Examining the First “Christian” Myth
In the beginning, having created the heavens and the Earth, and on the sixth day God created all living things and among them he created man and woman, from which he fashioned out of the red clay of the Earth herself. God breathed life into his creation and he placed them in a paradise garden, wherein grew a very special tree. This amazing tree had magic fruit containing all the knowledge in the world. And then God made the serpent—and he made sure the serpent was more cunning than all the other beasts.
This Hebrew myth, or more specifically fable (since it involves a talking animal and a moral injunction, as we shall soon see), is familiar to many because it is one of the best known and most revered of all the Bible stories. It is one of the most familiar stories in Western culture. Indeed, many of us were taught it in Sunday school, but outside of church not very many people ever stop to re-examine the story and pause to consider what it’s really about. In other words, they take it for granted, and they simply believe what they are told about it because someone of authority tells them what the conventional Christian thought on the matter is. But there is much more to the story of Adam and Even in a magical garden with a magical talking snake than first meets the eye.
The goal of this section is to correct several misconceptions regarding the first three chapters of Genesis—specifically that of the story of Adam and Eve. What I want to do in this final chapter is show the difference in interpretations of a well known myth and how certain contextual readings are demonstrably better than others.
As such, I will juxtapose the pious view of Genesis which adheres to a strict devotional belief in Christian theology with the secular view which attempts to objectively look at the facts as they are without any preconceived biases. Admittedly, however, there will always be a certain level of prejudice when interpreting a text, as we must always allow for the variation of our unique personal experiences, but what I propose is that we must, at the least, make an effort to start off as objectively as possible before reaching any set conclusions. Only after considering all the relevant information can we come to any sort of conclusion.
Although it may seem out of place from the rest of this book, I want to ask that you induldge me (perhaps consider this a bonus chapter of sorts), as I analyse the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3. First, I’m going to focus on why the Adam and Eve story in Genesis cannot be considered history and why it is just a myth. Next, I will discuss what the underlying meaning of the story is, pinpoint the core morals of the fable (minus any additional theological dressing), and explain why Christians are misreading it and have been misreading the Garden of Eden story since its inception into Christian faith.
By examining the genesis of the story, to turn a phrase, we can better detect where Christian reasoning frequently goes wrong thereby correctiing any misconceptions which may arise because of it. If true, and the Christian interpretation is colored by a preconceived biase of either theological or the religious kind, then it would suggest that much of Christian scriptural interpretation might also be tainted by similar biases. Something we would need to be mindful of when talking about the historicity or cultural significance of any religious text.
Adam and Eve: What's the Meaning of the Myth? Six Interpretations
Alice C. Linsley, a Christian scholar, has written about the various views of the Adam and Eve story. Is it fable? Myth perhaps? Linsley outlines six possible ways to read the Garden of Eden story. We can interpret the story of Adam and Eve as 1) literal interpretation, 2) allegory, 3) federal headship, 4) typology, 5) myth, and finally 6) archetype.[i]
Personally, however, I would submit that myth contains both allegory and archetype, since that's usually what a myth is. But Linsley seems to separate them for the reason that, as with the example of allegory, like most Christians she presumes the concept of sin is a real phenomenon. As the Christian view holds it, the story may be alluding to the supernatural phenomenon of sin. Sin is something humans aren't fully capable of grasping, but because of the simple allegory found within the story we can see that sin is quite real—even while admitting the story is, perhaps, not meant to be taken literally. This is not Linsley’s view personally, just one of the Christian views, which is probably why she separates it into other distinct theological classifications. However, I see no reason for the distinction, since it is merely attempting to allow for the variation of Christian hermeneutics. As we are not talking about what this story means to Christians, but talking about the meaning of the stories content and its possible origins, our exegesis need not apply the additional classifications which Linsley supplies.
Linsley seems to subscribe to the Archetype position that Adam and Eve are Archetypal ancestors of Christ, as Pauline theology teaches. The Biblical scholar Randel Helms details, “For Paul, the story of Adam was not merely the history of past things; Adam was a “type [typos] of him who was to come”—Christ (Rom. 5:14).[ii]
Such a Pauline consideration is made explicit in Linsley’s comment that “Genesis is first and foremost about Christ and the Edenic Promise (Gen. 3:15). The rulers listed in the Genesis genealogies are Jesus Christ’s historical ancestors, the people to whom God gave the promise that the Woman's Seed would crush the head of the serpent and restore paradise.”
Perhaps Linsley would be better off just combining typology and archetype since it appears as if she is merely using archetypal ancestry to buttress Paul’s theory of typos. If so, we are only dealing with two practical categories, Myth proper and Christian hermeneutics. It is within Christian hermeneutics that various theological considerations, interpretations, or readings can flourish—but all of them are distinctly variant Christian formulations of the same myth.
On her website, Linsley was asked the question: “What is the point of the Adam and Eve story if it is ‘only a myth’?” Linsley's replied, “The point is that God made us in the Divine Image to enjoy His fellowship and He is restoring that Image through the Divine Person Jesus Christ.”
While this may sum up Christian orthodox conviction regarding the meaning behind the allegory that Christians find contained within the myth, it is strong misreading of the text. Linsley's answer, however, reveals a common mistake Christians make in their reasoning regarding ancient Hebrew texts. To put it plainly, such an interpretation relies on both the literal belief that the story contains reliable elements of history, that there is implied typology relating Adam (the archetypal man) to Jesus Christ (the perfected man), that the allegory all points toward and defines Jesus ultimate destiny—the Edenic Promise—and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the salvation belief in him brings, as well as his atonement freeing us from the curse of the serpent. All this is what the Christian reading entails when we read the myt literally. However, I feel this literal interpretation is invalid.
Not only does the Christian reading seem rather contrived, because it is, but forcing to myth to mean all this requires lots of theological tap dancing in order for the Christian to pull the meanings they want out of thin air. In actuality, these Christian claims about what the myth means reak of theological fabrication.
Myths are typically rudimentary—they are stories with morals—but they do not contain advanced theology or even Christology of the type alluded to in Linsley’s answer. The thing I have always found disturbing about similar interpretations of the Adam and Eve fable is how easily contemporary Christians make an ancient Hebrew fable into a story about the Christian savior. Jesus would not have read the Adam and Eve myth the way Paul did, and so it seems strange to assume he did. Forcing the Hebrew meaning of the story into the straight-jacket of Christian faith does not help to elucidate the unadulterated meaning of the potent myth.
The Moral of the Story
If we read the Adam and Eve story, and look for the moral, the moral cannot be a “Christian” moral, because the story is not (and never was) intended to be just a Christian story. It begins as a Hebrew fable, and one which may have originated in other cultures. The seminal philosopher of ancient myth Joseph Campbell illucidates:
The Garden is the serpent's place. It is an old, old story. We have Sumerian seals from as early as 3500 B.C. showing the serpent and the tree and the goddess, with the goddess giving the fruit of life to a visiting male. The old mythology of the goddess is right there.[iii]
So it may have simply been borrowed and adapted to fit Jewish culture and tradition. Only to be borrowed and adapted, again, to fit Christian culture. My point is, however, the moral of the Adam and Eve story, if we are to assume it’s no more than a myth, is not that God made us in the divine image of Jesus Christ—that’s the Christian rendition in which Christian salvation theology is superimposed onto a familiar story—but these theological considerations aren’t in play in the narrative itself. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for the Christian interpretation. However, as Campbell onece again informs, there is indeed a historical basis for the myth found within Judaism.
There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. This is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.[iv]
Yet why is it so crucial for Christians to believe in the Garden of Eden story is meant for them? Because it is where the concept of “original sin” comes from. If this story wasn’t told, if there was no falling away from God, then Jesus wouldn’t have been any imperative for Jesus to die for humanity, and that would have meant his life and death were ultimately meaningless (at least from a theological perspective).
If there humanity had not “fallen from Grace” it would imply Jesus needn’t have died for us in the first place. So it’s better for a Christian to believe in a talking snake than to admit that Jesus Christ’s death was for nothing. After all, a sinless Christian wouldn’t need saving (i.e., redemption) from sin. So the emphasis of the Christology is observably with regard to the salvation aspect of escaping the curse of sin found in the story.
This overlay of Christian salivation theology onto the Adam and Eve myth, however, is extremely complicated for reasons Rabbi Harold Kushner has observed. If Adam and Eve did not yet possess the knowledge of “good and evil” then this means they had no inkling of rebellion or mischievousness, since to disobey God requires, first and foremost, a certain prerequisite of naughtiness. The rabbi points out that Jewish and Christian religions reinforce feelings of guilt and inadequacy by using the story of the “Fall” of Adam and Eve to teach that humankind’s spiritual inadequacies are inherent. But Kushner doesn’t agree with the Christian interpretation of his people’s myth. Kushner informs:
I would [like] to suggest that the story of the Garden of Eden is a tale, not of Paradise Lost but of Paradise Outgrown, not of Original Sin but of the Birth of Conscience.[v]
The birth of conscience, or the gaining of wisdom, is often the standard interpretation of this myth. It is only the Christian Salvation theology with skews the interpretation, which leads us to suspect that it may be the incorrect reading of the myth. Moreover, the Christian interpretation is the only one which demonizes both the snake and the woman. In other similar myths in various cultures, the snake and the woman are the key figures venerated. Campbell explains further:
Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow—the falling skin.[vi]
Campbell also affirms that, ultimately, “In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer... That amounts to a refusal to affirm life."[vii]
Accepting the doctrine of “The Fall,” of eternal sin, the curse of death, the expulsion from the Garden and God’s love, and rejecting the affirmation of life is exactly what Christians are doing when the talk about the need to accept Christ as the redeemer to mankind’s status which, in their view, has been corrupted by sin.
In reality, however, the Adam and Eve story is about a primeval couple coming to terms with their imperfections as they learn to face the world head on. As such, I agree with Kushner’s assessment that the story is a coming of age fable, not a tale about corruption.
This brings us to the question about what the moral is.
The moral to the Adam and Eve myth is, I find, nowhere as tortuous as the Christian rendition makes it. As we’ve seen, once you strip away the Christian theology you will discover a much more simplistic Hebrew myth underneath. Since myths must contain universal morals for us to find them universally meaningful, it stems to reason, the moral of the Adam and Eve story is not what Christians typically think it is (given that such a moral would be confined to Christian theology and apply only to Christians). Rather, I posit, the Garden of Eden story is a coming of age tale about growing up and becoming adults and rebelling against one’s parents—then taking on the consequences and burdens of adulthood without your father’s continued pampering.
Contrary to what Christians typically think, God is not testing his Children’s love or loyalty, preparing them for the journey. God, as the archetypal Father, is preparing his children to make the transition into adulthood. Being a cunning father, he does what any wise parent would, uses reverse psychology, and tells his children not to do something he knows they can’t possibly resist the temptation to do—like sticking one’s hand in the cookie jar after explicitly being instructed not to.
Thus they partake in eating the forbidden fruit. As for gaining knowledge, wouldn’t this be a good thing unto itself? As the American philosopher Dan Dennett has us ponder, “[W]hat good to us is the gods’ knowledge if we can‘t get it from them?”[viii]
Meanwhile, the serpent never actually lies. He merely brings Eve the message that the tree contains knowledge, and that it can be used for food. The Serpent never deceives Eve, he tells her the truth! The deceit was God’s.
Even then shares this new found knowledge with her partner Adam. The sin of disobedience is not the real offense, because as I showed earlier, they simply did not have the capacity to tell right from wrong. Holding them accountable would be unjust.
Once they gain the knowledge of good and evil, we might say, is when they fully become mature, and the signs are obvious. First they become aware of their own nakedness, an obvious allegory for sexual maturity through puberty. Next, having taken it upon themselves to clothe their bodies, God discovers them and scolds them for disobeying his command (as if they ever had a choice). He thereby dolls out “punishments.” God curses Adam to toil the land and woman to suffer child labor. The snake gets off Scot-free (since his only punishment was to slither on his belly the rest of his days—but as a snake which already slithered on his belly, I’m not sure it was actually that much of a punishment).
Obviously these curses are not meant to be taken literally, since it is a no-brainer that work is hard, giving child birth is even harder, and snakes slither on their abdomens. We already know that myths are designed to explain things, such as earthquakes, lightning and thunder, as well as why we suffer, and for this reason we find that the Adam and Eve myth reads splendidly as an allegory for the responsibly we must endure as able adults. Here is where the moral of the story is to be found.
As I see it, there are two moral precepts to be weened from this myth. There is the Christian moral, as derived by the ad hoc theological assumptions made by the Christian reader, and then there is the Universal moral, which is applicable to all cultures and all times and exists within the text regardless of whichever way you prefer to interpret it.
The Christian moral is palpably this: Obey your Father. In this case, God is the Archetypal Father. The Universal moral, which I argue is the proper reading, is: In order to grow up you must grow wise. Morals abound.
Parallel Myths: Serpents and Trees of Knowledge
Many types of ancient serpents, often being used interchangeably with dragons, dwelt in trees and spoke to humans. All you need do it go online and Google “mythical snakes” to find out about these serpentine creatures’ tree hugging habits:
In many myths the chthonic serpent (sometimes a pair) lives in or is coiled around a Tree of Life situated in a divine garden. In the Genesis story of the Torah and Biblical Old Testament the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is situated in the Garden of Eden together with the tree of immortality. In Greek mythology Ladon is coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides protecting the entheogenic golden apples. Similarly Níðhöggr the dragon of Norse mythology gnaws the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Under yet another Tree (the Bodhi tree of Enlightenment), the Buddha sat in ecstatic meditation. When a storm arose, the mighty serpent king Mucalinda rose up from his place beneath the earth and enveloped the Buddha in seven coils for seven days, not to break his ecstatic state.[ix]
Undoubtedly these myths reveal themselves for what they are with a little exercise in common sense reason. The absurdity in believing in talking, or for that matter flying, snakes should be all too obvious to anybody who has a firm grasp of myth, fable, and folklore.[x] Additionally, snakes have not evolved with vocal chords, so they could never properly speak to begin with.
Subsequently, most sophisticated theologians do not consider the Garden of Eden story about Adam and Eve (and a talking snake) historical. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book Myths to Live By:
Today we know--and know right well--that there was never anything of the kind: no Garden of Eden anywhere on this earth, no time when the serpent could talk, no prehistoric "Fall," no exclusion from the garden, no universal Flood, no Noah's Ark. The entire history on which our leading Occidental religions have been founded is an anthology of fictions.[xi]
Even so, some theologians while admitting the mythical elements of the story, still consider it rooted in history. On his blog Standing on My Head, Father Longenecker challenges us by asking:
Why does it matter if the first twelve chapters of Genesis are recounting historical events or not? It matters because the whole rest of the Old Testament record is clearly a presentation of God's interaction in history—God’s interaction in the history of the Hebrew people, and this historical interaction lays the foundation for the ultimate historical interaction by God with his people—the incarnation of his Son.
He goes on to clarify:
What do I mean when I say that these stories 'act on us as myth does'? Myth connects with the deeper parts of our shared consciousness within our humanity. Great stories of mythical heroes who go on a quest, interactions with gods and goddesses, all the great stories of the world engage us at a deep level and we connect with the events and drama in a ceremonial and symbolic way using a language that is deeper than words and explications. The stories of the beginning of Genesis do as well, with the exception that these are not fanciful stories as the pagan myths are, but stories based in real events…. This prepares the way for the 'myth that really happened' in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord.[xii]
Father Longenecker’s statement that “The stories of the beginning of Genesis… are not fanciful stories as the pagan myths are, but stories based in real events…” seems rather a ludicrious claim, especially when he has already affirmed it was mostly legend incorporating strong psychological language and symbols interacting with our consciousness.
Personally, I find Father Longenecker’s claim that the Adam and Eve story is a legend rooted in historical truth a little farfetched. After all, the tale of King Arthur is a legend, Robin Hood is a legend, Jolly old St. Nicholas has been lengendized and mythologized, but Adam and Eve have never been proved to be anything other than mythical. Even as Biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou offers an interesting historical interpretation for the Garden of Even story,[xiii] it’s not one which any traditional Christian theology subscribes to, certainly it’s not what Longenecker means when he claims the story is rooted in historical truth.
Assuming the story did have a historical basis, we might ask, which part of the story is historically accurate exactly? Stavrakopoulou suggests the graden itself may be rooted in historical history—that it was actually a geographical palace garden—and her case is compelling, but none of the traditional Christian assumptions can be made from the fact that the Garden of Eved may have been a geographic location.
Could the part about a man being made from clay be historical? According to Genesis 2:7 “And the Lord god formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Well, sorry to say, but we know this is false. Mankind was not formed from a clump of clay, rather humans evolved from a common primate ancestor (a scientifically validated fact).[xiv]
Perhaps more importantly however, we know the claim that a deity forged mankind from clay is not at all uncommon to the realm of myth. The Greeks believed this same myth, most prominently detailed in the myth of Prometheus. Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) wrote that Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure, meanwhile Pandora, the first mortal woman, was formed by Hephaestus on behest of almighty Zeus. Likewise, in the ancient Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the goddess Ninhursag created humans from clay. Also, in Africa, the Yoruba culture holds that the god Obatala likewise created the human race out of clay. In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum made people from clay in the waters of the Nile. In Chinese myth, the goddess Nuwa created the first humans from mud and clay. A Mayan myth holds that Tepeu and Kukulkán (Quetzalcoatl) made the first humans from clay, along with the Māori people of New Zealand who believe that Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest, created the first woman out of clay and breathed life into her. The common themes of fashioning humans from clay and deities breathing life into them has been with us, in various forms, for centuries.
What, other than special pleading, can Father Longenecker offer in the way of evidence that the first few chapters of Genesis are more historically accurate than these other myths? There is nothing that I am aware of. Moreover, why are we asked merely to agree that the fable of a talking snake is not any more fanciful than any other story or myth? Again, there is nothing to suggest it is. It is merely a case of special pleading—which is proved in the very next sentence when Longenecker claims these stories are based in real events. As we have seen, however, we can’t seem to find any “real” events which would demarcate this myth from a long history of equivalent myths.
Maybe we have overlooked a specific element unique to the Adam and Eve story which would tie it to genuine history and make it historically sound. Are talking snakes, full of guile and charm, perhaps a historical reality? Nope. Maybe a tree of knowledge with magical fruit? No, I'm afraid not. Why not? Because mythical trees contain magic fruit is yet another common theme within various world religions and myths.
Similar trees appear in other religions. Stories with male, female, serpent, and tree can be found depicted on Mesopotamian cylinder seals dating as far back as 2200 B.C. But they are very unlikely to constitute a source for the author of Genesis because they do not connect very well with the Genesis account. According to Toledoth Hypothesis, sources probably did exist for the writing of Genesis that extend into history even earlier than 2200 B.C. but they would have belonged to someone in the genealogical line of Abraham. In the closest, most relevant comparison, the iconic image of the tree guarded by the Serpent appears on Sumerian seals; much later, it is the central feature of the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology, where the guardian serpent receives the name Ladon.[xv]
The Greek serpent Ladon guards the magic golden apples which either connotes a borrowing or a shared influence regarding the tree in the Garden of Eden which, likewise, has magical fruit guarded by a serpent. The themes are just too congruent to discount: tree of knowledge, magic fruit, and guardian serpent. Meanwhile Buddhism mythology claims the king of the serpents Mucalinda rose up and coiled itself around the meditating Buddha who sat under the Bodhi tree of knowledge, aiding in his meditation allowing him to achieve a higher consciousness. Similarly, Adam and Eve gain a higher consciousness after eating of the fruit containing ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ which the serpent helped them to acquire.
Nor is the tree of life (sometimes called the tree of knowledge) unique to Christianity. It’s an ancient motif found in: Ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Baha'i Faith, China, Germanic paganism and Norse mythology, Jewish sources, Christianity, India, the Turkish world, Urartu, Mesoamerica, and among other cultures.[xvi]
So although I do not disagree with Longenecker's assessment about the profundity of symbolism and powerful language usage in literature, I must question his judgment when it comes to determining the difference between history and myth.
Myth forced into Literal Representations of History
We understand human experience constitutes our basic makeup of history—but books of fable and myth which relate to the greater human experience are, in themselves, not valid substitutes for any specified history. It’s best to keep this in mind when claiming that certain myths are historically true rather than simply containing historically viable artifacts.
After all, King Kong climbed the Empire State Building, a real historical site with a real historical location, but this doesn’t make the urban-jungle climbing antics of King Kong historically true. We all know it’s a fiction with historical elements and artifacts. Whereas, with the Adam and Eve fable, the only historical fact seems to be that men and women are known to exist. But this is not a strong enough basis to claim the overall story is based on history. After all, monkeys exist, but we don’t automatically assume that King Kong must have been real because monkeys are real. This is faulty reasoning, and it is a mistake religious believers frequently make when they want to gleam a literal meaning from a metaphor or myth.
The Christian historian Thom Stark, in his book The Human Faces of God, clarifies this point when he talks about another Bible story habitually mistaken as a literal representation of history, which is the story of Jonah and his “whale.” Stark asserts:
Aspects of the story such as Jonah's being swallowed by a large fish, then spat out in one piece onto dry land several days later, are big clues that what we are dealing with is a fictional short story with a theological message.[xvii]
I posit the same is true of the Garden of Eden story involving Adam and Eve. It involves a tree of knowledge with magical fruit, and a dubious talking serpent, all of it strong evidence that it is a fictional story. As such, it shouldn’t need repeating, that there is nothing to distinguish the Adam and Eve story as anything other than myth, and I’m afraid it appears Father Longenecker is wrong to talk about any “historical” basis for the Adam and Eve myth.
Finding a serpent in the garden makes more sense as a guardian of knowledge story minus the superimposed Christian theology. Let’s not forget that Yahweh boasts to Job of taming the great serpent (Job 41:1-4) so it is no surprise that we find his pet in the garden, doing his biding. Yet Christians tend to need to believe in the talking snake, because without it, then there is no such thing as “original sin.” Therefore imputation would be erroneous—Christ’s righteousness would not have been imputed to us. New Testament scholar and theologian Robert M. Price informs us that the gospel author Matthew likely intended to use serpent imagery to foreshadow Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Not that in the Old Testament, Egypt is sometimes connected with Rahab the sea monster, whose defeat at the dawn of time made Yahve king of all gods (Ps. 89:10, “You crushed Rahap like a carcass,” and cf. Ps. 74:13b-14a, “You crushed the heads of the Leviathan”). Isa. 52:9-10 makes the exodus from Egypt a kind of historical replay of the primordial victory over the dragon, equating Rahab and Egypt… The flight into Egypt has the child Jesus already going down into Rahab, the belly of the sea beast, Egypt.[xviii]
Matthew used the story to mold Jesus to the hero archetype—thus he fabricated an epic origin tale, with a virgin birth he lifted from Isaiah 7, all to enhance the narrative of the coming savior of all mankind. Thus, this theology get’s overlaid back onto the Adam and Eve myth, since it too involves the serpent, which no, conveniently enough, has taken on the dual meaning supplied by Matthew—the serpent is not only symbolic of Jesus destiny to overcome the darkness, but it now symbolizes his true foil—that which brought the darkness (i.e., the fall from grace) in the first place.
Later on this contrived Christian mythology gets conflated with the Satan character, as Rev. 12:9 calls the Devil, Satan, that old serpent who was cast out into the earth. Theologians then latched onto this verse in order to support their hypothesis that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was actually Satan in disguise. So Christians posit that the talking snake was a serpentine Satan in disguise. Why? Because Satan is called the “serpentine” foe of Jesus Christ, that old serpent, the dragon in the book of Revelation, and it only makes theological sense that he would be around to set the playing field for Christ’s great final act of atonement—otherwise what use would be calling Satan a serpent?
Imaginative speculation sure, but it is purely conjecture. Such a reading is taking far too many liberties with what the story might possibly mean if, and like the author Matthew lifting verses out of context, in a stunning display of selectivity Christians daisy-chains the “serpent” verses together (even though they aren’t technically related) thereby creating an entirely new Christian mythos, one revolving around “original sin” and involving serpents. But in actuality none of these Christian assumptions have antying in common with the original Hebrew Garden of Eden myth.
As Matthew Fox reminds us, the concept of original sin is not found in Jewish thought, but it wholly a Christian invention. Fox states, “Even thought the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christians, they do not read original sin into it. As … Elie Wiesel points out, ‘the concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition…”[xix]
Likewise, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman mentions the third chapter of Genesis was not written to depict the fall of humanity from any state of perfection, informing, “This text is commonly treated as the account of ‘the fall.’ Nothing could be more remote from the narrative itself. In general, the Old Testament does not assume such a ‘fall.’ Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is more characteristic in its assumption that humankind can indeed obey the purposes of God.”[xx]
In order for the myth to contain a universal moral it has to relate to human experience universally. Since the Christian version only relates to Christians, and no one else, it is a good bet that the Christian reading is heavily predisposed to the Christian worldview, and cannot contain the intended moral for a broader multicultural readership. Therefore I find Linsley’s reading of the Adam and Eve myth rather colored by an obvious Christian bias. Thus Linsley is guilty of what most Christian theologians and apologists are guilty of: superimposing Jesus onto a story that’s not actually about Jesus.
Genesis is not about Christ and some Edenic Promise—Jesus is not the seed for which will crush the serpent—because as you will recall, this is Paul’s theological vision derived most likely from the serpent symbolism, a distinctive literary artifact implanted into the Gospels by Matthew. The serpent, in otherwords, was already embedded in the Gospel stories themselves—even without the serpent stories of Genesis or Revelation to act as bookends.
Likewise, we find that Father Longenecker is mistaken when he claims that Adam and Eve had a basis in history or that the Garden of Eden story is more historically reliable than other myths. As we have seen, the first few chapters of Genesis, involving Eden, are entirely without historical support. Also, the serpent (the garden pet, more or less and shares his own archetypal template with other guardian serpents which guard trees of life and knowledge) is not entirely a bad figure. Contrary to his bad reputation he’s actually quite honest, loyal, and he helped bring wisdom and knowledge to ignorant children whose father neglected them. These are all virtuous things.
The moral, as I have pinpointed it, is merely to prepare us the way to adulthood by explaining the responsibilities one will have to take on as they become independent individuals apart from paternal guidance. That’s the universal message contained within the fable—it’s the moral at the core—and it’s a message which constantly gets overwritten in favor of the Christian one—which is, in my opinion, wholly unfortunate. All the same, we now know that the Adam and Eve story is just like any other origin myth.
Undeniably there is a strong Christian biase which affects the reading of the myth. All throughout the Bible we see the same sort of thing happening. But perhaps the lesson we can take from this is that sometimes it is necessary to step back and think more critically about the subject matter. When asking the question: does history support what the Bible claims, we discover that, after all the dust has settled, usually it does not. This is why textual criticism is so important when it comes to reading sacred texts. It is a powerful tool which allows us to re-examine a very significant text and read it anew, as if we were seeing it with fresh eyes. Only then can we truly begin to get at the underlying truth.
[i] For the full article see: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2009/02/in-what-sense-are-adam-and-eve-real.html
[ix] There’s no excuse to remain unenlightened on the matter of talking snakes and religious superstition, not with the powerful tool of the Internet at our finger tips. See: “Serpents (symbolism),” Wikipedia.org, available online:
[x] I may have to retract this comment, since a recent Harris study which polled what people reasonably believe finds that 50% of Christians believe the ‘Adam and Eve’ story to be the direct cause of evil in the world, while another 55% believe that the snake and Satan were interchangeably the same figure responsible for the downfall of all mankind. How is this thinking at all healthy? For more startling statistics regarding what Christians in America believe refer to:
[xiv] Francis Collins shows in his Christian apologetics book The Language of God, how modern genetics proves, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the theory of Evolution is true. Coming from Collins, a Christian and the leading scientist who unraveled the human genome, this is a powerful claim.