A couple of months ago I embarked on reading (intermittently) through the Old Testament Apocrypha, most of which I’ve not read before, though it contains useful insights into the times between the testaments. Reading 2 Esdras in the New English Bible, I realised it was the same as the “4th Ezra” cited by Tom Wright in the quote I included in this piece on Adam. There he says:
[In Judaism] there isn’t a doctrine of Original Sin until 4th Ezra and 2 Baruch, which were written after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Where the destruction of the temple has forced them to say ‘we were aware of problems, but now we realize that it must be much worse than we’d ever imagined and maybe it all goes back to Adam after all.’
In fact I didn’t make the connection between the two until I looked up the “date and authorship” and remembered what Wright had said. But I’m not quite convinced by his suggestion that the author was making a bold new extrapolation from the story of the Fall, which had more or less coincidentally also been made by Paul in Romans a few years before in Romans 5. He, says Wright, was responding to the enormity of the Passion – they to the enormity of the destruction of Jerusalem.
I don’t doubt the high relief into which either event throws human sin, but it seems to me that the idea was at least known, if not universal, and that we are just incomplete on our sources. For in the book, Ezra has various conversations with Uriel the archangel, who apocalyptically reveals hidden truths about God’s judgement, and so on. Each section is introduced by Ezra’s prayer for enlightenment, and it is in one of these, rather than in the revelatory response, that the Fall is mentioned:
“You commanded the dust, and Adam appeared. His body was lifeless; but yours were the hands that had moulded it, and into it you breathed the breath of life. So you made him a living person. You led him into paradise, which you yourself had planted before the earth came into being. You gave him one commandment to obey he disobeyed it, and thereupon you made him subject to death, him and his descendants.”
The writer seems here to be recounting “what we already know from the Genesis account”, culminating in Adam as the author of death for all mankind through one act of disobedience. It’s also interesting how paradise is seen as a separate realm to the rest of earth, and Genesis 2 as describing a creation before that of Genesis 1 – one for the Young Earth Creationists to work on!
But Ezra’s prayer goes on:
“From him were born nations and tribes, people and families, too numerous to count. Each nation went its own way, sinning against you and scorning you; and you did not stop them …”
He describes the Flood and the call of the Patriarchs just as conventional Christian teaching would understand them, and then the disobedience of Israel in terms taken directly from Deuteronomy 29:4 with its reference to lack of saving grace – linking it to Adam:
“But you did not take away their wicked heart and enable your law to bear fruit in them. For the first man, Adam, was burdened with a wicked heart; he sinned and was overcome, and not only he but all his descendants. So the weakness became inveterate. Although your law was in your people’s hearts, a rooted wickedness was there too; so that the good came to nothing, and what was bad persisted.”
That account would be a completely unremarkable summary of original sin in Christian terms, including an Augustinian description of its inherited nature – missing out only the concept of inherited guilt for Adam’s sin, which (though controversial even in Christianity) takes its root from Paul’s comparison in Romans 5 of the one act of Adam and the one act of Jesus. Yet 2 Esdras/4 Ezra is a Jewish work, not derived from Paul (I should note, for completeness, that the first two chapters are thought to be 3rd or 4th century Christian interpolation, but we are not dealing with those chapters).
The angel who replies alludes back to the Adam story, but once more simply to confirm and emphasise its truth – not, from the phraseology, to establish it as sensational new teaching:
“A grain of the evil seed was sown in the heart of Adam from the first; how much more godlessness has it produced already! How much more will it produce before the harvest!”
The writer, despite his less-than-Christian theology of atonement, has almost as much a sense of “total depravity” as Paul, or Calvin, as Ezra replies:
“But, my lord, my master,” I replied, “we are all of us sinners through and through. Can it be that, because of us, because of the sins of mankind, the harvest and reward of the [few] just are delayed?”
Later (ch7) Ezra, bewailing the wideness and finality of the coming judgement, even refers to Adam’s sin specifically as a “fall”:
“O Adam, what have you done? Your sin was not your fall alone; it was ours also, the fall of all your descendants.”
So was this doctrine of the Fall a new interpretation of Genesis prompted, independently, by the Christ’s Passion for Christians and by Jerusalen’s destruction for Jews? Or was it instead an understanding of what Genesis taught that had been known amongst Jews, despite the lack of surviving literary sources for it, for at least decades if not much longer? I’m easy either way – Wright’s picture of Paul grappling to such a conclusion from the death of Jesus is dramatic and compelling. On the other hand, if the importance of a historical Adam to the origin of sin predates Paul, then it’s more fundamental to both Jewish and Christian theology than is often acknowledged now.