- Paperback: 189 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed edition (September 19, 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679722327
- ISBN-13: 978-0679722328
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 59 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #180,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity Paperback – September 19, 1989
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From Publishers Weekly
The disgust felt by early Christians for the flesh was a radical departure from both pagan and Jewish sexual attitudes. In fact, as Princeton professor Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) demonstrates, the ascetic movement in Christianity met with great resistance in the first four centuries A.D. Sex became fully tainted, inextricably linked to sin under the teachings of Augustine. This troubled sinner invoked Adam and Eve to justify his idiosyncratic view of humanity as permanently scarred by the Fall. Instead of being dismissed as marginal, Augustine's grim outlook took hold, according to Pagels, because it was politically expedient. Now that Christianity had become the imperial religion, Rome wanted its imperfect subjects to obey a strong Christian state. This highly provocative history links the religious roots of Western sexual attitudes to women's inferior status through the centuries.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
Pagels explores the development of the ideas of human nature, moral freedom, and sexuality in the four centuries following Christ. Focusing on the various interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, she concludes that early Christians regarded their message to be one of moral freedom and human worth. In the 5th century, Augustine turned the tide with his view of human depravity and original sin (which he linked with sexuality). She argues that his interpretations, implying human incapacity for true political freedom, appealed to the interests of the emerging Christian state and forged the mainstream of ensuing Christian theology. In her analysis, Pagels does not convincingly deal with other foundational biblical material, although she does ably dismantle Augstine's identification of sexuality with original sin. Cynthia Widmer, Williamstown, Mass.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top customer reviews
My only complaints about the book is I wish it was a bit easier to read and I wish it had a bit more connection to Jewish thought on Genesis 1-3/human nature.
In this book Elaine Pagels gives a history of the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 for the first 400-500 years of Christianity. About half the book deals with Augustine's interpretations and the other half is the people he argued against. The first chapter is kind of foundational talking about Jesus and Paul and first century Judaism. Because of Augustine's timing, prominence and support of the Roman empire/the popes of his time his view became the dominant one in western christianity. I would absolutely agree we see the impact of it every day in western culture.
"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 the result of Adam’s sin."
--For those who know me, this is exactly the opposite of my buddy Thoreau and the transcendentalists, for those who don't, now you see my bias :)
According to Pagels, this was also the opposite of the first 300 years of christian interpretation of Genesis 1-3!!
In those opening chapters the first christians saw God blessing humanity with the freedom to self-govern. God blessed humanity with a will that can choose moral freedom, thats what being made in the image of God was about. The emphasis was not on any kind of 'original sin' until Augustine. According to Pagels "the whole point of the story of Adam, most Christians assumed, was to warn everyone who heard it not to misuse that divinely given capacity for free choice."
The author claims that 'previous ideology of human freedom' was espoused by Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Valentinus, Clement, Origen, Jovinian, Pelagius, John Chrysostom, Julian of Eclanium. There's some pretty big hitters there. And also some who were considered heretics. Lengthy quotes and summaries are provided of each of them. The church fathers who identified with Augustine were Jerome, Ambrose and Pope Siricius of Rome (who was the one who decided who was a heretic and who wasn't). It was better for the pope and for the roman empire if people were considered bad, that way they could justify their desire for more control over people.
Every great story must have a villain and while some might assume in a work of this nature, dealing with views of freedom and sexuality in the early Christian church, that this would have to be the serpent in the title. However the real villain is none other than Saint Augustine, the towering landmark author of the Confessions and City of God, by his insistence on the doctrine of original sin and his ability to have all of his opponents branded as heretics set in motion a series of doctrinal innovations that have ensured that sexuality and human freedom are viewed with some suspicion if not hostility in the western tradition.
Pagels is an acknowledged expert on the early Christian church and her strength in this book and others is to demonstrate the range and variety of opinions that existed during the period up to the Fifth Century. It is clear in the case of the subject at hand that the "good guys" did not win. Augustine's opponents, the Pelagians were probably more rational and provide a doctrine that is more consistent not only with Bibilical scholarship, but also more intellectually honest. The same is true of Augustine's last opponent, Julian of Eclanum.
Augustine and indeed Saint Jerome (who was not above tampering with the text of the Bible in order to further his belief system) were, as Pagels demonstrates, able to seize the high road in their attempts to create a more highly codified Catholic church due in in large part to the stance that they took on human freedom with differed markedly with the Christian church that existed prior to the conversion of Constantine.
As an outlawed organization with different perspectives on all aspects of doctrine, the church was a recruiting ground for martyrs who went out of their way to achieve martyrdom (other members did not and successfully hid their beliefs, at least officially). This course of setting oneself in opposition to civic authorities, would be in marked contrast to the beliefs that were advocated by Augustine which proved so very useful in promoting and insisting on an orthodoxy that would calcify and impede the western imagination for the next 1,000 years.
Sexuality was a problematic aspect of the Christian tradition, with many, no less than Christ and St Paul taking a dismissive attitude towards it to it. This was because a sexual life was held to distract from matters spiritual. However, marriage and its endorsement by both the founder of Christian and his Apostle did not resolve questions for people longing for a vision of humanity that was devoid of all human experience.
Augustine went even further and insisted that sexuality was a reflection of original sin and that passion or as Augustine would have put it, "the sin of lust" was a sign of how the sin of Adam and Eve continued to be conveyed to each succeeding generation. This was done at conception and that all those people who were conceived through the normal process were somehow infected.
The ideas of Augustine continue to plague modern society and a continuation of these ideas are likely to provide further problems. As was noted by Julian of Eclanum, that man is very much a part of nature and that things that occur in nature are probably the natural order of things. The picture of man as a person eager to obey church authorities, no matter what nonsense they were spouting, who was also eager to be more free by refraining from sexual activity strikes the modern reader as somewhat unnatural and more reflective of the kinks in Augustine's world view. Strictly speaking, the adjectives "perversion" and "unnatural" could be most readily applied to the beliefs advocated successfully by the author of "City of God" than the most debased libertine.
It is interesting to see the work and the mendacity that went into the establishment of many of these doctrinal questions associated with human freedom and sexuality. Pagels shows just how painful these arguments are framed. Augustine even takes the step of arguing that freedom is slavery (anticipating the dystopian vision of George Orwell in 1984). The relevancy of these positions arrived at before the scientific revolution is therefore questionable. Probably the most backward student in an elementary health class has a better understanding of the mechanics of human sexuality than did the most learned person cited by Pagels. That people would and still do insist on these positions demonstrates both a fear of the true nature of man and an insistence of preserving an intellectually bankrupt approach to central facets of the human condition.
This book should be required reading since it is part of the vast body of work that has enabled the West to overcome the treacheries of its Dark Age past and to move it closer to a humanist vision for society. A humanist is, as a wit once observed, anyone who believes that there is more to life than chastity, dying of plague and being repressed by unscrupulous church authorities. Augustine would surely be horrified by the notion.
By the forth century CE., the Christian world under the protection and guidance of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, underwent a revolutionary change from a doctrine that celebrated human freedom to one that emphasized the universal bondage of original sin.
What Ms. Pagels did find was not what she had started out to find, a "Golden Age" of Christianity, or the purer, more simpler version of the faith. Instead what she found was a Christian movement that was far more diverse than she had ever imagined. Shaped by Christian orthodox writers and philosophers like, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origin, as well as by gnostics like, Valentinus and Julian all scattered throughout the empire from Rome to Asia, Africa, Egypt and Gaul, their writings and teaching were often more radical and in opposition to each other and did not always share the common creed that most Christians do in the world today.
This book exhibits excellent scholarship on the subject and gets to the core of the source of all our morality, and sexuality concepts we have today. The concept of original sin had a very nebulous beginning.
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