A “Historical” Adam?

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April 15, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

A “Historical” Adam?

Here on the The BioLogos Forum there has recently been a spirited discussion resulting from various posts and videos on the nature of “Adam.” I’m grateful that a forum for such open discussion exists. I find many aspects of this discussion immensely helpful. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m not fully satisfied. I’m prepared to accept the basic facts of human evolution. I'm also prepared to consider generously the views of the many fine theologians and scholars writing here on BioLogos concerning a non-"literal" Adam. However, I’m not prepared to suggest that these facts elide any possibility of a “historical” Adam.

My concerns are theological. Significant parts of the Christian Tradition have always taught that human beings are incapable of not sinning; that this incapability is a form of corruption and not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort; and that this corruption was passed on organically from Adam to his descendants. If we elide any historical Adam and any “real” mechanism for the transmission of original sin, this raises some important difficulties for many Christians. In the recent past, this move has often led to Pelagian views of human nature, and then to merely existentialist views of Christian faith that cease to be meaningfully “Christian.” In addition, whatever approach one takes to the question of Biblical "inerrancy," it seems to many Christians, including myself, that the Biblical narrative is difficult to hold together without a "real" primal event of sin by humanity's progenitors.

My own theological presuppositions, then, compel me to consider ways in which the best scientific evidence can be accepted without giving up entirely on a "historical" Adam. So how can a historical Adam be reconciled with human evolution?

The biggest problem here, in my view, is the population genetics data described in in a post by Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk. There is compelling evidence that current human genetic diversity cannot have derived from only one breeding pair. We can construct any variety of scenarios under which God "selected" some hominid pair to be "Adam and Eve," but none of those scenarios answer this population genetics data. "Adam and Eve" would have had many brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on, who also would have passed some of their genes on to us.

I've puzzled over this question for a long time, and here is an approach I believe might be fruitful: the distinction between "genetics" and "genealogy." The Biblical writers and editors did not know anything about "genetics." When Paul says in Romans 5:12 that "sin entered the world through one man," he is not commenting on the modern science of genetics. He is referring to a genealogical line in the context of ancient uses of genealogies.

A good comparison here is the Biblical notion of Abraham as the father of the Jewish people. Hebrews 11:12 says that “from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (emphasis added). (In fact, the word man in the translation does not appear in the Greek. Read literally, the texts says that from "one ... came descendants....")

I suspect that most of us would not be surprised to learn that, in the generations between Abraham and the first century, the Jewish gene pool would have become significantly diluted. Even if some of Abraham’s genes remained in the first century Jewish gene pool, because of intermarriage, there would have been a great deal of genetic diversity from people outside of Abraham’s line, including Canaanites, Moabites, and others.

Indeed, the Bible itself tells us that the Israelites repeatedly intermarried with surrounding people, often to their great detriment, as when King Solomon catered to the idol-worship of his foreign wives (see 1 Kings 11:1-6). Non-Jews—people who according to scripture itself were not physical heirs of Abraham—were considered by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to be part of the Abrahamic line of redemption, to the point of being included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: Tamar and Rahab, both Canaanite women, and Ruth, a Moabite woman. And Rahab is even mentioned again in the “Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11:31)?

So how can the writer of Hebrews suggest that the Jews came from “one" (or "one man") when in the same passage he mentions a Canaanite woman who was not a direct descendant of Abraham? What about the progenitors of the Canaanite and Moabite family lines of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and of many other non-Jews who married into Abraham’s line over the centuries?

I confess I’m not a professional Biblical scholar, but from my study of scripture and its context, it seems to me that genealogy, in the ancient context, is at heart about the representative responsibility of the progenitor and of other key figures in the genealogical line. It is of course true that ancient genealogy also involves physical descent, but not every member of the progenitor’s line necessarily would have to be a direct physical descendant of the progenitor alone.

It seems to me potentially very significant for our conversation about Adam that people who were not physically descended from Abraham were included in the Biblical genealogy of redemption that derives from “one man,” Abraham. They were grafted into the Abrahamic line by marriage. Is it likewise possible that the universal genealogical line of “Adam” could include the in-grafting of physical lines of descent outside of Adam’s direct line, with “Adam” still remaining the progenitor with representative responsibility for the resulting mass of humanity?

Once again, the Bible itself seems to have no problem with this possibility. The story of the mark of Cain seems to assume that Adam and Eve were not the only humans alive in their times. (See Gen. 4:15). Apparently, Cain’s descendants intermarried with the people Cain eventually encountered. The descendants of Cain’s descendants would all have been descendants of Adam, but they also would have acquired genetic material from other people, just as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and others infused non-Abrahamic genetic material into the Abrahamic line.

What I’m suggesting is scientifically plausible. There is no problem at all in suggesting that every person alive today physically can trace his or her lines of descent—his or her “family tree”—to encompass a single pair in the recent or distant past. The problem arises when we try to suggest that this pair were the only humans alive at the time and that all of our present genes derive only from a single pair.

For example, I have a family tree for my father’s side that goes back to the 1600’s. If you look at the generation of Opderbecks alive in the 1600’s on that document, you’ll see that all the Opderbecks alive today can locate Johan and Christina Opderbeck, married circa 1730, in their own lineages. This does not mean Johan and Christina Opderbeck were the only Opderbecks, much less the only human beings, alive in 1730. The genetic makeup of present-day Opderbecks is quite diverse and reflects input from a wide range of other people. Nevertheless, we all share a recent common ancestral couple, Johan and Christina. (For a more technical discussion, see Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans).

It is true that the sort of idea I’m floating isn’t strictly biologically monogenetic. However, it seems to me that it could preserve Paul’s federal theology and provides a plausible, even Augustinian, mechanism for the propagation of original sin.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a “concordist” scenario of the sort that suggests the Bible contains “science” that was ahead of its time. I think it’s obviously right that we can’t hang on to literalism about “Adam” and the “fall” in the classical sense of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” However, like many evangelical Christians, my theological presuppositions compel me to look for some “literalism” about the “fall” in the sense of it being a real ontological “event” in space and time. And I don’t see any reason not to say that Gen. 2-4 is at least a highly stylized literary portrayal of “real” events. Science is helping us understand the form of the Bible’s “fall” narratives, but not eliding their essential content.

In short, Biblical genealogy is in some sense about biological relationships, but it primarily concerns spiritual-representative relationships. Biblical genealogy knows nothing of genomics or population genetics. The Bible itself, in its discussion of Abraham, demonstrates that descent from "one man" cannot be a reference to genetic science. If we move the search for a “literal” Adam away from genetics and into the spiritual and relational aspects of human nature, then, we act in a way that is more faithful to the text. And science cannot comment one way or the other on whether there is a spiritual-representative “Adam” ultimately connected to everyone’s family tree. The population genetics data concerning human evolution then pose a variety of fascinating, but perhaps less theologically troublesome, open questions.

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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dopderbeck - #10783

April 22nd 2010

beagleady (#10704)—yes I understand some of the basics of Mormon beliefs and have some friends who are Mormons.  Before you get too critical of some aspects of their theology, recall that many early Christians (Origen, in particular) believed in the pre-existence of souls, and that the Patristic concept of “theosis” or “divinization” remains vital to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is being reappropriated to some extent by Western Christianity.  Though Christians have never believed we each have our own planet in the eschaton, we do believe there will be a “new heavens and a new earth” in which we will reign with Christ.  And, there are many people who say the entire Bible is “hopelessly, totally false”—at the very least, there are historical-critical questions raised by the Biblical text from beginning to end, not just in the first few chapters of Genesis.

I’m not suggesting here at all that Mormonism is just another form of Christianity, but I want to suggest that our first and most basic way of discernment ought to center on the basic “rule of faith”—the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity.

beaglelady - #10787

April 22nd 2010

Look a bit deeper, and you’ll see that Mormonism is totally incompatible with Christian beliefs. I mean,  are we going to conceive spirit children after death? Are we going to have worshipers?  But, you will be glad to know that in Mormonism, Adam and Eve were exiled after the fall to Missouri. That would make it easier to spread their sinful nature, so necessary for survival of any human lineage.

beaglelady - #10788

April 22nd 2010

Because God normally governs the world through certain physical constants, we can practice forensic science with reasonable assurance in matters relating to the known or recent past.  It is when science assumes that God has NEVER intervened miraculously in the world, then tries to interpret the data without reference to God and His Word, that science is treading on thin ice.

So at what point in the past did God stop intervening big-time?  We need to know. (btw, science does not and cannot address miracles.)

Martn Rizley - #10795

April 22nd 2010

So you are saying that the scientist can rest in the comfortable assurance that God would never do anything that would make natural history too ‘messy’ to explain according to the principle of methodological naturalism?  Is that what you are saying?  You must admit that is a purely religious assumption, not dictated by anything in the physical world itself.

Martn Rizley - #10801

April 22nd 2010

Beaglelady,  The Bible associates God’s miraculous interventions with His creative and redemptive acts in history, by which He displayed for all time His infinite power and authority over the natural world.  That would include the period of creation itself, when God brought into being the original created kinds from which numerous adapted forms have developed;  the period of the Flood, when God redeemed one man, his family, and the animals, from judgment; the period of the Exodus and Conquest,  when God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and settled them in Canaan; the period of the prophetic ministry of Elijah and Elisha; the period of Christ and the apostles.  Also, God has performed various judgment miracles in history, of which the Flood was the granddaddy.  Now that redemption has been fully accomplished in Christ, we have no reason to expect new “redemptive acts” of God on the center stage of history; rather, we await Christ’s coming in power and glory, when God’s miracle-working power will be visibly displayed again.

BenYachov - #10815

April 22nd 2010

I’m not sure what your point is Beaglelady?  Are you arguing just because God can & might intervene supernaturally (& since such supernatural interventions are beyond the capacity of science to test) that means all claims of supernatural miracles(including ones from non-Christian religions) might or must be true?  That doesn’t logically follow.  Beside my original claim was quote modest.  I said we couldn’t rule out a pure ssupernatural top down creation of Man not that it happened.  Besides at minimum we MUST believe in the supernatural creation of the Human soul.  The idea that humans “evolved” their souls threw a mere natural process is Pelagian Heresy at it’s worst.  Forget Mormonism.

dopderbeck - #10972

April 23rd 2010

beagleady—I didn’t say Mormonism is compatible with orthodox Christian beliefs.  Obviously it’s not, since they don’t believe in the Trinity.  My point is simply that we should be careful about throwing stones.

beaglelady - #11021

April 24th 2010

My only point was that Mormonism can be discredited by science alone. The BOM claims that the Indians in Book of Mormon times were descendants of Hebrews, used horses and chariots,  wrote in an altered form of Egyptian but had a Hebrew-based language, had oxen and donkeys, planted wheat and barley, smelted iron and steel and practiced a form of Christianity.

Well, the fact is, that’s all bunk.  (note: horses evolved in North American but went extinct after the last ice age. Our mustangs are actually descendants of the horses that escaped from the Spanish explorers much, much later.)

So that was my point.  Even beyond Genesis 1-11 there may be issues with historicity and other points, but when the Bible mentions plants, animals, places, peoples, technology, etc. these things almost always actually existed in Biblical times.  Besides, the Bible is an ancient document; nobody doubts that.

beaglelady - #11022

April 24th 2010

Before you get too critical of some aspects of their theology, recall that many early Christians (Origen, in particular) believed in the pre-existence of souls, and that the Patristic concept of “theosis” or “divinization” remains vital to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is being reappropriated to some extent by Western Christianity.  Though Christians have never believed we each have our own planet in the eschaton, we do believe there will be a “new heavens and a new earth” in which we will reign with Christ.

I don’t care what Origen and others used to believe. I don’t believe in the pre-existence of souls.  The Mormon version is very different, anyway. In Origen’s version does God really erase memories of the pre-existence, and is everyone really a literal child of God in the pre-existence?  Most similarities are superficial once we begin to dig deeper. 

As for “divinization,” Christianity is still monotheistic, and heaven is not Mount Olympus.

Mormons might have some good things going for them—they practice good morals, don’t drink or smoke, and seem genuinely nice. It is their theology I take issue with.  And they are out to convert each one of us, including your children.

Gregory - #11095

April 25th 2010

I’m still wondering why neither Falk nor Venema have made comments in this thread. Does the genealogical approach hold a power over the genetic approach that is inconvenient to admit for biologists or genomicists? That BioLogos does *not* take an official position on the historicity of Adam and Eve is clearly demonstrated by accepting David Opderbeck’s well-written article in this thread.

steelydeacon - #62822

June 23rd 2011

It seems to me that what ruins this whole debate is the error of assumed uniformity, not taking into account the consequences of the Fall. All of the participants are so distracted by the question of weather there was a historical Adam and Eve, that they fail to take into account that the genetic consequences of humanity’s fall into sin would most likely render all scientific modeling based on an assumption of uniform genetic progression invalid. The Divinely created Adam and Eve would not have needed a diverse genetic pool to maintain genetically viable progeny, since they were created perfect, without the flaws that would necessitate such diversity. Adam and Eve were not subject to physical death or aging, since such things came through the fall into sin. We know from the early biblical genealogies that longevity among the post-fall adamic progeny declined very slowly, but had its inception at the fall into sin. This obviously indicates that the fall had critical genetic consequences; consequences that most likely changed all the rules of genetic progression among the adamic progeny. Is it not logical to assume that such a catastrophic genetic change would render all analysis based on an assumption of uniform genetic progression invalid? As to the “Cain’s wife” issue, I see no problem with acknowledging that there were other humanoid beings around at the time; either unmentioned adamic siblings or else pre-adamic humanoids (we are talking about the corruption of the human race here, after all, so, one way or the other, this did occur). As far as the collective model is concerned, does it make logical sense that humanity originated with the coincidental, spontaneous evolution of about a 1000+ unrelated humanoids, all living in the same local community within the same generation? That would seem to require a greater miracle than the literal biblical narrative would ever require. No matter how you splice it (pun intended) you must still deal with the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. The Bible resolves it toward the adamic “chickens,” while the geneticists continue to place all their misguided energies into explaining the egg without allowing two actual parent adamic “chickens.”

steelydeacon - #62839

June 23rd 2011


span style=“font-size:14.0pt;font-family:Times;mso-bidi-font-family: Times;mso-fareast-language:JA”>The thing that disturbs me most about discussions like this, which seem to be striving to elevate science, and especially the science of genetics, above the authority of God’s Word, is that the whole idea of all humans being equally created in God’s image is at stake.

span style=“font-size:14.0pt;font-family:Times;mso-bidi-font-family: Times;mso-fareast-language:JA”>The whole reason that the allies were in the ethical position to take the high moral ground during WWII against the Nazis was that they still saw human beings as equal, as all sharing a common human ancestry, as all bearing the image of God, regardless of race. Very few people remember that this is the heritage that distinguished us from the Nazis and their eugenics ideology. It put us squarely on the opposing side of the issue of eugenics and its genocidal “solution.” Only Christians who see all humans as bearing the image of God through their common human ancestry in Adam have an absolute moral basis for believing in universal human dignity. The Nazis distinguished many classes of peoples as genetically inferior, as the “mud people.”

span style=“font-size:14.0pt;font-family:Times;mso-bidi-font-family: Times;mso-fareast-language:JA”>Once we lose this common, literal ancestry of Adam and Eve, what stands in the way of once again making distinctions between human beings on the basis of inferior/superior genetics? Once we concede that the source of humanity was made up of diverse genetic lines, whither the universal image of God, universal human dignity, or universal human equality? What will keep us from once again believing the monstrous lie that some “inferior” genetic strains should be “discontinued”? We are already on this very brink, pushed there by the prevalence of abortion-on-demand, the eugenics advocacy of organizations such as Planned Parenthood (whose historically documented racially motivated agenda has recently been revealed to be alive and well to the present era), and the growing popularity of in-vitro engineering of human offspring.

Few people are aware of
how much is at stake in such a debate as this, because our current generations
are so sadly ignorant of both history and logic. What we need today is less
science and more logic and reliance on the testimony of reliable history. 


it was Henry Ford who said that history is bunk, and he was a Nazi sympathizer
and financial supporter!


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