Is the "Fall" in the Hebrew Bible,
And Why Is This Really Important?

By Dr. Jan Garrett

Questions and Thoughtful Feedback Welcome

Most recent alteration: September 30, 2011

This is a discussion of one aspect of chapter six (by Leslie Stevenson)
in Stevenson and Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Is the "Fall" in the Hebrew Bible?

For centuries writers on the Biblical story have referred to the famous disobedience of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden as the Fall. Stevenson does so on p. 117 in Ten Theories.

The importance of this "event" has changed since the stories were first read and thought about. In the tradition represented by the Hebrew Bible, that is, the Jewish scriptures,1 the event is not described as the Fall.

The event is only called the Fall outside the Hebrew Bible, within the context of Christianity or writers adopting specifically Christian terminology. Some Christian Bibles actually title Gen. chapter 3 "The Fall of Man." This title is not in the original Hebrew text or in Jewish translations of Genesis.

In the Hebrew Bible, the disobedience by Adam and Eve is important as first of many cases of disobedience by humans central to the main story line. The loss of innocence and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden partly define human beings from that point on.

Adam and Eve were originally innocent in the sense that they did not yet have knowledge of Good and Evil, although they did apparently understand that they were not supposed to eat of one of the Trees in the Garden. Innocent in the sense that applied to them at that time did not mean "good" in the sense of morally virtuous. (One cannot be morally virtuous unless one has a firm sense of the distinction between good and evil!)

It is important to note that, for pre-Christian writers, there is no assumption that human nature, which has clearly been seen by God as good in Gen. 1:31, has become corrupted as a result of the disobedience. Surely human beings are henceforth supposed to be aware, at least in a vague way, of the distinction between Good and Evil, since the tree of which they ate was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And God eventually tells them quite specifically what they are to do and not to do, most famously in the tablets that Moses brings down from Mt. Sinai. Deuteronomy is full of detailed instructions reportedly provided by way of Moses to the Children of Israel. It assumes that they are able to follow the instructions.

Of course, there are many stories in the Hebrew Bible of important and not so important people who violate the commandments God enjoined upon them. Some such violations are said to have occurred before the famous stories of the giving of the commandments, for example, Cain's murder of Abel (reported in Genesis) was long before Mt. Sinai. There are also many stories of people who did as they were instructed by the Lord, and if even they occasionally messed up, we can hardly conclude from that fact that it is the Biblical view that human beings are inherently or naturally sinful. We can of course infer that even the best of us ordinary mortals are less than perfect. We can conclude that the authors (or, if you like, the first human scribes) of the biblical books were quite aware that human beings, perhaps with some rare exceptions, are subject to temptation.

The "Fall" in the Apostle Paul

The term "fall" occurs in the Apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans, where, among other things, Paul is promoting Christianity as based upon the Jewish tradition but departing from the older Jewish tradition in a new way centered on the life and death of Jesus. "For if by the fall of the one [i.e., Adam's disobedience and the expulsion of the original couple from Eden], the many died, much more the favor of God, even that gracious gift by the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded to the many." (5:15) Paul regards the disobedience or sin of Adam and Eve as bringing death into the world. It is possible to understand him as saying that the sacrifice of Jesus makes it possible for us to gain eternal life, hence it is the solution to a problem posed by "the fall."

But Paul also writes (5:12) "For this reason--as through one human being sin entered the world and through sin death: and thus to all humans death passed through, eph' ho all sinned." (The Greek phrase eph' hô can mean "in whom" and is sometimes thought to refer back to the "one human being." But this is odd because it is all of 20 words later. It can also mean "in the fact [that]" and it was generally interpreted that way until the fifth century.)

Augustine on the Consequences of Adam's Disobedience

Interpreted in the second, more natural way, Paul is saying that Adam was typical, and after Adam, everyone was subject to death because sooner or later everyone failed to live up to God's moral standards. But in the fourth and fifth century, Augustine (using the Latin translation available to him) interpreted it in the first sense, and decided that Paul taught that Adam's sin somehow made sinners out of all his descendants.

Augustine declares:

The entire human race that was to pass through woman into offspring was contained in the first man when that married couple received the divine sentence condemning them to punishment, and humanity produced what humanity became, not when it was created, but when having sinned, it was punished." (Augustine, On the City of God 13,3)
Augustine is explicit, then, that what Adam and Eve did was the Original Sin that is then transmitted to us. Since then, human beings, originally created good, have been unable not to sin. This sinfulness is not always expressed in overt action, but is manifest to each of us internally, when we experience inappropriate desires that we recognize as such. (Augustine's position is later emphasized in the Protestantism of Calvin, among others.)

The Significance of the Fall in Paul and Augustine

The Fall was important to Augustinian Christianity because, even more clearly than in Paul's account, it clearly posed the problem to which Jesus Christ was part of the solution. Without Jesus' death, which Paul understood as a sacrifice on behalf of human beings, we could not ever regain a right relationship with God. But Augustine thought we were so corrupted as a result of the Original Sin that we could not freely or on our own choose to have the faith required to make Christ's sacrifice effective in our own case. For that to occur, we had to be the recipient of God's free gift of grace (and there was nothing we could do, so corrupted were we, to deserve His grace).

What made Paul's teaching regarding the sacrifice of Jesus significant was that, if Paul was right, one did not have to be a Jew in order to regain the right relationship with God. Anybody, he held, could have faith in Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. In other words, for Paul, talking about "the Fall" is part of a package. In his view, receiving divine grace and committing ourselves to the Christian message can give us back the freedom to be good.

Jews who take the Hebrew Bible seriously (but not the New Testament) do not normally understand the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden as taking away our freedom or corrupting the fundamental nature of human beings. If anything, our knowledge of good and evil ought to make us more like God than we were before we acquired it!

Stevenson on The Fall and Original Sin

So, in his discussion of the Old Testament in chapter 6, Stevenson is reading it through a Christian lens when he refers to the first disobedience and the expulsion from Eden as "the Fall." If he were reading Genesis from a Jewish perspective, he would not use this phrase.

Another instance in which he seems to be reading the Old Testament through Christian lens —now through an Augustinian Christian lens—is in his claim on p. 117 that we are "infected with sin, and we therefore disrupt our relationship to God," which suggests that sin is something like a disease that has been transmitted to us. Stevenson refers to Isaiah 59:2, which is in the Hebrew Bible, at this point but Isaiah 59:2 significantly does not use the metaphor "infect."

Stevenson refers to "original sin" on p. 123 in his discussion of Paul's views. He correctly states that Paul's views do not imply that we are totally and utterly depraved; that would mean that we are essentially unfree, unable (on our own) not to sin, as Augustine seems to think.

Also on p. 123, S. cites Romans 5:18-19 in a translation that suggests that all humans are condemned as a result of one man's [Adam's] offence, and through the disobedience of one man all men are made sinners. It is possible to understand this as saying that Adam's sin, and the resultant expulsion, created conditions in which human beings were more likely to sin— because the hardships of the post-Eden world present more temptations to disobedience— rather than saying that we lost our power to avoid wrongdoing, as Augustine interpreted Paul's letter. It has been pointed out by some critics of Augustine that Ezekiel 18 clearly rejects the idea that God condemns the son for the sins of his father. (That seems consistent with the many statements affirming the justice of God.)

Even Augustine, however, thought that Christ's sacrifice made it possible for some people —those who, though undeserving, received God's grace— to be saved from the sinfulness that they inherited as a result of Adam's transgression in the Garden of Eden.

Why Does This Matter?

Why does this matter for people who do not accept Paul's view that people have regained the possibility of righteous living as a result of Christ's gift? It matters because the doctrine of the Fall has become influential even when people have never adopted, or never understood, or once believed but since abandoned the other part of Paul's Christian message, namely, that Christ's sacrifice restores the possibility of the freedom to be good, to do the right thing.

The Fall without the rest of the standard Christian (i.e., Pauline) package is a recipe for what Michael Lerner calls "cynical realism." This is the view that everyone is motivated only by the desire for his or her own pleasure, power, or material wealth. It is a short step from cynical realism to the doctrine that each of us should be motivated in this way. "After all," one understandably reasons, "if everybody else is so motivated, who will be there for me if I am in need? So I might as well adopt this exclusively self-interested way of living as my personal strategy." I suggest that this is one of the worst possible philosophies of life, from a moral point of view. It is a recipe for the destruction of trusting relationships between human beings. Applied to oneself, cynical realism is a denial of the freedom and personal responsibility that most people are aware, at some level, that they possess.

It is not far-fetched to assert that this conclusion is directly contrary to the spirit of both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament.

Note 1. The books of the Hebrew Bible are mostly the same as those in Christian Old Testament, but their order is somewhat different. Perhaps I should be speaking of "the Jewish Bible," rather than the Hebrew Bible, because there are two primary ancient versions of this collection of texts, one in Hebrew, the other in Greek (the Septuagint). An English translation may be found in The Jewish Study Bible, published by Oxford University Press.