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...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)