Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introduction to The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve  that the creation account in the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Genesis 2:4ff is so outlandish that one marvels at how many people over a long period of time believed the narrative to be factual in its details. In the American Catholic Church, in the days following Vatican II [1962-1965] many parish adult education meetings were thrown into turmoil by those learning for the first time that Adam and Eve might not be real people. Contemporary biblical scholarship triggered literal terror, articulated along the lines of “if you can’t believe in Adam and Eve, what can you believe in the Bible?” Nothing in this work should shake anyone’s faith; in fact, Greenblatt’s interdisciplinary approach to the Garden narrative opens the door to a greater understanding and curiosity about the Bible we think we know so well.
Greenblatt assumes that the reader is not an intractable literalist: even Christian readers without introduction to the Biblical principles of interpretation will respect the obvious ground of high school science and the fatal road of inbreeding, which the Genesis author(s) accept with nary a worry. [Who bore Cain’s children? His mother, by the logic of the text.] Greenblatt walks us through the interpretations of the happenings in paradise, drawing from Jewish thinkers shortly before Christ to early Christian thinkers—notably St. Augustine: through the medium of art, notably Albrecht Durer of the Renaissance: the poetic epic of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the discovery of new worlds and new peoples in America; the research of Charles Darwin; and the implications of “Lucy” and our predecessors of hundreds of thousands of years ago.
If Genesis 2 is not to be summarized as a “Neil Armstrong moment in time,” we are now free to speculate on the creators of the creation, so to speak, and ask how and why they composed this story as they did. The ancient world was awash in tales of how “the divine” initially “created men” and set their affairs in order with ground rules for how the divine and the human would interact. Greenblatt—focusing exclusively on the Jewish creation account--attempts to identify key intentions of these thinkers behind the Garden narrative; he concludes in the first instance that Adam is a holotype for future humanity, a template of a species along the lines of Linnaeus’ later cataloging of living species. Animals intrigue the author: he observes that while man is created as superior to the beasts and names them, “humans seem to be the only animals on earth that ask themselves how they came to be and why they are the way they are.” [p. 17]
We humans can take this as a philosophical complement, but the author observes that we are the only species that remains “lost”—disoriented, uncomfortable in our own skin, in need of an explanation. Given that Biblical scholars place the date of Genesis’ composition as late the fifth century B.C., very late in Jewish history and after the tragedy of the Babylonian Captivity, it is not difficult to imagine that thoughtful believers entertained many questions about themselves and their God.
Of the many creation myths of ancient times, Genesis 2 is one of few to consider relationships at some depth, human and divine, human and human. Adam and Eve’s relationship with God is confusing; Enlightenment figures in the modern era such as Voltaire would wonder aloud [though not too loudly] how God could seemingly set up his creation for failure. Why would the Lord tell Adam, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil? From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” Why would God withhold the best of his gifts, and why would one of his own animals, i.e., the cunning serpent, facilitate the crushing punishments of the couple’s disobedience?
The author does not have an answer, but he is not satisfied with later Christian attempts to put the garden disobedience at the center of Christian anthropology, either. He is certainly not alone in his critique of St. Augustine’s theory of the original sin of the garden as the cause of a basic human contamination with its roots in the seductive power of women. Most readers will be familiar with the traditional Catholic understanding of Adam and Eve’s sin and its biological/moral transmission in sexual intercourse. Several Catholic doctrines—the efficacy and necessity of infant baptism, and later the Immaculate Conception—would depend upon St. Augustine’s reading of Genesis. What is less appreciated is that for these Church formulations to hold sway, the biblical account of the garden sin must be read as literally true.
The historicity of Genesis was enforced by church teaching, but also through the many artistic portrayals of Adam and Eve in the Renaissance era and the exquisite telling of the tale in Paradise Lost. The author highlights the centuries-long efforts to establish with precision every detail in the Garden—including many not found in the biblical texts. By the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the Indies in 1492, the Garden narrative reached its zenith as a bedrock of history and Christian anthropology.
The irony of history is that “the fall” of Adam and Eve as a hard data pillar was touched off by Columbus and thinkers who followed. Columbus believed that he had landed in the paradisiac garden of Genesis, whose fifteenth century natives demonstrated no shame in their nakedness. [p. 233] Were these peoples unsullied brothers of Adam, still living a prelapsarian existence? Columbus was merely the tip of the iceberg as more information about the universe and the human species became accessible down through the present day. As late as 1950 Pope Pius XII labored to salvage a marriage of evolution and Adam in his encyclical Humani Generis [see para. 37].
Greenblatt’s effort is a rewarding reading exercise on multiple fronts.  It is a well-documented and eminently readable historical narrative of a familiar scriptural bedrock we have perhaps taken for granted;  It demonstrates the risks of undertaking theological study without a healthy communion with the full breadth of cultural wisdom.  It draws attention to the importance of art in theological expression.  It reminds us that Adam and Eve are more valuable to us as historical sacraments than as historical persons. In ending, the author declares that the garden couple “hold open the dream of a return, somehow, to a bliss that has been lost. They have the life—the peculiar, intense, magical reality—of literature.” [p. 284]
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything