In the mid-first century AD, St. Paul wrote some hugely influential words about Adam, the Fall, and original sin. As I have argued, these ideas seem at variance with earlier Biblical traditions and Jewish thought, in which Adam’s story made little impact. Around Paul’s time, though, that saga was attracting increasing interest. Paul, oddly, was riding a fashionable wave.
Early in the second century BC, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) claimed, surprisingly, that “Adam [was honored] above every living being in the creation.” Over the following centuries, Adam became a literary superstar, the leading character in several important works, and the alleged author of others.
In the century after 160BC, the Dead Sea Scrolls includes several references to Adam. He is for instance commemorated in the liturgy known as the Words of the Luminaries, although the actual text is very fragmentary. The work celebrates God’s mighty deeds, which includes forming Adam “in the likeness of your glory.” Another text (4QFlorilegium) imagines the purified Jewish sanctuary that would be restored in the eschatological age, and portrays it as a restored Eden. The coming age would reverse the damage done by the Fall. The authors also use the stories of Adam and Eve to shape later understanding of Jewish law in matters such as ritual purity.
From the second and third centuries AD onwards, these interests became a powerful theme in Rabbinic and Talmudic writings.
One testimony to this interest is the section of 2 Esdras known as 4 Ezra, which can be dated to around 100-120AD. Adam is mentioned repeatedly, and in chapter 3, we read that God
gave a body unto Adam without soul, which was the workmanship of thine hands, and breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made living before thee. … For the first Adam bearing a wicked heart transgressed, and was overcome; and so be all they that are born of him. Thus infirmity was made permanent; and the law (also) in the heart of the people with the malignity of the root; so that the good departed away, and the evil abode still.
The best evidence for the new fascination with Adam was the work known as The Life of Adam and Eve, a work probably written in the first century AD, and subsequently translated into many languages. It was widely read by Jews, Christians and Muslims – we see its influence in the Qur’an – and it provided much of the familiar story we know from John Milton. Gary Anderson calls it “one of the most widely read and influential pseudepigraphic documents in Western civilization” (in Feldman et al, eds., Outside the Bible, ii 1333). Because it existed in so many editions, some explicitly Christian, it is difficult to reconstruct the Jewish original. Some scholars have even claimed the Life as an influence on Paul and Romans, although that now seems unlikely.
Another theme we find here is that of the bodies Adam and Eve had before the Fall, when they more closely resembled the angels. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, this inspired mystical ideas of reversing the Fall and returning to those exalted states. The Life also gives a prominent role to their son Seth, who would be a major inspiration to esoteric and Gnostic groups over the following centuries.
Between the first and third centuries, Adam’s Family was credited with multiple writings, including an Apocalypse of Adam, Testament of Adam, the misnamed Apocalypse of Moses, a Gospel of Eve, and some important works credited to Seth.
The second century (?) Apocalypse of Adam is particularly important. This was one of the Sethite Gnostic treatises found at Nag Hammadi, but it may well have much earlier roots, possibly in a Jewish baptist sect, of a kind I have posted about elsewhere. We hear a great deal about water, about the water of life, and “the holy baptism and the living water.” That might derive from Christian sources, or it might be earlier: there are no explicitly Christian references. The text might in fact serve as a link between the Essenes, the Dead Sea community and early Gnosticism.
Even if Paul had no idea of these other writings, they do put his thought in context. From the second century BC onwards, Adam was becoming the focus of interest and speculation, with particular interest in understanding and reversing the effects of the Fall. The Paul of Romans may have been expressing radical views, but he was no eccentric outlier to the thought of his time.