Book Review: Brian Murdoch, The Apocryphal Adam and Eve in Medieval Europe


Here’s another old book review I published in the Review of Biblical Literature back in 2010. It deals with the various versions of a later non-biblical book called The Life of Adam and Eve. As Murdoch’s fine volume shows, there were many different versions of this text. It was an incredibly rich tradition that found itself travelling all over Europe in the medieval period, influencing art, story, theater, etc. The story, in its varied forms, was about Adam and Eve after the Fall. At its core, the story is one of penance, of Adam and Eve’s sorrow over their sins, and the various ways in which they expressed this sorrow penitentially, including  immersing themselves in the cold water of a running stream. For me, one of the other very interesting aspects of this tradition–which clearly has Christian influences in many of its later expressions, but which Murdoch believes may have Jewish roots in its earliest form–is the depiction of the demonic serpent as a violent aggressor. In his more popular work, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Catholic Theology and Scripture professor Scott Hahn interprets the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 in such a way that the serpent was delivering a veiled threat of violence to both Adam and Eve with the serpent’s retort: “you shall not die.”(1) Indeed, such conflict may be implied in its ancient context, in light of comparable ancient literature from the ancient Near East.(2)  Interestingly, The Life of Adam and Eve implies such violent intent on the part of the serpent. In fact, after Satan’s failure here, popular versions of the text depict the serpent going after their son Seth, and even biting him in the face. Murdoch’s volume is thus a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the history of biblical interpretation, showing some of the many ways earlier readers understood Genesis 3 and its aftermath.

(1) Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture (Cincinnati: Charis, 1998), 69, where Hahn writes:

“He said, ‘You will not die.’ And that defiant contradiction hung in the air until slowly the serpent’s meaning became clear: ‘You will not die–if you eat the fruit…’ In other words, Satan used the form of a life-threatening serpent, with his evil stealth, to deliver what Adam rightly took to be a thinly veiled threat to his life, which it was from the outset.”

Where does Hahn get this interpretation, which to many may sound bizarre? From the combination of several factors: 1) the man was given the command (in Gen. 2) to “keep” or “guard” (in Hebrew, shamar) the garden (pp. 58-59). Hahn explains further:

“the other word, ‘keep’ (shamar), carries a distinct meaning, ‘to guard,’ implying the need to ward off potential intruders. This was how the word was used to describe the task of the sword-wielding Levites, who were ordered by Moses to keep Israel’s sanctuary free of encroachers (see Nm 17:12-18:6). Perhaps it struck Adam as a curious command, for it seemed to imply not only a need for the sanctity of the garden to be guarded but the existence of a potential intruder to desecrate it” (pp. 58-59).

2) Hahn underscores the ambiguity of the reference to “life” with the tree of life mentioned in Gen 2. He asks the pointed question, “After all, didn’t God already give Adam the gift of immortality? What’s the use of a tree with fruit to make you life forever if you’re already going to anyway?” (p. 59). Hahn thus takes this to imply that there would be a potential threat to life (pp. 59-60). 3) Hahn is also aware of the many ways in which “sons” are tested throughout the Bible, a sort of filial test. He thus envisions the temptation narrative as just such a test (pp. 63-64). 4) Hahn shows that the Hebrew word for “serpent,” nachash, is much broader than what we typically think of as a snake, e.g., it is used of Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 (p. 66). He explains:

“Across this wide spectrum of usage, the word generally refers to something that bites (see Prv 23:32), often with venom (see Ps 58:4). In any event, at minimum, the serpent here is a life-threatening symbol. And it represents mortal danger. In this case, the danger was not only (or mainly) physical but spiritual, particularly since the New Testament identifies this ‘ancient serpent’ with Satan himself (see Rv 12:9; 20:2)” (p. 66).

5) Hahn also notes that the word employed for “subtle,” (‘arum), can be used to describe “the ‘stealth’ and ‘guile’ of the wicked (see Jb 5:12; 15:5)” (p. 66). 6) Finally, Hahn asks the question about where the man is during this ordeal when the serpent speaks to the woman. He emphasizes how the text seems to indicate the man was by her side, silent, the whole time. The serpent’s verbs are plural, not singular, and there’s no description of the woman looking for the man; apparently, he’s right there when she gives him the fruit (pp. 67-69). Thus, Hahn links the pride and envy of Adam with fear of suffering (pp. 69-74).

(2) Richard E. Averbeck, “Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions: The Proceedings of a Symposium, August 12-14, 2001 at Trinity International University, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard, 328-356 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004).

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