Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

Blame It On Eve

"Blame it on Eve. It's her fault." This, I recently discovered, is a universal theme in Christian writings and thought of the first centuries. In my own research on Greek sermons and hymns I encountered this theme everywhere. Whatever was wrong with the world was charged to Eve, the first woman. From sin and death to heresies, with no exceptions, everything bad was Eve's fault. In a Lenten sermon St. Basil, the brilliant Cappadocian hierarch, attributed to her even the origin of fasting. "If only Eve had fasted," he exclaimed, "Then we would not have to fast now." An anonymous Byzantine church poet held her responsible for this catalog of human woes: "hurts, sighings, and pains; labors, sorrows and premature death; cares of life and the sweat of much-burdened bodies." Nothing is left out. Like Pandora of classical Greek mythology, Eve has let loose a plague of ills to vex mankind.

Although this theme seems to have delighted Byzantine preachers and poets, they had not invented it. Its Scriptural basis lies in the creation story of Genesis 3:1-24, recorded almost three thousand years ago. The wily serpent persuaded Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. She, in turn, persuaded Adam. Clearly, Eve and Adam both had disobeyed God. When God questioned Adam, he tried to excuse himself: "It was the woman you put with me. She gave me the fruit and I ate it." His excuse, however, did not convince God of Adam's innocence. Refusing to discriminate between His female and male creatures, God punished both equally, rather severely.

Neglected thereafter in the Old Testament, the theme burst into life in the New Testament. Reflecting an entrenched partriarchal culture, Christianity accepted Adam's excuse and made Eve the primary original sinner, responsible for fallen humanity's plight.The New Testament sanctioned and promoted this biased interpretation of the story in Genesis.

Absent from the Gospels which unanimously portray Christ as the compassionate friend of women, good and bad alike, "Blame it on Eve" appears conspicuously in the influential epistles of St. Paul. Although in Galatians 3:28 the Apostle to the Gentiles had proclaimed the spiritual equality of man and woman, elsewhere he consistently denied women their basic human rights and dignity. Sternly he ordered women to keep their heads covered and their mouths closed in church. Because Adam had been created first and because only Eve had been deceived by the serpent, Paul declared women unfit to be Christian teachers. And for these same reasons women should in everything be ruled by men.

Immediately Paul's sexist ideas encountered resistance and opposition from active church women. He was forced to speak bluntly to the women in the congregation at Corinth; "Women are to remain quiet at meetings since they have no permission to speak; they must be submissive … If they have any questions to ask, they should ask their husbands at home; it is shameful for a woman to raise her voice at meetings." Paul's edict prevailed for two thousand years in Eastern and Western Christianity, dooming Eve's daughters to silence and subservience. It was not until 1828 that a woman dared to speak in public. Frances Wright was denounced from every pulpit in Cincinnati, Catholic and Protestant.

Along with their brothers in the Latin west, the Greek Church Fathers adopted with enthusiasm the Apostle's view on women. In their voluminous writings, "Blame it on Eve" was repeated so often that it acquired the validity of sacred dogma rooted in the natural order and in God's will. The Fathers dealt gently with Adam. Either they exonerated him of guilt in the first disobedience or they sympathized with Adam as Eve's first "victim". Eloquent preachers and learned theologians heaped guilt and responsibility on Eve alone. The powerful voice of St. John Chrysostom invested the theme with added authority.

The writings of St. Epiphanios (c. 315-403 A.D.) will illustrate the theme's vitality in Greek patristics. Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus for 36 years, this austere prelate contributed some variations of his own. In the mind of this heresy-hunting hierarch, woman and heresy were comparable evils. "Every heresy," he asserted, "is a wicked woman."

Like St. Paul before him, St. Epiphanios imposed silence on the women of the church. Their silence was imperative, he explained, because their sex was "gullible, deficient, and slight in intelligence." By his own admission he never tired of blaming Eve for the appearance of death in the world. "For Eve is the cause of mankind's death. Because of her, death came."

Only once did this saint permit himself to speak a kind word about Eve. "Let Eve be honored; for she is our mother. And after all she was created by God." However, the bishop hastened to add a warning: “But let no one listen to her. For she will persuade her children to eat from the forbidden tree and to disobey God's command."

Through an entire millennium Eve's image in Byzantium was destined to remain tarnished.