Adam, Eve, and the Serpent
Reviewed by Frank Thomas Smith
In The Gnostic Gospels, reviewed in Number 2 of Southern Cross Review, Elaine Pagels described the finding of the Gnostic Gospels in a cave in Upper Egypt in December, 1945, and how these documents shed an entirely new light on early Christianity. She also told how the Gnostics, though far from united in their beliefs, practiced and preached a far more esoteric Christianity than that of the Church; and how the Church suppressed and destroyed the Gnostic writings. The documents found in Egypt had obviously been hidden there to preserve them from destruction.
In her later book (1989), reviewed here, Pagels takes up the story again, this time investigating how the traditional patterns of gender and sexual relationship arose in our society. In the process she saw that the sexual attitudes we associate with Christian tradition evolved during the first four centuries of the Common Era, when the Christian movement, which had begun as a defiant sect, transformed itself into the religion of the Roman Empire. Many Christians of the first four centuries took pride in their sexual restraint, eschewed polygamy and divorce, which Jewish tradition allowed – and they repudiated extramarital sexual practices commonly accepted by their pagan contemporaries, practices that included prostitution, abuse of slaves and homosexuality. Such views, although not completely original, soon became inseparable from Christian faith. Some even went so as to embrace celibacy, which they urged upon those capable of the “angelic life”.
The story of Adam and Eve, and the Serpent was written down about 3,000 years ago and probably told for many generations before that. During the course of her investigations, Pagels became fascinated with the extraordinary influence this tale has had on western culture. Augustine, whose views eventually became dogma, derived many of his ideas from this story: that sexual desire is sinful; that infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin; and that Adam’s sin (not to mention Eve’s) corrupted the whole of nature itself. Even non-Christians live in a culture indelibly shaped by these interpretations.
By the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine had labeled spontaneous sexual desire (not for the purpose of procreation) as a proof of – and penalty for – universal original sin, a concept that would have baffled most of his Christian predecessors, as well as his pagan and Jewish contemporaries. Earlier generations of Christians and Jews found in Genesis 1-3 the affirmation of human freedom to choose good or evil. But Augustine found in it a story of human bondage. He argued that all humankind was fallen and that human will was incorrigibly corrupt. Finally, with the power of the Church and Empire behind him, Augustine decided that not only non-Christians, but also Christians who did not abide by his dogmas should be repressed. Many Christians as well as pagans, he noted regretfully, responded only to fear.
Human freedom, once considered the heart of the Christian Gospel, met its downfall once Augustine’s theology became the Church’s official dogma. By the beginning of the fifth century those who still held to such archaic traditions were condemned as heretics. Augustine’s theory of the Fall, together with the imperially supported Catholic Church, then moved into the center of western history. There were those who opposed the Augustine dogma, of course, and Pagels gives us a detailed account of the theological arguments pro and contra, fascinating reading, even today.
Why did the Church and the majority of Catholics adopt Augustine’s paradoxical, even preposterous interpretations of the Gospels?
Some historians suggest that such beliefs validate the Church’s authority, for if the human condition is a disease, Catholic Christianity, acting as the Good Physician, offers the spiritual medication and the discipline that alone can cure it. No doubt Augustine’s views did serve the imperial church and the Christian state, as I have tried to show in the preceding chapter. For what Augustine says, in simplest terms, is this: human beings cannot be trusted to govern themselves, because our very nature—indeed all of nature—has become corrupt as a result of Adam’s sin. In the late fourth century and the fifth century, Christianity was no longer a suspect and persecuted movement; now it was the religion of emperors obligated to govern a vast and diffuse population. Under these circumstances, as we have seen, Augustine’s theory of human depravity—and, correspondingly, the political means to control it—replaced the previous ideology of human freedom.
The Forged Pauline Letters
Certain people, possibly admirers of Paul, or not, decided that he couldn’t have meant what he said in some of his letters, and decided to compose forgeries under his name that would adhere more closely to their views. They even included details of Paul’s life, with greetings to his friends, hoping to make them seem authentic. Although there is still dispute about how many are forgeries, most scholars agree that Paul wrote only eight of the thirteen letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Elaine Pagels is obviously one of them, and she knows what she is talking about. We should note here that she chaired the Department of Religion at Barnard University, taught the subject at Colombia and is currently professor of Religion at Princeton.
I fear this makes me most indignant – not that the forgeries were committed, but that our worthy Christian churches continue knowingly (or, more likely in the case of most clergy, ignorantly) to preach lies as the truth. And that the general Christian public remains as ignorant of the deception as did their fifth century brethren. It is certain that Paul did not write Timothy 1 and 2, nor Titus, all written in a style very different from his and expressing viewpoints different from those in his own letters. Authorship of Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians is still under debate, but the majority of scholars include these too among the “deutero-Pauline” letters.
Although the deutero-Pauline letters differ from one another in many ways, on practical matters they all agree. All reject Paul’s most radically ascetic views to present a “domesticated Paul” –a version of Paul who, far from urging celibacy upon his fellow Christians, endorses only a stricter version of traditional Jewish attitudes toward marriage and family. Just as Matthew juxtaposed Jesus’ more radical sayings with modified versions of them. So the New Testament collection juxtaposes Paul’s authentic letters with the deutero-Paulines, offering a version of Paul that softens him from a radical preacher into a patron saint of domestic life.
For a detailed comparison of the true and false, you’ll have to get the book. Just as an example, though, of what women have been putting up with for millennia: The author of 1 Timothy recalls Eve’s sin and commands that woman must
Learn in silence with all humility. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet women will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
(1 Timothy 2:11-15)
Osama bin Laden couldn’t have said it better. Over the centuries how many women have been abused and subjugated, and how many have rejected Christianity because of such words?
What Pagels did not find during the course of her research was a “golden age” of purer and simpler early Christianity. It was not monolithic, but included a variety of voices and an extraordinary range of viewpoints, among saints and heretics alike—the “saints” being the ones who won. From a historical point of view, then, there is no “real Christianity”.
What she did recognize is a “spiritual dimension in human experience”.
This recognition, after all, is what all participants in the Christian tradition, however they disagree, share in common—and share, for that matter, with many people who are involved in Christian tradition only peripherally, or not at all.