23.10.2021

Nonfiction: The Truth and Fiction of Adam and Eve

In any case, it is a tendentious reading of any ancient text that would apply modern standards of plausibility to myth. Flavius Josephus, in his “Antiquities of the Jews,” written in the first century A.D., says of the second of Genesis’s two creation narratives, “Moses, after the seventh day was over that is, in the creation of Adam and Eve, begins to talk philosophically.” His 18th-century editor, William Whiston, notes that, according to Josephus, “Moses wrote some things enigmatically, some allegorically, and the rest in plain words,” and therefore it is possible that Josephus understood the entire story of human creation “in some enigmatical, or allegorical or philosophical sense.” The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria made a straightforward translation for his Hellenized readers – in the creation of Eve, “Moses is describing nothing else on this occasion except the formation of the external sense, according to energy and according to reason.” These commentaries are late on the time scale, but they show just how differently meaning can be found in texts, and therefore how differently meaning can be invested in them. With all due respect to the Enlightenment, rationalist worry about who Cain’s wife could have been is naïve. Greenblatt respects his subject, and still he assumes that the rationalist reading offers up the true meaning of the story.

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Greenblatt imposes this kind of reasoning on John Milton, no less. He writes that Milton “was convinced that everything had to spring from and return to the literal truth of the Bible’s words. In the absence of that truth, Milton’s Christian faith and all the positions he had taken on the basis of that faith would be robbed of their meaning.” There is a special problem with the phrase “literal truth.” Milton knew Hebrew. A serious student of Scripture is aware that neither English nor Latin versions can be described as “literal.” When Milton’s devils can sing so beautifully that their listeners forget they are in hell, when the devil Belial rejects extinction, “for who would lose, / Though full of pain, this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through eternity,” the poet may have in mind the Hebrew merism “good and bad,” which encompasses both and all that lies between, complicating the stark English binary “good and evil.” In any case, precisely his devotion to Scripture would have made his understanding of it nuanced and rich, and not in the least “literal.”

Milton was a major figure in the English Reformation. Scholars without a specialty in religious history are understandably reluctant to immerse themselves in all the varieties and phases of Christianity, so the pious are often all assumed to be “orthodox,” as Greenblatt frequently refers to them. But Milton was among the robust and diverse part of the English population called “dissenters” or “nonconformists.” He insisted on the sanctity of the individual’s response to Scripture, a freedom of conscience that could never legitimately be coerced, or conformed to any orthodoxy, even willingly. Milton says it is “a general maxim of the Protestant religion” that “he who holds in religion that belief or those opinions which to his conscience and utmost understanding appear with most evidence or probability in the Scripture, though to others he seem erroneous, can no more be justly censured for a heretic than his censurers.”

An awareness of the religious movement that Milton identified with and championed would have also helped Greenblatt in his parsing of the poet’s views on marriage. Rather than being based in hierarchy and submission, dissenters idealized marriage differently, interpreting the creation of Eve in terms like these: “Something was taken from Adam, in order that he might embrace, with greater benevolence, a part of himself. He lost, therefore, one of his ribs; but, instead of it, a far richer reward was granted him, since he obtained a faithful associate of life; for he now saw himself, who had before been imperfect, rendered complete in his wife.” This is John Calvin, one of the most widely read theologians in England during Milton’s lifetime and highly influential among those Milton calls Protestants.

“The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” is an ambitious attempt at an important cultural history. It is cursory, and, to the degree that its treatment of these influential texts and movements is uninformed, it is not a help in understanding them.

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