“The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt – A Book Review, by Paul McQuien

Recently I read a book by Stephen Greenblatt titled “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” (W.W. Norton, 2017). No, the book didn’t focus on the biblical account of their creation and fall but rather on their theological, cultural, and scientific treatment from antiquity to the present. Greenblatt himself is a prolific author and Harvard scholar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012, not to mention numerous additional awards and literary accomplishments, especially in Shakespeare studies.
Being a liberal Jewish scholar, Greenblatt doesn’t accept the account of Adam and Eve as a literal event, but he does express great respect for its significance as an influence on Western thought and creativity. For example, he observes that “Something happened at the beginning of time . . . that led to the way we are . . . and if we want to understand the way we are, it is important to remember and retell this story.”
Concerning the theological perspective, Greenblatt reveals how various religious thinkers have dealt with the Adam-Eve narrative through the ages. The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” (1st-2nd centuries A.D.) and “Church Fathers” (3rd-5th centuries) generally accepted the literal existence of Adam and Eve. Early in the third century, however, Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, surprisingly interpreted the account as more of an allegory than an actual event. He asked, “Who could be so silly. . . as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted trees in a Paradise eastward in Eden?”
In contrast to Origen’s allegorical interpretation, Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century “spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to understand the story of Adam and Eve” and came to insist on its literal truth, a conviction that provided “the scientific key to understanding everything that happened.” According to Greenblatt, Augustine was primarily responsible for the central role that Adam and Eve came to occupy in the doctrine of Original Sin.
Augustine’s interpretation dominated theological views of Adam and Eve’s role throughout the early and later Middle Ages, including the most important medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. His misogynistic view of women caused him to portray Eve as not much more than a vehicle of procreation. Augustine and Aquinas did have their opponents, especially Augustine’s contemporary, Pelagius. He believed that all humans were born innocent and possess the possibility of choosing between good an evil.
But, as Greenblatt points out, the traditional interpretation of a literal Adam and Eve was dramatically challenged with the arrival of the Age of Reason’s “Enlightenment” and the birth of modern science in the 17th and 18th centuries. An iconic voice of skepticism during the Enlightenment era was the famous French philosopher Voltaire, who went out of his way to debunk the story of Adam and Eve. Because of the account’s emphasis on the necessary limitations of human knowledge, Voltaire concluded that, according to Greenblatt, “someone who had not actually thought about the story of Adam and Eve–only a fool or a fanatic–could actually believe that it was literally true.”
In the succeeding 19th century the iconic figure of science became Charles Darwin, although other important dissenting scientists were at work, such as the geologist, Charles Lyell. Darwinism is not necessarily atheistic, but Greenblatt insists that it is “certainly incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve.” Darwin’s second major treatise on evolution, “The Descent of Man” (1871), does not allow for the remote possibility of Eden and two original parents of humanity.
Of course, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been followed up in the 20th and 21st centuries by archaeologists and anthropologists concluding that human origins date back millennia to Africa rather than Mesopotamia. This leads to Greenblatt’s conclusion concerning the context of science that “scientific studies of mitochondrial DNA overwhelmingly favor the notion of the shared African origins of all modern humans . . . somewhere between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago.”
Being a prominent critical voice in the area of art and literature (especially Shakespeare studies) in Western culture, Greenblatt devotes a lot of space to the treatment of Adam and Eve in these two disciplines. One chapter, “Embodiments,” is devoted entirely to artistic depictions of the two archetypal figures from the catacombs of Rome to the early Renaissance in Europe. For him “the most influential contribution to the image of Adam and Eve was made by [the German artist] Albrecht Durer in 1504.” Greenblatt also includes discussion and 29 helpful photos of Adam-Eve paintings by other celebrated artists, including Michelangelo (1508-12), Titian (1550–see cover illustration), Rembrandt (1638), and others.
In the area of literature, Greenblatt devotes three extensive chapters to the 17th-century English Puritan poet, John Milton. Greenblatt considers Milton’s “Paradise Lost” the greatest narrative poem in the English language (and I agree). After all, Milton devoted twelve long(!) poetic books to “justify God’s ways to man.” To do so, Milton focused on what he and Augustine– but not Greenblatt—believed: the literal truth of Adam and Eve’s story. Milton wanted to show how their “fortunate fall” ultimately resulted in the incarnation of Jesus Christ to rescue the human race from eternal damnation.
Conversely, Greenblatt provides considerable space to Mark Twain’s 19th-century satirical treatment of the original parents. The author explains that in “Adam’s Diary” (1892), “Twain continued to mock credulous belief in the literal existence of the first humans by . . . imagining what it would have been like to live at the dawn of time.” Twain even provided a companion piece titled “Eve’s Diary,” in which he has Eve cavalierly stating, “How stupid we are! Let us eat of it [the forbidden fruit]; we shall die, and then we shall know what it [death] is, and not have any more bother about it.”
To conclude, I did not write this review necessarily to promote the book to my readers. I enjoyed reading it because I like literature, and I appreciate Greenblatt’s comprehensive grasp of Western culture. Also, it’s worthwhile to examine the perspective of agnostic thinkers, in order to better defend the Bible’s validity as an inspired revelation.
I unequivocally oppose Greenblatt’s denial of Adam and Eve’s literal existence, even though there may be details in the entire Creation account that we don’t entirely understand. The existence of Adam and Eve is inextricably bound up in the teachings of the New Testament. For example, it appears in Luke’s including Adam as the beginning of Jesus’ lineage (Lk. 3:38) and in Jesus’ indirect allusion to the Edenic couple in his comments on marriage and divorce (Mt. 19: 4-5; Mk. 10: 6-7).
Even more direct are the comments made by the Apostle Paul concerning Adam and Eve. Greenblatt himself quotes Paul’s statement, “For since by man came death, . . . by man came also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:21). The role of Adam (and Eve) is so important in Paul’s theology that he alluded to him (or them) several times in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy, beginning with the passage in Romans 5:14, ”Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is the pattern of the one to come.”
In his concluding statement, even the agnostic Stephen Greenblatt attests to the importance of Adam and Eve: “The Adam and Eve story insists that our fate . . . was our own responsibility. Millions of people in the world, including many who grasp the underlying assumptions of modern science, continue to cling to the peculiar satisfaction that the ancient story provides. I do.”

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