By One Man: The Historical Adam

Published: Australian Presbyterian (AP), Autumn 2014

Jared, scientists have recently claimed that the latest genetic research has thrown doubt on whether there was a historical Adam. What has led to these claims?

Well, there have been a number of reports in the press recently about certain similarities between the DNA of monkeys and humans that have raised the question whether a being such as Adam ever existed. Also scientists are claiming that while there might have been someone nicknamed “Adam” in our ancestry – one person from whom we are all descended – this Adam himself was not the first man. Some researchers are now saying that some of the different types of hominids may have interacted with one another. Of course, I’m not a scientist so I can’t offer any detailed commentary on these sorts of things.

But do you think these claims by biologists have any substance or not?

It’s very hard for me to answer that question. From my perspective, I don’t like it when scientists attempt to do biblical exegesis and tell me how I ought to interpret an ancient text, especially when I work in this field all the time. I often see them make amateur mistakes when they try to comment on Hebrew texts. Thus, I feel somewhat reticent to comment on scientific matters, especially when I have no particular expertise in their area. Of course, all of this comes in the broader context of the discussion of the age of the earth. We need to remember that the present discussions about whether there was a historical Adam are taking place in a context where modern scientific assumptions about a very old earth prevail. We can trace this back to the 18th century when a fundamental anti-theistic shift occurred because people didn’t want to have to deal with God. It was a philosophical shift and consequently science went off in its own direction. This is just historical commentary. I am not discussing the particular science that’s being debated at the moment. Nevertheless it is legitimate to point out the philosophical context in which this science is being done. Personally, I think that if this philosophical decision had not been taken, modern science would be in a very different place from where it is now.

How have evangelicals responded to these claims about whether there was an historical Adam?

In a sense, you could argue that not really much has changed – this debate has been going on for more than 100 years; we’re all familiar with it. There have been several approaches to it. Of course, you’ve got the creationist response that affirms what seems to be the teaching of Scripture on the doctrine of creation. Some ridicule this view as “a head in the sand” response even though it is a more natural reading of the text. Others have responded by trying to pry open the biblical text, in particular Genesis 1, to try and fit Darwinian evolution into it. The question then becomes “where can we find billions of years in Genesis 1?” Many Christians have taken this approach because they think that they can somehow force Darwinism into an ancient near-eastern text. The Biologos foundation has chosen this particular route. It was founded in 2007, just when the new atheism was gearing up. It was an attempt to show that Christianity was reasonable and could accommodate itself to the new science, even though the science itself was rooted in antitheistic assumptions. In a sense, this was Christianity on the back foot. Those who have gone down this path believe that God speaks to us in the Scriptures and also reveals Himself in the creation. They are aware that the scientific interpretation of the universe is contrary to the Scriptural understanding. So then, taking science as established, they believe that we ought to re-examine the way we read the Scriptures to see if we have interpreted them correctly. John Lennox and Tim Keller are two significant figures among Evangelicals who have gone down this line. They are both convinced of the need to allow the biblical narrative to accommodate evolution.

Are there other responses?

Yes, there are. I think a more interesting one has come from another group of scholars who are not so interested in accommodating evolution within the biblical text. Their major concern is to read the Genesis account on its own terms as an ancient near-eastern document. This is a more thoughtful approach because it’s not really valid to “read” Darwin into such a text. Scholars such as John Walton, a Biologos advisor, Tremper Longman and Peter Enns have adopted this approach and, to a lesser extent, John Dickson. What they say is much the same thing, although there are individual variations. John Walton is saying that since Genesis 1 is a text that is written from an ancient perspective, we should accept it as that and not try and read evolution into it. Tremper Longman and Peter Enns have argued that we should look at Genesis 1 as an intentional ancient near-eastern myth. They think it belongs to a family of other ancient near-eastern creation stories. The writer’s intention in using this genre was simply to make the point that God is the Creator, not that Genesis 1 is actual history.

Do you think there is value in approaching Genesis 1 as an ancient near-eastern text?

Yes, I do. It’s important that we read it on its terms and not as a document from the 19th century into which we read a Darwinian account of origins. Unfortunately too many biblical scholars treat Genesis 1 as a car wreck. They see themselves as the Fire Brigade turning up with their ‘jaws of life’ – they think they have got to pry the car open to save whatever is left inside the vehicle. Well, we’ve just got to stop doing that. It is an ancient text that has to be read on its own terms. So I think what they’ve done is helpful at that point. However, in my opinion, both Longman and Enns have taken a wrong turn when, having correctly identified Genesis 1 as an ancient near-eastern text, they go on to say that it is a creation myth that isn’t trying to assert anything literal or historical about the origins of the world. I think they make the wrong genre call with regard to Genesis 1-2.

What are your specific concerns with their approach?

I am concerned that they teach that Genesis 1-2 should be understood as an intentional myth. That raises a number of issues. The first that comes to my mind is the concept of a genre of intentional myth. Do we realise that people within these ancient neareastern cultures did not regard their creation stories as myths? They actually believed them! The modern secular mind may regard them as intentional myths but that’s not how they were regarded in their cultural context. People saw them as valid explanations of reality. I know many scholars regard the story of Jonah as a myth, but I don’t agree with that either. What you see in the Old Testament is a firm belief that God acts within history. That’s what He’s doing in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 – and it makes perfect sense that the ancient Israelites sincerely believed that God created the world in six days.

The second matter of concern is that if Genesis 1-2 is an intentional myth as they suggest, then it can’t be the true creation story or cosmology of the ancient Israelites. If the Israelites believed it was a deliberate myth, that would leave them without any real cosmology, which is actually contrary to what we see in the other cultures of the ancient near-east. Are we really willing to believe that the ancient Israelites didn’t have a true cosmology?

My third area of concern is Longman’s analysis of the language of Genesis 1-2. He not only claims that it is intentional myth, but he advances all the usual types of arguments that it is really poetry, or poetry-like. He does this despite the fact that the writer of Genesis 1 constantly uses a grammatical device known as the waw consecutive, which is only used in historical narrative. Those who think that Genesis 1 is poetry need to read it much more closely. What is the evidence that Genesis 1 is poetry? One of the main features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which is where the first line is repeated in the second one with some variation. If you read the Psalter you’ll see it’s replete with parallel lines. Now, do we see this device in Genesis 1? Not really. The closest we get to it is in Genesis 1:26, 27, where the expression the ‘image of God’ appears. However, the problem here is that we have three rather than two lines about man being made in the image of God, which is atypical of Hebrew poetry. Again, in the verses about God creating the lights in the expanse of the sky (1:14-18) we’ve got the ‘lights to rule…’ verse – the greater light, the lesser light. But just as you think you’re going into a parallel, you’ve suddenly got ‘and the stars’. It just sits there on the end in a sentence fragment. That’s what my grammar checker would call it – and that’s really unpoetic.

What about repetition of phrases?

That’s the big feature that people point to – the repeated expressions like, “there was evening and morning…and it was good”. However, before we get too excited about this feature, we should remember that it is not a particularly common feature of Hebrew poetry. For instance, it’s not a common feature of the Psalms. Some Psalms have it, but it’s not the primary feature of poetry. Where else in the Old Testament do we see “stylised narrative”? The closest parallel is in Numbers 7. Here Moses deals with the dedication of the tabernacle, where the 12 tribes, on days one through to 12, bring their gifts. So we read, so-and-so brought his gift on the first day, so-and-so brought his gift on the second day, and so on. And apart from Numbers 7 we also find stylised narrative in the legal sections of the Pentateuch. For example, we see it in the Decalogue, which begins, “And God spoke all these words” (Ex 20:1) which has strong allusions to the God who speaks in Genesis 1. So Genesis 1 is stylised narrative, most closely paralleled with Numbers 7, and the introductory section to the law codes of the Old Testament. The point is that these sections of Scripture, though stylised, are not poetry; they are just a particular form of narrative writing. Actually we don’t need to go to other ancient near-eastern cultures to determine the genre of Genesis. We just need to read it in the context of the canon.

You mentioned John Dickson’s proposal for interpreting the Genesis account. Do you think it’s viable?

No, I don’t. Dickson isn’t saying much that others haven’t said. He concludes that Genesis 1 is poetry and therefore not to be taken literally. He notes that verse 1 of Genesis 1 has seven words in it; verse 2 has fourteen words, although it is probably made up of two sentences, one of eight and one of six words, so the pattern breaks down. He then claims the word “heaven” appears 21 times. I checked this myself and his arithmetic is wrong. Just to make sure, I ran it through my computer and confirmed what I had originally thought – it does not occur 21 times. But it doesn’t matter anyway because groups of seven would only indicate that we are dealing with stylised narrative.

Incidentally, even if it is poetry (which I don’t think it is), this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily ahistorical. Have we forgotten that the Psalter talks about many of Israel’s historical experiences in a poetic manner?

The other thing that Dickson does is to focus on ancient near-eastern creation story parallels – especially the Babylonian Enuma Elish – as though Genesis 1 is written in the light of it and as a reaction to it. I think that’s invalid. The Genesis account predates Enuma Elish, as far as we can tell, and I think the whole thing of subordinating the text of Scripture, or of Genesis 1, to these parallels is a dangerous hermeneutic.

Is Adam a real person?

Yes, absolutely.

Why?

I think the writer of Genesis 1-2 is very clear that God created the world in just six days – not billions of years. Genesis 2:4ff explains how humankind arrived in the Garden of Eden. It refers to issues that had to be dealt with in the beginning – the lack of rain and plants. Then Adam was created. So I think the text of Scripture is definitely saying that Adam is the first man. Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we believe that God,” not only formed, but perfected the world. The Greek word means “to perfect”. God made it very good and suitable for man.

Does it matter if Adam wasn’t the first man? What impact will this have on theology?

It’s a very serious issue. I think most Christians want to keep Adam. However, what we need is not just an historical Adam but an Adam who is the first human being. He needs to stand at the head of the human race. What happens if such a person doesn’t exist?

First, it will affect our approach to biblical interpretation. The rest of the Scriptures rely upon the original story in Genesis. So what do you do with Paul when he’s talking about Adam? Peter Enns says that Paul simply accepted the common belief of his day that Adam was a real person, but he was wrong. This means that as I read Paul I’m thinking, “I know better than Paul”. And when Jesus talks about Adam as the first created man – “Well, I know better than Jesus now!” Our whole outlook on the Bible is affected.

It also affects our doctrine of God. Once you discount Genesis as providing historical facts it’s easy to import evolution into the creation narrative. Once you do that it makes God the creator of the universe with all its flaws. God created this dog-eat-dog world of evolution. Try and explain that to the parents who have just lost their young child. Tell them that the death of their child is just natural selection and wait for three seconds until they say, “Well, then I hate God”. Evolution makes God responsible for every genetic malformation, every disease, every car accident, and so on. Christians who believe in evolution have to ask what kind of God is this that would do such a thing?

If we deny that Adam was the first man we lose the doctrine of the fall. “In Adam we all sinned and died” – well, that’s gone. So where did sin come from? Peter Enns says he doesn’t know, which is extraordinary. I mean, this is pivotal doctrine of original sin, and he makes no claim to have an answer.

On this basis you have to wonder, what are we being saved from? What is the work of Christ all about? He died on the cross; we know that, but why? If it wasn’t for sin, was it just to set us a moral example as some liberals believe? For what purpose?

Denying that Adam was the first man means that we also lose the doctrine of the atonement. There are two families in history. You’re either in Adam or in Christ, as Paul says. By what right does Christ die on my behalf? Because He dies on behalf of the people that God has given Him. Take away this Adam-Christ matrix, and you lose that. The atonement is undermined.

It also affects the doctrine of the last things too. The Bible is clear that there’s a better world coming. I wonder what that better world would be if this is the good world that God created. Is it just the current world with a better health-care plan? If the first world, that incorporated the suffering and death of evolution, was said to be “very good”, what hope do we have that the perfect world to come will necessarily be any better?