Here are three final issues that arise when trying to understand Paul’s use of the Adam story. Based on some of the comments I have read on the previous threads, it bears repeating: raising these issues does not imply how they should be addressed, only that they are inescapable elements in the discussion.
7. Paul was an Ancient Man
Paul was an ancient man, not a modern one. Should we expect him, therefore, to share views of the world, of humanity, the cosmos, etc., common to his time? Or, does Paul’s inspired status mean that his view of physical reality transcends his time and place?
What we are really asking here is “What does ‘inspiration’ mean?” That is a huge question, but let’s remain focused on the Adam issue. The question is this: Does Paul’s status as an inspired author of Scripture mean that his views of human origins and the world as a whole are scientifically accurate (since, as the argument goes, a text inspired by God could not give false information)? Does his inspired status mean Paul cannot share the view of the “ancient science” of his first-century world?
The issue of Paul’s Adam is analogous to Genesis 1. My sense is that few expect the author of Genesis to know about an expanding universe, a round earth, and a heliocentric solar system. The author described the world as he and others saw it, and what they saw represented their reality.
In the modern world, we, too, describe the world that we see. The difference, though, is that we “see” differently: not only with the naked eye and our imaginations, but also with telescopes and microscopes; not by reading the stars but by higher math and other methods.
So, does what we say concerning Genesis 1 transfer to Paul’s worldview in general? Should we assume that Paul’s way of seeing reflected his ancient sight? Again, few expect Paul to have knowledge of scientific theories of an expanding universe, old earth, or heliocentrism.
This brings us to the following question: Does Paul’s ancient view of the physical world extend to human origins (one human pair living about 4000 years before his time)? Is Paul’s view of the physical world an ancient one everywhere else except when it comes to human origins?
Paul shared ancient views about a lot of things. The question is whether his understanding of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of the human race is one of these ancient views.
8. Paul’s Use of the Old Testament
Even casual readers of Paul’s letters are rightly quizzical when watching how he uses the Old Testament. Paul often handles Old Testament passages in ways that are not tied to their original literal meaning. In fact, sometimes his use of the Old Testament looks subjective and even haphazard.
There are reasons for this. Paul’s handling of the Old Testament reflects two very important historical factors. First, he was trained in Jewish interpretive techniques, which were characterized by creative and imaginative engagement with the Hebrew Bible since the early postexilic period. Second, Paul met the resurrected Christ, and now his creative and imaginative training was geared toward drawing out Christological connections to the Old Testament.
The result is that we see Paul (along with other Jewish interpreters of the period) employing the Old Testament in ways that go beyond what those passages were designed to do in the Old Testament.
This raises an important question. Could there be something creative going on in Paul’s handling of the Adam story that goes beyond its literal meaning in Genesis (whatever that might be)? Since Paul is prone to reading the Old Testament in a creative and Christological manner in general, might he be doing the same thing with the Adam story?
This brings us to an unexpected question. Are we actually misreading Paul when we insist that he is reading the Adam story literally? Could Paul’s use of the Adam story in his own mind be a creative theological engagement of that story for a purpose other than what it was originally written for?
What right do we really have to think that Paul was simply doing his version of grammatical-historical exegesis?
Paul’s handling of the Adam story should be seen within the context of a larger phenomenon—his handling of the Old Testament in general. This issue is closely related to the following and final point.
9. How was Adam understood among Jewish interpreters in his time?
It is common among Christians to think of the period between the Old and New Testaments (the intertestamental period) as sort of a dead zone: not much happening. That is not even remotely true. It was during this time that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was taking shape. An informed understanding of the New Testament requires some knowledge of this important historical period.
One thing that happened during the intertestamental period was a lot of biblical interpretation. By the time we get to the New Testament era, there had already been several hundred years of thoughtful readers engaging the many mysteries and conundrums of Scripture. You can see this in such well-known texts as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and other collections of writings from this general time period. This is a huge field of research and publication in Biblical Studies.
All this is to say that Paul was not the first ancient Jewish man to engage his Bible. And he was certainly not the first person to wonder about the Garden story. Being a trained rabbi, it is hard to imagine that Paul was unaware of how Adam had been understood by others in this rich, interpretive world.
How did Jewish interpreters around the time of Paul understand Adam? In various ways. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon (Apocrypha, early 1st century A.D.) refers to Adam as one who was “delivered from his transgressions” (10:1), which is a curious take on the story (wasn’t he punished?). But some Jewish interpreters thought that Adam was vindicated somehow.
Further, Cain’s “unrighteousness” in 10:3 is not in any way connected to his father—Adam is not to blame. In fact, in 2:23-24, this ancient Jewish author blames the entrance of death on “the devil’s envy.” This last part suggests that he understood the serpent to be the devil, which is an interpretation of Genesis (since Genesis refers to the serpent as a crafty animal, not a supernatural being).
Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira, Apocrypha, 2nd c. B.C.) talks about Adam (17:1ff.; 33:10) but there is no mention of a fall or sinful nature inherited by his offspring. Adam is a fully positive figure.
In the book of Jubilees (Pseudepigrapha, 2nd century B.C.), Adam is a priestly figure who actually offers sacrifices for his own transgression. This author leaves out Genesis 3:8-13 where Adam and Eve are found out, since it does not contribute to the point he wants to make.
These are three examples of imaginative engagement with the Adam story. A bit closer to Paul’s meaning, we have 2 Esdras 3:7 (Apocrypha, a Jewish work around the time of Christ). Here Adam’s transgression leads to “death for him and his descendents.”
This is very much what Paul says in Romans 5:12, and some have wondered whether Paul got his idea from 2 Esdras. Others argue that Paul came first and that some sections of 2 Esdras are later Christian additions to an originally Jewish work. It’s hard to know if there was any direct influence one way or another.
Interestingly, in 2 Esdras 3:20-22, Adam’s “evil heart” was something Adam seems to have been born with and that God “did not take away.” In other words, Adam was not born morally pure. God sowed in him an “evil seed” from the beginning (4:30). Adam transgressed because God didn’t do anything to prevent the seed from growing. This transgression led to the “permanent disease” for all his descendents. This writer is trying to answer the difficult question of why Adam fell in the first place. He concludes that it is part of the human condition.
In 2 Baruch (another Jewish work from the same time period), Adam is the “father of sin,” so to speak, but in the sense that everyone has the responsibility and choice whether to follow in his footsteps. Adam is not the cause of anyone else's sin. Each of us "has been the Adam of his own soul" (48:42). This may or may not shed some light on Romans 5:12, where Paul says that “death came to all, because all sinned.”)
Perhaps the closest to Paul’s understanding of the Garden episode is found in the first century AD (probably) Jewish text Life of Adam and Eve. There, Adam chides Eve for bringing upon them a “great wound” and “transgression and sin in all our generations” (44:2).
The Garden episode was a pivotal text in ancient Judaism. It was also ambiguous on key points, and biblical interpreters wasted no time digging in and trying to make sense of it: who was Adam, what did he do, and how does that affect us? Paul’s Adam is one example of this rich interpretive activity. And his understanding may even owe something to what other Jewish interpreters of the time had already said.
I realize that some might quickly say, “I don’t care what these other interpreters said. I’m with Paul, and what he says matters.” I agree on at least one level. What Paul says matters. But that does not mean that Paul’s Adam is not a creative handling of the story to serve a larger theological purpose (as discussed last week).
Paul’s Adam should not be isolated from the rich interpretive activity of the centuries leading up and including Paul’s own time.
Next week I want to draw together some of this together and look at the big picture.