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Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

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June 17, 2010 Tags: Human Origins
Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

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

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?


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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Greg Myers - #19857

July 1st 2010

Gregory - close, but no.  I believe that humans are reusing, for the most part, structures and facilities that first appear in other animals.  Other animals are self aware, but we appear to be more self aware - though it may turn out that some animals are self-aware in ways that we are not.  For example, we seem to be the only animals to preserve our history through stories, songs and writing. 

There is no first human being because we are talking about genes in population groups.  These various groups seem to have separated and merged, until, over time, a fairly stable set of genes represent what we think of as humans.  Of course, even now, there is quite a lot of genetic diversity from person to person, and that genetic diversity is reflected in structural differences (for example, in what muscles we have, where tendons connect, etc).  So the first humans were a population group, and the time when these first humans appeared would be a fairly arbitrary line drawn in the sand.

Greg Myers - #19865

July 1st 2010

Link to some recent work on animals and self-awareness


Link to normal variation in anatomy


BenYachov - #19867

July 1st 2010

What do you believe to be true but cannot prove?
“I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness. It would follow that non-human animals and pre-linguistic children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, are not really conscious in this strong sense. This assertion is shocking to many people, who fear it would demote animals and pre-linguistic children from moral protection, but this would not follow.”-Daniel Dennett

“I believe that all intelligence, all creativity, and all design anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.“Richard Dawkins

BenYachov - #19871

July 1st 2010

Well Gregory since my vacation has come to an end I will turn Greg Myers over to you.  But before I go I just can’t resist one last correction of Myers. 

>As far as consciousness goes, I quoted your bat author who ascribes consciousness to animals besides humans. 

I reply: A Theistic Thomist like me would say an animal has a consciousness of sense(i.e. a sensative animal soul) but if you have been paying attention my objection is to the belief animals have an consciousness of intellect(i.e. a rational intellective soul) so I think your problem here is confusing linguistic convention with technically accuracy.  An example of linguistic convention would be to say “Animals have no souls” vs the technical “animals have no rational spiritual souls but material sensitive souls”.  A more famous example you should be fimilar with would be “men evolved from apes” vs the technical “Men & Apes share a common ancestor”.  So prooftexting Nagel on animal conciousness is not presuasive.


BenYachov - #19874

July 1st 2010

OTOH…(I hope you are paying close attention to post #19867) Nagel is as much of a convinced Atheist as either Dennett or Dawkins so it would not be unusual for him to believe what Dennett believes about consciousness or believe what you believe except according to Nagel’s philosophy he would still say he could not prove it in principle scientifically.  Dennett naturally disagrees and thinks it might be proven.  But both would agree it has not been proven thus based on the testimony of these experts your I am even more compelled to reject your extreme claims about science & evolution.

Greg Myers - #19876

July 1st 2010

Ben, since I don’t believe in souls, and you’ve provided no evidence of their existence, your argument is not very persuasive. 

As for Dawkin’s quote - all life comes late in the universe.

As far as Dennet goes, I doubt you agree with him that children have no souls.  If you define consciousness as requiring language, then of course any creature without language cannot be conscious.  Again, I am not arguing that humans have no unique traits, but that we got to where we are by building on traits that other animals have.  For example,

“The process by which baby birds learn to sing shares a number of traits with that by which toddlers learn to talk. Now researchers have identified a common gene between birds and people that underlies both abilities. The discovery marks the start of an effort to explore the genetic underpinnings of vocal learning.”


Gregory - #20113

July 2nd 2010

HI Greg,

Sorry, but I´m not clear yet what you are saying. I asked three basic questions to try to understand and it seems you only answered one of them.

The three questions:
1) Do humans differ only in ´degree´ & not in ´kind´ from ´other animals´?
2) Was there simply *no first human being,* at least, not one that can be identified historically?
3) Do you accept polygenesis and not monogenesis?

You answered 2), saying: “There is no first human being because we are talking about genes in population groups.”

This addresses 2) offering a gene-centric reason for *no first human being*. Yet I was *not* “talking about genes in population groups.” Indeed, there´s a lot more fields involved in answering the question if there was or could have been a *first human being* than merely population genetics or even just physical sciences alone.

I´ll wait for your answers to the other 2 questions, otherwise I doubt more conversation could be fruitful.


p.s. just because one doesn´t “believe in souls” doesn´t mean that one doesn´t have a soul.

“How can you know what it is if you´ve never had one?” - U2 (Walk On)

Greg Myers - #20146

July 2nd 2010

Gregory, there is not more to being human than genes in population groups.  That is what we are - protein expressions of our genes.

There is no first human being because we are talking about a collection of genes that, when instantiated, are what we call human.  In any given population, there is a diversity of genomes, slowly “walking” towards greater fitness for our environment.  At some point in that walk, you could have looked at the population and say “this looks like us.”

I don’t believe in souls because I see no evidence of one - a soul was just an earlier explanation for processes and states we now understand differently.

Greg Myers - #20148

July 2nd 2010

Gregory, I don’t know what you are asking me when you ask if humans differ in degree and not in kind.  We have clear connection to all life - more so to other animals, more so to other primates, more so to our parents and grandparents.  There are some unique things about humans - but none that are a clean break from other life, with no analogue.

I think that humans all trace back to the same population groups- does that answer your question?

Greg Myers - #20169

July 2nd 2010

BTW, Gregory, you write:

“I´ll wait for your answers to the other 2 questions, otherwise I doubt more conversation could be fruitful”

We haven’t had a conversation yet - more like an interrogation.  If I had a better idea of where you are coming from, perhaps I could do a better job of answering your questions - and maybe even starting a dialog.

BenYachov - #20654

July 6th 2010

>Gregory, I don’t know what you are asking me when you ask if humans differ in degree and not in kind.

I reply: What do you think he is talking about Mr. “we differ in quantity, not quality when it comes to “intellective knowledge and free will.”?  It’s obvious.

David M. - #20681

July 6th 2010

The following Richard Bozarth quote is instructive:

“Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of god.  Take away the meaning of his death.” - American Atheist, February 1978, P. 30.

Theistic Evolutionists should find out what the atheists believe, then take the opposite position.

Besides, trying to disprove Adam and Eve is impossible… except for an atheist, whose beliefs become their reality (no pun or harm intended).

Greg Myers - #20740

July 6th 2010

David - any more than there is a single profile of a theist, there is no single profile of an atheist.  Some atheists may want to see an end of religion (all religions, not just yours), others give the subject no thought at all, and others are deeply sympathetic to the human need for faith, hope, community and a sense of purpose - but do not see religion as the best foundation for human life and community.

Gregory - #20814

July 7th 2010


You are correct that we haven’t had a conversation.

“there is not more to being human than genes in population groups.” - G. Myers

What about art, music, sports; emotions, intuitions, feelings, beliefs? Can they all be addressed by ‘genes in population’? Sounds reductionistic, no?

“There is no first human being because we are talking about a collection of genes” - Myers

I’m not a genetic reductionist. Human beings are more integral at higher levels (e.g. faith).

Likewise, is there no symphony because all we are talking about is a collection of instruments?!

“I don’t believe in souls because I see no evidence of one” - G. Myers

What type of ‘evidence’ are you looking for? Biological, physical or spatial evidence? Or are you saying that the words ‘spirit’ & ‘soul’ have no meaning in your vocabulary?

Most people, i.e. the vast majority, even if they don’t attend a Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple, believe in ‘soul’ &/or ‘spirit’ as something transcendental about human life. As said above, just because you don’t feel it or know it doesn’t mean you don’t have one, i.e. doesn’t mean that your soul is not with you. Perhaps it is the most important part you’ve yet to discover?

Gregory - #20822

July 7th 2010

“I think that humans all trace back to the same population groups- does that answer your question?” - G. Myers

Not exactly.

The question about monogenesis or polygenesis asks if you think that ‘all humans’ trace from a single source somewhere in the North-East Africa/West-Asia, OR if you think that ‘human beings’ (or homo sapiens sapiens) trace from multiple sources around the world.

The ideas mono- and poly- should not be difficult to understand in context.

Most atheists and liberal religious persons I know accept a ‘common descent’ from a single source (i.e. monogenesis), but leave open the (racist or speciesist) possibility that human beings arose in multiple locations (polygenesis) around the world. I have heard this position argued for ‘segregating’ international sporting events, among other things. In such a case, humanity is not ‘unitied’ by being a single ‘race’ or ‘species,’ but is rather ‘divided’ by the multiple origin sources and different ‘species’ histories. Some human beings, in this polygenesis scenario, are inevitably either ‘less human’ or ‘more human’ than others.

Greg Myers - #20874

July 7th 2010

Gregory, thanks - now we’re getting somewhere!

“What about art, music, sports; emotions, intuitions, feelings, beliefs? Can they all be addressed by ‘genes in population’? Sounds reductionistic, no?”

No, not reductionist - a better hypothesis.  We, creatures who are formed through genetic expression in a particular pre-natal environment (epigenetic factors, chemical gradients and so on), plus things like our upbringing, culture, education are capable of emotion, of art, emotions, etc.

The point of my comments about analogues of these sorts of traits in other animals (play, emotions, communication, tool use, planning for the future, altruistic actions, self-awareness) is that your list is not exclusive to humans, but on a continuum with other animals - creatures with whom we share genes.

This, again, is my point about there being no first human.  Some genetic variations were more successful, leading to more frequent reproduction, leading to an increase of those genes (alleles) in the population, and over a long, long expanse of time, we are the result.  Not designed, but not random, either - rather, more fit, so producing more offspring, so increasing the frequency of those fitter genes in the population.

Greg Myers - #20875

July 7th 2010

As for mono- or poly-, I would think it very unlikely that humans would have evolved twice, let alone many times.  What is more, all people seem to share common genetic ancestors, which pretty much puts paid to the idea of races evolving independently.  Given what we now know, I don’t know why anyone would still believe it.

And finally, the universal use of the idea of soul and spirit.  I don’t know - seems like everyone used to say that the sun rose, but it turns out they had got it wrong.  It sure looks like the sun rises - but knowing the truth helps make sense of a lot of other things about the world that seem odd or unknowable as long as you think the sun goes home to rest at night.

Yes, there is free will, character, emotions, awe, play, music, sport, etc.  These used to be attributed to the soul or spirit.  I don’t think we need the concepts anymore - we have a much better explanation, that in its turn explains many more things.  This is one of the cool things about the scientific approach to knowledge - finding an answer in one area can answer other questions (or suggest a new path to pursue), and opens up a whole new world to explore.

Melanie Stephan - #22269

July 17th 2010

The Story about Adam & Eve is a Metaphor about the future.  It is not about the past at all.  Lets talk about Trees and Metaphors.  What is a metaphor?  A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word for one idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them.  OK, what is the metaphor for a Tree of Knowledge.  How about a Book?  Books are made from trees and have leaves.  Leaflets are also made from trees.  So the Tree is a Book.  What kind of a Book?

This Book holds the knowledge of good and bad.  The Book is the Bible.  Tree don’t grow knowledge. Do they?  Books do hold knowledge.

So, what is the fruit in the Bible?

Come on this has to be easy now that I got you started.  What is the fruit in the New Testament?

Melanie - #22307

July 18th 2010

If I may steal a phrase from another blogger above who wrote:

Food for thought

Now food doesn’t make you think so this blogger means something else just like the following verse from Genesis, where God says:

  Genesis 2:16 “From every tree of the garden you may eat to satisfaction.  17 But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”

What does God mean by eat

? Are words Food? You can't eat a book, at least most of us wouldn't think of it. But you can digest a Book. You can take in the words of a book and you can consume a book. So when God says eat, he means "take in". In the same way you

‘take in’ words for thought.

Melanie - #22308

July 18th 2010

This Tree has two different varieties of fruit on it.  It has good fruit and bad fruit.  This tree has been grafted to bear two different fruits.  The Bible has been grafted to bear both good and bad.  The Old Testament has been glued to the New Testament to make one Tree.  God says:

for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.

What does God mean by die?  He is saying that there is poison in the Bible.  Part of the this book has poison fruit in it.  Since we are not literally eating the fruit, but we are taking in the fruit.  We are poisoning our minds by taking it in.  This is brain death.  But what is the poison fruit in the Bible?

Jesus was nailed to a Tree

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