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A “Historical” Adam?

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April 15, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
A “Historical” Adam?

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

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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Roger D. McKinney - #10047

April 16th 2010

If you interpret Genesis with sound hermeneutic principles, it’s impossible to come to any conclusion other than that the author thought he was writing history. Now comes application: I can either accept it as history or not. If not, then I am free to make it say anything I want it to say. Denying it as history, but trying to hang on to bits and pieces that you like because they’re important to you is cafeteria theology.

Roger D. McKinney - #10048

April 16th 2010

John: “Early Genesis has many poetic elements, most of which show up better in the Hebrew than in English.”

I wouldn’t use “many.” There are a fewexamples of prophecy. And how do you know they’re prophecies? They would be complete jibberish if NT writers hadn’t directed us as to how to interpret them. The point is that internal evidence directs us to know what type of document were are dealing with and what the author’s intent was. There is nothing internally to suggest that the first three chapters aren’t historical other than the miracles. And that’s the main point of YEC: creation was a miracle! Do miracles invalidate the historicity of the Gospels?

Roger D. McKinney - #10049

April 16th 2010

dopderbeck said:  “there are ways in which the Bible itself allows us to relax our expectations about who that person might have been or when he might have lived”

Not if you care about hermeneutics.

Roger D. McKinney - #10050

April 16th 2010

“I tend to like Karl Barth’s generic category of “saga.”  Sagas are “historical”—real events usually underlie them—but they are by no means “technical history.”

In other words, sagas are a mixture of truth and fiction. If Genesis 1-4 is saga, then I can guarantee you that you have no objective way of telling what is true and what is false. All you can do is cherry pick what you like.

dopderbeck - #10052

April 16th 2010

Roger—no, you can’t “cherry pick what you like.”  Really, that’s just an unfair misrepresentation of my views.  Scripture (properly understood), reason, tradition and experience all provide sources of norms; not every view about everything is correct.

In any event, I think you and I have explored our differences in sufficient detail and I’ll leave it to others to respond further.

Roger D. McKinney - #10053

April 16th 2010

Let’s change the venue again just for perspective. I debate socialists all the time. I have a masters in economics and a bachelors in theology. The main technique of debating that socialists use is redefinition. They take words that have clear meanings to most people, tweak the definitions slightly and come up with the opposite meaning. If I accepted socialist definitions of words, I would have no choice but to agree with them. But I insist on using the commonly understood meanings of words and that frustrates socialists to no end.

I see TE’s using a similar methodology. TE’s can’t accept a natural reading of Genesis because it contradicts the theory of evolution. So they start tweaking definitions to get the result they want. Why not just say that none of Genesis 1-4 is accurate because it contradicts the theory of evolution? That would make interpretation of the Cross a little more difficult, but TE’s could simply say “I don’t understand it, but Jesus said it so I believe it!” I could respect that.

beaglelady - #10056

April 16th 2010

Early Genesis has many poetic elements, most of which show up better in the Hebrew than in English

John is absolutely correct.  One of the most important poetic forms used in Genesis is the chiasm, a common literary device used by ancient Near Eastern writers.  And the many plays on words do tend to get lost in translation.

Marshall - #10057

April 16th 2010

If Ge. 2-3 is plain history, it has little relevance for us. It may explain why snakes don’t have legs or who made the first humans, but not who made us. Adam’s rib may have turned into a wife, but that doesn’t say anything about marriage today. A certain tree had fruit that imparted immortality, but it’s unavailable to us today. Maybe a serpent bit one of Eve’s descendents and got stepped on, but so what?


We see the allegory. Adam, a name meaning humanity (Ge. 5:1-2), was formed from the ground by God and enlivened by his breath… and so is every creature, including me! (Ge. 18:27, Job 10:9; Ps. 104:29-30, 139:15-16) This human is split into two (male and female) and reunited into one flesh: a profound picture of marriage.

The serpent represents our accuser, Satan (Re. 12:9, 20:2). His curse foreshadows his defeat by the second Adam (Ro. 16:20). The tree of life isn’t an alternate means to immortality, but expresses full communion with God. Being cast from the garden, prevented from eating this fruit, indicates broken communion. This is restored through Jesus’ work for those who are united with him (Re. 2:7, 22:1-2).

Read allegorically, the story still has real meaning today. It’s not just a history lesson.

Dan - #10060

April 16th 2010


Allegory, yes, in that the scripture has layers of meaning beyond just a wooden set of facts.  But Augustine, in my quote above, argued that it is ALSO history and that we cannot separate the two.

Who said “We, however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind to the present day?” 

Wasn’t a 19th century fundamentalist, wasn’t a Princeton intellectual defending the church against modernism, wasn’t a Creationist clinging to a wooden literalism… it was Athanasius.

Not that I would argue we understand Genesis 1-3 perfectly, but that the church has always held the scriptures to be true, historical, and generally understandable in the broader points.  I’m with Roger.  When science and scripture conflict, TE tends to accept science and redefine scripture.

Donny - #10061

April 16th 2010

“Did God really say?”

To “elide” Adam, is to eliminate Seth from existing which eliminates Jesus from existing.

I would have to say that the whole Adam is metaphor movement, comes from the same origin as the first questioning of God to Eve.

Marshall - #10063

April 16th 2010

Hi Dan,

I agree with that quote that not even a small matter in Genesis is haphazard, though I don’t believe that means that not even a small matter could be non-literal.

I do think that Ge. 2-4 is a historical allegory, as opposed to an allegory disconnected from any history. It seems to compress a huge story, spanning many generations, into an intimate story with a few characters. It’s like how Israel’s history is summed up in the story of a woman named Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16. The story is true, and it is broadly historical, but only if one pays attention to the allegory. There’s nothing haphazard about its symbolism.

Further, both Ge. 2-4 and Eze. 16 reveal details no eyewitness historical account could. We see God’s involvement clearly, even hearing God’s thoughts. We find out the reason for historical events. It’s so much more than plain history.

Donny, your equation with Adam and Seth seems based on the genealogies, but it really can’t be that simplistic. Adam is said to be the son of God the same way Seth is the son of Adam. Yet Adam isn’t the son of God in the same sense as Jesus! We all see some metaphorical language in that genealogy; the open question is how many links of the chain it affects.

Chris Massey - #10077

April 17th 2010

David O,

I appreciate your efforts to grapple with this issue. Ultimately, I think the approach you’re suggesting comes up short for a few reasons:

1) If Adam is your “mechanism for the transmission of original sin” and he is merely one man among many, then although he will eventually become a common ancestor to all living, in the meantime for countless generations there would be two populations, those who could trace their lineage to Adam and those who could not. You then have two coexisting populations, one of fallen men, and another of unfallen men. How is that biblical? Or is God handing out souls only to Adam’s descendants (as BenYachov would have it)?

2) You don’t seem to be addressing the actual literary context of Genesis or its genre. I don’t see you arguing that thorns and thistles were the result of the fall, but that’s what Gen. 3:18 implies. Why is one part of the story mythic but another part literal?

3) The author of Genesis would have lived tens if not hundreds of thousands of years after Adam. How does he know Adam’s history? It requires a “dictation” form of inspiration that I find unlikely and inconsistent with what we find in the rest of Scripture.


Chris Massey - #10078

April 17th 2010


You’ve stated that your theological presuppositions compel you to find a way to maintain a historical Adam. I give you big points for honesty. But I think these presuppositions prevent you from accepting the fairly straightforward answer that our sinful nature is the one that our evolutionary history gave us.

Understanding sin and redemption in that context is, in my view, where we must go.

Anthony Smith - #10085

April 17th 2010

Can anyone explain what it means “to be a direct physical descendant of the progenitor alone”?

dopderbeck - #10091

April 17th 2010

Chris—good questions.  Let me take this point first:  you said:  “I think these presuppositions prevent you from accepting the fairly straightforward answer that our sinful nature is the one that our evolutionary history gave us.”

I respond to this:  I think that no matter how we conceive of Adam, Christian theology absolutely cannot go in this direction.  This would make God the author of sin.  Or, more likely, it would do away with the categories of free will and “sin” altogether.  “Sin” is an invader, an active rebellion against God.  Our evolutionary has built into us various inclinations and predispositions—but it does not compel us to sin.

dopderbeck - #10092

April 17th 2010

Chris:  As to your other points:  (1) is a problem. A couple of thoughts:

(1)(a) It’s a problem no matter how you slice the Adam question.  We have to deal with the various species of hominds / humans that went extinct over the millions of years preceding homo sapiens sapiens no matter what.  The short answer is that God dealt with them in his wisdom according to their own capabilities.  Perhaps we can think imaginitavely here about how Aslan deals with the various creatures in the Narnia Chronicles.

dopderbeck - #10093

April 17th 2010

Chris:  (1)(b) I didn’t say in my post that the propagation of original sin is only biological.  As human beings, we are a holistic duality—body and “soul” (I disagree with the nonreductive physicalists that accepting evolution requires dispensing with the “soul”—my view on this is probably close to John Polkinghorne’s, though unlike Polkinghorne I view the soul as more than an emergent property of the body).  Although human beings are each individuals, we share in some corporate spiritual ontology.  We are “present” in Adam, and as we are redeemed by Christ, we become “united” with Christ.  Therefore, original sin might be propagated laterally as well as lineally.

dopderbeck - #10094

April 17th 2010

Chris:  Your point (2) —I think I addressed it both in the posts and in the comments.  I used Karl Barth’s category of “saga.”

Your point (3)—here we get into the fascinating and difficult question of what it means for the human words of scripture to also be divine “revelation.”  I’ts beyond the scope of this discussion, but in short, I don’t necessarily see this as a problem.  Clearly, there are models of scripture as revelation in which the Gen. 1-4 narratives could be entirely post-exhilic inventions or what-not.  But I don’t see any reason to go in that direction, and for me there are some important reasons not to go entirely in that direction.

dopderbeck - #10096

April 17th 2010

Let me throw one more tidbit out there in response to Chris:  I see one of the fundamental problems with YECism, Concordism, and many versions of TE as this:  a very flat metaphysics.  In their own ways, each of these approaches can tend to reduce all of “reality” to that which is empircally verifiable.  That is a huge, huge mistake.  “Original sin,” our “participation” in Adam,  is not ultimately empirically verifiable, any more than “redemption,” our “being united with Christ,” is empirically verifiable.  The level of our being that participates in Adam or is united with Christ surely influences empirically observable realities, in particular in how we behave towards each other.  But what we can see is the tip of the iceberg, as it were.

beaglelady - #10103

April 17th 2010

We have to deal with the various species of hominds / humans that went extinct over the millions of years preceding homo sapiens sapiens no matter what.

But that isn’t the problem.  We all know that entire species went extinct.  But you have, as Chris said,  “two coexisting populations, one of fallen men, and another of unfallen men”  of the same species.  Were they homo sapiens sapiens?  Where did this take place?

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