The Garden of Eden and the hope of Immortality

Barr, James
Fortress (1993)
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I first came across a reference to James Barr's book on immortality while reading Hough, Adrian: The Flaw in the Universe (Circle Books) with reference to the Garden of Eden and I was intrigued, so steeped was I, in spite of my better judgment, in Pauline assumptions about "The Fall", a concept to which I was temperamentally, rather than theologically, hostile. For completion I summarise the whole of Barr's argument but I have to say that the only part that is really interesting is his treatment of this topic.

In the 20th Century the default Christian position changed from the immortality of the soul to the resurrection of the body, replacing the Platonic with the Old Testament. Central to any understanding is the story of Eden which, Barr says: '... is not 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 ... if they stayed there, they would soon gain access to the tree of life, and eat of its fruit, and gain immortality: ...", absolutely counter to Saint Paul's view, Romans 5.12, that through Adam sin and death entered the world, infecting all humanity, reversed  by Jesus, specifically cited in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Timothy but nowhere else in the NT. But, says Barr, the story does not say that Adam was immortal but conversely, his  disobedience brought him near to immortality which explains the expulsion: there is no mention of sin, evil, rebellion, transgression or guilt; the Hebrew Bible does not cite it as the source of evil; Adam was always going to die, to return to dust; he is not condemned to death but to work and eve is to suffer pain in childbirth, desire for and domination by her husband; God's promise of speedy punishment was not executed as Adam lived for 930 years, the fourth longest life in Genesis; the couple's relationship with God is irritable  but does not break down; nakedness does not denote shame or guilt but the acquisition of knowledge. Barr goes on: "The sheer irrationality of the command, not to eat of the tree, and of the threat to deprive of life if it was eaten, ... has been read as if to mean that the slightest deviation from the slightest divine command, ... must be a totally catastrophic sin which would estrange from God not only the immediate offender but also all future descendants and indeed all future humanity." But after the empty threats and anger, God goes on to care for the couple. The explanation of Augustine and Protestantism that the eating resulted from pride, of wanting to be like or more powerful than God, but there is no evidence for this on the couple's part; what would be the point of living eternally without the knowledge of good and evil? Barr does not point out here that the absence of free will makes love, for which we were created, impossible. Paul's typology is based on The Wisdom of 2.13, one of the most Hellenistic in style of the Apocrypha, coupled with (7.116-118, 3.21). Ironically, I conclude, Protestants deny themselves access to the very texts which support Paul and uphold a Hellenic idea which they supposedly abhor.

Judaism was comfortable with mortality and even celebrated the good death, Job 42.16-17, Genesis 25.8, a notion inherited by Christianity. With the exceptions of Enoch (Genesis 5) and Elijah, and possibly Moses, it was normal. With Daniel we have an inkling of bodily resurrection which blossoms in the inter Testamental material alongside ideas of immortality. There is no evidence in Genesis 1 that all creatures, including humanity, were to live forever, cf Deuteronomy 32.39, 1 Samuel 2.6, Psalm 104.29f; Amos 3.6, Isaiah 45.6. Sheol is feared but the concept is vague, inherited from "natural religion" and mainly seems to have been reserved for the unfavoured; it was not life after death but was part of the reality of death, compare Psalms 88 and 139 and the question in 16.9-10. There was a strong Hebrew tradition of "totality thinking" which understands the body and soul as integral not separate and a strong sense that the soul might out-live the body in some way, returning to God while the body returns to dust, cf Matthew 10.28. The distinction between Greek dualism and Jewish totality can be over-estimated; and any account of Hebrew thought must take account of the evolution of ideas, for in Talmudic and post Talmudic times there was a somewhat fluid combination of the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul and: "... in this literature of post biblical Judaism there is something more of anticipation of  the later Christian ideas of "original sin" than is to be found in the Talmudic Judaism that we know." The penetration of Hellenic thought brought a concern for gender responsibility and a marked tilt against women, Sirach 42.9-14, cf 2 11.3, 1 Timothy 2.14; Adam acquired some admiration and Eve took the blame. From Maccabean times the immortality of the soul was bolstered by martyrdom. This stance is summed up in the Wisdom of Solomon, cf 3.1-4 which might have paved the way for a theory of resurrection.

The Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life come from different stories, the latter incidental to the former until Genesis 3.22b until when there is no prohibition upon it; and the two trees are never related but they represent prerogatives of God, human access to both of which would have been intolerable. The knowledge of good and evil brings power to understand difference but a knowledge of one's weaknesses and limitations. The couple were embarrassed by their nakedness not in shame for an evil deed; it was not shame from wrong-doing but a sense of impropriety, a growing consciousness of lines that must not be crossed; but unless they were in the Garden for a very short time they must have made love and so that cannot have been a source of guilt or disobedience; the negativity lies in learning that all sex will not be equally good; the thought that there was no intercourse in Eden results from Christian hang-ups; in the OT there is no interest in sex for its own sake. Humans in the image of god not impaired by the couple's misdemeanour but enhanced.

The world as we know it descends from Noah; if there is a fall it is in Genesis 6, the under-observed angel marriages and universal violence; 1 Peter 3.18-20; 2 Peter 3.5-10; Psalm 104; 74.12-17. The catastrophe is in meticulously calculated 6, not as Paul sees it, in Eden; Noah is the beginning of time, declining longevity and evil. Violence, not sex, is the ultimate sin. Christianity says death is unnatural but war natural; Judaism says death is natural and war repugnant.

If Genesis 3 is aetiological not historical, the argument of Paul and Protestants re "The Fall" is destroyed; but it could be an aetiology of sin and death; but, Barr says, it is an aetiology of non-immortality. Theologians wanted ‘The Fall' and 'original sin', whether the Old Testament text supported them or not. ... for the Pauline and the traditional Reformational doctrine of the Fall and original sin, it was essential that the Fall of Adam and Eve should be a historical fact." "'The thought that all death, at all times and in all circumstances, is due to a primeval fault, is difficult to take seriously ... the belief that God really, on the ground of a fault committed by two humans in the beginning of the world, ordained death as a destiny for all later humanity, throughout history, has truly staggering effects on the idea of God." Genesis 2; 3, I believe, is profoundly aetiological, explaining much of why things are as they are; but, Barr says, the text's attraction is the concept of immortality, lost, or not quite gained. Without Genesis, experience would bring us to a concept of "the fall" which relies on the idea that we were once perfect where God only named creation "good". "Adam and Eve's) imperfection makes it all the more natural that they disobeyed: everyone did."

IN the conflict between immortalists and resurrectionists the former have suffered more because of their reliance on pagan and possibly erroneous philosophy and an emphasis on self-referential, individual salvation but the selfish charge can be levelled at resurrectionists. The reaction triggered by liberal, dialectical theology which was equivocal about the Resurrection: "... much in the turn against immortality of the soul was not a return to the fountainhead of biblical evidence but a climbing on the bandwagon of modern progress - the very thing that was at the same time being excoriated when it had been done in liberal theology." The apparent contradiction of Luke 23.43 and Matthew 25. Souls committed to heaven or hell at death make the last judgment purely formal and purgatory redundant; but there is no reason that the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body should be in conflict. The Resurrection was dogmatically important for resurrection but the soul was cardinal in the God/man relationship. Classically, Roman Catholics and Protestants believed in the disembodied soul after death being reunited with a newly created body at the last judgment. Perhaps the most constructive idea is the continuance of life: "The particular concentration on resurrection, characteristic of Christianity, appears late and seems to be associated with martyrdom." The passage of time and the failure of the Parousia are significant.

But the clue is in the abiding presence, cited in Revelation, of the Tree of Life.

There are elements of Barr's argument which are worthy of further study: first, the idea that Paul's key text is The Wisdom of Solomon; secondly, that his thought is primarily Hellenic rather than Hebraic; and, thirdly, that the Old Testament hardly supports ideas of immortality until its last pages. Which leads to the ironic conclusion that the Protestant case would be much more Biblically supported if it had not relegated some books to the Apocrypha.

As can be seen from the final paragraph, the book rather peters out because its central argument, that humanity almost grasped immortality in the Garden, before being expelled is, to say the last, tenuous; but, then, many a good book, which gives continual pleasure, falls at the last fence.

The other great intellectual weakness in Barr's case is that he implies that there is no real contradiction between the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body but that would not make for such an interesting set of arguments. His treatment of the various understandings of what happens to human beings after death is also weak, not least because what is chronology to us is timeless to God. And, of course - I say "of course" with a sense of weariness - like so many other discussions of this sort, 'sin', or whatever you wish to term misdemeanours, wrong choices, acts of evil, is characterised as individual whereas although we are implicit or even complicit in communal evil, most of our own lives have  little real 'sin' to speak of.

In summary, then, this is an interesting book if you are interested in Eden and its supposed consequences but, for all its provocative scholarship, the rest is only of passing interest.