Jesus releasing the souls of the patriarchs and matriarchs from hell, beginning with Adam and Eve. 12th century fresco in the Kariye Camii Müzesi or Chora Church, Istanbul. Satan lies bound at Jesus’s feet, together with a profusion of broken keys and locks that once kept the prisoners captive.
The medieval English knew this scene as the “Harrowing of Hell.” It’s played to comic effect in the York Mystery Plays. Jesus arrives in great solemnity to break down the gates of hell and liberate the captives inside. Satan and the demons panic like the owners of a tinny house who have just realised that the police are battering down the front door.
The belief that Jesus descended into hell after his death is based on a number of biblical texts including1 Peter 4:6 For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. 1 Peter 19-20: For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient…
The so-called Apostle’s Creed, dating from the fourth century, also professes belief in the descent into hell.
This wasn’t easy to reconcile with the later Christian belief that the souls of the dead went immediately to eternal punishment or reward (the latter usually via purgatory). In other words, under this view, there shouldn’t have been any souls in hell for Jesus to liberate: they either deserved to be there and had to stay, or they were already in heaven. This was why many Protestant exegetes especially, were inclined to spiritualise these and similar verses away, arguing that they refer to Jesus’s “spiritual” typological presence in the Old Testament – e.g. in the warnings to Noah.
However, the older tradition persisted in the medieval church, and was partly responsible for belief in a hypothetical “borderland of the patriarchs” (Latin limbus patrum) – a fringe area around hell (but not quite hell) in which the souls of the Old Testament’s mothers and fathers waited for release by Jesus.
By the time of Dante’s Divine Comedy, this limbus also included virtuous pagans like Virgil, who would never get to heaven, but were not wicked enough to be consigned to hell. While deprived of the vision of God, they were believed to enjoy the highest kind of “natural” blessedness – i.e. to be as happy as any human can be in this life.
Political discourse in New Zealand is, for the most part, decidedly secular. Religion rarely infiltrates the political mainstream in the way it might do in other Western democracies (most notably Australia and the USA). This is why it was quite surprising to find a politician explicitly reference the Bible during his campaigning last Friday, and even more surprising for it to feature in the national news during prime-time television.
Over the weekend a by-election was held for a new member of Parliament for the Northland electorate. The winner was the strongly charismatic leader of the NZ First party, Winston Peters. What was most striking was that, on the eve of the by-election, Peters compared his campaign to a man who puts a hand to the plow and has the determination to not look backwards. It was an explicit reference to something Jesus says in Luke 9.62.
The question this raises is why would a politician bother with the Bible…
As you will recall from a previous post, I’ve been teaching a course this semester on the Bible and visual exegesis, exploring visual culture as a source of biblical interpretation. Classes have been going well, so I thought I’d share some images and insights we’ve covered in some of the lectures. I’ll start off with our lecture from a few weeks back on Adam and Eve in art and advertising.
We began with an overview of some of the ambiguities in the text of Genesis 2-3, particularly in relation to what Genesis 3 – the story of the ‘Fall’ – says about gender and female sexuality. Does Eve’s creation after Adam – and from Adam – suggest that woman is subordinate to man within the divinely mandated created order? Why does the snake talk to Eve, rather than Adam – does it suggest women’s greater vulnerability to temptation and disobedience? Why did Adam eat the fruit given to him by Eve – did she have to persuade or tempt him to eat it or did he bite into it quite willingly? And what was the forbidden fruit anyway – and why was it forbidden by God in the first place?
Countless interpretations of these textual ambiguities have been put forward over the centuries, many of which have pointed not only to woman’s secondary status in the created order but also to her textual characterisation as weak-willed and naive, prone to sin and solely to blame for the ‘fall’ of humanity and the loss of Edenic relations between both male and female and humanity and God. Moreover, Eve also stands accused of being the archetypal temptress, who uses her sexual allure to entice men away from their natural godliness and to indulge in the ‘forbidden fruit’ of untrammelled sexual desire. As the early Christian and Jewish readings of Genesis 2-3 quoted below suggest, this biblical narrative does not only recount the misdeeds of the first female biblical character, it advances an ideology about all women, explaining their dangerous nature and justifying the need for male dominance and control.
1 Timothy 2.12-14: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’.
Ben Sirach 25.24 (2nd Century BCE wisdom text): ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’.
Philo (Jewish philosopher, 25 BCE-50 CE): Women are ‘the beginning of blameworthy life’. Their bodily appetites are ‘the beginning of wrongs and violation of law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss’.
Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430 CE): ‘[Eve] was of small intelligence and … lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason’.
Clement of Alexandria (Christian theologian, 150-215 CE): ‘Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame’.
Tertullian (Christian theologian, 155-245 CE): ‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die’.
Jerome (priest, theologian 347-430 CE): ‘Woman is the root of all evil
15th Century with-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum: ‘In the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this because of the first temptress Eve and her imitators’.
Yes, throughout the long history of interpretation surrounding Genesis 2-3, Eve gets the blame for all humanity’s woes; moreover, all women are Eve, all women are associated with sin, guilt, temptation, and evil. No wonder men have to exert power over us, lest our evil natures wreak further havoc in this divinely ordained patriarchal world. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the outdated views of these early interpretive efforts, dismissing their horrible misogyny as the result of archaic responses that no longer wield power in our contemporary Bible-reading cultures. Alternatively, we may tend to agree with their general interpretation of Genesis 2-3, but seek to whitewash the violence and vitriol of of such readings with platitudinous appeals to the far more equitable creation account of Genesis 1, where ‘male and female’ are both created – concurrently it seems – in the ‘image of God’. And yet, despite the fact that these early interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are indeed products of their time, their legacy across time and space has been ubiquitous and far from harmless; indeed, it’s almost a truism to say that the Genesis 2-3 text has had and continues to have a real and deleterious effect on women’s social, political, and religious lives: as feminist theologian Mary Daly noted:
‘The myth [of Gen 2-3] has projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the “nature” of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche … The myth has in fact affected doctrines and laws that concern women’s status in society and it has contributed to the mind-set of those who continue to grind out biased, male-centred ethical theories … [It] undergirds destructive patterns in the fabric of our culture’.
Beyond God the Father, 1973.
So, if we turn to some of the visual depictions of Genesis 2-3 created across the centuries, what can we tell about the way artists have interpreted this biblical text? Do they likewise reflect the views of those early readings given above, pinning the blame on Eve for the whole sorry mess that was ‘the Fall’? Carrying out a survey of artists’ presentations of Genesis 3 from the Medieval period through to the nineteenth century fin de siècle and on to the present day, it becomes clear that the notion of Eve as Adam’s temptress – and her close affiliation with the snake, that source of sinful temptation – remained alive and well in visual culture. In some artworks, for example, Eve and the snake share a rather spooky resemblance, confirming the artists’ association of woman with this serpentine symbol of evil.
In other visual portrayals of Genesis 3, Eve may not look like the snake, but her close affiliation with it is clear to see. In William Blake’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, this bizarre couple sashay around the tree of knowledge together, while Adam lies snoozing, oblivious to the disastrous events about to unfold.
In works by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Henry Fuseli, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, there’s even a wee bit of flirtation going on between Eve and the snake, while in Franz von Stuck’s work, Adam and Eve, Eve and the snake appear to become one flesh, the lapis lazuli creature mimicking the serpentine curves of the woman’s body until they coalesce to form one terrible fanged mouth that offers the man that fateful fruit.
Also, note how in some of these paintings, Eve is alone with the snake, accentuating the closeness of their relationship and, as J. Cheryl Exum has suggested, allowing Adam to be acquitted of at least some of the blame for his and Eve’s act of fruity disobedience. And even when he is present in the picture, some artists seem to insist that Adam was an unwilling partaker of the forbidden fruit, driven to this disastrous act as the result of Eve’s feminine wiles and skills of temptation.
But how did Eve tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? And what was this fruit anyway – what did it represent? The biblical text doesn’t explicitly tell us, but as Katie Edwards has suggested (in her fabulous book Admen and Eve), given the rich biblical tradition of pairing together the themes of female sexuality and fruit (see Song of Songs 2:3-5 and 4:12-16 for example) – not to mention the sexualised implications of female nakedness found throughout the Hebrew biblical traditions – it may be that Eve’s ability to tempt her man to disobey the divine word was due to the overwhelming power of her sexuality. In other words, she didn’t simply persuade Adam to eat a piece of fruit – she seduced him until he was powerless to resist her charms, until he forgot about any divine prohibition and, throwing caution to the wind, sank his teeth into the delights of the flesh. And certainly, artists such as John Liston Byam Shaw make quite explicit this association between female sexuality and the sin of the ‘Fall’. Eve – as woman – is shamelessly seductive here – framed by the rich colours and exotic creatures of Eden (including a rather ginormous snake), she appears to have entranced poor Adam to the point of catatonia as he stands, trapped between those two most deadly of creatures – the woman and the snake – with nowhere left to run.
Even in contemporary depictions of the Adam and Eve biblical traditions – for example, advertising images that use iconography from the Genesis 2-3 text – this sexualising of Eve persists, along with that same insistence that Adam, while not entirely blameless, was rendered helpless by the overwhelming (and thus dangerous) power of woman’s sensual allure.
These contemporary images – although created under the banner of (hetero)sex positive postfeminism – may still convey an implicit message that such allure may need to be proscribed and policed. As Edwards notes in Admen and Eve, women’s sexuality and self-objectification before the male gaze can now be advertised as a source of their social and sexual power; yet, there is a concomitant claim that such potent female sexuality poses a threat to men and masculinity. Meanwhile, both of these ideological responses blissfully ignore the daily reality for countless women that their sexuality is less a source of their power than a site of shame, vulnerability, and violence. While Paul, Philo, the Church fathers, and countless others insist that women’s sexuality led man to lose his paradise, the reality may be that the paradise of patriarchy never did get lost in the first place, but remains very much a reality, sustained by those myths and misperceptions surrounding female sexuality – given voice in Genesis 2-3 and their interpretive traditions – that serve to keep women firmly in that marginal space of shame, subordination, and sexual sin.
I’ll be back soon with more reflections from our Danger and Desire course – next time, we’ll survey the cultural phenomenon of ‘Salomania’ – that centuries-long artistic love affair with the young royal dancer who caused John the Baptist to, quite literally, lose his head.
References for this discussion:
Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible and Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012).
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Frederick Pickersgill’s Delilah.” In Bible Art Gallery, edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96 (The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).
At the moment the course is looking at the history of biblical hermeneutics. My job was to talk about the shift in Early Modern biblical interpretation towards philology (the original Biblical languages) and critical history.
From the 16th century there was a growing assumption that you couldn’t do Theology until you had a good grasp of the original Biblical languages, as well as some sense of the historical context in which the biblical texts were written.
For the earlier point of view, one has only to look at the way in which the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris spent the first half of the 16th century condemning “humanists” (i.e. literary scholars) who “presumed” that their grasp of Hebrew and Greek gave them a right to talk about Theology. In 1536 the Faculty went as far as to declare that Hebrew and Greek were unnecessary for a Theologian; Latin would do quite nicely.
Another way of describing this paradigm shift is to say that in the Middle Ages, Theology took priority over biblical philology and history. After the Middle Ages it was the other way round.
This is important to bear in mind when a text-book on early Reformation thought by Alister McGrath confidently assures us that for the Medievals: ““Christian theology [was] ultimately nothing more and nothing less than the exposition of Scripture.”
There’s a sense in which this is true, but McGrath, as ever, risks making it sound as if the Medievals were good Protestants. In fact, the Medieval reading of Scripture was shaped by an ancient and extremely complex tradition of scriptural commentary that is usually baffling to modern readers who have been trained to give priority to concerns like the meaning of the original text in its historical context.
(And lest anyone think this was peculiar to Medieval Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that, on the whole, the early Christians were not very interested in reading Scripture – i.e. the Old Testament – in Hebrew or in exegeting it with modern philological and historical tools. Again, the Greek Septuagint, together with exuberant resort to allegory, usually did quite nicely)
All this his came back to me during the weekend when I was going back through some photos I took when I was in Belgium at the end of 2013, and was trying give them captions before I uploaded them to Flickr.
Now that I’ve done a bit of background reading on them, I thought I’d reproduce these images here with a short commentary as another example for students in THEO700 (and anyone else who’s interested) of the foreign world of Medieval biblical hermeneutics.
The images below are taken from two 12th century processional crosses in the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Both are made of wood covered in gilded copper and silver. The images are enamel inlays and they draw typological connections between the crucifixion and episodes in the Old Testament. Some of the connections are already there in Scripture; others aren’t. Unfortunately I neglected to take a picture of the complete crosses, so you’ll just have to imagine them.
On the lower vertical of the cross we have Moses standing before the bronze serpent which God commands Moses to make in Numbers 21 as a remedy for the fiery serpents He’s just sent to punish the Children of Israel. The ingrates have been whingeing about being led out into the wilderness and having only disgusting manna to eat.
The connection between the bronze serpent and the cross is made in John 3:14-15 where Jesus predicts that he will be “lifted up” like the bronze serpent, and will bring eternal life to whoever believes in him.
While this typology strays far from the literal meaning of Numbers 21, early Protestant interpreters considered it legitimate, because it was already established elsewhere in Scripture.
Further down the lower vertical we have another scripturally sanctioned typological connection between the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb (mactatio agni) and that of the cross. But what’s interesting here is the fact that the man in the picture is not just smearing blood all over the lintels of the households (Ex 12:7), but is using it to write the letter tau or “T.”
The meaning of the letter “T” is established on the upper vertical, which shows a figure writing a “tau” on the foreheads of a group of men. The Latin similis Aaron means “like Aaron.”
It took a lot of searching before I discovered that this was connected with Ezekiel 9:4-6, where God calls to a man dressed in linen – read as Aaron the High Priest in this image – and commands him to place a “mark” (RSV; Septuagint) or “tau” (Hebrew; Vulgate) upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst [of the Temple] (Douay-Reims)… Utterly destroy old and young, maidens children and women, but upon whomsoever you shall see the Thau, kill him not, and begin ye at my sanctuary.
The idea is a bit like that found in John 3:14-15. The letter “T” on the foreheads of the righteous foreshadows the shape of the cross, by which believers will be saved. This then seems to be read back into Exodus 12 as warrant for the image of a man smearing the paschal lamb’s blood over his doorway in the shape of a “T.”
Finally, from a second typological cross in the same collection, we have this image of a woman with crossed sticks from the foot of the crucifix. The Latin Sareptena refers to the Widow of Zarepath in 1 Kings 17:8-24. During the drought and famine sent by God, Elijah meets the widow who is gathering sticks. She has almost run out of food and is going home to prepare a last meal for herself and her son before they both die of starvation. But she trusts in Elijah and feeds him. Her last measure of flour and oil miraculously last until rain ends the drought. Later, when her son falls ill, Elijah raises him from the dead. The biblical text says nothing about her sticks being crossed, but on the typological cross she holds them like this as a type of the cross, which provides heavenly food and the hope of resurrection.
This is no doubt all very recondite and specialist, but I think it illustrates well the way in which patristic and medieval exegetes tend to treat the literal-historical meaning of the text as a superficial meaning. Getting stuck there is the equivalent of not being able to see that the back of the wardrobe leads into Narnia.
I’m not recommending that our students start interpreting the Bible in this way. All I wanted to demonstrate was how historically conditioned and far from “obvious” many earlier readings of Scripture are – so that when we say that past generations of Christians based all their Theology on “The Bible” we’re probably not saying very much. What we should be asking is how they read the Bible.
 Alister McGrath, “The Return to Scripture” in Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 121.
We are delighted to announce two Theology and Religious Studies public lectures taking place next week at the University of Auckland. We are fortunate to welcome Professor Dr Volker Küster and Dr Dorothea Erbele-Küster, both from the Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz. Volker and Dorothea are currently lecturing in Melbourne but were kind enough to offer to pop over the Tasman to visit us here in Auckland. We are very excited about their visit and, given the fascinating titles of their lectures, really look forward to hearing them speak. We hope you can join us in welcoming them to the University of Auckland.
Professor Dr Volker Kuster, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
Art and religion are closely intertwined. Images express the glory of Gods and Goddesses and sometimes are believed to contain religious power themselves. Images have been venerated as well as destroyed for religious reasons throughout the ages. The lecture is a further step in the development of an inter-religious aesthetic. With the help of five generative themes – aniconism, representation and illustration, iconoclasm, syncretism and de/secularization – rich material from different religions will be compared.
Professor Dr Kuster holds the post of Professor of Missiology and Comparative Religion at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz. His research in contextual and intercultural theology focuses on the issues of dialogue, conflict, and reconciliation and the visual arts in religion. His publications have included Theologie im Kontext: Zugleich ein Versuch über die Minjung-Theologie (1995); The Many Faces of Jesus Christ (2001); God/Terreur. Een Tweeluik (2008), and A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology revisited (2010); Einführung in die Interkulturelle Theologie (2011).
Dr Dorothea Erbele-Kuster, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
‘”A Delight to the eyes and desirable as a source of wisdom” (Gen 3:6): On the relation between ethics and aesthetics’
Wednesday, 1 April 12pm, Arts 2, Room C303 (207-303), 18 Symonds Street, Auckland
In this lecture, Dr Erbele-Kuster shares some insights into the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. Focusing on Genesis 2-3, she considers the significance of the tree of knowledge that is said to sit in the middle of Eden – particularly the way that the text links human longing for this tree’s beautiful fruits with the beginning of sin. Through a close study of this text, Dr Erbele-Kuster asks if this can provide a starting point for an ethics of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, particularly in terms of the role of the senses in ethical decision-making.
Dr Erbele-Kuster teaches Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz. She is currently working on a book on ethics in the Hebrew Bible. Her recent publications include ‘A Short Story of Narratology in Biblical Studies’, in Religious Stories We Live By: Narrative Approaches in Theology and Religious Studies, ed. R. Ganzevoort et al. (2014) and Body and Gender in Leviticus 12 and 15 (2015).
The latest volume of the Bible and Critical Theory journal has just been released – it is a special edition, focusing on critical responses to the book by Katie B. Edwards, Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012). The journal volume includes responses from two Theology at Auckland staff, Robert Myles (“The Commodification of Biblical Texts in Advertising and Contemporary Capitalism”) and Caroline Blyth (“Lost in the ‘Post’: Rape Culture and Postfeminism in Admen and Eve”). To check out their articles and the others in this volume, follow the link here.
Our new member of staff Dr Robert Myles is kicking off this semester’s research seminars with his intriguingly titled paper ‘Jesus Exploitation of Servant Labour’. For more details, follow the link below to his blog, and if you are in the Auckland area on Friday 20th March, 2-3pm, please come along!