Neither the Hebrew version nor the Sumerian original seem to have carried any suggestion that there would some day come a second Adam who would restore immortality to the human race, and Mr. Greenblatt confines to an endnote St. Paul’s idea of Christ as the second Adam. He devotes more space to the reinterpretation of Pauline theology by Augustine, whom in his portrayal originally saw the story as an embarrassingly primitive fable but in time made it central to his sophisticated conception of original sin and ultimate redemption. Mr. Greenblatt is especially eloquent on the influence of this story on the early modern imagination ... he begins his survey by stating that 'an insistence on the story’s literal truth—an actual Adam and Eve in an actual garden—became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.' Very many, perhaps a majority, would nowadays agree with Mr. Greenblatt, but I am not convinced ... The richness of the Adam and Eve story is, in our own day, set against the story created by Darwin of the evolved ape. Both are powerful images in our brains, and most educated people believe, or try to believe, in the latter. What Mr. Greenblatt’s wonderfully rich, detailed, humorous and imaginative survey reveals is the sheer wealth of the biblical mythology and how it continues to raise questions that Darwinism doesn’t answer.
The best works of cultural history aren’t those that provoke a mere nod of assent, the sense that history was just so. Rather, they’re books that adrenalize and agitate, provoke a response, cause you to underline, argue, and curse. By this standard, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve is a good book indeed ... This book is frequently very good, as when Greenblatt examines Renaissance depictions of Eden ... Yet there are also stretches that had me sometimes literally shaking my fist — the long section on Augustine, in particular. All Christian theology is a footnote to Augustine, and Greenblatt rightly emphasizes the theologian’s centrality to later Christian thought on will and desire, human fallenness and divine mercy. Less convincingly, Greenblatt interprets Augustine’s theology as a working out of the guilt he felt over sexual desire ... All critics have biases. Greenblatt’s is a tendency to see all of history pointing toward, and finding its ultimate fulfillment in, Renaissance humanism ... Arguing with Greenblatt about these ideas is a pleasure, though, as is his clear prose and the fluidity with which he moves between paintings and poems and polemics. This is the kind of book — lucid and delightfully infuriating — that I wish more academic superstars would write.
Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar of vast, ranging intelligence, likes his superlatives. His treatment of thousands of years of thought on the first parents in Genesis, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, supports many of them. He is ambitious. He begins with the Babylonians and ends with Darwin, with stops for Augustine, Dürer, Milton and others, looking at how each changed the way we understand Adam and Eve. But Greenblatt isn’t just eager to convince you that his topic is a worthy choice. Each subsequent point of consideration must also be hyped like an act at the circus. The effect is a nagging feeling that you’re being sold something ... About 1 in 4 Americans consider the Bible to be the literal word of God, according to a recent Gallup poll, but Greenblatt doesn’t speak to any of them, or wonder who they might be, and how they feel about Adam and Eve. A certain condescension, too, is apparent in the over-lavish way he tries to write for a general audience ... In many of his other works, Greenblatt’s scholarly voice is precise and distinctive, and he has a rare interdisciplinary instinct. He can be warm, intimate and learned; his writing on Shakespeare in particular manages to be both emotionally astute and encyclopedic. But in this work, perhaps some of his biases have intervened. He also tries too hard to be what he is already — very naturally — in his scholarship: accessible.