The story of Adam & Eve in Genesis is often described as an allegory of creation by those believers who recognise that it contradicts the evidence presented by the scientic consensus surrounding biological evolution and the origins of the universe.


However I think this is duplicitous. To me is clearly intended to explain the presence of sin in humanity rather than the origin of our species (or perhaps at a stretch both). Certainly any modern reader with even a passing understanding of the order and timescales of the creation of the universe couldn't treat it asa literal description of creation.

If, however, it is an allegory, and therefore just a metaphor, the deflection in the story becomes even more transparent. If sin is disobedience to God, as personified by Eve (of course it had to be a woman in those even more patriarchic days, leading her husband astray), then without a specific event, the fall never happened. Anyway, what is actually wrong with eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (or life, depending on which version of the tale your read in Genesis)?  Surely both life and knowledge are good things, and I cannot possibly envisage any human being who doesn't want (and need) a measure of both these things.

What has to be surely accepted is that the 'fall' is a core part of Christian theology throughout the ages and certainly central to substitutional atonement.

I would suggest that 'disobedience to God' would be better described as 'disobedience to the God I have described to you, and whose laws I have explained to you', as it is very clear there is no evidence for any kind of involved God who could explain his laws in person. It must seem quite extraordinary to the devout how the great voice rumbling from heaven, or the creator wandering through the garden, only seemed to speak or appear in person in the old writings, but never now so that we can all hear or record it.

If God didn't create the tendency for free thinking, quest for knowledge, desire for life, self centeredness that drives biological evolution, individuality, the dislike of conformity and following instructions, the inquisitive excitement that comes from living on the edge that often causes humans to make poor decisions when judged by objective terms, then where did all these things come from? Good and evil is suggested to be a 'merism', a device that pairs opposite terms in order to create a general meaning (Egyptians use an expression evil-good, which is normally used to mean 'everything'. No human does know everything, so the apple didn't help with that condition much.

Christians have of course used the story with many interpretations of the 'knowledge of good and evil' - usually to underpin a particular obsession with a particular activity they feel is particularly sinful.  

The central message of the fruit [apple came later perhaps as a Latin pun, "by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted malum (evil)] on the tree in the Garden of Eden must surely be do as I say, even if you don't understand why I'm saying it, or cannot see what harm there could possibly be in eating the fruit. Just do it because I'm God and I'm in charge and I know better. I won't explain the consequences in advance just don't eat it. i.e. a set up.

So my suggestion is that as a description of real events or as an allegory of the nature of humanity and God the story of Adam & Eve, the talking snake and that lovely delicious looking fruit temping Eve to pluck and eat with her husband it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. 

At least the witch in the fairy tale Snow White is openly portrayed as evil, plotting Snow White's death, and the apple was deliberately poisoned and made available to the victim by deceit and trickery. Is the God of Genesis really so much different? 

The Wikipedia article outlines the various Abrahamic interpretations of the myth as well suggesting that the 'fall of man' story predates the biblical texts, with an image on a cylinder seal, dating from c. 23rd-22nd century BCE depicting two facing figures seated on each side of a tree, holding their hands out to the fruit, while between their backs is a serpent.

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  • One difficulty of talking about this subject is that it raises many distinct and difficult questions, all of them inter-related.  So I'm not going to attempt to respond to all of this right now.  But, as a start...

    Is the story literal, allegorical, or fairy tale?  The traditional answer is: it is a myth, which is none of the above, but includes aspects of all three.

    The story of Adam and Eve includes several parts, and it is not clear that all the parts are intended to serve the same purpose.  One part seems to be a creation narrative, but the part about the tree, the serpent and disobedience seems to be about something else.  You seem to be saying that there is something "duplicitous" in recognizing that different bits of the text may be saying different things.  This seems unfair, to me.

    A creation myth is intended to say something important about creation and how we can understand it.  No creation myth was intended to communicate "literal" scientific truth, so this can hardly be regarded as a failure when it doesn't.  You may as well say that the Mona Lisa is a failure as a painting because the landscape shown does not represent a real location.

    For you, the story "is clearly intended to explain the presence of sin in humanity", but the Jewish tradition - and this is a Jewish story, not a Christian one - does not see it in those terms.  So the people who wrote it and preserved it do not see it in those terms.  I know many Christians do, but it is not as obvious as many Christians would have you think.

    I think you are right in saying that 'the Fall' is a central part of much Christian theology, although there are increasing numbers of Christians who do not see it either as central or as important.  There have been many more Christians through the centuries who have not seen substitutionary atonement as an important or helpful way of understanding atonement.  It's another complex area, but the main direction of travel in recent years has been away from the sort of understanding you describe.

    The early chapters of Genesis were probably put together in the form we have them during the exile in Babylon.  And they certainly provide an interesting contrast and challenge to the Babylonian creation myths.  But they did not spring out of nothing, so it is not surprising that aspects of the story are far older - it would be surprising, and impossible to prove, to claim otherwise.

    • To be fair, I had not done any proper research on the Jewish interpretation of this story: I was simply relying on what Jewish friends have told me over the years, along with a bit of background reading.  And there is a longstanding recognition that there is no single correct interpretation in Judaism - of the Garden of Eden, or of anything else.  As the saying goes: if you put three Rabbis in a room together and ask them a question, you will get four different answers.  So, clearly some Jews will interpret the passage in much the same way as the Christian 'origin of sin' narrative.  But, equally clearly, not all will.

      Regarding the three sites you refer to... Chabad contains some interesting material which I can't really comment on.  I am, frankly, surprised by the BBC material.  And the The Torah page agrees with my understanding of the common Jewish reading of the text:

      When I ask them about this story on the first day of class, my students tell me that it’s the tale of the first man and first woman and original sin; Satan tempts them, they eat the apple, and they get kicked out of paradise. Except… there’s no Satan in this story, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East (figs and pomegranates are much more likely candidates for forbidden fruit than apples)[2], and the word “sin” doesn’t occur in the Hebrew Bible until chapter four. The concept of the devil isn’t invented until the first century BCE, 500-700 years after this story was most likely written, and “original sin” is an idea first put forward by Bishop Irenaeus of Gaul in the 2nd century CE.

       A more straightforward account of this story can be found in The Jerusalem Post:

      The story of Adam and Eve is etiological – it explains the origins of things. It touches upon the fundamental human dilemma and suggests responses:...
      Is the Garden of Eden story a parable of the fall, of “original sin”? Not quite. Jewish prayers insist each morning, “God the soul You have given me is pure.” Rather, the story of Adam and Eve explains the gift of life, the dilemma of death, the human need to reach beyond the grave, and the religious promise of eternity.

      Please don't think I am attempting to explain all of Jewish thought on the subject.  Years ago, I came across a series of sermons on the first chapters of Genesis by a Rabbi, which was a far deeper and richer exploration of the text than any Christian teaching I have found - and I'm not suggesting that this series of sermons summarized Jewish thought on the subject.   But all the various sources of teaching I have heard on the subject have agreed on this point: the story was not written "to explain the presence of sin in humanity".


  • Exactly. Well-meaing Christians accept that parts of the bible are difficult to accept, but then try to have it both ways. 
    Relatively recently a Christian friend said to me that he doesn't believe in a literal Adam and Eve, so I said "you would have a job explaining the Atonement then!". And he said that there was probably a group of early humans who rebelled against God and needed Saving. But the logic of that is even more elastic, quite apart from the New Testament specifically saying that "through Adam sin entered the world".  
    Of course, a non-literal Adam and Eve might be easier to swallow if you reject the Propitiatory Substitutionary Atonement view of the Cross - basically the Traditional, Jesus-as-Sacrifice-for-our-sins view. That view is the Augustinian/Calvinist position, which I accept that not all Christians hold to, and I have had discussions with Paul Hazelden elsewhere on this site on that theme. Certainly the Arminian/Moravian and Liberal (the two are not necessarily the same) positions make for a gentler theology more compatible with Western Liberal sensibilities. But I cannot get round the idea that if you reduce God to something less than Almighty, what do you have left? Why worship him? Failed answers to prayer are explained as being because God cannot, not will not. It all gets a bit vague. The  Conservative position has more of an internal logic than any liberal position; it stands or falls as a whole. If you are going to reject it but have doubts about a rigidly atheist position, then why limit yourself to a dfifferent version of Christianity? Fortunately there is no apparently inspired book of such a sprituallity for humans to fight over. 

    • Adrian: you will have to explain to me how you think I am trying to have it "both ways".  I don't believe in the version of God which you have rejected, but I don't accept your suggestion that, in rejecting the Calvinist understanding of 'Almighty', I am left with a God Who is less than Almighty: I simply understand 'Almighty' in a different way - and, as I have argued elsewhere, the Biblical writers seem to agree with me.  It seems evident to me that the God I believe in is worthy of worship - in fact, is far more worthy of worship than the control-freak God which we have both rejected.

      You probably ought to know: I have many Arminian friends who also reject the Calvinist God.  This is not a minority position I'm describing.

      And I really don't understand why you think 'the Conservative position' has an internal logic: to me, it seems obvious that the traditional conservative evangelical position is inherently flawed.  Just one example: they say they believe the Bible's teaching, and that the Bible's teaching is clear, and then engage in bitter fighting with each other about what this 'clear' teaching actually is.  They say they all agree on 'the essentials', but then can't agree on what the essentials are.  How is this a position with an internal logic?


    • Paul: I think that what I mean is that if you reject the apparent certainties that are stated as such by the Calvinists, then what replaces them seems to be woolier. Perhaps people like me who have internalised a Greek way of thinking are too fixated by needing "answers on a plate". It may be possible to have a faith without that, but to me it seems too subjective. Perhaps it works with a Jewish way of thinking; maybe also if you say that faith is in a person i.e. Jesus, not in theology. But what does that mean exactly?

      One of the books of the Bible that I have most respect for is Job, at least the middle bit which attempts to deal with genuine questions about why good people suffer. But it starts off with a pagan-sounding myth about a bet between God and Satan, and it ends with God speaking directly to Job but not giving any answers other than "I am the Almighty, I made all this stuff, so there!". Another example is that if you reject the PSA view of the cross, the usual alternative is something along the lines of "God shows his love for the world through the Cross", which seems to me an inadequate explanaiion. I was once speaking privately with a very-well known Arminian preacher who rejects the PSA view of the Cross (I won't give his name on here), and he admitted to me "we don't really know how the Cross works". 

      What I mean by the Conservative position having an internal logic is that the various strands of Conservative Evangelicalism (or Lutheranism or Catholicism) develop their own Systematic Theologies, as a sort of Theory of Everything. I take your point that they then engage in in-fighting about the slightest differences, and this is one reason why I don't think that I have to respect them too much. Many Conservative Christians are, as individuals, decent, sincere and have integrity, but as a system, the fruits of Conservatism are not good. I think of the pain caused by the splits among the Plymouth and Exclusive Brethren. And I think of the Christians who emphasise Righteousness, and oppose everything from football on Sundays, to Homosexualty, Abortion, Miscegenation, and try to impose these things by political power directly or via a figurehead: Oliver Cromwell, Jefferson Davies, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin. A Straw Man argument of course, but the alternative strikes me as too muddled: most evangelicals, whether in the UK or Ukraine have a faith that gives them strength if they don't analyse it too closely: they are nice people who tolerate the aforementioned vices but many of their Sunday sermons are little different from what I could hear in any self-help seminar.

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