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Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

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June 17, 2010 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. 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.

Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

As many of our readers know, the historicity of Adam and Eve is a critically important topic in the discussion of Christianity and human origins. Although BioLogos takes a firm stand on the fact that Adam and Eve could not have been the sole biological progenitors of all humans (see here), science does not rule out the possibility of a historical Adam and Eve, which opens this interesting discussion.

The range of Christian perspectives on this topic is introduced in our FAQ on Evolution and the Fall. Harrell’s entry below follows several other recent posts presenting different views on the topic, including those from Tom Wright (here and here), Pete Enns, David Opderbeck, and Alister McGrath.

Update 6/24/2010: Darrel Falk has also written a response to this blog here.

Any discussion about evolution and faith quickly polarizes when it comes to Adam and Eve. Do we understand the Bible’s first couple as literal people or literary figures?

If they are literary people, then that raises questions about the rest of the Biblical cast. Are Moses and Jesus fictional characters too?

If they are literal people, then the trove of evolutionary and DNA evidence can’t be right. It’s impossible for the human race to trace back to a single pair of parents (and this without mentioning a talking snake and God creating Adam out of the dirt and Eve from his rib). For the serious student of Scripture and science, making a choice between literal and literary is impossible too. Can’t there be a middle option?

Perhaps.

Can we read Adam and Eve’s origin as a poetic reference to God’s involvement in the evolution of humanity while still regarding them as historical people (as do Jesus and Paul)?

To regard Adam and Eve as historical figures leaves us with basically two options within an evolutionary rubric. The first is that God created them supernaturally, midstream in evolution’s flow. To create in such a way would require that God also put in place a DNA history, since human origins genetically trace back to earlier, common ancestors. Conceptually, this presents the same problems as creating the universe with apparent age. Apparent age is how some square a literal Genesis with scientific evidence. Stars that appear to be billions of years old (according to cosmological measurements) are in reality only a few thousand years old (according to literal biblical reckoning). God created the stars with age.

The problem is that creating with age makes God seem to be tricking us into thinking things are older than they are with no clear reason for doing so. Nevertheless, given that Adam and Eve are both introduced in Genesis, presumably as adults rather than children (even if they acted like children), it could be that in their case, creating with age (and a history) would apply. While we might not necessarily understand why God would do that, he could do that (being God and all).

Another option might be to have Adam and Eve exist as first among Homo sapiens, specially chosen by God as representatives for a relationship with him. We often speak of Adam theologically as serving as representative of humanity in matters of original sin (his sin affects us all; Romans 5:12), so the idea of Adam as representative already exists in Christian theology.

Science asserts that evolved brain capacity and function are part of what set Homo sapiens apart from previous hominids. It is this same capacity and function that make relationship possible and, particularly in the creation account, covenantal relationships between humans and God and between humans and each other (i.e., marriage). An advantage of this interpretation is that God’s natural processes marvelously work without the need for any ancestral or genetic fabrication. Also, you’d finally be able to explain where it is that Cain found his wife (answer: from the other humans walking the earth east of Eden; Genesis 4:16-17).

However, this view would require a reinterpretation of words like “formed” and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7 KJV). Can we use “formed” and “breathed” to mean created through the long and continuous history of biological evolution (as were the other living creatures in Genesis 1)? If so, then perhaps “the Lord God formed the man” could be read emphasizing the novelty and uniqueness which humans inhabit.

Similarly, the “breath of life” would not signify simply oxygenated animation (surely Genesis isn’t simply speaking in that sense), but that breath which set humans apart as inspired by God (the Hebrew word for breath here is different than the word used for oxygen-intake by living creatures as a whole).

There are those who would object to such a reading since the Biblical author would not have had knowledge of evolutionary biology. And yet just because the author of Genesis wasn’t a scientist doesn’t mean that evolution wasn’t happening. We still describe babies’ births as “miracles” even though they’re among the most natural occurrences in nature.

Whether specially created or specially selected, humans constitute an interruption in the evolutionary process. Before people showed up, evolution’s potential pathways were invisible. But once humans appear, human volition entered with it. The human capacity to choose replaced randomness with intentionality. We have developed enough mastery over our environment (Genesis 1:28) that natural selection, in the strict Darwinian sense, no longer really applies to us.

We now control our own evolution, capable not only of self-awareness, but of self-determination too. Qualities that make relationship with God and others possible also made the breaking of relationship possible. This is a sad reality expressed throughout human history. The brokenness of human relationship affects, not only the relationship with God and our relationships with each other, but our relationship with the rest of creation. Even if humans were specially created, we were still made out of the dust of the ground, the same ground from which all other living things emerged.


Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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BenYachov - #19662

July 1st 2010

In the end there is no effective simplistic atheist argument.  One needs intellegent indepth atheistic arguments that are informed by philosophy.  There is no “one size fits all refutation” of the Bible or theism either.  You must accept the brute fact historically not all religious groups who accept the Bible read or interpret it in the same way & they all don’t have the same doctrines on the nature of the Bible or rules on how it must be interpreted.  Especially Genesis.  In short fundamentalism is modern not ancient.


BenYachov - #19666

July 1st 2010

>we differ in quantity, not quality when it comes to “intellective knowledge and free will.”

I reply: Yes but I have not seen any empirical evidence it is a matter of quantity not quality.  All I have seen is evidence interpreted with a predisposition a filter that it is a matter of quantity not quality.  That is only possible if I adopt the philosophal theory of interpretivism, inference and or similarity.

These are philosophical questions not empirical.


BenYachov - #19672

July 1st 2010

http://www.livescience.com/animals/061030_elephant_mirror.html

The above link can be seen entirely in terms of the anthopomorphic fallacy.  There is nothing substansive to suggest Elephants are “self-aware” just because they don’t react to their reflections as if they where other animals.

http://drbonnette.com/Ape-Language_Studies_Part_I.html

http://drbonnette.com/Ape-Language_Studies_Part_II.html

QUOTE"Investigators and experimenters, in turn, accommodate themselves to the expectations of their animal subjects, unwittingly entering into a subtle nonverbal communication with them while convincing themselves, on the basis of their own human rules of interpretation, that the apes’ reactions are more humanlike than direct evidence warrants.“END QUOTE

The above could apply to the elepant.  Scientific “evidence” of Elephant “self-awareness” indeed!  One could deny God & see this is the Koko the Chimp nonsense all over again.


BenYachov - #19673

July 1st 2010

Same with this one.
http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2008/10/
>Animals often show a keen intelligence and many species, from octopuses to crows, can perform problem-solving tasks. But humans are thought to go one step further. We can reflect on our own thoughts and we have knowledge about our knowledge…....Allison Foote and Jonathon Crystal searched for metacognition in rats by giving them a test that they could decline. If they passed, they received a big reward and if they failed, they got nothing. But the cunning part of their study lay in giving the rats a small reward if they declined the test. If they knew they were unlikely to succeed, they’d be better off bowing out. In this experiment, a measured attitude beats a gung-ho one….After some initial training, the results were clear.


BenYachov - #19674

July 1st 2010

OTOH
http://drbonnette.com/Ape-Language_Studies_Part_I.html
Man exhibits intellective knowledge by (1) forming abstract concepts, (2) making judgments, and (3) reasoning from premises to conclusions in logical fashion. Subhuman animals’ sensory abilities, including imagination and sense memory, enable them to manipulate sensory data and use inborn natural signs to communicate instinctively, and even to be taught by man to use humanly-invented signs. Still, they do not understand the meanings their signs express, nor form judgments, much less engage in reasoning.

To cite Hediger & Rensch QUOTE"In other words, with all animals with which we try to enter into conversation we do not deal with primary animals but with anthropogenous animals, so-to-speak with artifacts, and we do not know how much of their behaviour may still be labelled as animal behaviour and how much, through the catalytic effect of man, has been manipulated into the animal. This is just what we would like to know. Within this lie the alpha and omega of practically all such animal experiments since Clever Hans.


BenYachov - #19676

July 1st 2010

anyway here all all my links.

drbonnette.com/Ape-Language_Studies_Part_I.html
drbonnette.com/Ape-Language_Studies_Part_II.html
plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/
http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48931772.html
instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/nagel_nice.html
http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174
http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1184
Hominization: On the Origin of Mankind
http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p83.htm
Adam, Eve, and the Hominid Fossil Record
http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p87.htm
http://thomism.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/monogenism-and-the-faith/
http://thomism.wordpress.com/2009/07/15/monogenism-and-the-faith-a-solution/
http://drbonnette.com/Genisis_A_Fairy_Tale.html

By all means read Myers’ links.  They won’t make the case against Bonnette they will just beg the question.  One doesn’t have to believe in God to see that.


Greg Myers - #19747

July 1st 2010

So you seem to hold on to the hope that we can’t know if other creatures are conscious, in order to preserve the uniqueness of humanity.  You seem to be marshaling arguments to support a theological presumption - one that was made during a time when we had a poor understanding of life, and the process by which it came to be.

Nagel writes:
“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, ... But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. “

So maybe I can’t know what it is to be a bat, but the bat can. 

The assumption of a creationist theology is that the different kinds are made by God, and so exist in a hierarchy of being determined by proximity to the divine.  You would expect then an bridgeable difference between people and other animals.  This turns out to be inaccurate.  Evolution predicts that we see reuse and re-purposing of structures and traits first developed in other animals.  This is what we see throughout nature, and indeed in ourselves.  We are different in quantity, not quality of consciousness.


Greg Myers - #19750

July 1st 2010

So the question remains - are we all related to Adam and Eve? 

“Well that common ancestor had to have mated with somebody.  Still if a bottleneck of 2000 people is possible for 100,000 years I don’t see why a bottleneck of 2 people who produce 100,000 people over 5 or 10 generations is not possible if I believe Bonnette & the sources cites even if it’s not probable.  OTOH if current theory says it is not possible then either Adam & Eve’s children mated with unsouled hominids whose offspring had souls or the current science may change Bennette has given an example.”

Because we can find no such common ancestor.  Maybe this will help:
http://scienceblogs.com/authority/2007/07/adam_eve_and_why_they_never_go.php

“Adam & Eve’s children mated with unsouled hominids…” I like this.  And there is evidence that early humans mated with Neanderthals.  Problem solved.  Its just not the Genesis story.  Just like Young Earth Creationists, you mangle the text and the science in order to support an early attempt at explaining our origins that is simply wrong (and that, by the way, takes place on a flat earth under the hard dome of the sky).  You’ve left allegory and entered the realm of fantasy.


BenYachov - #19766

July 1st 2010

>So you seem to hold on to the hope that we can’t know if other creatures are conscious, in order to preserve the  


I reply: Rather you seem to on to the hope that we can know & or that we do in order to justify you own simplistic brand of Atheism.  Plus as I have show one does not have to believe in God to believe in the uniqueness of humanity.  None of these views are required for Atheism & of course you have no empiricism to back you up.  Plus the arguments that you can never have it are strong.

>So maybe I can’t know what it is to be a bat, but the bat can. 

I reply: If we hold to your as of yet unproven or unproved presuposition that there really is an “I” in the Bat that can know.


BenYachov - #19767

July 1st 2010

>The assumption of a creationist theology is that the different kinds are made by God, and so exist in a hierarchy of being determined by proximity to the divine.  You would expect then an bridgeable difference between people and other animals.

I reply: Maybe that is true of Fundamentalist Creationists but as I have been trying to explain to you I am a Catholic.  There is no bridge between humans and animals that can be detected empirically.  Thus I have no reason to believe humans are merely ddifferent in quantity, not quality of consciousness.  I would believe that even if I denied God.


BenYachov - #19772

July 1st 2010

>Evolution predicts that we see reuse and re-purposing of structures and traits first developed in other animals. 

I reply: What hard empirical evidence do have this must be applied or can be applied across the board.  Because I don’t see how it can be applied to human cultural sociology or human cognition in general.  David Stove showed that is the case.  You are making extreme claims that go beyond your empiricism alone view.  If they are philosophical claims that is nice but you have to defend them.


BenYachov - #19776

July 1st 2010

>Adam & Eve’s children mated with unsouled hominids…” I like this.  And there is evidence that early humans mated with Neanderthals.  Problem solved.  Its just not the Genesis story. 

I reply: An Atheist who militantly believes in the Protestant doctrines of perpetuity and Sola Scriptura!  How quaint!  You do realize your argument is in effect “Mr Catholic you should believe X because the Koran says X”.  But I don’t believe in the Koran?  In a like manner you argument is “You should take a literalistic reading of Genesis alone without tradition.”  But I don’t believe in taking Genesis alone.  This is just an irrational argument.  One doesn’t have to believe in God to see that.  Rabbi Kahn’s shows ancient Jews did not either.


BenYachov - #19778

July 1st 2010

>http://scienceblogs.com/authority/2007/07/adam_eve_and_why_they_never_go.php

My Post#19638(BTW I don’t believe mitochondrial Eve is the same as Biblical Eve).  What part of that do you not get Myers?

Your article assumes Y Chromosome Adam &  mitochondrial Eve are to be equated with Biblical Adam & Eve.  I don’t make that assumption at all.  You have not be reading my posts so I conclude you are not arguing in good faith.

Lame!


BenYachov - #19781

July 1st 2010

>Just like Young Earth Creationists, you mangle the text and the science in order to support an early attempt at explaining our origins that is simply wrong (and that, by the way, takes place on a flat earth under the hard dome of the sky).  You’ve left allegory and entered the realm of fantasy.

I reply:  Your statement actually assumes there is an objective authentic interpretation of the text (found solely in the literalistic interpretation)because it can be mangled.  Like I said an Atheist who believes in the Protestant doctrines of perspicuity & Sola Scriptura.  It’s it kinda of stupid to attack the doctrines of one religion you reject by using the doctrines from another religion you also reject.  If I was debating a Protestant I certainly wouldn’t make any arguments against his view from the Koran. I’d have to be a Muslim to do that. 

Now at this point you are just repeating yourself & you have run out of rational arguments.


BenYachov - #19785

July 1st 2010

Let me give you some practical advise here Greg.  If I am trying to convince a Liberal Protestant or an Atheist to become a Catholic I wouldn’t waste my time trying to make him a YEC.  OTOH if I was trying to convert a Protestant Fundamentlist I would waste my time trying to make him a Theistic Evolutionist or Old Earth Creationist(since in theory Catholicism tolerates any of these views).  If I want to convert a Calvinist I won’t waste my time trying to make him a Catholic Molinist.  I’d make him a Thomist.

With this in mind I can be an Atheist & still believe (if even by sheer accident) humans are qualitatively unique & superior compared to animals.  I can believe based on science & Atheistic philosophy & philosophy of science alone that cognitive experiences in animals are beyond hard empirical testing & direct observation.  (BTW if I believe Bonnette whose arguments you clearly haven’t read I can accept human origin from a bottleneck even if it is very very very improbable).

So why you are wasting your time doing more than you should is anybody’s guess.


BenYachov - #19804

July 1st 2010

>early attempt at explaining our origins that is simply wrong (and that, by the way, takes place on a flat earth under the hard dome of the sky).

I reply: Father Stanley Jaki also says Genesis One describes a flat earth under the hard dome of the sky.  So what?  I don’t disagree with him.  But he also points out Genesis portrays a World made & sustained by God where as the Near Eastern Pagan Myths portray an Atheistic Universe.  A Universe where primal Chaos is in the Beginning & out of it come the “gods” who are personifications of mere natural forces.  Modern Materialist Scientists depersonalize the natural Forces but in essence they agree with the Pagan Myths philosophically.  That is the lesson of Genesis.  Augustine did not believe in a six day creation.  He believed all thing where simultaneously created all at once based on his understanding of Genesis 2:4 & the Book of Sirach.

Anyway I agree with Jaki the Bible was not meant to teach science.  It is merely consistent with science properly interpreted.  Of course I don’t use the Bible per say to prove God.  There I start with philosophy.  So fundamentalist attacks on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible can never by definition move me.


BenYachov - #19810

July 1st 2010

My grammer sucks in post #19766 rodo
>So you seem to hold on to the hope that we can’t know if other creatures are conscious, in order to preserve the

I reply: Rather you seem to hold on to the hope that we can know this & or that we do in fact know it order to justify you own simplistic brand of Atheism.  Plus as I have shown one does not have to believe in God to believe in the uniqueness of humanity.  None of these views are required for Atheism & of course you have no conclusive empiricism to back up your claims.  Plus the arguments that you can never have this knowlege is strong.

>So maybe I can’t know what it is to be a bat, but the bat can.

I reply: Only if we hold to your as of yet unproven or unprovable presupposition that there really is an “I” in the Bat that can know.  But so far your begging the question.

Better.


Greg Myers - #19834

July 1st 2010

“Anyway I agree with Jaki the Bible was not meant to teach science.  It is merely consistent with science properly interpreted.”  The proper interpretation is of course the key.  The bible says the earth is flat and the sky a hard dome.  How do I make this ” consistent with science properly interpreted?”  By setting aside the claim to historicity.  There was no flat earth or hard dome.  These elements of the narrative communicate other things, and must be taken figuratively, or understood allegorically, or ignored as cultural misunderstanding.

OK.  How do I make Adam and Eve ” consistent with science properly interpreted?”  There was no Adam and Eve, per se.  They stand for theological ideas, or serve allegorical or figurative purposes in the narrative.

There is no reason in the text to affirm Adam and Eve as historical, but to deny the flat earth or hard dome of the sky.

I am not arguing for a literal interpretation of the text - the discussion is around the notion of an historical Adam and Eve.  In order to be historical, Adam and Eve would have to have been the first people of the human race, to have been a sexually reproducing couple, and to have been recognizably human.  The evidence is that no such couple existed.


Greg Myers - #19835

July 1st 2010

As far as consciousness goes, I quoted your bat author who ascribes consciousness to animals besides humans.  As the only reason to deny consciousness to animals other than homo sapiens is to protect a theological assertion, it is on you to demonstrate that consciousness does not exist, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. 

It is evolution that has done the hard work of explaining where we came from.  Consciousness existing in animals other than people is a non-controversial idea (that is, there is nothing in evolution to rule out self-awareness in a wide range of animals).

The theological assertion that humans are unique in terms of “intellective knowledge and free will,” as another of our sources puts it is not backed by evidence - it is simply the rational conclusion of many when looking for the image of God in humans.  Just like a flat earth, a hard dome of a sky and an historical Adam and Eve, they are simply wrong.

So by all means, reinterpret the bible in such a way as you are comfortable with your faith - but in doing so, you have left behind any notion of a historical Adam and Eve.


Gregory - #19847

July 1st 2010

Hello Greg,

First time to write you, so welcome to BioLogos.

From the above dialogue with BenYakhov, I gather you´re a person who believes humans differ only in ´degree´ & not in ´kind´ from ´other animals´. Is this a correct interpretation of your view?

Likewise, I gather you hold the position: there simply was *no first human being,* at least, not one that can be identified historically. In other words, you believe that the difference between a proto-human and an actual ´real human´ is indistinguishable if only one or two examples at any particular time are provided. Is this correct?

Finally, you accept polygenesis, not monogenesis. That is, you believe that human beings ´emerged´ on Earth at different locations & times. In other words, you believe the various ´races´ (excuse me, anthropologists, for this term) of human beings do not share a common ancestral pair, which Muslims, Christians & Jews call ´Adam´ & ´Eve´.  For you, mongoloids, negroids, caucasians, aborigenes, et al. theoretically ´evolved´ separately. There is no single origin of human beings. Is this your view?

Just trying to learn where you´re coming before speaking my position.

Thanks,
Gregory


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