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Paul’s Adam, Part 4

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March 30, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Paul’s Adam, Part 4

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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GPLeague - #8061

March 30th 2010

Very thought provoking. Thanks for the challenging questions, I think you’re definitely on to something! These questions need to be addressed so as to avoid the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality, or worse, the whole “I don’t interpret Paul, I just read him!” idea common amongst YECs.

dopderbeck - #8065

March 30th 2010

Good points Pete.  This kind of background is immensely valuable and helpful.  I’d also want to ask this:  how did the Church understand what Paul said about Adam?  If the Holy Spirit was involved in Paul’s imaginative use of the OT text (whatever exactly theopneustos implies), we might also say that the Holy Spirit was involved in the life of the Church as it began to collect, canonize, interpret, and comment upon the documents that became the NT Scriptures.  Of course, we Protestants will not accord final normative status to the Tradition, but we will look to it as a source of norms.  We do see early on (e.g. in Irenaeus) a link between Adam’s transgression, sin, and atonement.  So, I’m still not sure how the NPP or other historical approaches play into the conversation here.  Even if Paul was using “ancient science,” which our current science now understands was inaccurate as science, Paul was expressing “current theology,” which the Spirit continued to teach in and through the Church.  Thus, even if “Adam” was not “literally” the first biological human, the theological connection between this person / representative, sin, “death,” and atonement remains, doesn’t it?

Jay W - #8067

March 30th 2010

Dr. Enns, you need to write a book on this! This blog series has been very rich and has really provoked a lot of thought between myself and many of my friends.


Patrick M - #8076

March 30th 2010

Interesting points.  I like the way you point out other interpretations from the same time period.  To me, Paul’s interpretation of Adam is not the problem, but the solution.  How do we understand this strange ancient story?  The way Paul does.  (Which is more theological than literal).  Everything should always point us back to Christ in some way.

I think christians shouldn’t be so timid about this kind of “creative” theological interpretation, but actually be happy to embrace it.  It’s after all the _Christian_ way to read the Old Testament.  It’s how the NT writers read it, and it’s how most of the early church read it as well.  Honestly, I think it’s how we should read it as well.

O. Bower - #8077

March 30th 2010

Without directly discussing Paul’s use of Adam, I wish to make one contribution.  I think we have to allow cultural understandings and contexts to shape our we interpret the biblical text and allow the writer to be influenced by this.  Is God bound by culture?  No.  However, will He use culture to communicate a truth?  Yes.  He doesn’t need to deconstruct an entire worldview to reveal Himself.  My classic example will always be this:  The Ten Commandments.  YHWH states the Israelites are to worship no other gods except YHWH Himself.  But let’s take another look at YHWH’s command.  He says “no other GODS”.  This means the Israelites would have believed other gods existed, and we see this throughout much of the Old Testament (the early Hebrews were henotheists, NOT monotheists).  This should cause us to pause.  YHWH did not inform the Hebrews that these other gods were fakes—unless someone has a creative argument to support it.  If this is true, why do some assume if Paul believed in a literal Adam—which he very well might have—that this interpretation must be scientifically, historically, etc. true?  I think we need to consider worldviews much more seriously than we have been.

WC - #8106

March 30th 2010


I agree with Jay W.  A book project would be a delight and immensely helpful.  Your thoughts here are greatly appreciated.

Rob Berry - #8109

March 31st 2010

Telling Dr. Enns to write another book is like sending a wide receiver across the middle against Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens - somebody is going to get hurt! 

This sheds light on the issues of lower criticism - what texts are allowed to influence our Scripture, therefore shaping our systems of theology; i.e. original sin, etc…  Like science, the factors influencing lower criticism are fluid, which makes us uncomfortable theologically as evangelicals. 


Bernie Dehler - #8151

March 31st 2010

“Next week I want to draw together some of this together and look at the big picture.”

That’s what I’m waiting for… lets see if it is even possible to understand any of this in light of the truth of biological creation of man from animal.

Josh Mueller - #8179

April 1st 2010

Very thought provoking - not just for trying to get a proper grip on Paul’s understanding of Adam but also for biblical hermeneutics in general.

Of course, what we see as “creative” was most likely not creative in Paul’s own mind at all.  If Jesus is the point of the entire narrative, then Jesus and his redemption as the interpretative lense of the OT must be the only relevant one (possibly also the only proper one) in Paul’s mind, at least when the issue of sin is the subject matter.

All of this still doesn’t resolve the issue how much historical fact needs to be there in order for a theological statement to still make sense.  If historically there was no “Fall” the way we traditionally have understood it, then we can be as faithful to Paul and his actual handling of the OT account as we want - we still somehow have to define what constitutes humanity, the image of God, and what constitutes the problem Jesus came to solve in view of our actual ancestry.

eddy - #8183

April 1st 2010

I am not an expert, and seriously someone help me on this one. 

Doesn’t evolutionary interpretation of the genetic data suggest that species which have extremely high similarities of homologous structures and DNA sequence among themselves must have shared an ancestor?

I thought humans are literally similar in all structural and genetic homologies and so must have a common ancestor. Is he Paul’s Adam? Whatever.

We cannot dismiss what Paul’s says about Adam under the pretext that Paul was an ancient, unscientific man. In fact the more ancient the man, as far as I’m concerned, the more closer he is to the truth of the Origins. In all probabilities, there was a certain time in the past when humanity began. And those ancient people that we easily dismiss to be unscientific have something real to tell us about how we originated.  And we find that in the recorded history of the human races that we originated from two people, Adam and Eve.

O. Bower - #8216

April 1st 2010


I guess I would disagree with your last comment.  This assumes only 2 image-bearing humans evolved at the same time and they were of course male and female.  If evolution is true, then it would make more sense that more than 2 evolved and are at least similar to what we are as humans today.  Furthermore, this also assumes these individuals already had the capacities to record history or even thought to keep such data.  I don’t deny ancient peoples have something to tell us, but just because they’re older than us does not therefore mean they have all the information or even incredibly accurate information.

Also, I will add I am no scientist, but this seems to make sense.

Loran Grant - #8261

April 2nd 2010

You have a total disregard for the historicity of the Bible.  If you follow your reasoning you have to cut the rest of Scripture to pieces.
One case in point is Hebrew 11: 4-8.  If you are going to dismiss Adam as an historical character, then you must reject Hebrews 11.  The same is true for all the genealogies within the Scriptures that speaks specifically of Adam.  What do you do with Genesis 5?  You must ignore the fact that it states Adams age when Seth was born and also his age when he died.  Why would this be recorded if Adam was not an historical character?
Here is the mistake you make just like all other liberals. “My sense is that few expect the author of Genesis to know about an expanding universe, a round earth, and a heliocentric solar system.” 
You have the usual liberal slant to the Scripture and view it as simple ancient literature which it is not.  It is not the word of man, but the Word of God.  The writer certainly wasn’t there at the creation of the universe, but God was.  Since this is God’s Word and not man’s, then your argument means nothing.

Taylor Jones - #8398

April 3rd 2010

Dr. Enns seems, whether by intent or not, to treat the words of Paul as somehow distinct from Word of God.  It is not merely the words of the first century writer’s understanding one has to consider in these NT texts and their commentaries on the OT.  These are the very words of the infallible, omnipotent unlying sovereign Creator of the universe, who by the way, invented language.  We would solve a lot of our problems if we would concede that a) we can take the text at face value; i.e., that God meant what He said; and b) since the Divine Author transcends time and His character is immutable, what the text of Scripture means by what it says is not a function of time or man’s current, subject to revision or rejection, understanding of Christ’s universe.

O. Bower - #8448

April 3rd 2010

@ Grant and Jones
You appear to be purposely fencing off the Bible from critical research and discovery.  “Since this is God’s Word and not man’s, then your argument means nothing.”  Are we not allowed to question then?  This hardly sounds similar to the God Abraham bargained with prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Or, dare I say, the God Whom Jesus asked if He had to ascend the cross. 

Also, if your description of God is correct, then cannot He use the authors the way Enns suggests?  If what Enns suggests regarding biblical interpretation and approach, then cannot I say yours is no better?  We’re all flawed, biased individuals, so our very selves prevent us from seeing things properly.

Finally, I will refer you back to my earlier post about the Exodus.  The points I raise there I think remain unscathed and deserve addressing.

Taylor Jones - #8975

April 7th 2010

I have no desire to keep Scripture out from under the magnifying glass of legitimate scrutiny.  It is perfectly permissible to question what the text says and what the text means by what it says.  This is legitimate biblical inquiry.  What I object to is allowing so-called science to set the parameters for how the outcome of the inquiry has to conform to one’s worldview dominated by an overly exalted view of the reliability and accuracy of science.  It is an abuse of both science and Scripture to use science as a hermeneutic.  I say this as both a scientist and a believer.

The myth of using science to understand Scripture is predicated on an unwarranted and unjustified assumption that man’s knowledge is superior to God’s revelation.  Sciences that are neither reproducible nor repeatable are the least reliable spheres of inquiry.  One is left with the search for logical self-consistency of the presuppositionary model.  This cannot produce results that have the reliability that most readers assume science routinely generates.

O.Bower - #8980

April 7th 2010

Then I would assume you don’t use science to support a literal reading of Genesis then.  People want to propose the question, “Well were you there?” as some sort of unbeatable argument, yet they don’t realize it’s a double edged sword.  It undermines BOTH sides. 

Also, when we approach Scripture, how do we know for certain if our interpretation is correct?  Isn’t this relying on our knowledge?  Even if one says the Holy Spirit guides the reader, we encounter problems because more than 30,000 denominations exist.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit is somehow confused.

And again, I’ll refer you to my earlier post concerning Exodus and the 10 Commandments.  Doesn’t the text imply other gods exist (at least to the Hebrew)?  If not, I’d like to know how it’s not.

Taylor Jones - #8981

April 7th 2010

I don’t use science to affirm or produce my understanding of Scripture.  Where Scripture intersects science, Scripture is the starting point for my understanding of science.

To address your point about the Decalogue:  it is clear the Israelites knew of the existence of false gods having spent the last 400 years in Egypt.  Moreover, the ten plagues were specifically designed to show the impotence of the false Egyptian gods.  The words of Exodus 20 make it clear that YHWH did indeed view these as false gods whom He would not tolerate among His people.  The reference to Egypt is telling.  He did inform them these gods were fakes. 
The rejection of false gods is affirmed in Deut. 32:17 & 21.  This continues in Jeremiah 10:14-16 and is affirmed in the NT in 1 Cor. 8:4-6.  There are no false gods, just demons so masquerading.  Everyone who worships a false god, e.g., Allah, worships a demon.

The Holy Spirit isn’t confused.  People are.  Why will require more posts and space.

Russell Roberts - #9004

April 7th 2010

“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?”

Excellent question! Excellent.

Merv - #9018

April 7th 2010

to Taylor-Jones:  people thought they were keeping true to Scripture by insisting that the earth is immobile—-which was the best/only science of the day.  Turned out the earth isn’t (as came to be shown scientifically).  Believers today accept this & therefore that any hermeneutic that tries to turn certain passages into something that they aren’t was to misread or miss the point of the passage entirely.  Here is an example of science guiding a Biblical hermeneutic (and positively so) by eliminating a false understanding.  If you try to deny what creation reveals in order to protect a certain understanding of Scripture, you do so at the peril of dragging down the very Scriptures you claim to be defending.  In short:  Our **understanding** of God’s word DOES NOT EQUAL God’s Word.

Taylor Jones - #9033

April 7th 2010

@ Merv

But even today we say “What a beautiful sunrise,” not “What a beautiful earth’s rotation.”  To use the terminology of man as men do, even when superintended by the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily ascribe any scientific view to the text or the need for a particularly scientific perspective to understand the text.

The sun does indeed appear from man’s perspective to rise.  Such a declaration doesn’t mean we need science to understand what is being communicated, viz.,  the day has begun.  That is surely the point of the text in such an instance, not a commentary on the mechanism of a planetary phenomenon.

It doesn’t seem to me to do any disservice to the text or the divine Author to take this approach as a rule of thumb in seeking to understand what God is saying to us through the text.

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