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,…

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