Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Critical Essays

Elaine Pagels


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Using historical means to explore the origins of Christianity, Pagels argues that Christian views of freedom changed as Christianity moved from being a persecuted movement to being the official religion of the emperors. Inherent in these views of freedom were attitudes toward women and sexuality that emerged from varying interpretations of the Creation accounts in Genesis. Repeatedly throughout the book, Pagels emphasizes how the story of Adam and Eve came to be the justification for moralists to explicate their own situations and establish their own beliefs. For example, in chapter 1, she demonstrates how second century writers transformed the Genesis story into one of moral freedom and moral responsibility. This view placed new strictures on marriage by promoting celibacy as a higher form of Christian life and by instructing those who did marry to subordinate their desires of the flesh and reserve sex for procreation only. These views came primarily from writers who perceived celibacy as the “better” form of Christian life, a life that would separate new converts from the bonds of family pressures and social obligations and tie them instead to their “brothers and sisters in Christ.” Stories of martyrs, such as the young wife and mother Perpetua, who defied her father’s pleas to renounce her religion and return to her loving family, spread across the empire and emphasized the message that Christianity was a route to freedom.

The main way to achieve this freedom soon came to be a renunciation of the world to take up a life of poverty and celibacy. Pagels argues against those who see the Christian ascetic life as a demonstration of hatred of the flesh. There were, she admits, some interpretations of Adam and Eve that marked the flesh as sinful and evil: The fourth century ascetic Jerome, for example, even switched...

(The entire section is 750 words.)