The Search for the Historical Adam 9 (RJS)

The Search for the Historical Adam 9 (RJS) September 13, 2011

I have been posting over the last several weeks on the recent book by C. John Collins entitled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Dr. Collins’s  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.

Chapter 5 of Dr. Collins’s book asks the question Can science help us pinpoint “Adam and Eve”? He answers the question in the positive – but in a limited sense. In his view we must take into account science, with what he considers appropriate skepticism of scientific claims, as well as the biblical narrative and Christian world view. Section 5.a deals with the topic of scientific concordism, section 5.b discusses the need to read the bible well, sections 5.c and 5.d consider the criteria for acceptable scenarios involving Adam and Eve and then critiques a few of the scenarios that have been proposed, considering both strengths and weaknesses.

I dealt with Dr. Collins’s discussion of acceptable scenarios last November in a post How Much History in Gen 1-3? focusing on his article “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters” in the theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) – this book is an expansion of the material in that article. The post generated much discussion – 102 comments. Another post on this topic will not add anything new to the discussion.

In reading this chapter, however, I was struck by another point Dr. Collins makes in his section on reading the bible well. Today I want to pose some questions based on this section of Dr. Collins’s book, and then wrap of the discussion of the book with a few summary statements – both Dr. Collins summation and my response.

Reading the bible well requires having respect for the authority of scripture which reflects the authority of God, and having respect for the form and genre of scripture. This means that we need to pay attention to the text on many levels and read it intelligently. Scot’s post yesterday Seven Days That Divide the World 2 raised the issue of concordism.  For many the truthfulness and authority of scripture rests on its accuracy in detail, and this includes scientific concordance. Dr. Lennox expects to find scientific concordance in the text of Genesis. Neither John Walton nor C. John Collins think that we should expect to find scientific concordance in the biblical description of origins.  Our reading of Genesis should take into account the viepoint of the original audience, their picture of the world. They were not asking scientific questions, and we should not expect to find scientific answers in the text.

There is another aspect of the text of Genesis 1-11, one we have not discussed before, that should also help to shape the way we read and understand Genesis. This is anachronism. An anachronism is present when a writer (or artist) describes or portrays an earlier time using forms and images familiar to his or her contemporary audience. These elements, of necessity, introduce an inaccuracy into the telling of the story.

Is anachronism consistent with inspiration? Is it consistent with inerrancy?

How should we view passages of scripture with apparent anachronisms?

One clear illustration of anachronism in the text of Genesis 1-11 is seen in the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. In Genesis 6:19-20 (NIV) we read:

You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.

In Genesis 7:2-3 we read:

Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.

The distinction between Genesis 6 and 7 provides evidence for the idea that the text of Genesis is an edited work incorporating information from a number of sources. Like the creation narratives in Genesis 1-5 we can discern the editor/author’s use of material from different sources. More than this though, the reference to clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7 is anachronistic. The text describes events, perhaps events with an element of history, perhaps cultural myths, in terms familiar to an audience from a later time and context. Dr. Collins comments on this passage:

In Genesis 1-11, we have Noah taking aboard the ark extra specimens of the “clean animals,” presumably because these were fit for sacrifice (Gen. 7:2, 8; 8:20). Now there is no hint in the creation account that the clean-unclean distinction is inherent in the nature of the animals, and in the Bible this distinction served to set Israel apart from the Gentiles (see Lev. 20:24-26); this is why the early Christians did away with these laws (see Acts 10:9-29; Mark 7:19).  The very first mention of a “clean” animal occurs right here; we do not even know what they are unless we turn to Leviticus 11. Perhaps we are to think that Noah had some idea of what kinds of animals are right for sacrifice, but we need not suppose that it was identical to the system found in the books of Moses. How could it be when Noah was not an Israelite? Perhaps the specific “burnt offering” is also anachronistic – that is, Noah made a sacrifice, but the term “burnt offering” had a very precise term in Israel that may go beyond what Noah thought. Genesis interprets Noah’s behavior in line with Israelite practice. Nothing makes this literary practice unhistorical since we are recognizing a literary device. (p. 114)

The elements of anachronism and literary form extend beyond the story of Noah. They are present in the setting of Cain and Abel as farmer and keeper of sheep, the fear that Cain has for blood revenge, the records of the various crafts in Gen 4:20-22, although not as easy to pinpoint and illustrate in these examples as in the story of Noah.

Do you think that anachronisms, like the reference to clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7, cause a problem for the reliability of scripture? Why or why not?

How do you deal with this in your view of scripture as the Word of God?

And this is a wrap – the last post on Dr. Collins’s book. Dr. Collins sums up his book with an intriguing mix of ideas. He has very good discussions of aspects of scripture and the nuance and importance of literary form in our understanding of scripture. He takes a conservative view of the authorship and date of Genesis (substantially from Moses with small tweaks and updates p. 170), but this still leaves Genesis 1-11 in the genre of primeval history pulling together the story of Israel from the mists of antiquity. An appreciation of this should impact the way we read the text – including the anachronism mentioned above.

He doesn’t think that animal death is part of the death described in Genesis 2-3 or in Romans.

To answer that question, we first recognize that, whatever the verse talks about, it is referring to humans. Therefore Genesis is not at all suggesting that no other animals had ever died before this point: the teeth and claws of a lion are not a decoration, nor have they been perverted from their “pre-fall” use. (p. 116)

Dr. Collins does believe that Genesis 1-4 contains a description – with many literary elements – of a historical fall. We need not look to Genesis 1-4 as a historical account of the fall, but he has tried to show that there must be a historical element to the story of Adam and Eve.  In summary he gives four reasons for this conclusion.

(1) The conventional telling of the story as creation, fall, redemption, restoration is the Christian story, this is what makes sense of the world.

(2) Sin is an alien invader that affects all people. Our story and world view must account for this invasion.

(3) The Christian view of humanity must include a common origin for all mankind. Paul uses Genesis to demonstrate this – and this element of historicity is not incidental to the message, it is essential.

(4) Jesus appears to have affirmed an element of historicity, and Moses,  Paul, John, and other people entrusted as God’s messengers writing what we know know as the bible, have viewed and used Genesis with a historical understanding. To eliminate this will undermine our view of biblical authority. It is not incidental. “But it seems to me that Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human family, and their fall, are not only what Jesus believed but also an irremovable part of the story.” (p. 135)

My take. I’ve enjoyed reading Dr. Collins’s book – it has provided a good interaction, and a nice forum for wrestling with some of these ideas. I agree with many of his points, but not all, and perhaps not with some of the points he considers particularly important.

(1) I don’t think we should cast the Christian story as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Rather I think the story is cast as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and this is the way we should read scripture and approach the Christian life. We are not returning to an original condition but moving on to the final state God always intended.

(2) Sin is rebellion from God – but I am not comfortable with some of the ways the view of sin as “alien invader” play out. This needs a good deal more thought and conversation.

(3) I am in total agreement with Dr. Collins on the importance of the unity of all mankind.

(4) I don’t think that scripture as the authoritative word of God requires the kind of acceptance of the view of Paul or the other writers of scripture that Dr. Collins maintains. I think there may be an element of historicity to the fall, but I also think that there are ways to read scripture without this element of historicity and without undermining the authority of scripture. Dr. Collins’s emphasis on the belief and understanding of Paul regarding Adam as an important data point in determining the historicity of Adam has been my primary objection to his argument.

What do you think?

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  • Georges Boujakly

    I’m hoping that most of the comments of the JC community will focus on rjs’ main question regarding anachronism and reliability of Scripture.

    To answer the question personally. I don’t think the reliability of Scripture is undermined by literary genre, anachronism, or even historiography. If the hand of God shaped the Scripture in some fashion, as I believe, however limited or in cooperation with human authors, the reliability of Scripture stands unshaken for me. The testimony of the authors of Scripture of hearing God, dreaming dreams and seeing visions from God, appearances of heavenly beings, claims of inspiration (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Thus says the Lord) bolster my confidence in the reliability of Scripture. I have chosen to believe their testimonies.

    At some point in my life I came to this conviction: I will either stand over Scripture to pronounce them reliable, or I will stand under them and accept these writings as revealed to the faithful with humility. Beginning from the stance of humble acceptance has been helpful and has not undermined a critical or interpreted understanding of Scripture.

    rjs, thank you for guiding us into a conversation on these issues. This helps me think through where I stand, what matters little and what matters much in the dialogue between science and faith.

  • Joe Canner

    The issue of anachronism is very interesting to me, as I have recently been pondering the significance of animal sacrifice prior to Moses. Up until recently it had never occurred to me to wonder about the basis for pre-Mosaic sacrifice. Traditionally, it seems most people believe that God instituted sacrifice very early on (although such is not recorded in Scripture), seeing as how Cain was held accountable for his improper sacrifice.

    More recently some have suggested that sacrifice was always part of the culture and that the Mosaic law was God’s attempt to redeem the cultural practices by eliminating detestable practices (human sacrifice, ritual prostitution), directing sacrifice to one God, and pointing forward to Jesus.

    For some this distinction is a critical part of their understanding of atonement (particularly because the book of Hebrews requires a certain understanding of sacrifice in order to understand Christ). I’ll have to ponder some more whether anachronism addresses these two possibilities, or whether it introduces a third possibility.

  • John W Frye

    Collins’ summary #4 could satisfy me if he changed just one word. His summary could read, “Jesus appears to have affirmed an element of historicity, and Moses, Paul, John, and other people entrusted as God’s messengers writing what we know know as the bible, have viewed and used Genesis with a theological understanding.” I changed “historical” to “theological.” Genesis 1-4 presents a worldview Story of YHWH-Elohim as Creator viz-a-viz competing ANE stories. We can live without knowing absolutely what that “element of historicity” is.

  • Rick

    Forgive me if I overlooked this, but does he say anachronisms were common in ANE literature?

    Also, why stop at Gen 1-11 with anachronisms? What about the stories about Abraham, etc…?

  • rjs


    I don’t think he would stop at Genesis 1-11, but these are the examples relevant to our discussion of Adam and Eve. Anachronism is only an issue though in the parts of the text that were edited or written at a time significantly later than the events described. This isn’t really the case in the NT and isn’t always the case in the OT. It does come up though because the OT scripture we have was assembled and edited in its current form at a late (post exile?) date even if many parts were written much earlier.

    I think this topic will come up again and more clearly when we look at Pete Enns’s new book later this fall (when it comes out).

  • Thomas Renz

    Anachronism can be a useful tool for connecting the past and the present and I agree that there is no reason to deny the use of such a tool to biblical authors or to think that anachronism necessarily undermines authority. The use of anachronism is not in and of itself deceitful.

    Having said that, I am not fully persuaded by the examples given here. Distinctions between clean and unclean animals were made before the people of Israel came into existence and the Torah never implies otherwise. It is not even clear to what extent the specific definitions of cleanness in Leviticus and its instructions for sacrifices were brand new or refashioned or re-signified.

    Genesis does of course gloss over any difference one might allow for between Noah’s understanding of a burnt sacrifice and that of later generations – to that extent we may speak of anachronism but it is of a weaker sort than attributing practices which were not yet known.

    Neither am I convinced that Cain’s fear is best explained with recourse to anachronism.

    But Genesis 26:5 offers a good example. Abraham’s obedience could have been described in a number of ways but the terms used here clearly allude to a later time, suggesting that Abraham’s obedience to God was equivalent to keeping the Mosaic law.

  • Patrick

    I liked Dr Collins’ book, but, I tend to disagree on the dietary mention being anachronism.

    Just because there is not a pre Israel canon is no reason to assume Yahweh did not treat His previous people with the same care and virtue love.

    Those dietary laws are healthy, it just makes no sense God would wait to tell the Jews about a healthy lifestyle and ignore folks who believed in Him previous to Jews.

    BTW, I disagree on his logic for why the rules were dropped in the NT, too. That’s evidence that God’s new eschatological age has broken in on the old age, the renewed universe is upon us. It just isn’t completed yet.

  • rjs


    I am not going to speak authoritatively, because this isn’t my area of expertise and I haven’t researched it carefully. But I don’t think many OT scholars think the dietary laws are given for health reasons. I’ve heard it in sermons, but not from experts.

    With respect to this reference in Genesis: even John Walton, who in his commentary on Genesis doesn’t call this an anachronism, sees no connection to dietary restrictions here.

  • Tim


    I’m not really following how your argument here follows naturally from the Paul’s theology as expressed in, say, Romans 5:

    “I don’t think we should cast the Christian story as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Rather I think the story is cast as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and this is the way we should read scripture and approach the Christian life. We are not returning to an original condition but moving on to the final state God always intended.”

    When I read Romans 5, the former seems to be strongly implicit and makes far more sense of the strong parallelism/symmetry Paul expresses (Life in God -> Rebellion -> Long Period of Death in Sin -> Atonement/Justification -> Life in Christ).

    However, you chose the latter, where there appears to be a progression from imperfect existence with potential to pursue Life in God -> a rebellious period or otherwise failure to pursue that potential -> atonement/justification -> Life in Christ. This interpretation lends itself to significantly less of the parallelism/symmetry that literally seems to be jumping off the pages of Romans 5. It also isn’t clear how this is the most natural exegesis of the text. Rather, it seems distinctly eisegetical.

    For what purpose? My best guess would be that it serves conveniently to remove a theological difficulty in reconciling Paul’s theology with evolutionary origins. But this reconciliation, while not perhaps strictly contradicting or otherwise doing egregious violence to the text, takes what for over 2 Millenia have been considered beautifully exposited parallels in Paul’s theology between Adam & Christ, death and life, and turned them into something decidedly less so.

    All-in-all, it seems a strained reading for which the only benefit I can discern is one of apologetic purpose for claiming that Paul was not mistaken in his theology when accepting the straightforward implications of common descent/ancestry.

  • rjs


    I don’t think that I am trying to reconcile Paul’s theology or difficult texts with evolution as much as recognizing that there is, even in Genesis, an expectation of development and progress and growth and change. With redemption and reconciliation our hope for the future is not a return to the beginning but a consummation in accord with God’s original and eternal plan. We are not returning to the beginning, but moving forward. There is restoration of relationship with God, of proper relationship with the cosmos – but not a return to the Garden so to speak. What restoration there is involves restoration to the intended consummation.

    At least this is where my thinking is going at this time.

  • Tim


    Thank you for the clarification. I would agree that outside of Paul’s theological argument in Romans 5 (and echoed in 1 Corinthians 15), there is support to be found for the view you propose.

    I would note, however, that a view of progress from a deficient/severed state with respect to relationship with God to a later consummation of the relationship, as expressed in covenantal terms with respect to Israel in the OT (often in hopeful and deeply emotive passages) and salvatory terms in the NT (often expressed as realized hope, no less emotive), does not really run counter to Paul’s theological proposition in Romans 5. It really depends on the starting point.

    If you start with a deficient state, already severed from God in some sense, then one could certainly take the view of eager anticipation of consummation of a state of realized union with God – much as a man looks forward to consummation with his bride (and this metaphor is commonly applied in the Biblical text), though he had never previously “known” his bride.

    But Paul’s starting point in Romans 5 is different. He goes back further than just a deficient sinful/death state of being severed from God to one of union and life in God per Adam’s purported original state. He thus sets up the parallel I noted in my previous post. I would also note that Paul’s theological argument is not in conflict with the consummation view. Again, it depends on the starting point. But it does certainly add something to it. And what it does add is of a distinctly theological nature. So perhaps the question to be asked is, is Paul’s theological argument in some way then incorrect, in part? And if so, is what is incorrect incidental or essential to his theological message? And then how does one’s conclusion on this matter effect how other theological passages are read in the Biblical text, including Paul’s other writings?

  • normbv


    It seems there is an assumption yet not proven of what Paul’s mind was regarding Adam and beginnings. There also seems to be a scholarly fad that if we don’t understand Paul we simply ascribe to him a mistaken understanding and that rectifies everything. Of course the converse is just as likely or even more so that many theologians are jumping to conclusions concerning Paul’s understanding and are ascribing theology to him that may not have been his thinking. It’s similar to the OEC who ascribe to the God of the gaps when they don‘t see a ready answer in evolution and simply state well God must have intervened miraculously at this juncture.

    RJS, I strongly disagree with your premise that “but not a return to the Garden so to speak”.

    Christ explicitly states in Matt 13 that his Kingdom would be like the smallest of seeds in the Garden that grows to be the Largest. He’s pulling from Ezekiel 17 imagery and Tree analogies where Garden life has been corrupted but mismanaged and misplaced by both Israel and the Nations. The whole foundation of biblical theology is built upon the idea of a return to Garden life. Now of course it’s not what the YEC want to mystically ascribe to a definition of the Garden but it’s a place of full relationship with God. I think we often let a material mindset of the Garden transcend what should be recognized as spiritual restoration.