Who Needs a Historical Prometheus…uh, I mean Adam?

A couple of weeks ago at Resurrecting Raleigh, David Williams posted on why he doesn’t need Adam to be historical. He begins–and what could be more obvious–by looking at a recent biography on Robert Oppenheimer (physicist working on the Manhattan Project) in which he is compared to Prometheus, the rebellious god who stole fire from Zeus.

That gets Williams thinking: the comparison of Oppenheimer to Prometheus is not diminished by virtue of the fact that Prometheus is not a historical figure (unless there are some “historical Prometheus” hold outs among us). If that’s the case, maybe this is helpful angle from which to look at Paul’s comparison of Adam and Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

As Williams correctly points out, even for Paul the comparison of Adam and Jesus isn’t perfect. As with all comparisons, some things are left hanging, unaddressed; some things don’t fit.

Here is the heart of it:

The analogy isn’t perfect.  Whereas Adam’s action (like Prometheus’s) was catastrophic, Jesus’s action was, to borrow Tolkien’s word, eucatastrophic.  Whereas Adam’s was an act of disobedience, Jesus’s action was one of obedience.  Whereas Adam’s action was a betrayal of God, Jesus’s action was a gift of God.  Whereas Adam’s action brought about a regime of death, Jesus’s action brought about the victory of life.  Jesus, in other words, is like Adam turned right-side-up.

The more I look at this passage, the less I see how it makes a lick of difference to the force of Paul’s argument whether Adam is a historical figure or not.  To my mind, the fundamental analogy still holds even if we were to add one more disanalogous element to those we have already rehearsed: whereas Adam was a fictional character of a mythic past, Jesus was for Paul a historical figure of recent memory. No matter. The comparison still holds. Jesus is, in some important ways, like Adam, just as He is said elsewhere in the New Testament to be like Moses, like Jonah, like Jeremiah,  like Elijah, like a lamb, like a vine, like a door, like a shepherd, and like dozens of other things.

I like that word “eucatastrophic.”

Anyway, Williams ends by saying that those Christian traditions that need an historical Adam,

are all varieties of Christian faith, not Christianity per se.  There have always been within the Christian tradition (better?) alternatives to these particular theological stances, some of which do not logically depend upon the historicity of the Adam story.  If the evidence should continue to mount against the historicity of Adam, the choice before us should not be whether we will be Christians or not, but whether we will be these sorts of Christians or those sorts of Christians.  Christianity itself is simply not at stake.

Some provocative thoughts there. If you want to engage Williams, you really need to go to his blog. I can’t answer for him, and if I try I might get it wrong. Just two suggestions: (1) Play nice, and (2) Don’t just quote Bible passages at him; he’s probably seen them already.

  • Stephen

    Ummm, yeah…apparently you and David don’t realize that we just don’t compare biblical materials with Greco-Roman “pagan” myths. It’s just not done…so your whole argument is worthless. The only people who make those comparison are out-of-date scholars who derive all of Christianity from pagan mystery religions, and they have all been decisively and forever refuted by the smartest scholars in the world.

    Ok, sorry, I’ll stop regurgitating “convincing” and “sophisticated” evangelical apologetics tropes now…

    Interesting thoughts.

    • http://resurrectingraleigh.wordpress.com/ David

      Hi Stephen, I think you missed the point of my post. Basically I was comparing at the formal features of Bird and Sherwin’s comparison of Oppenheimer (a figure of recent historical memory) with Prometheus (a figure of the mythic past) to Paul’s comparison of Jesus (who was for Paul a figure of recent historical memory) with Adam ( a figure of the mythic past). My argument has to do with the logic of Paul’s argument and comparison, not with an attempt to liken Jesus to Greco-Roman mythological figures.
      Real apologists actually pay attention to the arguments they purport to engage with.

      • peteenns

        David, I think Stephen was kidding….. In fact I know he was.

    • http://existingbetween.wordpress.com/ Joy F

      Like C. S. Lewis? But wait – he’s a special category……so he was allowed to mix Greek myth, Fairy Tales and Muslim fable together and make a Evangelical endorsed fantasy out of it because he was before all the “rules” went into place?

      • Beau Quilter

        No, C.S. Lewis was allowed to mix Greek myth, Fairy Tales and Muslim fable together into rather obvious, unsubtle, and uncreative allegory because England was a free country and he was a hack writer of poorly conceived children’s literature. J.R.R. Tolkien disliked Narnia, not because it was bad theology, but because it was bad literature.

  • Paul D.

    Well, technically, we should be comparing Prometheus with the snake. :) The two stories are remarkably similar and profound in what they say about the gods and humanity.

  • Jon Hughes

    This is a slippery slope, folks…

    Perhaps the Devil isn’t a historical being either (i.e. literally real)? Perhaps we can engage in a similar ‘chronological snobbery’ with the Devil as we do with Adam by maintaining that, while Jesus and Paul believed in a historical, i.e. literally real being called the Devil, we smug ones know better??

    Of course, if the Devil *is* real, he’s presumably blinding the minds of multitudes of believers to the ‘glorious truths’ of evolutionary processes – i.e. that we don’t all come from Adam (as he never existed); that there was in fact no original sin and, therefore, no need of a substitutionary atonement on behalf of Adam’s fallen race. If only those backwoods fundamentalists could be set free from the Devil’s snares, and see that they can’t trust their Bibles after all. Blessed uncertainty! Blessed ambiguity!!

    If you guys are right, this is not the kind of truth that sets you free.

    • peteenns

      Eh, maybe. Go ask Williams on his site what he thinks.

    • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

      This is such a false, mendacious strawman argument. I can very easily say that the blasphemous denial of the testimony of God’s own creation in favor of a human interpretation of scriptures is clearly the world of the Devil blinding the minds of the multitudes of believers. And I’d even have proof in the fruit produced by those who prefer human understanding to God’s own creation.

  • Alex

    While I don’t believe in a historical Adam either, I do wonder what to make of the detailed lineage spelled out in the old testament that traces Adam to Jesus.

  • Alex

    Correction: That geneology is found in Luke.

    • Beau Quilter

      And the contradictory genealogy is found in Matthew.

  • Bryan

    Interesting argument. I was just thinking recently on this issue as I was reading up on a bit of historical criticism in which evangelicals have taken the whole kit-and-kaboodle and demonized it by placing it in that awful ‘other’ category. Genesis came to mind as I was reading about foundationalism and Descartes attempt to secure an unassailable foundation in tackling the issue of infinite regression. I thought, “Don’t evangelicals demand a foundation from this text? Isn’t uncertainty not an option?” This would seem to be ironic due to the fact that historical criticism is scrutinized for having been the offspring of the enlightenment but this Cartesian thought seems to have seeped into the theological spectrum but isn’t thrown out in its entirety. Perhaps I’m off here but it would appear that Christianity has been co-opted by the enlightenment again.

  • T’sinadree

    Dr. Enns,

    I apologize for posting off-topic, but since I couldn’t find your e-mail address this is the only place I know where to ask my question. I was just wondering if you could recommend a New Testament equivalent to The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, November 2011) by Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine. Basically, I’m looking for a balanced, succinct, and readable introduction to reading the New Testament rooted in the broader historical-critical academic conversation, while also helping readers see the implications of that conversation for understanding what the New Testament means.

    I was also wondering if you’re familiar with the work of Donald Hagner. He has a New Testament introduction coming out which seems to look at both historical and theological perspectives from an evenhanded evangelical perspective. However, since I’m unfamiliar with him, I didn’t know whether it was worth picking up.

    • Ryan

      I don’t know what Pete makes of it, but there’s “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament”, edited by Carson and Beale.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    I have always found the idea that the passages about Jesus and Adam must mean Adam was an actual person wildly unconvincing. I don’t subscribe to a literal reading of the creation stories at all, but I have something of a fixation with them nonetheless. And when I discuss them, I rarely stop to qualify that I view Adam primarily as a character. I just talk about Adam. In fact, you can almost certainly find something I wrote about the creation stories where I just talk about “Adam this and Adam did that” and try to argue that I believed Adam was a historical person. And you would be wrong. Which is why pointing to the New Testament references to Adam is fantastically weak argument for his historical existence.

  • Brooke

    I absolutely agree with this reasoning, and I’ve been thinking about it since I found your blog.

    My husband describes a poor soul we know as a sort of “King Midas in reverse,” because people will get the analogy, not because he thinks the story is true. And (just between me and you) I remember my mom saying, “Like Remus and Romulus” when I told her about the unconventional posture in which I used to nurse my baby. Please, no google images.

    Along the same lines, I’ve been wondering about Jonah. Parts of his story seem like a folk tale. My church thinks that Christ’s mention of the story proves its historicity. They worry about the risk of the the slippery slope.

  • Matt

    More people have hurt themselves worrying about the slippery slope than those who have actually slipped on the slippery slope.

    • Peter

      Maybe we should all slip to the bottom of the slippery slope – then it wouldn’t be slippery any more!!

  • James

    We live and move and have our being on the slippery slope, so let’s stop using it as a conversation stopper. I think Paul thought Adam was historical, according to his view of reality, and the Gospel writers too. That’s one reason they would bother writing a geneology. We have the baggage of modernity (among other things) to sift through in order to arrive at our view of reality–a slippery slope to be sure. Good thing God knows how to rescue us from dangerous situations.

  • David

    To those who were so offended as to call this a Satanic-inspired argument, can I ask…does it matter if Adam is historical or not?

    Does it matter if Adam is representative of early humans, was a literal person representative of a larger body, or was as the text presents him?

    I ask again, does it really matter?

    If Jesus really, truly rose from the dead, is the Gospel destroyed if or when we discover that humans evolved? Or that Adam wasn’t literal? Or something else?

    We need to seriously rethink the things we’re willing to go to war for.

  • http://www.wiics.org John W. Morehead

    I’m glad to see your interest in the term “eucatastrophic.” As you mention, this term is taken from Tolkien who spoke of the eucatastrophe, and from which other writers have argued that there is a strong place for myth for Christians, including Evangelicals. This includes recognizing that human beings are homo narrans and homo fantasia, storytelling and fantasy enjoying creatures, who have drawn upon myth in religion for as long as homo sapiens has been sitting around the fireside. There are also Evangelicals calling for the place of myth within fresh perspectives in our theologies and new apologetics that engage late modernity and post-modernity. I have drawn upon these myself in various contexts in print and pixels. For those interested in references and examples please get in touch. I’d love to see you do a further post on myth and the eucatastrophic, Pete.

  • http://christianitytomorrowblog.wordpress.com/ Lyric

    Rather, I would ask, who needs Adam to be a myth? Why do the Christians of our age feel compelled to concede history to the secular storytellers? Before we try so hard to de-mythologize our faith, perhaps we should be absolutely certain that – to borrow the biblical language – Darwin was indeed there when God laid the foundations of the earth. Perhaps we should give Paul and Moses the benefit of a doubt before we grant that benefit to the post-modern, post-Christian university scholar.

    • Peter

      I for one don’t ‘need’ Adam to be a myth. But then I don’t need Adam to be a historical figure either. What I need to do is with common sense and humility determine the most likely meaning of the text that I have before me. Personally Genesis 1-3 reads more like narrative that draws on universal types and imagery than on a specific set of historical facts. But that’s just me :)

    • Calvin Miller

      Paul and Moses weren’t there either, but you know what? We still gave them the benefit of the doubt. It’s been over a century and a half since Darwin presented his evidence – how long do we need to wait before it’s “trying too hard”?


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