Saturday, May 16, 2015


Review – Bible's Buried Secrets – The Real garden of Eden

Well this was the last in the series by Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the Bible's Buried Secrets. I have already reviewed the previous two episodes Did King David's Empire Exist?and Did God have a Wife?
So, what did I make of this episode? Well funnily enough I thought that this one had more of substance and interest than the the previous two. I certainly didn't agree with everything that she said. Certainly some of her stock phrases start to jar a little:
It's a revolutionary theory which challenges some of the most cherished preconceptions about Eden in both Christianity and western culture.
It's a view that turns upside down the views of the Bible
But lets get to the positives first.
Assyrian Cherub from the British Museum
Assyrian Cherub
She points out that many of the details that we have read into the story of the Garden of Eden aren't actually in the text. This can only be a good reminder. Just as we need to remind ourselves that we don't know how many Wise Men in the Nativity story there are (there are three gifts) or what colour dress Mary wore (most certainly not blue as it was VERY expensive). So she reminds us that we don't know the fruit that was eaten and that the apple often used in greek can also mean breast and therefore the linking of women and the fall is dangerous. She points out that ancient Cherubim guarding the Garden of Eden weren't the cuddly Christian types but looked far more ferocious (such as the Assyrian winged creatures).
These are great reminders for us.
She also comes up with some theories about the significance of gardens in Ancient Near East societies. Now I don't have the expertise to comment too much on this but it sounded reasonable. That gardens were symbols and signs of power and the king was normally the person who mediated between the gods and humanity. The garden was the place that god dwelt and the king was able to build it and maintain it because of wisdom given him by the gods.
She also makes the point that she sees the story and the exile from the garden as the exile from Jerusalem and the king failed in wisdom by rebelling against Babylon (the state to which Judah paid tribute at the time) and actually its a story about a particular king at a particular time.
Now scholars have, for years, seen the story of Eden as a mix of different bits and pieces from different times. Many have thought that it is a critique of Solomon style royal rule. Some have seen it as a story of the exile. In this story of exile Dr Stavrakopoulou really is not saying anything new although some bits were interesting.
She tries to link this with a debunking of original sin and the idea the humanity has fallen and is in need of a saviour. Now this where I am really not sure that she comes out with integrity. None of the people that she directly tackles are professionals in the field. They are a lay person in Snowdonia (presumably because he was the only one that didn't realise that it was going to be a hatchet job), a Salford Catholic priest and a Manchester Rabbi.
The Priest is quoted as saying
If you don't have original sin then you don't need a saviour, you don't need Christ
We then hear Dr Stavrakopoulou intoning
The very foundations of Christianity is built on the story of Eden
Of course what she is really tilting at is the
bleak view of human nature
as she says that is envisaged in Christianity.
Really the heart of her argument is that the story of Eden is the story of a particular king about 2,500 years ago who's foolishness led to Judah's exile and downfall and the destruction of the Temple. It therefore has nothing to do with human nature and with how we should see humanity and that in essence we are not in need of a saviour.
Of course the trouble with her argument is that it is so limited. This isn't the way that the bible works. The bible takes a story and re-tells it with greater detail and with new insight. So the story of creation gets re-told through the bible in various ways – Creation in Genesis 1, the Exodus, John 1 etc. each time the story is enriched with new meaning and understanding.
So for a Christian it is quite ok to say that the story of Genesis is both a story of creation and exile on several levels. It matters not one jot that Adam is both a king who leads Judah into exile AND the archetypal man who leads humanity into exile. In both cases many people are affected. It is a story of pride and fall. Out of this story the people of God reflect on the God that they worship and tell the stories that inform them of this God. So, it bothers me not one whit as to whether she is right to identify Eden with the Temple and Adam with the last King of an independent Judah.
The point still remains. Adam means man. There is still the point not only from the bible that humanity is in need. People such as the agnostic Terry Eagleton makes the point that the problem with atheists is that they believe in some great path of human progress and don't take seriously enough the problem of humanity. The World Wars, the Holocaust, the problem of continued war and struggle and inequality. In Christian theology, some believe in original sin (the idea came from St Augustine in the 4th Century) and some don't – but either way Christians do believe in sin – structural, societal and personal. These things that break relationship between us and each other and with God. The essence of Christian belief is in no way affected by Dr Stavrakopoulou's theory – and it very much is just that a theory.
In terms of the role of Eve in the story she is right to point out (as many many have) that the role of Eve is not the main role in the story – Adam has the main role and he fails and has the main part. It has, shamefully, been used to subjugate women. But the bible is also a source of liberation for women. As I said in my last review women did not have a better place in other polytheistic cultures of the time. Indeed we see with Jesus his welcome and inclusion of women in a quite radical and new way.
Where I think that she is naive is to assume that Christianity holds humanity back and that somehow we would be liberated into some Eden type future if we could only rid ourselves of the old prejudices. Or even that the old gods were so much better than monotheism. Still when she was least polemical she was most interesting. When she was most polemical she was least interesting and had the least insight.
Update 30th March
Just an overall view of the series. I think that overall it wasn't a great series. Not because it tackled issues of faith or might have been uncomfortable for some but because it was so polemical and just plain wrong on various issues. It was being used to tilt at several areas that Dr Stavrakopoulou wanted a go at – the political legitimacy of Israel (or the separation of politics and religion), the dis-empowering of women in monotheism and how dreadful that was and in the final one how there is nothing wrong with humanity and it isn't in need of saving.
This is the series weakness. It isn't trying to just get to the archaeological truth. These episodes were chosen with a view in mind – to undermine Christianity and Judaism. They don't do that – but they try. There is no real balance. Most of the time when she wants to be most polemical she has tended to bring in the non-experts (with them not realising that they are being set up).
That is the opinion of Will Cookson.

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