Here I would like to continue my review of Eric Cline’s book, From Eden to Exile, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Bible (2007), The National Geographic Society. My thoughts regarding the Introduction can be found here.
In the first chapter of From Eden to Exile, Eric Cline addresses the archaeological and textual evidence for the biblical “Garden of Eden”. Of all the bible “mysteries” to be addressed in upcoming chapters, Cline identifies this as the most difficult to evaluate scientifically…and with some justification: outside of the biblical narrative there is almost no additional textual or archaeological evidence to corroborate the story.
Unfortunately, as we noted in the introduction, most ancient historians and archaeologists generally want several separate sources of evidence before they will believe something to be factually substantiated, and that is simply not possible in the case of the Garden of Eden (p. 1).
The first problem in attempting to assess any real-world historical correspondence between the biblical Garden of Eden and the current geography of that region of the world today is that of the rivers. The biblical texts refer to four rivers within Eden. As Cline notes, two of the four rivers are well known: the Tigris and Euphrates and we must make of these descriptions “…what we will” (p.2). Their biblical names were not as we know them today; however, there is apparently sufficient concordance with other biblical texts to be relatively confident that these are the two rivers being discussed. The other two rivers are the Pishon (which flowed around the land of Havilah) and the Gihon (surrounding the land of Cush). It is not known to what flowing bodies of water these two place names refer, although there has been much speculation. Cline cites Scafi (Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven and Earth) who suggests that there was wide agreement among scholars from the 1st century A.D. Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (who first brought the idea forward) through the Renaissance, that the Gihon and the Pishon were the Nile and the Ganges, respectively. Later biblical references refer to the land of Cush as being in Africa, but Cline notes that the Genesis texts seem to nonetheless link its location with Mesopotamia. In effect, the biblical texts are ambiguous with reference to geographic location and (more importantly in my mind) scale.
Cline next discusses mention of Eden in Sumerian texts that pre-date Genesis and which may themselves have been borrowed from an earlier culture, the Ubaidians (approximately 7500 – 5500 BP). He also notes the existence of additional creation stories from the region that have “striking similarities” to the story found in Genesis. All of these pre-date the biblical account:
Scholars generally agree that the Hebrew Bible as we have it today was compiled from various sources, which were written down as early as the tenth or ninth century B.C. and as late as the sixth or fifth century B.C. Even the earliest parts of the Bible, such as the source called J by biblical scholars, do not date earlier than the tenth or ninth century B.C., hundreds of years after Enuma Elish was written.
Cline argues that these stories are “transmitted narratives” – oral history handed down from generation to generation and culture to culture, and eventually captured in a written language. Such narratives provide the best explanation for both the similarities and the differences between the biblical narratives and other stories from the region. This is an idea that makes good anthropological sense and is supported by anthropological, archaeological, ethnographic and historical data worldwide. We know that prior to written language (or in absence of such a language) oral transmissions of cultural knowledge were vital to maintaining cultural cohesiveness. Cline suggests that such oral traditions in the Near East were probably transmitted between cultures at a time scale on the order of centuries if not longer. I would suggest that oral traditions may in fact be passed for thousands of years. And of course, their content and concepts changed over time. It is also important to realize a primary function of such transmitted narratives: to “explain” the world around them in terms that were culturally meaningful, given their level of scientific and historic knowledge at the time. Of course, by today’s standards, this was not very much. As a result, while their explanations for world origins were culturally meaningful to them, they were not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate.
I have digressed from Cline’s theme for a moment to make a point. This is, again, an area where I perceive a primary difference of approach between the so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists”. As I have mentioned elsewhere, and as most scholars are aware, these terms get bantered around with little or no explanation or definition. But here, I think the distinction explains itself in the way in which biblical texts are used. Perhaps because of my personal theological biases, it is easy for me to set aside theological interpretations and recognize bible narratives solely in the context of cultural transmission. They are important historic texts, not because of their accuracy in identifying historical phenomena, but because they give us insight into first millennium B.C. culture. Treating the biblical narratives solely in terms of their cultural origins and evolution (including assessing cultural, societal and political motivations for constructing such narratives) makes one a “minimalist” in the eyes of most. This is especially true for those who believe the biblical accounts must be referring not just to historically accurate information, but information that is historically correct by 21st century standards. Yet this approach has nothing to do with demonstrating the “accuracy” of the bible as its primary goal. Like Gould’s spandrels at San Marcos, biblical “accuracy” is but a by-product of cultural motivations and perspective. I can fully appreciate that biblical texts may, in some cases, contain accurate historical information – but the degree of accuracy is going to be highly variable, and clearly relative to the cultural level of knowledge (or political influence) at the time of writing. And in this approach, biblical texts are no more accurate than any other ancient text, precisely because they are all share the same broad cultural characteristics: they are written by newly emergent societies, with limited knowledge of the world, that have only recently invented the ability to translate oral history into the written word. I would not expect such texts to be historically, and consistently, accurate in all details. This does not mean they are not important.
Cline hints at a potentially important link between the early Garden of Eden narratives, the paleoenvironmental conditions of the Middle East at the close of the Pleistocene, and the rise of agricultural systems and complex societies. This general time period (the post-Pleistocene, roughly 7-10,000 years BP) witnessed the origin of many economically prominent domesticates (although not nearly all, as we now know domestication of many plant and animal species occurred independently among societies around the world). Cline suggests, as many have, that emerging agricultural systems provided a bounty of plant and animal species, particularly after the introduction of irrigation methods, which must have appeared as something of a “Garden of Eden” to those engaged in this pursuit.
There is something, however, that nags at me regarding “Garden of Eden” stories stemming from emergent agricultural societies – contrary to popular perception, the switch from hunting-gathering economies to agricultural ones was not necessarily a natural transformation – it most likely was forced by deteriorating environmental conditions through the Holocene. Agriculture, relative to hunting-gathering, is labor-intensive, less nutritional, entails greater risk, and produces significant societal “hurdles”: although most foraging societies are aware of agricultural (or at least horticultural) practices, almost none choose that route unless forced by other circumstances. If early agricultural societies thought of their systems as a “Garden of Eden” they probably did so grudgingly. I wonder if a better Garden of Eden may have actually been delta regions to which some societies retreated during the drying Holocene. These would have been true areas of bounty, where emergent agricultural could be sustained, but also where game abounded (unglulates, waterfowl, fish) and hunting could easily supplement the economy. Deltaic regions can also be quite extensive and from the perspective of smaller human groups could easily appear in oral tradition as “one river branching into four”.
Regardless, it is probably true that such stories find their origin in the cultures of those earliest societies, be they dependent on agriculture, foraging, or some combination. Cline continues the chapter by reflecting on the archaeological and historical strengths and weaknesses of various scholarly proposals for the actual location of the Garden of Eden: Juris Zarin’s hypothesis of coastline inundation of a potential location; James Sauer’s suggestion that it was located on the Arabian Peninsula; David Rohl’s claims that it is located in Iran; Gary Greenberg’s identification of it in Egypt; and Michael S. Sanders’ location of the Garden of Eden in Turkey. Cline evaluates each of these in turn, finding the Greenberg and Sanders hypotheses the least backed by proper archaeological and historical method, and the Sauer and Rohl hypotheses plausible, but less likely. Cline clearly favors the Zarin view (originally conceived by Ephraim Speiser) that posits an area off the Persian Gulf coast, now under water. This view makes sense on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that the Persian Gulf coastline would have risen dramatically as Pleistocene glaciers melted over the course of the early Holocene. This view makes further sense for me in that such an area would have been an extensive delta – the kind of environment constituting a Garden of Eden from a forager’s perspective in the early Holocene.
This view also considers the cultural perspective of cultures ultimately responsible for the oral traditions eventually captured in early texts. Differing origin perspectives are not typically considered with current biblical “interpretations” – at least those more popularly perceived. One of the problems is making sense of the relatively different views of scale. The Jewish historian Flavius Joseph may have agreed with other learned scholars at the time that the biblical description encompassed large river systems such as the Ganges and the Nile. From the perspective of a much larger world known from the 5th century, the economic importance of such large river systems would have focused attention on these as the source of the rivers in the biblical narrative. But late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers and the early Holocene farmers were often constrained by areas of economic exploitation. Their “catchment” areas were more on the scale of single rivers or, more likely, resource rich delta systems with single rivers making multiple branches at their mouth.
Ultimately, however, Cline concludes that, although there may be a kernel of historical truth to the Garden of Eden stories (the writer was, after all, referring to some kind of geographical reality, although at what scale remains debatable), the final historical “truth” will probably remain elusive:
It is hard to put the Garden of Eden into historical context, for it belongs to the realm of prehistory, if not myth or legend (p. 13).
From my perspective as an archaeologists and researcher, Cline also offers a much-welcomed assessment of current views: any future evidence announced will have to be backed by legitimate scholars following proper archaeological and historical methodology. Cline raises this important problem, too often ignored by the media and professionals in the field, in greater detail in later chapters of the book.
 Technically the text refers to a single river flowing out of Eden to “…water the garden”; from here the single river divides into four branches – geomorphologically speaking, this description is quite different from four separate rivers.