Reading Proto-Genesis and Paul with David Bentley Hart (and Moses)

[Note: I’m honored to have had this article shared here by David Bentley Hart (along with one other on this topic).]

As far as I can tell, the most “infamous” passage in Tradition and Apocalypse (controversial and disappointing even with some of Hart’s most informed and appreciative readers1) has been Hart’s summary of the original Genesis story of human creation and fall. In his summary, Hart has a proto-Yahweh who belongs to a council of other gods. This Yahweh is excited at having just created a new race of peasants out of the clay, but he is struggling to keep these peasants under control. In Hart’s account, the snake is telling the truth about the devious intentions of this demiurge who only wants servants with no threat from them as rivals.

This substantial retelling is found on pages 164 to 167 (almost four of them). It is a titillating read for those keen to mock the scriptures for whatever reason and a confusing read (even heartbreaking) for those desiring to see more and more of Jesus Christ through the reading of the scriptures. In conversations online and in person, several people (including myself) have compared this passage with some of Hart’s other comments about the Old Testament and its evil god (chiefly here) and reflected on all of this within the context of literal versus spiritual modes of reading the Bible (see here and here), and these comparisons are warranted and fruitful. However, I sat down this evening to read the passage (for the third time) within full context. I ended up reading the entire part two of chapter seven, and (of course) the context of Hart’s overall point is critical.

First of all, Hart makes it clear—both leading into and wrapping up his illustration—that he is not describing the scriptural account that we have in Genesis 2 and 3 but its historical antecedent (pagan oral traditions) that were “(somewhat unevenly) redacted in the scriptural texts” (165). Hart’s entire point in recounting his version of the Genesis story is that the selfish and incompetent god of these pagan stories is made, by the spiritual vision of Jewish faithfulness, to point us more and more toward God the Father who is perfectly revealed to us as the Jewish itinerant teacher Jesus Christ.

Hart is hardly cryptic in setting this up but explicitly lists out his chronology of Israelite and Jewish faiths with a simplified sequence (163):

  1. “the earliest Israelite polytheisms and shamanic spiritualities” [These are the pagan roots of Israelite faith in the true God to which the Bible itself gives many, many attestations. On their slow way out of paganism, these cultures gave rise to the oral traditions from which Jewish scriptures were later written down.]
  2. “Jewish ‘mono-Yahwism’”
  3. “an ever more spiritually and intellectually exalted monotheism in late antiquity”

When Hart speaks of the snake telling the truth to Adam and Eve and then of God running back to the council of the other gods in consternation, Hart is not exegeting Genesis 2 and 3 but is instead showing us the extreme transformation accomplished by the Jewish faith which he calls “an immense and unique reservoir of spiritual and intellectual possibilities that really did indicate a kind of special historical vocation within Judaism” (163). This community, with its divine calling, transformed the pagan “original tale” (repeated twice on page 164) that Hart reconstructs into the Jewish and Christian scriptures that we have today. It is true that Hart considers this transformation to have “rendered visible a great many things that had been really present in those earlier phases,” but this is by means of bringing these past understandings “into relief only by the light of the later synthesis” (163).

At this point, I must note that Hart is pointing out exactly what his recent (and empty) critic Gerald McDermott claims that Hart failed to see:

Hart’s rendition of Genesis 3 betrays a surprising inability to distinguish between background Near Eastern myths and their subtle refutations by the biblical author.

“Hart’s rendition of Genesis 3” is precisely an account of the “background Near Eastern myths” that Hart colorfully lays out so that readers (more capable or honest than McDermott) might better appreciate the “subtle refutations” accomplished by the Jewish authors that Hart identifies as having a “historical vocation” from God for this very purpose. Ironically, McDermott’s phrase “subtle refutations” is perfectly compatible with Hart’s phrase “brought into relief …by the light of the later synthesis.” This further confirms my suspicions (having read some of McDermott over his distinguished career) that he is not really so far from Hart in his own typical appreciation for the values of textual criticism as a modern scholarly discipline except when he is seeking to throw his enemy to the dogs with flourishes of rhetorical red meat tied to him.

But I am distracted from the goodness at hand. Hart’s point in Tradition and Apocalypse is that this Jewish vocation to more and more reveal God and the kingdom of God continues with Jesus Christ as, through the incarnation, all of the Old Testament is also “brought into relief …by the light of the later synthesis” that John, Paul and many later Christian thinkers increasingly achieve. Specifically, Hart paints such a stark contrast between the pagan proto-scriptural story of Genesis 3 and the use of these stories by Paul because Hart wishes to point out that this process is both powerful and ongoing. Paul feels entirely free in Romans chapter 5 to identify Adam as the incomplete Christ in whom the world died. Hart downplays this teaching by Paul somewhat as a “little more than one half of a rhetorical parallelism” and “an elegant rhetorical gesture” because Hart is eager to show that what Paul is doing is an entirely normal reinterpretation of Adam in the light of Christ rather than some kind of dogmatic claim about the original meaning of the Genesis story. It is absurd to Hart that Paul’s beautiful linkage of Adam to Christ would, some four hundred years later, become the basis for dogmatic teachings about original sin and inherited guilt (166).

Paul was knowingly taking Adam as a figure in a story that had been continually and radically reinterpreted in the light of later Jewish insights into the nature of God and making Adam into a antitype of Christ (like the reverse side of the same coin that has Jesus Christ on its face). This placed Adam in the position, like Christ, of representing the entire human condition but not of committing the first crime against God and thus tipping over the first domino in a long series that would inevitably condemn us as criminals too. This cascading criminal record idea of sin would have been foreign to Paul in general and certainly not have had any connection to the pagan stories of Adam and Eve that Paul’s people had so wonderfully transformed into an account of God’s loving commitment to a particular people as representatives of and witnesses to the entire world.

This is the context and the purpose for Hart’s supposed account of the “meaning of Genesis 3” as some readers have so wrongly put it. In this passage from Tradition and Apocalypse, Hart is not at all seeking to tell us what Genesis 3 means but instead what human blindness and enslavement looks like and how this darkness can be transformed into light by the faithful servants of God who take up their vocations to weave together the light of God’s revelation as they seek to train their vision by gazing upon the promises of unlimited goodness and eternal life that they have heard in their own pursuit of God.

In all of this, Hart is unpacking a basic principle of the spiritual life expounded powerfully by Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses. The most prominent theme in this exposition of the virtuous life is that virtue can only be acquired and enjoyed by the constant pursuit of infinite life and goodness:

Although lifted up through such lofty experiences, [Moses] is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being. Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful.

…Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil. …What is marked off by boundaries is not virtue. I said that it is also impossible for those who pursue the life of virtue to attain perfection. …Virtue is not perceived in contrast to virtue.

Growth and life are founded upon this desire continually to be filled anew with all that God has to offer regardless of what we have received in the past and what we might therefore consider to be the measure of what God is. Indeed, this is tied to how paganism and sin are overcome. When describing the destruction of the golden calf, Gregory writes:

The error of idolatry utterly disappeared from life, being swallowed by pious mouths, which through good confession bring about the destruction of the material of godlessness. The mysteries established of old by idolaters became running water, completely liquid, a water swallowed by the very mouths of those who were at one time idol-mad. When you see those who formerly stooped under such vanity now destroying those things in which they had trusted, does the history then not seem to you to cry out clearly that every idol will then be swallowed by the mouths of those who have left error for true religion?

Gregory calls the moths of the idolaters “pious mouths” because they are now drinking water that gives life. They are transforming, by their own receptiveness to the water, that which was once evil and receiving it as good so that the evil and idolatry of the past is replaced by blessedness and life. This language of replacing the evil of our past with good is seen as well in C. S. Lewis (as spoken by the fictional George MacDonald who serves as a guide to heaven for Lewis at the end of The Great Divorce):

Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. …The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.

The actual words of George MacDonald even more emphatically state this same point that we much change our own past:

Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live with its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil. (Lilith)

God is bound by his love to punish sin in order to deliver his creature; he is bound by his justice to destroy sin in his creation. …He is bound in himself to make up for wrong done by his children, and he can do nothing to make up for wrong done but by bringing about the repentance of the wrong-doer. …Without that, all that the Lord did would be lost. He would have made no atonement. Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter, is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. …God will never let a man off with any fault. He must have him clean. …He is God beyond all that the heart hungriest for love and righteousness could to eternity desire. (“Justice” in Unspoken Sermons)

We saw this same language in Gregory of Nyssa that we see in Geroge MacDonald about God being as “beyond all that [we] could to eternity desire.” This continual ability of God to be “even more to us” is the basis of God’s ability to overcome our resistance and to suffer with us to the end of our suffering as well as to flourish and grow with us beyond the beginning of eternal life. This is also the basis for the apocalyptic promise that guides our assessment of our living traditions so that we must continually discern more meaning and capacity and life within their witness to Jesus Christ’s incarnation. In the light of such living and growing traditions, we can even find the gifts or seeds of goodness and truth lost within the sins and idolatries of our past so that the falsehood and emptiness surrounding these lost seeds is replaced as we take in and increasingly enjoy the truth and substance that sprout forth from these seeds once they are received into good soil.

This reception and transformation of pagan seeds into the soil of living Christian tradition is a major theme of Tradition and Apocalypse, and it is directly related to the pagan account underlying Genesis 3 that Hart gives to us. Just before his pagan proto-scriptural version of Genesis 3, Hart says:

The story of Judaism, which has over the ages constantly prompted this process of change into actuality, has proved capacious enough to embrace traditions “outside” the explicit life of Judaism, or at least to serve as the single ultimate horizon (conceptual, devotional, cosmic) toward which many traditions converge.

Hart’s Canaanite or Babylonian version of Genesis 2 and 3 is in line with his account of Platonism as a gift to Christianity that also would be transformed in the receiving (185-186) as well as his future hopes for what Christianity might receive as other ancient world faiths can help us to even better understand the incarnation and Christ’s two natures in one person (130). While I will not speculate on the hidden gifts within Hart’s pagan rendering of the human origins stories underlying Genesis, it is clear given the overall framework of Tradition and Apocalypse that these seeds of truth and goodness do exist within the darkness of the pagan stories taken up by Jewish scripture.

There is much more to say about such sweeping considerations, of course, and about the passage recounting the background of Genesis 2 and 3. Hart has recognized the pagan roots of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in many places. In Hart’s novel Kenogia, for example, the demiurge frequently quotes the Old Testament (in what feels like very elaborate and extended echoes of Satan citing scripture to Jesus Christ in the desert). There would also be much to consider in terms of literal versus spiritual or allegorical readings of scripture. This standard mode of reading the scriptures is exemplified amazingly in The Life of Moses which was clearly such an influence on some core concepts in Tradition and Apocalypse. Hart does note that his point with his retelling of the the pagan backdrop to Genesis 2 and 3 is to exemplify the extent of “invention and even poetic license” (164) that is sometimes required to find and draw out the kernels of truth within the traditionalisms of the past and synthesize them faithfully into living tradition. He says that this kind of poetic inventiveness is most comparable to “the spiritual or allegorical reading of scripture,” but insists that he is even more specifically pointing to “an appropriation in good faith of elements of the past that actively reoriented them in light of a final intentionality, even though that finality had at most only a very tenuous, impalpable, almost accidental presence in their origins” (164). This is Hart’s last sentence before jumping into the proto-biblical story behind Genesis 2 and 3 so that Hart might then show what Paul ultimately does with such seemingly foreign original material in his “typological obiter dictum” (166) and “scintillating example” of the “‘poetic’ process of reinterpretation” (167) of Roman 5 whereby Adam becomes an incomplete or proto-Christ in whom the entire cosmos languages in death, longing for its own creation in Jesus Christ. See John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology by John Behr for an account (praised loudly by Hart) of this point in the Gospel of John that creation actually takes place with the incarnation of Jesus Christ (or a wonderful summary in portions of this conversation with Jordan Wood).

If we were to really consider what Hart thinks that Genesis 1 to 3 mean, this would be it. And herein lies the real problem between Hart and so many of his readers. Hart is taking all of this for granted. Of course Genesis 1 to 3 are about the incarnation of the eternal Logos as Jesus Christ whereby the entire cosmos is created. Hart takes many other things for granted as well, of course. All of scripture exists within a capacious tradition of Christian life and practice whose boundaries at the start (within oral liturgies) or edges (during its course through history) would be impossible to fully enumerate. Hart says that the “Holy Spirit should …be invoked” over this entire living tradition “as a whole” because “what other ‘life’ could the tradition possibly possess.” Hart takes for granted that we would connect inspiration to “the giver of life” (as the creed names the Spirit) and that the Holy Spirit animates us in our hearing of Scripture so that we are empowered to find Christ within Scripture and thereby to enjoy life with the Spirit. Within this lived tradition, the Holy Spirit guides us by means of our shared experience of and longing for Christ’s kingdom. I would be glad for Hart to spell such positive assumptions out more clearly on a regular basis, but that is evidently not his vocation. He spends his most colorful and vivid words on a retelling of the pagan story behind Genesis 2 and 3 instead.

I could reflect more on all this, but I want to return in closing to Hart’s points about the small and the personal in contrast to this grand historical narrative. Leading up to the passage where Hart recounts the darkness that underlies Genesis 2 and 3, he makes this point about how each of our lives work:

This is the very nature of any truly unified life. As one grows older, every change transforms one’s understanding of the past—indeed, in a sense it transforms the past itself, insofar as the past is still present as a dimension of that life as a whole. (163)

This wonderfully expresses the same points in the passages above from Gregory, Lewis and MacDonald. (Recall Lewis: “The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.”) There is a wholeness about eternity and the life of God that, as we enter more and more into it, will show us all of the connections and the possibilities that we did not see in our own lives before. Down this road, we can eventually learn to imitate Moses as Gregory of Nyssa commends: “In himself, Moses shepherded a flock of tame animals.” Each of us follows the same path that scripture itself follows, from wilderness stories of alienation and oppression to the wholeness and infinite flourishing of life with our infinite God.

Domenico Fetti. “Moses Before the Burning Bush.” (c. 1615 to 1617, oil on canvas)

End Note

1. I am one example of such a sometimes confused and hurting reader, but there are others even more widely read. For example, commenting in response to a May 4, 2022 post by Keri asking about this passage in Tradition and Apocalypse (within the public “David B. Hart Reading Group” on Facebook), Tom Belt (one of the group admins and a blogger) wrote: “Hart’s interpretation of Scripture often leaves me quite confused. On the one hand, authorial intent or, let us say, what a text was most likely to have meant in its original setting, has no final claim upon what that text might mean for us. …In this sense, Hart’s comments about how the Eden myth originally functioned are beside the point. …In the end, one could argue that what Paul took Adam and Eve to mean (or how he saw the creation narratives as functioning) is more important for Xans in his day that any original contextual meaning. …But a few of Hart’s insistences are puzzling—that since the couple didn’t physically die when they ate, we should assume God “lied” to them, or that being placed in a garden to manage it reduces God’s intention for humanity (in the myth) to their being nothing more than “peasants” or serfs, or that God “fled in panic” to the other deities wringing his hands and wondering what to do. I don’t question his reading because I’m against the idea that the Bible would accommodate its own literary agenda to the mythologies of its day. I just don’t see some of his points in the text when read as a Babylonian myth or as conscripted by the Scriptural authors/editors for their own purposes.”

7 thoughts on “Reading Proto-Genesis and Paul with David Bentley Hart (and Moses)

  1. Perhaps I’m a strange case but I never found this oint particularly arcane or recherche. It seemed obvious from the getgo that he was never a marcionite or believed the fundamentalist literal version. It always seemed crystal clear that he was doing a reductio ad absurdum. Basically saying “Ok you want to read the bible in a woodenly literal way. Let’s see where that gets us…. Which is inevitably in a stupid place that actually contradicts tradition. It’s the traditionalists who would be Marcionites were it not for the Gregories and Origens of the world.”

    I think the only thing particularly novel was his takedown of the more Catholic traditionalist idea that in addition to the allegorical meaning we must also embrace literally the literal meaning. That is one mm more subtle than the low church fundamentalist Bible thumping idea, but not by much. Sometimes even the literal must be completely cast into the fire and only the spiritual sense remains. But we must be careful how far we go with that too. I thought it was clear and he did an excellent job.


  2. Jesse, thank you for this incredibly clarifying post. Do you have any resources that you recommend to better understand the relationship between the later Jewish authors and the proto-genesis stories they worked with and reinterpreted?


    Liked by 1 person

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