The Historical Adam

The Historical Adam September 23, 2015

Books & Culture recently hosted a symposium on the “historical [or not] Adam,” organized by Karl Giberson and John Wilson. Eight participants posted brief essays on the subject, followed by a round of responses. Here are some highlights from each:

Peter Enns, Eastern University: “the modern study of the ancient world of the Bible has made a ‘historical Adam’ intellectually implausible. Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do. Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch—an understandable conclusion. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” but not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious—and often political—beliefs of the people of their own time … Evangelicals tend to focus on protecting the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.”

Karl Giberson, Stonehill College: “Most arguments for the historicity of Adam are little more than wishful thinking… For centuries we understood ourselves as fallen, sinful creatures—an understanding that served as a caution by illuminating our dark behaviors. We still find ourselves in need of salvation, however, and yet strangely lost in our search for solutions. The original sinner has indeed gone extinct, but he didn’t take original sin with him.”

Denis Lamoureux, St. Joseph’s College: “I view Adam as an incidental ancient vessel that delivers inerrant spiritual truths regarding men and women. Genesis 2 reveals that the Lord God created us; we are not a mistake or fluke of nature. This chapter also discloses that our Creator sets boundaries for us and that we are accountable before him. Breaking God’s commandments leads to divine judgment and we will face the consequences for transgressing his word.”

Hans Madueme, Covenant College: “If scientific plausibility should guide the expectations we bring to Scripture, then why would we be Christians? Why would we believe that the Son of God became a man? That he died and rose again after three days? That he ascended into heaven? These fundamental Christian beliefs contradict everything we know from mainstream science. If we can no longer believe Adam was historical, then why should we believe in the resurrection? …Or, to flip the script, if we believe the resurrection, then a historical Adam is no biggie.”

Harry “Hal” Lee Poe, Union University: “Under an evolutionary model, we may say that we have common ancestors who lived 40,000 years ago, 400,000 years ago and 4,000,000 years ago. What that model cannot tell us is when our ancestors became humans. … If Paul’s teachings are false, then the Bible is not true and has no authority. This Enlightenment trail of logical dominoes now affirms a non-biblical basis for biblical authority. The biblical basis for biblical authority declared by God to Moses and affirmed throughout the New Testament is that the Scriptures have been fulfilled.”

John Schneider, Grand Valley State University: “sincere Christians are fighting to the death to make embarrassing falsehoods fundamental to Christian faith! What could be better for atheists, or worse for the Christian cause? The irony is that it is that literal Adam and Eve are discrediting the Bible and causing faith to be undermined. It is time for Christian leaders to take a breath, to stop this misguided, self-destructive—and faith-destructive—behavior, and to listen to the wisest and best scholars in their midst (the ones they haven’t fired yet, or driven off!).”

William VanDoodewaard, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary: “For millennia, the mainstream of the church has understood this: Genesis reveals an awe-inspiring mystery. All creation—from matter and time, light and darkness, stars and kinds (not equated with modern species) of creature and plant—was created distinct, mature, and productive, with order and inter-relationship, in one week prefaced by nothing but God’s existence. The Trinity acted in a sudden, cosmic event revealing his wisdom, power, and delight. In this context, God formed the image-bearer, Adam, whose humanity Christ would in time take to himself. Shaping Adam from the dust of the earth, God breathed into him the breath of life, so that he became a living being. Eve was likewise intimately created, that same day, from Adam’s rib. The divine work of the creation week culminated in this mature, sin-free couple, created to enjoy communion with God, happiness of the proto-typical marriage, be fruitful, multiply, and rejoice in a splendid creation. Here is the beginning of humanity, the beginning of our history.”

John H. Walton, Wheaton College: “We can contend that Adam and Eve are theologically and historically significant even if they were not the first humans. We can contend that Adam and Eve are appropriately positioned as fountainheads of humanity even if we are not all their direct biological descendants. We can contend that humanity has a distinct place in the created order, unique among species, even if Adam and Eve are not de novo creations.”

Next week, I’ll discuss the second round of the symposium and offer some analysis.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    The thing is, Adam isn’t just mentioned in Gen 2-3, but also in Luke 3:38. If you deny the inerrancy of Luke, then you might as well toss out the inerrancy of the whole NT, and at that point what do you have left at all of the Christian faith except mere wishful thinking?

    I do not feel at liberty to deny the historicity of Adam, but WHEN he and Eve lived is certainly an open question. I am quite prepared to accept a date in the hundreds of thousands of years ago, and I would certainly prefer to accept that early date (which is much earlier than most Christians have traditionally thought) than to have to give up the belief that Adam was a real human who actually lived.

    The other thing that I think could legitimately be put on the table is the notion that Adam and Eve were the ONLY humans that God created. They are the only ones mentioned in the Bible, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This can be addressed by a simple question: Who were the wives for the sons of Adam and Eve? Their sisters?? REALLY???? God said that His creation was “good”; how good can it be if incest was built into the plan as an absolute and unavoidable necessity right at the beginning? Might it not make more sense to assume that God did create other humans as well to assure that there was a diverse gene pool and mating opportunities for the next generation, but that He just didn’t tell us about them? And as for any doctrinal implications about all of humanity descending from Adam, if this initial population were not too large, then just a few generations of interbreeding would have been sufficient to assure that Adam’s DNA was ubiquitous in its distribution. The family tree of all of us has so many branches working backward that it is very reasonable to assume that every single one of us does indeed have Adam at the extreme end of one of those branches.

    As to HOW they were created, I believe that God can create anything out of anything, or out of nothing at all. It is certainly within His capabilities to create humans out of dust, clay, bone, or nothing. It is certainly also within His capability to create a real human in His image out of a pre-human hominid ape. I am not at all sure that there is any real difference between these from God’s perspective. I do believe that it is beyond the capability of a pre-human hominid ape to create itself into a human in God’s image. As for the Biblical account, it is clear that Gen 2:7 and 3:19 are meant to be bookends to the story of humankind’s creation. Ask any scientist if, ultimately, we are all made out of the dust of ancient exploded supernovae, and every single one will answer affirmatively. Thus, at a very deep level these verses are PROFOUNDLY TRUE. Just focusing on their surface detail in a simplistic and literalistic way totally misses this.

  • Zaoldyeck

    “I do not feel at liberty to deny the historicity of Adam, but WHEN he and Eve lived is certainly an open question. I am quite prepared to accept a date in the hundreds of thousands of years ago, and I would certainly prefer to accept that early date (which is much earlier than most Christians have traditionally thought) than to have to give up the belief that Adam was a real human who actually lived.”

    There are still some fairly large scientific problems involved with this view if you require that “Adam and Eve knew each other”, that is, “they lived at roughly the same time period”, but also, you’re into some even more weird ‘theological grounds’ when you consider that ‘Adam’ likely wasn’t a member of what we consider our species. A man named Albert Perry when his DNA was sequenced happened to have a very old line of Y-chromosomal DNA. So old, in fact, that his DNA must have diverged from the human population *before* we ever find the first anatomical humans (c~ 200-250 thousand years ago)

    So not only did Adam and Eve never meet each other, but Adam apparently was either a fairly recent modern human, or a really REALLY old member of another hominid species.

    This isn’t just a pedagogical detail though, the reason why we can suddenly go “oh, cool, looks like our common ancestor wasn’t even necessarily our species” is related to what it means for a population to ‘evolve’, and even with the whole messiness actually involved with the word ‘species’.

    Populations tend to stop breeding together before they are incapable of breeding. It could be due to anything from geography, to sexual selection, to whatever, the physical *ability* to reproduce requires genetic drift to break, while things like ‘geography changes’ can happen in a single night, let alone years.

    So in a population which is genetically isolated from another one, the two populations will slowly, over time, lose the ability to make viable offspring with each other. The timescale by which it becomes ‘fundamentally impossible’ I’ve heard referenced at ~2 million years, but I’m sure that’s a somewhat loose number as it’s kinda a probability game in any case.

    Humans species like Homo erectus or Neanderthals didn’t have nearly that long a stretch of total isolation, so in principle, it seems possible for us to have mated with them.

    And if we could have mated with other species that had major divergences from us earlier in history, we’d find that some humans would have rare DNA segments shared by very few people, but highly present in older different lines of hominids. (Like Albert Perry’s DNA being shared by Denisova)

    So then what does it mean for a god who created a world where humans didn’t in any sense just magically ‘appear’ from a small group, but rather, might be composite of many different early hominid species from a widely diverse giant family? Early hominids who made incredible stone tools, spears, used ‘symbols’ and more… what’s so special about us?

    I mean, we’ve found evidence Neanderthals even provided ritual-ish burials, at that point, it seems really hard to separate them from us.

    So god really liked Homo sapiens coming out of Africa, and because of it, decided that Neanderthals and Erectus became suddenly irrelevant? That they needed to die off (and never be mentioned of again until people started digging up ancient bones?)

    Why ‘humans’? The thing about evolution here is that we really really don’t seem very special even compared to the other ‘pre-human hominid apes’. Neanderthals co-existed with us. Erectus co-existed with us. Denisova co-existed with us. floresiensis co-existed with us. But they all deserved extinction? If Adam wasn’t even a member of our species, does that mean Adam’s entire species deserved extinction?

    And we’re the ones who ‘deserve’ to replace him?

    I’ve got a hard time figuring out how the story of ‘a god intervened in the process of human evolution’ ever avoids saying really weird things about the ‘character of a god’ who would design such a very strange system.

    Even without the ‘literalistic’ interpretation, the words seem to omit the fairly glaring big details involved with the processes. A ‘historical adam’ really would be a very difficult thing to find any place at all to fit into history.

  • stefanstackhouse

    You know, I am aware of the data to which you refer. These technologies are quite new, and the inferences which have been made from them are also quite new. These are interesting, but the likelihood of further discoveries and of revisions to the existing line of scientific thinking is quite high. This is far from being “settled science” – and if one is familiar with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, then one will know that there really isn’t such a thing.

    What I think we can reasonably rely upon at this point is the assumption that homo sapiens as a distinct species goes back well in excess of 100 thousand years (and not just a few thousand), that there probably was at least a small population of us from the start of our natural history as a distinct species, and there must have been thorough interbreeding and mixing of the gene pool of this initial small population. There does appear to be sufficient empirical evidence to falsify any hypotheses to the contrary of these assumptions. My post is consistent with these assumptions.

  • rationalobservations?

    Off of this topic.

    I followed your rational interaction with the irrational Dave Armstrong.

    Careful when you back Dave Armstrong into a corner of his own making and from which he cannot escape through means of logical and evidence based argument.
    He merely banishes you from his petty little domain.

    I personally see that as a badge of honour and symbol of victory, however.
    Keep up the good work of confounding those in thrall to businesses, cults and sects of religion.

  • Andrew Dowling

    That’s a rather shaky faith you have there . . .