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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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Martin Rizley - #27051

August 26th 2010

Jon,  All I can say is that no matter how many centuries separate our world from the ancient near east, there is no mistaking the clear intent of the biblical genealogies.  If people say, these genealogies were never intended to teach anything about patriarchal lines of descent or about real persons who lived in the historical past, my reaction is, “How big of a fool do they think I am to buy such hogwash?”  You know, when I was a little kid, I used to wonder why God had put the genealogies in the Bible; why would the Holy Spirit “breathe out” such boring and interminable lists of people with strange names who lived so long ago?  Now I thank God for these genealogies and I think I know now one reason for them—they are God’s “nail in the coffin” on all theories that try to relegate the first eleven chapters of Genesis to the realm of ahistorical myth and allegory.  It is the genealogies which prove, more than anything else, that these chapters were written to communicate knowledge about real people who lived long ago on the stage of real history.  I guess we’ll just have to “agree to disagree” on this issue.

Jon Garvey - #27052

August 26th 2010

@nedbrek - #27032

“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.”

If I were an unbeliever I’d ask the purpose of a curse that slaughtered trillions of innocent animals, and billions of people who have never heard the gospel, simply because God can’t sort out one man’s sin after 6000 years…

But I’m not, so I will remind you again that we are not to question why God does things. You’re quite entitled to question IF things happened, but “a good and powerful God would never do that” is not a valid argument.

Neither, of course is God’s management of the world incompatible with his commands to us to act differently, whether to treat animals well, or to abstain from killing our fellow-man. God takes the life of every man when he chooses - we have no such right (except, in the Law, when we stand under God’s authority as a judge, or a king).

Despite the (relatively few) Scriptures on animal welfare, God’s priorities are shown by Christ’s willingness to sacrifice 2000 pigs to save one man.

Jon Garvey - #27058

August 26th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #27051

Again, I have some agreement with you. To say that something isn’t history (in our terms) doesn’t mean it has no basis in fact. The task is to try and understand what basis the author (God, in this case) wanted it to have in order to fulfil his purposes, not our desire for “facts”.

For example, Genesis is not history in the modern academic sense of a dispassionate sifting of the sources to understand the motivation of those involved in great events. If it were, it would do nothing to introduce the salvation plan of God.

Similarly, I couldn’t take seriously an idea that the genealogies are there to refute academic categories that arose millennia later. Genealogies just didn’t serve that purpose then: one Biblical example we can examine are the genealogies in Nehemiah/Ezra, which are not there to show that the pre-exilic events were true, but that people who claimed to be true Israelites actually were. The two genealogies of Jesus differ for reasons not obvious to us now, except that Matthew’s has an idealised number of generations for purely theological reasons. But does Luke take his from Adam to prove Jesus is Son of God? Or that he is human? Or that he is the true heir to Adam’s call to rule?

Martin Rizely - #27061

August 26th 2010

Jon Garvey,  Many biblical inerrantists would agree with you that the historical passages of Scripture do not necessarily fit the modern academic idea of what an ‘historical record’ should be.  They would agree, for example, that the gospels are not intended to be ‘biographies of Jesus’ in the modern sense; they are theological documents, intended to persuade people to trust in Christ by relating key features of His earthly life and earthly ministry.  They skip over most of the years of His life and focus on His ministry years; and much space is devoted to the final week of His life.  The gospels do not intend to give us Jesus’ ‘ipissima verba,’ as if someone were there with a microphone recording Jesus words and later quoting Him verbatim just as a news reporter would; rather, they give us an accurate, inspired account of what Jesus did and said on various occasions, just as we seek to do when someone asks us to relate what someone else said.  We give an accurate summary of their words, without necessarily quoting them verbatim.  But all this is beside the point.  The question is, do you believe that the persons listed in the Genesis genealogies, including Adam, actually lived?

nedbrek - #27063

August 26th 2010

Jon (27052) “If I were an unbeliever I’d ask the purpose of a curse that slaughtered trillions of innocent animals, and billions of people who have never heard the gospel, simply because God can’t sort out one man’s sin after 6000 years…”

I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.  Death is the result of sin, not an expression of the attributes of God - as you claim.  The horror of the world reflects the horrible affront of sin against a holy God.

“But I’m not, so I will remind you again that we are not to question why God does things.”

I think we should maintain a parsimony of mysteries.  If something relates to the nature of God, I can understand a mystery.  But if something seems contrary to God’s revealed nature - I’m going to question that.

“Neither, of course is God’s management of the world incompatible with his commands to us to act differently, whether to treat animals well, or to abstain from killing our fellow-man.”

So we should treat animals better than God does?  Doesn’t that imply we are better than God?

Jon Garvey - #27067

August 26th 2010

“The question is, do you believe that the persons listed in the Genesis genealogies, including Adam, actually lived?”

Yes - with the proviso that not all those mentioned in Biblical genealogies are individuals (see 1 Chron. 4.4, 12,14, 17, 18) and we don’t know enough about the ancient conventions to say just what is meant. More significant, to me, is that we can’t now say with any authority why they are there at all. If they weren’t, Noah could still have been assumed to be a descendant of the first guy in the story. Why does Cain’s family get no ages but lots of biography and Seth’s lot ages but little information? Why do all the “useful” skills come from the outcast side? What exactly does it mean that “men began to call on the name of the Lord” in Cain’s geneaology? Which men? Didn’t they before? Was it the use of “Yahweh”? The ages are enough puzzle, but did Seth spend 105 years in adolescence before marrying? Why is Noah’s name “comfort” when all but him died?

To my mind these are the questions that could affect doctrine and are therefore important, but since I can’t answer many of them from an obscure text, the mere question of their existence isn’t the biggest one. (...)

Jon Garvey - #27070

August 26th 2010

...Again, the purpose of genealogies varies greatly. In the UK they were all historically to show the claim to an aristocratic title.

In these times they’re to “find our roots”, so mine shows clearly that I’m descended from an ironworker from Ireland born in 1798. But probably 200 years before that from a Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, so if I wanted to show my Evangelical heritage I’d probably stick him at the top despite the lack of documentary proof. And despite the fact that I have several thousand 16th century ancestors who weren’t archbishops.

In Jesus’ case the genealogies show (by inexplicably different routes and with gaps) his descent from David and so his rightful kingship - but also from Abraham (and therefore the heir of his promise) and Adam (why?).

Depending on purpose and period , genealogies can cover adoptions, non-blood inheritence, patronage - probably even master-servant relationships. And, of course, in some cultures descent from traditional dynastic heads or from gods (not from deceit, but simply from different conventions, like Luke calling Adam, a mere creature, “the son of God”).

So what were the conventions, and what were the purposes, for genealogies when Genesis 1-11 was written?

Jon Garvey - #27072

August 26th 2010

“So we should treat animals better than God does?  Doesn’t that imply we are better than God?”

No. But you need to direct your question to the writer of Psalm 104 (esp vv21,27-30, 32) rather than to me.

Martin Rizley - #27074

August 26th 2010

Jon Garvey,  I think the reason Adam is called a ‘son of God’ is to highlight the fact that he, in contrast to everyone else, was not ‘begotten’ by another human being—he was created directly by God.  Whatever the purpose of the genealogies in the minds of the human authors of Scripture, of one thing we can be sure; the effect of such genealogies is to keep us mindful of the essentially historical character of the narrative we are reading.  The genealogies keep the flow of the narrative “tied down” to real people who lived on the stage of history, rather than in some fairy land ‘once upon a time.’  If that is the effect of the genealogies, can we assume that this effect was intended by God?  I don’t see why not.  I think the reference to men ‘calling on the name of the Lord’ in the days of Enosh is a reference to the establishment of corporate community worship (in distinction from private or family worship, which we see in Genesis 4).  The details given about the line of Cain show that technological advancement and spiritual advancement do not necessarily go together—a very relevant reminder to our age of ‘technological barbarism.’ with its belief in inevitable progress.

Anil - #27079

August 26th 2010

If an improbable narrative like the Genesis is figurative, isn’t the same true about other improbable stories like virgin birth and resurrection?

Wouldn’t all of this make more sense if we accept that the Bible, like all other religious texts, is man made without any divine intervention and is just the product of the times and cultures in which it was created to explain our existence and the universe at that point in time? This truth about any religion is apparent to those who stand outside that particular bubble of religious faith.

nedbrek - #27086

August 26th 2010

You make a good point Anil.  The test of any worldview is self-consistency.  Do you believe the Bible can be held to be self-consistent?  What contradictions do you see?

Anil - #27118

August 26th 2010

@nedbrek - #27086

While any theory or world view needs to be self consistent,  that alone will not make the theory / worldview true. My reason for saying that all major religious texts are more likely written by man as opposed to a supernatural creator of the universe is because the contents of these books reveal all the signs of coming from the mind of man.

As for the bible, a good source for all its contradictions is “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible” by Bart D. Ehrman. While I am sure that people who believe in the divine origin of the bible can come up with “explanations” for all of the issues mentioned here, the very fact that they exist suggests a more natural origin for these texts.

ChrisMuriel - #66641

December 16th 2011


Bart D. Ehrman is just another textual critique - people who say “it should have been like this, not like that”. Christianity has had its share of such people. I read Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’ out of curiosity to find out what the great man had to say. He argues on similar lines - “If Jesus were God, why did he do this? Why did he do that? It would have been better if he had done it like this”...etc.etc. In short, if Jesus had done everything that the Barts and Bertrands of this world thought was proper, his case could be considered. I remember once someone asked Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan why he was not fashionably dressed like other celebrities. He replied, “Fashion is not what 2 Frenchmen and one Italian decides.” Same goes for the Word of God. I know a Sardarji here who came to Christ after reading part of a verse from a torn piece of tract. God doesn’t even need the entire bible to communicate His truth to those to diligently seek after Him. 

nedbrek - #27190

August 27th 2010

Hi Anil, it’s true that self-consistency is not sufficient.  That is a good point.

As to all religious texts being written by men, let me propose an interesting difference:
Other religions hold up man as basically good.  That we can “be more” or “improve ourselves” (this even applies to secular “religions” like environmentalism or whatever Oprah talks about!).  If they believe in a god, they teach how we can satisfy the requirements of that god (usually by following some code of behavior).

Biblical Christianity is very different.  It teaches that there is nothing we can do.  That God has done everything for us.

Does that seem unusual at all?

Anil - #27236

August 27th 2010

Yes, Christianity is different, but so are other religious philosophies. For example, in Hinduism, God is considered to be an impersonal force that is part of everything in the universe especially living things. The ego/self in humans hides this true inner divinity and by destroying the ego you reach the culmination of realizing your true divine self.  Now, this is very different and unusual from any other religious philosophy but that does not prove that it is the one true religion. Like I said before all of this just shows how the cultures at that time tried to explain the meaning of human life, why suffering exists and what happens when you die. The religious philosophies that originated in the middle east explained the suffering as a result of the sin of disobedience from a personal God, and tried to define how to get forgiveness from this sin and get back to God after death. Eastern philosophies on the other hand explained suffering as the result of ego centric desires and by destroying the ego and thus desire you overcome suffering by merging your consciousness back to a supreme consciousness.

nedbrek - #27243

August 27th 2010

Right, in Hinduism you are god (because everything is god).  You can improve yourself through meditation or whichever practice is favored.

Of course, Hinduism suffers from inconsistency.  If suffering is the result of our sins (or “ego centric desires”), what about those who suffer out of proportion for the sins (especially the young)?  This usually requires the introduction of ideas such as past lives and reincarnation…

Anil - #27275

August 27th 2010

Well to a believing Hindu there is no inconsistency as reincarnation is an integral part of his/her belief system as say resurrection is to a believing Christian. In fact an Hindu would argue that their system has a better explanation for the problem of evil/suffering (your past life karma) than any of the Abrahamic faiths (why make a small child suffer for the sins of a long lost ancestor?).

Interesting discussion. Note that I am not saying that there is nothing of any value in any religion even if I believe it is man made, nor am I saying that some sort of intelligence called God does not exist. My point is that (at least for me) if I look into any religion in depth I see signs of it being created by man.  I can appreciate the ideas and insights from any religion without having to believe in things like a 6 day creation of the universe, virgin birth, reincarnation etc.

nedbrek - #27353

August 28th 2010

The problem with reincarnation is that it is an endless cycle.  I sin in my past, so I suffer in this life.  The person who brings me suffering is sinning, so he will suffer in his next life…

Anil - #27387

August 28th 2010

Note that I am not saying that reincarnation is true and makes sense. I am just saying what the Hinduism says on this matter.  In these philosophies reincarnation is not endless. Once you are able to recognize the panentheistic god as your true self following the paths laid out by the religion then you merge your self with this godhead and are freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth. If you buy into the assertion that Hinduism is true then this makes perfect sense and is a very consistent theory, just as if you assume Christianity is true then virgin birth of God as man, shedding blood for the sins of man, resurrection all makes perfect sense and is a self consistent philosophy. What I have observed is that the vast majority of the people make the assumption that the religion that they are born into is the right one and sees all of its assertions as true and those of other religions as irrational and inconsistent.

Ronnie - #27567

August 30th 2010

I’m scratching my head with this article. A Professor of Biblical Studies, a Professor of the Old Testament, trying to tell us that the account of Adam in Genesis is clearly figurative, yet he hasn’t resolved the issue in his own mind?? and using ancient near east literature to determine the validity (or not) of Gods Word? Whats up with that? God doesn’t need mans writings to verify His Word.

Biologos’ mission statement reads: “We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.”, yet in the few articles I’ve read, including this one, they seem hellbent on disproving it.

Jason - #63680

August 7th 2011

I’m disappointed in Dr. Longman. Sounds like he’s only confused because he thinks sec science is able to determine truth on its own. Also appears he’s reading other historical texts as having an incredible influence on how the Bible was written (with the previous presupposition guiding this process). Some is seen but the other texts would be most affected by the historical events found in Gen 1-11 being passed down through the various people groups’ oral traditions and beliefs as they turn away and worship idols or to God.

Jim - #27591

August 30th 2010

To Martin Rizley:

#25843: But Jesus DID think that people in hell have bodies. See Matt 10:28.

#26040: We should listen to Kurt Wise’s views on paleontology because he has a Ph.D. in Paleontology from Harvard? Does that mean we should also respect Peter Enns’ views on the Old Testament because he has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Harvard? Just asking.

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