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Christian Interpretations of the Creation Stories 

How the Story of Adam and Eve Has Been Re-Interpreted for Political Purposes

The creation stories are significant because each contains different attitudes about men, women, and their relationships (not to mention different interpretations of the nature and function of God).  These stories have been used to establish practice, law, and theory concerning social and sexual practices.  In fact, the sexual attitudes which we associate with Christian tradition and "modern" or "progressive" society are often expressed in terms of or justified by interpretations of these stories.  

Hans Baldung Grien (German, 1484/85-1545)
Adam and Eve, 1511, Chiaroscuro woodcut

These western attitudes about sex relations developed or evolved in a specific culture at a specific time: during the first four centuries C.E. when the Christian movement, which had begun as a defiant sect, was eventually transformed into the religion of the Roman Empire.  (These attitudes had not previously existed in their eventual Christian forms and they represented a departure from both pagan and Jewish traditions). As Elaine Pagels, a Religion professor at Princeton University, explains:

Many of the Christians of the first four centuries took pride in their sexual restraint; they eschewed polygamy and often divorce as well, which Jewish tradition allowed; and they repudiated extramarital sexual practices commonly accepted among their pagan contemporaries, practices including prostitution and homosexuality.

From the first century when Christianity appears as a new and "deadly superstition" (Tacitus) through two centuries of persecution--when its members were subject to arrest, torture, and execution--it began to grow as a movement.  In 313 Constantine converted to Christianity, and from that time on (minus Julian's two year reign), Christianity became increasingly an institutionalized religion.  As the movement grew, sexual attitudes and practices changed. Pagels suggests:

If we recoil from Greco-Roman practices like legalized (and taxed) prostitution of both  men and women; easily tolerated divorce; the encouragement of homo- or bisexual practices, especially for adolescents and married men; exposure and abandonment of infants; and even the frequent and tolerated sexual use and abuse of slaves--if we are uncomfortable, we are showing that we have been transformed by our (Christian) heritage.  If these things seemed natural, then we might be products of that or a similar culture.  To an extent, it's because we see a difference that we can recognize the ancient Greeks and Romans as being of a different culture.

Early Jewish writers and Christians rarely write treatises on marriage, divorce, and gender; instead they talk allegorically or metaphorically about Adam, Eve, and the serpent--and reveal their attitudes about sex and gender.  What follows are explanations Pagels makes in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent about how the stories were interpreted differently through time and about the reasons the ideas about the stories changed. 

Pagels shows that Augustine derived many attitudes from the creation stories:

  That sexual desire is sinful
  That infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin
  That Adam's sin corrupted the whole of nature itself

Ever since Augustine developed his doctrine of original sin in the early fifth century C.E., Christians have seen the story as a catastrophic fall from perfect innocence to chronic guilt.  They have traditionally equated the serpent with Satan, the fallen angel who becomes a devil and lures humanity away from God.  Jesus died on the cross to save people from the sin of Adam, Christians believe, because that sin is inherited by all humans.  This represents a great departure because Jewish tradition does not dwell on whose fault the mistake is and the serpent never appears again.

Pagels points out that the creation stories gave Greco-Roman culture many other non-sexual values, too, like the belief that each human being has an assured intrinsic worth--since we are all made in God's image. She explains that this initially meant a moral and spiritual equality, as slaves and women (the typical Christian converts) were not equal legally or socially under Greek or Roman law. Eventually, this does come to mean socially and politically equal, as when the writers of the Declaration of Independence assert that "these truths [are] self-evident, that all men are created equal."  Aristotle, of course, would not have ever believed this; he would have thought it a ridiculous and false claim.

Pagels traces how the Christian interpretations of Genesis changed during the formative years of Christianity, asserting that the story meant differently to different people at different times, and they interpreted their lives through it:

  Jewish teachers prior to and even during Jesus's time used Adam and Eve to defend Jewish sexual practices, ranging from abhorrence of public nakedness (God clothes Adam and Eve in Paradise) to marital practices designed to facilitate procreation ("Be fruitful and multiply").  
  Jesus, according to New Testament accounts, only mentioned the creation story once--to answer a question regarding the appropriate grounds for divorce. His response, that no one should sunder what God has brought together, was a shocking response, since the Jewish people had accepted divorce as a both a male prerogative and a practical necessity
  Paul, one of Jesus's disciples, would use the creation story to encourage people to avoid marriage and prostitution and to argue that women must veil their heads in church (perhaps to acknowledge their subordination to men as a divine order given in nature): "For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Corinthians 11:3-6).
  Some of Paul's followers would try to "undo the sin of Adam and Eve" by remaining celibate, even within marriage, apparently seeing the tree of knowledge as a tree of carnal knowledge.
  Others would use the creation story to show the rightness of traditional marriage and to prove that women, being naturally gullible, are unfit for any role but child- and house care (1 Timothy 2:11-15) reinforcing patriarchal values and practices.
  Clement of Alexandria (180 A.D.) said that conscious participation in procreation was "cooperation with God in the work of creation." Adam's sin was disobedience not sexual indulgence.  The real theme, as Clement and the majority of Jewish and Christian people at the time saw it was, moral freedom and moral responsibility.

Christians during the times of Roman persecution eventually applied the creation story to their precarious political situation.  

  Justin invoked the creation story to argue that humans owe their allegiance to the God that created them--not to the Roman gods.  Justin saw Genesis 6 (the fall of angels) as an allegory to or prophecy of the pagan Roman emperors and persecutors.
  Clement, after Justin's beheading, used the statement that God had created humanity in God's likeness to indict the Roman cult.  Clement also acknowledged the disturbing philosophical and religious implications in the creation stories, too: How could God create a good world that has suffering in it?  Why create the serpent?  Why not let Adam and Eve "become like one of Us "?

To further complicate matters, the Gnostics believed that the entire creation story had to be read allegorically and symbolically, since it made no sense literally.  

  Some saw the serpent as a wiser being trying to defy their jealous and hostile creator. 
  Some saw the serpent as a manifestation of Christ himself. 
  Some read the story as an allegory of religious experience: The authentic spiritual self (Eve) could be found by searching the soul (Adam).
  One author saw Eve as representing the alienated soul seeking spiritual union .
  Another saw Eve as the divine energy underlying all existence, human and divine.

Gnostics were eventually expelled from the church as they denied both that humans have the free will to prevent error and suffering and that baptism delivers people from sin and suffering and restores moral freedom.

During the 3rd and 4th centuries, Pagels continues, Christians used their interpretations of the creation stories to reject and condemn the Roman social life.

  Gregory of Nyssa held that as Adam and Eve were virgins in paradise, they should have remained so if not for the fall.  God had probably arranged a way for humans to procreate asexually, like angels.
  In fact, when Jovinian (himself celibate) tried to use scripture to prove that celibate Christians were no holier than married Christians, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine attacked him and Pope Siricius excommunicated him.

Pagels summarizes by explaining that for nearly the first 400 years after Christ, Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3--free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical governments, and freedom from fate, etc.

In the late 4th century, Augustine's interpretation changes--just as the Christian experience changes.  Christianity is no longer the religion of the persecuted; it's institutionalized.  Christian bishops receive tax exemptions, prestige, wealth, and power. The old rhetoric, which had them relating oppositionally to the power structure, no longer applied.  In a society where they were free and encourage to follow their religious faith, the free will interpretation of the creation story fell by the wayside.  The story begins to be interpreted as one of human bondage.  Pagels clarifies:

Augustine believed that Adam's sin cost humanity our immortality and our moral freedom, irreversibly corrupted our experience of sexuality (which he identified with original sin), and made us incapable of genuine political freedom. Adam was trying to establish his own autonomous self-government, and Adam is a corporate personality. This contradicts contemporary views that all people will sin and so are all damned.  Augustine argued that Adam's actual sin is transferred to all humans from semen during procreation.  This proved expedient politically since it persuaded the masses that humans needed external government (a Christian state and an imperially supported church).  

Many people, Pagels points out, still regard the story of Adam and Eve as synonymous with original sin. 

She then explains that Augustine used the creation story to justify the lower status of women:

Augustine believed that woman (created from only a rib) was weaker and subordinate to man, as Eve stands for all women and Adam for all men, and that this relation is defined by God.  This male supremacy is natural and good, Augustine maintained, as it existed before the fall.  Slavery, however, he felt, puts man above other men, which violates their original equality, and is so unnatural and sinful.

Pagels notes that Augustine spent the last  twelve years of his life defending his interpretations against the claims of Julian of Eclanum, who saw Augustine's theory of original sin as a departure of orthodox Chrisitian thought and as Manichaean (a doctrine that denied the goodness of creation and the freedom of will) heresy--the very heresy that Augustine had once admired and later attacked.  Julian challenged Augustine to define nature--human nature and nature in general--Augustine replied that mortality and sexual desire were not natural but divine punishment for Adam's sin. As Augustine won the political battle, his views of nature became rooted in our culture and have affected our cultural attitudes toward suffering and death.  

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 10 June 2009 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.