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The Triumph of Sin

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

by Elaine Pagels
Random House, 189 pp., $17.95

Few revolutions in this century have had so profound an effect on humanity as the revolution in social attitudes. Since 1900 the status of women and ideas of sexuality, marriage, and divorce have undergone changes as far-reaching as they are irreversible. Accompanying these has been the progressive but by now considerable alienation in the West from the once dominant theology of Augustine of Hippo regarding sexuality and the politics of religion. Original sin, once accepted on both sides of the Reformation divide as the justification of the repressive state and an equally repressive morality, is now receding from the collective consciousness of many Western Christians. The results so far, however, have not been reassuring. To an outside observer, “the descent of man” might be the theme of the present century in politics, religion, morality, and the arts. The challenge to theologians today is how to replace a negative theology of sin by a more mature and better-founded theology based on human responsibility and freedom.

In a book of fewer than two hundred pages, Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, the author of The Gnostic Gospels, has sought to go to the root of the problem and find out how traditional patterns of gender and sexuality arose and how the idea of original sin came to be connected with state power. How was it that Christianity, which owes so much to Judaism, diverged so strongly from the culture of the Hebrews, to whom procreation and the family stood at the center of its existence? In a clear and very readable style which conceals a complete mastery of her material, she describes the evolution of Christian attitudes toward morality from the time of Jesus to that of Augustine. The clue to that evolution she finds in varying interpretations adopted by Christians to the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. These interpretations move from different ideas of how freedom, which Christians regarded as the primary message of Genesis 1–3, should be expressed, to totally contrasting views taught by Augustine. The “cataclysmic transformation” introduced by the latter was this: the story of Adam and Eve was not an affirmation of human freedom and human ability to choose good or evil, but the story of human bondage. The break with earlier concepts and, the author might have added, with the developing tradition of Eastern Christendom was total and lasting. How did this come about? What were its implications?

Professor Pagels starts with the founder. Jesus, the author points out, when he spoke of marriage went back to the Genesis account of the first marriage. He read the passage, however, differently from other Jewish teachers of his day. The relationship between Adam and Eve represented the absolute character of the marriage bond. Divorce had been conceded by Moses, he said, only because of Jewish “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8). In addition, Jesus placed family obligations on a lower level than voluntary celibacy and complete personal dedication to the service of the coming Kingdom. Nothing, neither family nor any other conventional ties, must stand in the way of this higher duty. Paul also preached a preference for celibacy over married life. In this he was following his master’s views. His reservations were not the result of sexual inhibition, but because of his view of marriage as a hindrance to a Christian’s complete freedom to follow his calling in preparation for the rapidly approaching age to come.

Both Jesus and Paul spoke as though the coming of God’s kingdom was in the immediate future. When this did not take place—and by the time II Peter was written, around 120, this was becoming evident to many Christians—pressures were relaxed. Here one feels perhaps that the author has omitted a useful step in her argument, namely the transition from the outlook of the “New Israel” living in fervent expectation of the end, to that of the “third race,” as the Christians of the second century styled themselves, endeavoring to come to terms with a long stay in the world. The literature of the subapostolic period (c. 90–135 AD) shows that some of the stark imperatives and choices attributed to Jesus were being quietly replaced by a morality more akin to that of current Pharisaism. In an early work of this period, The Didache or “Teaching of the Apostles,” the norm of conduct was summed up in the Golden Rule, and there was no demand for celibacy among Christians.

Genesis, in fact, was not the only influence on Jesus’ teaching regarding marriage. To many contemporaries, he was understood as “the prophet” foretold by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy 18:15, a leader raised from among the Jewish people, “whom they should heed.” The great prophetic tradition of Israel, revived only a few years before by John the Baptist, was brought to a fresh climax by his cousin, Jesus, “the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:11). The deadly opposition of the high priests was aroused not only by Jesus’ message, which so often ran contrary to that of Moses, but by fear that their own positions would be threatened if the claims made on Jesus’ behalf were true. The temple itself, let alone its servants, was only an interim institution until “the prophet” arrived. The royal chronicle of the recent Israelite (Hasmonaean) kings (I Maccabees 4:46 and 14:41) was there to remind them of this.

The prophets, however, tended to be ascetics and celibates. As Tertullian explained, comparing them to their Christian counterparts, fasting and abstinence were the means by which prophets received the Holy Spirit (On Fasting, chapter 9). The style of living of the great prophets of Israel as recorded a generation or so after the Crucifixion forbade family life. They were remembered as individuals “wandering and persecuted, clothed in sheepskins and goatskins…wandering over deserts and mountains and caves in the earth” (Hebrews 11:37–38), but determined in these conditions to proclaim the word of the Lord, just as Jesus himself did as he moved from place to place in Galilee. It was this tradition more than Genesis that links the asceticism of Jesus and his disciples with the asceticism of the monks in the third and fourth centuries AD.

Other aspects of Christian life in the period before Constantine do, however, owe much to Genesis. In her chapter “Christians Against the Roman Order,” Pagels describes some classic instances of confrontation between Christians and the authorities. She gives pride of place to the martyr Perpetua and her companions, who perished in the amphitheater at Carthage in March 203. The diary that Perpetua kept in prison is among the most revealing records of what ordinary Christians believed and hoped for at this time. For her, Christianity certainly involved liberation, and her rebuke to the tribune in charge of the prison, that he ought to look after his charges better as they were to fight in the amphitheater on the emperor’s birthday, shows a cool defiance almost unheard of by a woman in this period. A similar spirit inspired Justin Martyr and the North African confessors of Scilla who died on July 15, 180. All these confessors accepted Christianity as a proclamation of a new freedom to worship Christ rather than the “rulers of this world.”

The ultimate link with Genesis in these instances is clear, with Justin equating the giant offspring of the fallen angels and women (Genesis 6:2–4) with the demons of paganism. It becomes fundamental in the ideas of the various sects that composed the Gnostic movement, about whom the author has written so brilliantly. Genesis influenced the Gnostics in two different directions. First, the Gnostics mocked their opponents in the “Great Church” for taking Genesis literally. Did God really make a noise when he walked about Eden, and did he lie to Adam and Eve in telling them that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit? Following from that, the Gnostics interpreted Genesis as myth with a meaning. For some, the roles of the Serpent, Adam, and Eve were reversed. The Serpent, “wisest of all beasts,” was the instructor of Gnosis (knowledge) who teaches Eve, the female spiritual power. She is represented as the source of human self-understanding, who defied the ignorant and malevolent Creator-God that cast them out of Eden and initiated the believer into the deeper mysteries of the Christian faith.

There was, however, another side to Gnostic teaching: that life’s freedoms were overshadowed by its inevitabilities and that suffering was built into the creation of the universe itself. While the orthodox claimed that Adam and Eve harmed humanity by misusing their free will but that the damage was reparable through Christ’s conquest of death, the Gnostic vision of reality remained a dark one pervaded by suffering. The Manichaean successors to the Gnostic creed would equate suffering with Evil, the eternal force contrary to God, and teach that creation itself was inevitably dominated by Evil. Augustine’s eleven most formative years from the age of nineteen to thirty-one were spent either as a Manichee or as one who remained strongly influenced by the Manichaeans.

So long, however, as Christianity was threatened with persecution, Pagels points out, the optimistic interpretation of Genesis as guarantor of freedom prevailed. In the third century, however, a perceptible shift of position took place corresponding to the growing divergence between eastern and western Christianity. Clement and Origen regarded Christianity as the religion of emancipation, guaranteeing freedom from the spurious claims of idolatry and fate and opening the way to a rational understanding of the universe and moral uprightness. The ascetic life was chosen as a means toward deepening spiritual awareness, and characteristically in the next century the monks in the east were regarded as the true philosophers. In the west however—and this Professor Pagels could have made clearer—there were interpretations of Genesis that would lead straight to Augustinianism. By 210, Tertullian was asserting in Carthage a gloomier doctrine of the Fall, which depended on an understanding of original sin that was foreign to eastern Christian thinkers. All human souls, Tertullian was saying, were detached portions of the original soul of Adam, and since heredity ran exclusively through the father, all were infected by Adam’s sin. This original guilt was passed on seminally (On the Soul, 41). Though Tertullian also asserted a vigorous belief in free will, logically humankind had deprived itself of this through participation in Adam’s sin. Its root, as North African theologians liked to say, had been tainted.

Even so, by the end of the third century there was no consensus either in east or west for or against celibacy. Most of the clergy about whose lives we know anything were married, and these included the martyr bishop Phileas of Thmuis in Lower Egypt, and the equally distinguished Dionysius of Alexandria, who fled the Decian persecution in 250 with his wife. On the celibate side stood Methodius of Olympus, whose female characters in the Symposium of the Ten Virgins, composed c. 300, described asceticism as the furthest progression by human beings toward freedom. Almost at the same time a western council held at Elvira in southeastern Spain c. 309 formally forbade clergy to marry (Canon 33).

The consensus in favor of celibacy that began to form during the period after Constantine’s conversion (c. 312) had two main causes. In the countryside of Egypt and Syria there had been a large swing toward Christianity before the last effort to suppress Christianity by Diocletian and his colleagues. This movement to convert took the form of literal acceptance of Jesus’ commands as the guarantee of salvation from the consequences of sin, and of salvation from the deception of the traditional pagan gods. Acceptance of the new faith involved renouncing the world and adopting an ascetic life characterized by an imitation of the sufferings of martyrdom through excessive and painful feats of abstinence. Such were the lives of Antony and his Syrian contemporaries (270–350).

At the same time the increasing numbers of converts were influencing deeper-thinking and serious-minded Christians to strive for perfection through asceticism. Just as the body of Christ was pure, Jerome urged, so should be those of his followers. But while Jerome and his followers in the west loathed the flesh and sexual intercourse associated with it, eastern ascetic clergy, such as his contemporary Gregory of Nyssa, did not share such loathing: they aimed “to raise their lives above the world” by means of abstinence. Through asceticism one approached what God had originally intended human beings to be, that is, “in His own image,” a prospect that Adam had destroyed through his disobedience.

Augustine’s renunciation of his promising secular career in 386 was, as Elaine Pagels points out, originally inspired by similar idealism. Had he stayed in Italy the liberal phase of his theology, in which he upheld the sovereignty of the will and castigated the determinism of his Manichaean friends, would have lasted much longer than it did. His return to North Africa, where he was born, and admission to orders as an African Catholic in 391 brought about the slow but irreversible transformation the author traces in her final chapters. From being the champion of free will, who began a study of Genesis aimed at destroying Manichaean arguments based on the consequences of the Fall, he becomes the theologian who found in Genesis 1–3 the affirmation of universal human bondage to sin. Some contemporaries in Italy, including the ascetic teacher Pelagius, were shocked. If they had had greater knowledge of North African theological tradition they could have spared themselves this reaction.

The relegation of free will to the background of Augustine’s thought had a political as well as a moral aspect. In her chapter “The Politics of Paradise,” Elaine Pagels describes how for Augustine the state and political power became instruments of divine purpose aimed at disciplining irrevocably sinful humankind. Looking back on his own past, Pagels writes, Augustine concluded that mankind was enslaved by its own insatiable lusts. Far from Adam’s free will benefiting humanity, it was Adam’s desire for liberty that had caused the catastrophe of the Fall.

She compares Augustine’s outlook with that of John Chrysostom, the luckless bishop of Constantinople (398–403) at the court of the emperor Arcadius. Both were clerics who elevated the status of the priesthood above that of the secular power. But there the similarity ends. John Chrysostom was an easterner who followed the political tradition of Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius. “The Emperor,” he declared, “was without peer on earth, for he is the head and crown of everything in this world” (Homily on the Statues, ii.9). But since humankind was capable of orderly selfrule tyranny must be opposed as he himself opposed the emperor Theodosius when the latter threatened to punish the citizens of Antioch harshly for overthrowing the statues in 387.

This was a singular event, however. The author is mistaken in her belief that Chrysostom “never swerved from his belief that secular and spiritual powers were antithetical and mutually exclusive.” This was the western view held by Ambrose and Augustine. For the eastern clergy, the emperor’s authority had divine sanction as the visible force allied to that of divine and saintly beings promoting the harmony of the universe as a reflection of the harmony of heaven. Thus, when confronted with the emperor’s displeasure, John Chrysostom submitted and went into exile. Ambrose, faced by a similar situation in 385, successfully defied imperial orders.

For Augustine the state could only achieve the limited ideal of secular peace through service to the Church. Hence he held that the enemies of the Church, notably the North African Donatist rivals to the Catholics, should be suppressed forcibly by state power. If emperors could act against poisoners, he urged, they could act against the Donatist schismatics. There could be no liberty in matters of religion, because liberty for irrevocably sinful human beings was “simply liberty to err.” Step by step the logic of original sin forced Augustine into the role of persecution, with fateful consequences for Western civilization.

Augustine took his understanding of Adam’s sin further. Human suffering and sin were not voluntary. They were punishments for that one truly voluntary and willful sin of Adam. Augustine follows the North African tradition set by Tertullian two centuries before in insisting on the transmission of the taint of sin through the semen. He took the argument to its logical conclusion: “Sexual desire [libido] of our disobedient members [i.e., parts of the body] arose in those first human beings as a result of their sin of disobedience.”

That this concept of original sin and its consequences came to dominate Western theology was a tragedy. As Pagels rightly says, it entails “the capitulation of all who held to the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel.” It was also tragic because its justification was strengthened, she shows, by a mistranslation of Romans 5:12. Paul’s assertion that “on account of whom [i.e., Adam]” all human beings sinned was rendered in the Old Latin version of the Scriptures as “in whom” instead of “on account of whom”: the prose was therefore capable of meaning that humankind was seminally infected by Adam’s sin. Latin-speaking Christians on both sides of the Mediterranean accepted this mistranslation, but for Augustine it provided the cornerstone for his theology, in which sin and sex became entirely equated.

It was, however, a close thing. In her final chapter, “The Nature of Nature,” one feels the author’s sympathies are with Augustine’s Aristotelian-minded opponent, Bishop Julian of Eclanum in southern Italy. Julian represented the Christian Stoicism that had become the religion of many educated western provincials outside North Africa. In Italy, Gaul, and Britain, Christianity in the fourth century was a religion that absorbed rather than destroyed its rivals. It was represented by men like the Gallic poet Ausonius, a Christian but proud of his Druidic heritage. It was a forward-looking religion building on the foundation of classical civilization. Julian pleaded the equity and justice of God and argued that what Augustine claimed as the symptoms of human misery and sin were in fact part of the natural order. Purpose, not punishment, characterized God in nature. Thus giving birth was not possible without painful contractions; sweat and exertion were necessary accompaniments of hard work; death itself was part of nature, for otherwise the world would become overpopulated. Adam sinned, but his effect on humanity was in setting a bad example not in seminal infection.

These arguments were made in vain. The tide of educated Christian opinion was running too strongly in favor of theological pessimism. The decade that had witnessed the fall of Rome and the terrifying onset of the Germanic barbarians could hardly have reacted otherwise. But what gained Augustinianism the day was the superb organization of the Catholic Church in North Africa, refined in thirty years of combat with the Donatists, and drawing on a theological tradition that emphasized the exclusive character of the Church and human sinfulness extending back over two centuries. Against this, the cool reasoning of Julian, even arguments drawn from personal experience of the ascetic Paulinus of Nola, and the instructive views of Pope Zosimus (417–418) and the future Pope Sixtus III (432–440) were unavailing. Pagels shows how Augustine was able to relate his doctrine to actual human experiences such as the sufferings of women and children, the pain and hardship of manual labor, and finally to the supreme evil of death. Natural and moral evil fused into each other. What we call Nature we had come to know only in a state of chronic disease. So the combination of theological pessimism and a mistaken understanding of natural phenomena left Western civilization saddled with the legacy of a doctrine of original sin, which even today, as Pagels points out, remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Finally, there is the question why this paradoxical and apparently preposterous theory should still command respect. In her last, perceptive pages, Pagels suggests that the reason lies deep in human ideas of guilt. Is it not so that people feel instinctively guilty when they find themselves or their loved ones victims of natural disaster or freak accidents? Augustine would have replied, “You are not personally to blame. The ultimate responsibility goes back to Adam.” Humankind does not suffer and die randomly but for specific reasons, and so people are reassured. Guilt is easier to bear than helplessness.

Elaine Pagels has written an important book. Perhaps a longer book would have served her case better. Interpretation of Genesis was one factor in shaping early Christian attitudes toward secular authority and personal morality, but it was not the only factor. In addition, more weight might have been given to the widening differences between eastern and western Christians toward both issues. Between 370 and 400 Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine each wrote their interpretations of the creation story in Genesis. It would have been valuable had she compared their accounts and seen where Augustine differed from his two older contemporaries. His preoccupation with original sin and its counterpart, predestination, could then have been explained against the background of specifically North African theological tradition. The inclusion of these themes would have made for a more comprehensive, perhaps definitive, study.

Even so, the author has written a scholarly and challenging work to be set alongside her work on the Gnostic Gospels. It is a book that will start arguments, for the basic questions that underlie it—how far humans are able to govern themselves, whether they are doomed to destruction, despite all their efforts, by the weapons they have created, and whether the brinkmanship of statesmen will always end disastrously—require urgent answer. Basic causes of our present moral confusion have been laid bare as no one has done before. Elaine Pagels has shown that historical theology is no ivory tower study and that its scholars have an urgent and relevant message for their time.

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