Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Remembering Eden: The Re-Canonization of Humanity’s Sinful Origins in Late-Antiquity

This paper will demonstrate through the analysis of Jewish and Christian primary sources related to Genesis 1-4 the process by which canonical texts are created and recreated for the purpose of supporting specific identity narratives. Chosen texts will range from the 1st Century CE to the 6th Century CE.

Modern scholars have a talent for parsing timelines, chopping up the past into easily digestible portions bound by some quality deemed important to whatever discursive activity is taking place. Perhaps the most significant division in regards to the study of the whole of the human past is a partitioning of everything before the present into two radically different periods: history and pre-history. The production of texts fundamentally alters the ability to study human thought and culture. Texts, more so than other forms of material culture, present a limiting framework for interpretation and can effectively communicate complex ideas. While the observation of non-textual material culture certainly has a vital place in the study of the human past, the ability to parse a native meaning through written sources is an absolutely invaluable insight into the workings of ancient civilizations. Traditionally speaking, the popular method of interpreting Biblical texts is to pretend that no interpretation is occurring. The majority of scholarship emerging from the Judeo-Christian tradition in Late-Antiquity assumed a fixed authorial intent while also producing widely divergent exegetical conclusions. This would seem to indicate one of two realities: either there is only one viable interpretation amongst many false readings or the far more likely possibility that the meaning of the text is subject to reader manipulation. The canonical texts of the varied Judeo-Christian traditions are treated as cohesive narratives stretching from the dawn of Creation to modernity ignoring “heretical” deviations and dead-ends. The span of time over which Biblical texts were produced defies the finite borders, both in time and space, of any empire or people involved in their production. It is only through the mythology of orthodoxy generated in this two-fold writing tradition of first producing commentary on the body of canon and then canonizing that derivative literature that cultural relevance is maintained. In this way, authors in the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition are able to simultaneously evidence the validity of all that came before while also validating the social and cultural mores of the community spawning the commentary. The continuous act of reconciliation of a textual tradition to a social reality is both the means by which a canon is preserved and the means by which it is employed. This understanding can help to decode the cultural anxieties of the various communities that emerged from or assimilated into the Judeo-Christian identity narrative. Because of the peculiar nature of religious scholarship, one which relies on the firmly held belief that the text’s value lies in the authorial intent of an ultimate creator, it is possible to read the commentary as a standalone work reflecting a meaning devised almost exclusively by the reader. The belief in the infallibility of the word of God enforces an editorial standard that rejects the recognition of self in religious commentary. The illusion of an unbroken chain of scholarly custody from the creator to the commentator contributes to a pattern Barbara Herrnstein-Smith (2000) describes as the ability of a text to “evolve and survive” (p.148), a notion which points to the transitive nature of textual meaning resulting in inclusion within the literary canon.
Perhaps the most important period of the modern Judeo-Christian tradition, in terms of historicity and ideological formation, is Late Antiquity. The Late Antique world saw the rise of the Christian Church within the Roman Empire, the establishment of Rabbinical Judaism following the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the formation of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula and its subsequent conquest of much of the ancient world. The texts arising during this period can help to illustrate the existential anxieties present at points of fracture and contention within the larger population by illustrating the many faces of perceived orthodoxy. To this end, the first four chapters of Genesis prove to be an excellent starting point for inquiry, providing a symbolically rich and suitably vague account of the origins of humanity and the human condition. The mythological ties of creation bind all subsequent liturgical identities to a shared concept of past and provide the most basic point of inquiry for cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparison.

To properly discuss the exegesis surrounding Genesis, one must first situate the “original” text. Within the tradition, the Pentateuch is credited to the hand of Moses; however, modern scholarship analyzing the language, terminology, conventions and historicity of the Biblical texts indicates a more eclectic origin (Friedman, 2005, p.7). Without a doubt, the Pentateuch was fully formed prior to the Babylonian Exile and is suspected to have achieved its full form, in terms of content, at the hands of the Aaronid priesthood under King Hezekiah in the 8th Century BCE (Friedman, 2005, p.26). Even within the first four chapters of Genesis, no less than three hands can be attested to in its construction and arrangement which is believed to be comprised of two separate narratives brought together by a redactor (Friedman, 2005, p.35). Inconsistencies in the narrative are plainly evident to the casual reader who should quite readily and without any specialized background be able to pick out contradictions regarding the order of creation as detailed in both (Gen. 1) and (Gen. 2). Another notable element is the shifting nature of God in the text of Genesis, alternating between an omniscient and all-powerful cosmic creator being and a limited supernatural entity that is physically imminent within the garden. The latter characterization of God as a physical presence is believed to be the older of the two incorporated narratives, which would place the later conceptualization of God more in line with the understanding known to have survived into the extant branches of the faith (Friedman, 2005, p.35). Though Friedman (2005) highlights the surviving view of God as being both concerned with the infinite and the finite (p.35), the theological development of that view might be more complex than he lets on, as it could be perhaps be more easily derived from later explanations of inconsistency within the text owing to its piecemeal nature than as a reflection of a original belief in a dual-natured God. By Late Antiquity, the omnipotent God was becoming the dominant paradigm across the religious and philosophical spectrum, if one ignores the physical nature of messianic figures like Jesus Christ who came to be equated with the divine through no small effort of philosophical contortion.

At the obvious risk of defining Late Antiquity far too broadly, it is helpful to discuss 1st Century CE and 2nd Century CE writers in the same breath as their later counterparts as the rise of Judeo-Christian faiths inside the Roman world followed a different trajectory than the empire itself. While the term Late Antiquity is inextricably tied to the political state, it is plain to see that monotheism was in a state of ascendancy, primarily through the proselytizing of Christians in the Gentile community. It is therefore appropriate to begin the discussion of Late Antique monotheism at its roots in the 1st Century CE, the period during which Jesus Christ lived and died and Herod’s Temple fell. These two traumatic events, probably the latter to a greater extent, paved the way for a period of spiritual, personal and political identity reformation that shaped not only the coming centuries but also the modern world. While the majority of the texts addressed in this paper reflect Christian sources, during this formative period there is very little meaningful distinction between Jews and Christians and so it is appropriate to relocate later Christian sources in the context of their Jewish origins. Additionally, these early Jewish sources help to establish some of the mechanical aspects of the canonization process.

The 1st Century CE produced the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew who attempted to marry Greek philosophical principles and Jewish theology. His work Questions and Answers on Genesis demonstrates a radical willingness to alter the Jewish religious discourse to better reflect what he would view as a wholly rational and modern understanding of the world. Philo perceived no disconnect between his commentary and the text of Genesis, offering it as an explanation of authorial intent rather than a revisionist undertaking. In his arguments he aims to perform the essential two-fold structuralist task of re-canonization: making the past applicable to the present and legitimizing the present by aligning it with a past tradition. Philo’s work reveals the anxieties of upper –class, Hellenized Jews prospering under Roman rule. His attempt to reconcile Jewish theology with Greek philosophy is a multi-faceted argument for the Hellenization of the Jewish people. He simultaneously defends his Hellenization to other Jews while making the case for Judaism as a philosophical tradition compatible with the intellectual standards of the Roman elite. The following passage from Questions and Answers on Genesis demonstrates Philo’s commitment to finding points of intersection between the two intellectual worlds he inhabited.

(17) Why God says, "It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a help meet for him?" (Gen. 2:18). By these words God intimates that there is to be a communion, not with all men, but with those who are willing to be assisted and in their turn to assist others, even though they may scarcely have any power to do so; since love consists not more in utility than in the harmonious concord of trustworthy and steadfast manners; so that everyone who joins in a communion of love may be entitled to utter the expression of Pythagoras, "A friend is another I. (Philo)
Philo’s commentary tends to expand even minor, even seemingly inconsequential points of the narrative into grand lessons of wisdom. This particular passage was not selected so much for the depth of its philosophical underpinnings, but rather for the bold and direct comparison of the words attributed to Moses and Pythagoras respectively. Here, a direct comparison takes place which has of the effect of validating the wisdom of both texts, regardless of whether the reader is a member of the Jewish community. Philo expands on the wording of the text, extrapolating from the foreshadowed relationship of Adam and Eve a grander sense of communal belonging. His need to expand the scope of God’s intimations to include “all men who are willing to be assisted and in their turn to assist” in the relationship being defined for Adam and Eve allows him to set up a clever intersection between his allegorical reading of Genesis and the words of Pythagoras: that Adam’s companion Eve was a part of him (his rib), just as “a friend is another I”.
Even if Philo’s primary goal was not the marriage of Hellenism and Judaism, even if he just sought to address the angst of Jews who had embraced Hellenism at the expense of their standing within the traditional community, then the measure of his success is difficult to determine. His positioning of Moses as a Greek style philosopher possessing a genius intuition for truth predating the famous Greek thinkers did not resonate within the larger Jewish community and met with resistance (Peters, 2004, p.19). Philo’s attempts at convincing the Jewish population to embrace Hellenism were certainly not successful enough in the short term to prevent the Great Revolt of 66CE resulting in the end of the Second Temple Period and fundamentally altered the Jewish worldview. Nor did his writing resonate in the later 117CE uprising amongst Diaspora communities or the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132CE which quashed aspirations of Jewish statehood in the ancient world.
One might argue, that the destruction of Herod’s Temple not only drove a permanent wedge between the Jews and the Hellenistic Roman world, but also between the Jews and the Christians who were able to supplant the spiritual function of the Temple with their own emerging belief system. Philo’s hybridized discourse appealed to Christian scholars on account of the mixed nature of the community (Peters, 2004, p. 90). In a way, Philo did succeed in bringing one prominent branch of Judaism around to his way of thinking, but it seems unlikely that he could have foreseen the impact that his writing would have as a template for the allegorical analysis of scripture for what, in his life, was a young messianic Jewish cult.
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian and apologist is notable for his contributions to the understanding of the events of the Great Revolt, offering insight into not only the military events but also providing the account of a cultural insider comfortably existing as a mediator of Jewish culture for the Hellenistic world. His works Antiquities of the Jews and Contra Apion demonstrate his commitment to his heritage and validating that community within the Roman world. Perhaps a bit more so than Philo, Josephus seems eminently concerned with the status of Judaism and approaches his arguments in its favor differently, resorting to a more accessible speech than Philo. Considering that Philo did not live to see the destruction of the Second Temple, it stands to reason that Josephus was undoubtedly impacted by these events in a way that Philo could not have been. In Book I of Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus takes on an almost gentle pedagogical tone when recounting the text of Genesis. He makes very little attempt to intellectualize the material, but rather he simplifies the text and expounds as he feels necessary.

Moreover, Moses, after the seventh day was over begins to talk philosophically; and concerning the formation of man, says thus: That God took dust from the ground, and formed man, and inserted in him a spirit and a soul. This man was called Adam, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies one that is red, because he was formed out of red earth, compounded together; for of that kind is virgin and true earth. […] whereupon Adam knew her when she was brought to him, and acknowledged that she was made out of himself. Now a woman is called in the Hebrew tongue Issa; but the name of this woman was Eve, which signifies the mother of all living.

Here, Moses is again painted in a philosophical light, but Josephus makes no effort to philosophize himself or extrapolate deeper meaning from the text through allegory. His recounting is straight-forward, rarely deviating in terms of content from the source text. Josephus clearly differs from Philo, who seemed to be simultaneously courting the opinion of both Jewish and Hellenistic intellectuals, whereas Josephus is addressing a non-Jewish audience and attempting to explain the fundamentals of Jewish culture without any assumption of familiarity with source material. Having born witness to the catastrophe of the Great Revolt and its immediate aftermath, Josephus is aware of the imbalance of power in his society and assumes a role as a translator of Jewish culture in Roman society. It also perhaps stands to reason that the simple language of his text belies an understanding of higher philosophical concepts because there is little call for reconciliation between Roman high culture and the Jewish religious tradition in the wake of defeat. In Contra Apion Josephus seeks to convince his Roman interlocutor, not only of the validity of Jewish antiquity, but also the uniformity of Jewish belief.
Among us alone will be seen no difference in the conduct of our lives. With us all act alike, all profess the same doctrine about God, one which is in harmony with our Law and affirms that all things are under his eye. (C. Ap. 2.81)
In spite of the sectarian movements within Judaism and the social fractures surrounding the Great Revolt, Josephus presents an unadulterated tradition. It is not clear from the text whether he earnestly believes in a unified Judaism or not; Danial Boyarin (2004) suggests that the answer would depend on how Josephus understood the use of words he employed to describe theological differences in other works (p.53). It seems, given the timing of Josephus’ writing less than 30 years following the destruction of the Temple, that there could be no true uniformity of spiritual response to the destruction. Josephus’ claim would seem to fly in the face of modern scholarship which argues for a wide and wild set of responses to the defeat of Jewish political expectations and the destruction of the Temple (Peters, 2004, p.30). The emergence of a separate Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity as well as the increasing frequency of apocalyptic and messianic expectations would suffice to indicate a disjointed Jewish communal identity. Within the text there is an unbending concern with the orthodoxy and purity of Jewish belief, community and reliance on the Biblical Law; while strict adherence was not new to Judaism, it is telling that in describing the whole of the Jewish people he focuses on that element of common custom which would come to define Rabbinical Judaism. In this sense, Josephus perhaps offers a glimpse into one of the futures of the Jewish communal identity.

Cleaving to a new direction, the young Messianic movement of the Christians split from Judaism in the 1st Century CE. The church arising from the evangelical work of Paul of Tarsus became the standard bearer of the nascent faith. Paul often alluded to the text of Genesis to explain the new doctrine of Christian belief. In many ways, this new approach to theological inquiry is rooted in the same strategy as Paul’s contemporary, Philo. Both writers radically expand on the source text in order to validate a belief system which would appeal to both Jews and Gentiles. Both writers maintain an internal system of logic, but where they differ is that Philo seems concerned primarily with demonstrating the compatibility of the two traditions, whereas Paul seeks to radically redefine the Jewish tradition to appeal to Gentile converts as part of his “New Testament” (Clark, 2004, p.9). Paul’s rhetorical strategy establishes frequent binaries to generate a sense of balance in the faith. Whether this preoccupation with proportion is a result of Hellenistic influence or a product of Jewish dualism is difficult to say given the mixed nature of Paul’s various audiences receiving his letters. In Romans, Paul makes artful use of balance, presenting Adam and sin as a problem for which Jesus is the solution. He establishes Adam as the mortal conduit of sin and Jesus as the mortal conduit of salvation.
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. 20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:18-21, NIV2010)
Perhaps most interesting in this passage is the characterization of Jewish Law. Paul recognizes the validity of the Law, in its place and time between Adam and Jesus. He goes so far as to confirm that violation of the Law is sinful. However, his argument establishes the Law not as a necessity of faith, but a stumbling block for the faithful. In essence, he is arguing that even though the Law represents the true desire of God, it is not the ultimate determinant of salvation. Through this reasoning the laws of Moses became secondary to the ideology of salvation, opening the doors of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the Gentiles (Peters, 2004). Peters (2004) attributes the inclusion of Gentiles into the Covenant to be the most likely culprit in the split between Jews and Christians, arguing that internal messianic and apocalyptic expectations relied on the Gentiles as a sort of literary other meant to contrast the Jewish people (p.26).

In his letters, Paul addresses all manner of spiritual concerns, particularly as they relate to the new Christian tradition as it stands in the context of both the Jewish and Roman worlds. The following passage from 1 Corinthians is highlighted by Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People (2010) as an example of Paul’s radical social agenda (p. 87), however it is also telling that even as Paul ushers in new standards of social conduct, he relies on a reestablishment of the applicability of the text of Genesis.
5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Cor. 11:2-12, NIV2010)
Ruden (2010) makes a compelling argument regarding Paul’s intention in this passage as being contrary to the Hellenistic custom of veiling and not a frivolous restriction being placed on the women of the early Christian community (p.88). She points to the custom of married and widowed women being expected to veil themselves in public and to the erotic perception of hair indicated in the writings of Ovid and Apuleius as a means of illustrating the context of a head covering in a prayer setting (p.87). Ruden (2010) contends that in the prayer space Paul meant to confer to women the honorary status of wife regardless of their actual social positions (p.87). This makes sense given Paul’s characterization of the faithful as promised brides to Christ.
2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Cor. 11:2-3, NIV2010)
If Ruden’s interpretation of Paul’s text is to be believed then the story in Genesis was appropriated by the Christian movement to establish not only a new theological structure, but also to address the everyday social issues facing followers. Given Paul’s assignment of Adam and Jesus as mortal conduits of sin and salvation, then the women were being dressed as Eve and being made wives of Christ in the Hellenistic fashion. Paul’s analogy would eventually be construed into the symbolic relationship between ascetics and Christ as evidenced in Evagrius Ponticus’ 4th Century text Advice to a Young Woman (nuns).
Virgin eyes will see the Lord.
And with their ears will virgins hear his words.
Lips of virgins will kiss their bridegroom. (Maas, 2000, p.156)
In this passage, the notion of spiritual betrothal reflected in the writing of Paul has been refined and repurposed to apply only to the most devoted adherents of the faith. Jews of the same period drew on these same ideas of purity, in fact their traditions were virtually identical between the mainstream Jewish communal mores regarding virginity and marriage and the Christian ideal of celibate brides of Christ. The primary difference highlighted by Boyarin (1999) is that Jewish girls, in literature, were preserving their virginity for virtuous mortal marriage, preferably to a Rabbinical scholar, whereas Christian ascetics preserved their virginity for a divine union (p.88). Given the expectation of pre-marital celibacy in both Christian and Jewish communities, literary and ritual celebrations of holy virginity can be seen as synecdochical stand-ins for the overall spiritual fitness of the society within the group narrative; in reality, the fact that unwed women were virginal should not seem shocking or particularly special for the time period. It seems that only in the context of physical virginity standing in for spiritual or ritual purity does the chastity of unwed women become exceptional.

The 1st Century writings of Paul, Philo and Josephus are helpful in understanding the trajectories taken by their faiths in Late Antiquity, pointing to cultural and spiritual developments that would define later movements within the Judeo-Christian faiths. The changes were not instantaneous, and it stands to reason that none of these men ever perceived any contradiction in their own Jewishness, having each in their own way reconciled their Jewish past with their individual present states. Paul in particular paved the way for Late Antique discourse as a spiritual leader. His writing was the foundational canon of the New Testament and his works helped to reconcile the Jewish tradition in a way that was satisfying to the emerging non-Jewish Christian community. He is perhaps the most influential figure in the establishment of the Christian church and doctrine, having affirmed the applicability of the Old Testament to all followers of Christ and having rooted his present into the respectability of the past to create an unbroken chain of divine intention.

In the Late Antique world, scholars readily drew on the story of humanity’s fall from grace to bolster support for their world views. The period is particularly interesting, because it offers a time in which Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism were certainly formed, but not necessarily uniformly codified. This period saw the rise of heresiology within both Christian and Jewish communities, as factions struggled for primacy in the debate over orthodoxy, identity and cultural borders both within the community and the larger population (Boyarin, 2007, p.26). For both groups this struggle, in many ways, emerged from the rise of Christians into political power. Jews were under threat of assimilation and Christian sects wanted to be recognized, as they felt they rightly should be, as the one true tradition fit to be employed throughout the Christian Roman Empire.

The Gnostic texts found at Nag-Hammadi are particularly revealing of the variety of religious belief flowing from the uncertainty of the 1st Century into Late Antiquity. At the time of the formation of the extant gospels, other religious traditions were arising contemporaneously and amongst those, the texts found at Nag Hammadi perhaps represent some of the most radical repurposing of the Biblical text of Genesis; such striking revelations overturn any notion of an early unified Christian church (Pagel, 1989, xxii). Some of these writings recast God of the creation story as the villain and the serpent as the bringer of truth. The following text, from The Testimony of Truth presents the story of the fall of humanity from the point of view of the serpent.
But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said "Adam, where are you?" God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, "Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever." Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger! And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, "I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three and four generations." And he said, "I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things that are said." But these things he has said to those who believe in him and serve him!

And in one place, Moses writes, "He made the devil a serpent for those whom he has in his generation." Also, in the book which is called "Exodus," it is written thus: "He contended against the magicians, when the place was full of serpents according to their wickedness; and the rod which was in the hand of Moses became a serpent, (and) it swallowed the serpents of the magicians." (NHC IX3)
The position of serpent is, if the term can be forgiven, devil’s advocate: a questioner of all of the assumptions of the nature of God using seeming inconsistencies of God’s character in the text. While modern scholars, as previously detailed, are able to demonstrate that these inconsistencies are born of the merging of texts a thousand years before the Gnostic literature came into being, these imperfections in the Biblical narrative must have manifested suspiciously to these readers, seeming to contradict the popular Judeo-Christian narrative. The Testimony of Truth is unique amongst the other commentaries thus far discussed, because it invokes the Biblical text with skepticism and critical analysis. While it too relies on authorial intent, it certainly does not recognize the infallibility of God as an apriori fact, quite the contrary since they believe that the intent of the author is to actively deceive the reader. They do still re-affirm the text canonically by the assertion that it contains a hidden truth behind the narrative, thus preserving its value and relevance to the community. Peter Brown (1971) describes the period between 170CE and the ascension of Constantine in 312CE as a period of religious unrest and reformation (p.49). Given the conditions of the age, including an economic and political crisis in the empire during the 3rd Century and Diocletian’s Great Persecution, then it should come as no surprise that religious groups experienced an upwelling of dissatisfaction and inquiry regarding usefulness of certain traditions. Even from the perspective of the persecutors their world was falling apart and the designation of Christians as a scapegoat must have held a certain appeal in that, for some, served to validate the sanctity of their traditions and reinforce bonds in the pagan community. In that regard, the Gnostic movements of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries represent the quintessential projection of religious angst in a world seemingly overrun with evils. Christians were alienated from the broader community and were, in this time of illegitimacy within the empire, largely relegated to local and regional levels of organization. These regionalisms, like genetic bottlenecks, bred the heretical debates that would rock the Christian Roman Empire as these widely dispersed groups came together and realized that each of their one true faiths had manifested with remarkably different understandings of the divine. The Gnostic reading goes further in its recasting of the Biblical roles, specifically addressing this passage from Numbers.
6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Num. 21:6-9, NIV2010)
[…]for the one who will gaze upon this bronze serpent, none will destroy him, and the one who will believe in this bronze serpent will be saved." For this is Christ; those who believed in him have received life. Those who did not believe will die. (NHC IX3)
Jesus, in this role, becomes the serpent and the deliverer of truth and knowledge. He becomes the adversary of evil and ignorance, and the guardian of the secret path to enlightenment and salvation.
Gregory of Tours also retroactively inserts Jesus into the Garden of Eden, though not as the serpent. In Gregory’s A History of the Franks Jesus is again associated directly with Adam, drawing on the Paul’s logic introduced in his letters.
In the beginning the Lord shaped the heaven and the earth in his Christ, […] And while he [Adam] slept a rib was taken from him and the woman, Eve, was created. There is no doubt that this first man Adam before he sinned typified the Redeemer. For as the Redeemer slept in the stupor of suffering and caused water and blood to issue from his side, he brought into existence the virgin and unspotted church, redeemed by blood, purified by water, having no spot or wrinkle, that is, washed with water to avoid a spot, stretched on the cross to avoid a wrinkle. These first human beings, who were living happily amid the pleasant scenes of Paradise, were tempted by the craft of the serpent. They transgressed the divine precepts and were cast out from the abode of angels and condemned to the labors of the world. (Gregory of Tours, p.21)
By the time of Gregory, the analogy formed between Jesus and Adam had taken on a whole new life. Paul’s original intention was arguably a radical social reorganization that did away with class and marital distinctions within the place of prayer (Ruden, 2010, p.88), but by the end of the 4th Century the analogy seemed reserved for those engaged in the spiritually elite practices of asceticism. By the 6th Century, in Merovingian France, the western Roman Empire had fallen and competition had arisen between the eastern and western branches of the church, and Gregory writes of the “virgin and unspotted church”, which in this context would seem to have taken prominence over Jesus’ mortal companions. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ mortal brides are folded into Gregory’s understanding of the sprawling body of the church, but it is the institution and not the individuals who matter in this refiguring. The analogy presented here forms a more complex and broader understanding of the parallels between Jesus and Adam established by Paul, in that the role of woman has been co-opted by the institution and as Eve came from Adam and led men into temptation, the Church came from Jesus and will lead men into salvation. The narrative presents a satisfying affirmation of the institution of the church which had grown politically powerful under the Roman Empire and had survived as an institutional vestige of into the relative chaos of Western Europe’s medieval period. This emphasis on the institution over the individual serves to place the church squarely in the role of intermediary between mortals and the divine, eliminating the personal intimacy implied by Paul’s marriage of the women of his congregation to Jesus Christ.

Even dealing with such a small subset of the larger library of Biblical commentary the task of analyzing the permutations of even one Biblical story reveals a diverse mutative tradition with an imposing number of potential sources. While this paper has focused primarily on sources within the Christian tradition, much work can be done to further illustrate the role canonization plays in identity formation and social positioning. Gregory of Tours’ is a satisfying place to end this particular line of inquiry into the evolving role of Genesis 1-4. Offering a changing narrative stretching from the time of its canonization during the First Temple Period as a product of high culture under the auspices of the kings of Judah, to Paul’s analogizing the natures of Adam and Jesus to challenge social mores, to the fixture of that belief within the community of the faithful and finally to have Gregory point to it as a means of justifying and legitimizing a powerful elite institution in a vastly different cultural environment.

The research presented here is by no means comprehensive. Further avenues of address should include a more robust sampling of mainstream Christian primary sources from the 3rd and 4th Centuries, Jewish commentary from the 2nd Century onward as well as Islamic exegesis contemporary with later Christian and Jewish writings. Additionally, expanding the scope of “original” Biblical texts could reveal other relationships and points of comparison important to the understanding of the creation of identity during the formative years of the Judeo-Christian faiths. 

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