A very interesting reflection from the London Review of Books.
A couple of weeks ago, the pope described ‘fake news’ as being like the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis. ‘The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies”,’ he said in a statement aimed at both Trump and the purveyors of social media, ‘is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.’ Ideas of mimicry and seduction certainly wormed their way into the story of Adam and Eve over the centuries, but they are not in the original version. If even the pope misuses the word ‘seduction’ in this context, it is worth looking for the source.
He got it from the first letter from St Paul to Timothy as translated in the late fourth century by St Jerome, whose Latin Vulgate version survived to become the official Bible of the Catholic Church more than a thousand years later. The passage was often used to justify the bar on women priests. ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence’ because ‘Adam non est seductus, was not seduced; but the woman being seduced mulier autem seducta was in the transgression.’ Except it didn’t say this. It wasn’t even written by St Paul. The Letter to Timothy is not inconsistent with Paul’s views on women as expressed elsewhere but secular commentators now think it was written later, and even this pseudo-Paul did not say that Eve had been seduced. This fake letter was fakely translated by fake old Saint Jerome, and corrected in later versions to the more accurate ‘deceived’.
Among liberal Christians there is a sadness about St Paul; a feeling that were it not for his letters they might all be reciting the Beatitudes and fighting for justice in the Third World. St Paul’s letters are the least canonical in the canon, and the most worldly. It was from his letter to the Romans that Augustine derived his concept of original sin, and it was St Paul who insisted that women take second place in church. The person writing to Timothy, however, was not even St Paul, but someone less important and more distant from the events of the life of Christ. The pope’s claim to authority is corrupted by a repeatedly corrupted text – as if there were a true version, somewhere, which would make us all good. For non-believers, the question is moot.
The history of gender relations was surely not undone by the single word ‘seduced’, with its implication that women cannot become priests because they are prone, not just to disobedience or theological error, but also to flirting with animals, in this case a snake. Jerome was an accomplished linguist and drew, for his translation, from older Latin and Greek versions as well as from the original Hebrew, which presented several difficulties. The absence of adverbs, and of punctuation, the ancient nature of the text – there were many opportunities for error, but he only took a few. Jerome’s interventions were both catastrophic and telling. He changed Christ’s brothers and sisters to ‘cousins’, for example, a tweak which facilitated the retroactive virginity of Mary, and this doctrine endured long after the translation was corrected.
Genesis is a beautiful piece of writing: part poem, part folk tale, it is hard not to fall victim to the idea that here is something pure, which has been dirtied by celibates and misogynists to the subsequent ruin of womankind. As though there were such a thing as an original, Edenic text, in which man and woman were equal, and no one or nothing was to blame. For the first 66 lines of the Bible, this balance seems to exist, then Adam points the finger, says, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree,’ and God curses her into loving him anyway.
The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?
The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.
Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.
Retrieved March 16, 2018 from https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n05/anne-enright/the-genesis-of-blame