Neglected Factors in the Historical Adam and Eve Debate

Neglected Factors in the Historical Adam and Eve Debate September 9, 2015

(Or, Putting the Historical Cart Before the Etiological Horse)

Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Lately, when I’ve come across Christian defenses of the historicity of an actual Adam and Eve, a certain analogy has come to mind—perhaps not an obvious one, but an instructive one nonetheless, in my mind.

Since antiquity, it’s been suspected that certain popular Christian texts—including some of those in the New Testament itself—were not written by the authors that they claim to be written by, but were actually forged in their names. (The technical adjective used to describe these forged texts is “pseudepigraphical.”)

For today’s Biblical scholars, that the New Testament does indeed contain some forged writings is considered all but a conclusive fact.

However, this is still strongly resisted by ecclesiastical authorities, layman defenders of the faith, and conservative scholars.

While some simply flat out deny that these texts could have been written by someone other than who they claim to be written by, others acknowledge the difficulties in maintaining their traditional authorship; thus they often defer to the (purported) notion that it was accepted practice in antiquity for the disciples of a revered teacher to compose a text that they would portray as having emanated from the teacher’s own hand—expressing their teachings (or ideas that they just thought that the teacher might agree with) and then “signing” it in their name, even if the teacher had actual no input here; or even if the teacher had already died.

Now, to be sure, establishing the inauthenticity of claimed authorship is no easy task, and involves many disputed elements and arguments. However, one crucial argument in favor of forgeries in the New Testament is often overlooked by defenders of their traditional authorship: the likelihood of a particular writing being forged is increased simply by the fact that we might expect, beforehand, for a collection of documents like the New Testament itself—containing, as it does, many texts ascribed to a multitude of different authors—to contain forged writings, if only because of the general abundance of forgery in the ancient world itself.¹

Of course, this observation works in tandem with more specific suspicions about particular documents. To this end, we should also note that the suspicion of forgery is little different for secular documents than it is for writings in the New Testament. If texts contain material that’s anachronistic to the claimed author’s time; if they diverge sharply (stylistically; linguistically, in terms of dialect, etc.) from what are widely held to be authentic writings of the same author; or if they’re otherwise generally implausible based on the ideological “profile” of the author that we’ve been able to construct, these are all indicators that a writing may be forged.

There are even entire genres of texts that almost exclusively consist of forgeries or otherwise fictional ascribed authorship—like so-called “testamentary literature,” wherein a revered figure delivers some last teachings before his or her imminent death. (For a famous Jewish/Christian example of this, see the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.)

Finally, even apologists who deny the presence of forgery in the New Testament acknowledge that a host of early Christian texts (like the “Gnostic gospels,” etc.) are forged—thus leaving undisputed the general fact that forgery was common among early Christians. This in turn greatly diminishes another potential objection: that the New Testament texts suspected of being forged are somehow markedly different from other known forged texts.

What’s the relevance of this for debate about the historical Adam/Eve, it might be asked?

Similar to the issue of determining the authenticity of authorship claims, there’s a sense in which the debate over the existence of a historical Adam/Eve has missed the forest for the trees, being myopically focused on issues like the size and shape of early human populations; the evolution of the modern human mind and behavior; and—at least for defenders of a historical Adam/Eve—how these primeval figures could possibly be fit into these.

Compared to the traditional authorship of New Testament writings, however, even more is riding on the actual existence of Adam and Eve (theologically speaking). Nowhere is this more clear than in Catholic tradition, where—in the language of Augustine and the Council of Trent—the stain of sin is transmitted via actual propagation (and therefore present in all humans from the very moment of their conception). That is, it’s not merely that all humans just so happen to commit sin in imitation of the sin of Adam/Eve; rather, they quite literally inherit this sin. Thus is established the crucial genetic component of sin, and the necessity of a universal ancestry traced back to the first progenitors.

But the problem with a historical Adam and Eve is not just how this can be squared with the facts of evolutionary anthropology and other sciences.

No matter how vigorously some might try to avoid the increasingly shameful charge that they’re interpreting the Bible “literally,” it remains the case that the doctrine of the historicity of Adam and Eve has its origin in traditional literal interpretation of the second and third chapters of the Biblical book of Genesis.

Today, though, we’re also in the position where virtually no serious scholar—and a great number of perhaps less “serious” ones, too—suggests that this narrative in Genesis was ever intended to be understood as referring to actual historical individuals.

This is supported by centuries of work in comparative mythology, ethnology, etc., in which non-literal (or, to use a more specific term, etiological) tales similar to the one that appears in Genesis 2-3 are more or less cultural universals. And similar to the issue of the pseudepigraphical writings of ancient Greece and of the early Christian heretics, modern apologists are all too eager to be reasonable here (when it doesn’t tarnish their own favored tradition). That is, in the same way that the’re more than happy to admit the presence of malicious forgeries outside of the canonical Bible itself, they also admit the non-literal etiological function of origins tales in their respective cultures.

As mentioned, though, this wasn’t something that the orthodox were prepared to readily accept in regard to the Bible itself. Augustine believed that Genesis was “not written in a literary style proper to allegory . . . but from beginning to end in a style proper to history”; and consequently, among other things he was compelled to ask “if [Adam] is to be understood in a figurative sense, who begot Cain, Abel, and Seth?”²

But really, this just begs the question. If we were to come across a tale describing the exploits of the “first” tiger ever—named Arjuna; from Bandipur; who had a male cub named Abhimanyu, who once brushed up against the leaves of a palm tree that had been smeared with black paint—no amount of apparent verisimilitude is going to convince anyone that this really was how tigers got their stripes. (Nor should we think that a primeval garden transgression is why women have pain in childbirth or why we’re born into sin.)

In this sense, this is much like our pseudepigraphical testamentary literature, which bears the tell-tale signs of pure fiction, as we pointed out. In truth, it’s even more like a child’s fable; but at a certain point shouldn’t we leave behind childish things?

Of course, early on, the figures of Adam and Eve were appropriated by those who might capitalize on these toward more serious historiographical/theological ends. For example, when we arrive at the Biblical book of 1 Chronicles, we’re immediately met with a full genealogy, from Adam onward, extending down to the time of the Babylonian exile. Further, this genealogy is at least the partial basis for the genealogies of Jesus himself, in several of the New Testament gospels.

But genealogies—even ones that are today recognized as obviously fabricated—were one of the standard currencies in terms of ancient legitimacy and propaganda; and they were a currency that continued to be cashed in long into history, even to the modern day. This in fact overlaps in an important way with the idea of the quasi-mythical progenitor, such as Adam is; and, really, also Noah as well, a sort of “second Adam for the new, postdiluvian world order” (to use the words of Michael Stone), whose genealogy also plays an integral part in the book of Genesis.

One of the earliest instances where we find a sort of legitimizing genealogy that forges a link between mythical progenitors and actual historical figures is the Sumerian King List, a succession list which traces the monarchical lineage of some later historical Sumerian kings back to the purported earliest ones. Further, a connection can be drawn between the first king of the list, Alulim, and Adapa—the mythical figure sometimes understood as the progenitor of humans³—for example in the form of a pseudepigraphical letter between the two found at Sultantepe.

In any case, the exaggerated lengths of some of the reigns of the earliest Sumerian kings, extending to hundreds or even thousands of years, is comparable to the ages of the earliest figures in Genesis. (And in fact there may be even closer connections here: for instance, aspects of the seventh Sumerian king Enmeduranki closely resemble both Biblical and extra-biblical traditions about Enoch, the “seventh from Adam.”)

Mythological ancestry and genealogizing was an important tool in the forging and legitimizing of ancient Greek identity, as well. Guy Darshan speaks of Phoroneus, the first human in Argive mythology, and that—like Genesis—”the genealogical traditions of Argos feature the incorporation of the fathers of many nations outside the extended Greek space” (“The Biblical Account of the Post-Diluvian Generation…”, 520). A close parallel to the genealogical Table of Nations in Genesis 10 is also found in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. Darshan writes that

just as Noah begets Shem, Ham, and Japhet according to the biblical account, whence spring all the various peoples and races, so the Greek Flood hero, Deucalion—the son of Prometheus . . . and the grandson of the Titan Iapetus—serves as the central figure in Greek genealogical traditions. Deucalion sires Hellen, the forefather of the Greeks, who has three offspring who become the progenitors of the major Greek tribes—Dorus, Aeolus, and Xuthus⁴

Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus records a valuable tidbit of German mythology, wherein a figure known as Mannus, the son of a god, was thought to have been the progenitor of the three main Germanic cultural groups or tribes. This is an especially interesting parallel to the Genesis story, as the name of Mannus here is just the German word “man,” just as the Hebrew Adam also means “man(kind).” Finally, we think of pater Aeneas, Romanae stirpis origo in Virgil. (Compare “father Abraham”: Luke 16:24;Matthew 3:9, etc. See also Moberly, “Abraham and Aeneas: Genesis as Israel’s Foundation Story.”)

Again, traditions such as these had a clear political expediency. The Greek historian Xenophon writes about the late 5th/4th century BCE Spartan king Agesilaus that “even today the line of his descent from Hercules is traced through the roll of his ancestors.”⁵ The Biblical book of 1 Maccabees contains a (forged) letter purported to be written by a Spartan king Areus to the Jewish high priest Onias, wherein “Areus” informs the latter that “[i]t has been found in a document concerning the Spartans and the Jews that they are ‘brothers’, descendants of Abraham.” Finally, even late medieval British kings were given genealogies that went all the way back to Aeneas, the mythical hero of the Trojan War (and the subject of Virgil’s Aeneid).

Bringing it all together: like those who might seek to defend the relevant New Testament writings against the charge of forgery, the defenders of a historical Adam/Eve have, from the very beginning of their task, been dealt a serious opening blow: the likelihood of a historical Adam is already greatly diminished in light of the many similarities of this tradition to those of other (formerly) claimed primeval progenitors—figures whose actual historicity is universally denied, now that their champions are gone.

As always, we should emphasize here that, in any truly mature and intellectually honest investigation, the guiding question should not be “how can a tradition/belief be interpreted in such a way that it can reconciled with the facts of science and history as we otherwise know them?” Indeed, there’s little that can be done to disprove a clever-enough possible reconciliation, because the only real constraint on the parameters of “possibility” is the imagination of the apologist, who can always find some way—any way—to make it work.

Yet, unless we’re willing to entertain all sorts of other ridiculous notions—like that it’s possible that the first tiger got his stripes from brushing up against the leaves of a palm tree that had been smeared with black paint; or that humans emerged from the blood of the (slain) Titans; or that some alien race lives in the center of the earth; or that the planes flown into the World Trade Center were actually just holograms, etc.—we should abandon “possibility” itself as a reliable guide toward Truth. Instead, first and foremost, we should always seek to determine what’s most probable.

Rethinking the historicity of Adam and Eve may, for some Christian churches and denominations, entail a major reconstruction of the foundations of their theology itself. But to insist that a historical Adam and Eve—any Adam and Eve, no matter when or where—must have existed, only because it’d be too theologically problematic to think otherwise, is no better than what young earth creationists do when they insist that what they believe must be true because the literal meaning of the Bible cannot be false.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been an actual estimate as to the percentage of forgeries among the extant writings from the ancient world. Bruce Metzger, in his seminal article “Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” simply notes that “in antiquity a very large number of literary forgeries and other pseudepigrapha were in circulation,” and elsewhere speaks of an “unbelievably long list of ancient and modern forgeries” (4).

Of course, there are other factors which increase the likelihood of forgery. An environment of religious/doctrinal polemics is certainly one of these—which the world of the New Testament certainly qualifies as.

[2De Gen. ad. Litt. 8.1.2

[3] Speaking of the King List itself, William Shea writes that “by being contemporaneous with the first earthly king, Adapa was in essence a de facto member of the first generation of mankind.” Further, one of the main ancient sources for the myth of Adapa has certain elements which are strikingly similar to the story of the Biblical Adam. See here Shlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death.

[4] “The Biblical Account of the Post-Diluvian Generation (Gen. 9:20-10:32) in the Light of Greek Genealogical Literature,” 521. See also Pelasgus; Cecrops or Erichthonius, Athenian progenitors or primitive culture heroes.

[5] Xen. Ages. 1.4

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