Augustine once said something to the effect that Original Sin was the easiest doctrine for him to believe in. All he had to do was look around. Although that may be the case, it may also be one of the hardest doctrines to explain. In this post it is my intention to examine in by no means an exhaustive way the testimony of Scripture. In the subsequent post I will then begin a reflection on the more metaphysical implications of the doctrine.
The doctrine itself comes not from Genesis 1-3 but from Romans 5:12. The meaning of the universality of sin is only understood in light of the universality of grace. Since the death of Christ is capable of saving all, then all the world must have been under the captivity of sin.But Romans 5:12 must be read as well within the totality of St. Paul. Two passages are particularly important:
For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth…. For in him all the fullnesss was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him.
Paul clearly understands Christ to stand at the head of creation. This headship is not just of human creation, but of non-human creation as well, which groans along with humanity for its own “resurrection.” There is nothing surprising about this. The Old Testament makes it clear that all creation is destined to be part of the reign of the Messiah when he should come, and Paul simply writes as a good Jew when he writes that Jesus, the Messiah, who has inaugurated the Kingdom of God, has absorbed the groanings of all creation into his salvific plan.
Thus, if the doctrine of original sin has its origins in the soteriology of Paul, then as a doctrine it must include all of creation. Furthermore, it becomes important to read Romans 5:12’s reference to “one person” as itself symbolic. Paul’s purpose is not to single out a single individual as the cause of all evil in the world, but rather to set up the “type” for which Christ would be the fulfillment. More on this later.
To better understand Paul’s theology of Romans 5, we must turn back to the Old Testament. What exactly is taking place in Genesis 1-3? What I will attempt here is a brief exegesis of how to read those three seminal chapters.
It is commonly agreed upon by scholars that the book of Genesis in its final form is the product of the redaction of the so-called “priestly school” that wrote upon the return from exile in 536 BC. N.T. Wright argues that the main purpose of the writings of Second Temple Judaism is to point to Israel as the True Humanity. One of the most important passage that points to this belief is in Daniel 7:13-14. There is a figure, a “son of man.” To understand the role of this “son of man,” we must look to chapters 1-6 which have two guiding themes. First, Jews are invited to betray their religion, resist, are proved right, and are exalted. Second, various visions are given to the pagan king which get interpreted by Daniel. The content of these visions are the same as that of the first theme: Israel will be glorified in the midst of the nations that surround her. Chapter 7 thus functions as a summary of the first six chapters. A “human figure” is surrounded by threatening “beasts.” The human figure is vindicated over the beasts. In other words, there is a divine plan for Israel. Insofar as she remains faithful and obedient to her God in the midst of the other nations, whether Babylon (which functions in Daniel as a symbol) or the Greeks, she will be vindicated and exalted.
This is not a new reading of Israel’s role. The author of Daniel is simply reflecting the promises of Third Isaiah, written in the time of the priestly school. Third Isaiah is replete with these kinds of promises. The child will play over the den of the adder. All of creation will be restored when the “exile” finally comes to an end. Most Jews did not consider the return under Cyrus to be a real return from exile. This return did not satisfy all the prophecies. The true return from exile would come at a time when all of creation through Israel, would finally and completely receive the promises of God originally made to Abraham. Israel, or “Adam”, surrounded by beasts on all sides, would finally be vindicated and exalted. Through Israel, all the beasts and all of creation, would be brought into the reign of the Messiah.
In this context, Genesis 1-3 is redacted to make a theological claim. As Gordon Wenham points out, the word Adam is not used as a proper name until Genesis 4:25. Adam is “humanity,” or rather, Israel representative of all of humanity. The “original” intention of God is that Israel act as mediator between God and the “beasts,” or the other nations. “Adam” names the beasts and is in harmony with them. Adam and Eve are naked, in perfect covenant with God. This is God’s intention, God’s final promise to Israel, that the priestly school, and later the author of Daniel, is upholding. This is how God intends the world to be. But “Adam”, rather than doing what Daniel and the three young men do in the first six chapters of Daniel, resisting the temptation to assimilate into the other nations, listens to the most clever of the beasts, the serpent, notices his nakedness, and clothes himself in the clothing of beasts when he is kicked out of the Garden.
Notice how nakedness functions. It is first of all a symbol of Israel or “Adam’s” intended relationship with God. But in the prophets, particularly Hosea in the 8th century, it is what God will do to Israel when she plays the harlot. He will “strip her naked.” So Genesis 1-3 is both the general situation of Israel amongst the other nations around her, the “beasts” who she too often listens to, and God’s promise of his future plan. The promise is Genesis 2. The current reality is Genesis 3. Israel is to keep the promise of Genesis 2, Third Isaiah, and Daniel 7 constantly in mind. This is what God will do for her.
Paul, knowing this theology well, could thus speak of the sin of “one person” without intending that we understand one particular person. He is invoking the old theme of God’s promise. Just as Israel has consistently betrayed her role to be “Adam” in the midst of many “beasts,” so Christ has now become the perfect “Adam,” obedient Israel who can bring about the original promise of Genesis 2. All, in relation to Christ and through him, can live now in relationship with God.
If we read Genesis 1-3 in this more correct context, we can see how the problem of Adam and Eve breaks down. They are not, nor were ever meant to be, at least in the theological reconstruction of the priestly school, two original parents. Rather, they function as symbols of what Israel’s relationship with God in the midst of the other nations should be, and what it has actually become. Israel has been kicked out of the Garden (the Promised Land) because she has been disobedient and has listened to the other nations, the “beasts.” When she becomes fully faithful in the Messiah, she will then live in the way that Genesis 2 envisages as a Promise.
Original Sin in this Jewish context is Israel’s incapacity to remain faithful to the covenant with God. Because Israel cannot be faithful, neither can the rest of the the world. Adam and Eve primarily refer to Israel. Of course, they can also refer to all human beings once the whole world is taken up into the reign of the Messiah. Now it is no longer only Israel who is Adam and Eve, but all of us. We are all called to be faithful to the covenant, but all find that instead we listen to the “beasts,” no longer the other nations, but Sin as a pervasive power. The role of the “nations” in the Old Testament becomes “sin” in the New Testament.
It has not been the intention of this post to answer the problem of where evil comes from and what it might have meant for the original human populations. I will attempt a provisional answer to that in the next post. My main point here is to show how we should read Genesis 1-3. It is God’s plan and promise to Israel, and hence to us. Because it is promise, fulfilled in Christ but still moving toward completion, we should not think of Genesis 2 as here yet, just as we don’t think of Third Isaiah as here yet. That will take place in the future.
What I do intend to say through this reading is that there was never a past idyllic state when Israel, or the original human populations, lived without sin. Or at least, the story in Genesis 1-3 does not tell us that. If we are going to be able to reconcile Original Sin with evolution, we must release the idea of an actual idyllic state of our “first parents.” Nor should we ever have held to that. Eden, at least in the minds of the priestly school and second temple Judaism was not intended to represent a past situation but rather a future one. Eden is where Christ takes us. It appears to be in this world because for Israel, heaven was never some other worldly reality, but this world transformed under the reign of the Messiah. Eden is the eschatological state of this world. Genesis 2 is God’s eschatological plan. It is not the story of a past but a future.