The Search for the Historical Adam 3 (RJS)

One of the most significant questions faced by Christians when confronted by the evidence for an old earth and evolutionary process as the major mechanism of creation is the place Adam and Eve play in the biblical narrative. The CT editorial on the topic began with a rather provocative headline, No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel. When many believe this without nuance or analysis the stakes are high.

A recent book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care, by C. John Collins looks at the question of Adam and Eve from a relatively conservative perspective but with some nuance and analysis. The questions he poses and the answers he gives provide a good touchstone for interacting with the key questions. In chapter 2 of the book Collins considers the shape of the biblical story. This includes a discussion of the elements of story and world view, the distinctions between history and myth, and the features of the biblical story.

According to Collins we should consider the literary characteristics used by the biblical authors the tell their story, in doing so we should also consider the way people use language to make important points (speech act theory), and we should pay careful attention to the overarching narrative or worldview implicit in the writing of the text.

With respect to the  literary characteristics used by the authors,  Dr. Collins suggests that as we look at the books of the Bible, including Genesis, we should notice the following (p. 24):

  • The narrator is reliable and omniscient: that is he serves as the voice and perspective of God.
  • The narration is scenic: that is, the emphasis is on direct action and interaction of the characters rather than on descriptive detail of the environs.
  • The narratives are sparsely written: that is they focus on what is essential for the narrative.
  • The author signals heightened speech using poetic diction: that is, elevated diction of a speech is evidence of its significance, often oracular, it may even be divine speech.

These characteristics, combined with an understanding of the way people use language and the overarching worldview will allow us to read the text for the intended and inspired meaning and intent.

Do you think these characteristics are a good guide?

In particular, do you think the narrator is omniscient? What does this mean for scripture?

In the next section of this chapter Dr. Collins elaborates on the distinction between history and myth in the telling of a worldview story such as that found in Genesis 1-11. To relegate Genesis 1-11 to myth, especially myth in the common understanding of untrue or fiction,  he finds unhelpful. Dr. Collins argues extensively that we are wrong to consider the purpose of Genesis 1-11 as theological rather than historical. This is not a story telling “timeless truths,” either timeless moral truths or timeless theological truths but a story pointing back to a cause and effect for the current situation on earth.

Dr. Collins takes this point beyond the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. It is an overarching theme. We should not read the stories presented in the Bible looking first and foremost for moral, spiritual, or theological truths to apply to our lives today. This is true when we read of Adam, or Abraham, the story of David and Goliath or the miracles of Jesus. The story of David and Goliath, for example, should not be read as a story to inspire faith in daunting circumstances. It should not even be read as a story of God’s faithfulness if only we trust. Rather this is a story of David as the faithful king when Saul was faithless. There is a historical significance to the event in the grand narrative of scripture.

The real question then is not does the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 contain figurative elements in the telling of the story? Dr. Collins would agree that it does. The question is not does the text borrow from Mesopotamian origin stories? Again Dr. Collins would agree that it does. Rather the important question is What is the historical event that the author of Genesis is presenting?

Dr. Collins structures the remainder of this chapter making the argument that the historical event key to Genesis 3 is the idea that God made a good creation and sin is an alien intruder in this good creation. In the discussion of “timeless theological truths” he notes:

scholars thinking along these lines might suppose that Genesis 3 teaches that “humans are sinful.” But this is not a timeless truth on its own: sooner or later someone will want to know, did God create humans with a tendency (or at least an openness) toward sinning, or did he make them good, only for humans to become sinful? If they became sinful, how did that happen? (p. 37)

In the summary at the end of the chapter he concludes:

The Biblical authors therefore portray sin as an alien intruder into God’s good creation. The story of Adam and Eve, and their first disobedience, explains how this intruder first came into human experience, though it hardly pretends to explain how rebellion against God – as expressed in the serpent’s speech – came about in the first place. (p. 49)

Where does this leave us? I agree with Dr. Collins that there is a historical element in Genesis 2-3 and this historical element should not be brushed away with comments about timeless truths and a story of everyman. As in Genesis 1 where there is a historical element behind the form of the story – God created the world for his purpose – so too there is a historical element in the story of the rebellion of mankind. We were created for community and relationship with God, with each other, and with the world. This relationship was ruptured, not because God was unfaithful but because humans, from the very beginning, were unfaithful and wanted to be like God. It seems to me though that God did create humans with an openness toward such sin because in the story Adam and Eve fell almost immediately when presented with the temptation. Others may disagree here, and I would like to hear some of the nuances and reasons.

Did God create humans with an openness for sin? Why do you hold this position?

What do you see as the historical elements in Genesis 2-3?

There is another question I find raised by Dr. Collins’s discussion in this chapter. I think he is right to note that we should not be always searching for theological truths or devotional moral lessons in scripture. In much of scripture we have a story rooted in real historical events and these events are essential for our understanding of where we are today – how we got here and where we are going. This is an element that is sorely lacking in most adult teaching and preaching and most Sunday school curricula for children and youth.  We need to be rooted in the story, God’s story. This is a story of his relationship with his creation, his faithfulness, and, all too often, human unfaithfulness.

But all scripture is not historical, and I don’t think we are right to look for historical antecedents everywhere. As examples I would put forth the books of Job and Song  of Songs. I think these two books are literature, even “fictional” literature, with a point to the story. These are not elements of the historical narrative of scripture. When we look at Genesis, Genesis 2-3, or more broadly Genesis 1-11,  we need to ask about the historicity of some of the elements included in the narrative.

Where do you see history or story included in the text of scripture?

With respect to Genesis 1-11, are these stories with a purpose or are they stylized stories with real historical antecedents? How do you discern the nature and purpose of the text?

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  • Dru Dodson

    Re the “omniscient narrator” and “history or story”. Genesis 1-11 is the intro to a carefully shaped story that – among other things – informs/reminds Israel of who they are, and who their God is.

    It helps me to read it as a movie script. Any movie maker telling an historical multi-year story in 2 hours is going to have to be highly selective. The narrator/movie director also has to have a highly “biased” point of view that drives his movie. Pharaoh, the Canaanites, or the Sodomites all would have made a very different movie of the same historical events.

    So it’s hard to see Genesis 1-11 as fictional-story-with-a-moral since it serves as the intro to a bigger historically rooted narrative. And the omniscient narrator(s) is not an “objective” historian but is the God-inspired and highly biased script writer. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • EC

    I too was struck by his comparison of the author to God. I think that he’s talking about the narrative point of view of the text – that is, the “omniscient third person.”

    The problem is by saying that the author speaks from God’s perspective, we immediately think that everything he says is how God sees it. It’s not. It’s how the author sees it, if HE were in the position of God.

  • pds

    “The narration is scenic: that is, the emphasis is on direct action and interaction of the characters rather than on descriptive detail of the environs.”

    Why does he call this “scenic”? I.e. if it is focused on action and not “scenery”?

  • phil_style

    pds, I’m not 100% sure what was meant by “scenic” either. If I was to guess, I expect that the word is used to donate the perspective of the narrator i.e. it’s a narration in panoramic perspective, as opposed to an observation of every intricate detail and action-reaction relationship. I suppose the opposite of “scenic” in this sense would be “minutiaic” (did I just make up a new word?).

  • pds

    Your focus in this post on the narrative of the author reminded me that the scientist engaging in historical sciences is also involved with narrative in his/her methodology. It might be interesting to explore these two kinds of narrative.

    As Stephen Jay Gould puts it:

    How should scientists operate when they must try to explain the results of history, those inordinately complex events that can occur but once in detailed glory? Many large domains of nature–cosmology, geology, and evolution among them–must be studied with the tools of history. The appropriate methods focus on narrative, not experiment as usually conceived.

    The stereotype of the “scientific method” has no place for irreducible history. Nature’s laws are defined by their invariance in space and time. The techniques of controlled experiment, and reduction of natural complexity to a minimal set of general causes, presuppose that all times can be treated alike and adequately simulated in a laboratory.

    . . .

    Historical explanations are distinct from conventional experimental results in many ways. The issue of verification by repetition does not arise because we are trying to account for uniqueness of detail that cannot, both by laws of probability and time’s arrow of irreversibility, occur together again. . . . And the issue of prediction, a central ingredient in the stereotype, does not enter into a historical narrative. . . .

    These differences place historical, or narrative, explanations in an unfavorable light when judged by restrictive stereotypes of the “scientific method.” . . .

  • Jeff Doles

    I think, in this context, he means “scenic” as in a drama, not as in a post card.

  • Ray Ingles

    pds –

    And the issue of prediction, a central ingredient in the stereotype, does not enter into a historical narrative

    Gould phrases that rather too strongly, I’d say.

    Scientists can certainly make predictions about what should be observed now based on what a historical narrative claims happened in the past. “If this is supposed to be a four-hundred-year-old painting, how come it uses materials and pigments that weren’t available until the middle of the last century?”

  • phil_style

    Ray, exactly, in addition this comment by Gould “Many large domains of nature–cosmology, geology, and evolution among them–must be studied with the tools of history. The appropriate methods focus on narrative, not experiment as usually conceived.”

    Might have been accurate 15 or 20 years ago, but it is increasingly being undermined by that fact that “historical” sciences are increasingly testable in the lab, even down to the genetic processes that drive evolutionary biology.

  • pds


    I think the “predictions” you are talking about are quite different than the predictions that can be tested by repeated experiments.


    >>Might have been accurate 15 or 20 years ago, but it is increasingly being undermined by that fact that “historical” sciences are increasingly testable in the lab, even down to the genetic processes that drive evolutionary biology<<

    Can you give an example? Of course lab work provides data that is used in the historical sciences. Gould would not disagree.

    Ray and Phil,

    The studies that you describe would merely provide new data. The best historical theory is the one that best explains all the data.

  • AHH

    Collins is reported as saying:
    Rather the important question is What is the historical event that the author of Genesis is presenting?

    But that begs the question — the important question is that of genre, whether or not the purpose is to “present a historical event” at all. Many scholars would, for example, describe Gen. 1-11 as a mythic prologue (literary meaning of “myth”, not the straw man that Collins rejects) telling us among other things about the nature of the God who makes covenants with Israel as described starting in Chapter 12.

    I do appreciate that Collins (and RJS) recognize nuance and variety in Biblical genres, for example that we are foolish to look for historical events in Job or Jonah and foolish not to look for historical events in the gospels, and that there are gray areas where the genre is not clear.
    I hope that Collins would recognize that evidence in God’s creation can be an aid in these gray areas, for example telling us that reading Genesis 2-3 as describing a single primordial couple from whom all humans descended biologically is very unlikely to be literal history.

  • normbv

    Many scholars point to or allude to the recognition that the overarching biblical theme is messianic in nature. Typology and the undercurrent of the stories always seem to point to messianic times in some form or fashion. Also the OT is very likely compiled from 600 BC onwards and Genesis appears to reflect the outbreak of the exilic attitude that things needed to change. Keeping these ideas in the forefront while investigating Genesis or any other biblical or even non canonical second Temple literature highlights this pattern consistently. The theme is always about judgment and the need for a better way for God

  • normbv

    If we read second Temple literature we can readily see how the Jews themselves were interpreting the message in a much different context than we do. If we investigate OT and NT authors like Ezekiel, Paul, Peter and John we also can start putting the patterns together of how and what Genesis implied to them. If we avail ourselves of those resources then it may actually start to make sense.

    It seems that the OT and NT literature see humans as flawed with sin from the get go; whether entering or leaving or reentering the Garden. Paul in his classic Rom 7 statement states “what a wretched man that I am; who will rescue me” from this mortal nature that is our natural predicament. The realization is that man is innately imperfect and try as we might we can’t reconcile ourselves into perfection that we may deem desirable. We always come up short. The ancients didn’t know how we arrived at our destitute sinfulness but they understood full well its implications.

  • Christy Wareham

    Come to think of it, in my theology God would be a FIRST person omniscient narrator — one who is present everywhere, knowing everywhere, and involved everywhere in the story being told.

  • rjs

    AHH (#10)

    That question isn’t a quote, but rather my paraphrase and interpretation of the direction of Collins’s argument.

    Collins takes Adam and Eve a bit more literally than I do I think, but the real important piece is fall and rebellion not a primordial pair. At least that was the take home in his article in the ASA journal. We will get to more of this in the next chapter of the book.

  • AHH

    RJS, thanks for the clarification.

    I read Collins’ ASA article when it came out, and do recall that he did not insist on a primordial ancestral pair. Which I commend him for, as that is becoming difficult to hold in the face of the external evidence.

    My memory of the article is also that his insistence on some sort of literal fall and rebellion was mostly argument by assertion and appeal to tradition. But maybe in a full-length book he gives more reasons to hold that position.

  • Chris E

    You mention asking about the historicity of some of the elements in the narrative, which I agree with. This is a struggle since that point seems to lead to the old dichotomy of “either it’s all historical or we throw it out”. I guess my question is, at what point does the story truly represent history? After Genesis 11, and is there grammatical proof of that? How has the church traditionally interpreted Genesis? Any resources someone could point me to would be helpful. I’m certainly searching how to reconcile Genesis as well as most of the old testament.


  • Paul

    Isn’t the hope or expectation that we have our imaginations informed by the way the text presents Adam and Eve to us. So, I guess, part of my thinking regarding this larger issue is that the author of Genesis wants his audience to be formed by the “textual” Adam & Eve and their story and not necessarily some extra-textual history.

    Unless someone is involved in some specialized field of study, I’m not sure why anyone would really bother with the issue. Nonetheless, it clearly touches a nerve here at Jesus Creed. Don’t get me wrong, the discussions are often interesting to me. However, (and I’m not trying to be antagonistic or purposefully dense) I admit that I just don’t get the energy about it.

    I guess for me, in short, I have a hard time empathizing with the struggle many Evangelicals seem to have here. If the basic purpose in the early part of Genesis is to shape how we imagine “origins” and if that which is to inform our imaginations are particular texts then I’m just not getting what is so important about the extent to which (if any)there is to a historical rootedness of the narrative within the text.

    I’ve been under the impression that what is important for most of us as “average” readers is a familiazation with the biblical text and to allow its message and details to shape how we view things. When I think about “origins” I’m under the impression that God wants me to have the story of Adam & Eve taking a precedent on how I imagine/conceive things. This is to be so whether or not those characters had some text-independent reality. Right?

    Perhaps I am dense.

  • Jeff Doles

    Christ E #16,

    There is a structural element found throughout the book of Genesis, across chapters 1-11 and chapters 12-50. It is the Hebrew phrase, elle toledoth, “these are the generations.” To me, this indicates that both sections (1-11 and 12-50) are to be taken in the same way, and that in a historical way. I raised this point here about a year ago, about the connective structural element. Not many here seemed to be willing to take the both sections (1-11 and 12-50) consistently as the same basic type of literature, and appeared quite willing to ignore the consistent structural element throughout (i.e., elle toledoth). I recall that one person did take it consistently, but he took the whole book of Genesis to be non-historical.

    RJS, at least at that time, did not know exactly where the shift comes between non-historical and historical persons in Genesis. Somewhere around Genesis 12. But I don’t think that where the dividing line actually occurs has been adequately or seriously considered here.

    Was Abraham a real historical person?

    If so, how about Terah, named as Abraham’s father — was he a real historical person?

    If so, then how about Nahor, named as Terah’s father — real historical person?

    If so, then how about Serug, named as Nahor’s father — real and historical?

    If so, then how about Reu, named as Serug’s father — was he real and historical?

    And so on.

    The text does not appear to be loosy-goosy in what it presents to us in regard to the genealogy. It does not give us indication of how or when the account shifts from non-historical Adam and Eve (if that was indeed how we were meant to understand them) to actual, historical persons somewhere along the line. The genealogical elements are consistent, as is the elle toledoth element throughout the structure of the book. Given the consistency of those structures, I don’t think it is merely coincidental that Adam and Eve have traditionally been understood as historical persons; it comes from reading the text in a fashion consistent with its structure and not making a sudden whiplash move between 11:32 and 12:1.

  • rjs


    The text of Genesis is a coherent whole. Of course there is no abrupt complete disconnect. The latter part connects to the former part.

    In the same way the genealogies in Chronicles and Luke connect all the way back to through to Adam. But this does not mean that Adam was a unique individual. It means that the writers of scripture have a coherent worldview rooted in the story of Israel.

    It isn’t a matter, as I see it, of deciding which individual is historical and how – but a matter of looking at the overarching narrative which makes use of forms and expectations common to the time and place of the writing (like the “vault” in Genesis 1). Genealogies, not always held to with rigorous “factuality”, is part of the normal form of the day.

  • Jeff Doles

    RJS #19,

    At what point in Genesis (or the Pentateuch, or the rest of the OT) does it actually starting talking about anybody as a unique, historical individual? If there is some sort of shift between non-historical individuals and historical in the text, then we should be able to identify where it occurs. If there is no shift, then they are either all meant to be historical or non-historical.

    It is, I think, a cop-out to claim that the first people named in the text are not historical and that later ones are, but then be unwilling to identify where the shift occurs. It is wishful thinking, not a credible claim. This failure on your part is one reason I do not find your handling of the text to be persuasive.

    I am not closed to considering your position, and I had hoped that in the many months since I last brought this question before you that you would have considered where that point occurs between non-historical and historical individuals occurs. Where, if anywhere, does the Bible history become about actual persons? Where does the mythical actually take on flesh and blood for you in the Bible?

  • normbv

    Perhaps the letter of Jude helps shed some light on how the early Christians discerned the historicity of those even from the lineage of Christ going back to Adam. It is well established that the Book of Enoch from which Jude quotes has its origination from around 200 BC. It also attributes the author with being Enoch the seventh from Adam.

    Jude 14 Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones

    Obviously Genesis and other Jewish literature have Enoch living about 500 years from Adam which would have been 3500 BC according to the Jewish Book of Jubilees.

    Gen 5:21 … Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

    However the Jews knew full well that the book of Enoch had not been floating around for over 3000 years; well before Hebrew had become established. It was a second century BC development by pseudo Jewish authors. This was extremely common among the Jews in their application of literature and is why the historicity of Adam is very problematic in the pure sense we like to establish it. However I will still hold on to the historicity of a first man of faith [which is what Adam/man] represents ultimately. Adam and Enoch can hardly be verified historically but they do represent historical roots of Judaism which cannot be denied. It hardly matters whether we hold them to historical accuracy as they were working under different standards. I realize this causes problems for the inerrantist, but Adam and Enoch are not the only things causing them problems.

  • Jeff Doles

    normbv, I appreciate the difficulties and I am willing to reconsider my position on what the historicity of the OT entails. But it seems to me that if the Bible at some point starts to talk about actual human individuals and means for us to understand them as such, then we should be able to identify that point. If not Adam and Eve, or Seth, or Enosh, or Cainan … then who? Or if is it, for example, Abraham, then why not Terah, who is named as his father? Who is the first actual person the Bible speaks about and what identifies him to us as such?

  • normbv


    There may not be an easy and simple answer for what you pose from our perspective. The usage of psudeo and apocolyptic people and “creatures” were still in vogue even with Revelation in the NT. There also appears to be historicity mixed with embellishment which may compound the complexity of your question even more.

    Personally I’m becoming familar enough with their mindset that it doesn’t trouble me like it originally did. I establish the authenticity of the narrative via other methods which actually strenghtens my faith.

    But your question is valid and needs to be addressed in some manner.

  • AHH

    Paul @17,

    I don’t think you are dense and I agree that the important thing is for this inspired text to inform the way we view God and humanity and so forth. And that the inspired story can inform our imaginations and thought processes independent of the historicity of the characters.

    Unfortunately, however, in much of the Evangelical church such an approach would be dismissed as a “low view of Scripture”. Which in some circles is on a par with child sacrifice as a terrible evil. That’s part of why I don’t think the Evangelical church will make much progress in the science/faith area unless it can manage to free itself from fundamentalist approaches to Scripture.

  • Jeff Doles

    normbv #23,

    Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic but bears certain marks. There is also wisdom literature, which can be very figurative. So I don’t necessarily look for the Preacher in Ecclesiastes to be a specific individual. Nor do I try to figure out who the lovers in Song of Songs might actually have been.

    Genesis, however, seems to be all of one piece, with the structural element of elle toledoth running throughout, and it does not resemble actual Hebrew poetry or apocalyptic literature. But it does seem to present us with history.

    For example, I take Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be actual individuals. And seeing Abraham as historical, I can see no reason why I should not also understand Terah in the same way. And thus taking Terah as historical, I cannot find cause why I should not understand Nahor, also, as historical. And so on.

    To simply draw a line in the genealogy or suppose, working back, that somewhere in the list it has ceased talking about actual individuals and begun speaking of non-historical figures seems to me to be rather arbitrary.

    I don’t think RJS gets that. I would not expect her or anyone else to deal with science in such an arbitrary fashion. But the unwillingness to identify where the history of actual persons begins, though one supposes earlier figures in the narrative to be non-historical, is an arbitrary way to deal with literature — and history.

    To just suppose that somewhere in the list a shift from historical to non-historical occurs is like the cartoon of the scientist working out an important equation at the the blackboard, but somewhere in the middle of that equation, we find the words, “and then a miracle happens.” *POOF* — the narrative that began as myth about generic humanity has suddenly turned to history about specific persons! Sounds to me like just a lot of hand-waving. But show me identifying marks that indicate a shift from generic humans to specific individuals, then there is something substantive to consider.

  • Joe Canner

    Jeff, one possible way to begin to address your question is to look at the longevity numbers. Between Adam and Noah lifespans were in the 800-900 year range. Between Adam and Jacob’s sons lifespans gradually declined to more-or-less modern limits. I’m not up to speed on the various explanations for longer than normal (by modern standards) lifespans, but it seems to me that there might be an inverse correlation between lifespans and historicity. Accordingly, it might not be possible to “draw a line” between historical figures and mythical figures, but rather to assign increasing levels of historicity as time goes on. Just a thought….

  • Jeff Doles

    Joe #26,

    That is making the assumption that lifespans have always been pretty much the same, never much longer than today (and also would seem to assume that life spans can never be much longer than today). And that is on top of the assumption that there is a correlation between lifespans and historicity.

    True, the lifespans shorten as the story moves forward. Does that mean that each succeeding generation was more historical than the last?

    Abraham was 175 when he died — does that mean he was less historical, less of an individual person, than you and I are? Also, he was 100 when he father Isaac; Sarah was 90. Does that mean that they were less that historical persons that our generation today?

    Abraham’s father, Terah, was 205 when he died — a little less historical than Abraham?

    Nahor, father of Terah, was 148 year old when he died — does that mean he was a bit more historical than his son Terah and grandson Abraham?

    Even making the assumptions you do, which I think is simply assuming, it still does not help us determine if or when there is a shift from non-historic generic humanity to specific historic individuals. “Increasing levels of historicity” do not help; kinda like “increasing levels of pregnancy.” One is either pregnant or else not. Likewise, individuals either exist in time and space or else they do not. The genealogies of Genesis do not present us with individuals as some sort of gradients, each more individual and real than the last. So the problem, it seems to me, still remains.

  • Joe Canner

    Jeff, although I’m not trying to make any grand claims about the interpretation of lifespans, let me elaborate a bit more in case it helps.

    First, I’m a statistician by training, so I think in terms of trends. So, no, the lifespans are not an ever-decreasing straight line, but there is a decreasing trend.

    Second, by “historicity” I don’t just mean existence, I mean all of the details about their lives as described in Scripture.

    Putting these two ideas together, I would propose that as time goes on, we have increasing confidence that information given about a person is historically accurate. If nothing else, this is common sense, given the amount of time between the events and the writing about the events.

    And, yes, I am assuming that there was no other reason for lifespans to decrease. This may not be a good assumption, but I can’t think of any scientific or theological reasons why this should be the case.

    BTW, these are new thoughts for me, so forgive me if they are off the wall. I have up until now assumed a sharp distinction between Gen. 1-11 and 12ff (as others have in this discussion), but based on your comments and other discussions on this topic recently, I wonder if that is really justified. For me, this is not to suggest that historicity should be extended back to Gen. 1-11, but rather that there may be increasing historicity starting with chapter 12 rather than an abrupt shift from non-historic to totally historic. I don’t know if this can be proven or not, but I will have to leave that to the scholars…

  • normbv

    Actually Joe is on to something but it’s not exactly how he frames it. The long lives of the OT and especially the early Genesis lifespans are derived from Hebrew numerology which is entirely theologically driven. The Book of Jubilees explains that Adam failed to live to 1000 years because he died during the 1000 year “day” [Jubilees 4:29-31] 1000 years signifies eternal life as demonstrated by John in Revelation 20 where the faithful in Christ lived 1000 years. Jubilees also states that the shortening of the lifespans were due to the increased wickedness of the offspring of Adam but eventually through messiah the 1000 year lifespan would be reinstated.

    This is all figurative and symbolically driven by Hebrew numerology. If one follows those who are given the longer lives in the OT you find it essentially ending with Moses and Aaron. The primary ones denoted with long lives are only those in the lineage from Adam to Christ with the exception of one notable individual that I have been able to determine. That individual is the first born offspring of Abraham: Ishmael who lives to 127 years. The significance of Ishmael is that he is the essential Gentile National promise and very likely denotes the division of the Gentiles whom are blessed through Abraham’s greater promise. See Rom 9:6-8. The long lives then are signifying life under God but also reflect the degrading corrupt nature of the Jewish lineage as it marches through history. Essentially it is stating that the Jews are no better off than the Godless Gentiles when it comes to life eternal until Christ comes and restores the full measure of the Garden.

    Also let me illustrate the numerology of Abraham through Joseph and notice the correlation of the forefathers of Joseph resulting in his life span. It is often noted by scholars that Joseph represents typologically Christ in many different ways through his story line. Just to reinforce how this designation of long life entails Godliness let’s look at the special life spans that were given to Abraham and his progeny. These mathematical meanings may have been lost to us but it’s easy to see they meant something special to the Hebrews. There are other examples like this in the scripture as well as it’s part of their story telling methods.

    Abraham 175 years = 7 X 25 _ 5 squared
    Isaac 180 years = 5 X 36 _ 6 squared
    Jacob 147 years = 3 X 49 _ 7 squared
    Joseph 110 years = 1 X 25+36+49

    The sum of Joseph’s life is the addition of all three derivitives of his forebears. The Hebrews were using the death ages to emphasize the story through their specialized numerology.
    E. W. Bullinger has performed a lot of work on Hebrew numerology and his works would be helpful in understanding their numeral concepts.

  • Jeff Doles

    Joe # 28,

    The principle of parsimony (Ockham’s Razor) is part of the scientific method, but it is also part of the hermeneutical method. The simplest interpretation, the one without unwarranted assumptions, is the preferred one. There is nothing in the text to indicate the inclusion of lifespan numbers was intended by the author to indicate that he is shifting us, suddenly or ever so gently, from mythical and generic story into the realm of the history of specific individuals. He may just as well be demonstrating that after the Fall there was a significant (though not endless) decrease in life span. That is still an assumption, but at least it is based on something in the text, i.e., the account of the Fall. Your speculation, though an interesting one, is still merely speculation, and that does not make for parsimonious interpretation.

  • Jeff Doles

    normbv #29,

    I’m aware of biblical numerology (and gematria), and it can be quite fascinating, and indeed, the number play of the ages of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph is very intriguing.

    So what shall we make of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because their numbers line up that way? Does that mean that they were not specific, historic individuals? Jesus said, “have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). God is not the God of the dead — nor of the non-existent.

    So, whatever number-play we might make of the age spans in Genesis 1-11, I do not think it will demonstrate a shift, whether sudden or sloped, from mythical, generic humanity to history of specific individuals.

    But I do appreciate that you and Joe recognize we cannot simply announce a shift between Genesis 1-11 and 12-50 from myth to history.

  • normbv


    As I stated before. Unless you can time travel and go back and look over the shoulders and listen to the conversations of the priestly scribes who wrote Genesis around 600 BC you will never fully know the anwser to your question.

    Otherwise one is left performing an investigation from all manner of viewpoints and to do so scientifically requires we unload our modern baggage first.

    True historicity is obviously not a requirement in the sense we place upon it. However there is a historical sense from the Hebrew perspective that is much more interesting. That is what we possibly should be exploring.

  • Jeff Doles

    normbv #32,

    The nature of history, or historical things, is that we cannot know about them as a matter of certainty. You assume, of course, that Genesis was written by priestly scribes around 600 BC. But that is not a certainty, and I don’t subscribe to that theory even as a probability.

    We must each determine for ourselves what we believe to be the truth about these things, or what seems the most likely. No even the scientific method can offer us certainty about historical things of long ago — there are so many presuppositions and assumptions involved.

    I agree that the Bible writers did not have the same historic sensibilities we do today, but that does not mean that there is no correlation. We are each free to explore what those might be. The trend of exploration here seems to be, “What if these people were NOT historical individuals.” And I am not against anyone exploring that.

    My exploration, however, is “What if they WERE historical persons?” That seems to me to be the way they were taken by NT writers, and by the Lord Jesus. And also by Second Temple Judaism — the significances attached to these individuals may vary, but from what I have seen, the historicity of them remains intact. To shift me off my exploration, and my belief, will require more than speculation.

    Peace be with you.

  • normbv

    No problem, one must follow their own investigation.

    By the way I used to think Moses wrote Genesis, and I did state that it was written “around” 600 BC give or take a couple hundred years. Hebrew writing as demonstrated in Genesis was not established sufficiently for its present construction before David and Solomon. However this does not mean that there were not some form of written material passed down through the ages. Determing the age of Hebrew literature is a whole seperate field though.

  • Ethan Magness

    This is a great conversation and I am enjoying the reading. Thanks jeff for your provocative questions. I was surprised by one of your assertions. You suggest that being a little bit historical is like being a little bit pregnant.

    However I am not sure that this is how ancient history works. To lower the bar of our concern, let’s consider a non-biblical example. King Arthur the literary figure is considered by most to be connected to a figure that actually existed. But I don’t think that we can say that the accounts of his reign are historical.

    Isn’t such a middle ground possible with many of the characters of scripture. As such it seems like it makes sense to look for clues of increasing narrative historicity. Thanks for prompting these questions Jeff, I look forward to your and others insights.

    Finally you suggest that it is false to assume a bright line between Gen 1-11 and 12ff. You may be right but it certainly seems that something shifts at verse 12.


  • Jeff Doles

    Ethan, what I meant is that either a person actually existed or he did not. Either Adam existed or else he did not. Either Abraham existed or else he did not. If Abraham existed, either his father was Terah or else he was not.

    Yes, there is a shift in chapter 12. But it does not signal a shift from myth to history. The narrative shifts to the account of Abram. We first meet Abram in 11:26. Then in 11:27, we find the elle toledoth (“these are the generations), the structural element that 10 times throughout the book, in chps 1-11 and 12-50. Here it sums up the previous elle toledoth that ends with Terah and introduces us to the generations of Terah: “Terah begot Abram.” At each elle toledoth there is an important shift in the story that concerns Israel. But it does not signal a shift from myth to history.

  • Ethan Magness

    Thanks Jeff,

    So perhaps we might conclude that these are people who existed but that the accounts we have are largely mythical and need not be read for historical detail. And that Genesis is written on a trajectory that is generally decreasingly mythological and increasingly historic.

    Would that satisfy your concern?

  • Jeff Doles

    Ethan, I don’t think the text gives us any reason to conclude that the accounts of these people are largely mythical. For some of them, only the barest biography is given: “Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and begot Terah. After he begot Terah, Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years, and begot sons and daughters.” No textual reason to doubt that Nahor was Terah’s father, that he was 29 when he fathered Terah, that he lived 119 years afterwards and had sons and daughters. Or that Serug was Nahor’s father, that he was 30 years old when he fathered Nahor and lived 200 years afterward and had sons and daughters. And so on.
    One might decide that these are not accurate, but it is not a decision necessitated by the text.

  • normbv


    Following your line of reasoning how do you determine the historicty of Gen 10&11? According to the story line all the descendants of the Mederteranian world got off the Ark as descendants of the three boys of Noah. This supposedly happened around 2500 BC the time they were building the first Pyramids in Egypt. If you don’t take it as accurate historically then how would you substantiate your exception rule? If you do consider it a true historical account then how do you explain the overwhelming archeological evidence saying othewise?
    The answere is not a simple one is it? 😉

  • Jeff Doles

    Well, I’m glad you recognize the difficulty of trying to parse the Genesis text as “mythical here, historical there.” It’s one thing to speculate about it in vague terms, but quite another to delineate where, when and how in the text it actually occurs.

    If we are going to handle the text consistently, I think we have to realize that the author intended all of it as one genre; that he intended for his readers to understand all the individuals named as actual, historical persons, and the events described as things that actually occurred in time and space.

    I am open to considering viewing the text in a different way, but I am not open to making arbitrary interpretive moves to do it.

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles#40, I too do not think it is fruitful to parse the text to determine the historical parts because it is impossible to definitively tell what is historical. However, given our current state of knowledge we can determine what is definitively non-historical and what may be historical.

    So the single genre that the author intended was historically independent.

  • http://NA Patrick

    Great discussion. I particularly liked the comment on possible ancient Hebraic uses of numerology to explain the textual extreme old ages of the ante diluvian folks.

    There appears to be some weird stuff going on in The Gospel according to John near the end with the 153 fishes caught. John in particular seems to use this device.

    Richard Bauchomb has done some excellent research along these lines in his book, “Jesus and The Eyewitnesses”.

    I’m in the early stages of being converted from a fundy , so some of this is a tad difficult for me right now. I still find it difficult not to see Adam&Eve as 2 individuals mainly due to their placement in Luke’s Jesus lineage.

    Professor John Walton has done a fine job (IMO) in his work, “The Lost World of Genesis 1” describing why Genesis 1&2 almost certainly are NOT describing original material creation, rather they are describing to us functionality, that’s how the ancient near easterner saw it.

    That leaves tons of room for an ancient scientific earth/universe, dinosaurs, neanderthal, natural selection and who knows what else and Adam&Eve still can be the historic first people. Or not.

    BTW, if anyone lives near Chattanooga,TN, Professor Walton and several others are going to have a conference concerning ancient cosmology, human origins, reading Genesis 1&2 late September:

  • normbv


    The ancient Jews and early Christians thought more of Adam as the first faithful Hebrew than as the first biological man. They had no conepts of such science and Walton is spot on in that the creation of the first man of faith is a functional creation account. It’s no different than when God “creates” a faithful person through Christ. We have been “created” in Christ.
    It takes years to rid ourselves of the literal reading tendecy. However I do believe in a historical first faithful man as represented by Adam. Faith in God had to have a begining and Adam may not have been his name but there indeed was a begining there can be no doubt. Adam represents faithful man. Just as Christ represents the more faithful last Adam.

  • Patrick


    That’s an interesting view.

    How do you see Paul’s use of Adam as the “sin originator” in this view ? Also, how would Eve fit in as the “mother of us all” view? Maybe the faith mother as opposed to biological?

    I ask with a sincere heart and do much appreciate your help here. I am full search mode right now on this issue, as you guessed, heading away from fundy mentality with some fundy baggage in my head.

    BTW, have you some book recommendations on the Hebrew culture along these lines? I read Alfred Edersheim’s , “Sketches of Jewish culture”. Good book. Edersheim was a jewel . God really caused him to produce great works.

  • normbv


    Concerning an understanding of Adam as the beginning of ”Sin” one needs to study Paul extensively and accurately IMO. Paul states in Rom 5-8 that sin was in the world of Adam until the Law was presented to him. However he also states that “sin” was not counted before the coming of Law. Rom 5:13. Adam’s placement in the Garden as I see it is the establishment of faithful man in covenant with the one true God of Israel bringing him out of the chaos and darkness of the desert wilderness of Gentile paganism. In the purity of the Garden “sin” is not accounted for which is the same now with Christ reestablishing Garden life through the Cross and his resurrection. We all know the problem which Paul outlines for us throughout Rom 5-8 which is the futility of the human nature to live up to walking with God under the works of the Law. This impossibility of abiding under Laws in the Garden is therefore replaced with the last Adam Christ reinstating us with faith in Him instead of works of our own nature. In other words the Law was set aside through Christ that Grace through Him may abound.

    This does not negate the recognition that man is still and always has been a sinful being as the natural order of things go but simply that in Garden life with God, “sin” is not counted. This gets down to the final recognition that the specific “sin” of Adam was related to eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which is shorthand terminology for seeking life with God through the “law”.

    Rom 7:211 So I find this law at work: Although I WANT TO DO GOOD, EVIL IS RIGHT THERE WITH ME. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

    What happened with Adam is that the perfect Garden relationship with God was spoiled by the Law and required a redemption out of that particular “sin” concerning it.

    Daniel 9:24 states that an end to “sin” was coming via the messiah and we know that natural sin does not go away. But it is not counted now because in the redeemed Garden of God through Christ we have no Law to come between us and God’s people.

    Adam’s sin was as Paul presents tied into the coming of the commandment and law. This is microcosmic understanding of the plight of the Jews whom Paul brings into the conversation in Rom 5:12-21 and again in Rom chapter 7.

    Concerning Eve: She was the mother of all the living which relates to the seed lineage bearing our redemption through Christ. Paul again is instructive in Eph 5:31-32 in which he explains how he understood Christ and the church from Gen 2:24. If Paul can understand Genesis in such a manner then I think we are on safe grounds also pursuing this examination. Besides much of the Jewish and early Christian literature read Genesis with much greater symbolism than we typically do.

    Eph 5:31-32 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” THIS IS A PROFOUND MYSTERY—BUT I AM TALKING ABOUT CHRIST AND THE CHURCH.

    Concerning books: I recommend G. K. Beale’s book “The Temple and the churches Mission” as a very good source of a developed narrative overview of biblical symbolism from the Hebrew stand point.

  • Patrick


    I happen to have that book on my bookshelf right now. Some of what you’ve stated already resonates with me, some seems new.

    I’ll check out Beale’s work and I appreciate this response.

  • normbv


    Most scholars assume that Adam is a biological story and fail to discern that the Hebrews considered him as their theological head just as Christ is considered ours. It’s a nuance that makes a dramatic difference in ones approach to understanding scripture and especially Paul’s application. Go back and read slowly Rom 5:12-21 and Rom 7 the whole chapter. Try to keep in mind that Paul is speaking of Adam in the Garden and then he makes application primarily to Judaism as parallel to Adam through his examination of the problem they have with the Law of works. Most Christians trained in how Grace supplanting the Law should understand the concepts that Paul is presenting but he writes in such an obscure method and jumps around so much that almost all have difficulty following his train of thought in Romans. Once you get the big picture of Paul in Rom 5-8 things start to coalesce.

  • Patrick


    Will do.

    I think Professor Walton’s work has already caused me to see creation (Genesis 1&2) differently along the lines of functional as opposed to material creation. I’m going to the Chattanooga seminar and hope to gain some insight there as well.

    Again, thanks for the heads up here. I am excited about reading Beale’s book now.