Life of Adam and Eve. Some comments

Life of Adam and Eve:

A Comparison between the Greek and Latin Versions

The “Life of Adam and Eve” is one of the most popular stories across the Christian Middle Ages. No other work, aside from the Bible itself, is preserved in as many manuscripts and in as many languages. (See

The text (in its various versions) was extremely influential. It gives us some of the back-story missing from the biblical account. Put differently, the imaginative expansion of the biblical version influenced the way people have since read the biblical story. Details provided by the Life of Adam and Eve include instructions on rituals of burial (ApMos), penitence (Vita), the kind of fruit eaten by Eve (ApMos), visions of heavenly and earthly paradise, the quest of Seth for the rood of life, and the fall of Satan. The story fleshes out the biblical original in a manner consistent with belief in the resurrection of the body as an eschatological event. Generally speaking it brings the biblical story in line with the apocalyptic framework that was popularized in Palestinian Jewish literature in the second to first century BCE and also influenced early Christian writings.

  1. The Greek Version “Apocalypse of Moses:”

A Popular Drama Promoting Belief in Resurrection of the Dead

In my view, the Greek “Apocalypse of Moses” may be described as a popular drama aimed at the dissemination of the belief in the resurrection of the body, along with the soul, on the Day of Judgment, a belief which, in the late Second Temple period, was not universally accepted among the Jews. (See Acts 23:6-9, where Paul, in a speech defending himself before the Jewish Sanhedrin, is said to have exploited a debate between Pharisees and Saducees on the question of the existence of angels and belief in resurrection.)

I refer to ApMos as a “drama” in order to point to a number of stylistic characteristics that distinguish the Greek version from the Latin and other medieval manuscript versions (Armenian, Georgian).

  • The Greek version could be staged very easily
  • The sequence of events and speeches follows a logical and convincing order
  • The psychology is moving and not primarily didactic (as, in contrast, is the case in the Latin),
  • The plot is clearly built around the themes which are promoted: hope for divine pardon, the doctrine of the atoning power of one’s own death, and the belief in the resurrection of body and

A few more general observations on the Greek version.

  • The mysogyny prevalent in the Latin version is virtually absent here. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since, in the Greek version, the point of the story is not to blame the first woman (and implicitly all women) for a cosmic catastrophy that can be repaired only by a patrilineal and patriarchal tradition of intercession, represented by Adam and Seth. Rather, the condition of mortality is taken as a fact, and its eventual remedy concerns all human beings, originating as it does in divine compassion for Adam, the primordial human being.
  • The most powerful protagonist of the Greek version is not Satan, but God, who is depicted in two radically distinct aspects: justice and Both of these attributes are dramatized in a convincing way. For example, God’s stern judgment is presented in a grand scence concerning Adam, Eve and the Serpent, and God denies Adam’s last requests. But then the scence subtly turns. At first, God prevents the banished Adam from receiving any kind of mitigation of his punishment. Then, as the gates are closing, Adam no longer even addresses God directly, but seeks the intercession of the angels. Finally, God responds. He fulfills Adam’s pious request for sacrificial material [a reference to Eden as a samctuary, to be emulated on the outside?] and provides Adam with the seeds necessary to survive “out there.” Similarly, God’s mercy emerges when everyone but Seth is asleep (a fairytale motif) and God himself approaches the dead Adam, tenderly bemourning the death of his beloved.

Underlying the Greek version (possibly based on a Hebrew original) reflects a Hellenistic [Greek speaking] Jewish milieu that is familiar with the Septuagint (LXX) but may not already have bought into the idea of resurrection.

Christian symbolism is entirely absent from the Greek version, and there is no emphasis on rituals of penitence, as in the Latin, Satan does not function as an anti-Christ. In contrast to the Latin, which foregrounds the saintliness of Adam (efficacy of his prayers, extreme acts of fasting and contrition, etc.), the Ap Mos is written from Eve’s point of view. The depiction of Satan is traditional and, ultimately, marginal. At the center is the culpability of human beings, the justice of God, and the mitigating attribute of mercy, which resolves the drama in the promise of resurrection, prefigured in the “astonishing pardon” of Adam.

  1. The Latin Version, or: Don’t let a theologian rewrite your screenplay

The Latin story of the Life of Adam and Eve starts out from a situation of lack, emphasizes the incapability of the major players to address that lack, recounts the origin and nature of this incapability, and hints at the great salvation that will, exactly 5500 years later, resolve this condition. The Latin and the Armenian/ Georgian all seem to follow this schema roughly. The Armenian/Georgian does so more coherently than the Latin. In this structure, these versions follow the classic folk-tale structure which guided stories as ancient as Gilgamesh’s battle with Humbaba, and various versions of the Canaanite combat myth which in turn passed on its elements to the story of the Exodus (cf. Forsyth, The Old Enemy). Yet, in the Latin especially, the dramatic elements and devices found in the Greek are neglected in favor of didactic glosses, explanations, and the insertion of moralistic elements such as an all good Adam (in essence the prototype of a Christian saint) and an all bad and easily duped Eve.

Where the Greek version makes the reader, listener, or theatre audience participate in hope-raising secrets, hitherto known only to Seth and Moses, the Latin reader is given the latest theological summary of why we all deservedly suffer, who has redeemed us, and what we need to do in order to prove ourselves worthy of this redemption.

The real heroes pitted against each other are Satan and Adam/Christ; Eve is duped twice and God is the regnant king who has gracefully sent his divine messenger (no less than his only begotten son) to make up for the mess created by Eve, while Adam somehow manages to keep his hands clean throughout. Adam, not God or the angels, is in charge of his own burial and death, the heavens darken by themselves (as in the case of the crucifixion) upon Adam’s death; Seth rather than Eve is the visionary of a truncated angelic rite. Seth also actually carries home the Holy Rood (part of the legend of the True Cross), and Adam imparts a vision to Seth, which even the most uninformed reader recognizes as a stereotypical, almost perfunctory, version of the holy story.

The redactor’s lack of interest in plot development emerges for example in 22:2 when the big problem of life outside Eden, namely the lack of food, is resolved only in passing, after it had been completely ignored.

The Latin Vita seems to work together a number of earlier versions and sources that hardly add up to a convincing piece. While the redactor, for example, is privy to a version which has Eve in a meditative position, typical for Hekhalot visionaries, before she recounts her vision of the angelic liturgy, in his editing this posture is made to look as if Eve were asleep and weakened while the (truncated) vision is revealed to Seth. Mysogyny and Christian doctrinal baggage have managed to turn a beautifully told story into a hodgepodge of dull morality scenes.






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