When did Death Come into the World?

I received the new IVP Academic catalog today and the new book by Ronald Osborn, Death Before the Fall, caught my attention. It deals with the question of death, the fall, and our hermeneutics in reading Genesis. I’ve recently run across a few ancient texts that address the same question (of when death entered the world) in surprising ways.

First, the Wisdom of Solomon asserts that “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.” (φθόνῳ δὲ διαβόλου θάνατος εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον) Now, many scholars believe that the serpent is in view here, and that WisSol views the serpent as the devil or his agent. We have some ancient texts (later than the NT) such as Life of Adam and Eve, where the devil envies Adam (12:1), refuses to worship him (ch 14), and is consequently cast out of heaven (ch 16). Similarly in 3 Baruch 4, Sammael is an angel who plants the vine from which Adam eats: “the devil being envious deceived him through his vine” (4:9).

It’s quite possible this is what WisSol is saying, but I think a very good case can be made that it is Cain who is in view. We have already seen that in Philo death as a physical fact enters the world through Cain, the first murderer. Cain is typically portrayed, especially in the Alexandrian tradition, as being motivated by envy of Abel and his acceptance by God. In WisSol 3, immediately after mentioning the devil’s envy, ch 3 narrates the death of the “righteous one”–this came to be a standard epithet for Abel. Much of the material in chs 2-3 fits Abel and Abel traditions quite well. If you want to look into this, see John Byron‘s Cain and Abel in Text and Traditionwhere he also argues for that WisSol has Cain and Abel in view. (and see the Update below). If you’re interested in the Wisdom of Solomon, check out David Winston’s commentary on the text which you can pick up used for around $7!

Second, 1 Clement, an early Christian text that probably dates to the late 1st or early 2nd century, also attributes death’s entry to Cain’s envy, when he says in 3:4-4:7,

For this reason righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God . . . resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the worldFor thus it is written: And it came to pass after certain days, that Cain brought of the fruits of the earth a sacrifice unto God; and Abel also brought of the firstlings of his sheep, and of the fat thereof. . . . And Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go into the field. And it came to pass, while they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. Ye see, brethren, how envy and jealousy led to the murder of a brother.

It’s pretty remarkable that an early Christian, especially one in Rome, could use the phrase δι᾽ οὗ καὶ θάνατος εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον (a virtual citation of Romans 5:12) and yet refer it to Cain, not Adam.

UPDATE: John Byron comments below and points us to his very interesting paper on Academia.edu: “Sin and Death in the World – Who’s to Blame? Adam or Cain?” Thanks, John! BTW, if you’re an academic and you’re not using Academia.edu, you’re missing out. Follow my Academia page here: http://criswell.academia.edu/DanielStreett.

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About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
This entry was posted in Apostolic Fathers, LXX Texts of Note, Philo and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When did Death Come into the World?

  1. Very interesting article – thanks for posting. I find this question especially intriguing because of the weight put on this passage by Young Earth Creationists (I tend to be one myself – but not militantly so). Thanks for all the interesting possibilities of what may have been meant by this verse.

  2. John Byron says:

    Daniel,

    Thanks for the plug! Yes, I think it is very possible that many early interpreters blame Cain for the presence of sin and death in the world. Below is a link to a paper, adapted from my book, that looks at how not everyone reading Romans 5 would have been convinced by Paul’s argument.

    https://www.academia.edu/3099451/Sin_and_Death_in_the_World_-_Whos_to_Blame_Adam_or_Cain

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