The Search for the Historical Adam 7 (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 good 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.

There are two prongs to the approach that Dr. Collins takes to the question of Adam – the first is, perhaps, best classified as hermeneutical (consequences of the authority of scripture), while the second, and more valuable, part of his discussion addresses the anthropological and theological questions raised by the references to Adam. Chapter 3 of Dr. Collins’s book looks at the biblical and extra-biblical texts concerning Adam. We’ve dealt with all but two of the texts concerning Adam in earlier posts of this series. The two texts remaining for us to consider are Romans 5:12-19 and Acts 17:26.

Romans 5:12-19 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned … This is a key text for many as we consider the question of Adam. Acts 17:26 is a reference that is not often brought into the discussion. This reference arises in the context of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, … since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation. (Acts 17:24a, 25b-26)

In this chapter Dr. Collins does not discuss the theological implications of Paul’s reference to Adam  and death in Romans 5. He focuses instead on Paul’s view of Adam. There seems little doubt that Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 is framed by the way he, and at least some of his contemporaries, read Genesis 2-3. Most commentators, James Dunn is the sole exception he cites (others considered include Cranfield, Fitzmyer, and Wright), conclude that Paul viewed Adam as an historical person, the progenitor of the human race, through whom the relationship between God and mankind changed. That is, Paul viewed Adam and Eve as a persons and took the fall recounted in Genesis 3 as a key historical event.

Overall I find Dr. Collins book well worth the time and effort for interaction. This section, though, is a bit unsatisfactory. Dr. Collins’s argument appears to hinge not on the significance of Adam to Paul’s main theological points, but Paul’s 1st century understanding of the nature of human origins based on Genesis. That Paul viewed Adam as a historical individual should carry, he appears to suggest, significant weight, perhaps definitive weight, in our view of Adam.

In what way should Paul’s view of origins influence our view?

How much of Paul’s view is determinative for our understanding?

Dr. Collins’s discussion of the other passage, Acts 17, is much more interesting – to my perspective anyway. Rather than opening the question of Paul’s belief regarding Adam Dr. Collins dwells on the significance of one universal source for all humanity. The unity of the human race is a key concept and the foundation for racial and ethnic justice. Paul is asserting such a unity and using the text of Genesis 2-3 to provide the foundation for his claim. God created one man from whom all descend – every nation of mankind. Dr. Collins quotes F. F. Bruce from two commentaries on this passage:

Against such claims of racial superiority Paul asserts the unity of all men. The unity of the human race as descended from Adam is fundamental in Paul’s theology (cf. Rom. v.12ff.). This primal unity, impaired by sin, is restored by redemption (Gal. iii.28; Col. iii,11). (F. F. Bruce The Acts of the Apostles)

And in the later commentary:

This removed all imagined justification for the belief that Greeks were superior to barbarians, as it removes all justification for comparable beliefs today. Neither in nature nor in grace, neither in the old creation nor in the new, is there any room for ideas of racial superiority. (F. F. Bruce The Book of Acts.)

This is a foundational idea in Paul’s understanding of both theology and anthropology. We are all one people. Dr. Collins expands on this:

The making of all kinds of people from one person is an historical statement, which grounds the universal invitation – an invitation that itself is established by an event (the resurrection), in the light of a sure-to-come future event (a day of judgment). p. 90

Paul’s views expressed in Colossians 3:11 (Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all) and Galatians 3:28 (There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus) find their foundation in his understanding of the inherent unity of all people grounded in Genesis 1 and 2. Ethnic, racial,  and class barriers all fall beneath our inherent unity. (Gender barriers fall as well – but that is somewhat peripheral to the current discussion). Genesis 3 takes us one step further – not only are we all one people, but we are all in the same boat. We are all in need of reconciliation to God through the redeeming work of Christ.

The unity of humanity. I find arguments for the historicity of Adam and the fall that are centered on Paul’s view of origins unconvincing. Paul was a first century man and his understanding of science, geography, cosmology, origins, was limited by his location in time and space. On the other hand I find arguments based on Paul’s Christology and his understanding of the unity of humanity more persuasive. Whether Genesis 1-3 is historical, metaphorical, or some combination of both – it is true, it teaches the unity of humanity and this is an important component of Paul’s understanding of the central event in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a key force in his mission to the Gentiles. Paul didn’t have evolutionary theory and genomics to convince him of human unity – he had a story, a cultural history that made this a natural conclusion and a starting point for his understanding of his call to preach to the Gentiles.

What do you think? Does the unity of humanity play a role in your understanding of Genesis 1-3?

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  • phil_style

    Is not Paul’s use of Adam similar to what most ethnic origin stories do? Whilst not necessarily “historical truth” about origin, the story becomes social reality. I recommend reading the first two pages of this paper, which discusses almost contemporary (Augustinian period) Roman origin myths/stories, which surely St. Paul would have been familiar with:

    The Romans had their own origin stories that favoured them as a distinct group. Some jewish persons surely used theirs for the same purpose, to distinguish themselves from others. What Paul does, is he uses these same stories to demonstrate to the Jewish believers in Rome that, in fact, they share common unity – Romans and Jews – that their origin stories do, if taken to their extreme, go back further than abraham, and that all peoples have been joined since the start. There is no slave, nor free, nor jew nor gentile in that sense.

  • EricW

    Whether Gen 1-3 is historical, metaphorical, or some combination of both – it is true, it teaches the unity of humanity and this is an important component of Paul’s understanding of the central event in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    While it may teach the unity of humanity, if we accept the evolutionary origins of man and the possibility that different species arose in different places, and we’re descendants of some Neandertal interbreeding, as some now suggest, etc., then can we say that Gen 1-3 is “true” in such an assertion? Because wouldn’t such an evolutionary scenario more teach the unity of all life than just the unity of humanity?

  • normbv

    There is a reason that Acts 17:26 is not a good scripture to use as a proof text of Paul’s understanding that all men derived from Adam. It’s because the translations are often over reading Adam/man into the wording when the better and more accurate translation if “one blood”. The context is essentially the same except it can’t be used as a definitive proof text to demonstrate Paul understands Adam as the first of humanity. Paul believed Adam was the first progenitor of faithful Israel and humanity in regards to keeping the Law or commandment and was essentially a priest. That is Paul’s assertion in Rom 5-8 and 1 Cor 15. Let me illustrate the better translation for Acts 17.

    Act 17:26 He made also OF ONE BLOOD EVERY NATION OF MEN, to dwell upon all the face of the earth–having ordained times before appointed, and the bounds of their dwellings—

    John uses the “blood” definer in his gospel as well but it’s quite obvious when the correct definition/connotation is applied that the Adam link is not there. In fact it’s quite the contrast that Paul did not use Adam but used the generic “blood” to associate all humanity as brethren. One would think Paul would have a grand opportunity to teach the Gentiles that they derived from Adam here on Mars hill but he chose not to go that route is evident.

    Here is John’s usage of “blood” denoting that being born of God is not physically from biological means but from the spirit of God.

    Joh 1:12-13 but as many as did receive him to them he gave authority to become sons of God–to those believing in his name, (13) who–NOT OF BLOOD nor of a will of flesh, nor of a will of man but–of God were begotten.

    Here is the Greek word and definition mistakenly translated “man” in Acts 17:26. Aima –blood

    Of uncertain derivation; blood, literally (of men or animals), figuratively (the juice of grapes) or specifically (the atoning blood of Christ); by implication bloodshed, also kindred: – blood.

  • DRT

    Thanks for your post. This is the first time in my life that I fully appreciated the potential gravity of us not having a single Adam and Eve since we then could no longer have a compelling argument for us all being one.

    And this also gives me a new appreciation for Paul making the statement that Adam and Eve are the parents of everyone. This certainly had to be a revolutionary argument in his day. I could imagine coming across a civilization that is, apparently, nothing like theirs and feeling that they *had* to come from elsewhere since they are so dissimilar. But then again they had Babel….

    But, clearly Jesus is not the biological father of anyone, or certainly not of the nations. And yet Paul makes the statements that we are one in Christ. As too, Paul makes all nations one, in Adam. I don’t find it compelling to believe that for Adam it had to be physical descent and for Jesus it did not.

    Adam and Eve were the first to sin, in Paul’s view, and this sinning became part of all humanity (without physical descent) in the same way that Jesus resurrection affords salvation, without physical descent.

  • Susan N.

    I am looking forward to the upcoming discussion on the theological implications of the question of Adam… I did order the book and have received the shipment — haven’t had time to begin reading yet. Will bump it up on the priority list!

    Acts 17 is one of my favorite scripture passages (actually, all of Acts is pretty awesome from beginning to end!) I can really feel the passion that Paul has for God, and for people; and also for the lostness of the Gentiles to whom Paul preached — despite all their intellectual reasoning. I just love Paul’s story. Former Pharisee/Christian-hater, Chief among sinners, “redirected” by a powerful encounter with Christ to preach the gospel. And what a preacher he was; so passionate about the message, eloquent, determined, and motivated by love for people — ALL people, as you said regarding the unity of humanity. “We’re all in the same boat…” How true.

  • Scot McKnight

    Normbv, it is both unfair and inaccurate for you to say “one blood” without also stating that is a minority textual variant. All your discussion of blood, to me, is unimportant because the word in Acts 17 is not blood (in the original).

    Acts 17:26 reads, literally now, He [God] made from one [insert human, Adam, person] all nations of men.”

    The emphasis is the “oneness” of humanity.

    Tom Wright’s new translation as “made from one stock.” NIV 2011: “from one man.” ESV: “from one man.”

  • normbv

    Scott, I think you missed my point. I’m not arguing against the commonality of all humanity that Paul is stating here, as it’s clear that one blood infers as much. What I’m pointing out is that you cannot read into it a presupposition that He was inferring Adam as the originator of that one blood. Now it could be inferred but one would have to be absolutely sure that was Paul’s mindset in making such an inference.

    Other evidence in the totality of scripture and other Jewish literature and Paul’s application of Adam as a priestly representative to humanity does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Jews considered him the blood progenitor of all humanity. Where did Cain’s wife and the ones he feared come from for just a starter? I understand the propensity to apply Adam as the first among humans but that is really not a Jewish position as far as I can determine. Feel free to disagree but I’m very comfortable with this position.

    Wright’s idea of one stock can also work but again it doesn’t mean from Adam. It simply means that all humanity Jew and Gentile are the same and nothing more to be accurate. By the way are you stating that the Greek word that Young’s Literal translates as “blood” is not the same word that is used for “blood” in many other instances in the NT?

  • Joe Canner

    If Paul’s intention in Acts 17 was to convince the Greeks that they were no different from the Jews or the “barbarians” there is certainly nothing in science to contradict him, regardless of what he was trying to say about Adam. Genomic studies show that there is much more genetic variation within races than there is between races.

  • Scot McKnight

    Normbv, what I’m saying is that the word “blood” is not in the original text of Acts 17:26.

  • EricW

    Also, Ψ (044) reads “mouth” (στόματος) instead of “blood” (αίματος) in Acts 17:26. Now, that would be physiologically interesting to explain. 😮

  • Rodney


    “I find arguments based on Paul’s Christology and his understanding of the unity of humanity more persuasive.”

    Also, Paul’s pneumatology. He sees the Spirit of Christ as the end-of-the-world gift that unifies the nations/ethnic groups. In other words, it’s not simply “protology” (as you seem to be suggesting), it’s also eschatology that explains Paul’s ideas about the unity of humanity.

  • rjs


    You’re right – and I think Dr. Collins puts a little more emphasis on that in the book than I have in this short summary. But the “historicity” aspect is the main focus of the book- not the eschatological aspect (not surprising given the title).

  • dopderbeck

    I do find the theological point of the unity of humanity very compelling here. Historically, when “pre-Adamite” and other theories existed in the Church, they often justified racism (see David Livingstone’s “Adam’s Ancestors.”)

    But I don’t think this (or the reference to Acts 17:26) requires a strictly “concordist” reading with respect to the natural sciences. Note a parallel in Hebrews 11:12, which refers to Abraham as the founder of Israel: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

    Well, there were other people alive at the time of Abraham whose genes have been passed along and intermingled into the genes of the Jews, including some non-Jews who are even listed in the geneologies of Jesus! Clearly, neither modern physical anthropology nor modern genetic sciences are in view in any of these Biblical texts. At the same time, nothing in physical anthropology or genetics compels us to reject the claim in Hebrews 11:12 that all of Israel derives from Abraham.

    I’ve come to the same sort of position about Adam. Who exactly Adam was, or how exactly all the nations of the earth derive from him, we don’t know. It’s a covenantal and somewhat mystical story rather than one that is located in skeletal remains and genetic maps.

  • Robert

    Paul didn’t write Acts; wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that 17:26 represents Luke’s representation of the guy?

    Regardless of whether or not there was a historical Adam, it remains true that we’re all descended from the same little group of original humans; the evidence of mitochondrial DNA is that we all share a common female ancestor about 200 000 years ago. So regardless of Paul’s lack of knowledge of human prehistory, his insight remains valid!

  • normbv


    Expanding on your Abraham and Israel as descendants theme, Paul clarifies whom Genesis was discussing in regards to the offspring of Abraham from his point of view.

    Rom 9:6 … For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] 8 In other words, it is not the children BY PHYSICAL DESCENT WHO ARE GOD’S CHILDREN, but it is the CHILDREN OF THE PROMISE who are regarded AS ABRAHAM’S OFFSPRING.

    Clearly Paul sees the lineage from a covenant viewpoint and not a biological one as the important factor in determining who True Israel was.

    It appears to be the same concerning Adam; Paul in Rom 5-8 sets the stage for those under Law (Israel) to have their bondage removed covenantaly through Christ the Last Adam. It’s obviously a Jewish discussion because it extensively is about how to remove the burden of the Law through Christ.

    Rom 7:9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
    6 But now, by dying (through Baptism with Christ) to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

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

    Paul is not fully addressing all of humanity (Jew and Gentile) in Rom 5-8 when it comes to them having the Law as it was a Jewish acquisition from Adam and then more extensively through Moses and the written Law(Rom 5:20). The Law as a Covenant derivative stemming from its origins in the Garden with Adam is the reason Adam must be replaced as the covenant head of all of faithful humanity. Adam represented Israel as the called Priest to the Nations and there was a failure on his and Israel’s upholding that calling. It required a new Covenant Priest and thus the reason Christ is presented by Paul as a type of Adam (Rom 5:14) and is called the last Adam.

    1 Cor 15:21 For since death (Spiritual) came through a man, the resurrection of the dead (spiritualy) comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die (spiritualy), so in Christ all will be made alive (spiritualy). … 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.

    Col 2: 13 When you were dead (spiritually) in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you (spiritually) alive with Christ

  • PaulE

    dopderbeck #13 – I’ve considered a similar line of thought stemming out of Genesis 6:1-4. Perhaps other “people” contributed genetically to the line of Adam, but that all who live are now descended from Adam?

    There is simply a lot of strange stuff in the opening chapters of Genesis. Why is Cain afraid someone will find him and kill him? Where does Cain’s wife come from? Who are these Nephilim who are on the earth before and seemingly after the flood but who do not seem to be on the ark?

  • P.

    Robert at #14 is right in that we do all descend from the same female. So, shouldn’t these comments be about the historical Eve (or did Adam really do it all himself?)?

  • EricW

    P. @17:

    Robert at #14 is right in that we do all descend from the same female.

    Not so quick. That’s one of the fallacies commonly held about the significance of Mitochondrial Eve.

    Common fallacies

    Not the only woman

    One of the misconceptions of mitochondrial Eve is that since all women alive today descended in a direct unbroken female line from her that she was the only woman alive at the time.[10][11] Nuclear DNA studies indicate that the size of the ancient human population never dropped below tens of thousands. There may be many other women around at Eve’s time with descendants alive today, but sometime in the past, those lines of descent included at least one male, who do not pass on their mother’s mitochondrial DNA, thereby breaking the line of descent. By contrast, Eve’s lines of descent to each person alive today includes precisely one purely matrilineal line.[10]

    Not a contemporary of “Adam”

    Sometimes mitochondrial Eve is assumed to have lived at the same time as Y-chromosomal Adam, perhaps even meeting and mating with him. Like mitochondrial “Eve”, Y-chromosomal “Adam” probably lived in Africa; however, this “Eve” lived much earlier than this “Adam” – perhaps some 50,000 to 80,000 years earlier.[12]

    Not the most recent ancestor shared by all humans

    Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent common matrilineal ancestor, not the most recent common ancestor (MRCA). Since the mtDNA is inherited maternally and recombination is either rare or absent, it is relatively easy to track the ancestry of the lineages back to a MRCA; however this MRCA is valid only when discussing mitochondrial DNA. An approximate sequence from newest to oldest can list various important points in the ancestry of modern human populations:

    * The Human MRCA. All humans alive today share a surprisingly recent common ancestor, perhaps even within the last 5,000 years, even for people born on different continents.[13]
    * The Identical ancestors point. Just a few thousand years before the most recent single ancestor shared by all living humans was the time at which all humans who were then alive either left no descendants alive today or were common ancestors to all humans alive today. In other words, “each present-day human has exactly the same set of genealogical ancestors” alive at the “Identical ancestors point” in time. This is far more recent than Mitochondrial Eve.[13]
    * “Y-Chromosomal Adam”, the most recent male-line common ancestor of all living men, was much more recent than Mitochondrial Eve, but is also likely to have been long before the Identical ancestors point.
    * Mitochondrial Eve, the most recent female-line common ancestor of all living people.

  • Patrick


    The questions about Cain’s fear and the wife in the “land of Nod” lead me to believe what John Walton suggested might be at least a reasonable guess.

    The functionality of the creation narrative from his view may be seen as evolution from say neanderthal( he just suggested this could be an explanation) to homo sapien and while the first couple may be the first, many others came along in close proximity.

    Those nephilim are seen by most of we modernists(Jews and Christians) as really, nothing special. However, those bad boys play a huge role in OT theology from Gen 3:15 all the way up until David and Goliath’s confrontation.

    Goliath and his brothers appear to be the end line for nephilim in the massoretic text.

  • P.

    Eric – very interesting! I had heard that there were other people around at the time of Mit. Eve. My point was actually that Christians in this conversation discuss Adam and forget that he didn’t reproduce all by himself. You can’t have Adam without Eve. But like I said, interesting points. I’ve always been fascinated with genetics.

  • PaulE

    Thanks Patrick. I was able to find a brief synopsis of Walton’s thoughts. It’s all interesting food for thought – and that was the point of my last post. I’m not sure what conclusions I really want to draw from the verses I mentioned – I want to be leery of trying to read in them more than they were meant to say – but I want to consider the full range of beliefs possible while being faithful to the Scriptures.

  • In #19 Patrick wrote: “The functionality of the creation narrative from his view may be seen as evolution from say neanderthal( he just suggested this could be an explanation) to homo sapien…”

    To be more accurate, as RJS wrote, evidence exists that one group of H. sapiens *interbred* with H. neanderthalensis, and likewise another group (possibly a subset of the first) of H. sapiens *interbred* again with another group (the so called “Denisovans”). This brings up sticky issues about the “unity” of humanity. Are Neanderthals and Denisovans to be included in this union.

    Even trickier is the research reported this week. Summarily: statistical analysis on DNA of certain tribes in central Africa indicate that their ancestors, many tens of thousands of years ago, interbred with an even older form of “human”, perhaps one which originated 700,000 years earlier. Now, this research will go through the normal vetting process of science and it may be proved wrong, but in light of what has been discovered about Neanderthals and Denisovans then having other similar events doesn’t sound far fetched at all.

    It should be noted here that the common conception that different species of animals can’t interbred and have fertile offspring is wrong. Closely related animals can interbreed and create fertile offspring (e.g. polar bears and grizzlies, some bird species, some fish species.)

    So the question science raises is this: what is the “unity of humanity”? Every animal that has even been in our genus?

    I for one do not think that the standard Christian fundamentalist/evangelical interpretation of Pauline doctrines of the “first Adam” can ever be reconciled with what we now know about life on this planet, and of human evolution. If Paul really believed that there was literally a single human at the beginning of creation then Paul was just wrong.

    This of course is the reason that people like Al Mohler are so adamant about Adam.

    OTOH, if Paul only used “Adam” as a metaphor then the problem lessens (though it doesn’t go away.) However, so many of the more (so-called) conservative self-declared Christians in the US are seriously averse to seeing portions of the Bible as being metaphor that I wonder if such a position will ever take root.