The attempt at an alliterative title hopefully will not obscure what this post is about, which is an attempt to clarify my thinking about Adam in Paul’s letters. This is a follow-up to my earlier post, in which I explained some of the reasons for concluding that Jesus and Paul were not literalists, which in turn emerged from the comment thread on an earlier post about evolution.
In saying that Paul was not a literalist with respect to the Adam story, that doesn’t mean that Paul necessarily thought of Adam as a purely literary figure.
If we think by way of comparison about Paul’s use of the term “heart,” he clearly regards it as the seat of human thought. In adopting this view, he was following Aristotle, among others. Paul would have assumed such language to be literally factual, just as his contemporaries did. But he is not emphasizing its factuality over against other viewpoint, and certainly not arguing against the much later discoveries of science regarding the function of the heart and brain.
Most readers of Paul do not feel bound to embrace what Paul assumed regarding the heart, adopting a stance contrary to the abundance of evidence which we have at our disposal but Paul did not. This is presumably because Paul himself is not emphasizing the importance of taking the terminology of “heart” literally. He is using the term, and assuming it is literal. But his point lies elsewhere, in that which the term denotes, namely activities of thought, emotion, reasoning and judgment.
And so, if we turn back to the figure of Adam, there is no reason to think that Paul would not have assumed the stories about Adam to be factual. He most likely did. But having already shown that no one feels bound to believe, contrary to evidence, what Paul assumed in his own time without that evidence available to him, the question becomes whether the case of Adam is different, and if so, why.
In my earlier post, I showed that in Romans 5, Paul was quite happy to contradict the story in Genesis 3 when it suited his point (and he contradicts Genesis 17 even more radically elsewhere). The symbolism of contrasting the one man Jesus with the one man Adam was more important to him than the literal details of the Genesis story. And when he contrasts Adam and Christ, he uses language that makes absolutely clear (to anyone with basic reading comprehension skills and a dose of common sense) that he is dealing in metaphor. He talks about human beings being “in Adam” and “in Christ.” Neither of those phrases can be taken literally without arriving at nonsensical conclusions.
Yet for some reason there are those who not only ignore such clues within the text, but assume that their own twisted understanding of Paul’s letters is the only natural one! I recently had someone insist that it is obvious that Paul was a literalist, if you just read him within the framework of his worldview. This is extremely ironic. The truth is that knowledge of Paul’s worldview, knowledge of ancient approaches to interpreting the Bible, knowledge of the way Paul treats texts, and close attention to the details of his argument, in fact prove the opposite, and show that Paul’s concern was with the symbolism of the text, not its factuality or otherwise – whatever he may have assumed about the latter.