There’s No Evidence That The Garden of Eden Was Meant Literally

12 Oct
Some liberal Christians continue to embarrass themselves by not knowing the history of their own scriptures, the mindset of its authors, or even the traditions of their forefathers. Similar to how fundamentalists think that the Bible dropped down from the sky completely intact without a history, some liberal Christians think that the Bible was composed and originally interpreted by peoples who had the same deal of skepticism that we have today in our modern world; an abject, unsophisticated anachronism. Even though they do it for other reasons, they too read their Bible without appreciating its history similar to their fundamentalist bretheren. Take this one nugget of myopia right here
There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable.
Unfortunately, Andrew Sullian shamelessly displays his naked ignorance with these mental gymnastics (γυμνος::gymnos, where we get the word gymnastics, is Greek for naked). To think that the A&E tale was always regarded as figurative, we would have to assume that every single human that has read the TNK (OT) and NT — even the ones who composed its books — have had the same culture, epistemic priors, and life experiences that we currently have (especially a culture that has the same degree of skepticism that we currently have). This is demonstrably false; Paul's own letters attest to a belief in a heaven structure that has at least three tiers or levels that exist separately that can be traveled (2 Cor 12.1-4). Paul didn't qualify this statement with “either allegorically or physically I do not know”, he qualified it with “in the body or out I do not know” (see also the Ascension of Isaiah).
So, this post will act as a compendium of all of the Christians who came before Mr. Sullivan who actually took the A&E tale literally (barring the obvious Luke 3.23-37).
Justin Martyr, writing c. 150 CE: 
Dialog 19.
Justin: It is this about which we are at a loss, and with reason, because, while you endure such things, you do not observe all the other customs which we are now discussing.
This circumcision is not, however, necessary for all men, but for you alone, in order that, as I have already said, you may suffer these things which you now justly suffer. Nor do we receive that useless baptism of cisterns, for it has nothing to do with this baptism of life. Wherefore also God has announced that you have forsaken Him, the living fountain, and dug for yourselves broken cisterns which can hold no water. Even you, who are the circumcised according to the flesh, have need of our circumcision; but we, having the latter, do not require the former. For if it were necessary, as you suppose, God would not have made Adam uncircumcised; would not have had respect to the gifts of Abel when, being uncircumcised, he offered sacrifice and would not have been pleased with the uncircumcision of Enoch, who was not found, because God had translated him. Lot, being uncircumcised, was saved from Sodom, the angels themselves and the Lord sending him out. Noah was the beginning of our race; yet, uncircumcised, along with his children he went into the ark. Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High, was uncircumcised; to whom also Abraham the first who received circumcision after the flesh, gave tithes, and he blessed him: after whose order God declared, by the mouth of David, that He would establish the everlasting priest. Therefore to you alone this circumcision was necessary, in order that the people may be no people, and the nation no nation.
In other words, the god of the Jews made all of these people uncircumcised, yet they were righteous. People who were thought to have never existed would not be used as an argument against circumcision.
Ibid. 84.
Moreover, the prophecy, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,' was uttered respecting Him. For if He to whom Isaiah referred was not to be begotten of a virgin, of whom did the Holy Spirit declare, 'Behold, the Lord Himself shall give us a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son?' For if He also were to be begotten of sexual intercourse, like all other first-born sons, why did God say that He would give a sign which is not common to all the first-born sons? But that which is truly a sign, and which was to be made trustworthy to mankind—namely, that the first-begotten of all creation should become incarnate by the Virgin's womb, and be a child—this he anticipated by the Spirit of prophecy, and predicted it, as I have repeated to you, in various ways; in order that, when the event should take place, it might be known as the operation of the power and will of the Maker of all things; just as Eve was made from one of Adam's ribs, and as all living beings were created in the beginning by the word of God.
Justin contrasts the virgin birth with the power that the god of the Jews had to create Eve from Adam's rib. 
Ibid. 88.
Now, we know that he did not go to the river because He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born and to be crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression. For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with free-will, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself, He would keep them free from death and from punishment; but that if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit.
Ibid. 100.
[Jesus] said then that He was the Son of man, either because of His birth by the Virgin, who was, as I said, of the family of David and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham; or because Adam was the father both of Himself and of those who have been first enumerated from whom Mary derives her descent. For we know that the fathers of women are the fathers likewise of those children whom their daughters bear.
Again… there is no hint here that Justin viewed the A&E tale figuratively, at least, not any more or less figurative than Jesus being born and crucified.
Ibid. 103
For 'Sata' in the Jewish and Syrian tongue means apostate; and 'Nas' is the word from which he is called by interpretation the serpent, i.e., according to the interpretation of the Hebrew term, from both of which there arises the single word Satanas. For this devil, when [Jesus] went up from the river Jordan, at the time when the voice spoke to Him, 'You are my Son: this day have I begotten You,' is recorded in the memoirs of the apostles to have come to Him and tempted Him, even so far as to say to Him, 'Worship me;' and Christ answered him, 'Get behind me, Satan: you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.' For as he had deceived Adam, so he hoped that he might contrive some mischief against Christ also.
A mistaken etymology that Justin uses to prove that the Greek word Satanas is actually a compound of the Hebrew words for apostate and serpent (which isn't true). Again, Justin doesn't see any difference between Satan attempting to deceive Jesus at Matt 4.9-10 and the serpent (i.e. Satan) deceiving Adam. 
Ibid. 124.
…I said, You are gods, and are all children of the Most High. But you die like men, and fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God! judge the earth, for You shall inherit all nations.' But in the version of the Seventy it is written, 'Behold, you die like men, and fall like one of the princes,' in order to manifest the disobedience of men—I mean of Adam and Eve—and the fall of one of the princes, i.e., of him who was called the serpent, who fell with a great overthrow, because he deceived Eve. But as my discourse is not intended to touch on this point, but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming gods, and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve. Now I have proved at length that Christ is called God.
Again, no inclination that the A&E tale is meant as a metaphor. 
Ibid. 132
and of these it seems good to me now to speak of another, for it conduces to your hereby knowing Jesus, whom we also know to have been Christ the Son of God, who was crucified, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge all men, even up to Adam himself.
Justin asserts that Jesus will return and judge all people, even Adam. Surely Justin didn't think the very real Jesus would return to judge an allegorical person.
Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180 CE:
Against Heresies 1.9.3.
Learn then, you foolish men, that Jesus who suffered for us, and who dwelt among us, is Himself the Word of God. For if any other of the Aeons had become flesh for our salvation, it would have been probable that the apostle spoke of another. But if the Word of the Father who descended is the same also that ascended, He, namely, the Only-begotten Son of the only God, who, according to the good pleasure of the Father, became flesh for the sake of men, the apostle certainly does not speak regarding any other, or concerning any Ogdoad, but respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. For, according to them, the Word did not originally become flesh. For they maintain that the Saviour assumed an animal body, formed in accordance with a special dispensation by an unspeakable providence, so as to become visible and palpable. But flesh is that which was of old formed for Adam by God out of the dust, and it is this that John has declared the Word of God became [my emphasis]. Thus is their primary and first-begotten Ogdoad brought to nought. For, since Logos [Word], and Monogenes [Only-begotten], and Zoe [Life], and Phos [Light], and Soter [Savior], and Christus, and the Son of God, and He who became incarnate for us, have been proved to be one and the same, the Ogdoad which they have built up at once falls to pieces. And when this is destroyed, their whole system sinks into ruin—a system which they falsely dream into existence, and thus inflict injury on the Scriptures, while they build up their own hypothesis.
Irenaeus argues, with no hint that he is arguing against the heretics only in metaphor, that Adam was the only being made into flesh and it was this same flesh that Jesus was made out of.
Ibid. 1.28.1
But [Tatian's] denial of Adam's salvation was an opinion due entirely to himself.
Here Irenaeus intimates that Adam will be saved due to Jesus' sacrifice, claiming that Tatian created a doctrine wherein Adam would not be saved. If Adam didn't really die, then I'm not sure how he could be saved or even bodily resurrected once Jesus returns. This is also relevant to Justin Martyr since Tatian was Justin's student (ibid.). Irenaeus thus implies that since Tatian created this dogma of Adam's damnation on his own, Justin probably thought that Adam would be saved. 
Ibid. 1.30.7
But Ialdabaoth, feeling envious at this, was pleased to form the design of again emptying man by means of woman, and produced a woman from his own enthymesis, whom that Prunicus [above mentioned] laying hold of, imperceptibly emptied her of power. But the others coming and admiring her beauty, named her Eve, and falling in love with her, begot sons by her, whom they also declare to be the angels. But their mother (Sophia) cunningly devised a scheme to seduce Eve and Adam, by means of the serpent, to transgress the command of Ialdabaoth. Eve listened to this as if it had proceeded from a son of God, and yielded an easy belief. She also persuaded Adam to eat of the tree regarding which God had said that they should not eat of it. They then declare that, on their thus eating, they attained to the knowledge of that power which is above all, and departed from those who had created them. When Prunicus perceived that the powers were thus baffled by their own creature, she greatly rejoiced, and again cried out, that since the father was incorruptible, he (Ialdabaoth) who formerly called himself the father was a liar; and that, while Anthropos and the first woman (the Spirit) existed previously, this one (Eve) sinned by committing adultery.
Here Irenaeus is describing the beliefs of the Gnostic Ophites (derived from the Greek word for snake [οφις::ofis]) who worship the snake at Eden because it was in reality Sophia and granted knowledge (i.e. gnosis) to A&E. Many Gnostics took the A&E tale literally because they literally believed that their flesh was a prison created by a defective, self-righteous, and ignorant god, and that their true form was not flesh, basically. Gnostic beliefs diverge wildly from this main point. We can probably add the myriad of Gnostics to the ancient Christians who literally believed the A&E tale, since it was their reinterpretation of this story that forms a point of departure from the Christians who would become Catholics. 
Ibid. 3.11.8
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. […] For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal covenants given to the human race: one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.
Irenaeus' argument for why there should be only four gospels; inherent in his argument is the existence of Adam, and of a covenant after him (i.e. the fall). Irenaeus moves through all four covenants without a hint that some were figurative covenants while others were literal.
Ibid. 3.18.1-2
For I have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist, being with the Father from the beginning; but when He became incarnate, and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam— namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God— that we might recover in Christ Jesus. For as it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered, and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself, and obtain the prize of victory; and as it was also impossible that he could attain to salvation who had fallen under the power of sin—the Son effected both these things…
Irenaeus goes over the reason for Jesus' death, linking it to Adam's disobedience. Irenaeus doesn't offer us any reason why he took Adam's actions figuratively so the plain reading would be the one where we do not add to nor subtract from Irenaeus' words. Irenaeus butress' his argument by quoting Paul (Rom 5.14; 10.6-7, 9) which also presupposes a literal Adam since death reigned from Adam to Moses.
Ibid. 3.21.10
For as by one man's disobedience sin entered, and death obtained [a place] through sin; so also by the obedience of one man, righteousness having been introduced, shall cause life to fructify in those persons who in times past were dead. And as the protoplast himself Adam, had his substance from untilled and as yet virgin soil (for God had not yet sent rain, and man had not tilled the ground), and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Word of God, for all things were made by Him, and the Lord took dust from the earth and formed man; so did He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin. If, then, the first Adam had a man for his father, and was born of human seed, it were reasonable to say that the second Adam was begotten of Joseph. But if the former was taken from the dust, and God was his Maker, it was incumbent that the latter also, making a recapitulation in Himself, should be formed as man by God, to have an analogy with the former as respects His origin. Why, then, did not God again take dust, but wrought so that the formation should be made of Mary? It was that there might not be another formation called into being, nor any other which should [require to] be saved, but that the very same formation should be summed up [in Christ as had existed in Adam], the analogy having been preserved.
Irenaeus, in similar manner to Justin, explains why Jesus had to be born from a virgin and not from Joseph. If Adam had been born from human parents, then Jesus would have had to have been born from human parents. But since Adam was formed directly by the god of the Jews and not normal human generation, so was Jesus.
This post will probably get pretty long, so I will continue to add to it as I get time. But this extremely small review of early Christian literature is probably good enough to start pointing in the right direction, and good enough to post for the time being. Surely, we in the 21st century can take the A&E tale allegorically, but this says nothing about its original author(s) or those who based the doctrines on its literalness; doctrines that the vast majority of lay Christians have inherited.

Posted by on October 12, 2011 in apologetics


2 responses to “There’s No Evidence That The Garden of Eden Was Meant Literally

  1. Robert

    October 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. […] The idea that religion is a separate magisterium which cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie – a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe.

    Eliezer Yudkowsky, Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

  2. thefloatinglantern

    October 13, 2011 at 12:55 am

    I was hoping that someone would compile a list like this! Thanks for doing it. And dson't forget to include Aquinas!


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