Was Eve Made From Adam’s Missing Penis Bone?
According to the Bible, God fashioned Adam out of dirt while Eve, who was created as a companion for Adam, was made out of one of Adam’s ribs. Or was she?
The Bible starts, as most people know, with the creation of the universe, animals, and human beings. According to the Bible, God fashioned Adam out of dirt while Eve, who was created as a companion for Adam, was made out of one of Adam’s ribs. Or was she? A shocking academic theory proposes that rather than being whittled out of a rib, Eve was actually formed out of Adam’s os baculum or, to put this much more directly, man’s now-missing penis bone. As you might imagine, the theory has caused something of a stir.
Even from an ancient perspective, the idea that Eve was created out of a rib has some problems. Though ancient understandings of the machinations of the body were limited, death, decay, and ancient burial rituals meant that knowledge of the human skeleton was hardly out of reach. Moreover, as anyone who has taken an elementary class in human anatomy knows, the ribcage is not asymmetrical: generally speaking there doesn’t appear to be a rib missing on one side: most people have 12 pairs. Given that ancient people are as likely to have known this as we moderns, it’s worth asking what ancient readers thought was happening when God “caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and… took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh” (Gen. 2:21). Explanations for what this strange ancient organ transplant involved is where things take a turn for the scandalous.
In both his book and a 2015 article in Biblical Archeology Review, Ziony Zevit, a distinguished professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages at American Jewish University in Bel-Air, California, argues that tsela’ —the Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘side’ or ‘rib’ has been misunderstood. It actually refers to Adam’s os baculum or penis bone. Of the 40 times the word tsela’ is used in the Hebrew Bible it refers to something “off-center” or lateral to the main structure (often an antechamber or side building). In anatomical terms, Zevit argues, that seems like an apt description for the penis. The fact the underside of the penis has a “seam” of sorts (somewhat delicately known as a raphé) that forms around 10 weeks old may well have created the impression that men have a scar where God performed this primordial bone graft and then sealed Adam back up.
For Zevit, this interpretation helped ancient people understand why it is that the human penis does not contain an actual bone when one might imagine that it should (fun fact, many primates do have penile bones). Thus, just as the Garden of Eden story offers explanations for why snakes don’t have legs, why there is pain in childbirth, and why we have to work and eventually die, it also solves an anatomical conundrum. The penis bone argument makes a certain kind of sense because it posits a connection between Eve’s creation and the sexual relationship between Adam and Eve.
The origins of our modern misunderstanding, Zevit goes on to argue, stems from an ancient Greek translation of the Bible. In mid-third century Alexandria (in Egypt) the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for Diaspora Jews. There’s a whole mythology surrounding the accuracy of its translation, but one choice that adds greater precision to the Adam and Eve story is the translation of tsela’ as “rib.” From this Greek text, known as the Septuagint, the rib-interpretation “entered Western culture via Jerome’s Latin translation. But,” says Zevit, “it is wrong.”
Zevit is not the only scholar to make his argument. Unknown to him, some 30 years earlier the folklorist Alan Dundes had struck upon the same interpretation. Moreover, following the publication of Zevit’s book, other scholars like Mary Joan Leith of Stonehill College stated that they found his argument persuasive.
Not everyone is on board, however. In a recent piece, Hector Avalos, a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and expert on ancient health care, argues that this proposal is fundamentally flawed because it relies on retrodiagnoses, the practice of describing ancient bodies using modern medical categories and diagnoses.
This kind of backward-looking medical diagnosis is rife in Biblical Studies and ancient history in general. Scholars run across an atypical body or impairment and assume that as moderns we are capable of diagnosing what “the problem” actually was. Malcolm Gladwell famously argued that Goliath suffered from acromegaly (a pituitary gland problem caused by a benign tumor). Other attempts to diagnose biblical characters include the idea that St. Paul had epilepsy or that Isaac had diabetes. Today these are diagnoses that would be confirmed with rigorous medical testing, none of which amateur-medic Bible scholars are able to perform. And this is where Avalos is absolutely right: we have no way of proving that these analyses are correct and even if we chanced upon the correct modern diagnosis no one in the ancient world would have agreed with us.
More broadly, Avalos argues, it’s inaccurate to assume that ancient people had the same understanding of skeleton as we do. He points both to medieval and renaissance evidence in which people disagree about the number of bones in the human body and to osteo-archaeological data in which the number of ribs in the human body varies. Anthropologist Tim White, for example, has argued that “there may be eleven or thirteen ribs on a side,” evidence that would lend itself well to the traditional understanding of the creation of Eve.
Perhaps most damning of all, Avalos shows, there don’t seem to have been many ancient interpreters who agree with Zevit’s reading of this passage. Even when they argue for a meaning other than “rib,” later interpreters wonder if perhaps the tsela’ is a tail. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all is the fact that God takes “one of [Adam’s] ribs” to make Eve. The expression assumes that there was more than one of whatever bone Eve was made and there’s no evidence at all that Adam had more than one penis.
In evaluating these theories, Dr. Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, told The Daily Beast that “Both arguments have merit. Creating womankind out of a spare rib taken from the first man is certainly in keeping with the low view of women present in Genesis 2–3. Then again, creating a woman from the male sexual organ, and simultaneously explaining why men don’t possess a bone that so many other animals possess, including most primates, offers an etiology that is in keeping with the overall sexual nature of this myth.”
What the story exposes is how difficult and uncertain the project of translating ancient texts is. It is difficult to get inside the idioms, euphemisms, and colloquialisms of an ancient culture in which none of us can actually be enculturated. We have a history of interpreting words in a specific ways but even then we might be using powers of deduction. The jury is certainly out about what ancient people thought was happening in the Garden of Eden. While it’s more likely that the author(s) of this story thought Eve was created from a rib, it’s possible that some thought she was fashioned out of a penile bone or even vestigial tail. For those of this who believe in evolution this is all something of a moot point, but chances are that you’ll never think of the euphemism “boner” in quite the same way.