Stephen Greenblatt’s Great New Book—And What It Misses about the Mormon Adam and Eve

For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (pp. 5-6).


It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Stephen Greenblatt on literary culture. As the general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, he shapes the textbooks used in about 90% of undergraduate British Literature survey and period courses. If literature is “what gets taught,” then Greenblatt is the guy who decides what literature is for the English-speaking world.

Fortunately for all of us, Greenblatt has excellent taste—and a whole lot of knowledge about the contexts in which literature is produced. His recent books for general audiences are the best examples that I know of literary criticism for real people. Will in the World, his context-heavy biography of William Shakespeare, was a surprise bestseller in 2004. And The Swerve, How the World Became Modern (2011)—a literary detective story about how Lucretius’s lost poem “On the Nature of Things” was discovered in the 15th century—won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Greenblatt’s most recent book, too, is really good. The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve tells the story of how a page and a half of text in Genesis became one of the most important stories ever told—one that human beings have used for thousands of years to explain themselves to themselves. It has been invoked as primary evidence to support (among other things) theories of human depravity, sexuality, marriage, divorce, sexuality, responsibility, sexuality, and the endless quest for knowledge. And it is a story that keeps getting reinvented and reinterpreted to meet the needs of new cultures and societies.

The great insight that Greenblatt brings to the table is that this story, like all stories, has always existed in cultural and historical contexts. It is not just something that people respond to—it is something that responds to other things. Its present form, he argues, traces back to a post-exilic Jewish community that needed an origin story to combat the one they heard constantly from the Babylonian Enuma Elish. They needed a God who was bigger than Marduk, a universal God not tied to a specific city, so they reached back into their oral and written traditions and constructed both a God who created everything and a universal human parentage.

As Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam developed, the story of Adam, Eve, God, and the Serpent got incorporated into more and more world views. Greenblatt goes through the Apocrypha and New Testament pseudepigrapha, the New Testament, the early Church Fathers all the way to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, ending with the competing origin story of Charles Darwin.  The two pillars of Greenblatt’s book, each with multiple chapters, are Augustine and Milton, whose works The Literal Meaning of Genesis and Paradise Lost both defined, and constrained, the Adam and Eve story for generations.

But Greenblatt does not start with these authors’ major works; he goes in to them sideways. With Augustine, he starts with the Confessions, and with Augustine’s own checkered history with his sexuality. Augustine overcame his sexual desires in order to become a Christian, Greenblatt argues, and then he fashioned a version of Christianity that saw human sexuality as inherently fallen. Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the joy of procreation is forever tainted with the sin of lustfulness, which becomes the basis of Augustinian Original Sin and a foundation of nearly all subsequent Christian orthodoxy.

With Milton, Greenblatt begins with the divorce tracts, which, in turn, came from Milton’s own experience of being abandoned by his young bride, Mary Powell. Milton pressed his culture hard to accept divorce on the grounds that God wants human beings to have companions with whom they are compatible. When he turned to Paradise Lost, Milton built into his portrayal of Adam and Eve a companionate marriage. It is an understanding of the need for companionship that compels Adam to eat the fruit after Eve does, in effect rejecting a divorce, even when offered by God, on the grounds that a true spousal companion is worth even more than Paradise.

Along with heavy hitters like Augustine and Milton, Joseph Smith and the Mormons make a brief appearance in the book in the following paragraph:

The literal truth of the Genesis story was taken in a different direction by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, who in 1838 led his followers to a site seventy miles north of present-day Kansas City, Missouri, where he established a settlement he called Adam-ondi-Ahman. It was in that very place, Smith declared, that Adam had once lived. The idea did not die out when Smith was killed and his followers were driven further west. In the mid-twentieth century Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson, who served as the Secretary of Agriculture during Eisenhower’s presidency, reiterated the original revelation. “This was the place,” Benson wrote, “where the Garden of Eden was; it was here that Adam met with a body of high priests at Adam-ondi-Ahman shortly before his death and gave them his final blessing, and the place to which he will return to meet with the leaders of his people. (p. 262)

Greenblatt emphasizes the fact that Joseph Smith declared Eden to have been in America, and, in the process, moved the sacred spaces of the Old World into the New World. This is an important point. A great part of the appeal of early Mormonism, and of the Book of Mormon specifically, was that it gave Americans a stake in the sacred history at the center of their Christian religion.

But I can’t help feeling that Greenblatt missed an opportunity to discuss just how radically the Book of Mormon reframes the story of Adam and Eve. This is not a criticism—one must always review the book that got written and not the book that one would like to have read—but a lament that a more thorough analysis of the Book of Mormon could have added something important to the book.

Consider the following passage from Second Nephi:

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.  Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:22-25)

Here we have a take on the Adam and Eve story that is absolutely unique among the many versions and framings that Greenblatt discusses. There are some parallels, of course. The Pelagians, against whom Augustine fought valiantly, rejected the idea of Original Sin, and various early Christians argued that Adam and Eve were correct to rebel against God and seek knowledge. But the Book of Mormon version, combined with subsequent developments of Mormon doctrine, makes four assertions not found together anywhere else:

  1. That Adam and Eve could not have procreated before the Fall (a belief that Augustine discusses at length in The Literal Meaning of Genesis and rejects).
  2. That Adam and Eve knew that they had been given incompatible commandments (to multiply and replenish the earth and the avoid eating the forbidden fruit).
  3. That they both (not just Adam) made a rational choice to accept the consequences of eating the fruit in order to become the parents of the human race.
  4. That this was the correct decision that was part of God’s plan from the very beginning.

One important service that The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve performs for Latter-day Saint readers is to show us just how revolutionary our own version of the story is. This combination of assertions cannot be found anywhere in the long tradition of Adam and Eve interpretations that Greenblatt presents. And this has consequences for the way that Mormonism frames such important human issues as (among other things) human depravity, sexuality, marriage, divorce, sexuality, responsibility, sexuality, and the endless quest for knowledge.


  1. Great post, Michael. Thanks for posting about this.

  2. Olde Skool says:

    It’s worth acknowledging that of your concluding list of four points uniquely together in the Mormon version, all but #1 also appear in Milton.

  3. Thanks, Mike. I’m about 30 pages through the book right now (though it’s sitting in the bag I forgot to bring to work), and it’s excellent and fascinating so far.

  4. Olde Skool, I don’t quite agree, but your interpretation is certainly legitimate. I think that #3 is only half true in Milton (which is also the point that Greenblatt makes). Adam makes a rational decision to follow Eve, because he values their relationship so highly. But Eve is legitimately tempted and deceived by Satan. This makes #2 somewhat different in Milton. The commandments are not incompatible until Eve eats the fruit. But once she does, then Adam faces the choice between incompatible directives. Of course, this is open to interpretation as far as Eve is concerned. An argument that she chose rationally and righteously can be made.

  5. so in other words…another example of how “different” Mormon beliefs are, and how extraordinary it would have been for an unlettered boy to come up with such “different” beliefs.

  6. It’s a pity that Mormonism picked up so much of Augustine’s depravity and sexuality theories (or is that depravity of sexuality) when it didn’t need to, when there was such a great opportunity for a fresh start.
    I do think you’ve extrapolated a bit far from “unique among the versions and framings that Greenblatt discusses” to “not found together anywhere else.” I don’t have a counter-example at hand and I’m naturally inclined toward “Michael Austin is always right” (so maybe I should stop there) but that’s a big claim and it’s a big world. My gut check is that you have to narrow the field (Greenblatt’s work, or Christian in the Augustine tradition, or using only this particular creation myth among the multitude on offer, or some such) to make such a uniqueness claim.

  7. Christian, you are probably right. But its more fun to make the extravagant claim and then challenge the whole Internet to come up with a counterexample. That way, all of the smart people who want to prove me wrong become, in effect, my research assistants. (That said, your final qualifier,”this particular creation myth,” is embedded in the claim, which is only about the story of Adam and Eve).

  8. Eric Facer says:

    I, too, enjoyed Greenblatt’s book, though his treatment of Paul was quite superficial and seemingly uninformed.

    He does little more than contrast a proto-feminist quote from Corinthians with a misogynistic one found in Timothy, apparently oblivious to the fact that the majority of biblical scholars agree that Paul didn’t author Timothy. If he had taken the time to read chapter V of McKenzie’s “How to Read the Bible” or any number of other books about Pauline theology, he would have learned how extremely nuanced Paul’s views were about women.

    More importantly, he almost completely ignores Paul’s idea that Christ was a “second Adam,” though he does make passing reference to this concept in the notes at the end of the book. Paul’s actual theology was far more important—and more interesting—than Augustine’s interpretation of that theology. This was a missed opportunity, but the oversight is not surprising given the size of Greenblatt’s subject and the relative brevity of his book. And his chapters on Milton and Paradise Lost were very good.

  9. In the earliest days of my internet participation, so, mid-’90s, I followed a[n H-list?] list of biblical scholars. In all my audacity, when the topic was Adam and Eve I summarized the four points you note: “Isn’t it possible that Eve chose …”

    I suppose I was lucky to get any response at all from those academics; the one response I got was “No. Absolutely not.”

    Suddenly, more than 20 years on, I’m feelin’ pretty good about my summary.

  10. Eric Facer says:

    Ardis, if you want to read a fascinating interpretation of the Adam and Eve saga, I highly recommend “Subversive Sequels,” by Judy Klitsner. She makes two interesting observations about this story in particular that I found thought provoking.

    First, she suggests that it is largely reductionist, written primarily as a defense of the culture of its authors. For example, the reason that women suffer agony during childbirth and that they are subservient to men is because Eve ate the fruit and tricked Adam into doing likewise. A “just so story” so to speak that allowed the Israelites—and most societies thereafter—to rationalize their treatment of women as second-class citizens. This, by the way, is not totally different from the point about historical and cultural context that Greenblatt makes (and which has been made by numerous other scholars).

    Second, a much more intriguing idea is Klitsner’s suggestion that Eve made a conscious choice to eat the fruit not, as we Mormons like to think, because it was essential to her and Adam’s progression; rather, it was an act of rebellion on her part because she saw herself being relegated to second status in the Garden of Eden. For example, the author notes that not only was Adam called upon to name the animals, he was also charged with giving Eve her name, an act that in Ancient Israelite culture signified ownership of property. This and other slights, Klitsner argues, caused Eve to conclude that the only way she could improve her lot was to get out. A most interesting hypothesis.

  11. @Olde School

    During an undergrad seminar on Milton, I wrote a presentation on about 15 points of similarity between the fall as understood in the Book of Mormon and as presented in Paradise Lost. The parallels certainly run deep. I tried to find the paper to share some more, but it is apparently lost to time.

  12. Thanks, Eric, that does sound interesting.

  13. Lindsey S says:

    Thanks indeed Eric. It’s not lost on me that Eden doesn’t seem much like a paradise, at least for Eve, before the Fall.

  14. Eric,
    I suppose you’re not making it, so this isn’t framed at you, but that is a culturally racist argument. It seeks to otherize a people by reframing *them* as the true bigots, when it’s clear the proponents are at the very best no better themselves.

    “Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

    She can not possibly reframe the consequences of Eve’s actions as being a posthoc justification to smooth over perceived moral inequalities of men and women; when Adam has his own set of consequences to deal with in the very same context. So Adam is going to live a life of struggling in the dirt, being afflicted by and toiling in his efforts daily with the earth, and then ultimately die and be absorbed into the thing that plagued him his whole life. (if that above verse is interpreted very harshly).

    Now, I have no problem if someone wants to assert that the penalties or consequences in Genesis were an attempt to simply explain and attribute various types of toil and struggle their culture encountered in life. But to burden the text with the argument that it’s inherently sexist, when there is an equally weighty consequence (or explanation) for the man, is uncharitable.

    And her next observation, also deviates pretty dramatically from the timeline in the scripture in Genesis at least. Presumably Judy Klitsner is not LDS and relies solely on the text in the OT. In genesis Eve is not given her name by Adam until AFTER the fall. So the observation that being given a name, defined her as property requiring her to “get out” is completely nonsensical. Especially, considering she went and gave the fruit to Adam as well. If she wanted to leave, it would obviously be better for her to be expelled and live her life free of her oppressive name-giving husband.

    I assume she’s a scholar who knows far more than me about much, so it’s strange she’d go so wrong in her agenda to frame the story with such a modern twist. Not all history can or should be viewed within the lens of 1970s feminism.

  15. Eric Facer says:

    ADA, I believe her principal point is that the Israelite creation story, like those of so many other societies, was used to rationalize and explain the resulting culture, which in the Israelite case relegated women to inferior status. Since the authors of the Old Testament were undoubtedly men, it is not surprising that they would frame the story in this fashion.

    The fact that Adam also suffered adverse consequences from being expelled from the garden doesn’t detract from the story’s role as a means of justifying the constraints imposed on women in Israelite society—limitations that were also readily embraced by Christianity, though there was a brief time in the early church, during Paul’s ministry and shortly thereafter, when some of those restrictions were lifted.

    Though the consequences suffered by each were severe, they were different in important cultural respects, the most noticeable one being that women were made subservient to men. More to the point, neither I nor the author described the Israelites as “sexist” or “true bigots;” rather, Klitsner was simply describing the reality of Israelite society.

    The author, who is a Jewish Scholar, through careful exegesis of the Hebraic text, reveals how Eve seems to be treated as an equal in the first chapter of Genesis—created in the same fashion as Adam and spoken to by God concurrently with Adam—whereas in in the second chapter she is simply made out of one Adam’s superfluous body parts and is discussed by Adam and God as if she’s not in the room. Then, Adam gives her gender a name—”Woman”—which clearly connotes that she is simply part of him, and only later—as you correctly point out—was she given a name to distinguish her from other members of her sex (forgive me for not being clearer on this point). And then in the final two sentences of chapter 2, Adam is referred to as “man” while the woman is simply his “wife.”

    In sum, Klitsner, I believe, is suggesting that women who were not satisfied with their circumstances in Israelite and other societies, could interpret Eve’s actions differently, giving them hope for a more equitable world in the future. The scriptures speak to all of us in different ways.

    Please bear in mind that it has been a couple of years since I read Ms. Klistner’s book, so I am confident I am not doing justice to all of her arguments. Inaccuracies and omissions in my synopsis should not serve as a basis for someone concluding that the author has gone “so wrong in her agenda” when they have not read her book.

  16. Great post.

    I just read a dramatized version of the Adam and Eve story (by an LDS author) written for the YA market. I don’t think it was the writer’s intent but Adam comes off as so controlling and smothering and possessive of Eve I couldn’t help but thinking, “Get out of there, woman!”

  17. Thanks, Michael, but I’m declaring right now that authors need to stop writing books I need to read. There are just too many, and I can’t keep up. Darn.

  18. I haven’t read this book yet, but I do feel that it is my duty, as a medievalist, to say that The Swerve was so appallingly terrible and just plain wrong that I was tempted to shred the copy I was reading. There are a number of excellent blog posts and articles on why he’s so wrong – the LA Review of Books has a good one, as does the medieval studies blog In The Middle. I very, very strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in the history of philosophy, religion, and books read those posts. I’ve viewed Greenblatt with suspicion ever since.

  19. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Great post–Thanks==

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