Today I finished reading Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity by Elaine Pagels. It’s a great book about how interpretations of the Genesis creation myth changed during the first 500 years of Christianity to support the social and political views of the interpreter. Dr. Pagels’ research gives fascinating insight into the power of evolving perceptions and how they affect the world.
…After Jesus had called for people to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God, and Paul proclaimed both its imminence and its radical demands, some intensely ascetic Christians in subsequent generations tried to put their teachings into radical practice, while others attempted to accommodate Christian teaching to existing social and political structures.
When state persecution pressed Christians to revere the emperors and the gods, the boldest among them defied government officials in the name of liberty and maintained their loyalty to Jesus, crucified for treason against Rome, as their “divine King,” and others denounced the emperors and all their gods as the panoply of devils. These embattled Christians forged a vision of the new “Christian society,” which was to be marked by freedom from compulsion, voluntary contributions for the welfare of all members, mutual love, and common faith.
As the Christian movement grew, despite persecution, and increasingly developed its own internal organization, its leaders expelled nonconformists from their ranks, including gnostic Christians. They insisted that only orthodox Christians preached the true gospel of Christ — the message of moral freedom, given in creation and restored in baptism.
Some of the most intense Christians refused any compromise with “the world” and sought to realize that liberty through the ascetic life by rejecting familial, social, and political obligations in order to recover the original glory of humankind, created in the “image and likeness of God.” After the persecutions ended, asceticism offered a new path for uncompromising “witness” — a new form of self-chosen martyrdom.
Christian views of freedom changed as Christianity became the religion of the emperors and was no longer a persecuted movement. … From the fifth century on, pessimistic views of sexuality, politics, and human nature [based on Augustine’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve] would become the dominant influence on western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, and color all western culture, Christian or not, ever since.