Saturday, August 14, 2010

Was There a Historical Adam?

Ever since Darwin and the Scopes trial, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the world was created by God or an evolutionary process. While Evangelicals have traditionally held to some form of creationism, many are beginning to speak more frankly about their conclusion that evolution, at some level, plays a part.

One of the big issues for many is that the acceptance of an evolutionary process removes the possibility of a historical Adam. The biggest challenge in the minds of some is that Paul refers to Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 as if he was a historical figure. They conclude that if Paul thought that Adam was a real person so should we.

Jame McGrath has posted today a link to a short video and essay by Tremper Longman, Professor of Old Testament at Claremont College. Longman states that:

The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.

Longman is a well-respected Evangelical scholar, so his speaking out like this is significant. I will admit that I am not committed to the belief in a literal Adam. I think there is something more significant theologically going on in Genesis than an attempt to give us a blow-by-blow account of how the world was created. I also don't know enough about evolution to dismiss it. But, like much in life, I am not sure we need to have an either/or attitude. The Bible was not written as a science and history book. Science is not interested in theology.

What do you think? Does it matter if there was a historical Adam and Eve?


  1. John, you raise a much larger question than simply the historicality of Adam. I think this is certainly an important topic that should be discussed throughout the church in a mature, reasoned, and courteous manner. But larger issues are at stake; and that is, how should we understand Scripture as a whole and what are the implications of changing some of the more stongly held traditional viewpoints? For lack of a better way to say it, the Protestant church has, in some ways, fallen on its own sword. While the basic tenets of the Reformation were important for the renewal of faith and life in the church (and are still important), we (protestants) have now become enslaved to those viewpoints. For instance, the idea of sola scriptura was a fundamental notion that allowed an incredible amount of freedom for Reformers, but has now become a fetter for modern day Christians, especially contemporary evangelical scholars who want to employ a more critical approach. I am not doing justice to the discussion in this post, but what I am trying to say is that the current belief, in much of the church today, is that since we hold to sola scriptura, any questioning of Scripture is an attack on faith in general. Instead of having faith in Christ, many have faith in Scripture. Things ought not to be this way.

    I have run into this several times in the past few years. As one who would like to seriously pursue biblical studies, I have taken on not a few critical viewpoints (and not to the detriment of my faithfulness to Christ). I do, however, find it more and more difficult to converse with and get into serious discussions with Christians who hold a more fundamentalist viewpoint.

    I'm sure I'll clarify my thoughts later.

  2. The problem I would have is Luke 3...the genealogy of Jesus. I would assume most would agree Joseph was a literal person (vs. 23) as well as David (vs. 31) his father Jesse (vs. 32) Abraham (vs. 34), etc. Verse 38 lists Adam as part of Jesus' lineage, and if Adam is not a literal person, where in Luke 3 does Scripture go from "fact" to "fiction"?

  3. Mike,

    You make a good point. No, not everyone would agree that everyone in Luke's genealogy is a historical person. Many do not think that Abraham was a real person. I happen to think there was an "Abraham," but I am not sure how much of what we have reflects the historical record.

    I think Luke, like Matthew does with his genealogy of Jesus, is doing something more important than simply listing Jesus' family tree. I think Luke's point is found in 3:38 when he calls Adam the "son of God". Not a phrase we normally associate with Adam. But if Luke is trying to make a statement about Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman world, then connecting him to Adam demonstrates that, more than Augustus, Jesus has a legitimate claim on being the Son of God. I think Luke's theology here is probably influenced to some degree by Pauline thinking (first and last Adam). He is trying to mark out the continuity of God working through history. He uses Adam as the starting point recognized by Jews. Adam was the first son of God and here is the last or ultimate son of God. Luke has no problem mixing together historical with unhistorical because his point is not history but theology.

  4. The question raised from the previous two posts would be, what are the implications if Luke really did think that Adam was an historical person, if in fact he was not? The same could be said of Jesus: What are the implications if Jesus believed Jonah was an historical person, if in fact the character of Jonah was intended to be a literary character only?

  5. Jason,

    Does it matter if Jesus thought Jonah was a real person, when in fact he wasn't (I am not ready to say he wasn't)? Does it change anything about the message and purpose of Jesus?

  6. But if the phrase "who's your daddy?" meant something much deeper historically (it was a bigger part of your identity) than it does in our culture today, would the Biblical writers have given a "false daddy(s)". If Abraham was the first "real person" in the genealogy, why would they make up the name Terah as his father? Or if David is the first real person, why make up the name Jesse as his father. If at some point the list goes from "real" to "fake", I would think it would be a HUGE smack in the face for whoever had their real father replaced with a figurative one.

  7. "I think there is something more significant theologically going on in Genesis than an attempt to give us a blow-by-blow account of how the world was created."

    I think this is right on target. I believe that the difficulties created by a statement such as this can be significantly diminished if Christians really begin to understand the concept of genre, and how genre designation influences our expectations of the text. If the genre of Genesis is not science, then Christians need to rethink/consider other genre alternatives to better understand a difficult block of text. My personal understanding of Genesis 1-11 is this: there is some sort historical sense that is developed through the theology of the text. I think it is best understood as "theological history," an account of humanity from a theological perspective. I hope this makes some sense.

  8. Mike,

    Yes it did and it also mattered who your mother was too. But it was not unusual for people to fabricate genealogies. Take a look at the Testament of Naphtali where the author created a genealogy for Rachel's handmaid Bilhah. The author did this to remove the stain of slavery from Bilhah and thus freed Dan and Naphtali from the accusation of being the sons of a slave.

    So, if other Jewish writers were doing this in order to make a point, why not the authors of the NT? What about the way Matthew arranges his genealogy of Jesus into three groups of 14 that when arranged according to Hebrew numerics and spells "David"?

    Again, I think the problem is that we want the Bible to reflect 21st century concepts of history and accuracy, but it does not. The authors were doing what they thought was correct, which is not always the way we would like it.

    Btw, I wrote an article on the genealogy in the Testament of Naphtali. You may find it interesting to see how a genealogy was used to make a point instead of history.

    “Noble Lineage as a Response to Enslavement in the Testament of Naphtali 1.9–12,” Journal of Jewish Studies: 55.1 (2004): 45-57.

  9. Good discussion (actually, good statements of opinion, which is what a blog is anyway). In any case, some important points are being made and some important questions are being asked.

    John, your questions above actually clarify my previous more general questions. Perhaps some more clear derivative questions would be:

    1) If, let us say, Job and Jonah are not historical figures, but Jesus believed them to be, does that discredit Jesus in any way? Is my faith in Jesus any less credible or reasonable if Jesus was misinformed from an historical viewpoint? (I am not settled one way or the other on Job and/or Jonah, I simply propose this for the purpose of drawing out the discussion). I propose that allegiance to ICHTHUS (that is, Jesus who is the long awaited Messiah, son of the living God, and savior of Israel and the world) is still reasonable and saving EVEN IF Jesus thought a literary character was an historical person.

    2) Now, what if the gospel writers fudged some of the geneaologies to make a point (which both Luke and Matthew may have done), does that undermine and discredit the author, their story, or my faith in Jesus which is strengthened and informed by that gospel story? I propose that neither of those things are true, EVEN IF the gospel writer truly did believe he was presenting an historically accurate geneaology (it may be the case that the gospel writer knew that he was purposely altering, or creating, an historically inaccurate geneaology). Again, genre and authorial intention should help guide our answers to these questions. If Luke's purpose was to demonstrate that Jesus had more authority and reason to be hailed as the Son of God that did Ceasar, rather than give you the actual geneaology of Jesus, then we should allow this to weigh our perception of this part of the text. Perhaps we should read the geneaolgies akin to the parables.

    3) Furthermore, what if there was not a real Adam nor a real Eve? Should this discredit the Bible in any way? Should this discredit my faith in the God of history--the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, Jesus, creation? I propose that it should not. We must first ask, did the author of Gen 2ff really want us to read his story as an historical event? We can never truly answer this question. However, we can, as John Byron suggests, look for literary clues in the story to guide us toward one answer or another.

    A long post-and perhaps a better a discussion over coffee or another choice beverage. I encourage response.

  10. The Bible was not written as a science and history book.

    I find it simply stunning to discover that you don't believe that, for example, that the Books of Chronicles were written as a history. Can I assume that you don't believe the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Josephus were written as history either?

  11. Theophrastus,

    I am assuming your post is tongue and cheek. But no, I don't think they are history, at least not how we would define history. They contain history, some more than others, but they are often laden with propaganda to promote a certain ideology (which is also the case with modern history. We just aren't always as blatant with it).