The Search for the Historical Adam 4 (RJS)

I began this series a while ago, but had to put it on the back burner to concentrate on other things. Today I would like to get return to the topic of Adam and to the recent book by C. John Collins entitled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. This book 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 issues. Later this fall we will look at the question of Adam from an equally faithful, but less conservative perspective, in the context of a new book coming out by Peter Enns entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.

Chapter 3 of Dr. Collins’s book looks at the biblical texts concerning Adam. Today we will consider his discussion of Genesis 1-5. The first point of note here is that Dr. Collins has respect for the form of the text we have and cautions against reading it too literalistically. He also cautions against reading it shallowly, with a dismissive attitude, as myth or as a loosely edited collection of ancient stories.  He points out that many will claim that the accounts of creation in Genesis 1-2:3 and 2:4-25 cannot be reconciled with each other.

As for the question of separate sources, the arguments for and against such sources will be forever indecisive, since none of these putative sources is actually known to exist. The only text we have is the one that places these two passages together. Further, we have no reason to expect that the whoever did put these passages together was a blockhead (or a committee of blockheads), who could not recognize contradictions every bit as well as we can. … Therefore, if literary and linguistic studies point to a way to read the whole production coherently, we do well to pay heed. (p. 52-53).

I agree with Dr. Collins here – although not entirely with the way he then takes the idea. Genesis 1-5 is a coherent whole, put together for a purpose and in an acceptable fashion by the editor(s) of the text we have, whatever sources were used. It isn’t a sloppy jumble of dissonant pieces. To me this suggests that any apparent contradiction, say the apparent contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, should inform our understanding of the mindset, culture, and purpose of both the original author/editor and the original audience.  We should not twist the text to match our expectation for the literary form of the text.

What should be our attitude toward the text of Genesis 1-5? What should we look to learn from the text?

Given that the text of Genesis 1-5 is a coherent whole, Dr. Collins goes on to discuss the interpretation or potential interpretation of many elements of the story.  Dr. Collins is describing a “third way” to read the text of Genesis 1-5. He advocates a reading between the overly literalistic reading of the text as a reporter’s account of events as they happened and the overly literalistic reading that sees myth, magic, folklore and etiological “just so stories” and thus dismisses the text as fiction, an ancient Near East creation myth with theological meaning. I will highlight only a few of his points here.

The Creation Narratives. Dr. Collins takes the view that Genesis 1-2:3 is, as he describes it, almost “liturgical”.

[I]t celebrates as a great achievement God’s work of fashioning the world as a suitable place for humans to live. “The exalted tone of the passage allows the reader to ponder this with a sense of awe, adoring the goodness, power, adn creativity of the One who did all this.” Perhaps the best way to read the passage is in unison, in a service of worship. (p. 54)

Genesis 2:4-25 on the other hand, takes a specific part of God’s creation, the formation of humans, and expands it in detail. Again the text is not simply history, but it carries much intentional meaning.  Dr. Collins finds it persuasive that Adam and Eve are presented as a unique pair from whom all humanity descends and that this was the intent of the author. But this doesn’t exclude Adam from a representative role as well. He discusses the names Adam and Eve, and the potential for wordplay with these names, although he downplays this aspect. Adam is intended in some sense at least as a proper name.

The Garden, The Snake, and The Trees. The form of Genesis similar to Mesopotamian prehistories, where the term prehistory refers to the time before written records. Genesis 1-11 connects the story of Israel to the past hidden in the mists of antiquity.

I say “the mists of antiquity” to remind us that we are dealing with the kind of literature that deals with “prehistory” and “protohistory.” … And, as Kenneth Kitchen argues, in the nineteenth century B. C., people “knew already that their world was old, very old.” Therefore the phrase “mists of antiquity” represents the perspective the ancients themselves would have held. (p. 57)

Because Genesis 1-11 is a record of prehistory it uses elements that are common to the genre – both figurative elements and literary conventions. The form of the stories tell us that we err if we read them too literalistically. But the figurative elements and literary conventions serve a purpose within the context of a true story of origins.  We do not have a collection of magic, myth, and folklore with talking animals and magical trees. For example, Dr. Collins sees the snake as a reference not to a talking snake,  but to Satan. The snake serves a purpose in the story, but the purpose is not to provide an etiological explanation for snake locomotion. The snake is as a mouthpiece for the Evil One, a creature used by Satan. He considers it a faulty reading to ignore the connection of the snake with Satan. The lack of connection in the text of Genesis is inconsequential, because the intent is clear. Likewise the trees are not to be viewed as magic trees, capable of providing life or knowledge, rather they have a sacramental function in the Garden.

According to Dr. Collins the point of the story of Genesis 3 is not in the details of dust and trees and snakes, but in the disobedience introducing sin into the world and the connection of this sin to all people.

The Genealogies. The genealogies play a significant role in Dr. Collins understanding of Adam and Eve. The genealogies link Adam and Eve to Abraham – in other words they connect Israel through Abraham to the beginning of humanity hidden in the mists of antiquity. The fact that the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 and those in 1 Chronicles and Luke 3 connect back through time to Adam does not mean that every generation is listed with absolute precision. We cannot add the numbers and arrive at the age of the earth. But Dr. Collins suggests that this connection does mean that the authors of Genesis, Chronicles, and Luke assumed that Adam was a historical figure. Although he does not state it explicitly the implication is that this assumption of historicity should influence our understanding of Adam as a historical figure at the beginning of the human race.

We will get back to the idea of Adam as a historical figure in later chapters of the book – this too can be nuanced. Adam as historical does not necessarily mean Adam as a unique individual, although it may. But it does mean that the story, according to Dr. Collins, cannot be dismissed as mere myth describing the current state of mankind.

Do you think that there is a “third way” to read the text of Genesis 1-5?

Is there a valid middle ground between reported history and fiction with theological meaning?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • John Mc

    Dr. Collins is still reading Genesis (as do most Christians) through the lens of Christian doctrine. Perhaps a “fourth way” should be considered: reading the story from the perspective of ancient Judaism – from the theological perspective of the Jews before the Babylonian Exile. I am suggesting that we examine the story without the the narrowing influence of Zoroastrian and Christian doctrines such as “sin,” “fall,” and “redemption.” I am also suggesting examining the story from a perspective which pre-dates the development of the notion of the satan as a divine foe and of evil as self-actualized force running rampant in the world.

    In that case we can then see the snake as a snake – a natural phenomenon. And we can see the Tree of Life as a divine promise of an immortal existence, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as yet another divine gift but of a more ambiguous nature. In fact the ambiguity of the one tree may suggest he hidden ambiguity of the other tree. We can meditate on the apparent impossibility of the one tree without the other, of (im)possibility of human existence without the potential represented by both trees.

    By removing the straitjacket of doctrine the interpretational possibilities become endless. What I am suggesting is that we escape the limitations of 2,500 year of doctrinal development and examine the story from a perspective which pre-dates the influence of war between good and evil, between God and Satan, and between sin and obedience.

    Obviously this is not a new idea but perhaps in our time such a reading may offer a re-boot and a re-set to our contemporary interpretations which are needlessly limited by our Christianized presumptions.

  • Amos Paul


    Why would Dr. Collins, a Christian, read the Genesis story in any other manner than that which Christian Scripture attributes it as?

    Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    Rev 20:2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.

  • rjs

    John Mc,

    Is it really helpful to try to step outside and look at Genesis 1-5 from outside of Christian doctrine? If so, why?

    It is helpful to look at it from the context of the author and original audience, but this is part of the Christian context. And it is not at all clear to me that the snake is just a snake in this context either.

  • Robert

    There’s nothing to indicate that the Christian understading of Satan had been invented in OT times. He only appears in 1 Chronicles, Job and Zechariah – all late pieces of literature – and he doesn’t appear as ‘the Evil One’ in any of them. Rather, he’s God’s servant, a sort of cross between secret policeman and prosecuting council. So why would we assume that the Evil One would lie behinfd the snake in the understanding of the people who wrote Genesis? I think it has to be something the church has read into the text.

    I wouldn’t see Adam as anything more than symbolic; he seems to be a hermaphrodite, who has to be split into two to make male and female individuals, who then have to cleave together to be whole again.

  • Amos Paul


    I wouldn’t say that Satan is an invention of the church. At least, if you buy the line of thinking that the OT Scriptures or Tanakh aren’t *explicit* enough about him–then Satan appears to be an invention of Jesus himself. He talked about Him quite a few times. Of course, no one ever seemed to question who Jesus was talking about…

    Also, those who *do* think a vague understanding of our enemy has been around for longer than Christ generally point out the many instances of ‘The Deceiver’, ‘The Enemy’, and so on in the OT Scriptures. While you may disagree with this interpration, I would moreover caution that Satan as God’s henchman is *also* that–an interpretation.

  • Albertomedrano

    Many people were wrong about how our dollar system functioned. Can we say they were wrong about how creation began? We can read this in a way that only the early people could explain ther existence in this world. A story needed to be told. And this was the best story that gave meaning to our existence. It doesn’t make it wrong or untrue. Revelations goes along and continues to tell how the story will change. It’s not literally true, but it does give us meaning, and a hope to live for.

  • Joe Canner

    Alberto #6: Thanks for putting into words what I was thinking. To extend the thought: the fact that Jesus or Paul or John said things that were consistent with Genesis 1-11 neither makes those things more historically true, nor undermines the credibility of those that said them. By NT times, very little had changed in the realm of science, so the Genesis story was still the best story. Christians today may disagree on the extent to which science should inform our interpretation of Genesis, but using the NT to support the OT doesn’t seem to get us very far towards resolving those disagreements.

  • rjs

    Albertmedrano and Joe,

    How then do you view Genesis 1-11 as scripture, or isn’t it really?

    The idea that a story needed to be told and this is the best story that gave meaning to our existence frankly places Genesis in the realm of “mere” fiction. Folklore tacked on to the beginning of a protohistory developing into history.

    I think the form of the story uses the understanding of things like biology, and cosmology common to the day, it uses elements from the cultural environment, but I would change the emphasis from that which seems to come through in your comments.

    How do you see the hand of God in the form of the story of creation? What is the truth that is being conveyed?

  • RayA

    @ #3: I think it is of great value to view Genesis 1-5 from outside of Christian doctrine. This is how the majority of the post-Christian West would approach the text. As pastors, teachers, and theologians, I would say we must take seriously various angles into a text like this given that the story is bigger than anything we can say about it. At the same time, we should be able to do this without condescending or treating “the church’s” traditional hermeneutic as somehow antiquated or less viable.

  • R Hampton

    “Is it really helpful to try to step outside and look at Genesis 1-5 from outside of Christian doctrine? If so, why?”

    If we really are interested in understanding what the people of the Old Testament believed, then we should acknowledge that they were not shaped by Christian history. They had no idea that God would sacrifice his son to atone for original sin, and transform from a God of the Jews to a God for all humanity.

  • Batreader

    “What I am suggesting is that we escape the limitations of 2,500 year of doctrinal development and examine the story from a perspective which pre-dates the influence of war between good and evil, between God and Satan, and between sin and obedience.”

    Is this the same as saying you are excluding all scholarship before mine? :-)

    Is trying to separate the creation story from the Judeo-Christian hermeneutic self-defeating – unless you are saying that the creation story has been manipulated by that hermeneutic and is actually done harm by the context in which we read it. If it wasn’t in that context then we wouldn’t have it in the first place!

  • Amos Paul


    You can come up with any crazy view or understanding just taking the Scriptures as they are without any prescriptive lens whatsoever. As a wise man once said — every good heretic quotes Scripture.

    Thus, one of the main functions of the church when it comes to Scripture is to emphasize viewing it through the lens of Christ, and the Holy Spirit in us. What you’re describing is a purely academic pursuit, ‘taking seriously all the angles’. While that has some merit… in relating to other viewpoints and where they’re coming from, why would the church have any business in espousing such viewpoints?

    Our concern is God’s truth. Jesus is that truth. Scripture points to Jesus. It makes no sense to me, as a Christian, to say that Christians ought to be arguing for understandings of Scripture that are divorced from Christ.

  • Joe Canner

    rjs #8: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Genesis 1-11 is “mere fiction” that has nothing to say about God or His role in creation. No doubt the early storytellers and writers considered the stories to be a reasonable explanation for how things came to be, and no doubt their theology infused the stories.

    Looking back at your original post you say that Collins wants to steer a middle ground between literalism and “…reading it shallowly, with a dismissive attitude, as myth or as a loosely edited collection of ancient stories.” Later you characterize that extreme as “fiction with theological meaning.” I think there is a big difference between these two descriptions. One can read Genesis 1-11 as fiction with theological meaning without being shallow or dismissive. In fact, just the opposite is required to extract the theological meaning. Jesus’ parables were fictional (presumably) and also had a great deal of theological meaning. Is there some reason to look at Genesis 1-11 in a significantly different way?

  • rjs


    That is a good point – we can have fiction with theological meaning. I don’t think that I was a clear as I wanted to be with the distinction (and I am not sure that Collins is perfectly clear either).

    Collins certainly argues to retain more than merely theological meaning in his reading of the origins account in Genesis. The truth contained in the account includes truth about origins … God created the heavens and earth. God created the life upon the earth and the humans that occupy the earth. Humans rebelled and suffer the ongoing consequences of this rebellion.

    A merely theological reading would be, for example, that all humans are by their nature sinful and estranged from God. Adam is everyman (past and present).

    Collins finds it essential to retain the idea that Adam represents the first human(s).

  • Joe Canner

    rjs #14: Maybe we need another term for literature that is true in its general outlines but not necessarily (or even meant to be) true in its details. Today we call such a thing “historical fiction” but I would hesitate to use that term here for a variety of reasons. Aside from the baggage inherent in the words “historical” and “fiction”, the fact that the original authors were probably not consciously writing “fiction” and the fact that there is a lot more depth and meaning in Genesis 1-11 than in historical fiction argues for a different (new?) word.

    I think, BTW, that I would part company with Collins on the last sentence of your 2nd paragraph. I don’t think the details of the fall (“rebellion”) fit very well with biology, anthropology, and history, and I’m not convinced that the details are required to understand the work of Christ and salvation.

  • JohnMc

    rjs #3

    You ask: “Is it really helpful to try to step outside and look at Genesis 1-5 from outside of Christian doctrine?”

    Yes, I think so. Just as it is important to interpret it through a Christian lens. Scripture is there as a gift to humanity to guide us in our relationship with God, God’s creation and each other. I am not suggesting abandoning Christian interpretations, but instead expanding our view of the material.

    For example: You say: “According to Dr. Collins the point of the story of Genesis 3 is not in the details of dust and trees and snakes, but in the disobedience introducing sin into the world and the connection of this sin to all people.”

    “The point of the story”? Whose point? By ignoring the context in which the story was first uttered (let alone the intent of the writer – which itself is not seriously recoverable), that is, the pre-Exhilic Jewish community, we risk loosing the actual point of the story altogether.

    Actually, I would argue that the original point of the story has nothing to do with the introduction of sin into the world and nothing to do with the satan. Perhaps the point of the story has more to do with the idea of naivety and childlike innocence and faith, and whether in fact such a posture is even possible for humans – the knowledge of good and evil is present in the world – inescapably so. There is violence wherever we look. And in the re-Creational Flood, God did not target the devil, or evil, or sin, but humanity. Perhaps the point is that if we cannot have genuine child-like faith, and child-like reliance on the grace and abundance of God, can we anticipate life eternal, with God? Does the saving grace of Christ offer an alternative avenue to life eternal, with God?

    Right or wrong, I could never have made that interpretational leap unless I set aside the lens of Christian doctrine which seems to claim a strangle-hold on this particular story.

    I suppose we could conclude that the meanings which the story had to its first hearers are irrelevant today, but we do that at some risk to the integrity of our own interpretations. And we stop hearing what God may be trying to say and instead grow over-reliant on an all too narrow interpretive stance.

  • rjs


    Thanks, that elaboration helps a lot.

    The timing of the text and the context of that timing is of significant importance.

    In the rest of this chapter Collins will look at other biblical texts and additional Jewish literature, especially 2nd Temple Jewish literature, for insight into Adam and Eve. But all of this, with the exception of a few OT references, is post-exhilic.

  • ao

    Joe Canner (#14),

    OT scholar John Goldingay, in his awesome popular-level commentary “Genesis for Everyone,” voiced the same concern about trying to precisely define the literary structure of Genesis 1-11 in terms that do justice to what Gen 1-11 is trying to communicate. He called it “historic parables,” in the sense that Gen 1-11 addresses events that really happened but is telling them in the form of a parable that more appropriately conveys the theological significance of the story. Goldingay points out that this would be similar to the historic parables in the Gospels–stories in which Jesus foretells the imminent destruction and judgment of Israel. In those cases, Jesus is talking about actual historical events (the destruction of Jerusalem or Judgment Day), but he uses parables to describe them because the parables more appropriately convey the theological significance of the historical event.

    That way of looking at it has been helpful to me. Maybe it’ll be helpful for others as well.

  • Albertomedrano


    I view Genesis 1-11 as Scripture, as in it is sacred. Scripture doesn’t mean to be taken as literally true. I can take Genesis 1-11 as a sacred story, and I think that’s how people then took it as.

    Fiction isn’t a bad word. And it shouldn’t be taken as so. It’s only taken negatively when it disturbs someone’s faith in something they always took as literally true. I believe that there was a creative act, and the story gives it meaning, but we don’t have to believe in went exactly that way.

    The truth being projected in these passages, I think, is the history of man, his sinful nature, and God’s attempt of redeeming. Again, it’s an explanation of the state of humanity and divinity. People needed to know where they came from, why they’re in this dysfunctional state, and how, by God’s help, are they going to move into a better state of life.

  • Patrick


    I would argue Moses and Abraham understood what we do about Messiah. Jesus probably meant it when He said, “Abraham SAW My day”.

    This is not a well know , but, the ancient Jews can be proven to have believed there were 2 Yahweh’s using the Massoretic text. Co – equal, just as we see The Father and The Son.

    Only post 70 AD did this start going the other way.

    “2 Powers in Heaven” by Alan Segal is an awesome piece of scholarship on this subject.

    My point is the “ancient Jews” who wrote Scripture saw things more like us than we think. Those in the know that is.

    Thus, we do not need to drop our “Christian lenses”. Maybe we need to drop our post enlightenment lenses.

  • Kevin Holtsberry

    Has anyone read The Lost World of Genisis One by John H. Walton? I found it a convincing argument for taking the first chapter of Genesis as ancient cosmology and function focused.

  • normbv

    Genesis is segmented into 10 distinct sections with Gen 1:2:23 acting in section 1 as a general overview and prologue; not completely about past history of the Jews but past, present and future. In other words it compacts all of the Hebrew narrative into a compact 7 Day overview of where they came from and where they are going to end up. It is classic messianic Hebrew literature depicting the rise of the revelation of Light out of Darkness culminating with completion of faithful humanity walking as the Image bearers of God to the world. Johns Gospel picks up on this narrative recognizing Christ the messiah was the culmination of what Genesis Day 6 and 7 were all about.

    Joh 1:9-10 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.

    Gen 2:4 begins filling out the details that have been condensed in Gen 1’s opening prologue. Adam is the beginning of the light bearers of God yet they stumble and are in need of being picked up. That ultimately results through Christ in which men are made in God’s image bearing the “Spirit” of God.

    Col 3:9-10 … seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

    2Co 3:18 And we all, … are being transformed into the same image…. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

    The NT writers understood the implications of Genesis much better than we in the church historically have.

  • DRT

    Everyone, can you please comment on Partick’s #20? 2 Yahweh’s until AD 70?


  • R Hampton

    First time I had heard of it. Afterwards, I tried to find Rabbinical/Scholarly assessments of pre-Christian Jewish beliefs about the Messiah (mashiach). Nothing I read challenges the notion that the OT Jews had no expectation of Jesus, for the were (and still are) expecting a solely human King who will fulfill a number of literally interpreted prophecies, like reuniting Israel, teaching the Torah, etc.,

    Then today I came across this, “The Two-Messiah Theory” (; and a rebuttal,
    “Isaiah 53 and the two Messiahs” ( Seems to me that Patrick is referring to a Christian apologetic and not a Rabbinical pronouncement.

  • DRT

    Thanks R. Hampton….reading now.

  • Patrick


    It’s the first time I ever heard of it myself. I am currently taking an online OT theology course from Memra and in it, Dr. Heiser makes it sort of easy to understand the “2 Yahweh’s” idea from the Massoretic text.

    To me it is extremely convincing. There always was a visible and an invisible Yahweh, 2 separate, equal “persons” named Yahweh in the OT text, it just isn’t as easy to discern as John 3:16 is. Some verses have 2 Yahwehs right in them and it goes right over our heads.

    Dr. Heiser is a confessing professor of OT theology, but, the evidence is strictly from the Massoretic text. He’s very disciplined and careful not to use conjecture like lots of preachers do.

    BTW, this has nothing to do with ancient Judaism’s Messiah views. Just the Yahweh views.

    R Hampton,

    “The Lost world of Genesis 1″ is awesome. I loved that book. It just “fits” with me and was very convincing. Dr Walton agrees with Dr Collins BTW, he still believes Adam was historic. It isn’t clear in the book, I asked him myself.