Should We Still Believe in a Historical Adam?

Bryan D. Estelle

New Horizons: March 2012

Adam: Man or Myth?

Also in this issue

“All Mankind, Descending from Him ...”?

Evaluating the Claims of Scientists

Sharing Grief

My thesis is simple: by questioning the historicity of Adam, one must revise the doctrine of original sin with serious modifications. Even recent purveyors of theistic evolution, who question the historicity of Adam, recognize this to be the case.[1] In fact, one Christian scholar goes so far as to say, “Once the doctrine of original sin is reformulated, the doctrine of the atonement may likewise be deepened.”[2]

Such serious modifications will carry entailments for other areas of theology as well. Here I want to take up the question of history and Old Testament exegesis.

The “Problem” of Old Testament History

A complex question that keeps emerging in the debates about historiography in the past couple of centuries is whether “external” history exists outside the mind of the historian. Can past events be observed and described apart from the literary or religious interests or presuppositions of the historical researcher? Some have approached this question along the lines of “remembered history”—what is being called “mnemohistory” in scholarly discussions. Some insights can be gained from this approach. Others assert that many significant literary motifs in the Bible communicate essential meaning about a situation or theme, but nothing about the actual situation being described. In other words, the Bible in its treatment of important themes communicates a message, often expressed as the essential cultural message, but not factual information about the event or person being described.

Undoubtedly, the issue of the Bible and historical reference is very complex; however, the nagging question, “What really happened?” is of vital importance to the person in the pew. When we talk about understanding the historicity of Adam in the Bible, we are talking about at least three things: Israel’s objective history, the people writing the history, and even our own history as readers, since no one comes to any text with complete neutrality. This recognition saves us from the criticism of only being concerned with a simplistic view of history. Nevertheless, what needs to be argued in the present debate about the historicity of Adam is that there is something that really happened to an “external” person in history, that is, Adam. It is important to recognize that our record of this history occurs in a scriptural text shaped by the literary and theological concerns of the divinely inspired human authors; however, that does not erase the fact that this literarily and theologically shaped text refers to an external historical reality outside the mind and imagination of the writing author.

The Direction of Intertextuality

Biblical authors, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, often build upon, allude to, cite from, and even adapt earlier portions of Scripture in their writing. Enter the problem of intertextuality. “The interpretation of the Bible begins with the Bible itself,” asserts Benjamin D. Sommer.[3] Consequently, intertextuality is “how the Bible relates itself in its own system of cross-reference.... It has to do with the way in which parts of the Bible and finally the two Testaments themselves relate to one another.”[4]

There are two major trends in intertextual studies: a synchronic approach, which is not interested in which texts precede other texts, and a diachronic approach, which is concerned about which text is earlier and therefore provides a precedent for a later text. The synchronic approach is worthy of consideration; however, because of space constraints and the fact that the synchronic approach can be escapist, actually abdicating critical rigor on the part of an interpreter, I will only discuss the diachronic approach here.

The diachronic approach is concerned with “the affiliative relations between past and present literary texts and/or their authors,” says Sommer, quoting Louis Renza. “Influence-study generally entailed the practice of tracing a text’s generic and thematic lineage.... [Studies of influence focused] on the ways literary works necessarily comprise revision or updating of their textual antecedents.”[5]

The issues arising from the diachronic approach are manifold and complex. For example, there is the issue of dating the composition of texts. Sometimes we can confidently date biblical texts and identify the authors of those compositions. At other times, we are less sure. Another issue is the problem of hermeneutical horizon. As previously mentioned, we need to consider the author of any given text, the text’s original horizon, and the horizon of the reader and subsequent readers as well.

The Theological Entailments

Let me connect the dots for the reader between what I have said regarding history and intertextuality and how this relates to the topic under consideration: the historicity of Adam. In their recent book on the relationship between science and the Christian faith, Giberson and Collins devote a chapter to the subject of “Evolution and Human Beings.”[6] They ask, “Can a literalist reading [of Genesis] be reconciled with science?” They assert, “Literalist readings of Genesis imply that God [7]specially created Adam and Eve, and that all humans are descended from these original parents.”[8] After some discussion of this question (to which they think the obvious answer is “No!”), they ask a similar question about nonliteral interpretations and science. At this point, they discuss the “everyman reading” of Adam and Old Testament scholar Peter Enns’s recent discussions of the historicity of Adam.

The everyman reading is basically the view that the “Fall was not a historical event but a statement of the common human condition that everyone agrees is deeply flawed and sinful.”[9] Then they discuss Enns’s views. Enns has recently been noting a number of similarities between Israel in Canaan and Adam in the Garden of Eden on his blog post with Biologos. The authors quote Enns as making the following statement: “Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins.[9] After a little commentary, they quote Enns again as saying that “the ‘Adam is Israel’ angle is ... a much better angle than seeing Adam as the first human and all humans are descended from him. Genesis does not support that reading.”[10]

It should be clear from this brief discussion that the views surveyed above reject openly the historicity of Adam and reverse the direction of intertextuality regarding who came first, Adam or Israel. I applaud Enns for noticing significant connections between Adam and Israel and between the Garden of Eden and Canaan; however, to remove any real historical reference from the Scripture’s description of Adam and the early chapters of Genesis and to reverse completely the direction of intertextual connections within the Scriptures is problematic for a number of reasons. It raises some significant theological questions.

For example, if Adam is not the responsible agent for casting the human race into a condition of sin and misery, then at whose feet should we place the blame for our human predicament? Does it not follow, if one removes the historicity of Adam from the equation and if our historical forefather Adam is not responsible for our condition of sin and misery, that someone else must bear that responsibility? It seems to this author that the necessary consequence is to make God responsible for the evil we observe in the world. A careful reading of Harlow’s article, which was previously referenced, will demonstrate that this is the case. These recent suggestions that Adam is merely a literary construct, without any external historical reference to real situations, are not without serious consequences for our theology.


[1] See, for example, Daniel C. Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62.3 (September, 2010): 179–95, especially 191–92.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Benjamin D. Sommer, “Inner-biblical Interpretation,” The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1829.

[4] Christopher R. Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutic (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 228.

[5] Benjamin D. Sommer, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 14.

[6] Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, The Language of Science and Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 197–214.

[7] Ibid., 208.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 211 (emphasis original).

[10] Ibid., 212.

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Westminster Seminary California. New Horizons, March 2012.

New Horizons: March 2012

Adam: Man or Myth?

Also in this issue

“All Mankind, Descending from Him ...”?

Evaluating the Claims of Scientists

Sharing Grief

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