmother Eve. Speculative unorthodoxy, early Christianity and feminist imagery are a compound that brings the best out of Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University. Her new book takes Genesis 1-3 as the text of its sermon and has the distinctive qualities so many admired in her work on the Gnostic Gospels. It is very clearly written. It has form, moral impetus and direction. The author works with themes and ideas more than facts and historical detail. She sees close connections between contemporary and ancient ways of thinking. She comes across sympathetically and I have greatly enjoyed my dialogue with her argument.
Her book's impact lies in its direction and emphasis, not an any new discoveries that will change future study. The history of Adam and Eve has already been written on a much broader range. Ms. Pagels stops with St. Augustine and his arguments for original sin. This book lacks the luxuriant byways that were traveled only last year by James Turner's "One Flesh," a work that ranged from St. Paul to Milton. Ms. Pagels is less concerned with Jewish speculations on her themes, although books they consider apocryphal do overlap with ideas in early Christian sources. One rabbi even thought Adam had sex with each animal in order to test it before naming it. The idea has a hideous power.
Instead, Ms. Pagels focuses on two ideas, moral freedom and original sin. She admires the former idea as much as she regrets the latter, but I would question several turns in her arguments Christians, she believes, were the first to champion the "absolute moral worth of the individual," although there is more in pagan Greek philosophies about that than she reveals. The Christian "commitment to moral freedom" won converts, she says, and was appealingly radical. It also impelled some early Christians to seek martyrdom. In Ms. Pagels's view, it derived from the text on man's creation in God's image: Genesis inspired Christians to oppose "external domination by the Roman state." The "proclamation of moral freedom grounded in Genesis 1-3 was regarded as effectively synonymous with the Gospel."
I think she exaggerates. A small minority of "knowing," or Gnostic, Christians did make Genesis a battleground with orthodox authors, but the vast majority of Christians were more concerned with redemption by Christ than with possible views of creation by God. They were much less interested in the world's beginning than in its end and their fate afterwards. Christian martyrs and apologists do first voice the idea of "religious liberty," the idea that each person, as Tertullian wrote around 200 A.D., has a "free choice of divinity." That view arose from the position in the martyrs and apologists persecuted nonparticipants in Roman society, not from anything written in Genesis. Rather the martyrs and accounts of them quote Genesis on "bruising the serpent's head," the serpent being Satan over whom the Christian martyr triumphs. The texts on creation were not exploited, not even by the brave Perpetua, the early martyr who wrote an account of her trial and persecution and whom women's histories like to exploit instead.
As for original sin, Ms. Pagels has no truck with St. Augustine's idea and its influence. Her chapters on this lie closest to her title and they make the old issues very clear. When she considers why this doctrine seemed ever more plausible to fellow Christians. I find her case less than plausible. Her particular emphasis is political. By Augustine's day in the fifth century, she argues, the Church was part of a Christian empire under a Christian emperor. The idea that all humans are corrupted by heredity and therefore in need of government made sense of the Christians' new predicament. Why, though, did the doctrine of original sin take root deeply in the West, but much less so in the East, where church and emperor were even more closely intertwined? I think the political view is not much of an answer. Nor, strictly, is the personal one, that original sin made exceptional sense of misfortunes, deaths, illnesses and suffering. To St. Augustine, of course, it did, but why original sin and not just each individual's tendency to sinfulness? Original sin is not an invitation to feel guilt. Original sin and personal guilt are often connected too closely—as they are in this book. We cannot feel guilty for what is not our own fault. The danger in invoking original sin is to take away personal responsibility and open the way to ideas of cheap grace. Grace is not prominent in Ms. Pagels's exposition.
St. Augustine owed much to his wish to explain the great problem of undeserved evil and suffering. He also confronted his own congregations, those groups of stubbornly un-Christian Christians; their sins, more than the Empire's, needed explanation. Above all, he was involved in the particular problems of baptism, especially infant baptism. If babies were sinless, why baptize them? If they were sinful, how had sin entered, except through Adam? Ms. Pagels puts her main emphasis elsewhere. The first part of her book has little to do directly with Genesis; the second half could have advanced on a wider front. Like the serpent, these texts in Genesis offer scope for exceptional subtlety.
This section contains 1,228 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)