Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). By concentrating on the history of reception (as a biblical scholar) Anderson hopes to make some strides toward a recovery of the riches available to a more integrated reading. The book, in an effort to open this treasure up to the widest possible audience, is written in an exceedingly accessible style with few notes and no detours into the arcane details of the history of scholarship on the texts under consideration. Instead, Anderson weaves liturgy together with ancient commentaries on Genesis and artistic re-tellings of the stories (both narrative and visual) from antiquity all the way through the early modern period (including Dante and Milton).

The most provocative single chapter illuminating the reception history of Genesis deals with a related question—concerning the overcoming of evil—raised by God’s reaction to human disobedience (155). If God’s intention all along is to set the world to rights, why can the evil of human disobedience not be corrected in the moment of its origin? Why allow the world to get so far off track? Anderson adduces a wide range of sources to suggest that in both the Christian and the Jewish traditions, divine forgiveness (and restoration to fellowship with God) is not given freely and easily (158, 168, 171). In both traditions this difficulty is conceived in terms of Death (personified) having rights over all those alienated from God. The striking move that Anderson makes in drawing the two traditions together is to suggest that Death’s personification represents an aspect of the divine character (namely, the concern for justice) that stands in significant tension with another aspect (the desire to show mercy [174]). Anderson brings forward a number of stories in which characters, sometimes Satan (as Death), sometimes Moses, represent one of these aspects of the divine character in conversation with God himself, who (as it were) takes the other side. Finally, Anderson draws the Christus victor redemption scheme into the same matrix, arguing that Christ’s decent into hell to draw Adam and Eve out of their captivity represents the divine mercy as it overcomes the divine justice by which the transgressors are rightly excluded from God’s favor (174-76).

To think Christus victor in this way is quite interesting, and if Anderson could have shown more than a basic literary coherence to exemplars of the pattern (for example, a genealogical dependence), might have provoked intense controversy. For on Anderson’s reading, the deception involved in the rescue of the lost from Hades is, in some measure, a self-deception. Theologically, this posits an intra-trinitarian conflict nearly on the same scale as the most severe versions of penal-substitutionary atonement, in which the Son satiates a wrathful Father through the bloody cross. Anderson’s reading of the Christus victor tradition relies on the unwitting use of this literary trope (here instantiated as divine mercy in Jesus Christ set against divine justice personified in Satan) by the early Christian authors who thematized this understanding of redemption. To my knowledge, no Christian author makes Anderson’s connection explicit (indeed, the question of just why God should repay any debt to the devil leads to demise of the Christus victor model after Anselm), while any genuine literary dependence in this regard would simply beg for theological explanation.

Throughout the whole of the text, Anderson advances three theses placed just inside the front cover (ii). He argues that the narrative of Adam and Eve is interpreted in the Jewish and Christian traditions through the central events of those two faiths: the giving of Torah on Sinai and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, respectively. The third thesis is that Adam and Eve did not thwart, but advanced in a paradoxical manner, the intentions of God for creation through the disobedience in the Garden that led to their expulsion. How successful is Anderson in supporting these theses over the course of the chapters? The first two theses are relatively simple to demonstrate and are certainly indisputable at the key moments in the interpretive tradition that Anderson utilizes. For Christians the link between Eve and Mary or the connection between Adam and Christ clearly cast the Genesis narrative as the source of the problem from which humanity stands in need of redemption (e.g. 91-93). In the Jewish tradition, it was indeed commonplace to understand Adam both in the line of the later Patriarchs of Genesis, but also as a type of Moses receiving the command of God and responsibility for the temple of God (e.g. 13-14, 33).

The third thesis, however, is considerably more tenuous—certainly within Christian traditions, and likely within Jewish as well (though I cannot count myself qualified to comment). For Christians, the felix culpa interpretation of Adam and Eve’s disobedience operates only within a certain theological framework (in which human sin necessitates the sending of the Son from the Father in the incarnation to reverse human evil). There are counter-traditions that would contradict Anderson’s thesis which make no appearance in his text, many of which are even grounded in Adam and Eve’s narrative. For example, one can fairly easily link Irenaeus’ assertion that Adam and Eve were like naïve children who disobeyed out of ignorance as much as out of concupiscence to Duns Scotus’ speculation that the Incarnation would have taken place regardless of humanity’s disobedience—precisely to bring human nature to perfection. This trajectory is hardly marginal within the Christian tradition (particularly the Eastern tradition), even if it does not represent the main line of Catholic interpretation. While Ireneaus and Scotus do indeed play down the significance of the “Fall,” they do not do so by means of the suggestion that Adam and Eve advanced God’s intentions through their disobedience.

Accordingly, the great weakness in Anderson’s project has to do with the restrictions forced upon him by the enormous scope of his project. While he engages sources with keen and generous insight, he is necessarily quite selective in the sources treated in each chapter. Though the breadth of the sources under Anderson’s consideration allows him to select sources that make for fascinating contrasts and tensions, it necessarily limits the depth of his analysis at any particular historical moment, and thus across the broader arc of the history of interpretation as well. Unfortunately, this somewhat arbitrary selection has the effect of flattening the diversity of the interpretive traditions, as if, for example, Ephraim the Syrian and Gregory of Nyssa’s take on celibacy in the garden, or Augustine’s understanding of the mode of edenic procreation (72) could stand in for the “Christian imagination” on the topic (even in the fourth/fifth century!). While there are themes, and common trajectories within both Rabbinic Judaism and mainstream Christianity, attempting to cover the spread from the third to the seventeenth centuries (in both Judaism and Christianity no less) inevitably sweeps over much of the varied texture and local color that a more focused approach might offer. Nevertheless, as an introduction to the fruit of reception history and to the fascinating range of interpretive engagements with the enigmatic text of Genesis 2-3, Anderson’s text is clearly unsurpassable.


[1] Gary Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). All references to this text are parenthetical.

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