Mapping the World beyond the Garden: Is the Bible Ever Read in its Context?

Brennan Breed reflects on challenges and prospects in the emerging field of Reception History with Peter Lanfer’s Remembering Eden.

Peter Lanfer, The Reception History of Genesis 3:22-24
Peter Lanfer, Remembering Eden: The Reception History of Genesis 3:22-24, Oxford University Press, 2012. 272 pp. $74.

‘But does the text actually say that the serpent is the devil?’

The instructor often poses this question to kindle a discussion on the first day of an introductory-level Bible course. And it seems like a trick. For more than two millennia – from ancient texts such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Moses, to the New Testament book of Revelation (12:9, 20:2), to Milton’s Paradise Lost, to the Creation Museum – the serpent has been identified positively as Satan. So why the question when the answer is so certain?

‘But does the text actually say that the serpent is the devil?’

The instructor has focused attention not on the assumptions the students have brought into the classroom, but on the fact that neither Genesis nor any other book in the Jewish Bible identifies the serpent. Genesis, she continues, does not present the serpent as the embodiment of cosmic evil.

Reactions vary: some mentally prepare to drop this course taught by a saboteur of faith, but most find the revelation exhilarating. Leaning forward, they begin to learn the skills of a modern biblical critic. Paramount among those skills is the first commandment of biblical scholarship:

You shall put the text back into its ancient context.

To fulfill this mandate, the student must first forget everything she thought she knew about the Bible. She must strip away the interpretative accretions of the millennia, the cultural baggage that gets in the way of reading what is in front of her nose. This de-familiarization is a thrilling experience that opens up a new world of meaning where familiarity and predictability are cast aside.

But most instructors never revisit the question left unanswered that first day of class: what are we supposed to do with all those layers of interpretation that have coated the Bible over the last few millennia? As soon as the students step out of the classroom they notice that, however successfully the professor has put the text back into its context, it never stays there. Like Houdini once the door closes, it wriggles its way out of any contextual straightjacket and dives into movies, idioms, songs, sermons, stories, visual art, and seemingly every other possible facet of life, disobeying with abandon the biblical critic’s prime directive. Should we simply ignore these out-of-context readings as obviously incorrect interpretations, or should we round up all the biblical texts that have escaped into the wild and keep putting them back in their contexts?

Until quite recently, biblical critics had not much considered these questions. Versions of scripture and interpretations produced after the late antique period were somebody else’s responsibility—unless, of course, those versions and interpretations could be used to understand the original text’s original meaning. The job description for most biblical scholars read as follows: sift through all the corrupt manuscripts to locate the pristine text, hack through the layers of dense interpretive undergrowth that keep the present reader from the ancient truth of the text, and return the text to its proper home, its garden paradise, where it finally makes sense once again. The truth and fullness of the original text, which had once been lost, could now be found. Eden could be rediscovered.

In the most recent decades, however, biblical scholars have challenged the standard narrative. They have not disavowed it—on the contrary, I’m not aware of any biblical scholars who would claim that it is erroneous to try to read the text in light of its ancient context. But increasingly scholars are trying to address the lingering question from the first day of Introduction to the Bible: what do we do with all that interpretative stuff? These scholars have also begun to question whether historical-critical study is the only thing to do, whether the classic approach is naturally better than other methodologies, and whether it succeeds in returning the text to some wholeness and purity of meaning that cannot be found elsewhere.

The study of later versions of texts and later interpretative traditions, which now goes by the name of ‘Reception History’, has emerged as an exciting new field. Unfortunately, however, reception historians often cede the territory of the ancient world to their colleagues and instead study exclusively ‘later’ contexts and forms of the text. But is this actually a true border, or is it a division of our own making?

It is fitting, then, that Peter Thatcher Lanfer reflects on the theory and practice of reception history by focusing his recent monograph, Remembering Eden: The Reception History of Genesis 3:22-24, on the narrative describing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. At the end of the Eden narrative, God sends the primeval couple across the border, out from their paradisiacal garden home into the unfamiliar territory of the world beyond. Like biblical texts, they are compelled to transgress the boundaries of their originary confines—and they must create new meaning in order to sustain a different form of life.

Lanfer’s willingness to work with traditional biblical methods such as source, form, and redaction criticism is helpful, because he demonstrates that one can learn much from trying to return texts to their supposedly Edenic ancient contexts. But Lanfer shows that even there, Eden isn’t a place of textual stasis and semantic wholeness. Traditional biblical criticism began with the discovery that Eden was always-already complex; Genesis 2-3 was produced by means of interpretive rewriting, creative appropriation of preexisting traditions, and textual alteration. Genesis 3:22-24 is most likely a polemical addition to a preexisting story, and thus has been consistently expelled from the analysis of biblical critics (p. 15). Ironically, the pursuit of the elusive Urtext leads to the expulsion of the expulsion narrative.

Cunningly, Lanfer has selected a text that biblical critics have heretofore banished from its own original context in their search for the ‘original meaning’ of the ‘original text’. He thus exposes some of the ideology that undergirds the enterprise of modern biblical criticism. Texts are dynamic objects, Lanfer argues, and as such they participate in a long cultural dialogue that neither begins with their beginning nor ends with their canonization. In one sense, the biblical text is ‘reception all the way down’.

But Lanfer is certainly not a poststructuralist set on dismantling the edifice of historical criticism. On the contrary, he demonstrates a concern to situate the text and its interpretations within their respective ‘cultural fields’ in order to understand the text as well as the world of the interpreters. Reception history is thus a ‘tool for understanding the complex diversity of Jewish and Christian communities in the Second Temple period’ (p. 24).

Every reception-historical study must address the perennial problem of data selection and organization, and adequate models for presenting simultaneously the mass of data and its meaning have not yet emerged. Lanfer’s solution is to organize receptions of the expulsion narrative into four motifs found in Genesis 3:22-24 – the Tree of Life, the acquisition of Wisdom, immortality, and the Edenic Temple – and he pursues various interpretative sub-threads for each motif in roughly chronological order.

This organizational strategy fares better than many others. Unlike more common divisions into one-size-fits-all categories such as ‘Jewish’ or ‘medieval’ interpretations, resembling that one desk drawer where pretty much anything goes, Lanfer’s arrangement by textual motif offers a sense of overall significance. But his arrangement lends itself to reduplication of both sources and content, as in the overlap between the motifs of the Tree of Life and immortality.

The motif of the Tree of Life, likely an addition to an earlier version of the garden narrative, comes to the fore in Lanfer’s analysis. He weaves a textual and iconographical study of sacred tree imagery in the ancient Near East into a review of the narrative’s transformation in the translations of the Greek Septuagint, various Aramaic Targums, and the Syriac Peshitta. In the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East, cultic sacred tree imagery signified divine presence and blessing. It is not surprising, then, that many post-Second Temple Jews understood the Tree of Life to symbolize the life-giving divine teaching emanating from the Torah and the diasporic hope for a restoration of the community worship in the temple.

Neo-Assyrian bas relief from Nimrud, North-West Palace, Room I. Divine beings blessing the Sacred Tree, ca. 860 BCE. British Museum, London. Photograph by Antoine Motte dit Falisse.
Neo-Assyrian bas-relief from Nimrud, North-West Palace, Room I. Divine beings blessing the Sacred Tree, ca. 860 BCE. British Museum, London. Photograph by Antoine Motte dit Falisse.

The thread of divine presence binds together several different strands of the expulsion narrative’s reception history. Ancient interpreters struggled with God’s presence in Eden in light of the contemporary cult in Jerusalem. Since the cherubim in the Jerusalem temple, on the Ark of the Covenant, and at the threshold of Eden (Genesis 3:24) all suggest a shared motif of divine presence, ancient readers often imagined Eden to house the presence of God in a manner similar to the Jerusalem temple. But how exactly did Eden relate to the temple? Lanfer shows that this connection is ideologically malleable: some Second Temple period interpreters may have criticized the Jerusalem temple through a demeaning comparison to paradisiacal Eden, the true Holy of Holies (e.g., Jubilees 8:19). Yet many readers working after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE validated their temple-less worship by comparison to temple-less Eden (e.g., Targum Neofiti).

Some readers find in the expulsion narrative a hope for a restoration of the kingship, priesthood, and temple. Other interpreters focus on the hope for immortality in the world to come, and still others imagine a triumphal reopening of Eden, either by means of messianic arrival (e.g., Testament of Levi 18:9-11), martyrdom of the faithful (e.g., Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom 36), or by eschatological or communal means (e.g., Tertullian, Against Marcion 2:4). As Lanfer’s erudite work demonstrates, the expulsion narrative can serve many different, and yet compelling, interpretative purposes.

Remembering Eden provides a fertile starting point for future research. I am tempted to explore how the Eden-Temple-Immortality nexus deepens several well-known visual tropes in Jewish and Christian architecture and visual art. I might begin with the third century CE synagogue at Dura Europos, where a large fresco bearing an image of the Tree of Life adorned the wall above the niche that held the Torah scrolls. (See an image of the panel here; note that another scene was added to the fresco at a later date, muddling the image). As Lanfer arguesProverbs 3:18 and Targum Neofiti connect the Tree of Life to the Torah. And at Dura Europos, the Tree of Life visually grows out of the Torah niche and offers the fruits of the Torah to all who will gather in the synagogue to study and worship.[1]

Replica of the Dura Europos Synagogue, Western wall. The Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Photograph by Sodabottle.
Replica of the Dura Europos Synagogue, Western wall. The Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Photograph by Sodabottle.

A millennium removed in time and thousands of miles away, a stone carving of the Tree of Life covers the thirteenth-century CE tympanum above the main door of the medieval Altneuschul synagogue in Prague. (See here and here.) Four vines descend from the tree, symbolizing the four rivers flowing in Eden (Genesis 2:10-14), and twelve roots reach deep into the soil, adumbrating the twelve tribes of Israel. Congregants entering the synagogue saw a depiction of their community joining with the eschatological fullness of Israel, returning to the garden from which Adam and Eve had been expelled. This re-entry is made possible by the Torah, whose niche in Altneuschul is surrounded by further vegetal and floral images that evoke Eden (see here).[2] These connections between Torah and the Tree of Life continued to shape Jewish liturgy: congregations sing Proverbs 3:18 at the conclusion of the Torah service, as the Torah, wrapped around wooden staves called ‘trees of life’, is returned to its niche.

Late antique Christians also conceived of their communal spaces through the image of Edenic paradise. Images of Adam and Eve adorn many third century CE Christian catacombs, signifying the hope for immortality. Through the Church, Christians understood Eden to emerge from its fiery borders and enter the mundane world. Thus, in the courtyard of the original fourth-century St. Peter’s church in Rome stood an actual ‘paradise’ (see here), which was ‘an atrium planted with flowers and bushes at the center of which was a fountain fitted with a canopy adorned with bronze peacocks’.[3] As the fifth-century CE inscription above the entrance to the church of St. Felix in Nola reads: ‘An approach from bright gardens is fitting, for from here is granted to those who desire it their departure to holy Paradise’.[4]

Likewise, the omnipresent mosaic vegetal motifs adorning all corners of late antique through late medieval churches echo the motif of the return to Eden, and the reversal of the expulsion. In the sixth century CE apse mosaic in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, a small patch of grass in the foreground evokes the paradise of Eden.

Apse mosaic,  SS. Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 6th c. Photograph by Jim Forest.
Apse mosaic, SS. Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 6th c. Photograph by Jim Forest.

Christ appears to be gesturing towards a phoenix perched on a tree, evoking the Christian legend that claimed that the bird gained immortality when it refused to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Underneath, Christ is figured as a lamb in paradise with four streams issuing from his feet, representing the four rivers of paradise that flow from the four gospels to the four corners of the earth.[5]

Detail of apse mosaic in SS. Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 6th c. Photograph by Lawrence OP.
Detail of apse mosaic in SS. Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 6th c. Photograph by Lawrence OP.

All of these motifs find their roots in ancient material treated with care in Remembering Eden. Lanfer has set the table so well that the sequel to his book almost writes itself.

Despite this book’s success, more must be done to address the theoretical and practical problems that remain in reception history. One can sense this need in the guise of several tensions that run through Remembering Eden, as they do many reception-historical studies. The question of whether or not to judge the exegetical merits of readers of biblical texts is a constant issue for reception historians. Should we pass judgment on a reader who has offered an insightful reading of a text even if she has not followed the commandments of biblical criticism?

Lanfer supports setting ‘limits on the interpretative potential of a text’ (p. 27). While the recovery of authorial intention is ‘sometimes overly speculative’, Lanfer continues, ‘texts do communicate recoverable elements’, and these are to be respected (p. 27). Yet is it possible that certain interpretations do not ‘recover elements’ from the original context, but nevertheless do justice to the semantic potentials of a text that may not have been possible when it was written?

Here we find the familiar problem of textuality itself: texts are systems of signs, and as such they are designed to function in any given context. Thus, they must be detachable from any specific context, and from any specific intention, theme, or any other recoverable element, so that they may be reused in other contexts. Words are particularly useful things precisely because they can be reused creatively in new contexts. Leaving contexts and assuming new meanings is what words do best.

Lanfer stresses that texts are capable of ‘reflecting the cultural milieu of authors and editors’ (p. 25). Yet texts also escape cultural milieus with ease, because escaping any context – even Eden – is the calling card of textuality. At one point, Lanfer perfectly describes this process of textual escape: he agrees that ‘these verses [Genesis 3:22-24] were not original to the oldest version of the Eden narrative’, but nevertheless asserts that they create ‘a foundational dialogue … that is inherited by Eden’s interpreters as an essential element of the myth’ (p. 15). Something that was added to the text became essential. The essence of a text can change over time. How, then, can we choose one moment in its development and interpretation as the moment by which to judge others? If we can do so, what stops us from choosing the older version of the Garden of Eden narrative, sans expulsion?

I am not advocating a mere ‘live and let live’ attitude towards readings. Biblical texts certainly do have exegetical limits beyond which lie not ‘readings’ or ‘interpretations’, but rather ‘uses’ or ‘impact’. Yet within each text’s exegetical limits we may find a startling multiplicity of potential meanings that cannot be contained by whatever context one decides is original. We should judge readings of texts without requiring the location of a secret truth locked in a particular moment in history. There are alternatives.

Reception historians can judge readings in any number of ways, and not by semantic congruence alone. Scholars might name specific criteria to adjudicate their selection and organization of readings. In a study of the readings of the Song of Songs, I might judge readings based on their aesthetic merit, but in a study of readings of the Jubilee text in Leviticus 25-26, it might be more interesting or appropriate to judge readings based on their political and economic skill. There are no readings that are naturally, universally, or necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’. There are only readings that answer a particular question in a better or worse manner.

One could also map the potential semantic capabilities of a particular text regardless of context. This would involve analyzing degrees of semantic flexibility; for example, the phrase ‘look at this pitch’ would mean something completely different in the context of a baseball diamond (i.e., watch the ball as it is thrown), a soccer stadium (i.e., note the playing surface), and a salesperson conference (i.e., analyze this particular sales technique). These are all perfectly acceptable uses of the phrase ‘look at this pitch’, and yet they are mutually exclusive in semantic and thematic terms. Might we theorize this insight and develop it into something more rigorous?


But in order to theorize, we must spend significant time reading thinkers who have long contemplated the very problems that plague theories of reception history, such as the concepts of context, meaning, and time, and especially the vexing relationship between repetition and difference. Lanfer, for instance, adapts the thought of Pierre Bourdieu, whose insight into cultural systems informs and enlivens Lanfer’s work. Likewise, poststructuralist thought, especially that of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, has informed much of my work. Bourdieu, Derrida, and Deleuze may not appeal to every reader, but there are other thinkers who have toiled over these issues, and the fruits of their wisdom are waiting to be picked.

Reception historians need to experiment since the field remains in an exciting but underdetermined state. New and different sorts of questions must be asked, and cross-disciplinary collaborations should tackle them. Teams with diverse areas of expertise may be able to solve old riddles; they will undoubtedly stimulate interest. Meanwhile, the experimental work of scholars such as Lanfer, and monographs such as Remembering Eden, will help mature the field by forging the theoretical and practical means to carry out further research.


[1] Heinz Schreckenberg and Kurt Schubert, Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity (Assen: Van Gorcum; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 166-167.

[2] Vivian Mann, ‘The Artistic Culture of Prague Jewry’, in Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437 (ed. B. D. Boem and J. Fajt; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 84.

[3] Herbert Kessler, ‘Bright Gardens of Paradise,’ in Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (ed. J. Spier; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 117.

[4] Kessler, ‘Bright Gardens’, p. 138.

[5] Kessler, ‘Bright Gardens’, 136-138.