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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics…

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (original 1988; edition 1989)

by Elaine Pagels

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Title:Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity
Authors:Elaine Pagels
Info:Vintage (1989), Edition: Vintage Books Ed, Paperback, 189 pages
Collections:Your library

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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels (1988)



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In The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, the annoying goody-goody neighbor, notes at one point that he’s tried to be a good Christian by following the Bible – even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff! Similarly, the great poet William Blake comments – “Both read the Bible day and night; but you read black where I read white!” Pagels illustrates some of this in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent – wildly different interpretations of passages from Genesis, the fight over the meaning of Jesus’ and Paul’s sayings, the early message of Christianity as a religion of moral freedom vs Augustine’s view of the world as unavoidably sinful. Although ostensibly the subject is the story of Adam and Even and how it was interpreted, the title doesn’t seem entirely correct as there’s a lot about the history of the early Christians who were persecuted under the Romans. However, the overall point is to examine the various interpretations of the Genesis story during the first centuries of Christianity and how Augustine’s reading came to be the dominant interpretation even today. Sometimes the structure was a little rambling. Although Pagels is great at making close interpretation of Biblical passages and writings of various Christians and pagans very interesting, her discussion of straight history and feuds of different Christian sects was somewhat dry. I’m also unfamiliar with modern views of Augustine so didn’t have too much to compare this to. Still, even her tangents are interesting and I’d be happy to read Pagels rambling on about the whole Bible.

The first chapter looks at Jesus’ radical message and how later gospels and interpreters tried to soften it. Talk of marriage as indissoluble was contradictory to the customs of the Romans and the Jews, where promiscuity (for men), divorce and multiple wives were common. His message to his followers to leave their families was also an uncomfortable one. Paul’s sayings, which also were included in the New Testament, promoted an ascetic message of celibacy and renunciation. Pagels identifies books that today are no longer believed to have been written by Paul and finds a less harsh, pro-family message in them. The interpretations of early Christians pitted the message of asceticism against one of family, marriage and children, with both sides pointing to their analyses of Genesis. Pagels does a good job conveying how weird Jesus’ sayings would have been and describing the profusion of views and arguments. This section certainly was interesting and set up the rest of the book but mentions of Genesis were fleeting.

Next, she analyzes how Christians portrayed their religion when they were a persecuted minority – as a religion of freedom, equality and justice. Her choice of quotes is again enlightening but sometimes I wondered if the people that were described were real or apocryphal. In many cases, it was probably irrelevant – the message of brave Christian martyrs calmly sticking to their beliefs was the important one. Pagels clearly finds Marcus Aurelius a fascinating and admirable character; as in The Origin of Satan, she spends several paragraphs ruminating on his life. It’s not a tangent as his sense of duty is contrasted to the Christians’ but it does seem to be a running theme, as is the examination of the gnostic interpretations of the Genesis story. Some of them are out-and-out bizarre, many take an allegorical or psychological view of the story and some are almost close to Adam & Eve fanfiction. The split between the Gnostics and more orthodox Christians was another fight in the battle over who controlled the interpretation of Christianity.
A chapter on the emphasis on virginity and chastity also seems to be a bit off topic, but relates to how Christians differentiated themselves from the Romans and Jews and also used it as a measure of moral superiority.

The last two chapters examine how Augustine came to define the Genesis story for years to come. Earlier, Pagels emphasizes how Christians defined their religion of one of freedom and justice – citing the Adam story as one of the moral freedom that every person had. As Christianity became a widespread religion, infighting between Christians – rather than Christians defining themselves against other societies – became a source of conflict. John Chrysostom’s interpretations continue the idea of Christianity as a source of freedom and the Genesis story as one of a moral choice but that contrasted with the reality of the religion as the large, corrupt state religion. He believed the earlier Christian view of human nature as one that could choose good and that baptism washed away previous sins. Augustine’s interpretation is compared to that of Chrysostom and is largely negative about human nature in general. The Adam and Eve story to him was one of original sin that forever corrupted mankind. While earlier Christians had deplored the compulsion and violence used by the Romans, Augustine later came to approve of those methods. Pagels’ section on his conflict with Julian has quotes from both that rather make Augustine look bad. Pagels somehow makes theological debates very interesting but oddly the pages of straight history were dry and uninvolving. There were tangents but I didn’t mind them. Another good Pagels. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Jun 24, 2013 |
Augustine, arguably Christianity’s greatest teacher, often stressed the sinful nature of sexual desire. Adam’s sin corrupted the whole of nature itself, and infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin. When did this idea come about that sex is inherently sinful? When did the fall become the Fall?

In Genesis 1, God gifted the power of earthly rule to Adam. Yet, in the late fourth and fifth centuries, this message began to change. Adam’s prideful desire for self-government led to the fall—I mean, the Fall—of mankind, and ever since, humanity has been sick, helpless, irreparably damaged. Human beings are incapable of self rule, not in any genuinely good way.

Says Augustine, “even the nature of the semen from which we were to be propagated” is “shackled by the bond of death.” Every being conceived through semen is born contaminated with sin. Christ alone is born without this sin, this libido. Because of Adam’s disobedience, “the sexual desire of our disobedient members arose in those first human beings.” These members are rightly called pudenda [parts of shame] because they “excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master, as if they were their own masters.”

Okay, perhaps I have overemphasized Augustine and his hangup about sex. There’s more to the book, and Pagels is a good writer who manages to turn even this dubious topic into a fascinating read. ( )
2 vote DubiousDisciple | Aug 4, 2011 |
A look at the history of the concept of original sin. Easy to read and authoritative, though at times there was a bit too much rehash of ground covered in her book on the Gnostic gospels, some of which wasn't particularly relevant to this topic. ( )
  Devil_llama | Apr 9, 2011 |
If you're new to Pagels I woud suggest you start with THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. That is the foundation, it seems to me, on which all of her other works build. ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT focuses on why early Christians came to believe sex was inherently sinful. An excellent question. It begins with more of the fascinating story of the Valentinian gnostics, who were so troublesome to the early church. Apparently, like earlier Talmudic scholars, the gnostics saw little usefulness in Scriptural readings that were not fresh and innovative. (Karen Armstrong goes into this subject at length in her THE CASE FOR GOD.) Such a spur to inventiveness naturally gave rise to widely variant readings. This was at a time when early church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian and others were trying to standardize Scriptural interpretation. The gnostics also believed that clerics were not needed for what was essentially an inward journey of spiritual discovery. Rituals such as baptism and the eucharist they viewed as preliminaries. The gnostics were thus considerably anti-establishment and as such they drove Irenaeus and his fellows a little crazy. So consumed was Irenaeus with the gnostics that he composed a multi-volume refutation of their divergent beliefs. Most useful to this reader was the story in the chapter "The Politics of Paradise" of how Augustine "transformed much of the teaching of the Christian faith" from one that emphasized "freedom of the will and humanity's original royal dignity" . . . "to one of enslavement to sin." Pagels explains how Augustine's own out of control sexually promiscuous youth made it all but impossible for him to understand then prevailing Christian concepts of free will. "Astonishingly," she says, "Augustine's radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of western Christians the consensus of more than three centuries of Christian tradition." There is so much interesting content here. I've just touched on just a few spots. The book is a little denser in terms of its scholarship than other Pagels books. (I've read all but the first two.) I could not get straight through it in one go, but needed a fiction interlude before returning to finish. Nevertheless, highly recommended. ( )
  Brasidas | Jan 8, 2011 |
In her epilogue to Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Elaine Pagels insists that her ambition in this book is neither to discover nor to indicate the nature of the "real Christianity." In that case, she could have avoided a lot of the confusion raised by her presentation, if only she had been a little bit more skeptical about the original message of "Jesus," whom she quotes--on the basis of the canonical Gospels--as blithely as she cites the writings of Augustine or any of the other Church Fathers. She knows well enough that "the gospels of the New Testament are neither histories nor biographies in our sense of these terms," (5) but she still handles them as though they might serve in those capacities.

Still, for a book that is designed to straddle the line between scholarship and popularization, Pagels does a good job. And her topic couldn't be more interesting. She traces the development of Christian interpretations of the Edenic myth of Genesis, and how they were used to formulate and express ideas about sexuality, politics, free will, and guilt. She accepts the Luke-Acts epic as though it were history, and even so, manages to demonstrate important facts about the history of early Christianity: its diversity (with a chapter on "Gnostic Improvisations") and its profound difference from the Augustinian orthodoxy that underlies nearly all modern Christianities.

Her treatment of Augustine is fascinating, and she claims to have been as surprised herself by the results of her research as most of her Christian readers will be. Although she was originally sympathetic to Augustine from her readings in his Confessions, On the Trinity and The City of God, her effort to reopen a conversation forcibly closed by papal authority in April 418 C.E. led her to the dialogue between Augustine and the Pelagian naturalist Julian of Eclanum. In contrast with the traditional secondary sources, Pagels finds Julian thoughtful and scripturally attentive. Augustine, whose Opus Imperfectum Contra Julianum has never been published in English translation, seems "idiosyncratic" and tendentious in his novel doctrine of congenital human depravity.

In Pagels' account, the combination of Augustine's theological innovations with the establishment of imperial Christianity resulted in the rejection of an earlier Christian ethos of freedom, and its replacement with one of guilt. This study deserves the careful consideration of everyone who thinks that they have read and understood Genesis 3:16-19, since hardly any readers, medieval or modern, have been able to approach the Edenic myth without the long Augustinian shadow of "original sin" cast upon it. Before Augustine, Justin Martyr could say to the prefect who condemned him to death: "Do what thou wilt: we are Christians." (49)
3 vote paradoxosalpha | Oct 28, 2010 |
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To our beloved son, Mark
who for six and a half years
graced our lives with his presence
October 26, 1980—April 10, 1987
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Abrupt changes in social attitudes have recently become commonplace, especially with respect to sexuality, including marriage, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and gender.
Jesus and his followers lived at a time when the situation of the Jews was particularly turbulent and potentially explosive.
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Van deze Amerikaanse kerkhistorica (Princeton University) verscheen eerder het boek 'De Gnostische Evangeliën' (a.i. 84-24-194-2). Hier gaat het om een bewerking van een aantal artikelen tot één boek. Hierdoor mist men enigszins een doorlopende lijn. Belangrijke onderwerpen die aan de orde komen zijn: de vroegchristelijke visie op de menselijke vrijheid, de overheid, de erfzonde en de seksualiteit, en de veranderingen in die visies in de eerste vijf eeuwen. Zij laat zien hoe deze veranderingen samenhangen met wijzigingen in de positie van de kerk. Men leert uit dit boek dat over genoemde onderwerpen binnen het christendom vanaf het allereerste begin zeer verschillend is gedacht en dat wat nu als traditie geldt, aanvankelijk op veel tegenstand stuitte en andere ideeën - soms met geweld - heeft verdrongen. Omdat genoemde onderwerpen nog actueel zijn, is het jammer dat de auteur zich beperkt tot een historische benadering en van een theologische evaluatie afziet. Belangrijk boek voor de verdieping van de bezinning op actuele problemen binnen de kerk.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679722327, Paperback)

Deepens and refreshes our view of early Christianity while casting a disturbing light on the evolution of the attitudes passed down to us.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:27 -0400)

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Discusses the concepts of original sin and the historical meaning of Christianity.

(summary from another edition)

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