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The historicity of Adam

This book follows on from the author’s previous volume, Inspiration And Incarnation. There, he argued that the Bible’s human authors were men of their time, meaning that their perceptions about such topics as cosmology were also of their time, and not in line with modern scientific understanding. Yet in spite of this their writings, under the Holy Spirit’s direction, became part of the Word of God, by which he continues to speak to us.

In this second work—The Evolution Of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins by Peter Enns (Brazos Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4412-3633-3)—the author focuses in on one feature: Adam. The title does not mean that, according to Enns, Adam evolved, but that Christians’ understanding of who Adam was has evolved, and this is his subject-matter. He does believe, however, as many Christians now do, that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that it cannot be reasonably ignored, which means coming up with an alternative interpretation of the Bible’s creation accounts.

The book is in two parts. The first looks at the early chapters of Genesis (in the context of the OT as a whole) and examines the evidence for accepting or rejecting their story as scientifically verifiable fact, concluding that it must be rejected. Instead, it should be seen as ‘an ancient story of Israelite self-definition’. Enns makes a strong case for his view.

In Part 2 he turns to the New Testament, where the apostle Paul takes up the ‘Adam’ theme in a big way in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, comparing him with the ‘last Adam’, Jesus Christ. For some Christians this is the problem-area. They might be able to accept a non-historical view of the Genesis account of Adam, but argue that, since Paul draws a parallel between Adam and Christ, both of them must be genuine historical figures for the parallel to hold up.

Enns disagrees. He concludes that while Paul, in line with the standard Jewish viewpoint of his era, clearly believed in Adam as a historical figure, he was in fact mistaken. He is not to be blamed for that: he was a man of his time. But the truths and lessons based on Adam and Christ that he was laying out by divine inspiration continue to be valid today, even though we may totally accept the historicity of Christ while rejecting the historicity of Adam.

These are deep issues, but Enns handles them with skill, grace and scholarly conviction. If you read this book, try to resist a quick overreaction. In fact you might like to read it once, then return to it after a while for a more leisurely and thoughtful consideration. I think he’s onto something!

[Note: I read the Kindle version, so the figures after the following quotations are location numbers rather than page numbers]


The biblical writers assumed that the earth is flat, was made by God in relatively recent history (about 4,000 years before Jesus) just as it looks now, and that it is the fixed point in the cosmos over which the sun actually rises and sets.  (218)

For Paul’s analogy to have any force, it seems that both Adam and Jesus must be actual historical figures. Not all Christian traditions will necessarily see it that way, but this is clearly a commonly held assumption today and the root reason why Christianity and evolution are in such tension for many, in my opinion.  (274)

Modern scholarship understands the Old Testament as a whole, and Genesis and the Pentateuch in particular, to be Israel’s statement of national self-definition in the wake of Babylonian captivity (586–539 BC).  (327)

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations.  (425)

…Augustine (354–430), especially his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, where he shows, among other things, how much intellectual effort is required to handle Genesis well, and how ill-advised it is to read the creation stories literally.  (532)

Daniel Fleming suggests an analogy with Renaissance paintings where Madonna and Child are redressed like Italian nobles: “The stories [of Genesis] are imbued with the details of their tellers’ own time.”  (819)

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today?  (984)

Genesis and the modern scientific investigation of human origins do not overlap. To think that they do is an error in genre discernment.  (1023)

By depicting God’s work of creation so differently while drawing on a set of familiar themes, Genesis argues that Israel’s God is superior to the gods of the surrounding nations.  (1146)

For those who wish to see support in Genesis for modern science, it may seem a bit of a letdown that God is “only” said to have tamed a preexisting chaos, for example. After all, if he were truly almighty, would he not create out of nothing? But in the ancient world of the Israelites, this was not an active question. In that world, the theology of a chaos-tamer working solo, commanding the elements to line up, was counterintuitive and set Israel apart theologically.  (1233)

For the biblical writer, along with every other ancient writer, the entire world was as it appeared, small and flat, and so it was presumed that the local flood (from the point of view of modern geology) covered the entire earth.  (1329)

Natural science simply cannot be squared with a literal reading of the biblical description of human origins any more than with the biblical description of the cosmos (a stationary and flat earth, solid dome above, etc.).  (1545)

What sets this God apart is his habit of coming down to our level. As Christians confess, God even became one of us. Posing such a condescending and incarnating God as a theological problem to be overcome—which is what a literal reading of Genesis unwittingly requires—creates a far greater and more harmful theological problem than the nonliteral reading of Genesis.  (1585)

The Adam story mirrors Israel’s story from exodus to exile…  This mirroring can hardly be coincidental. Adam in primordial times plays out Israel’s national life. He is proto-Israel—a preview of coming attractions.  (1730)

For ancient Israelites, as well as any other ancient Near Eastern peoples, origin stories are focused on telling their own story, not everyone else’s. These stories are about self-definition. It is questionable, therefore, whether the Adam story is even relevant to the modern question of human origins.  (1786)

A bit of probing into Paul’s view of Adam will show that the matter is more involved than “Paul says it; that settles it.”  (1965)

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God.  (1999)

Attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem.  (2002)

What is missing from the Old Testament is any indication that Adam’s disobedience is the cause of universal sin, death, and condemnation, as Paul seems to argue.  (2016)

The Old Testament does not seem to be interested in the causal question, why do Israelites or others do what they do? And it certainly does not explain the sinful choices of others by appealing to Adam.  (2112)

Some may say that Paul’s view provides us with the proper understanding of the garden episode, regardless of what that story seems to say or how the rest of the Old Testament takes it. In one sense, this is true because Paul is reading Genesis in light of God’s final authoritative act in Christ. But that is precisely my point: Paul’s reading of Genesis is driven by factors external to Genesis.  (2130)

Reading the Adam story as the story of Israel’s disobedience and eventual exile from the land parallels Israel’s narrative tradition in the Old Testament. Reading it as a wisdom story parallels Israel’s wisdom tradition.  (2202)

Many Christian readers will conclude, correctly, that a doctrine of inspiration does not require “guarding” the biblical authors from saying things that reflect a faulty ancient cosmology. If we begin with assumptions about what inspiration “must mean,” we are creating a false dilemma and will wind up needing to make tortuous arguments to line up Paul and other biblical writers with modes of thinking that would never have occurred to them.  (2276)

Just as we calibrate the genre of Genesis by looking to the surrounding religious cultures, we can calibrate the interpretative approach of Paul and any New Testament writer by paying close attention to the interpretive culture surrounding them.  (2354)

Some might quickly say, “I don’t care what these other interpreters said. I’m with Paul. He gets it right.” I agree on one level. Paul gets it right, but the “it” he gets right is the gospel; Paul’s Adam is a vehicle by which he articulates the gospel message, but his Adam is still the product of a creative handling of the story.  (2445)

Paul’s use of the Old Testament is a creative, Christ-driven exercise. Likewise, we can expect from Paul a similar Christ-driven creativity in his handling of the Adam story.  (2689)

As I see it, the scientific evidence we have for human origins and the literary evidence we have for the nature of ancient stories of origins are so overwhelmingly persuasive that belief in a first human, such as Paul understood him, is not a viable option.  (2845)

The fact that Paul draws an analogy between Adam and Christ does not mean that we are required to consider them as characters of equal historical standing.  (2902)

It is commonly argued that, as goes the historicity of Adam, so goes the historicity of Christ. I disagree and suggest that we need to move beyond that obstacle. Locating the problem in Adam is Paul’s way of explaining the objective human dilemma of sin and death in a way that reflects his intellectual world and the theological vocabulary available to him.  (2920)

Paul pressed Adam into new service in view of the reality of the empty tomb.  (3041)

Adam’s trespass brought condemnation for “all” and made “many” sinners. Neither Genesis nor the Old Testament speaks of Adam’s trespass as having such power, but Paul seems to be connecting some dots that had not been connected in quite the same way before.  (3079)

Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different “language.” They cannot be reconciled, and there is no “Adam” to be found in an evolutionary scheme.  (3141)

We can believe that Paul is correct theologically and historically about the problem of sin and death and the solution that God provides in Christ without also needing to believe that his assumptions about human origins are accurate.  (3247)

Christians focus on the need to be faithful to the past, to make sure that present belief matches that of previous generations. I support the sentiment in general, but we must be just as burdened to be faithful to the future, to ensure that we are doing all we can to deliver a viable faith to future generations. That too is a high calling—even if it is unsettling, destabilizing, perhaps frightening.  (3343)

I have done a synopsis of this book, available in PDF here.

If you plan to buy and read this book, I strongly recommend first reading the author’s early work, Inspiration And Incarnation, reviewed here.

Enns has written a different book on the material in Inspiration And Incarnation, but aimed at a more popular readership: The Bible Tells Me So. My review of it is here.

If the whole Genesis question interests you but you don’t want to grapple with the quite scholarly approach of this book, you might like to look at a book aimed at a more popular readership by the same writer, Peter Enns, and co-author Jared Byas. This is Genesis For Normal People: A guide to the most controversial, misunderstood, and abused book of the Bible by Peter Enns & Jared Byas (Patheos Press, 2012).

The authors are evangelical Bible scholars of repute, and it is to their credit that they have been able to produce a book like this specifically for the non-technical reader: it states, ‘This book is not for scholars or seminary students’.

It deals with the whole of Genesis, not just the controversial opening chapters, but if you are looking for a readable introduction to those chapters that politely dismisses the notion of a literal six-day creation, this is a good place to start.

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