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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity Paperback – September 19, 1989

4.5 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • 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: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #281,560 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Anyone even remotely familiar with Western civilization knows the story of the Garden of Eden. What we often don't know is how profoundly that story has influenced society for the past few thousand years. Elaine Pagels does a wonderul job of describing the evolution of some of our most basic social values, such as the inherent value of each soul, freedom of choice, and the sinful nature of sexual desire, all stemming from the early Christian "Church Fathers'" interpretation of the Garden story. What did God mean that "man (and woman) was created in the image of God?" What was the meaning of the forbidden fruit? And how has that influenced the politics of today? All of these and more are addressed between the covers of this book.
One of the signature's of Pagels writing is the in-depth exploration of the writings and debates of the early Christian thinkers who, by the fifth century, largely shaped Christianity into the paradigm we know today. Augustine in particular gets a great deal of ink in this book, as well as Julian (the heretic from Italy), John Chrysostom, Clement and others. In particular, the last two chapters on the Politics of Paradise and the Nature of Nature strongly portray the power of Augustine's philosophy, and Pagels analysis of the psychic attraction to Augustine's paradoxical philosophy regarding "will" is exceptional. I also very much enjoyed her description of the evolution of Christian thinking from one of ultimate free will (so powerful that it resulted in thousands of Christian martyrs in the second and third century), to one of the inherent wickedness of humans by virtue of the original sin, resulting in the need for punitive and controling church and civic governments to rule over all people.
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Format: Paperback
Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known as the author of the popular text, `The Gnostic Gospels', highlighting a lesser known arena in early Christian history. Her reputation is somewhat controversial, as is her writing, but one thing is certain - she is a good writer, interesting to read, and she will make her readers think. This particular book, `Adam, Eve and the Serpent' deals with issues surrounding sexuality and gender, a hot topic in the social and cultural situations of today, but similarly of concern throughout much of Christian history. There is a tug-of-war between `traditional values' (leaving aside that there are various traditions) and `revisionist' or `modern' ideas, and few are in agreement over where the boundaries should be drawn.

Pagels explores some of the ways in which these traditional roles of gender and patterns of sexual expression arose to become so powerfully ingrained in western Christian society. To this day, most people make the appeal to the early chapters of Genesis both as the paradigm for what God intended for the world as well as the explanation, if not the actual instance, of sin and evil encroaching upon the world. Pagels begins with a copy of the first few chapters of Genesis, and traces ways in which ancient Jewish and early Christian communities interpreted these chapters.

Each chapter in Pagel's book highlights a particular theme. The first chapter looks at the understanding of Jewish culture of the early Genesis stories that would have formed the world view of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles and church leaders, all of whom were born and raised into this Jewish culture.
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"Adam, Eve, and the Serpent" is a brief, fascinating introduction to the world that shaped early Christian thought. Pagels writes that, during the first four centuries of the common era, there were many different schools of thought about religion, almost as many as there are in the contemporary American setting that she writes.
In this book, she examines how one myth -- the story of the fall of Adam and Eve-- shaped different religious thinkers. Some, like Augustine, took it as an illustration of the inherantly sinful nature of people, and used the story to flesh out his highly influential beliefs about original sin. Other religious thinkers, like Gnostics, saw the myth as an allegory about the spirit (Eve) within the flesh (Adam) and even went so far to see the serpant as an early foreshadowing to Christ. The fall wasn't a bad thing -- it was an allegory of emerging spiritual consciousness.
Readers may be surprised to discover just how influential the Adam and Eve myth really was. For many under Roman rule, it was the first introduction to a notion of human equality-- all people were equal creations of God-- and a spark that lead to contemporary American concepts that "all men are created equal." (Just to be accurate, in both of these periods it was only men who were seen as equal, and no consideration was given to women, slaves, etc...) Pagels points out that an idea like this, which the American founding fathers took to be 'self-evident' is in fact an empirically unprovable concept, and philosophers like Aristotle would have found it absurd.
Elsewhere in the book, Pagels provides an interesting window into Christian attitudes about celibacy.
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