Legends of the Fall

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; illustration by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808

In 1872, when the brilliant young Assyriologist George Smith found a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum inscribed with part of the story of the Flood, he became so excited that he began undressing, though the comparative literature scholar David Damrosch thinks that he might have been merely loosening his collar, Stephen Greenblatt tells us—still sign enough to alarm Smith’s Victorian confreres into fearing that he was overborne with passion. It’s a famous moment in the history of literature because Smith, who was a devout Christian, believed that his discovery revealed continuity between the Bible and the far more ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, in which a Babylonian Noah appears. Smith took his discovery as proof that the Bible was true history: here was testimony to the Deluge from an older, independent source. Dated to around 2100 BCE, the poem is the earliest extant work of literature we have. (When Greenblatt says “quite possibly the oldest story ever found,” he is being very cautious.)

George Smith’s reading of the tablet could be turned around. Rather than confirming the veracity of the Bible, the Gilgamesh account of events at the beginning of human society more likely reveals the contingency of Genesis: the story received for centuries by Jews and Christians as revealed truth is only one of many entwined stories, inherited and invented, preserved, forgotten, and recast. As Greenblatt describes, with the lucidity we expect from him, the cosmic struggle of Tiamat and Ea and other deities in the Babylonian creation myth only survived in a copy of Berossus’s History of Babylonia, made by Eusebius, which was itself lost and survives in a single copy of an Armenian translation. As for the great Epic of Gilgamesh, it lay buried in the library of Nineveh until Layard’s dig of 1845, the key to its script lost, its magnificent narrative unread until George Smith’s work of decipherment. Meanwhile the Bible account traveled far and wide, and prevailed.

The life of any artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance. How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy, as Greenblatt excitingly described in The Swerve, which recounts the adventures of Lucretius’s De rerum natura. But at the heart of all this unpredictability, the struggle for authority continues, and seeks to establish an appearance of reason, inevitability, and normality.

In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Greenblatt surveys the vicissitudes that made the account of human origins told in Genesis 1–2 the preeminent one. It was this account that shaped the history of human relations in the Christian world—with infants deemed born in sin, women…

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