In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt traces the history of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the first man and woman, presumably built from similar tales in ancient Babylonian literature, through interpretations of the story by St. Augustine and John Milton, to the Enlightenment critique of creation, to the modern scientific understanding of human origins. Marilynne Robinson, in her review, argues that Greenblatt demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of Milton’s theology and approach to the Bible—to which a sizable portion of the book is devoted—as well as a failure to read Genesis as it might have been understood by the ancients. More importantly, she writes, he misses the point:
Greenblatt, an English professor at Harvard University, . . . frames his inquiry in terms of truth or fiction. For him truth means plausibility, and by that measure the story of Adam and Eve is no more than a miracle of storytelling. But science tells us that Homo sapiens does indeed roughly share a single lineage, in some sense a common origin, just as ancient Genesis says it does. In the Hebrew Bible the word adam often means all humankind, mortals.
Greenblatt never seems to consider why the myth might have felt so true to those who found their religious and humanist values affirmed by it—and their own deepest intuitions, which science has partly borne out. It is interesting that those who claim to defend the creation narrative from rationalist critiques [similarly] ignore the fact that its deepest moral implications, a profound human bond and likeness, have been scientifically demonstrated.
In any case, it is a tendentious reading of any ancient text that would apply modern standards of plausibility to myth. . . . Greenblatt respects his subject, and still he assumes that the rationalist reading offers up the true meaning of the story.
[He] imposes this kind of reasoning on John Milton, no less. He writes that Milton “was convinced that everything had to spring from and return to the literal truth of the Bible’s words. In the absence of that truth, Milton’s Christian faith and all the positions he had taken on the basis of that faith would be robbed of their meaning.” There is a special problem with the phrase “literal truth.” Milton knew Hebrew. A serious student of Scripture is aware that neither English nor Latin versions can be described as “literal.” . . . In any case, precisely his devotion to Scripture would have made [Milton’s] understanding of it nuanced and rich, and not in the least “literal.”