Does Paul’s Theology Require a Historical Adam? Thoughts from J. R. Daniel Kirk

Does Paul’s Theology Require a Historical Adam? Thoughts from J. R. Daniel Kirk May 6, 2013

Recently, Daniel Kirk posted his thoughts on the historical Adam question in Fuller Theological Seminary’s Spring 2013 issue of “Theology, News, and Notes.” He followed up with a post on his own blog. Many know Kirk from his books Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity and Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. Kirk is associate professor of New Testament at Fuller.

I saw this article several months ago in an earlier version, and, amid all the controversy and misinformation generated by others, I was excited to see Kirk weighing on this this issue. I hope the article gets the attention it deserves.

Kirk summarizes his entire article well at the end of his introduction:

I want to open up the conversation to the possibility that the gospel does not, in fact, depend on a historical Adam or historical Fall in large part because what Paul says about Adam stems from his prior conviction about the saving work of Christ. The theological points Paul wishes to make concern the saving work of the resurrected Christ and the means by which he makes them is the shared cultural and religious framework of his first-century Jewish context.

Note the two key issues Kirk mentions here:

1. What Paul says about Adam is set up by his prior conviction that in Christ the “new creation” has broken in to present time. Paul draws Adam into a conversation begun by the resurrection of Christ, not vice-versa, and in doing so recasts Adam’s significance beyond that which he has in Genesis.

2. To the extent that Paul sees Adam as the first man, Paul is not making a binding scientific or historical  declaration but reflecting his view on such things as a first-century Jew.

In my opinion, both of these observations are absolutely key in coming to a biblically literate and historically knowledgable understanding of the role Adam plays in Paul’s theology.

Later Kirk makes the following observation concering Adam’s function in Paul’s argument in Romans:

What difference might it make to our discussions about a historical Adam that Paul was claiming, “Christ, is (un)like Adam, therefore God’s people are not demarcated by Torah”? This latter statement is, in fact, the point of Paul’s argument in Romans 5 (cf. 5:12–14, 20–21). Paul’s Adam theology is an avenue toward affirming that God has one worldwide people; therefore, the specially blessed people are not defined by the story of circumcision. 

What if Paul’s Adam is not a lesson for us about where people came from, but part of Paul’s rhetoric to establish the oneness of God’s people–Jew and Gentile together–that so dominates his letter to the Romans?

Here is one more quote that captures Kirk’s point:

[W]hat is a “given” for Paul is the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The other things he says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations that grow from the fundamental reality of the Christ event. Recognizing this relieves the pressure that sometimes builds up around a historical Adam….Adam is not the foundation on which the system of Christian faith and life is built, such that removing him means that the whole edifice comes crashing down. Instead, the Adam of the past is one spire in a large edifice whose foundation is Christ. The gospel need not be compromised if we find ourselves having to part ways with Paul’s assumption that there is a historical Adam, because we share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all.


I hope you have a chance to wander over to Fuller’s website and read the article for yourselves. At the very least, counterarguments would need to provide a more compelling account of Paul’s overall theology in Romans rather than simply lifting verses out of that carefully crafted work and using them for reasons Paul never intended–and never would have understood.


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  • Norman

    Yes and No. I think this is a simpler yet more complicated issue in some ways than Kirk is presenting. I really get annoyed at the idea that Paul is reinterpreting Genesis from its original meaning. I think the problem is that many scholars still want to interpret Genesis from something of a literal perspective as the original intent when the jury is still out (except possibly in their minds) regarding the original intent. Paul obviously applied a Midrash hermeneutic to Genesis as evidenced by his interpretation of Gen 2:24 in which he correlates that verse as prophetic toward Christ and the church.

    Eph 5:30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

    There is enough evidence from Paul’s and other 2nd T pieces of literature to indicate that Genesis written with prophetic intent was not that uncommon of an application. Paul didn’t really invent that hermeneutic would be my counter argument but instead Genesis was written with an analogical bent with messianic prophecy in mind in the first place and Paul is reading it as some trained Hebrew scribes would have.

    Here is another point that I would raise; just because it’s quite obvious that Adam is a Hebrew construct for mankind doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a first man in the Hebrew mindset that can be assumed. The point being that Adam very likely is represented in the Hebrew mindset of someone much more Jewish than representative of humanity at large. The Jews segregated themselves between Jew and Gentile and I believe their literature recognizes and reinforces that acknowledgment. Adam is representative of the first Covenants man and not humanity at large and that entails Adam’s priestly expectation and duties in relationship to God thus him being called the “son of God” as was Christ. Adam was therefore “a representative type” that Christ fulfilled more completely and so Christ is designated the “last Adam”. Calling Christ the Last Adam tells us that Adam meant something more than just a representative human at large. Take the time to see how the 2nd Temple Jews and earliest Christians represented Adam. I can’t think of an example where Adam represented a Gentile man but was always Jewish in scope.

    The Jews were writing this story from their perspective and there are plenty of side stories and implications to indicate an eventual folding in of Gentiles into this Covenant family if you will. The question is can one assume a literal first Covenant man whom God began His work with? I think literally we can actually say that at some point in history one can “assume” a covenant origin that eventually brought forth the covenant people. It doesn’t really matter to the Jews that they could identify that specific person but one is on solid ground assuming as much. Genesis is a Jewish story of origins and Adam I believe reflects that even in his Hebrew name which I believe connotes covenant man generally speaking. The Hebrews had other generic words for “man” and in fact Gen 2 & 3 conflates two of those terms together in their usage.

    I don’t think we have to jump through hoops to impugn Paul’s interpretation, especially if we are possibly reading him through the wrong colored lenses still. I think it is important to sort out better what Paul understood about Adam and I think Kirk has good intentions but I think there is good evidence that the process is not as contrived as he is making out. There is plenty of work to be done in this study and I think our critical scholars would serve the faith community even better if they would enlarge the scope of this investigation. Sometimes the scholarly community runs with the fad of the times and about a generation later we find there arises even better analysis overlooked and had more potential to reveal Paul’s thinking. Just be patient and the cream will rise to the top over time.

    Let me make another ANE comparison; the Romans “invented” the Romulus and Remus story to describe their origins. No one believes that story as a historical description but we also believe that indeed there was an origin to Rome but it just happens to be more mundane than that story. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t real people involved in Rome’s origins but that story wasn’t meant to satisfy us moderns and neither was the Genesis story of origins. The Adam story also has other purposes than we often suppose.

    • peteenns

      Norman, I don’t follow you. Can you boil down in a sentence or two why Kirk’s post annoys you? He is saying that Paul’s hermeneutic is midrashic and driven by Christology. It looks like you agree?

      • Norman

        Although I support Kirk, I do find it annoying that Paul is portrayed as “reinterpreting” Genesis. I think that is the wrong approach and it makes us bend over backwards to present Paul’s theology. I really think Genesis was written with a Mesianic intent from the get go and is a veiled Hebrew work that is actually subversive toward Jewish Legaism 400 years before Christ. Otherwise I love the guy.:)

        • jrdkirk

          Briefly, I take it that the observation you make, that other 2TJ Jews were, also, doing midrash with Genesis and that no other 2TJ talked about the messiah and Adam quite like Paul does is fairly decisive evidence that all of them are doing rereadings in light of their contexts. This isn’t bending over backwards, it’s recognizing what’s there and trying to explain it as best we can.

          Now, seeing Genesis as anti-legalistic Messianism 2500 years before anyone thought such a thing was needed, _that’s_ a _tour de force_!

          • Norman


            I think you exaggerate my premise too much or I don’t
            understand you. 🙂 However I thought
            Messiah was clearly seen by most in Gen 3:15? Or do you think the writer had no
            clue about Messiah when he/they wrote the defeat of Satan? When do you think the Messiah concept originated
            with the Jews?

            Why was Christ ascribed as portraying the corrupt rulers of
            His day as sons of the devil their father taking it back to Genesis 3? Why did
            the Revelation author pick right up in Chapter 12 with that old serpent and the
            woman story where Gen 3:15 left off? Why did Ezekiel make comparisons to the
            Trees of the Garden as guardians if they weren’t reading these themes from
            Genesis similarly over at least 400 years?

            Daniel it doesn’t take a genius to see the patterns of
            Genesis as they were picked up and used by other OT, 2TJ and NT writers. It’s
            the same corrupt story line that we see over and over again in stories like
            Ezekiel, Enoch, Jubilees and others. It’s just a more condensed form that
            presents the Jewish condition and mindset from their exilic experience. Isn’t that what OT scholars are supposed to
            do? See the patterns and present the natural evolvement of them as patterns

            If you want to read some scholars who explore this OT Jewish
            tension then start with Margret Barker’s work. Some of this is not really that
            original to me even though I would like to stake claim since you bring it up.;)

            Daniel I simply propose that some Jews (scribal and Priestly
            types) were reading Genesis from an established pattern that was veiled within
            the literature that they understood better than we think. Look at the way Enoch and Jubilees run with
            the Genesis story line and carry it further.
            I doubt they were considered out of line by their likeminded
            contemporaries. Why is it so difficult
            to think that the redactor of Genesis wasn’t pushing the same envelope as well?
            Did the Genesis author simply want to develop just an ANE story of Israel
            describing humanity and that was it?
            Well maybe but knowing enough about Jewish literature I doubt that is a
            full enough answer.

            I’m sorry to have needled you but it does me no good to just
            praise you for the 95% I agree with. I want to see you and others like Pete
            pushing the envelope more and so I’m going to throw concepts out there that I
            guess you have never seen. If it makes you stop and think for just a minute
            then I’ve accomplished my goal. 🙂

            I hold to my premise that Paul “reinterprets” Genesis is a
            poor choice of words to explain his hermeneutic approach. I think you can needlessly alienate and turn some
            in your audience off by using that loaded language especially when it’s a
            suspect evaluation anyway. Part of the
            job that you and Pete should be about is bridging the gap with evangelicals and
            part of that is recognizing how important language can be in telling your story
            to them. Sometime believe it or not it’s
            better to explain something instead of using the pithy one liner to make a

  • “lifting verses out of that carefully crafted work and using them for reasons [the author] never intended–and never would have understood.”

    Interesting, because of course that’s what Paul did.

    • peteenns

      What do you mean “interesting”?

      • What a question! … Well, if it was OK for Paul, is it obviously a mistake for us? Are you criticizing the method or just the results? I’ve just been reading Sanders trashing the persistence of Weber’s view of Judaism’s supposed legalism … heavy weather since I don’t know any of those people, but I plow along. In the meantime, where I go on Sundays for praise and worship, indeed we hear much about 618 (or so) commandments and how breaking even one means your ticket is revoked. Actually the church is coming from Holiness into Grace (eg Andrew Farley). While as an ex-liberal looking for a home with some substance to it I would vastly prefer historical criticism and acknowledgment of modern natural science (not to mention God’s original forgiving nature), our church seems to be religion that works. There is a “how you get in and stay in” to it, and it has been healing for me personally. So Paul felt free to recast elements of his tradition in order to go in a fresh direction (“Adam” => “All Nations”, yea JRDK), so why shouldn’t Pastor Ron do the same thing?

        I’ve said before that if Genesis (and the rest) is inspired, then there’s no reason God couldn’t put in messages for us as well as the original and various other authors or redactors. I’m sure we don’t want to say that YHWH’s religion doesn’t progress. And that’s why I think Farley is quite wrong to write off the OT as de-covenanted, not directed towards moderns; we can read the ancient message as well as the modern one. But that just says I’m not really *in* Pastor Ron’s church although it is useful to me for praise, worship, and healing.

        So I suppose what I mean by “interesting” is that there’s something here I can’t spit out and I can’t swallow, so I must continue to chew. I’m sure I sound confused.

  • Guest

    Thanks for sharing the link! Very interesting:

  • mark

    Looks like the comments got all jumbled up moving to this new format.

  • James

    Kirk helps us understand Paul afresh in a changing world. But we shouldn’t “part ways” with him too quickly, nor with his first-century take on science and history. We should first join him back there (as Kirk has done well) and see the world through his eyes in light of the game changing Christ event. From there, we do indeed “part ways” with the biblical writer even as all faithful Christians have done over time. We read Scripture to get the story right, but we also interpret it in both ancient and modern settings, even as we seek to apply divine truth to our lives of every day. Bible Study Methods 101. So we don’t really part ways with Paul at all!

  • Lee

    “Because an “historical, scientific, or critical” reading of “scripture”–i.e., a fully informed reading–would be hard put to find “witness to … the crucified and risen Christ” unless it takes things out of their proper overall context.”

    Could you expand a little more on what you mean by this? Thanks.

    • mark

      This is hard to address briefly, but I’ll try–with the caveat that I’m only familiar with Kirk’s ideas as reproduced on or linked by Pete’s blog.

      Kirk appears to set up a distinction between a “historical, scientific, or critical” reading of “scripture” one the one hand versus a reading of scripture as a “witness to … the crucified and risen Christ.” This suggests to me that Kirk sees some opposition between “faith,” understood as acceptance of “scripture,” and a “historical, scientific, or critical” reading of “scripture.” I, on the other hand, understand Christian faith as reasoned belief, i.e., belief based on articulable reasons rather than subjective certainty alone. Therefore, from my standpoint, historical and scientific knowledge in its full range is all grist for the mill in evaluating the credibility of the early Christian witnesses to the substance of Christian faith–that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and rose. From this standpoint there is not and cannot be an opposition between an historical/scientific reading of scripture and a “faith filled” my words, not Kirk’s own) reading. A “faith filled” reading that is not historically and scientifically informed is false to the nature of faith as reasoned belief.

      Of course, I recognize that Kirk isn’t denying the applicability of history and science to an informed reading of “scripture,” but I am questioning, suggesting, that Kirk’s approach of “narratival theologizing” runs that risk–that it remains plugged into a reading of “scripture” that implicitly denies historical and scientific approaches. The prime example is one that Kirk himself suggests–that the Israelite scriptures should be read from a Christological standpoint. My contention is that that is an untrue approach, that historical and scientific study conclusively demonstrates that the Israelite scriptures were not written with Jesus in mind and are improperly understood when read from such a perspective.

      I hasten to add, however, that I am not suggesting that there is no relationship between the Israelite scriptures and the Jesus of Christian faith. Rather, I’m suggesting that this relationship will remain an unresolvable conundrum until we reevaluate what we understand “revelation” to be. In a sense, you could say that I have a similar approach to Kirk’s, in this sense: while I deny that the Israelite scriptures tell us about Jesus (Jesus himself does that quite well, thank you), I do also maintain that revelation as a whole–in which the Israelite scriptures are included–is ultimately only to be understood in the person of Jesus. The difference is my understanding of revelation, which I see as embodied in the historical (and risen) person of Jesus, not in books per se.

      Obviously there’s a lot more to be said, but this isn’t my blog and I don’t want to go on at too great length. I’ve attempted to expand on this entire topic at my own blog:

  • Paul

    We cannot have a conversation about what Paul was doing with his interpretation of Adam and what Genesis originally presented without wrestling with the intervening Jewish interpretation. I have argued that point extensively regarding the OT use in Jesus’ judgment sayings and John’s Apocalypse in my monograph Concerning Romans 5 (and 7:7-13 for that matter) and Paul’s re-appropriation of Adam’s story, you must read and compare the Jewish discussions of Adam’s sin and its effects in 4 Ezra (look first at 4 Ezra 3:21; 4:30; 7:46-48) as well as the Apocalypse of Moses and the Apocalypse of Baruch. Paul’s language about Adam’s sin and its effects on all humanity is nearly a word-for-word match at certain points. We have good reason to believe from comparative analysis that Paul’s view of Adam is the same as these interpretations of his sinful act. 2 Baruch 4:3-4 views Adam and Abraham in parallel fashion as does Paul in Romans 4-5. So if there is no historical Adam, then let it be plainly acknowledged that Paul was wrong like his Jewish discussion partners in the first Century and the historical nature of Abraham, David, etc. is in play as well. Paul builds his argument in Romans in dialogue with contemporary religious and philosophical discussions throughout the epistle (think here of his allusions to and interaction with arguments found in Philo and Stoics like Epictetus in Romans 1 or the Wisdom of Solomon in Romans 2). He shares some common assumptions with those dialogue partners while correcting others along the way. However, he gives no indication that the historicity of Adam is an assumption he dismisses or considers non-essential.

  • gingoro

    My net from reading Pete Enns etc is that most of Gen chaps 1 thro 11 are fairy tales so what difference does it make how Paul treats the mythical person Adam. Obviously Pete uses words more carefully, judiciously etc than I do but my conclusion is as stated above except for “In the beginning God”.

    A liberal Christian friend (from the old ASA email list Pete) takes the attitude that Paul, as just another early theologian, is irrelevant in any case.