Who Needs a Historical Prometheus…uh, I mean Adam?

Who Needs a Historical Prometheus…uh, I mean Adam? November 12, 2012

A couple of weeks ago at Resurrecting Raleigh, David Williams posted on why he doesn’t need Adam to be historical. He begins–and what could be more obvious–by looking at a recent biography on Robert Oppenheimer (physicist working on the Manhattan Project) in which he is compared to Prometheus, the rebellious god who stole fire from Zeus.

That gets Williams thinking: the comparison of Oppenheimer to Prometheus is not diminished by virtue of the fact that Prometheus is not a historical figure (unless there are some “historical Prometheus” hold outs among us). If that’s the case, maybe this is helpful angle from which to look at Paul’s comparison of Adam and Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

As Williams correctly points out, even for Paul the comparison of Adam and Jesus isn’t perfect. As with all comparisons, some things are left hanging, unaddressed; some things don’t fit.

Here is the heart of it:

The analogy isn’t perfect.  Whereas Adam’s action (like Prometheus’s) was catastrophic, Jesus’s action was, to borrow Tolkien’s word, eucatastrophic.  Whereas Adam’s was an act of disobedience, Jesus’s action was one of obedience.  Whereas Adam’s action was a betrayal of God, Jesus’s action was a gift of God.  Whereas Adam’s action brought about a regime of death, Jesus’s action brought about the victory of life.  Jesus, in other words, is like Adam turned right-side-up.

The more I look at this passage, the less I see how it makes a lick of difference to the force of Paul’s argument whether Adam is a historical figure or not.  To my mind, the fundamental analogy still holds even if we were to add one more disanalogous element to those we have already rehearsed: whereas Adam was a fictional character of a mythic past, Jesus was for Paul a historical figure of recent memory. No matter. The comparison still holds. Jesus is, in some important ways, like Adam, just as He is said elsewhere in the New Testament to be like Moses, like Jonah, like Jeremiah,  like Elijah, like a lamb, like a vine, like a door, like a shepherd, and like dozens of other things.

I like that word “eucatastrophic.”

Anyway, Williams ends by saying that those Christian traditions that need an historical Adam,

are all varieties of Christian faith, not Christianity per se.  There have always been within the Christian tradition (better?) alternatives to these particular theological stances, some of which do not logically depend upon the historicity of the Adam story.  If the evidence should continue to mount against the historicity of Adam, the choice before us should not be whether we will be Christians or not, but whether we will be these sorts of Christians or those sorts of Christians.  Christianity itself is simply not at stake.

Some provocative thoughts there. If you want to engage Williams, you really need to go to his blog. I can’t answer for him, and if I try I might get it wrong. Just two suggestions: (1) Play nice, and (2) Don’t just quote Bible passages at him; he’s probably seen them already.

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