Review of The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, Part One

My blogging has been down as the new semester has begun. Much of my class reading is outside my typical interests on this blog. There are a couple of short books that I want to plow through in the midst of this semester, and to keep my blogging/writing alive, I am planning to review them (although ‘summarize’ might occasionally be a more appropriate verb).

Chapter One

James Barr’s The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality is based on five lectures he presented in 1990 at the Reed-Tuckwell Lectures, a lectureship dedicated to discussing “human immortality and subjects thereto related” (1). He begins with a brief review of the development of the understanding of immortality in the twentieth century, concluding “that while some traditions of theology . . . have continued to be very interested in the theme of immortality, others, and especially important trends in the use of the Bible within theology, have tended to become hostile to the entire idea of it and to disregard it as an element in biblical thought” (3).

Barr clearly disagrees with such a conclusion. Focusing on the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, he contends that “taken in itself and for itself, this narrative is not, as it has commonly been understood in our tradition, basically a story of the origins of sin and evil, still less a depiction of absolute evil or total depravity; it is a story of how human immortality was almost gained, but in fact was lost” (4). Barr’s focus on the text “taken in itself and for itself” allows him to reject the influence of Paul’s typological reading of Adam in his theological examination of the stories in Genesis. Whatever Paul was doing, “it was not an essential structure of the earliest Christian faith but was a part of the typology which one particular person or tradition found helpful for the expressing of an understanding of Christ” (5).

He takes particular pains in the first chapter to deconstruct this traditional Christian reading, illustrating how such a reading is rarely (if ever) propped up by the narrative itself. This reading, he identifies, is born from “later strata of the Old Testament, including the books that are outside the present Hebrew canon” (18). The absence of the term ‘sin,’ the unwillingness of other Hebrew Bible authors to appeal to this story as the origin of sin and evil, and the lack of any true rebellious motivation on the part of Adam or Eve constitute some of the observations that lead Barr to focus on a different trajectory for the story.

“Adam and Eve were mortals, as human being normally were, but through disobedience or mischance, perhaps of a relatively minor  nature, they came near to the achieving of eternal life. The importance of this for our subject is great, for it means that in the structure of biblical ideas immortality does not come in a the margin, at the latest point, or through the intrusion of Greek philosophy. It is present, at least as an idea, at the earliest stages, and is a force that thereby has an effect on much of the thought of later times” (14-15).

Barr thus finds immortality in a prominent position in the Hebrew Bible and promises to pursue a more constructive reading of the Garden of Eden narrative in subsequent chapters.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five


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