Religion Booknotes

Mapping Paradise

A History of Heaven on Earth

Alessandro Scafi

University of Chicago Press, $55, 400 pp.

I have been reading Alessandro Scafi’s book Mapping Paradise in small doses over the past few months. It is one of those works one hates to see come to a conclusion, rich as it is in content and lavish in illustration. I consider it a tour de force of intellectual history. It is also a near-perfect example of what historians call the Nachleben of a text from Scripture-the history of how a text has been read, pondered, and analyzed over the centuries.

The Book of Genesis gives a description of the Garden of Eden in relationship to four rivers (Genesis 2:10-14), and later tells us that in the east of Eden, God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword “to guard the tree of life” (Genesis 2:28). Some early commentators, preeminently Origen of Alexandria, saw the Garden of Eden strictly through the lens of allegory, but the vast majority of commentators, Jewish and Christian, thought that Genesis was describing a real geographical place located somewhere in Mesopotamia.

With the text’s historicity taken for...

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About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.