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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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Jon Garvey - #26785

August 24th 2010

And why did Noah not save the dinosaurs as directed?

And why doesn’t the Bible mention the Ice Age’s effect on ANE life?

And what happened between 10,000 BC and Babel?

And what exactly happened that stopped animals getting big when blue whales, crocodiles and elephants are doing fine?

Martin Rizley - #26812

August 24th 2010

Jon Garvey,  There is no reason to believe that the only miracles God has performed in the natural world are those recorded in the Bible.  I say this because the Bible itself suggests that there have been certain moments in history when ‘clusters’ of multiple miraculous events have occurred all at once, and some of the miracles that took place during these periods have not been recorded for us.  For example, we are specifically told that Jesus did many things during His earthly ministry which have not been recorded; and no doubt, these ‘works’ included miracles (John 21:25).  The period of the Exodus was another “miracle cluster” moment in history, in which God performed many ongoing miracles to keep the children of Israel alive in the desert.  He sustained them physically with manna and flowing water; he kept their clothes and sandals from wearing out (imagine walking daily for forty years in the same sandals over rocky terrain and finding them in good condition after 4 decades!)  The Flood was another “miracle cluster” moment when something triggered all the fountains of the deep to break open and rain to fall continuously for forty days—neither of which can be explained through natural law. (cont.)

Martin Rizley - #26816

August 24th 2010

So to assume that God would limit Himself to perform only those miracles expressly recorded in the Bible is an unbiblical assumption.  It violates what the Bible says about God’s sovereign freedom to perform miracles when and where He wills without informing men of His actions.  Where have you gotten the idea that God must reveal to us every miracle He has ever performed in the natural world?  Or the idea that, if He does perform a miracle, He must refrain from doing one that could ‘throw off’ the calculations made by geologist and biologists?  I don’t think we have any basis for that assumption.  Now, mind you,  I am not saying I agree with every creationist theory; I am saying that creationists have helped many Christians to understand the fragile nature of the philosophical assumptions that underlie methodological naturalism in historical science; by exposing those assumptions, creationists have helped people see that there is no reason Christians MUST abandon belief in the history recorded in Genesis 1-11.

Martin Rizley - #26838

August 24th 2010

John,  I think the basic question that confronts us when we look at features in the natural world that seem to present a conflict with the Genesis history of the world and mankind is this:  must we understand how to reconcile the data of the natural world with Genesis before we believe the testimony of God recorded in those first eleven chapters?  Is it a matter of understanding in order to believe, or believing in order to understand?  Is understanding a necessary precondition of faith, or is faith a necessary precondition of understanding?  And if the latter, faith in what?  My own conviction is that we must accept by faith the biblical testimony first, so that perhaps, in time, God will be pleased to help us understand how His reliable testimony can be harmonized with the data in the natural world.  Looking at the data through biblical eyes—through the lenses of an a priori faith in Scripture—will produce an approach to historical science that is different from the approach of those who give no credit to Scripture as an historical document and who do not trust in its reliability.  So that is where I am in my understanding—believing first, to understand later—not the reverse.

Jon Garvey - #26853

August 25th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #26812

Your examples make my point. All Jesus’ miracles validated and demonstrated the New Covenant. Those not specifically mentioned did the same - we would expect further healings and so on - not the miraculous inversion of a volcano in Guatemala, for example. Indeed, Jesus specifically refused to turn stones into bread for his own use not only because of his dependence on God, but because it would have served no covenant purpose.

Likewise the Exodus miracles all validated and inaugurated the Covenant in Moses.

Biblically the Flood was not a miracle - it was simply a withdrawal of God’s maintenance of creation: in the ancient worldview the waters were always there to sweep away order unless God held them back. Genesis 1 actually describes the separation of earth and firmament from vast waters, and the Flood account specifically describes opening windows and sluices to let the outside in. No miracle - only extraordinary judgement.

Only when you look at it with modernist eyes do you need to invoke miracles because there wouldn’t be enough water, there wouldn’t be anywhere to drain it etc. Then the geological evidence against a universal flood forces you to invent a whole miracle cluster. Bad theology.

Jon Garvey - #26854

August 25th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #26838

Actually I’m with you on that principle. The difference in our positions is, I think, that remaining open to Scripture as God’s word has refined my understanding of it to the extent of freeing me to some degree from both received interpretations and modern worldview. The more I comprehend Genesis in its original context, the closer I get to understanding its theology.

In that approach, forcing Scripture to interact with science is merely a distraction. Though conversely, the dysjunctions with science encourage (or force) one to dig into the word more deeply.

The other difference is that putting faith before understanding discourages me from pretending to understanding I don’t yet have. I’ve taught Genesis as theology for 25 years, whilst separately wrestling with the science of origins (because I love the subject, because I studied science, because it’s a pastoral issue for people). My least glorious moments have been defending accommodations inadequate to science or Scripture: my happiest have been taking genuine steps forward. I’m still seeking better understanding.

But Augustine applied his dictum to understanding God: he would not have approved applying it to natural philosophy.

Martin Rizley - #26870

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey,  I think I would question the statement, “Biblically, the flood was not a miracle.”  The question we need to ask is, “What constituted a miracle for the Hebrew people?”  I think the answer lies in the distinction between God’s ordinary acts in the natural realm, and His utterly unique, extraordinary acts in the natural realm that involve the “laying bare” of His mighty hand and outstretched arm in a totally awe-inspiring way.  In that sense, the ten plagues on Egypt were miracles, because they revealed God’s mighty power in a unique way—they showed, in a way that no one could deny, that God was bringing judgment on Egypt.  Likewise, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians were miracles.  Now, because the Great Deluge involved God doing something utterly extraordinary in the natural world—opening ALL the fountains of the great deep simultaneously, along with the windows of heaven—that act “laid bare” His mighty hand and outstretched arm and showed His divine presence in judgment in a way that no one could deny (just like the fire falling on Sodom and Gomorrah).  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #26871

August 25th 2010

It was an extraordinary event, involving an extraordinary “putting forth” of divine power.  That’s why the Bible uses a unique word to refer to the flood—‘mabbul’—which is used only of the Genesis flood and of no other inundation in the Bible.  The larger question raised by your objection to God doing unrecorded miracles that serve no obvious purpose as a ‘sign’ is this:  could God have done many of the “sign” miracles recorded in the Bible without doing a host of unrecorded ‘accompanying’ miracles in the natural realm that made the one recorded miracle possible?  The answer to that question is, no.  For example, could God have caused the ‘long day’ of Joshua 10 without either (1) causing the earth to stop rotating on its axis temporarily; or (2) refracting beams of light in such a way that the sun appeared to stand motionless in the sky for hours? Either way the laws of physics are being suspended.  In some way, God temporarily suspended the physical constants of the universe, so that Joshua and his men could see the sun standing still in the sky for the space of a day.  The same thing would be true of many miracles recorded in the Bible. (continued)

Martin Rizley - #26873

August 25th 2010

The recorded, visible miracles would have required many unrecorded, invisible miracles in the realm of physics to make them possible.  In light of that reality, how could we object to the idea that Genesis flood would also have required numerous unrecorded ‘invisible’ miracles to make such an event possible?  That is why I have no kneejerk reaction to the idea that God MAY have done a host of miracles during the Flood which defy human understanding, such as supernaturally increasing then decreasing the amount of water on earth, or supernaturally accelerating the solidification of cooling lavas, to hasten the return of stability to the earth’s crust after the flood.  Such miracles would necessarily involve a suspension of the laws of physics, and the aftermath of such an event could well leave changes in the earth’s geomorphology that would be misinterpreted by scientists interpreting the evidence on uniformitarian assumptions.  But we are dealing here with a topic that goes far beyond the interpretation of Genesis 1-11; we are talking about the interpretation of biblical miracles in general and to what extent we are willing to see God suspending the physical constants of the universe.

nedbrek - #26883

August 25th 2010

Jimpithecus (26784) and Jon (26785) “If life was very different before the flood, how come there is no evidence of this?”

Every fossil of a incredible creature never seen is the evidence.  Insects the size of birds!

From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Largest_organisms)
“The largest confirmed weight of an [modern] adult insect is 71 g”
“Representatives of the extinct dragonfly-like ... body weight of over 1 lb (450 g)”

That’s a 6x reduction.  Such a large insect could not survive in today’s atmosphere.

A bull elephant is 10m long and 4m high.  The largest dinosaurs are project to have been 35m long and 18m high (different ones).

I’ve heard dinosaurs had relatively small nostrils (relative to their body size) although I can’t find evidence right now.

“If the ice age came soon after the flood, how is it that we have evidence that there have been four major ice ages in the last million years alone and evidence from a time that most of the planet was covered in ice (cryogenian period, between 640 and 740 million years ago)?  What does this evidence mean?”

The evidence from the single Ice Age is misinterpreted into multiple.

nedbrek - #26888

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey - #26853 - Let me interject: there is a covenant associated with the Flood - the rainbow is the sign of it.

Jon Garvey - #26890

August 25th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #26873

Sorry - an ad hominem comment coming. Another example of how things have changed in just a few years on the YEC front: In The Genesis Flood, which retrieved flood geology from oblivion back in the 60s, Dr Whitcomb writes:“Apart from the specific miracles mentioned in Scripture, which were necessary to begin and to terminate the period of global judgement, the Flood accomplished its work of destruction by *purely natural processes* that are capable of being studied to a certain extent in hydraulics laboratories and in local flood situations today.” He held to a theological principle of “economy of miracles” that seems to have been abandoned now - presumably for the reason I have stated, that they’re a fix to evade the data.

But if I grant that the flood was miraculous because of its extent (which I don’t think a Scriptural definition) it was still performed as a covenant judgement, like all your examples. But how do miracles of Quikset limestone, artificial ageing and the like advance the covenants one jot? They’re just special pleading: I could easily speculate that God transmutated the flood water into sediment to account for the impossible amounts present, and WHAM! I’m a kosher YEC researcher!

Jon Garvey - #26893

August 25th 2010

@nedbrek - #26883

(1) A funny thing - I’ve been studying the Bible for 45 years and have never read that the atmosphere was different after the Flood - I’d be obliged if you could quickly point me to the ref.

However, I have read that Noah took examples of all land and air creatures on the ark with him, so how come he missed out “every incredible creature never seen”?

(2) I’m well aware of the 2nd covenant, which was made AFTER the flood (which was the penalty for breaking the first covenant).  I simply question the attribution of “miracle”, rather than “severe providence”, to the flood as I would to the fall of Jerusalem in a later covenant judgement. God sends weather daily - he just sent a whole lot more then.

(3) On behalf of Jimpithecus, I suppose you can give geological justification for the suggestion of scientific misinterpretation of the number of ice-ages? Since the ice-age was post-flood, presumably we can’t invoke unrecorded miraculous interventions so it’s a good test-case for Creation Science, rather than the YEC “It’s a miracle!” hypothesis. Over to you!

nedbrek - #26901

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey (26893) Noah didn’t miss any creatures.  Either they went extinct after, or are the ancestors of something alive today.

The differences between us can’t be resolved by saying “look at this evidence”.

I read the Bible and come to know God.  When I look at the world, I see everything through this lens.  If a scientist says “God is an evil monster”, I know he is doing something wrong.  More scientists, or reinterpreting the Bible isn’t going to change my mind.

If you can show that God is good, that He does what He says boldly and directly - and the earth is old: then I can believe you.  But you’ll never convince me God slaughtered millions of animals (before sin) just because He’s too incompetent to create directly.

Jon Garvey - #26907

August 25th 2010

@nedbrek - #26901

Since there’s no Biblical evidence that God created the world without animal death, nor that he changed his creation after the fall, then I’m not going to tell him how he ought to have done it to suit my sensibilities. Still less am I going to commit impiety by questioning his competence unless he created my way. He’s the potter, I’m the clay.

Your position on this seems to me not so much a dispute between the Bible and science, but an a priori decision about what God would or would not do, which appears to dictate your approach both to the Bible and to science.

“Faith seeking understanding” should always start from the position that “his ways are not our ways”. Unbelievers won’t accept a God who would create knowing in advance the fall and its consequences, including the death of his own son. They would see that as incompetent - Paul sees it as unfathomable wisdom.

Martin Rizley - #26911

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey,  I agree in the doctrine of the “economy of miracles” in this sense—that God, as a general rule, upholds the universe that He has created in predictable ways by establishing set patterns of operation for the different forces at work in the universe—what we call the ‘physical constants’ of the universe.  But as I said, I believe there have been certain ‘miracle-cluster moments’ in the history of redemption in which God has done a great redemptive act requiring a host of recorded and unrecorded miracles—the Flood was one of those moments, so was the Exodus,  so was the ministry of Christ and the apostles.  So you could say I believe in a type of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ when it comes to the regularity of nature—- long periods of regularity punctuated by brief moments of extraordinary demonstrations of miracle-working power on God’s part.  I frankly disagree with Dr. Whitcomb when he says that the flood accomplished its work by purely natural processes—if by that he means to assert dogmatically that no miracle was involved in the event of the flood after it got started.  I don’t see how he or anyone else could say that for sure (continued)

Martin Rizley - #26914

August 25th 2010

There are many, many questions that remain regarding how to correlate the data in nature with the teaching of the Bible regarding the flood.  Many creationists admit the current weaknesses in creationist theory.  Kurt Wise, for example, in his book, Faith, Form and Time, says that “while young-age creation geology is superior to alternate models in a number of areas, it is admittedly weak in a variety of others.  Much research is needed to provide adequate young-age creationist reinterpretations of these issues.”  He gives as one example of problematic areas the ‘in situ’ communities in the fossil record—something you pointed out earlier.  But that takes us back to the question I raised earlier.  Do we have to understand how to explain every anomaly before we believe the testimony of God in Scripture?  Does understanding precede faith, or does faith precede understanding?  In the end,  there are only two questions that we MUST answer: 1)  What does Genesis 1-11 intend to teach—the acts of God in history, or timeless principles of theology dressed up in the gard of non-historical allegory?  and 2) Can its teaching be trusted? (continued)

Martin Rizley - #26917

August 25th 2010

As a student of the Bible (principally), I am convinced that Genesis 1-11 intends to teach real history, and I believe that is how Jesus and the apostles understood it.  I do not believe they saw Adam as a mere symbol of ‘mankind.’  No, they regarded him as a real man, the father of the human race whose one sin caused “death to reign” over all men.  Second, I am convinced that the Bible is entirely trustworthy in its teaching, for the simple reason that Jesus regarded it as such.  He should know, since He is the Son of God.  I know that many fear that such an approach to Scripture will threaten the integrity of science, but that very fear shows that they have already come to certain firm convictions about Genesis 1-11; namely,  that these chapters do not intend to teach history and/or they are not entirely reliable in what they teach.  Since I reject both premises, I have no other option but to go on believing these chapters, in the confidence that scientific issues not yet resolved (such as the question regarding ‘in situ’ communities of fossils) will be resolved in the course of time.  It boils down to faith preceding understanding, not the reverse.

Jon Garvey - #26988

August 26th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #26917

Also as a student of the Bible (principally!), I am convinced that Genesis 1-11 teaches real truth, but from the nature of the narrative and the context in ANE culture am not convinced that “history” in the modern western sense is the best description of its genre. By the grace of God even untaught peasants are able to use it as a basis for faith, but as with all Scripture a deeper understanding of context will correct and refine that faith.

Jesus undoubtedly regarded it as reliable, but modern history had not been invented even in his time, so his human understanding would have been 2000 years closer to the original intention. I need to do work to understand his world just as much as that of Genesis. Looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls material, for example, shows just how different its religious thought was.

I don’t think your approach to Genesis threatens the integrity of science, any more than atheist Darwinianism threatens the integrity of Scripture: both will just go on being God’s truth in their own terms, whatever you or I think. What is at risk are more subtle things, like the faith of young Christians training in science, the reputation of Christians amongst thinking people, etc.

nedbrek - #27032

August 26th 2010

Jon (26907) “Since there’s no Biblical evidence that God created the world without animal death, nor that he changed his creation after the fall, then I’m not going to tell him how he ought to have done it to suit my sensibilities. Still less am I going to commit impiety by questioning his competence unless he created my way. He’s the potter, I’m the clay.”

I’ve thought about this some more, I don’t have an ironclad argument, but it is something to consider…

In the sacrificial system, God uses the death/blood of an animal as a symbol for atonement.  The method God gives is the most humane possible (it cuts off the supply of blood to the brain, resulting in rapid death with minimal suffering).  Also, in the book of Jonah, God expresses concern for the animals (cattle) in Ninevah.

It seems inconsistent with idea of a God who slaughters trillions of animals for no other reason than that He can’t directly create man.

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