The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations

The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations

by Theodore Ziolkowski

Adam, Prometheus, and Faust—their stories were central to the formation of Western consciousness and continue to be timely cautionary tales in an age driven by information and technology. Here Theodore Ziolkowski explores how each myth represents a response on the part of ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, and sixteenth-century Christian culture to the problem of


Adam, Prometheus, and Faust—their stories were central to the formation of Western consciousness and continue to be timely cautionary tales in an age driven by information and technology. Here Theodore Ziolkowski explores how each myth represents a response on the part of ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, and sixteenth-century Christian culture to the problem of knowledge, particularly humankind's powerful, perennial, and sometimes unethical desire for it. This book exposes for the first time the similarities underlying these myths as well as their origins in earlier trickster legends, and considers when and why they emerged in their respective societies. It then examines the variations through which the themes have been adapted by modern writers to express their own awareness of the sin of knowledge.

Each myth is shown to capture the anxiety of a society when faced with new knowledge that challenges traditional values. Ziolkowski's examples of recent appropriations of the myths are especially provocative. From Voltaire to the present, the Fall of Adam has provided an image for the emergence from childhood innocence into the consciousness of maturity. Prometheus, as the challenger of authority and the initiator of technological evil, yielded an ambivalent model for the socialist imagination of the German Democratic Republic. And finally, an America unsettled by its responsibility for the atomic bomb, and worrying that in its postwar prosperity it had betrayed its values, recognized in Faust the disturbing image of its soul.

Editorial Reviews

World Literature Today
The rich and original fruit of life-long learning, teaching and research. . . . [An] enlightening study.
— Leslie Schenk
Journal of Religion
The great pleasures of this book are in its retellings of stories, seamlessly interwoven with commentary.
— Larry D. Bouchard
World Literature Today - Leslie Schenk
The rich and original fruit of life-long learning, teaching and research. . . . [An] enlightening study.
Journal of Religion - Larry D. Bouchard
The great pleasures of this book are in its retellings of stories, seamlessly interwoven with commentary.
From the Publisher
"The rich and original fruit of life-long learning, teaching and research. . . . [An] enlightening study."—Leslie Schenk, World Literature Today

"The great pleasures of this book are in its retellings of stories, seamlessly interwoven with commentary."—Larry D. Bouchard, Journal of Religion

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Princeton University Press
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The Sin of Knowledge

Ancient Themes and Modern Variations
By Theodore Ziolkowski

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2000 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-05065-1

Chapter One

Adam: The Genesis of Consciousness

The Biblical Fall

Who among us has not been moved by the familiar tale? After God has accomplished the immense labor of creating heaven and earth, he amuses himself by modeling from the moist dust of the ground-almost playfully, it appears-a figure into which, through divine CPR, he breathes life. What now to do with this weakling on an earth still raw and inhospitable from the Creation? As a home for his "Adam," whose name in Hebrew is the generic word for "man," he plants a garden in Eden, a horticulturalist's delight in which thrives every variety of tree both pleasing and useful: among them in the center the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He informs his Adam-Man that he may eat freely from every tree of the garden except, on pain of death, the Tree of Knowledge. Then, to provide companionship for his new earthling, the divine potter shapes from the same clay, in sportive experimentation, various beasts of the field and birds of the air. Although the man asserts his authority by giving names to all the cattle and birds, he finds among them no helpmate suitable for himself. (According to ancient tradition, Adam's first and unsatisfactory sexual intercourse was with the animals.) So God anesthetizes the man and removes one of his ribs, from which he clones a being similar to him. For an unspecified period-some rabbinical readings grant them no more than that first day-the two protoplasts live happily, and still in nameless generic universality, in their nature preserve, neither aware nor ashamed of their nakedness.

But the serpent, wilier than any of the other creatures that God made and with no apparent motivation other than mischief, approaches the woman to ask why God has forbidden her and her mate to eat the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden, or even to touch it. "You will not die," the serpent assures her. Rather, if they should taste it, their eyes would be opened, and they would be "like God[s], knowing good and evil." Since the tree's fruit looks both nutritious and delicious (the biblical phrase anticipates the Horatian dulce et utile) and is reputed, moreover, to make wise, she samples a piece and takes some to her husband, who also partakes. Then their eyes are opened and, becoming suddenly aware of their nakedness, they cover themselves with makeshift aprons of fig leaves.

When next they hear God strolling in the garden in the cool of evening, they hide among the trees. But God summons them, and they confess that they concealed themselves out of shame for their nakedness. At this point the whole story, along with its sad but psychologically plausible finger-pointing, comes out. The man's eyes were opened to his nakedness because, at the woman's bidding, he consumed some of the forbidden fruit. The woman, in turn, pleads that she was just following orders: the serpent beguiled her. Thereupon God, in a most unholy burst of anger, curses everything in sight: the serpent is condemned to crawl forevermore on his belly, to eat dust, and to be trodden on by humankind; the woman, to feel sexual desire for her husband, to whom she shall be subservient, and yet to suffer great pain in bearing the children that result from their union; the earth, to bring forth thorns and thistles; and the man, hitherto the beneficiary of a lavish garden, to toil laboriously for his sustenance in the sweat of his brow. The man and his mate, finally, are condemned to eventual death and a return to the dust of the earth from which they were taken.

At this point, when they have been cast through sin from generic Universality into human individuality, Adam names the woman Eve, there by affirming his dominion over her in the same manner as previously over the animals. As a last gesture of goodwill-he angers easily but does not hold grudges-God clothes Adam and Eve in garments of animal skin and then expels them from the garden into the arid wilderness beyond, lest they eat from the Tree of Life and thus achieve the immortality that he has prohibited. To ensure their compliance, he posts cherubim with flaming swords at the entrance to block the way back into the garden and to the Tree of Life.

This so-called second narrative of the Creation with the myth of Adam and Eve, the Temptation, and the Fall (Gen. 2.4-3.24) is one of the most familiar stories of Western culture. Saint Paul established a powerful tradition by identifying Adam as the "type" of natural man who was to be redeemed by the Second Adam, the "antitype" yet to come, in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5.14). Just as sin and death entered the world through Adam's deed, so "one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men" (Rom. 5.18). Earlier he had preached to the Corinthians that death came by one man and resurrection by another. "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15.22). This "figural" analogy, which juxtaposes the Fall and the Redemption, Adam and Christ, and more generally the Old Testament and the New, is evident as early as the fourth century in images in Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi, and it also informs those curious and closely related apocryphal books known as the Apocalypse of Moses and the Vita Adae et Evae. It is not conclusively understood whether these Greek and Latin works, both of which were probably written sometime between the first and the third century of the common era and translated into many languages, go back to a Hebrew original or to Judeo-Greek or Aramaic sources. Both works, which profoundly influenced medieval views of Adam and Eve, recount the life of the first couple after their exile from Paradise and feature a quest for the Oil of Mercy to relieve Adam's suffering, followed by Adam's death, pardon, and burial. While both works end with Eve's death and burial, and although the Apocalypse includes a testament in which Eve warns her children against sin by telling them about the Temptation and Fall, the Vita explicitly exonerates Adam and blames Eve for the expulsion from Paradise.

The familiar story was rehearsed again and again in such popular medieval texts as the ninth-century Old Saxon Genesis, the tenth-century Old English Genesis B, the eleventh-century Middle High German Viennese Genesis, and the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman mystery play Jeu d'Adam. At the same time, it provided images for scores of illuminated manuscripts as well as the bronze doors, reliefs, mosaics, statues, and stained-glass windows of medieval ecclesiastical buildings. The tale of Adam and Eve was matched in popularity only by scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Madonna. Lucas Cranach's well-known paintings of the Temptation were paralleled in Reformation Germany by such dramatic representations as Hans Sachs's Tragedy of the Creation, Fall, and Adam's Expulsion from Paradise (Tragedia von schöpfung, fal und außtreibung Ade auß dem paradeyß, 1548). The age of the baroque in Cartholic Spain as well as the Protestant Netherlands and England-from Lope de Vega's La creación del mundo y primera culpa del hombre (1618-1624) to Joost van den Vondel's Adam in ballingschap (Adam in exile, 1664) and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667)-was obsessed by the subject. The fascination of the theme continued into the music, art, and poetry of the nineteenth century, and its popularity in the traditional genres was paralleled in folk art by its use on tiles, baking forms, and wedding chairs, and in songs and riddles ("Why did Adam bite the apple?" "Because he had no knife"). The myth of Adam and Eve provides without doubt several of the shaping images of the Western consciousness, which have demonstrated their continuing popularity in such twentieth-century media as advertisements and New Yorker cartoons.

For that reason it is all the more astonishing that, after their walk-on performance in the early chapters of Genesis (2-5), Adam and Eve do not reappear in the Old Testament. Adam is mentioned once by name at the beginning of the genealogy in Chronicles (1.1). And Ezekiel (28.11-19), without naming him, laments the Son of Man who once walked blameless in Eden, the garden of God, until iniquity was found in him and he was cast out as profane. But the story itself apparently held no interest for the judges, the kings, the chroniclers, the psalmists, or the prophets. Nor, apparently, did Jesus know, or at least care about, Adam, who is mentioned only twice in the Gospels-once as one of the two unnamed protoplasts (Matt. 19.4-6) and once by name as the terminus a quo for the genealogy in Luke (3.38). Not the Gospels but the Pauline letters sound the keynote for the Christian obsession with the Adamic myth, and the early Christian theologians, eager to demonstrate the historical continuity between their upstart religion and the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, worked out the typological-figural analogies in elaborate detail. The myth of the Fall, one might almost conclude, became important only in light of the myth of Redemption. Thus Milton exhorts his Heavenly Muse to sing

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat....
(Paradise Lost, 1.1-5)

Near Eastern Sources

How, then, and why did the story make its way into Genesis? The concept of a fall from an earlier paradise appears in the myths of many peoples. Etiological interest in the origin of things did not begin with modern cosmologists and the big bang theory; it is evident in the earliest legends of most cultures. This interest, combined with the Rousseauesque need to explain the deplorable human condition, suggested that humankind once lived in a happier state, from which it was plunged-by disobedience, by fate, or by accident: for instance, by the unwitting violation of a taboo-into present misery.

While several of the elements, such as the creation of man from clay, belong to world folklore generally, biblical scholars have long been aware that the Genesis account is based on cosmological legends and mythological elements known to various peoples of the ancient Near East-in particular the image of a garden of the gods containing trees with mysterious powers. The anthropomorphic conception of a god strolling in his garden, as alien to the Hebrew tradition as is the walking and talking serpent, probably also came from another source. Notably, most of the characteristic motifs of the Genesis account are to be found, albeit in wholly different configurations, in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh.

In the Akkadian text of that epic, which was written around the turn of the second millennium B.C.E., Enkidu is created from the clay of the steppes by the love-goddess Aruru. Enkidu, though not alone in the world, first lives in paradisiacal innocence (and sexuality?) among the wild beasts, with whom he jostles at the watering place, exemplifying the "absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level," according to C. G. Jung's definition of the trickster archetype in its purest manifestation. A hunter, frightened by Enkidu's fierce demeanor, seeks counsel from Gilgamesh, who advises him to tempt the man of nature with a seductive harlot or temple prostitute. The hunter takes the woman to the watering place, where she exposes her breasts and "lays bare her ripeness." After Enkidu has mated with the temptress for six days and seven nights, the wild beasts of the steppe draw away from him. But while Enkidu's physical strength and speed-that is, his trickster qualities-are weakened by his encounter with human sexuality, "he now had wisdom, broader understanding," and the harlot tells him, in words anticipating the biblical serpent's, "Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!" Clothing him with half of her garment, she leads him to Uruk, where, following a giant contest with Gilgamesh at the gates of the city, the heroes become blood brothers and embark on their epic adventures.

Initially it is Enkidu who, in his newfound understanding, fears death. Gilgamesh reassures him:

"Who, my friend can scale heaven?
Only the gods live forever under the sun.
As for mankind, numbered are their days;
Whatever they achieve is but the wind!
Even here thou art afraid of death."

They undertake a successful expedition against the monster Huwawa in the hope of achieving at least the immortality of fame. However, when they slay the destructive Bull of Heaven, the gods ordain that Enkidu must die. After he has watched his friend waste away, Gilgamesh, now himself overcome by the fear of death, laments:

"When I die, shall I not be like Enkidu?
Woe has entered my belly.
Fearing death, I roam over the steppe."

His wanderings bring him to Utnapishtim (the hero of the Mesopotamian flood myth), who reveals to Gilgamesh a secret of the gods concerning a magical thorned plant that bestows renewed youth (and hence, implicitly, immortality). Gilgamesh obtains the plant, which grows at the bottom of the sea, and intends to rejuvenate himself by eating it. But when he stops to bathe in a cool well, a serpent smells the plant's fragrance and carries it away. (The magic of the plant accounts etiologically for the serpent's subsequent ability to shed its skin and renew its own youth.) Gilgamesh weeps for his wasted labor, and a few lines later the epic breaks off.

Even this brief sketch of the principal episodes makes it evident that the epic contains virtually all the elements of the biblical account of the Creation, Temptation, and Fall although the roles are divided between two heroes, not concentrated in one. Like Adam, Enkidu is created by a deity from the clay of the earth and spends his early days in naked innocence among the beasts of the field. Then, succumbing to a woman's temptation, he loses his innocence and acquires godlike knowledge. The motifs of a plant of life and the serpent that tricks Adam and Eve out of immortality occur after Enkidu's death in connection with Gilgamesh, who obtains the plant but is prevented from eating of it.

Several of these common Mesopotamian elements occur also in the later (fourteenth-century B.C.E.) Akkadian tale of Adapa, who is created by the culture-god Ea as "the model of men," and to whom is given wisdom but not eternal life. When Adapa offends the supreme deity Anu and is summoned to heaven, Ea advises him not to eat or drink what will be offered to him, saying that it will be the bread of death and the water of death.


Excerpted from The Sin of Knowledge by Theodore Ziolkowski Copyright © 2000 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Cyrus Hamlin
Theodore Ziolkowski brings the fruits of a lifetime of thought to his writing,and he is to be commended for carrying his erudition so lightly and for maintaining such an admirable balance in an argument that ranges so widely and so quickly. His learning and versatility come into play most strikingly in his discussion of modern reworkings of the myths. These analyses make for informative and enjoyable reading.

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