Patristic Exegeses on the Creation of Eve

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. . . . So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken." (Gen. 2:18, 21-23 NRSV)

Genesis contains two at times mutually contradictory accounts of creation. The first one, the so-called priestly (or P) narrative, extends from Gen. 1:1 to 2:4 and relates the progression of creation in a systematic, basically "evolutionary" manner which culminates with humanity. This is the account in which God makes humanity in His own image, male and female, and gives him dominion over the earth. In their exegesis of Gen. 1:27 - "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (NRSV) - the Greek Fathers stress the common divine inheritance of male and female created in God's image. They interpret the phrase "male and female he created them" in an inclusive, not a descriptive or normative, sense. In other words, they do not understand gender to be an aspect of God's image in humanity; rather, they interpret the verse to include both man and woman in the full reception of God's image. The second (although chronologically older), or Yahwist, account, Gen. 2:4 to 2:25, places the creation of humanity, Adam, before that of any other life form, plant or animal. Woman, on the other hand, is created after all other beings, in the manner related by the colorful account quoted above.

How do the Greek Fathers deal with these two sometimes conflicting descriptions of creation? Some, most notably John Chrysostom, treat it at length. The variance between the two creation accounts in Genesis is usually noticed, if not always dealt with successfully. Chrysostom, for example, claims, with reference to the phrases "male and female" and "them" in Gen. 1:26-28, that the first creation account alludes to what the second creation account, at least insofar as Eve is concerned, will describe in greater detail: . . . he teaches us this cryptically, since after all he has not yet taught us about the manner of formation, or told us where the woman comes from. He says, "Male and female he made them." Do you see how he describes what is not yet created as though already created? That's the way, you see, with the eyes of the spirit. . . .

Other Fathers - among them such luminaries as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor - simply ignore the second account. But although many of the most important Fathers do not treat the story of the creation of Eve, it is useful to examine just how Chrysostom and others explain its meaning both anthropologically and theologically and relate it to the first account, in which woman clearly participates equally with man in God's image and in human dominion over the earth.

The Collective "Adam"

There is first the need to deal with a fundamental question. Is the "Adam" created by God in Gen. 2:7 a male human being or proto-humanity? The Hebrew word adam means human being, a term which Clement of Alexandria notes is common to both men and women, but it is also used as the name of the first man. Among the Greek ecclesiastical writers, Gregory of Nyssa especially is concerned with the concept of adam or anthropos (human being) as a general term. He states that the indefinite character of the term includes all humanity - the name given is not to a particular person, but to humanity in general.

Many have thus equated the account of Eve's creation from the side of Adam with the myth of the androgynous man, similar to the one found in Plato's Symposium. However, this theory is not borne out by the patristic literature, since the Greek Fathers attach no ontological value to gender. Indeed, Theodoros Zissis claims that Chrysostom seems to argue specifically against this concept by saying that God replaced the removed rib from Adam and thus demonstrated that each sex is, in human terms, ontologically complete and perfect. And, with respect to the theory of the sexes as complementary, the history and tradition of monasticism (Mt. Athos being perhaps the most extreme example) obviates any anthropology that is based on the notion that male and female somehow "complete" each other and that both sexes are needed to manifest humanity in its spiritual fullness.

Woman as Companion and Helper

But if the Greek Fathers did not understand the creation of woman in terms of complementarity, how then did they understand it? The pre-Christian Palestinian Jewish community provides the first clue. In the Aramaic Jewish community, the desire to unite the two creation accounts produced a unique gloss on Gen. 1:27: God created humanity male and "companion." This is the same word used later in Gen. 2:18. A second Palestinian targum, that of pseudo-Jonathan, which is considered the most paraphrastic of all the Aramaic targums of the Pentateuch, translates the same verse to read that God decided to make for man a woman to be a "support before him."

The significance of, "It is not good for man to be alone" was not lost on the Greek Fathers; they recognized the fundamental truth of the need for human companionship. This is in itself a reflection of the image of God as Trinity in humanity. The intimate relations among the persons of the Trinity, described in the patristic literature as perichorisis - interpenetration - create a communal life of Three in One where, in the words of the French Orthodox theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, "the opposition between unity and plurality is superceded." As Behr-Sigel continues, "God's being is relation, personal love." John Zizioulas applies this to humanity's reception of God's image:

(a) There is no true being without communion. Nothing exists as an "individual," conceivable in itself. Communion is an ontological category.

(b) Communion which does not come from a "hypostasis," that is, a concrete and free person, and which does not lead to "hypostases," that is concrete and free persons, is not an "image" of the being of God. The person cannot exist without communion; but every form of communion which denies or suppresses the person is inadmissable.

Thus, communion among human persons is a fundamental aspect of God's image, and the second creation account emphasizes this human need for communion. Even Gregory of Nyssa, while not referring specifically to Genesis, asserts in the third chapter of his work On Virginity that "the sum total of all that is hoped for in marriage [is] to get delightful companionship." St. John Chrysostom is far more direct. He paraphrases Gen. 2:18 to show God's desire that man have someone to provide him with comfort and companionship. Chrysostom says that God created Eve from Adam's side because man needed someone with whom to speak, to share in life's trials and tribulations, to provide comfort by sharing in his very being. In fact, Chrysostom says that Eve was created at Adam's request.

This companionship, this communion, is of paramount importance since it is the rationale for the creation of Eve, as Chrysostom repeatedly emphasizes with the phrase "[Adam], for whom she was created." St. Paul seems to put a hierarchical spin on this: "Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (I Cor. 11:9), and Chrysostom, while often softening this passage's implications for woman, echoes Paul's tone of male superiority when speaking to the men in his congregation. But he has a specific pastoral purpose here, namely, to preserve order and the status quo in our fallen human society - a constant theme in Chrysostom's homilies - that is supposed to work for the benefit and salvation of all. This is part of a general paradigm of power and authority which Chrysostom believes exists in post-lapsarian humanity; one of the three forms of subjugation in fallen human society is that of woman to man. However, he understands this gender-based hierarchy only within the post-lapsarian human order as a distortion of the primeval egalitarian companionship enjoyed by Adam and Eve in Paradise.

Another aspect of the traditional hierarchical understanding of the creation of Eve concerns Gen. 2:18, which relates that woman was created for man to be a "helper fit for him." The natural question that arises concerns the meaning of the word helper (voithos). A study of patristic exegeses of the creation of Eve shows that the Greek Fathers had no conception of woman as servant to man, nor can the term voithos be construed in this way any more than its Hebrew counterpart, ezer, carries such an implication of inferiority. Adam's need was not for a servant or slave; his desire was not for someone inferior to him. As emphasized by several authors, Adam's real need was for a true companion, one equal to him, one with whom he could share all things.

A word that Chrysostom uses at least twice in this respect is especially revealing. The verb prosdhialegomai means "to converse," in the sense of engaging in repartee or negotiation, i.e., a conversation of equals. Chrysostom contrasts this dialogue of equals with Eve's conversation with the serpent. He stresses that it would have been even better for Eve never to have been speaking with the serpent at all. In fact, he wonders how she even came to be entangled in conversation with the animal. Companionship and conversation is for equals, Chrysostom implies, and Eve demeaned herself by conversing with a being subordinate and subject to herself. This reflects the general patristic theme that it was important that Adam's companion be "a helper fit for him." The Fathers interpreted "fit" to mean comparable and equal to man. Chrysostom, for example, distinguishes four concepts inherent in the word fit: "like or similar," "of the same essence," "worthy of Adam," and "not lacking any quality." Elsewhere he stresses the same notion of equality, quoting God to the effect that not only did He want someone of the same essence as man for man's comfort, but He wanted to make an appropriate helper for him. Similarly, Irenaeus embellishes Gen. 2:20 to emphasize Adam's need for a partner like him, saying that God made Eve "car, parmi tous les autres vivants, il ne se trouvait pas d'aide egale, comparable et semblable a Adam ("For among all other living beings, he did not find an equal helper, comparable and similar to Adam")." But what was the best way to create a companion for Adam who shared his essence and was truly equal to him?

Adam's Rib

According to the Greek Fathers, this need for an equal partner was ingeniously fulfilled by God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib. Unlike the naive literalness exhibited in the Palestinian targum of pseudo-Jonathan (that God used the thirteenth rib on Adam's right side!), the Greek writers showed sophistication in their interpretation of the significance of God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib. In fact, John Chrysostom cautions against taking literally the phrase "took one of his ribs." Rather, he says that Scripture uses such language because of our intellectual weakness, so that we might somehow understand these ineffable mysteries.

And what is the significance of Adam's rib? The Fathers point out several aspects. Perhaps most curious is the line of reasoning of Clement of Alexandria, who sees the account of Eve's creation as an allegory for and explanation of traditional male and female characteristics. In his Paedagogus, Clement equates body hair with activity and hairlessness with passivity. He notes that the beard is the sign of the man, who is older than Eve, and signifies his "greater" (i.e., physically stronger) nature. He explains that God covered man's whole body with hair except the smooth part by the rib so that he could make Eve as helper in procreation and housekeeping. Clement believes that woman is passive, while man, who has lost the smooth part of his body, is more active because hairy bodies are drier and warmer than hairless ones (he also applies this line of reasoning to eunuchs). However, while Clement's biological interpretation of Eve's creation has certain parallels with Aristotelian anthropology and the medical theories of the time, it avoids the excesses of those secular views, which considered women biologically to be, respectively, crippled or childlike.

Basil of Seleucia sees a different significance to the story of Adam's rib. The reason why God makes Eve after Adam is to show Adam that God is his Creator. How can Adam otherwise learn who his Maker is if he hasn't seen Him create? But by watching Him make a creature similar to him, Adam can recognize God as his own Creator. On a more pragmatic note, Theodoret of Cyrus postulates that God made Eve of the same nature as Adam so there would be no strife between the sexes. "Flesh of my Flesh" - Homogenis and Homoousios. But most importantly, the creation of Eve from Adam's rib symbolizes the fundamental relationship between man and woman, their oneness of essence. The Fathers see confirmation of this exegesis in Adam's recognition of Eve as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Chrysostom, for example, in a philosophical manner reminiscent of the earlier discussion regarding the meaning of the word voithos, stresses the egalitarian, nonhierarchical nature of Eve's ontological relationship to Adam.

The specific story of Eve's creation from Adam's rib, according to the Greek Fathers, shows that woman is homogenis (same race) to man, that the two are homoisioi (same essence). In fact, the prefix homo (same) occurs frequently throughout the exegeses of Greek Christian authors on the creation of woman: homogenis, homoisios, homotimos (same honor), etc. Other words are also used. As mentioned above, Irenaeus paraphrased the kat auton (according to him) of Gen. 2:20 to read homoion auto that is, "similar" or "like" Adam, a substitution that Chrysostom also makes. But homoios (similar), while an egalitarian term, does not have ontological import, at least not in a positive sense. In fact, for many of the Greek Fathers the word is stained with the implications of Arianism; extrapolated to humanity, the term could imply that man and woman are similar but not substantially the same. And so it appears that the Fathers are not content with the simple sense of equivalence connoted by homoios. Far more common are the terms homotimos and, especially, homogenis and homoousios, which define as well as describe the relationship between Adam and Eve, between man and woman.

Basil of Seleucia finds this parity even in the similar wording God uses in deciding to create humanity, comparing Gen. 1:26 to Gen. 2:18: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" in the former, to "let us make a helper fit for him" in the latter. In both cases God takes counsel with Himself and in both cases He creates a human being as a result. Basil continues by reasoning that the wording of God's counsel is similar because the creatures are homogeni, their forms are similar for they are homotima. John Chrysostom also notes the parallel structure of Gen. 1:26 and 2:18.

Embellishing on Genesis, Basil has God decide to make humanity isotimos, sharing equal glory, with woman lacking nothing by way of isotimia lest she be insulted as being of a lesser (literally, bastard) race. Noting that in piety and virtue man and woman are equal, Basil declares that faith does not distinguish between the sexes (literally, race). He buttresses his argument by quoting Paul in I Cor. 11:11, that "in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman," concluding that while there is a difference in gender (literally, "nature"), the path of virtue knows no such difference.

Procopios of Gaza emphasizes that God deliberately did not make Eve "from scratch," in the same way as he made Adam, although he could have done so. He compares her creation from Adam's rib to the Father's begetting of the Son outside of time (and logic); Eve is complete and perfect in essence, lacking nothing with respect to Adam. Even the word Adam chooses to describe her, woman, is "a duplicate noun, from her relation to man, from whom she was drawn." She is his helper in life in all things, and so shares the homotimia of nature. She differs from the male neither with respect to possessing an immortal and rational soul, nor with respect to essence (ousia)

In fact, the theological term homoousios is one of the most popular among Greek writers and is used in exegeses of the creation stories even outside of specific reference to the creation of Eve from Adam's rib. In a work spuriously attributed to Gregory of Nyssa, for example, the author uses it in the context of his comparison of Adam, Eve and Abel to the Holy Trinity. Didymus the Blind finds proof of the consubstantiality of man and woman in the first creation account, Gen. 1:26-27. Procopios reasons that the use of the singular in some instances and the plural in others in referring to humanity proves that man and woman are homoousioi and fall under one category. He believes that even the mention of "male and female," a phrase not used for the animals, demonstrates that, although the manner of creation for man and woman differed, they have one essence, an essence that metaphysically, is the image of God.

John Chrysostom speaks perhaps most forcefully on this subject. He reasons that a helper for Adam had to be of the same essence (ousia) as Adam because Adam needed someone with whom he could engage in reciprocal conversation; he needed communion with another of the same essence. Therefore, he argues, God made Eve from Adam specifically so that she would be of his essence, to be a voithos homoios auto. Further, he counters arguments that survive to the present day that God's creation of woman is inferior to His creation of man. Chrysostom avers specifically that God's taking a rib to make Eve is no less than His taking earth to make Adam. This rational creature is perfect and complete and like man in every way. In fact, he argues that Scripture uses the word constructed rather than formed for God's creation of Eve because God was not creating a new type of creature, but merely making another (of the same type) by using a small piece of the already existing one. This, again, buttresses Chrysostom's thesis that man and woman are ontologically the same.
Chrysostom's anthropological use of such terms as homogenis and homoousios continues in his exegesis of the Fall, in particular regarding Eve's conversation with the serpent. She accepted counsel from the serpent, one of the servants subordinate to her, not homogenis. And in order to enter into conversation with him, she left the one for whom she was created, with whom she shared the same worth, to whom she was both homoousios and homophonos. He reiterates this point in explaining the fallen state of woman, which he contrasts to her state in Paradise. In the beginning she was created homotimos to man, of the same axia (worth, value, worthiness) in all things, ruling equally with man over all things. But she forsook him who was homotimos to her, who shared the same nature (physis), for whom she was created. Chrysostom further declares that Adam's sin is not simply in listening to Eve, for he implies that, since she is homogenis to him and is his wife, that would be normal. Adam's sin is in ignoring God's command, which was still ringing in his ears, letting Eve's advice supersede it.


In concluding, it is necessary to situate the discussion of the creation of Eve within the general context of Greek patristic views on anthropology and, specifically, on the ontology of gender. Patristic anthropology understands that human beings by their nature need companionship, and that God in His wisdom provided most perfectly for that companionship by using gender, which the Greek Fathers unanimously assert was added by God to human nature from animal nature because of His foreknowledge of the fall. The element of sexual desire that gender adds to human companionship is thus seen not negatively, but simply as part of the post-lapsarian condition of humanity. The inequality of the sexes and their division of roles occurs only on the economic level, that is, on the level of functionality within the fallen human condition.

The Greek Fathers' exegeses of the Biblical account of the creation of woman contrasts sharply with, on the one hand, traditional Latin patristic exegesis - exemplified in Augustine - which makes the male human the norm for humanity, and on the other hand, much of twentieth-century theology, both Eastern and Western, which sees woman as essentially other (Paul Evdokimov in the Orthodox tradition; Karl Barth in the West with his notion of Eva als andere). To the contrary, by far the most common Greek patristic interpretation of Eve's creation from Adam's rib is that of its significance in underlining the shared nature of their being. The Fathers' vocabulary supports their theological-anthropological views: homoousios, homotimos, homogenis, tis autis physeos (of the same nature). The theological significance of these terms leads to the extrapolation of Trinitarian theology to the anthropological level: humanity is a communion of persons sharing the same nature, an imperfect reflection of the Godhead as Three Persons sharing One Essence.



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