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Fall, The

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Fall, The

    The Fall refers to the disobedience and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. According to the J account of creation (Gen. 2–3), humanity—represented by Adam and Eve—initially enjoyed a life of ease and intimacy with God, but their desire to become “like gods” (Gen 3.5) led them to disobey God's prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge. They were punished with expulsion from paradise and condemned to a life of suffering that was passed on to their descendants.

    The biblical myth of the Fall is similar to other legends that contrast humanity's present state of suffering with an earlier time of perfection, a lost paradise or golden age. The biblical narrative is unique, however, in implying that humanity's degradation was indirectly caused by its own free choice.

    The fall of divine beings played a central role in the writings of the gnostics (second and third centuries CE), many of whom believed that creation and even human existence were caused by a precosmic error. According to the gnostics, the physical cosmos was a concrete nightmare from which the divine sparks of humanity sought to escape.

    In the New Testament Paul explained that Adam, the man of flesh, brought sin and death to the world while Christ, the second Adam and the man of spirit, brought life (1 Cor., 15.21–22). Paul's view that Adam's fall introduced sin and death (Rom. 5.12) led Augustine (fifth century CE) to develop the doctrine of original sin: that Adam's fall perverted all humanity and that its effects were passed by hereditary transmission from generation to generation. The belief that Adam, as a corporate personality, was responsible for the sins of humanity was never adopted by Judaism and was resisted by Christian thinkers such as Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum (fifth century CE), but Augustine's interpretation of the Fall became the accepted doctrine of Catholic Christianity. Like all myths of a lost paradise or golden age, the story of the Fall, whether of gods or humans, is an index of humanity's yearning for a better world and an attempt to account for the problems of evil and human suffering.

    Gregory Shaw

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    Oxford University Press

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