Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, asks, “When did key Christian concepts about gender, sex, and suffering take shape?” In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, she points to the fourth century as the key period. Surveying three hundred years of theological controversy and polemic, Pagels concludes that Christian ideas about marriage, sex, virginity, divorce, sin, nature, and individual moral responsibility became rooted about the same time that Christianity replaced polytheism as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Pagels identifies Saint Augustine of Hippo as the theologian whose expression of these ideas became identified with the true faith. Augustine’s theology triumphed, she asserts, because it fit the needs of an institutionalized religion and because it justified to believers God’s ways of painfully limiting human existence.

Pagels is one of many prominent scholars in religion, philosophy, and history recently attracted to studying the first four centuries of the Christian era. This attraction was prompted by midcentury discoveries in archaeology and by a new historical methodology. The most important discovery of ancient texts was the finding of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts: apocryphal gospels, epistles, and treatises referred to in surviving works but thought lost. The new methodology comes from the annales school, which writes history not by chronicling wars and governments but by reconstructing daily life. Studying ordinary artifacts, routine correspondence, architecture, landscape, and even weather patterns, annales historians see human history as the experience of many individuals, not only the famous.

Thus, new sources of information, considered through a new perspective, enable scholars to study the first four hundred years of Christianity outside traditional polarities. These centuries witnessed an astounding transformation: What began as a small Jewish sectarian movement became the official religion of the Greco-Roman world. Finding an explanation for this phenomenon has always been a challenge for Western thinkers; by the early twentieth century two competing viewpoints had reached a stalemate. One was the medieval Christian view: the triumph of the True Faith over paganism was a clear sign of God’s providential plan, a watershed in salvation history. During the theological controversies of the Reformation, these centuries were further idealized as the period of the Church’s purity: That earliest Christian age possessed liturgy, life-style, and doctrine directly from the Apostles. The skeptical Enlightenment view, on the other hand, saw the decline of the Roman Empire as the fall of sophisticated, secular civilization. From this perspective, the rise of Christianity was the triumph of zealotry; tales of martyrs and miracles were exaggerations, legends, or lies. Little verifiable history of these centuries was possible, according to the skeptics; the most cynical doubted even the historicity of Jesus. Recent scholarship has broken through this dichotomy to rethink or reconceptualize the events of Christianity’s early history.

One important reconceptualization concerns the relationship between orthodox and heretical Christians. The orthodox view themselves as maintaining an unbroken succession from the Apostles. They oppose heretics, who, motivated by ambition or pride or jealousy, attempt to lead the faithful astray. Like the clever serpent in Eden, the heretic woos the believer from the path of truth by deceitful double-talk. Pagels’ research into the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and other nonorthodox documents challenges this view of heresy. These documents reveal a world of Christianities during the first two centuries after Christ in which a variety of texts, traditions, and practices prevailed. These Christianities complemented rather than challenged one another; though differing in belief, they stood united against Roman polytheism. Thus, the great “heresies” of the third and fourth century—Pelagianism and Donatism—can be interpreted simply as old Christian traditions that resisted change, merger, or incorporation. The Christian viewpoint that eventually took hold and triumphed called itself orthodox and labeled its defeated rivals heresies. This view of doctrinal development raises fascinating questions. What factors enable one view to survive while another perishes? How does the larger community come to value one view over another?

To answer these questions, Pagels focuses on competing...

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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elaine Pagels’ work Adam, Eve, and the Serpent revisits and revises a number of her previous scholarly articles to make them more accessible for general readers. The six chapters trace varying and often clashing interpretations of the Creation accounts of Genesis during the first four centuries of Christianity. These interpretations, which culminated in the fifth century with the triumph of Augustine’s writings on Original Sin, indicated that early Christianity was not monolithic, but included a range of remarkably diverse viewpoints that deny the existence of an early age of purer, simpler Christianity. Within this context, Pagels analyzes how early Christian interpretations of the Creation story, particularly those related to Eve’s role in Paradise, established traditions that would define attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and women for the next millennium and a half.

Beginning with ancient attitudes toward sexuality and moving chronologically through the struggles of the early Christians in the Roman Empire, Pagels’ analysis of Christian ascetic movements and shifting imperial politics shows how interpretations of the Creation stories came to establish a particular view of humanity’s fallen state and the role of woman in leading humanity astray. Because of Eve’s corrupting function, the Christian Fathers ordained man to be the master of woman, and they condemned woman’s sexuality. Pagels concludes by looking at how Augustine,...

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Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Pagels’ work represents the expanding influence of feminist scholars on the study of early Christianity. While the general impetus for this movement comes primarily from the perception that the Old and New Testaments treat women inequitably, Pagels elucidates even further the unfair views of women that emerged when initial Christian interpreters used the Scriptures as the basis for adopting attitudes toward sexuality and succeeded in creating a template that continues to govern individuals and society. Detractors warn that she reads her own personal agenda into the texts she scrutinizes, thus allowing that agenda to drive her scholarship. Still, Pagels remains one of the foremost authorities on Gnostic writings and has staked out her position as an authority on their powerful feminine imagery and ideology. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, she uses that knowledge to bring about a clearer understanding of Christianity’s burgeoning attitudes toward women.

She joins a prestigious group of women—among them Phyllis Trible, Carol Meyers, and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza—who are reinterpreting how and why the Bible and its explicators justified the subordination of women. They are pioneers who, despite engendering much criticism, have opened new doors, asked pointed questions, and reminded their readers of the role that human minds had on shaping and sculpting religious attitudes toward women and humanity in general.

Elaine Pagels is also the author of The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary by John (1973); The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (1975); The Gnostic Gospels (1979), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award in 1980; and Nag Hammadi Codices XI, XII, XIII (1990), a translation of Gnostic writings. She was awarded a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981.