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Is There a Historical Adam?

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August 14, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin

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

In my previous post, I indicated that there is a lot of figurative language in Genesis 1. The same may be said for Genesis 2, the second creation account in which there is a focus on Adam and Eve. Also, as we saw in Genesis 1, there is an implicit polemic against ancient Near Eastern mythological ideas. Listen to the description of human beings in the Babylonian Atrahasis. The background to this passage is a strike on the part of the lesser gods who are tired of doing heavy labor on behalf of the major gods. They insist that they be replaced. Belet-ili, the mother god, takes clay and mixes it with the blood of the instigator of the strike, then the text says:

After she had mixed the clay,
She summoned the Anunna, the great gods,
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.

From this mixture of clay from the earth and the spit of the gods Belit-ili creates human beings in order to do the heavy labor of the gods.

We should read the description of the creation of Adam with this as a background because the original audience certainly did. Adam too is created from the ground (dust) and a divine component (God’s breath). Is this a literal description of how God actually created the first human being? Hardly. Even without recourse to knowledge of ancient Near Eastern literature, this description is clearly not literal. God does not have a body with lungs so that he would literally breathe into dust. God is a spiritual being. The description has other purposes than telling us how God created human beings. It is, in the first place, saying God, and not any other god, created human beings. Second, it is, in contrast to the Atrahasis, presenting a picture of humanity’s creation which indicates that we are creatures with great dignity (created from God’s breath, not the spit of the gods).

Again, the point is that Genesis 1 and 2 are not interested in the question of how God ordered creation and human beings in particular. It is proclaiming that God is the creator of both.

The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.

This issue is an important one. It is wrong to challenge people to choose between the Bible and the science of evolution as if you can only believe that one or the other is true. They are not in conflict. It is particularly damaging to insist that our young people make this kind of false choice as they are studying biology in secondary school or college. If we do so, we will force some to choose against the Bible and others to check their intelligence at the classroom door. This is a false dilemma created by a misuse of the biblical text.

Tremper Longman is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, as well as Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Mars Hill Graduate School and adjunct of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of over twenty books, including the upcoming Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins with physicist Richard F. Carlson.

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Kenny - #27611

August 31st 2010

To Jimpithecus from #25620,

Genesis 2 is about the sixth day/age and a local land (Eden). This is not about the earth as a whole as Genesis 1 describes. This local land had a dry season. Genesis 2:5 tells us that there were no wild shrubs and no cultivated grains in that region, because it had not rained and there was no man to cultivate the ground.

Genesis 2:19 should be translated “had formed.” The naming of the animals was part of taking authority as God had commanded in Genesis 1:28.

Also, the Hebrew of Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 shows one male and one female, just like Genesis 2.

Unless you misrepresent the text, there are no contradictions.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #27620

August 31st 2010

The importance of Genesis 2-3 is not what it tells us about science, but what it tells about humanity and the human condition, that is about who we are.  Are they figurtive?  No, they are real. 

No one can deny that the two first original human beings once existed, even though their names were probably not Adam and Eve.  They most likely did not have names. 

No one can deny that evil came into the world through human sin, so there must have been an original, primal sin.  All of these events are historical realities, just like the invention of the wheel and the invention of language, even though we can not say exactly when and how.

Genesis 2-3 is true because it is the best explanation of the spiritual birth and development of real human beings in real historical time.  It tells us WHO we are, fallen children of God, not WHAT we are as science seeks to tell us.  Who and what we are are both important, but we lose them both if we confuse them as many people do these days.

Jon Garvey - #27646

August 31st 2010

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #27620

This is a neat summary, but I think the problem is that the science challenges one of your key propositions, thus making the second problematic.

The chicken-egg conundrum is solved genetically by a bunch of almost chickens interbreeding during a rapid period of evolution, so the whole population becomes chickens together. In the human case the bottleneck population seems to be about 1-10,000 from study of the genes, so there was never a first pair biologically.

That does not preclude a first pair in some spiritual sense, nor therefore a first sin. But it does raise the problem of accounting for the universality of sin if the first “spiritual” man was not the physical progenitor of the whole race. There seems to be wide Scriptural support that sin is in our very nature now, rather than acquired by example or education.

That is the dysjunction that often makes the theologically weighted uncomfortable with the science, and with the approaches generally used to bring science and Scripture together.

Martin Rizley - #28400

September 6th 2010

Jim,  The New Testament distinguishes between Hades and Gehenna, the former referring to: (1) the grave itself; or (2) to the place of suffering where unrepentant souls who die ‘in their sins’  are kept PRIOR to the day of resurrection, when all will be raised bodily to stand before Christ in judgment.  Jesus says that the rich man lifted up his eyes ‘in Hades,’ so he was referring to the ‘intermediate state,’ not to the final destination of the lost, which is referred to in Scripture as “Gehenna” or “the lake of fire.”  So His language is clearly figurative, for the rich man, being a disembodied spirit in Hades, would not have a literal, physical tongue.  The language is intended to convey, in terms that we can understand from our earthly experience, the state of distress and longing for relief that lost souls who reject the offer of salvation find themselves in after death, even prior to the final resurrection.  Regarding your first question, I believe that anyone who has a doctorate level knowledge from Harvard of a particular subject is clearly not speaking out of sheer ignorance when they take a position that differs radically from what they were taught in school, so they merit a hearing.

ChrisMuriel - #66512

December 13th 2011

When you say “God does not have a body with lungs so that he would literally breathe into dust” and “God is a spiritual being”, you are assuming that you already know everything about God. Suppose someone says “define ‘spiritual being’” what would you answer? I mean how much do we know about spiritual beings? Do they eat? Do they sleep? Do they make phone calls? Do they ride cars? Do they go to school? Do they go to the bathroom?


In Rom 5:19 it says “For as by ONE MAN’S disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

In 1Ch 1:1-4  it says - Adam, Sheth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalaleel, Jered, Henoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.


And Luk 3:38 says -  Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.


And Jud 1:14  says  - And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints,


And 1Tim 2:14 says - And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.

After reading all this if you still say it “does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one” then I don’t really know what to say. Do people use analogies in genealogies? That would be absurd, right? 

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