Politics in paradise - the genesis of `original sin'

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels. New York: Random House. 189 pp. $17.95. ``Adam, Eve, and the Serpent'' is an elegant, well-argued discussion of a bold thesis. To cover so much ground - four centuries of the Christian era - in such brief scope (under 200 pages), Elaine Pagels looks at a variety of interpretations of a key biblical text: the first three chapters of Genesis, the creation stories.

Long known to be from two different sources, these chapters cover the beginning of time, and the immediate aftermath. God creates man and woman in his image and gives them dominion over the earth; but Adam and Eve listen to the serpent and disobey God, bringing grief on themselves - Adam must work for a living and Eve must bear children in agony - and the whole race in perpetuity.

Obviously there's a problem here, a contradiction between the two stories, and Pagels manages to account for the range of responses to this text, from Jesus and his witnesses, including the Gnostics and Paul, down to St. Augustine in the fourth century. These responses, she discovers, reflect the position of Christians in the society of the Roman, then Christian, empire.

She begins in the time of Jesus. She sees Jesus as ``a firebrand village preacher'' whose preaching of the kingdom-at-hand made him a loose cannon in an anxious society watched over by nervous Romans. Jesus' chastity, his advocacy of leaving all for the kingdom of heaven, his astringent, inward view of righteousness: These set the scene for a century of controversy over marriage, family, procreation, and celibacy - indeed, the capacity of men and women to decide how to live their own lives.

Pagels shows how the Apostle Paul's ascetic version of Jesus' message was answered by early church fathers such as the urbane Clement of Alexandria. In the background are the conflicting images in Genesis of sexual equality in the first chapter and the tension-filled, tragic relationship of Adam and Eve.

As the prospects of an early return on the millennial faith of the early Christians grew dim, the issues raised in Genesis became focused on liberty and autonomy. Widely and savagely persecuted, Christians showed remarkable courage, enough to convert pagans like Justin the philosopher, who himself would later become Justin Martyr.

Pagels is a good storyteller and retails these dramatic events - she used some of them in her earlier best-selling book, ``The Gnostic Gospels'' - to great effect. Her art has been compared to the novelist's: She not only brings the voices of the early Christians alive, but also presents their lives in sympathetic contexts. Her contexts are ultimately ideas, though: the ideas in Genesis - ideas about God's love for men and women, His endowing them with the capacity for righteous, rational action in the face of absurdity and death - meant much to the early Christians, some of whom chose celibacy and martyrdom rather than worship pagan, political gods.

In a neat epigram, Pagels notes that when the church entered the world, the world entered the church. Partly because of their eloquent lives, the Christians won the empire and all the perks that came with high office. A new interpretation of the creation was needed, one that played down autonomy and freedom, and elevated obedience to a high virtue.

In pages that will attract skepticism from Augustine scholars, Pagels argues that the bishop of Hippo filled the bill. His interpretation of Genesis included the concept, now orthodox in many Christian churches, of ``original sin.'' His view implied - he would articulate this in his many debates with old-fashioned Christians, soon to be heretics - that Adam's sin corrupted not only Adam but all mankind, indeed all creation. Christians, like pagans, need empire and emperors!

Pagels carefully shows how useful such an interpretation was to Christians in power. It makes the will to be good impotent; desire is seen as the only autonomous force and must be repressed. Ecclesiastical and political hierarchy are justified because men and women cannot govern their own lives.

As Pagels shows in page after eloquent page, Augustine was opposed by strong arguers like John Chrysostom and Pelagius, the British ascetic whom Paul Johnson, in his ``A History of the English People,'' thinks of as the founder of the English view of life. In our terms, Chrysostom and Pelagius were liberal: They argued for more moderation, some autonomy, freedom of will, and choice - for Christian liberty. On the strength of Augustinian counterarguments, both were exiled as heretics.

This stunning book opens many questions. It refreshs our view of early Christianity by showing the variety of voices that rang out in the primitive church. Pagels notes that the early liberal Christians did not articulate the politics of their interpretation of Genesis, but she adds that the American founders did. She does not try to refute Augustine, but rather puts his reading of Genesis in its full context, theological and political.

With wit, grace, profound sympathy for the early Christians, and admirable economy, Pagels has achieved in her little book what miles of biblical commentary have not: She has brought these issues to a white heat and tempered them on the anvil of her historical art.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's books editor.

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