The Search for the Historical Adam 5 (RJS)

We have been working through 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 and extra-biblical texts concerning Adam. In the last post we looked specifically at Dr. Collins’s discussion of Gen 1-5. In the post today we will look at the rest of the Old Testament and at references to the creation narrative in other second temple Jewish literature. In the next post we will move on to consider the references to the creation narrative in the New Testament.

In this section of his book Dr. Collins makes the point that there is a coherence to the Hebrew scriptures and to the interaction with these scriptures in the second temple literature. On this point I agree with Dr. Collins – when we try to divide and dissect the Old Testament we will fail. The Old Testament is better thought of as a library than a single book, but it is a coherent cultural library with a purpose … not an accidental collection of disparate texts tacked together and thus preserved. The general academic endeavor  that divides, dissects, and analyzes the text can miss, it seems to me, the main point. The conclusions may be correct in many cases – but are only of value as they are reconstructed to help inform us of the way the entire text works together. In fact, this view of the text as a coherent whole plays a significant role in my view of scripture as authoritative and from God.

This leads to an important question though. The question really has to do with the form of our reasoning from the texts to  an understanding of our faith. We need to consider and evaluate the form that the argument for or against a historical Adam takes. There are many references to the Genesis creation narrative in the OT and in the extra-biblical second temple Jewish literature. There are at least two ways these references can be interpreted in the context of the consistent narrative of scripture

Do these references attest to the historicity of the account in Gen 1-5?


Do these references attest to the significance of the creation story in Jewish culture and thought?

These two approaches may seem to reflect a minor distinction – but I think it is actually the root of much of the problem we have in our church today, both with the Genesis account of creation and with our understanding of scripture as inspired by God. Dr. Collins seems to imply in his writing that these references and more significantly, the opinion of the OT and second temple Jewish writers regarding the historicity of Adam, should be a determinative factor in our approach to the question of Adam.

The Old Testament. Dr. Collins cites many allusions to the creation narrative in general and to Genesis 1-5 in particular scattered throughout the Old Testament. References to creation are not rare – if one is looking for them. Creation and the role of God in creation is part of the world view of the original authors and audience of the text.  The role of God in creation is an important component of the message of the text – explicit or assumed. Some examples are given below:

Psalms 8:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

Psalms 104: …O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all;

Mal. 2:15-16 refers back to the God ordained institution of marriage.

Exodus 20:11 refers back to Genesis 1, the six days of creation and the day of rest.

References or allusions to Eden are found in Ezekiel, Isaiah and Joel. References to the Fall may be found in Ecclesiastes 7, Hosea 6, and Job 31, although these are disputed by some. Reference to Adam is found in the genealogy in 1 Chronicles.

This list of OT references or allusions to the creation narrative is not exhaustive, but it does include the most significant references and many of the less explicit references.  Dr. Collins makes his point that reference to Genesis 1-5 are not absent from the rest of the OT. However, it does not appear that the references are profound or extensive in their importance. Most, if not all, of them reflect an assumed background or are of a general nature.

Extra-Canonical Second Temple Literature. References to Genesis and creation are also common in the second temple literature – and here the reference to Adam, Eve, and the Fall is developed more completely.  Dr. Collins considers references in Tobit, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and in the writings of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria.

There is a theme here – Dr. Collins makes the point that these second temple authors, along with some of the more specific OT references, take Adam and Eve as historical individuals in the same way they consider Abraham, Moses, and David historical figures.

However, the citation in Sirach 49:16 makes it clear that he did take Adam to be an historical person. He is recalling worthies from the history of Israel in chapters 44-49  … He begins with Enoch and Noah as the first named “famous men,” then goes on to Abraham and so forth through Biblical history. … He completes the run-up to Simon in 49:16:

Shem and Seth were honored among men, and Adam above every living being in the creation.

The way he mentions all these men in this context indicates that he took all of them as historical figures. (p. 75)

Philo of Alexandria may be an exception, but Josephus wrote in a manner that intends to relate history and does not take an allegorical approach to scripture or the Jewish tradition. In the Antiquities (1.2.3, line 67) he calls Adam “the first man, made from the earth.”

The second temple literature also contains specific references to the Fall. Dr. Collins quotes the Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 which refers to the creation of mankind in the image of God and the introduction of death through the devil’s envy and Sirach 24:25 which references the introduction of sin and death through a woman.

Dr. Collins sums up this section:

Thus in the period that bridges the Old Testament and the New, the Jewish authors most representative of the mainstream consistently treat Adam and Eve as actual people, at the head of the human race. (p. 76)

Evidence for Historicity of Gen. 1-5. The underlying current in Dr. Collins’s discussion of these references to Adam and Eve, or to Eden and the Fall is that the perspective of the OT and second temple writers on the historicity of Adam should influence our thinking about Adam and the Fall. Certainly there are some who will claim that the text of Gen. 1-5 was never meant to be interpreted literally and that the literal interpretation that causes us so much grief was a relatively late invention. Therefore we can and should abandon this interpretation. I am not an expert on this literature and cannot put all of the references into sufficient context to judge the belief of the various writers about the historicity of Adam.

I will contend, however, that all of the writers are sufficiently distant from the actual events of the past, hidden in the mists of antiquity, that the beliefs of these writers are not a determinative factor. Dr. Collins may very well be correct in his analysis that they believed their cultural history and wrote with the assumption that Adam was a unique historical individual. But this belief does not provide evidence on any level for the actual historicity of Adam.

There are two points to consider here. First the period of time from the origins of humanity, to the development of civilization, to the very early history of Israel (say 1000 to 2000 years BC) was without much in the way of concrete record. Stories were passed along. Sumerian and Akkadian texts have been found – and their relationship to the OT narratives help us understand the context of the OT. But the connections are tenuous and distant.

Second, the authors of the OT and the second temple literature had nothing to go on except the stories of their cultural history. They also had no reason to question the historicity of their cultural story. Without impetus to question, the fact that the story was generally accepted and assumed in their writing is unsurprising. In many respects the background is incidental to primary intent of the OT and second temple texts.

I expect that there will be some significant difference of opinion here, and some who will want to question, clarify or refine the issues, so I will stop here and ask the question.

Does it matter if the writers of the OT and second temple literature thought the creation narrative of Genesis 1-5 was historically accurate?

Does it matter if they thought Adam was a historical individual? Why or why not?

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  • At this point I tend to think it doesn’t matter, whether Adam and Eve are to be taken as literal persons. That Genesis 1-11 is meant to tie in primeval history to the call of Abraham.

    I wonder if Jewish thought, around second Temple and afterward, would insist that there has to be a literal Adam and Eve, garden, talking serpent, etc. At the same time that would be strictly interpretive of the text as written in Genesis. In no way binding as to meaning, of course.

  • It seems to me that simply citing various but consistent uses of a story does not necessitate the conclusion that the story is historical. Think of our country and the stories it perpetuates about our origins; George Washington and the cherry tree is a rather famously unhistorical story regarding our founding father that still has narrative value. It tells us something of who he was, and, consequently, who we aspire (ought) to be as a nation.

  • Here’s an article about this subject posted on NPR just today:

    It basically pins Mohler against a biologist from Trinity Western University. I just hope articles like this don’t add to the vitriol.

  • rjs


    I intend to post specifically on this NPR story and article later this week. It raises some questions worth discussion.

  • Joe Canner

    Ryan #2: Good analogy, and one that illustrates that the narrative value of the story doesn’t depend on who thought the story was historical or when they thought it.

  • Patrick

    Dr. Collins also expresses the view that NT references to Adam are theologically significant. With me, those would be of much higher qualititative value than the Apochryphal works although I do respect them.

    So, what is driving the desire to re-consider Adam historically? Is it anthropology and paleontology?

    I ask because I think if that’s accurate, it’s something we need to examine again and ask ,”is this necessary”? We might just have some breakthrough Biblical exegesis/hermeneutic on this very question to access.

    Could it be instead of debunking Adam into myth to save the Bible from reality as some see reality, could it be the text never taught us accurately a youthful earth or mankind and does not militate against at least an intra special evolution?

    I say this not to debate over the evolution idea, rather because Adam does not need to be young like Biblicists think if we properly understand the Hebrew Scriptures.

    Just as some have preached a false idea of the age of the earth based on ignorance of ancient Hebrew thought, so it may be with Adam.

    I strongly urge everyone to read Dr. Walton’s book, “The Lost World or Genesis 1”.

    If Dr. Walton is accurate, the text literally lends itself to at least an intra special evolutionary change from a precursor to Adam. Theologians a lot smarter than me noticed this.

    His work may or may not be revolutionary for our understanding, IF it is revolutionary and at least mostly accurate, we will lose the need to explain the Genesis creation epoch away by finding it as some kind of metaphor only.

    IF there are theological reasons for this debate and not factoring in science, I apologize for intruding in it.

  • rjs


    I also think the theological significance of some of the NT references is the bigger issue. These will be the focus of the next post on Dr. Collins’s book (probably next Tuesday).

    This post hasn’t gotten much comment, I expect because it isn’t really controversial. I thought it was important to lay out the form of some of Dr. Collins’s argument though.

    John Walton’s book is quite good – and I also recommend it highly.

  • Patrick


    If Walton has it right, the “functional” creative thing lends itself to an evolutionary change it seems to me. Like the potter’s wheel idea.

    The genome’s objections that we must have thousands of parents might be explainable still within the old paradigm. IF Walton is accurate, Adam would be first, but, the process would have still been ongoing.

    In fact, IMO, the idea of “Cain’s wife” lends itself to this idea better than the alternative of her being his sister. Simply because she lived in another area away from her parents makes it more reasonable to me to think she was of another group of humans.

    Just some thoughts, you do great work and I enjoy it a lot.

  • normbv

    I believe John Collins is on the correct path in highlighting the importance of second temple Judaism literature but I would disagree with some of his conclusions he may infer. There was some of this literature that was considered by the apostles and earliest Christians to actually be scripture on par with the OT. It’s really all in how one reads the literature and interprets it on how it can affect our discussion concerning the literal Adam. I’m basically a historical Adam backer but with much more Hebrew nuanced understanding than most.

    Selectively reading literature one can proof text just about any position they want to establish. The remedy is to understand comprehensively the scope and intent of the message from its original perspective which is a mighty challenge for modern examiners who bring extensive presuppositions to the discussion that generally are not called for. It’s hard to judge unless one equips themselves well enough in the debate to make informed judgments, which is not a simple undertaking.

    I like to use this illustration from the Book of Jubilees written about 100 years or more before Christ in which Adam and his death is discussed. Notice below in the excerpt highlighted that Adam didn’t live to be 1000 years old which in Judaism represented eternal life as evidenced in Revelation by John in his usage [it is Hebrew numeral symbolism and not intended as literal] . Adam then represents Israel’s need for redemption from the death that was ascribed to Adam at the fall [also applied by Paul; however the Death is spiritual and not physical].

    The author is illustrating that Adam’s death was the equivalent of a Day as a thousand years and thus Adam did not reach the eternal 1000 year Day that denoted eternal life. That was accomplished only through Christ. Peter even quotes this terminology of a “Day as a Thousand years” almost verbatim and so does the first century epistle of Barnabas. This is extensive proof that the Jews did not consider the Day in Genesis as a literal Day by any stretch.

    Jub 4:29 … Adam died,… And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that ye eat thereof ye shall die.’ For this reason HE DID NOT COMPLETE THE YEARS OF THIS DAY; FOR HE DIED DURING IT.

    Essentially Adam means “Human” but not just any human when you study OT usage of this word which effectively means “humans in relationship with God”. Therefore it can be inferred that Adam indeed was considered the first of “humanity” but only as defined through Judaism to represent God’s set aside people and not general humanity. The Hebrews had other words for general mankind that they often employed side by side with the “adamites” word for humans. So when you read OT and second temple literature you need to be aware that their connotation and conception of Adam is not representative of general humanity at large but representative of spiritually attuned humanity that will be redeemed out of the death and spiritual separation of a “works religion”, that got Adam and Israel kicked out of a full Garden relationship with God. That is also the essence of Pauline doctrine in a nutshell.

    If one proceeds to the next verse following Adam’s death you will see that Judgment and retribution is leveled against Cain who represents the evil seed of Satan and his followers throughout Judaism. First the old husband Adam dies [representing Israel] and then judgment is leveled against his bad seed children, the apostates against Christ [the last Adam and final Husband] whom murder the faithful Christians. His/their own stone house collapses upon them which is symbolic of the Temple destruction that brought down the pharisaical Jews who repudiated Christ. That is why the apostate Jews are often associated with Satan and his offspring Cain in the NT. See 1 John 3:10-12. Again keep in mind Jubilees only predates Christ by about 150 years when the Temple and their priest were considered extensively corrupted already. See Ezekiel 34 for similar prophesy against the corrupt priest as a recurring theme of Judaism.

    31 At the close of this jubilee Cain was killed after him in the same year; for his house fell upon him and he died in the midst of his house, and he was killed by its stones; for with a stone he had killed Abel, and by a stone was he killed in righteous judgment.

    The Jews used these ancient stories to illustrate metaphorically the eventual messianic coming and judgment that second temple Judaism abounds with extensively. It helps then to understand the context of this literature as profoundly messianic which lays out the outline followed by Christ and the early church. Their application of Adam as a historic person is true but within the context of how they framed him as representative of the faith beginning of Israel proper taking him back only to around 4000BC in their ancient history. Adam then becomes representative of Israel under bondage and when he is spoken of as an individual it must be taken that he was indeed a historical beginning for faith worship in only One True God. He becomes much more than that in their literature though as many other historical characters are in Genesis. Individually they often represent the collective of the ancient men of faith just as Abraham is used to represent the man of Faith in the NT from the OT.

    Adam as a historic figure is true but much more nuanced with symbolism than most would recognize without extensive study of OT and Second Temple literature. When a current biblical scholar says that Adam is not historical they are actually speaking the truth when it comes to a literal defining of Adam. However they veer off and overstate their case when they categorically state that he was not based upon a human from the real world of a faith based concept of Judaism. Don’t mix Adam with the origins of humanity in general as the Jews didn’t and would be aghast at our conception that he was.

    I realize this post is long but some issues require background to make commenting worthwhile for theological discernment.

  • Patrick


    Interesting stuff.

    One problem on the surface I have grasping this view is how does it fit that Adam would be the first man of faith in Israel’s God and also be seen as the conduit for sin affecting all of us?

    Also, assuming your view to be largely accurate, how would the “Hebrew” Adam fit into pre historic humanity?

    Would the contention be to assume the narrative ignores pre history before Yahweh decided He would work through this specific people group ?

    In a course I am taking, it appears in the Babel incident Yahweh basically throws up His hands and says,”alright then, you reject My rule, here, get ruled by these 70 loser “gods”. Gen 11.

    Then, along comes Abram and Israel and chapter 12 implying the beginning of Israel and Yahweh will be their ruler while the Gentiles get the “loser 70”.

    If you’re right, I misinterpet this and Abram is not the beginning of Israel. Maybe just the “new Adam” within that Jewish worldview? Another opportunity for a man of Yahweh to prove His faithful agent?

    I’m fishing here.

  • Paul W

    On the one hand, I guess I’m glad that there are people willing to look hard at the question of a “historical Adam” and I find these posts by rjs to always be interesting. On the other, I’m pretty incredulous that if Adam were a historical person that anyone would be able to do much with that information. However interesting it might be I wonder how one would one even begin to do critical-historical research on his life.

    Was Adam a historical person? I have no idea and am not really sure why it matters.

    I’m under the impression that what is of fundamental importance regarding how we view the early part of Genesis is to allow the “narrative” to shape how we imagine origins, humanity’s place in the world, the context for Israel’s existence etc. It is the “textual” Adam & Eve and their story that is important and not some extra-textual history that can be ascertained about them.

    So when we think about such things, I am of the impression that God wants me to have the story of Adam & Eve taking a precedent. This is to be the case whether or not those characters had a text-independent reality. In a similiar vein, I don’t believe that Scripture or the relevant second temple literature are evidence for anything more than that. Nor would I understand that the literature referenced in the post as providing any kind of significant evidence for text-independent historicity.

  • Patrick


    With me it matters because it “appears” to me that all the OT &NT
    references to Adam are assuming he is a historic human and he has a role in theology mainly via Paul.

    This is not to say he must be a real human or the absolute first human or the first Hebrew human, because I don’t have the skills to debate it properly, it is to say he sure “appears” to be one or the other in the NT and OT and has a large theological role to play in the Plan of God at least on the face of it.

    As an ante type to the intrinsic good second Adam(man). In a sense, all of us are that ante type, but, inspired writers chose to use that guy as the representative failure for us all or at least it appears so.

  • normbv

    Patrick you stated. .. “One problem on the surface I have grasping this view is how does it fit that Adam would be the first man of faith in Israel’s God and also be seen as the conduit for sin affecting all of us?”

    Patrick, Paul actually helps solve that problem for us in his sections from Rom 5-8 and 1 Cor 15.

    You need to realize that Paul in Rom 5 is presenting a picture of Adam and the fall from Garden life. You must keep in mind that when placed in the Garden Adam was without sin. But Paul makes this unusual statement in 5:13.

    Rom 5:13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

    What Paul is saying is that the original scope of Garden life for Adam was one in which he was surrounded by the darkness of the “sinful” nature but Adam due to his relationship with God bore no sin until he was given the commandment. Adam is a mini story of Israel when they were given the law through Moses. However under this arrangement of Garden life it was impossible for any human to walk with God through their own strength of character, thus the need for a redeemer.

    Paul restates essentially the same concept in Rom 7 where he states that apart from the commandment or Law that sin has no power for the faith following person seeking God. That is why Paul and the NT is obsessed with the ending of the Mosaic Law in which Christ says will come to an end within their generation. This happens when God through Christ will bring judgment upon Mosaic sacrificial Temple worship under the law called the works of the flesh. The ending of the works of the Law is Paul’s polemic throughout his writings. So essentially in 1 Cor 15 Christ replaces Adam as the new way for the people of faith whom would have been without sin if they could muster their own perfection through law abiding. But it could not happen and so Christ is the last Adam in which the abundant life is through Him via the spirit instead of Adam under the Law of bondage.

    Rom 7:8-9 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. (9) I WAS ONCE ALIVE APART FROM THE LAW, but WHEN THE COMMANDMENT CAME, sin came alive and I DIED.

    Sin in the OT and NT was primary of two different modes of understanding. First is the natural sin that accompanies all of humanity and the second level of sin is in regard to those of faith whom should have life with God but were obstructed because they reached out and tried to obtain eternal life through their own strength and abilities.

    Gen 3:22 And Jehovah God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, TO KNOW GOOD AND EVIL; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever –

    Notice now what Paul says about Good and Evil as described in the Garden.

    Rom 7:18-19 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (19) For I DO NOT DO THE GOOD I want, but THE EVIL I DO NOT WANT is what I keep on doing.

    But of course Paul states that for the faithful person of God there is relief from this bondage.

    Rom 7:24-25 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

    If we keep reading Romans 8 we see that it is life through the Holy Spirit of Christ instead of the Law that was originally introduced through Adam in the Garden. Christ removes the flaming Cherubim guarding the Garden entrance and the people of faith are now free from the bondage of sin in regards to the Law.

    All men are in bondage to natural sin but walking with God removes that burden. However the institution of Law that was brought to its heyday through Moses upon Israel kept faithful men separated until Christ removed it. Romans 5-8 is Paul’s explanation of the process of this story of sin but its not geared toward people who are not faithful believers. We should recognize this but we get confused by Paul’s all inclusive statement of “all men” not realizing the context of the whole book of Romans is about those of faith and not those who are not drawn to God. His “all men” is inclusive of everyone who comes to God through Christ. It should be clear to us but we overstate what Paul says and we run amok with it trying to make it about biological humanity instead of faithful Israel whom now comprises the church of Jesus Christ. Adam was the beginning of the ancient church.

    1Co 15:56-57 The sting of death is sin, and THE POWER OF SIN IS THE LAW. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Notice the difference in power between the first Adam and Christ the last Adam.

    1Co 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. … 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

    2Co 3:18 And WE ALL, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are BEING TRANSFORMED INTO THE SAME IMAGE from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

    You said … “Also, assuming your view to be largely accurate, how would the “Hebrew” Adam fit into pre historic humanity?:

    Adam appears to have been considered by the Jewish book of Jubilees and the OT as coming from the ancient Semites around 4000BC.

    Would the contention be to assume the narrative ignores pre history before Yahweh decided He would work through this specific people group ?

    Just as God works through His church the Body of Christ so too has he worked with ancient humanity through those called to serve Him which became Israel. However Paul says that not all Israel is Israel.

    Rom 9:6 … For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, … 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring

    Essentially Abraham is just as important as Adam because he is the father of faith that God desires. Yet in Christ we are called sons of God and in Luke the genealogy takes us back to Adam who alone with Christ is called the Son of God but his fall was not like Christ whom did not fail at His task. Thus the Garden is reopened for those of faith and there is no sin even though sin is still in the world.

    Luk 3:38 …, the son of Adam, the son of God.

  • Patrick


    Thanks for taking the time to write this.