From One Couple? (RJS)

From One Couple? (RJS) July 2, 2015

Lucas Cranach Man and WomanThe next argument John Walton addresses in his new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate is the argument that Adam and Eve are required by biblically sound theology to be the unique progenitors of the human race. To do so he poses two questions:

  1. Does the Bible claim that Adam was the first human being to ever exist?


  1. Does the Bible claim that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve?

Walton is convinced that if the Bible stakes out a firm answer of yes for these questions that we then must, as Christians, affirm it. In light of the scientific evidence, this would mean that God formed a mature creation with the appearance of history. He uses the example of his teeth, where the evidence of a number of dental procedures are evident. God could have created him full grown, with an apparent history of dental work. The human genome likewise shows evidence of a history, an evolving population never less than 10,000 or so, and of common descent. But … “If the Bible claims otherwise, then we would have to take a stand against this emerging scientific consensus.” (p. 183)

He is convinced that the Bible intentionally refers to a unique couple (Adam and Eve), but this does not necessarily require an answer of “yes” to either of the two important questions. Adam and Eve would be included among the first humans (however we identify the beginning of humanity) called out as priestly representatives to keep God’s sacred space. Turning to Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15: “When [Paul] speaks of Adam as the “first man,” he is most interested in the archetypal role of Adam and in the theological issues surrounding sin.” (p. 183) It is not clear that either the author of Genesis or Paul intend to make scientific statements about human origins.

It is possible to affirm that all humans today are descended from Adam and Eve (although not solely from Adam and Eve) because the intermarriage within a small population could result in all people tracing back to include one specific pair in their genealogy within a relatively small number of generations. One can also affirm that this pair is the beginning of spiritual human, created in the image of God, and that their descendants (within a finite number of generations long ago becoming all humans everywhere) inherited both the image of God and the consequence of the original sin.

Though it looks nothing like the traditional biblical interpretation, it makes similar affirmations while at the same time accommodating common descent and affirming that the history evident in the genome actually took place. (p. 185)

Other models and explanations are possible as well. Some grasp at population bottlenecks, mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosomal Adam to support the possibility of a unique original pair. In many ways, mature creation, is the simplest way to accommodate both science and the traditional interpretation of Scripture, although this approach has problems of its own.

These all maintain aspects of traditional biblical interpretation while at the same time adopting some of the basic aspects of the current scientific consensus. They require selective acceptance of scientific findings and/or significantly adjusted biblical interpretation. We need to ask whether such complicated attempts at reconciliation are necessary, and so we return to the questions above: Does the Bible claim that Adam is the first human being to exist and that all are descended from him? (p. 185-186)

John Walton Explaining Lost WorldsSo where, if anywhere, does Scripture suggest that Adam and Eve are the sole progenitors of the entire human race?

The passages in 1 Cor 15 and Romans 5 have already been dealt with. Both John Walton and Tom Wright agree that Paul wasn’t making a point about Adam, but was making a point about Christ. There are a few other passages worth looking at as well.

From one man. In Paul’s Areopagus speech he makes the argument “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17:26) Some will suggest that the “one man” referred to here is Adam, But John Walton argues that it is far more likely that Noah was the one man Paul had in mind. In Genesis 10 the nations are drawn from Noah’s three sons. “These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.” (Genesis 10:32)

Genesis 3:20 refers to Eve as the mother of all the living (or the NIV says she would become the mother of all the living). The name “Eve” is a word meaning life or living. This name has significance – but shouldn’t be taken too literally. She clearly wasn’t the mother of all life (which would include nonhuman life) and the kind of phrase that is used in this verse is common in the genealogies. In Genesis 4:20-22 Cain’s descendants Jabal and Jubal are said to be the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock and the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Another Tubal-Cain is the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. Few of us would argue that we should take this patriarchy of Jabal and Jubal literally – least of all biblical literalists as the lines of Jabal and Jubal would have died out in the flood, long before Genesis was written (even for those who hold that Moses wrote the book). As Walton says: “These usages show that this sort of expression has larger associations in mind than just biological descent.” (p. 188)

The genealogies in Gen 5, 1 Chron 1, and Lk 3 go back to Adam. This, some will argue, show that Adam was the first human being. Walton gives a few reasons why this doesn’t imply that Adam was the first (and only) human being. Adam is the origin of the called people of God, and it is from Adam that 1 Chron and Lk 3 trace the line of Israel and Jesus. This could point to a historicity of Adam through the paternal line – but it need not point to a unique originating couple. Lk 3 is tracing the lineage of Jesus through Joseph, so those who hold to the virgin birth (which includes me) would have to agree that the significance of lineages in Scripture is not always biological descent. In Walton’s view “Adam is the first significant human and the connection to God because of the very particular role that he had (again, federal headship gives an adequate connection, as does his priestly role).” (p. 189)

In summary, there is nothing in the biblical text that requires us to view Adam and Eve as the sole unique progenitors of the human race. This is one possible interpretation, but one that seems highly unlikely on other grounds.

How would you answer Walton’s two questions? Why?

Does the Bible claim absolutely that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve?

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  • Norman

    A little tongue in cheek here: thank goodness we can now move on to the real progenitor of all humanity, namely Noah and his three boys. 😉
    This way we only have to go back to 2700 BC by counting their biblical descendants.
    By the way the word translated often as man in Acts 17:26 is not “man” but “blood”. It’s the same Greek word translated “blood” in John 1:13. This reading along with the nations in Acts likely means Walton is correct in applying it to The division of the nations thematically after Noah.

  • Chris Criminger

    Could not one answer the questions with a yes while maintaining that Adam and Eve are more symbolic and poetic than forcing an exact science of how they were created or trying to figure out within the realm of human history at what level or place did a person evolve or become a human, the first human couple? To go to this length seems to not only misread Genesis but impose theological weight and scientific details onto the biblical text that it never intended to give in the first place. Can we at least have some kind of hermeneutical humility that says that there might have been a first couple literally or the first couple symbolically represented all of humanity. In regards to the fall, it is simply saying from the beginning, man has chosen to not obey God. Whether that was the first man or woman or Adam and Eve representing humanity or Israel in their disobedience.
    Maybe science will later shed more light on mitochondnol Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam but all the science I am aware of is strongly pointing to a cluster of humans showing up at the beginning for man’s origins and not just one couple. Does one then have to revise their interpretation of a first human pair. Not necessarily but I would think it should caution the believer to use a sanctified imagination to think outside a certain interpretative box and at least hold one’s views tentatively and with humility acknowledging others may differ from your understanding and they also are trying to be true to their own interpretive understanding of scripture. Can we at least agree that general (natural) revelation and special revelation (scripture) should walk hand in hand and not be pit against each other?

  • Andrew Dowling

    That people would argue Adam and Eve are literal from obscure passages in Acts is part of the problem right there. The Bible is ancient literature; it’s not a puzzle to be decoded.

    The Adam and Eve story is symbolism and metaphor. And the arguments given to somehow save a “first couple” look more and more ridiculous. Perhaps accepting them as non-literal conflicts with the Augustinian notion of original sin; but the problem then lies with the theology; one should not be pretzel twisting the Bible and science to concede to flawed theology.

  • Phil Miller

    I am willing to say that it’s a possibility that “Adam is the first significant human and the connection to God because of the very particular role that he had (again, federal headship gives an adequate connection, as does his priestly role)”, but I guess I’m not convinced it’s required. Even the name “Adam” itself means “earthing” more or less, so it certainly seems that Genesis was written with Adam being more of a pure archetype than a historic figure. Yes, he is mentioned in various genealogies, but like the article mentions, strict biological descent isn’t necessarily the point. Even today with our record-keeping, most people have trouble tracing their lineage back more than few hundred years. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to think that the ancients were keeping such detailed accounts of their ancestry, especially what were essentially a nomadic people.

  • Jim Egbert

    As an engineer by training, I am not troubled by scientific ambiguity. In my world, I have learned to utilize models. For example, when dealing with something as basic as light … I sometimes consider light to be defined as a wave length and other times as a photon with energy, but no mass. This provides two quite different models to explain the same reality. I have never understood why we burden ourselves with trying to select a single, specific model for God.

  • Dean

    What I’ve always found strange about how Evangelical Christians interpret the first few chapters of Genesis is how seemingly unperturbed they are about how the stories read when taken “literally”. I think it was NT Wright who said that we don’t give enough credit to how sophisticated the ancients were. We assume that just because they lived thousands of years ago and didn’t have the internet that they would automatically accept a world where snakes could talk, where trees bore magic fruit, where God hangs out and chats with people, where one dude gave all the animals their names, where people can be grown from ribs., etc. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Ancient peoples were just as capable as we are in being able to distinguish reality from allegory, myth from history, poetry from prose. I think it is high time that we stop patronizing the writers of the Bible by assuming that they were some sort of bronze age barbarians, the writers of the OT were likely some of the most brilliant, literate, creative people to have ever lived in human history. The assumption should be that understood exactly what they were doing here and it was not to convey some sort of literal, historical facts about how the universe or humanity started, the complexity of the structure of text itself belies that kind of reading.

  • Ted Johnson

    I very much appreciated Walton’s first book on Genesis One. I thought his approach and overall thesis on how to read Genesis One worked and made sense. But it seems things do not go so well in the second book. Whether Walton is hemmed in too much by the articles of belief at Wheaton College or what, I don’t know, but the grand and majestic sweep and breathtaking innovation and scope seems lost in his second book, at least as it has been discussed here by RJS posts. He seems to get bogged down trying to reconcile a more literalist approach with current scientific understanding, something he did not do in the first book, and indeed, something he said explicitly in the first book not to do, because the ancients were working from an entirely different angle and purpose. What happened to that? But then I have not yet read this second book, am I wrong about this?

  • RJS4DQ

    Hi Ted,

    I’ve had the opportunity to talk with John (just this week in fact) – and he doesn’t feel hemmed in by the articles of belief at Wheaton. He genuinely feels that Adam is a real person like Abraham is a real person. The comparison to Abraham is intention – as Abraham was chosen out of a larger group so was Adam chosen out of a larger group.

    There are parts of his argument for Adam and Eve as real persons that I don’t find convincing. I find his argument for the way Adam and Eve are used in the text of scripture much more convincing.

    His book is worth reading – none of us will agree completely on every issue.

  • Ted Johnson

    OK, Thanks so much for that. I do plan to order and read the book soon, its on my summer reading list, and thank you for these posts.

  • Hmm

    I agree in this thinking. Homer, Socrates, Plato existed thousands of years ago and created works of literature that are still being discussed today. That’s a good comment you make.

  • Rob Bear

    “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife. . . .”
    Where did Cain’s wife begin her life? Who were her parents? Hmmmm.

  • Angelo Giovas

    If you go to places in the world (eg PNG) which are non-technical, oral societies who put far greater importance on their ancestors than we generally do, you will find people that are more than capable of tracing their ancestors back 2 or 3 dozen or more generations.

  • “It is not clear that either the author of Genesis or Paul intend to make scientific statements about human origins.”

    Hmmm…if I were to time-travel and ask Paul if he believes that there was an actual Adam and Eve as a real, human couple, I suspect he would say, “Yes”. But that should have little bearing on whether we moderns should believe that to be the case.