Furthest Right

The Politics of the Creation Story (Richard L. Rubenstein)

Early Christian writers used the biblical story of Creation and the Fall to express their basic political and ethical attitudes; their legacy still influences our values today.


Elaine Pagels

New York: Random House, 1988

224 pp., $17.95

When most Americans recall the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” they have little reason to dissent. Without the Declaration’s “self-evident” truths, it is hardly likely that most Americans would have accepted the claims to political equality of a disenfranchised racial minority consisting largely of the descendants of emancipated slaves. Nor is it likely that the United States would have come to embrace within its fold as free citizens the heirs of practically every religious and national tradition on earth. The signatories of the Declaration understood that what they took to be self-evident was by no means universally regarded as self-evident. Flourishing at a time when the idea of equality had yet to take deep root in European society or politics, men like Jefferson, himself a slave owner, understood human inequality to be the norm rather than the exception. What distinguished the United States in its moment of creation was that biblical ideas concerning creation and human equality had a greater influence on the political consciousness of its founders than was the case in any other country with a Western Christian cultural inheritance.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religious studies at Princeton, has written a lucid, original, and authoritative study, Adam, Eve and the Serpent, of how ideas concerning political authority, human equality, moral freedom, the relations between the sexes, labor, the worth of the individual, suffering, and mortality developed during the first four centuries of the Christian era and how these ideas continue to influence our values to this day. Pagels points out that the classical Jewish and Christian writers of the first Christian centuries seldom wrote treatises on these subjects. They did, however, effectively use the biblical story of Creation and the Fall, Genesis 1:1-3:22, as a primary vehicle for expressing their basic political and ethical attitudes. Pagels also shows that, as the situation of the young church changed from that of a bitterly persecuted minority to the official religion of the empire, the interpretation of the Creation story also changed, reflecting the response of thoughtful Christians to their transformed situation. Like Nietzsche and the young Hegel, albeit with far greater sympathy for Christianity, Pagels sees the religion as responsible for a radical transvaluation of values within the Roman Empire and, ultimately, in the Western world as a whole. In recent years most scholars have tended to stress the similarities in life-style of the early Christians and their pagan neighbors. By contrast, Pagel’s principal interest is in how pagans and Christians differed and how that difference has contributed to making us what we are today.

The differences between pagan and Christian involved both sexual and political attitudes and behavior. The celibate lives of Jesus and Paul gave even those Christians who did marry a model radically at odds with the pagan norm. The early Christians rejected sexual practices pagans regarded as normal, such as prostitution, homosexuality, and extramarital promiscuity. During the first two centuries of the Christian era, this catalogue of accepted practices also included infanticide. From the perspective of those of us whose values have been shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition, Roman prostitution was especially vicious. Slave children were often especially reared and trained to serve as male and female prostitutes. Moreover, there was little constraint on the routine sexual use or abuse of slaves.

In the political realm the differences were also profound. Jesus’ message “What profit is it for a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26) was radically at odds with the Greco-Roman view which esteemed the public realm over the private and held that the only life that was truly human and worth living was that of the zoon politikon, Aristotle’s “political animal.” For a Greek or Roman citizen, a life lived entirely in the private realm was one “deprived of things essential to a truly human life.” According to New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks, the earliest Christians were persons of “high status inconsistency,” that is, their achieved status was usually higher than their attributed status. As such, they were not likely to measure human worth in terms of one’s contributions to the public realm. As is often the case with persons of low attributed status, they were more likely to embrace the Christian belief, derived from the Creation story, in the divinely bestowed, intrinsic, infinite worth of each and every individual.

Furthermore, every Christian convert had rejected the natural ties of family, kinship, and common descent for membership in a new community that claimed to transcend such ties. Paul had observed that in Christ older ties of blood and social hierarchy had been broken and that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Pagels argues that our secularized idea of a multiethnic “democratic society” is profoundly indebted to the early Christian vision of a new society “no longer formed by the natural bonds of family, tribe, or nation but by the voluntary choice of its members.” Such a vision, she says, was wholly at odds with the Greco-Roman view, which looked down upon those who had broken with their organic ties.

I would concur. Nevertheless, I regret the absence of any mention in Pagel’s work of the ultimate source of the idea of a society transcending kinship and based upon voluntary choice, the biblical doctrine of covenant. It was, after all, the rejection by the ethnically mixed “Hebrews” (according to modern biblical scholarship) of both the world of the Pharoahs and their own ancestral gods in order to form a covenant community under Yahweh that provided the model for the kind of new society to which the early Christians aspired. What had changed for the Christians was not the idea of a covenant community but their understanding of Christ as its true foundation.

Pagels also shows how the early Christians departed radically from Jewish as well as Roman values and practice. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the story of Adam and Eve only once. When the Pharisees inquired of his opinion concerning the grounds for a man “to put away his wife” (Matt. 19:3), Jesus replied that there were none. Jesus’ unqualified rejection of divorce constituted a radical departure from the Jewish consensus. He based his view on a novel interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve:

Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And He said, For this reason shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife and the twain shall be one flesh. (Matt. 19:4-5)

Jesus than offered his interpretation of Gen. 2:24:

Where they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matt. 19:6)

Jesus thus broke with Jewish tradition. According to Pagels, the breach was even greater when he suggested that making oneself a “eunuch” for the sake of “Kingdom of Heaven” could be preferable to marriage. Pagels points out that Jews placed a very high value on procreation. In reading the Creation story, they emphasized God’s injunction to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen. 2:28). Their ancestors had been nomads whose survival depended upon the increase of human beings and their flocks. Since both polygamy and divorce tended to increase opportunities for procreation, neither institution was prohibited. Moreover, by using the Genesis story to support their views, the Jews were, in effect, claiming that these values were both universal and grounded in the very nature of things. By contrast, Jesus, whose views can be seen as having a negative effect on procreation, used the name hermaneutic strategy to justify his devaluation of marriage and his rejection of divorce.

For those who shared Jesus’ conviction that the Kingdom of God was at hand, there was little reason to foster procreation. Both the rabbis and early Christians such as Paul were convinced that human mortality was a divinely inflicted punishment for Adam’s sin. Given this view, procreation can be seen as the species’ response to the fall of Adam. Christ’s resurrection was taken by Paul and others as a sign that mortality, the most drastic consequence of the Fall, was in the process of being overcome. Hence, the principal reason for procreation was no longer compelling. The theological motive for celibacy was grounded in the messianic eschatology of the early Christian movement.

In addition to the eschatological motives, there were practical, sociopolitical motives for celibacy, especially for non-Jewish converts such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria. Pagels reminds us that Christians who preached celibacy disrupted the traditional order of the family and the polis. As Soren Kierkegaard came to understand when he rejected marriage to Regina Olsen in the nineteenth century, marriage grounds the individual in the chain of generations and in society’s encompassing networks. Celibacy offered a way out of those networks and a degree of personal autonomy impossible for the married person. With Christ as a model, celibacy was no longer regarded as a possibility only for the singular exception. For many Christians celibacy came to be regarded as a way of life superior to marriage. Pagels stresses that “conversion transformed both consciousness and behavior.” Christians did not identify celibacy with repression as have some modern critics. On the contrary, many saw celibacy as the path to self-liberation from the sinful claims of both their own impulses and imperial Rome.

By the beginning of the second century, Christians were applying the Creation story to their own political situation. Justin Martyr characterized the Roman emperors and their gods as demonic, identifying the gods of Rome with the malevolent fallen angels of Genesis 6:2-4 who took unto themselves as wives “the daughters of men.” For Justin the pagan gods are inventions of demons. Responding to the trial and execution of Ptolemy, a Christian teacher, who had been asked only one question, “Are you a Christian,” Justin attacked the Roman gods whose traditions supported sexual promiscuity and the slaughter of innocent men and women. Inevitably, Justin was himself arrested and brought to trial before Rusticus, urban prefect of Rome. All that was required of Justin was that he heed Rusticus’ injunction to “obey the gods and submit to the emperors.” Justin’s refusal resulted in his execution.

As Pagels points out, the encounter between Justin and Rusticus was over a fundamental, nonnegotiable issue. By refusing properly to honor the emperors, Justin had attacked the empire’s sacralized foundations. This was an act of sedition done in the name of Jesus, regarded by the Romans as a criminal who had been justly executed for an earlier act of sedition. Both Justin and Rusticus fully understood the meaning of Justin’s refusal. In Pagels’ words, Christians like Justin “set out, in effect, to secularize–and so radically to diminish, the power of social and political obligations.”

Twenty years later Clement of Alexandria took the biblical statement that God had created humanity “in his own image” as evidence of human equality and as a profound indictment of imperial rule. Arguing from Genesis, Clement asserted that since God made every man in his image, it was monstrous that people are subject to another master.

One of the unique aspects of early Christianity was the claim that in baptism Christians die to their old selves and are reborn in Christ. Similarly, Holy Communion came to be seen as a rite in which the believer becomes one with Christ. The identity of the believer with Christ is expressed by Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19). One can with justice view the Christian assertion of identification with Christ as a claim that the old biological order of birth and death, the consequence of the Fall, had given way to identification with Christ’s resurrection. As Christ had defeated death, so too would all who are “in Christ.” Paul had written:

Are you ignorant that when we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death? In other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with Him and joined Him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life. (Rom 6:3,4)

Nevertheless, there is a political dimension to the Christian’s claim to be born again in Christ. As noted above, existence in Christ is free, at least in principle, from bondage to existence within the natural boundaries of family, tribe, polis, and empire. More than that, the reborn Christian could see himself as equal, if not superior, to the emperor. Clement of Alexandria claimed that since the coming of Christ, “divinity now pervades all humanity equally, … deifying humanity. For Christians the emperor cult was a pretentious blasphemy. Every time a Christian partook of Holy Communion, he or she became one with divinity and hence superior to the emperor whose divinity was a blasphemous pretension. Holy Communion was thus an act of radical political desacralization. According to Pagels the Christian message was politically and socially explosive. It is my opinion that rituals like baptism and Holy Communion were equally explosive. This does not contradict Pagels’ research. Pagels excluded the issue of ritual from the scope of her investigation.

We cannot explore the full scope of Pagels’ treatment of how the interpretation of the Creation story contributed to the formation of our contemporary ethical and political consciousness. It is, however, important to take note of her analysis of what happened when Christianity ceased to be a despised, alien sect and the emperor himself became a brother in Christ. According to Pagels, during most of the first four centuries of the Christian era, freedom was regarded as the Gospel’s primary message. The Christian view of freedom included free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government, and freedom from fate.

By the fifth century the Roman Catholic Church had become the ally rather than the unremitting adversary of the empire. It was no longer possible for the church to condemn as demonic an empire which actively persecuted the church’s rivals and utilized the power of the state to assure its predominance. Nor was it any longer functional to proclaim freedom as the primary message of either the Gospels or Genesis. The radically changed situation demanded a radically changed theology. According to Pagels, it was Augustine of Hippo who gave to Western Christendom the theology appropriate to the new situation.

Pagels sees Augustine as unlike his predecessors in that he did not see Genesis 1-3 as an affirmation of human freedom but of universal human bondage. Augustine effected the transformation of Western Christianity from an ideology of moral freedom to one of universal bondage. Before Augustine, the Creation story was taken to mean that Adam was initially a free moral agent and that his progeny retained a potential for that capacity. Christians who had led a saintly and celibate life were regarded as having realized human moral freedom and of having recovered a measure of Adam’s prelapsarian glory. Augustine did not take issue with his predecessors on the idea that human mortality is a direct consequence of Adam’s sin. He did, however, claim that Adam’s rebellion had deprived humanity of its moral freedom as well as its original immortality. Augustine held that sin had utterly corrupted human sexuality and had rendered human beings incapable of political freedom.

Augustine’s contemporary John Chrysostom had argued that the sword of government was a necessary imposition on the corrupt majority but that the truly righteous in Christ needed no such domination. John distinguished the sword of the state from the persuasion practiced by the church even in dealing with heretics. Following a tradition common to early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, John held that neither faith nor morals can be forced upon the wrongdoer, persuasion being the church’s method of correction. As Pagels puts it, for John, “Church government, unlike Roman government, remains wholly voluntary and, although hierarchically structured, is essentially egalitarian, reflecting, in effect, the original harmony of Paradise.”

Augustine’s views were far more pessimistic. He came to reject the notion that even Christians had the capacity freely to choose the good. Augustine read back his view of the utter corruption of even baptized Christians into the writings of Paul. Describing his own preconversion experience, Paul had written, “I do not do what I will, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom. 7:15-25). Augustine applied Paul’s description to baptized Christians, a radically novel interpretation. Augustine held that the punishment for Adam’s assertion of his own autonomy against God was the loss of that autonomy for both Adam and his progeny. For Augustine, this meant that even Christians required the discipline of the state and the theological and moral guidance of an authoritarian church. Augustine had written that “the union of male and female is the seed-bed, so to speak, from which the city must grow.” That union had been corrupted by the Fall and the consequences were political as well as marital. Even Christians cannot be trusted to govern themselves in either the body politic or the Body of Christ.

It should, however, be noted that Augustine ascribed no inherent sacrality to the state. The state is an indispensable, secular necessity given the corruptions of humanity and nature that followed the Fall. Christians have a higher obligation to god. No longer are the political bonds sacred in character. Moreover, even the church is an imperfect institution, albeit a necessary one given the condition of fallen humanity. Pagels concludes her study with the observation that Augustine’s pessimistic views became the dominant influence on both Catholic and Protestant Christianity and came to “color all of western culture, Christian or not, ever since.” Adam, Eve, and the serpent have continued to influence the religious and political consciousness in the Western world to our own day.

Pagels deserves high praise for an original, imaginative, and authoritative work of religious scholarship. She has used her specialist knowledge to make available to the educated public an informed account of one of the more important ways in which the Bible and its interpreters have in every generation helped to shape our fundamental institutions and values.



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