Eve, Pandora and Plato: How Greek Myth Shaped the First Christian Woman

The character of Eve in the Christian bible was heavily influenced by the myth of Pandora as well as Plato’s philosophy.

Oct 29, 2021By Katie Brown, Current PhD Biblical Studies, BA Classics and Religion
adam and eve in paradise pandora

 

More than any other biblical text, the book of Genesis has had a fundamental influence on ideas concerning gender roles in Western Christianity. Social attitudes regarding how men and women should relate to each other have stemmed from interpretations of Genesis 2-3. The story of how Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden has been a lens through which debates on gender have been filtered.

 

The subordinate position of women throughout western history has thus been viewed as emanating from these chapters — influencing perspectives on women’s inferiority, the nature of woman’s creation, and the alleged ‘curse’ of Genesis 3:16.

 

However, many of these negative ideas about the “first woman” come to us from Greek mythology and philosophy rather than the bible. Ideas about Eve in the Garden of Eden and the connected doctrines of the “Fall of Mankind” and “Original Sin” were both influenced by Greek traditions. In particular, they have been shaped by Platonic philosophy and by the mythological story of Pandora.

 

Early Interpretations in Genesis 2-3

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Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Johann Wenzel Peter, circa 1800, via Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums

 

The two creation accounts in Genesis, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, are generally understood as distinct from each other, written by different authors in different contexts. In the first creation narrative God creates a male and female at the same time, which has been interpreted to imply the egalitarian creation of man and woman. The second creation account states that God created Eve from Adam because he was lonely.

 

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In recent decades, scholars such as Phyllis Trible have sought to re-interpret the second account from a feminist perspective, arguing that although Eve was created for man and from him, they were still created as equals. Inequality between the sexes only entered the equation after their expulsion from Eden. Even then, there are many misconceptions about this text. Eve did not tempt Adam to disobey God and eat from the Tree of Knowledge, nor is it stated that she seduced him. There is no mention of Satan taking the form of a serpent, and neither Adam nor Eve are cursed by God for their transgression — the ground is cursed, and the serpent is cursed, but Adam and Eve are not. There is no mention of Adam or Eve “sinning,” and perhaps most importantly, there is no mention of a “fall of mankind.” These ideas were formed and normalized centuries later.

 

Given the importance of this story in the Christian tradition, one would assume that it held an equal place of influence in ancient Judaism. But it did not. Eve is not mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible after Genesis 4, and it was only in the late Second Temple Period, from approximately 200 BCE onward, that Adam and Eve appear prominently in Jewish literature.

 

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The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by Domenichino, 1626, via the National Gallery of Art.

 

Interpreters in the Second Temple era were not concerned with gender roles or gender relations. The closest they came to addressing gender in Genesis 2-3 was in their comments on marriage, as they used Genesis 2-3 to highlight the complementary relationship needed between a husband and wife. In these early texts there was no mention either of “sin” or the “fall of mankind.” Prior to the Early Church, it was understood etiologically, as a tale concerned with mankind’s primacy among other creatures. Its intention was to explain and justify human hardships, such as physical labor and childbirth, and emphasis was often placed on the importance of the acquisition of knowledge in the text. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge was construed positively.

 

The mainstream interpretation of Genesis 2-3 as a simple, pre-monarchic story about mankind’s divine origins and the toils of human life changed dramatically over the course of early Christianity. Since the 5th century CE, Western Christians have read Genesis through a Hellenistic lens that distorts the message of the original text. The Hebrew account teaches that humans must strive to seek knowledge regardless of the consequences and for its earliest interpreters, this was an essential aspect of Genesis 2-3. This idea was also very influential in all prominent Hellenistic philosophical schools of thought. The desire for knowledge and wisdom was important to both traditions, and this shared theme is perhaps why interpretations of Genesis 2-3 came to rely so heavily on Hellenistic ideas.

 

“Original Sin,” “The Fall of Mankind,” and Greek Philosophy

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The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Benjamin West, 1791, via the National Gallery of Art.

 

Several early Church Fathers grounded their doctrines in Hellenistic philosophical concepts. Above all, they borrowed from Platonism, and many prominent Christian scholars altered Plato’s ideas to fit Christian theology. Plato’s theory of the forms underpins a surprising amount of Christian thought on the nature of the mortal world, and it could plausibly be argued that Plato’s works (most notably the Symposium, Timaeus, Phaedo, and Phaedrus) had as much influence on the ideologies of the Church Fathers as the Hebrew Bible. One could easily discuss how much of the Christian worldview has unknowingly stemmed from Plato, and not grow short of topics to investigate.

 

With regards to Eve, Plato is significant in two ways. Christian intellectuals took some of Plato’s prominent theories and applied them to Genesis in order to construct two interconnected doctrines: original sin and the fall of man. The Christian reading of Genesis, and indeed the entire Christian worldview, is based upon these ideas.

 

Drawing on the Platonic idea that the divine has no responsibility for man’s evil, Christian theologians developed the concept of original sin. Humans were originally created with the freedom to choose between good and evil, but because of inherited sin, all mankind is now driven by base desires for material pleasure.

 

Based upon Plato’s theory of the tripartite division of the soul, Augustine read Genesis 2-3 allegorically, with man as the rational and woman as the irrational parts of the soul. He saw sin as derived solely from free will. The ideas extracted loosely from Platonism, regarding the immortal soul and innate human deficiency, were built upon in the doctrine of original sin. Mankind is born with inherited sin, but can rise above it through grace.

 

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School of Athens, by Raphael, 1511, via Stanze di Raffaello, Vatican Museums

 

The concept of the “fall” shares much in common with Plato’s theory about the fall of heavenly beings to earth, and his idea that mankind departed from divine favor, as alluded to in the Phaedrus. Christian intellectuals adapted these concepts to form the idea that upon their expulsion from Eden, mankind “fell” from grace; something Eve was ultimately deemed responsible for. Eve was understood as being partly or mainly responsible for the fall and for the negative state of the world. The blame, therefore, was passed on to all women. In order to infer a woman was the instigator of the “fall,” or to interpret Genesis 2-3 as narrating a “fall” at all, relies on a selective reading of the biblical account, and this reading was irrevocably shaped by Hellenistic philosophy.

 

Although he was not solely behind these doctrines, the Bishop St Augustine was primarily responsible for popularizing them. Original sin and mankind’s fall are terms which have become synonymous with the story of Adam and Eve, and are canonical in Western Christianity. In this way, Plato’s mythology and philosophy helped to shape Christian understandings of the guilt of the primordial woman — and therefore all women — from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards.

 

Pandora and Eve — Similarities and Differences

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The Temptation, by William Strang, 1899, via the Tate Gallery

 

Why was Eve alone seen as guilty, and not Adam? This is a question that often puzzles biblical historians. In the early allusions to Genesis in Jewish literature, including the few references to Adam and Eve in the epistles of Paul in the New Testament, if anyone was responsible for leaving the Garden of Eden, it was Adam. Gradually, however, Eve came to take the blame; she led Adam astray and so the blame was not truly his. The reason she was found guilty of the first sin was because much of her story bore similarities to another famous western myth about a woman plunging the world into vice, corruption, and hardship. These stories were found to complement each other in such a way that it damned the Christian “first woman” further. The story of Pandora and of Pandora’s box influenced how the Early Church read Eve’s story.

 

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Pandora, by Odilon Redon, ca.1914, via the MET Museum

 

It has been a common assumption throughout Christian history that Pandora was a “type of Eve.” Because of Pandora’s prominence in Graeco-Roman philosophy, literature, and mythology, the aspects of their stories that bore similarities were exaggerated in such a way that Pandora became a “Greek Eve,” and Eve became a “Christian Pandora.”

 

It is remarkable, at first glance, how much their mythologies appear to have in common. In fact, nearly every ancient culture had a creation myth, and many of these myths share a surprising number of similarities with the Genesis creation myth: humans that were originally formed from clay, the acquisition of knowledge and free-will as a central aspect of the tale, and a woman taking the blame for human suffering, are all common themes in creation mythology.

 

When it comes to Eve and Pandora, each is the first woman in the world. They both play a central part in a story of transition from an original state of plenty and ease, to one of suffering and death. They are both created after men. They are both tempted into doing something that they should not do. They are both responsible for introducing evil into the world.

 

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Pandora, by John Dickson Batten, 1913, via the University of Reading.

 

But Eve and Pandora also share a remarkable number of differences. Perhaps the most important difference between these two “first women” is their original purpose. Pandora’s story comes to us in two versions, both of which were written by the poet Hesiod. While there have been other accounts and interpretations of Pandora’s myths, Hesiod’s is the one that has endured.

 

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Pandora is labeled a “beautiful evil” but there is no mention of Pandora opening her famous jar, or box. In his Works and Days, however, the gods create Pandora and her jar specifically as a punishment for mankind. The gods give her the box with the intention that she will open it and unleash torment upon mankind, and she is driven by the paradoxical “gift” of curiosity to open it, releasing all manner of evil into the world.

 

Unlike Pandora, Eve in Genesis 2-3 is not given to Adam out of divine spite. In Genesis 2:18, God remarks that it is not good for man to be alone — he needs a helper and a counterpart, and Eve alone suffices. She is intended as a complementary companion for Adam, not as a punishment. In a way, they are intended as two halves of one whole, which is far more positive than the misogynistic image of woman as a cursed gift in the Pandora myth.

 

The Significance of the Pandora and Eve Myths

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Pandora, by Alexander Cabanel, 1873, via the Walters Art Gallery

 

Christian intellectuals seized upon the few similarities between both myths and wove together different elements of each in order to amplify Eve’s guilt, and therefore the guilt of all women. In Christian interpretations of the Genesis narrative, elements of an anti-Eve, anti-woman perspective come to the fore. She was portrayed as the ruin of men, and interpreters like Tertullian have contributed to the idea that this was Eve’s sole purpose. He ignores the fact that she, too, was created in God’s image just as Adam was. She was not made to facilitate man’s downfall. But she still came to be seen, like Pandora, as a sort of necessary evil. Overall, the similarities between the narratives outweigh the differences.

 

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Adam and Eve in Paradise, by David Teniers the Younger, circa 1650, via the MET Museum

 

Given the similarities between the Pandora and the Genesis legends, one could jump to the conclusion that perhaps the stories share similar origins. If one looks deep enough, there are similar themes and tropes in many ancient creation myths. It is more plausible that the apparent overlaps between these myths are coincidental. Pandora’s myth influenced how early Christians read the text of Genesis 2-3, not the writing of the text itself.

 

Other traditions, such as Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, do not read Genesis 2-3 as a “fall” story but regard it instead as a kind of coming of age for mankind. Where Western Christianity sees the pre-exilic Eden as a form of paradise, other traditions construe mankind’s state in the Garden in a much less positive light. In the Garden, mankind had no free will, no independence, and no knowledge. It is only after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve are truly “in God’s image.”

 

The Story of Eve: Conclusions

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The Expulsion from Paradise, from The Small Passion, by Albrecht Durer, 1510, via the MET Museum.

 

Few characters in biblical history have been so unlucky in their portrayals as Eve. Milton’s Paradise Lost serves as just one solitary example of how misconstrued her character has become in Christian theology — she is seductive, selfish, and sneaky. She has been painted as a woman who used her sexuality to take advantage of poor, hapless Adam, who lured him into Satan’s trap, and who turned her back on her creator out of some misplaced spite or jealousy. In actual fact, Eve is a decidedly minor character in the Bible itself, and most of how we envision her is as a result of Hellenistic ideas that were applied to the short chapters of Genesis 2-3 in the 4th and 5th centuries.

 

The Church Fathers first took a handful of Plato’s theories and molded them to fit Christian scripture in such a way that the concepts of original sin and the fall of mankind became two of the core doctrines of Christian theology. Those doctrines essentially damned Eve, and the rest of womankind, as a result. To make matters worse, Eve’s story was seen to run parallel to that of Pandora, another woman whose errors resulted in a significant shift in mankind’s place in the world.

 

The few similarities between them were exaggerated to the point that Eve, like Pandora, became a misogynistic symbol of female inferiority. To say that this has irrevocably shaped the place of women in Christian history is an understatement. For centuries these misreadings of Genesis 2-3 have been the basis for framing social attitudes towards gender roles and gender relations across the Christian world.



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By Katie BrownCurrent PhD Biblical Studies, BA Classics and ReligionKatie is a postgraduate research student in Trinity College Dublin, where she also received her Bachelor's Degree in Classical Civilisation and World Religions and Theology. She is a tour guide in Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, a popular historical site in Dublin, and a published fiction and non-fiction writer. While she enjoys any topic relating to history, culture, and the humanities, she is most interested in Ancient Greece and Rome, the Ancient Near East, Irish history, colonization and de-colonization, Jewish and Christian history, and the Early modern period.