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Adam and Eve: Legend or Myth?
Most sophisticated theologians do not consider the Garden of Eden story about Adam and Eve (and a talking snake) historical. Most people, including the Catholic Priest Dwight Longenecker, consider the Garden of Eden story a legend with heavy saturation of mythical elements. Those who are even more skeptical, such as myself, claim it is outright fable coupled with Sumerian folklore and the transcribed into the Jewish faith and nothing more. I have written about why I do not believe Adam and Eve existed in what is my most frequented blog post on this site, “Adam and Eve Never Existed: It's a Myth!” This is the long awaited follow up to that essay.
On his blog Standing on My Head, Father Longenecker challenges us by asking:
Why does it matter if the first twelve chapters of Genesis are recounting historical events or not?
It matters because the whole rest of the Old Testament record is clearly a presentation of God's interaction in history--God's interaction in the history of the Hebrew people, and this historical interaction lays the foundation for the ultimate historical interaction by God with his people--the incarnation of his Son.
He goes on to clarify:
What do I mean when I say that these stories 'act on us as myth does'?
Myth connects with the deeper parts of our shared consciousness within our humanity. Great stories of mythical heroes who go on a quest, interactions with gods and goddesses, all the great stories of the world engage us at a deep level and we connect with the events and drama in a ceremonial and symbolic way using a language that is deeper than words and explications. The stories of the beginning of Genesis do as well, with the exception that these are not fanciful stories as the pagan myths are, but stories based in real events. This prepares the way for the 'myth that really happened' in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Lord.
Although men of faith usually will have a certain level of confirmation bias, such as depicted in Father Longenecker's comment that “Myth connects with the deeper parts of our shared consciousness within our humanity. Great stories of mythical heroes who go on a quest, interactions with gods and goddesses, all the great stories of the world engage us at a deep level and we connect with the events and drama in a ceremonial and symbolic way using a language that is deeper than words and explications. The stories of the beginning of Genesis do as well, with the exception that these are not fanciful stories as the pagan myths are, but stories based in real events.”
Personally, I find Father Longenecker's claim that the Adam and Eve story is a legend rooted in historical truth a little far fetched. After all, the tale of King Arthur is a legend, Robin Hood is a legend, Jolly old St. Nicholas has been lengendized and mythologized, but Adam and Eve have never been proved to be anything other than mythical.
How do we know this?
Simple. We can ask the following: which part of the story is historically accurate exactly? Could it be the part about a man being made from clay? According to Genesis 2:7 "And the Lord god formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Well, sorry to say, but we know this is false. Mankind did not evolve from a clump of clay, we evolved from a common ancestor (a scientifically validated fact).
Perhaps more importantly however, we know the claim that God forged first man from clay is not at all uncommon to the realm of myth. The Greeks believed this same myth, most prominently detailed in the myth of Prometheus. Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) wrote that Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure, meanwhile Pandora, the first mortal woman, was formed by Hephaestus out of clay on behest of almighty Zeus. Likewise, in the ancient Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the goddess Ninhursag created humans from clay. Also, in Africa, the Yoruba culture holds that the god Obatala likewise created the human race out of clay. In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum made people from clay in the waters of the Nile. In Chinese myth, the goddess Nuwa created the first humans from mud and clay. A Mayan myth holds that Tepeu and Kukulkán (Quetzalcoatl) made the first humans from clay, along with the Māori people of New Zealand who believe that Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest, created the first woman out of clay and breathed life into her. The common themes of fashioning humans from clay and deities breathing life into them has been with us, in various forms, for tens of centuries.
What, other than special pleading, can Father Longenecker offer in the way of evidence that the first few Chapters of Genesis are more historically accurate than these other myths? There is nothing that I am aware of. Moreover, why are we asked to take it on faith that the fable of a talking snake is not any more fanciful than any other story or myth? Again, there is nothing to suggest it is any less fantastic than the others, and to the contrary, it does not seem to be historical in the slightest. Any assumed historicity of the Garden of Eden myth is merely a case of special pleading—which is proved in the very next sentence when Longenecker claims these stories are based in real events. As we have seen, however, we can find no “real” events which would demarcate this myth from a long history of equivalent myths.
Maybe we have overlooked a specific element unique to the Adam and Eve story which somehow ties it to genuine history? Let's see: are talking snakes, full of guile and charm, perhaps a historical reality? Nope. Maybe a tree of life/knowledge with magical fruit? No, I'm afraid not. Why not? Because this too is a common theme in various world religions, according to Wikipedia:
Similar trees appear in other religions. Stories with male, female, serpent, and tree can be found depicted on Mesopotamian cylinder seals dating as far back as 2200 B.C. But they are very unlikely to constitute a source for the author of Genesis because they do not connect very well with the Genesis account. According to Toledoth Hypothesis, sources probably did exist for the writing of Genesis that extend into history even earlier than 2200 B.C. but they would have belonged to someone in the genealogical line of Abraham. In the closest, most relevant comparison, the iconic image of the tree guarded by the Serpent appears on Sumerian seals; much later, it is the central feature of the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology, where the guardian serpent receives the name Ladon.
The Greek serpent Ladon guards the magic golden apples, which either connotes a borrowing or a shared source regarding the tree we find in the Garden of Eden having magical fruit and being guarded by a serpent. The themes are just too congruent to discount: tree of knowledge, magic fruit, guardian serpents and the like. Meanwhile Buddhist mythology claims the king of the serpents Mucalinda rose up and coiled itself around the meditating Buddha who sat under the Bodhi tree of knowledge.
Nor is the tree of life (sometimes called the tree of knowledge) unique to Christianity alone. It’s an ancient motif found in: Ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Baha'i Faith, China, Germanic paganism and Norse mythology, Jewish tradition, so too Christian tradition, India, the Turkish world, Urartu, Mesoamerica, and many other cultures too.
So although I do not disagree with Longenecker's assessment about the profundity of powerful language usage and symbolism in literature, I must question his judgment when it comes to determining the difference between history and myth.
Myth forced into Literal Representations of History
In fact, it is commonly understood, most stories are predicated on the human experience and incorporate real events as a way to make their themes more engaging. What I find perplexing though, is without any evidence, how Christians can claim their story is historically valid whereas all the rest aren't. As we have seen, this is false. There is nothing to distinguish the Adam and Eve story as anything other than myth.
The fact of the matter is, we know human experience is directly tied to history—in other words it constitutes our history—but books of fable and myth which relate to the greater human experience are, in themselves, not valid substitutes for any specified history. It’s best to keep this in mind when claiming that certain myths are historically true rather than simply containing historically viable artifacts. After all, King Kong climbed the Empire State Building, but this doesn’t make the urban-jungle climbing antics of King Kong historically true. We all know it’s a fiction with historical elements and artifacts. Whereas, with the Adam and Eve fable, the only historical fact seems to be that men and women are known to exist. But this is not a strong enough basis to claim the overall story is based on history. After all, monkeys exist, but we don’t automatically assume that King Kong must have been real because monkeys are real. This is faulty reasoning, and it is a mistake religious believers frequently make when they want to gleam a literal meaning from a metaphor or myth.
The Christian historian Thom Stark, in his book The Human Faces of God, clarifies this point when he talks about another Bible story habitually mistaken as a literal representation of history, which is the story of Jonah and his “whale.” Stark asserts, “Aspects of the story such as Jonah's being swallowed by a large fish, then spat out in one piece onto dry land several days later, are big clues that what we are dealing with is a fictional short story with a theological message.”
I posit the same is true of the Garden of Eden story involving Adam and Eve, it involves a tree of knowledge with magical fruit, and a dubious talking serpent—all of it evidence that it is a fictional story with a theological message. As such, it appears Father Longenecker is wrong here, legend it is not. It’s pure myth.
The Myth of Original Sin
One reason Christians latch onto the Adam and Eve metaphor, however, is to give a literal account of the phenomenon called sin and thereby explain why Jesus died for us—to redeem us from this sinful state. The Christian desire to make the moral of the fable fit a literal understanding of the world, however, seems to me to be a misguided one. We need not succumb to supernatural speculation simply to understand, or benefit from, the wisdom of the story. Listening to our fathers (and mothers) has always been sound advice. But because Christians want the death of their professed Savior to be something truthful, they often attempt to give the text a historical-grammatical reading, thus making it into a literal story about how mankind sinned.
Once they force the text into a more literal meaning they can then assert that the otherwise metaphorical text now has the propitiation of being historically true. As a consequence, this newly contrived reading allows them to maintain that since it is all historically true we must agree with them on one point of contention: Christianity only makes sense, mind you, if we first believe in sin—the Christian concept of original sin. From hear they make the next obvious move, and claim that Jesus Christ died for our sins in order to redeem us from this initial curse of having to suffer a fallen existence. Although it seems natural to assume that sin is real, that we are all sinners, and that Jesus is the redeemer who can wash our sins away, all this is, as we have seen, a theological contrivance.
Even so, the concept of sin is all kinds of convoluted, after all, having no clear-cut definition of what sin might even be (only that it is a transgression against God’s law or that it’s a sort of evil) Christians try to invent guidelines on how to live their lives while trying to minimize the harmful effects of their so-called “fallen status” and counter-act sin by accepting Jesus Christ into their hearts and become born-again. Those who have faith receive salvation, they are reconciled to God in the present (Rom. 13: 11-14). Never mind that this makes no sense outside of its theological setting. Why? Because the only reason one needs to be reconciled to God is to be saved from the perils of future judgement (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Yet because the future judgement, and the Final Judgment for that matter, is a future event there can be no historically valid reason why we would need salvation. Thus there is no historical evidence to suggest Jesus died for humanities collective sins. So when Christians affirm the reason you need to accept Jesus is because you are fallen and need to be saved from sin and set right with God—this is strictly an empty claim, it’s unfounded, and it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It is what Christians believe—it is not what everyone else believes. Therefore the burden of proof resides squarely with the Christian to prove sin is anything other than a Christian fabrication which arises out of a Christian desire to make the Christian story a literal one.
Unable to establish the validity of sin, however, we cannot merely jump to the conclusion that Christ necessarily died to redeem humanity. In other words, if sin is not real then Christ needn’t have died for us, and this is a huge stumbling block for Christians who feel compelled to let us to know, at every turn, that Christ really did die for us. But it is well established that the historical Jesus could have died for purely political reasons, regardless of whether sin is real or not. This, in turn, renders the Christian argument about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to atone for sin quite inconsequential. If Jesus died for purely political reasons then, again, it wasn’t for us that he died. Yet many Christians want to take their Scripture literally, therefore, in order to make sense of their own theology, Christians make the ad hoc assumption that sin is real (before it is even proved), since failing to account for sin would only falsify the theology. If there is no sin, or if it is just metaphor, then theologically speaking, Jesus need not have died. What this implies, however, is the thing Christians dread the most, mainly that Jesus may also be a fictionalization. Therefore great emphasis is placed on the Garden of Eden myth to establish a basic belief in sin—but as we saw above, we have every reason to believe that it’s a just a myth. As such, there is nothing to say that sin is not also just a myth. In fact, the idea that the historical Jesus was mythologized and made into the Savior of all mankind fits the very same literary tradition we have been tracing in the recorded history of Christianity. In fact, most of the Bible is just this, fictional stories, whether myths or legends (sprinkled with a dash of history), intended to explain the tenets and theological precepts of an entire religion.
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