Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

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Adam Eve and the Serpent Review

In Adam, Eve and the Serpent, Professor Elaine Pagels looks at traditional roles of gender and Sexual relationships as influenced by the Genesis creation story of Adam and Eve during the first four centuries. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent the issues on religion within the book all boils down to a goal of eventual subscription to Christianity. Predictably, the matter of original sin is at the top of the list, being the turning point of the gist in the first book of the Bible. About 500 years AD, almost every interpretation imaginable was offered by theologists, some of which were very reasonable on the matter of Adam and Eve. But it was Augustine who came up with the idea of original sin and the fact that neither death nor sex are natural, but are punishments for Adam’s sin. Pagels contrasts how early Christians differentiated themselves from pagans and Gnostic Christians by following strict sexual practices. They prided themselves on sexual restraint and looked down on polygamy and divorce, which Jewish tradition allowed, particularly if the marriage hindered God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Pagels explain how major figures of the early church interpreted the Genesis story of Adam and Eve- from the Apostle Paul to Augustine of Hippo. Early on, when Christians were persecuted within the Roman Empire, they were buoyed by Jesus's promise of redemption and freedom from man's fallen condition. But as early as the third century A.D., orthodox Christians shunned the Gnostics for their loose, allegorical interpretation of the creation. Increasingly Christians embraced the Apostle Paul’s teachings, that sexuality was the source of man's sinful state. Finally, during the century after Emperor Constantine’s conversion around 300 A.D., brought the understanding of Adam and Eve to a full circle: "Adam's sin not only caused our mortality, but cost our moral freedom", Pagels write. Augustine attributed man's often miserable fate to a real and logical cause, the sins he willingly commits: at the time, he attributed man's sinful nature to Adam and Eve's fall. The doctrine appeals, says Pagels, “to the human need to imagine ourselves in control, even at the cost of guilt". I must say I was impressed by Pagels' interrogation of Augustine; she's clearly not a big fan, and the time and care that she spent investigating his influence on Christian thought from then until now. I was surprised to learn how little free will Augustine believed that individuals possess, and this helped me understand that "trapped" feeling I've often had in certain churches the idea that try though we might, we will never become good persons. Pagels explains how Augustine's own out of control sexually promiscuous youth made it all but impossible for him to understand then prevailing Christian concepts of free will. "Astonishingly," she says, "Augustine's radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of western Christians the consensus of more than three centuries of Christian tradition." Pagels explores the development of the ideas of human nature, moral freedom, and sexuality in the four centuries following Christ. Focusing on the various interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, she concludes that early Christians regarded their message to be one of moral freedom and human worth. In the 5th century, Augustine turned the tide with his view of human depravity and original sin (which he linked with sexuality). She argues that his interpretations, implying human incapacity for true political freedom, appealed to the interests of the emerging Christian state and forged the mainstream of ensuing Christian theology. In her analysis, although impressed with her work, Pagels does not convincingly deal with other foundational biblical material, although she does ably dismantle Augustine’s identification of sexuality with original sin. Pagels investigates how the traditional patterns of gender and sexual...
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