Did Paul take Genesis literally?

Was Paul interpreting Genesis literally here? I’d love some EC Bible scholars to weigh in on this.
“But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭11:3‬ ‭ESV‬‬

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Interesting topic. We have discussed similar issues with Paul in his writings in Romans, and also with Jesus, so will be some overlap with old posts, but in trying to keep focused on this verse, it brings up some interesting questions to me:

  1. Who or what was the serpent? “The satan” as a general prosecutor, or Satan as a discrete being?
  2. Who was the serpent to Paul, and did his training and culture define that understanding, or was that understanding expanding to a universal truth through inspiration in his writing?

In looking at the verse, I found it helpful to also read it with the clause about Eve removed, to focus on the message Paul was trying to convey, as we tend to get hung up on side issues and ironically miss the thrust of the verse. “But I am afraid your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” That is not to say the other is not an subject we should explore, only that I need to keep centered on the main message and not get carried away by elves (i.e. subordinate Clauses). :wink:

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I think one distinction would be did Paul believe the historical and scientific theories created by Genesis 1-11 because he believed genesis was written as a literal story versus was he aware that it was written as a mythological poem but still believed much of it because it contained thoughts thst was accepted by his culture.

Such as I believe Paul believed in a firmament. I don’t think he believed it because of genesis 1 but because that’s what so many believed then. I’m sure the myths helped encourage it but I think it’s a distinction nonetheless.

There is a good discussion of this issue by Scot McKnight in Adam and the Genome. He distinguishes between “literal Adam” and “literary Adam.” Literary Adam is the figure that Jewish rabbis referred to, and they referred to him as a “real” person, as people do when they make literary allusions. You can’t know a person’s beliefs about whether a literary figure is “historical” simply by the way they make allusions.


The story of Adam and Eve is an allegory for the transition from instinct (eyes closed, naked w/o shame, no ontological anxiety) to learned behavior (the knowledge of good and evil = eyes opened, cover their shame, hide in fear from God), so it would be available to Paul at the surface layer of the allegory where self-consciousness (scientific label) is a Tree with low hanging fruit (allegorical label).

The biblical author didn’t have to know anything about evolution. He only had to know the difference between men and animals to write the Adam and Eve story.

Thanks! Checked this book out right now and will read it!

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Thank you! What are the tags I should use to search old posts on this topic?

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We may be going to tags someday, but for now, easiest just to use the search function at the top of the page.

Adam and Eve are not historical. McKnight calls the story “literary” which has so wide a scope it is almost meaningless. The proper exegesis of the Adam and Eve story is below.

[Begin snip]
Adam and Eve choose to venture out, as they must, because their fallen condition is our human condition, and it is our fallen human condition that the Biblical author is describing. Adam and Eve’s sudden realization after eating the forbidden fruit is of a shift in their state of being. At the Torah’s allegorical level, it happens in an instant of Biblical time; but the transition actually occurred over millions of years of biological time as the human brain increased in size and complexity and man developed his unique intelligence and an acute sense of self-consciousness. The fundamental nature of the shift is described very specifically in the Biblical text.

Adam and Eve open their eyes, cover their nakedness, and hide from God.

Discrete variables can be obtained from the Genesis text and arranged in a formula.
Here are the variables in the formula for the fall with the corresponding text:

  • Self (open their eyes) = + shame (cover their nakedness) + fear (hide from God).
    • The formula for the fall is (+ self = + shame + fear).

Adam and Eve open their eyes to self consciousness in a Biblical instant, compressing millions of years of evolutionary time. Their expanded self-consciousness generates ontological anxiety —
the fear of sin and death. Paul Tillich, the philosopher and theologian lecturing at Yale University declared, “Courage is the self affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.”

The discipline of the self-sacrifice returns a man from the fall by eliminating the fear generated by the threat of non-being — the self-conscious awareness of the inevitability of death. By eliminating concern for the self (– self) the individual’s sense of ego is diffused (– shame), and anxiety over the threat of non-being subsides (– fear). I visualized the formula after seeing its precise variables expressed in reverse in another religious text from another time. I was reading the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi texts of the 1st-2nd century when I encountered the following logion (37). The author of the Gospel of Thomas refers directly to the return from the ontological fall.

His disciples said, “ When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?”

Jesus said, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then [will you see] the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid.”

Here are those discrete variables in the formula for the return from the fall with the corresponding text from the Gospel of Thomas:

– Self (see the son) = – shame (without being ashamed) – fear (you will not be afraid).
• The formula for the return is (– self = – shame – fear)

The compiler/author of the Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus reversing the process of the fall in Genesis to describe the return. The discrete variables in the formula are the variables from Genesis but the values are now negative. The self is gone and so are shame and fear. Recall Tillich. “Courage is the self affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.” The self-sacrifice eliminates the threat of non-being through disciplines that affirm the essential self (the Spirit) by surrendering the threatened self (the body). Literary paradoxes for the self-sacrifice such as those found throughout the gnostic Gospel of Thomas abound in scripture:

Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 16:24-25

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
Romans 12:1

Snip from: The Fundamental Structure and Systematic Theology of the Torah, Richard Faussette

The Return from the Fall (the self-sacrifice) is incorporated into the Epistle to the Hebrews @ 8:8-13 where the author quotes the “gospel before the gospels” from Jeremiah 31:31-34 in full.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord. For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”

To write the Law upon your heart is to memorize it and internalize it. Daniel Boyarin calls it Jesus’ monovocality.

  1. Who or what was the serpent? “The satan” as a general prosecutor, or Satan as a discrete being?

Why the assumption that the serpent here needs to be Satan? Genesis identifies the serpent in the garden as a “beast of the field” (Gen 3:1; cf. Matt 10:16). Paul simply says, “the serpent,” not the devil or Satan. Revelation 12:3, 9 identifies the “old serpent” as having seven heads like Lotan of ANE mythology, corresponding to Leviathan (Isa 27:1). The serpent in the garden doesn’t seem to have seven heads or live in the sea, nor is it called a dragon.

In the Genesis story, the serpent is a talking animal. Whether the elements of the story symbolize things or beings is a different question than what the passage says as a narrative.


If one quotes from Hamlet or The Golden Journey to Samarkand to make a valid point with a literary allusion does it mean that one believes them to be histories of Denmark or Uzbekistan which validate one’s point? In Paul’s case yes of course, how could he not, living 1600 years before the Enlightenment. And not. The classical worldview was a fecund mix of extremely pragmatic, rational and superstitious, a very broad and deep spectrum, often in the same mind; evolution was obvious to the C7th BCE pre-Socratic Anaximander. The C5th BCE Democritus gave us atoms and infinite space. Paul, quoter of Anaximander’s contemporary Epimenides, would have known this. So, no, Paul wasn’t a modern reactionary fundamentalist. He’d have no reason not to believe in Adam and Eve and the Fall and to have absorbed the highly evolved idea of Satan. None of which has anything to do with what he meant. See my tagline.

I think it is safe to say that Paul probably did not take the Genesis story as some vague metaphor, no more than I do myself. Not that this proves anything. People use stories to illustrate their points whether they believe it is historically or literally true or not. And even if you did take Paul’s comment in such a way, it doesn’t cover very much. So MAYBE Paul believed that Eve really existed, that the intelligent being referred to as the snake really existed as well, and that this event actually happened – same as I do. But none of this necessarily means that Paul believed that Eve was a golem of bone created by necromancy or that the snake was a talking animal getting her to eat a magical fruit.

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You can only speculate on what an author thought but by the way he compares the fall to the Cross in Romans its hard not to see how the sacrificial death of Jesus isn’t equally a possible candidate for an allegory as the Garden story. Paul seems to refer to the event as if it’s true and there is no hint he thought otherwise. Paul didn’t know any better. The question is, can we still accept the thrust of what Romans teaches if we leave the details of the Garden story behind? How does it change things? To be quite honest, belief in a “literal” garden story today is on par with believing in a flat earth or a young earth. There is no point in sugar coating this. It’s a nonsensical belief that deserves no credence in educated arenas. We must attribute it to accommodation.

We know of people like Philo who had allegorical interpretations but for me it’s hard to see why a Pharisee who believed the Torah contains the God’s Law thought it was “wrong” or allegorical in regards to the creation story. Was Abraham real to Paul? The exodus despite the logistic problems?

Was there any reason for Paul to deny the Garden story? The idea that life evolved via evolution was not on Paul’s table. The story of Adam and Eve are as good an explanation of creation at the time as any other.

Can’t know for certain but if I had to place a wager I’d bet heavily on Paul taking Genesis at its word. He was a Pharisee. Jewish scripture at the time was his authority. It was his truth and way of life before Damascus. Reinterpreting it in light of the Cross was his truth after.

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Did he have any other choice?

And yet he did not go around telling the gentiles to follow the law.

Which he changed after Damascus.

Perhaps we should be willing to change our view of the OT likewise.

Thinking of becoming a cat-herder, are ya?
Double-covenant’s a possible route: OT by Jews for 1st covenant Jews and OT by Jews & NT for 2nd covenant non-Jewish believers; no more Replacement Theology.

Guys, it’s an adventure in missing the point. Unless one is trying to force original sin and PSA in to Paul. His point is my tagline.

Well, when I said reinterpreted, I was being charitable. Early Christians have misinterpreted the Old Testament since Calvary. Modern Christians have been changing the Old Testament for 2,000 years. We don’t have to be willing, it’s already the norm.


Are you implying the latter is more fantastic than the former? By modern standards, both are like believing in fairy tales. Maybe a team of archaeologists will one day locate Cinderella’s missing glass slipper. There is an equally likely chance of that occurring as there is locating the Garden of Eden. Contemporary grown ups with access to education should not believe the Garden story.


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Ah c’mon @Vinnie, be fair, we’re only following our originator’s example!

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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