By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Around the year 600, the Germanic tribes that had settled in the island of Britain were approached by Christian missionaries sent from Rome. These Greek- and Latin-speaking evangelists faced an enormous challenge—they had to find a way to convert tribal leaders, and also to translate the central ideas of Roman Christianity into languages and concepts that made sense to the new converts.
Unity under Roman Church
The evangelists needed to meld Roman practices with Celtic and Germanic ones, building churches on sacred sites and gradually turning the worship of pagan gods into the rituals of Christianity.
An account of these cultural negotiations comes down to us in a remarkable history written several generations later, in the early 8th century—A History of the English Church and People. It was written by a Northumbrian monk and polymath, now known as the Venerable Bede. Bede describes how diverse peoples were united under the Roman Church and came to adopt Latin as a language of learning and worship. In so doing, however, he tries to disguise the extent to which a Mediterranean religion and worldview were actually transformed by the northern Europeans who received them.
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We can see these influences in some surviving Old English versions of biblical texts. Take the Old English poem known as “Genesis B”, which is an extensive and surprising translation that fundamentally changes the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
In the Hebrew version of this story, in Genesis chapter 3, a serpent “more subtle than any wild creature that the Lord God had made” approaches “the woman” and informs her that the tree whose fruit she and Adam have been forbidden to eat will not cause them to die, but will open their eyes to all knowledge, so “you will be like God”. When Eve and Adam eat, their opened eyes indeed tell them that they are naked, and God then condemns the woman for her sin, cursing her and her offspring in perpetuity.
English Version of the Story
The Old English story could hardly be more different. First of all, the handful of Hebrew prose lines expands to more than 250 metrical, alliterative verse lines—an increase of 3,600%. This suggests that an English audience needed more context, more detailed description, dialogue, and explanation than the audiences for whom Greek and Latin translations had been made.
Furthermore, the villain in this version is a “malevolent-minded” warrior with the gift of “perverse speech” who “meant surreptitiously to seduce, lead astray, and pervert with wicked deeds the followers of the Lord, men, so that they would become repugnant to God”.
So in this story, Adam and Eve are part of a larger community that already peoples what is called the Middle Earth; they are not the only couple, but representatives of a larger population vulnerable to lying speech. We are also told that Adam is “God’s most wisely created handiwork” and Eve “a most beautiful woman”, and that the trees in the garden have been planted by “the High King’s hands in order that thereby the children of men, each person, might choose between good and evil, well-being and woe”.
Rather than dying a virtuous and heroic death, such as merited a glorious ship-burial or funeral pyre and endless feasting in Valhalla—the idea of the glorious afterlife which northern European peoples shared—the man who transgressed his Lord’s decree would be condemned to perdition. The choice made by Adam and Eve was not a choice made once, at the dawn of time, it was being made over and over by every human being.
Conversation between Adam and the Snake
In marked contrast to the Hebrew Genesis, in which Adam and the serpent never have any direct contact, the Old English text has the evil adversary turning himself into a snake and holding an extended conversation with Adam, in which he represents himself as a messenger from “the Heaven-King”.
He tells Adam that, “The Heaven-King has commanded that you should eat of this fruit and he declared that your strength and skill and your mind would grow greater, and your body much more beautiful, your limbs more handsome, and he declared that to you there would prove no want of any wealth in the world.”
Adam, however, responds that this is contrary to the commands he had personally received from his Lord. Moreover, he shrewdly tells the stranger that, “You are not like any of his angels whom I saw before, nor have you shown me any token that my Master has sent to me out of his favor and grace. Therefore I cannot obey you, and you may go your way.”
A medieval messenger would always show a sign of his lord’s authority, a signet ring or some other object, that would vouch for his authenticity.
Persuasion of Eve
When the adversary goes to Eve, then, it is because he has failed with Adam. And he makes the most powerful argument he can to a responsible wife and mother. He emphasizes that it is her duty to perform the high-born woman’s traditional role of offering good counsel to her husband.
Appealing to Eve’s common sense, her concern for husband, and the well-being of the household for which she is responsible, “with lying words he misguided the lovely woman, the most beautiful of wives, into that indiscretion”. And so eventually, after many more such speeches, Eve is persuaded of her duty to save Adam from his prideful rejection of the messenger.
So far from cursing Eve for her perfidy, as the canonical narrator does in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old English narrator exonerates her from blame on the basis of her pure heart and loyal intentions.
Common Questions about the Story of Adam and Eve
A History of the English Church and People was written by a Northumbrian monk and polymath, now known as the Venerable Bede.
“Genesis B” is a translation that fundamentally changes the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
A medieval messenger always showed a sign of his lord’s authority, a signet ring or some other object, that would vouch for his authenticity.