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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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O. Bower - #9037

April 7th 2010

@ Jones

YHWH may have had mind to proclaim these as false deities to the early Hebrews, however the Hebrews still believed other gods existed.  This permeates several parts of the Old Testament.  The word “demon” would not negate a god-like status.  He gave them the Decalogue to have Himself be there one and only God, yet this still isn’t monotheism, it’s henotheism (their god is supreme, but others still exist).  Also, keep in mind later OT books and NT books had different understandings of the divine.  It would make sense that Paul thought only one God existed because the Israelites eventually came to believe in a strict monotheism.

O. Bower - #9038

April 7th 2010

Also, I would like to hear our you address ancient cosmology.  Example, the early Hebrews (like other ancient people) truly believed the earth stood upon pillars, was a flat disk upon water, and had a solid dome of water around it.

Marshall - #9041

April 7th 2010

This series has been interesting reading. It’s truly an area ripe for further study. I’d like to challenge the assumption that Paul thought Adam was literal. Whatever Paul believed, I don’t think he *taught* a literal Adam.

In Romans 5, Paul speaks of us being “in” Adam rather than descended from Adam. Death spreads to us “because all sinned”, not because all inherited a defect. There’s no reference to Eve (there is elsewhere where it suits Paul’s point, but not here), and Paul seems to describe Adam in a way that encapsulates the actions of both human characters in the Eden story (“sin entered the world through one man” not “through one man and one woman”). Adam is “a pattern of the one to come”. Jesus doesn’t save us by being our ancestor; instead, Paul’s argument seems to be that the entire human race can be summed up in two Adams: the first who brought death and the second who brought life. Whom are we in? Whom do we identify with?

Paul uses many comparisons that may seem lopsided to us. Could Paul refer to an individual on one side and many people encapsulated in a symbolic entity on the other? Maybe that’s a question we need to answer. By “us”, I mean Christ’s bride, Mrs. Church!

Marshall - #9042

April 7th 2010

Oops, I conflated two passages. “In Adam” is from 1 Corinthians 15:22, not Romans 5.

Merv - #9053

April 7th 2010

@ O Bower;  Deut. 32:17 speaks of the gods being demons, but this is a curious juxtaposition with how the most of the the O.T. seems to refer to these ‘gods’:  as the works of men and not capable of doing anything at all.  (Psalm 115 is a great statement of this).  They can’t see, hear, feel ...  In short, it seems that a common Hebrew view of this is that while people may pretend these things exist as gods, they are no more than wood, gold, or stone and can’t do anything.

Merv - #9054

April 7th 2010

@Taylor-Jones:  good points (regarding sunrises & such)—-which are also the same point I am making.  We Christians have become quite comfortable with such figurative language and don’t try to invest in those words some literal (and now discredited) view of the solar system.  But it wasn’t always like that.  To many at that time is was slam-dunk obvious that the world doesn’t move.  And they packed that into their understanding of certain passages even though (as we see so easily now) those passages have nothing to do with teachings about how the cosmos moves.  The jump (which remains hard for us today) is to see the parallel to this in origins.  Why can’t there be any figurative language in Genesis?  and if it were so, how would it lessen Paul’s use of it any more than speaking of a sunrise is lessened over technicalities about cosmic motion?  Or if I comment that someone is ‘as strong as Hercules’, this still communicates a truth effectively even if Hercules only existed as a concept in somebody’s mind.

Taylor Jones - #9076

April 8th 2010

It is precisely passages like Romans 5 that lead me to believe that Adam was a literal man.  We are “in Adam,” having been imputed with Adam’s sin because we participated in Adam’s sin; i.e., we all sinned.  The proof of this is that all.  “The wages of sin is death.”  We were all somehow present and participating in that sin in Gen. 3.  In the same way, believers by placing their confidence in Christ and Him alone to take away their sin are placed in Christ.  For the analogy to be the exact, one to one relationship that the passage speaks to, both Christ, whom no one questions as being literal, and Adam must be literal.  If one is asked to be identified with a literal Christ to be saved, it is hardly unreasonable, apart from 20th century “science,” to think Adam as literal as well.

Marshall - #9131

April 8th 2010

Hi Taylor, thanks for your comments.

You wrote that “we were all somehow present and participating in that sin in Gen. 3.” Could you unpack what you mean there? I agree that we participate in Adam’s sin, but that’s because I think Adam represents humanity, so we quite truly are “in” Adam.

I don’t think the “all” can hold the weight you rest on it. As Dr. Enns mentioned earlier in this series, taking it too absolutely would lead to universalism, since it shows up again on the other side of the comparison in “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all”. Paul restates the comparison using “many” on both sides in the following sentence.

As for the necessity of both sides of the comparison needing to be historical individuals, I addressed that in my last post, but maybe a bit too obliquely. Consider carefully Paul’s other analogy with Christ and his bride. There’s no need to go all Da Vinci Code and make both sides individuals! Paul is more free with his comparisons than our 20th century mindset may expect.

Marshall - #9134

April 8th 2010

PS: In case that wasn’t clear, I’m not disagreeing about whether all sin, but over how much we can read into an “all” in that passage. If your point was that we’re already guilty of sin because we all participated in a literal Adam’s sin some thousands of years ago, I think you’re going well beyond what the passage states clearly.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Augustine’s version of Original Sin was based on the Latin Vulgate reading of Romans 5:12 which says “in whom all sin” instead of “for all sin”. Without that mistranslation, perhaps his version of Original Sin would never have seen the light of day!

Marshall - #9136

April 8th 2010

Replace “the Latin Vulgate reading” with “a Latin translation”, and soften “mistranslation” to “unlikely translation”. There, I’m done.

O. Bower - #9207

April 9th 2010

Very good insight.  Several Christians don’t know about the Vulgate mistranslation.  Curiously, the Eastern Orthodox never encountered Augustine’s thought until centuries later (it may have been post 1000 CE).  The EO Church rejects the doctrine of original sin proposed by Augustine and accepted by the Catholic Church.  They instead us “ancestral sin” and state Adam’s actions gave humanity its current situation and fallness, but we personally carry no Adamic guilt.

Roger D. McKinney - #9282

April 9th 2010

agree that Paul’s use of Adam does not require that Adam be one person. Paul’s point is that rebellion introduced sin into a sinless humanity and that death (physical and spiritual) death resulted. But theistic evolution tells a different story. After all, what we call sin is nothing but our acting like animals. Acting like an animal would be an appropriate “translation” of acting in the flesh instead of the spirit. Animals kill each other, but we don’t call it murder. They steal and have sex with multiple partners.  After all, killing others is nothing but our natural desire for survival. Sex is nothing but our animal desire to respond to hormones that God gave us. At some point, according to TE, God decided that our animal behavior was no longer appropriate and changed the rules of how humans should behave.

So according to TE, sin did not enter humanity; God created us with an animal nature that he later called sinful. Christ does not redeem us from a fallen nature, but corrects God’s mistake in creating us animals first.

Merv - #9318

April 9th 2010

Are there any TEs that would claim the last sentence in that last paragraph?  It sounds more like someone outside of TE thought trying to attribute it to TEs.  I’d be surprised if any do, but I’ve been surprised before.


Roger D. McKinney - #9323

April 9th 2010

Merv, I wouldn’t expect TEs to claim what I wrote. It’s obviously abhorent. But what TEs need to do is show why that isn’t the logical conclusion of their position.

merv - #9341

April 9th 2010

Having some of those leanings myself at the moment, I’ll take a stab.  Man had & still has the animal nature, but was not held responsible to “self-control” such primal urgings until God’s Breathed spiritual life into his being.  Now we are responsible.  These remaining base urgings are not in & of themselves sinful (& were always part of God’s good creation) but only become evil when Adam (& all of us)  set them on the throne & act like they are our highest or only imperatives.  Jesus makes a spectacle of these principalities (e.g. our fleshly drives for survival, etc.) and rescues us from our bondage to them.  Drive to survive, have sex, etc.  not bad—just restored to their proper “non-God” status.  How’s that for less than 1200 words!

Roger D. McKinney - #9346

April 9th 2010

Still, what you’re saying is that man’s nature has not changed. God created us with our animal nature and we acted like animals. We could kill, steal and have sex as much as we wanted with impunity. Then at some point God breathed spiritual life into us, but we immediately died spriritually because the things we used to do with no guilt suddenly became wrong. And we had no choice in the matter. In that case, the breath of life was a curse. There still was no rebellion. God merely changed the rules without giving us the means to obey him. As a result, billions have gone to hell because God changed the rules on us. And why change the rules? If we were OK as animals, why change the rules? It seems arbitrary.

Roger D. McKinney - #9349

April 9th 2010

And what did Jesus come to save us from? The nature that God gave us? It seems that it would have been more reasonable for God to not change the rules on us when he breathed spiritual life into us than to plan to have his Son become human and die to change our natures. And why send people to hell, or at least, cause spiritual death, because God changed the rules and didn’t give us the power to obey them?

The Biblical story makes more sense. God created humanity perfect, innocent and with the capacity to obey him. Our rebellion changed our natures, making Christ’s death necessary for restoration.

Roger D. McKinney - #9350

April 9th 2010

And what can TEs say to atheists who assert that God cannot be good and allow the suffering that goes on daily around us? If God is good, he would end the suffering from war, famine, disease and natural disasters. Either God is not good or he is impotent. I don’t see where TEs can respond. With TE, the suffering is part of God’s creation. It’s not evil; it just is. But traditional Christianity can counter that God did not make this world as it is. He made it perfect, with no death, no evil, no suffering. But mankind chose to rebel against God, so the suffering is partial judgment for that rebellion. God restores spiritual life to us through his son, Jesus Christ, and will one day end all suffering.

Merv - #9357

April 10th 2010

Brief point by point response:
to #9346:  that “more knowledge”  bringing more responsibility has always seemed both blessing and curse to us.  It’s an age old theme echoed in our being torn between a child-like innocence which seems desirable, and yet we want to grow up too despite the painful experiences.  Can’t answer this other than to say I don’t think any theological tradition lays this to rest. 

And ditto for the last post (9350).  YEC interpretation of Scripture hasn’t let God off the hook either as far as atheists are concerned.  Nobody gets around that God has, at the very least, allowed all this.  O.T. prophets, being less theologically squeamish than we are even attributed everything to God.  (Isa. 45:7 epitomizes this & is far from alone.) 

Regarding middle post (9349): there is a big difference between ‘perfect’, ‘innocent’, and capacity for obeying.  The latter two seem more scripturally supported.  But ‘perfect’, I argue, goes far beyond Scripture support and begs the question of just what that would mean in the first place. 

I don’t pretend I’ve given anything like a complete answer in our 1200 char. limit.  But you help me refine this by pointing out inconsistencies.

O. Bower - #9521

April 12th 2010


I’d have to agree.  Perfect cannot be the intent otherwise the Fall becomes impossible. 

Also, I understand the theistic evolution stance fails to mitigate any theodicy, however, the Young Earth Creationist perspective cannot liberate God’s intentions either.  Both cases involve a deity creating free moral agents, giving them a nature, and then informing them how to properly orient their lives (although I wish to avoid some sort of divine tyrant or angry parent imagery).  The YEC position still has humans whom God gave a specific nature which has certain tendencies—we had to have some traits/characteristics already otherwise I don’t see how we would function.  The humans then take their given nature and use it to their own liking.  In a sense, the theistic evolution stance and YEC stance are almost identical, the natures simply come in different modes. 

With that I’ll stop, but I think people can see where I’m going with this post.  It’s late.  Night.

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