In the beginning
The creation story gets a modern-day fact check to see if it qualifies as fake news
When the U.S. Supreme Court finally legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, some anonymous wit said that they desperately hoped that the first couple to take advantage of the law would be named Adam and Steve. It was a response, of course, to the galloping homophobia of the Christian right and the fact that it constantly obsesses about what it believes was God’s original design for and of humanity. Born again, alas, often means the same as being born yesterday. Thus the story of Adam and Eve has in many ways actually caused great harm and is still doing so.
To those who embrace the metaphorical nature of the tale – and indeed of much of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament – it’s a story that is entirely unchallenging. The opposite of unquestioning religious belief needn’t be doubt but faith seeking understanding. Yet there is none so angry as a fundamentalist scorned, and in a darkly nostalgic attempt to preserve a patriarchal certainty, some Christians have embraced a raw, unkind literalism. So there could be some good old book burning if they get their hands on this one.
What Harvard academic Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates in his new book, with a lyrical ease of narrative and a genuinely impressive breadth of scholarship, is that the Adam and Eve template is replicated in numerous other cultures and says relatively little that is exclusive to monotheism. He also looks to motive, origin and source. When some of the exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, they were horrified at the destruction and decay. Ezra and his followers may be celebrated as champions of Judaism but today we’d probably see them as fanatics who rejected the pragmatism and moderation of most of their coreligionists. Their response to Jerusalem’s demise was to set about ethnically cleansing the city both physically and spiritually. They were also obliged to ask themselves how this could have happened to the chosen people, why so many defeats, so much pain? Simple. The first humans let the side down and punishment was inevitable. Adam and Eve, you’ve got some explaining to do.
None of this material is new and there is no absolute answer to when the first books of the Bible were written, but it’s likely that propaganda was involved. Spin, an agenda or, God forbid, fake news! “Yet millions of people, including some of the subtlest and most brilliant minds that have ever existed, have accepted the Bible’s narrative of Adam and Eve as the unvarnished truth,” the author says. Whenever the Adam and Eve explanation of human origins came into being and whoever wrote it, it has mattered for 2,000 years and still does.
While the book is a history and an analysis of the Adam and Eve story, it is also an account of the author’s wanderings and wonderings through the prism of the Scriptural account of the original founding father and mother. It’s as though the first couple represent a rock thrown into the water and we are taken on a journey to follow the ripples. Greenblatt used the same vehicle in an earlier book about Shakespeare (Will in the World) and the results then and now are compelling. It’s not a unique device, of course, but there’s always the danger of it all becoming too solipsistic, too indulgent. Not here. We spend time with John Milton, a timeless poet but also the dedicated spokesman of the revolutionary and regicidal Puritan regime of mid-17th-century England. We read of St. Augustine, the early shaper of the church whose influence on Christianity is incalculable but not impeccable. We’re told of Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer and his depictions not only of Adam and Eve but also of Christ and of those ordinary central Europeans whom he met and knew. And finally, there is Charles Darwin and his ripping apart of the seamless garment of faith and science. He may have caused hardliners a great deal of anguish but, even at the time, there were Christian leaders such as the author Charles Kingsley who were convinced that theories of evolution in no way undermined Christian belief as long as we took an intelligent approach to the creation story. Greenblatt then jumps from matters Darwinian to a delightful conclusion about his own time observing chimpanzees in Uganda.
He’s strong and thorough on the misogyny that has been propagated by Eve’s apparent weakness and manipulation and how it has drenched Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teaching. There’s obviously a new theology at work today in certain circles, but it’s difficult to expunge millennia of assumptions from institutions that rely on authority and hierarchy. Eve the temptress, Eve the mother, wife, procreator, helper, servant. Eve the object. Never Eve the leader or Eve the priest. It’s often better than it was, it’s seldom as good as it should be.
Greenblatt knows, as we all should, that ancient texts, whether they are religious or purely descriptive, always require interpretation. While taken in historical context and without banal anachronism the Old Testament is a vibrant, vital text – I certainly believe so as a Christian – but it’s reductive and even dangerous to regard it as pure history. It was written and assembled at different times with different purposes, it’s often tendentious and usually composed by the winners. As the author frequently tells us, the Adam and Eve morality tale is used to excuse and to justify at least as much as it is to illuminate and explore.
Perhaps more time could have been spent on the startlingly gender-free nature of much of Genesis in its original language and the fact that more than one account of the creation story is provided in the Bible, which is something religious zealots either do not know or choose to ignore, but that would be carping. This is iconoclasm with a delicate touch, never mean-spirited and intent on opening doors rather than pushing people through them.
By the way, that first married gay couple in the United States was not, unfortunately, named Adam and Steve. Oh well, we can’t win them all. Amen.
Michael Coren’s most recent book is Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.
In his book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt explores how the creation myth has been used to support misogyny and homophobia.