Revisiting an old sin with modern faith

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What better time than the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to tackle a new book about Adam and Eve? After all, the founding couple from the Bible’s Book of Genesis are as important to the Jewish tradition as they are to the Christian tradition, aren’t they?

Well, not really. And this is one reason why scientist, scholar and writer Karl W. Giberson’s book, Saving the Original Sinner (Beacon Press, 212 pages), is so fascinating.

The subtitle of the book, How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World is meant to be provocative. And it is, but readers from various religious backgrounds or none will find themselves engaged by this book.

Adam and Eve have become a controversial topic in evangelical churches, as over the past few decades progress in genomics has posed a problem for the traditional Christian view of the couple as the founding parents of the entire human race.

Space doesn’t allow a detailed summary of the science, which Giberson discusses, but suffice it to say that in the age of 23andMe and the growing database of human genomes being collected from around the world, two things are increasingly certain: 1. The entire human race is more closely related genetically than anyone could have imagined even just a couple of decades ago. 2. We are all descended from a small population of humans that migrated out of Africa and covered the globe, starting about 60,000 years ago.

Now, certainly this poses obvious problems for people who read the Book of Genesis literally — and believe the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago. But the strength of Giberson’s book is that this particular issue is not as interesting as the history behind the Bible: the evolving attitude that Christians through the centuries have had toward Adam and Eve — long before Darwin.

Indeed, for just one example, the Adam and Eve story serves a completely different purpose for the Jews who composed the ancient books of the Bible. Giberson discusses this in the book’s introduction:

“The Hebrew version of the story — and there are others in adjacent cultures as we shall see — emerges around the time the Jews were regrouping after a long exile in Babylon and were looking to define themselves after this demoralizing disruption of their history. The account of Adam and Eve getting expelled from Eden was their story of losing their home — their paradise — because they had not followed God’s laws.  The week with its day of rest was their religious calendar, long practiced but now being woven into the fabric of the universe as the way the world is, because that is how God decreed it.”

This is quite different from the understanding of the Genesis story in the writings of Saint Paul, who introduced a revolutionary new understanding of Adam in the early decades of Christianity. In Adam, Paul saw the Fall of all humanity from union with God, a grace that could only be restored by the life and death of the redeemer, Jesus of Nazareth.

In the 4th century, St. Augustine took this interpretation further, arguing that original sin was a fallen state, beginning with Adam and passed on through generations to all humans. Today, this view is the one most seriously undercut by science, and many Christian theologians have pondered how to reinterpret the doctrines in light of modern science.

Giberson, currently a scholar in residence at Stonehill College, brings a personal perspective to these ruminations. A former young-earth creationist and life-long evangelical Christian, he was dismissed from his teaching post at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, for arguing that evolution and Christianity were compatible. Other scholars from evangelical educational institutions have suffered similar fates, he notes.

In Giberson’s final assessment, the classical Christian understanding of Adam as the original sinner, needs to be re-examined.

“We are a troubled species, seemingly destined to obliterate ourselves and puzzled why this is so. Everyone from the fundamentalist Christian to the crusading atheist knows we need some kind of salvation, although we are certainly looking in different places for it. Perhaps that will come from a transformed Christianity, a re-envisioned science, or from another source. But it won’t come from pretending that when Adam vanished he took original sin with him.”

Bound to provoke controversy, Saving the Original Sinner is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in the debate between religion and science.

John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.

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