Book review: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

by Elaine Pagels


Augustine, arguably Christianity’s greatest teacher, often stressed the sinful nature of sexual desire. Adam’s sin corrupted the whole of nature itself, and infants are infected from the moment of conception with the disease of original sin. When did this idea come about that sex is inherently sinful? When did the fall become the Fall?

In Genesis 1, God gifted the power of earthly rule to Adam. Yet, in the late fourth and fifth centuries, this message began to change. Adam’s prideful desire for self-government led to the fall—I mean, the Fall—of mankind, and ever since, humanity has been sick, helpless, irreparably damaged. Human beings are incapable of self rule, not in any genuinely good way.

Says Augustine, “even the nature of the semen from which we were to be propagated” is “shackled by the bond of death.” Every being conceived through semen is born contaminated with sin. Christ alone is born without this sin, this libido. Because of Adam’s disobedience, “the sexual desire of our disobedient members arose in those first human beings.” These members are rightly called pudenda [parts of shame] because they “excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master, as if they were their own masters.”

Okay, perhaps I have overemphasized Augustine and his hangup about sex. There’s more to the book, and Pagels is a good writer who manages to turn even this dubious topic into a fascinating read.

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