Paul’s Adam, Part I

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March 9, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin

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

Paul’s Adam, Part I

In my last post I suggested that the Adam story could be viewed symbolically as a story of Israel’s beginnings, not as the story of humanity from ground zero.

But some might ask, “Why go through all this trouble? Why not just take it literally? The Bible says Adam was the first man. That’s the end of it.”

It’s not that simple, and if it were, people wouldn’t be talking it about it so much. First of all, reading the Adam story symbolically rather than as a literal description of history is not a whim, and it is certainly not driven by a desire to undermine the Bible. Rather, as we have seen, the Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel (to name two factors).

There is also considerable external evidence that works against the “just read it literally” mentality.

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.

There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.

In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.

There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins. (We looked at some of this in previous posts.)

A strictly literal reading of the Adam story does not fit with what we know of the past. Some choose to ignore the data altogether. Others marginalize or interpret the data idiosyncratically to salvage some type of literal/historical reading. But, by and large, everyone—even including this latter group—has to do some creative thinking about how to handle the Adam story. A “just read it literally” mentality is not an available option. “What do I do with the Adam story?” is a real and pressing question for most people of faith.

In my experience, a lot of Christians—I might even guess most—have come to some peace with all of this. They may handle it in different ways, and some may not have arrived at a conclusion, but they at least recognize that something has to be done. They sense that a simple literal reading of the Adam story won’t work without creating a lot of cognitive dissonance, and so they are open to ideas.

But, sooner or later, another issue comes up that is hard to get around and for some simply ends the discussion entirely.


Christians have to account for more than Genesis vis-à-vis archaeology and science. They have to account for what Paul says about Adam. As I see it, this is as non-negotiable as accounting for the data mentioned above.

In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul draws a parallel between Jesus and Adam: Adam disobeyed (eating of the fruit) and brought death to “all”; Jesus obeyed (in his crucifixion) and (in rising) brought life to “all.” Jesus came to undo what Adam did. He came to reverse the curse of Adam.

There is really little doubt that Paul understood Adam to be a real person, the first created human from whom all humans descended. And for many Christians, this settles the issue of whether there was a historical Adam. That is what Paul believed, and for his argument to have any meaning, both Adam and Jesus have to be real people. If there was no Adam, there was no fall. If there was no fall, there was no need for a savior. If Adam is a fantasy, so is the Gospel.

For people who take the Bible seriously, Paul’s understanding of Adam can be an insuperable obstacle to accepting what we know about the past from other sources. Some feel there is really no choice but to reject science and archaeology completely. I really don’t think this is a viable option.

Others will accept to some extent the data we have, including evolution, but will insist that at some point along the line there was a first historical pair chosen by God to bear his image and from whom all true, image-bearing, humans are related. Placing an “Adam” somewhere on the evolutionary timeline is hypothetically possible, and there are knowledgeable people who find this a good way to reconcile Paul and science. (Although for others, this kind of “Adam” is too far from the kind of Adam Paul was thinking about, so it is not much help.)

However you slice it, what Paul says about Adam is a very important point of Christian theology. Clearly, what Paul says must be addressed.

But there is a factor in all of this that does not always get as much airtime as it should. It is regularly assumed that what Paul says about Adam is rather obvious, a sure starting point from which to engage this issue. “Well, I may not know what all the scientific and archaeological data are, but I can read English and I KNOW what Paul says. That is obvious, and I have no intention of messing around with that.”

Yes, we must take Paul seriously. But what if what Paul is saying about Adam is not as straightforward as a simple reading suggests? Maybe the matter is more involved than “Paul says it, that settles it”?

Paul’s Adam is not a simple matter. There are numerous factors that come into play in gaining a broader perspective on what Paul is saying and why he says it. In my next post, I want to list what some of these factors are. This is an issue that cannot be resolved in the series of a few (or many) blog posts. I am only interested in laying out on the table the issues that need to be kept in mind as we think about what Paul says about Adam and why he says it.

The tensions between science and faith, specifically evolution and Christianity, center on the issue of Paul’s Adam. As such, I think this is where our theological energies need to be invested.

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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Nick Altman - #6313

March 9th 2010


Not necessarily,

But I will wait for part deux of Dr. Enn’s argument to see where he goes with it.  (I have my fingers crossed for “views of death in the 2TJ world..”).

Pax Christi..Nick

ken_the_confused - #6314

March 9th 2010

At what point do you just throw up your hands and say the Bible is simply unreliable when it comes to historic truth claims?

Here are the “predictions” the bible makes..and the current 21st century scientific “results”:

1) Earth created in 6 days/nope
2) Day 4 sun/moon/stars created/nope
3) Global Flood/nope
4) Local flood that wiped out all humanity/nope
5) Adam a real person/nope

And so on…

Can’t you compare the Bible to a Scientific Model? What scientific model would still be held to
that continually had it’s fundamental assertions falsifiied and the adherants of the model jumping
through all types of hoops to try to get the data to fit?

I’m a Christian, former zealous YEC, but quite mystified as to how to approach this. It isn’t
what I’d expect. I’d expect the Bible to make claims and whenever we could we’d find evidence
for those claims. This does occur in many areas: Hittite, Babylonian empires, rulers, etc. But
I’d expect it in all areas where we have data to either back up the claim or not.

confused…any help would be appreciated..

Norm - #6315

March 9th 2010


I’ve pointed this out before on a couple of other post here that it is not a foregone conclusion Paul is applying Adam individually theologically speaking as the physical first person. In fact Paul appears to be applying Adam in the corporate understanding as Israel just as you have pointed out in your previous blog as “Adam as Israel.” The implication is of Adam corporately from the Covenant understanding as the collective view of the Body.

Basically Adam became the first Covenant man as the originator of the Old Covenant Dispensation according to Paul to be replaced by Christ the second Adam for the New Covenant Dispensation. There are some scholars out there who have pointed these issues out like A. T. Robinson in his work “The Body” and recently by Tom Holland’s work “Contours of Pauline Theology”.  Death is a metaphor describing Adam/Israels separation from God and Paul addresses how the corporate body is to be rescued from this Body of death.

Rom 7:24 … Who will deliver me from this body of death?

1Co 15:44-45 It is sown a NATURAL BODY; it is raised a SPIRITUAL BODY. …. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

Gilbert Hendrickson - #6317

March 9th 2010

The story of the garden should not be read literally. At the same time it is a conceptual
construct of their own origion as a specific people.
I don’t think that Paul seen all peoples , nations that would inhabite the earth
as originating through Adam in the garden, who were in their beginning a part of their generations. The split that came of Noah was still within the bloodline of their own ancestry.
Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee , and was familiar with Hebrew/ Jewish History
and theology.
He was also a Roman and was well versed in Greek concepts as well.
I see Paul as trying to synthesize the Greek and Hebrew traditions .
As progression of thought to move the Word, Logo’s forward, that the world outside of
the Hebrew/Jewish mind set of origions could comprehend the Body of Christ
and it’s revelvance to the Body Of Flesh.
Paul seen the Adam in the garden as the Father, Mother of the generations
of their ancestry. Their births ,deaths in a time sequence points to a historical
Adam and Eve.
I don’t think Paul was making reference to the ADAM bara’ed of the sixth day.
He seen Adam in the garden as being but one of many flesh elohim that would come of
ADAM of the sixth day.

Matthew - #6318

March 9th 2010


I personally like Denis O. Lamoureux’s approach. He argues that the Bible is scientifically reliable—it’s just first-century science. This dovetails with the generally accepted view that one also needs to read the Bible’s historical and theological claims with an understanding of its original audience.

Doug Hayworth - #6320

March 9th 2010

Thanks Pete, once again, for a nice post.

Regarding Steve’s question about the WCF. I had to address this when I was a candidate for deacon at a PCA church in 1995. My answer to the WCF statements about creation in six days and Adam was, I affirm those statements insofar as they are consistent with the meaning of the Scripture passages from which they are quoted. Six days has no authority (to me anyway) based on the WCF authors; its only authority is that provided by Scripture. So, if Scripture can be shown to say six days but not mean it literally, then I am not bound (by the WCF) to affirm it as literal. That argument was good enough to be appointed deacon; it probably would not have passed the mustard to be an elder.


Chris Massey - #6321

March 9th 2010


I had the pleasure of meeting you in Victoria, BC last year. I was the guy with all the Exodus questions Can’t tell you how glad I am to have you writing here on Biologos.

I agree with you that Paul most likely believed Adam to be a literal historical figure. Why wouldn’t he? My current view is that when Paul begins drawing analogies with Christ, his references to Adam assume the historicity of Adam, but that doesn’t make historicity essential to the analogy. I’ve overcome a lot of cognitive dissonance by letting go of the idea that biblical writers were somehow endowed with superhuman knowledge that allowed them to transcend all of the faulty notions of their culture. Surely that isn’t the case.

Perhaps we can find a parallel in Christ’s words in Matt. 12:40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” There are good reasons to question whether the fish-swallowing of Jonah is pure history or literary device. Does it render Christ’s analogy meaningless? I should hope not.

Chris Massey - #6322

March 9th 2010


I would concede that Paul’s reference to Adam is more than just an analogy. He clearly believes that the Adamic fall is the origin of sin. But again, if Paul is mistaken about sin’s origin, does that lessen the reality of sin or our need for a Savior?

Gordon J. Glover - #6326

March 9th 2010


I’ll go one step further… Paul’s vision of being caught up with Christ in the “3rd heaven” certainly assumed an ancient geography (as well as his many references to the “ends” or “corners” of the earth).  And I have not heard any Christians argue for the ancient 3-tier universe based on Paul’s remarks. 

The eyewitness accounts of the resurrection also assumed that the literal heaven (ie: God’s dwelling place) was just beyond the clouds.  What else would it mean to have Christ physically taken up?  Our ancient creeds clearly say that Christ “descended into hell” and ” ascended into heaven”—where he is physically seated at God’s right hand.  Yet, the vast majority of Christians never question how this actually works given our modern cosmological context. 

To stumble over such questions would completely miss the point of the biblical accounts—and I think deep-down that we understand this.  My hope is that someday, many years from now, Christians will look at the Adam-Christ stumbling block in much the same way.

JHM - #6330

March 9th 2010

Chris said:
“But again, if Paul is mistaken about sin’s origin, does that lessen the reality of sin or our need for a Savior?”

Frankly, if Paul couldn’t get the origin of sin right, it would tend to make me wonder why I should trust that he got the “solution” any more right. If I am to base my understanding of God, sin, salvation, heaven and hell on the writing of a guy who lived 2000 years ago I would like to know he’s reliable. How am I to trust Paul now?

Gordon J. Glover - #6334

March 9th 2010


Had Paul “got it right” with respect to 21st century science, then he would have surely “got it wrong” for his immediate audience.  Paul’s understanding of sin with repsect to human origins had to intersect a scientific paradigm somewhere.  Had that intersection been anywhere but the day and age in which he lived and wrote, it would have been nonsense.  While the scientific context required to properly understand a “technically correct” sin narrative that included millions of years of evolution would have been inacessible to ancient man, certainly it should be within the ability of all future generations of Christians to see Paul’s words through their original scientific context.  So in that sense, I think Paul got it right.

Gordon J. Glover - #6335

March 9th 2010

Ooops—this sentence should read… “While the scientific context required to properly understand a “technically correct” sin narrative that included millions of years of evolution would have *NOT* been inacessible to ancient man…”

That’s a pretty important “NOT”...

Chris Massey - #6336

March 9th 2010


I’m sure Pete’s next post will shed some light on the issue.

In the meantime, I’ll offer this. Suppose God gives Paul clear divine revelation about the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection as a means of redeeming sinful mankind. Paul sits down to record what God has revealed to him. In trying to explain this revealed message, Paul may make incidental reference to issues about which God has not given him specific revelation (such as the historical origin of sin). In those instances, he’s likely to express the ideas that were common to his time and culture (such as a literal Adam). But that doesn’t mean that Paul is untrustworthy in the core message that he has been inspired to write - salvation from sin through the cross of Christ.

Norm - #6337

March 9th 2010

Paul was not mistaken about sins origins starting with Adam. As I have pointed out above the sin is related to Adam/Israel being separated because of the failure of the Covenant of works to sustain a relationship with God. Adam is a picture of old covenant life that was a failure associated with the first dispensation and the reality was Israel after the fleshly or works nature to obtain righteousness. In Daniel 9:24 it was prophesied concerning Israel/Adam that sin would be sealed up or ended for the covenant people (saints). There are two stories going on here in scripture. First the Jew and Covenant people and secondly the Gentile (originally non covenant people). The Jew was taken out of mortal humanity (the dust of the earth) or Gentiles and given the opportunity to remain in fellowship with God but could not. We all know that story. The Gentiles were completely mortal and outside this first covenant except for those who came into the fold through the covenant people such as the Assyrians (Jonah)  and Babylonians (Daniel and the exile) and interested others that turned to Israel’s one true God. This was a precursor to the Gentiles coming into the fold of true Israel as the one new body of Covenant.

Norm - #6338

March 9th 2010

There is darkness and chaos amongst a dry and desolate spiritual land outside of the covenant people in which the Gentiles lived. They were separated from God and that remains to this day for those who do not seek God in the New Covenant of Christ the Savior of Israel and the World. What was corrected and became the end of “sin” pertained to the Covenant peoples failure to obtain righteous relationship with God. When Paul speaks of Sin being imparted to “all” men he is not concerned with humanity outside who do not seek God but is speaking “only” of those who seek covenant with God both the Jew and the Gentile. That is why he turns around in Rom 5 and says that righteousness and justification to “all” men occurs through Christ. He is talking only of those who come to God not those disinterested folks who remain outside in darkness.

Rom 5:18 So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life.

Norm - #6339

March 9th 2010

Sin has been removed for only those interested in calling upon the name of the Lord (Gen 4:26) and so this has been a quickie overview of a Pauline view of sin and its removal. Bottom line is that now any who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ have no sin because of the New Covenant of Grace that has been provided. The Gift is intended for humanity at large but is effective only for those seeking God through Adam/Israel’s redemption from spiritual Death (separation). As long as folks insist on mixing humanity at large into the concept found in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 the message will generally go right over our heads.

1Co 15:54-57 But when this corruptible (Old Covenant Israel) shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality(New Covenant Body of Christ), then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death (separation from God) is swallowed up in victory.  (55)  O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?  (56)  The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law:  (57)  but thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sorry for the length but this is not simple stuff.

JHM - #6340

March 9th 2010


Interesting thoughts. So given:
“In trying to explain this revealed message, Paul may make incidental reference to issues about which God has not given him specific revelation (such as the historical origin of sin)”
how are we to know what was specifically revealed and what wasn’t? This seems almost like sounds like a theological version of God-of-the-gaps, i.e. what statements of the Bible we find to be in error are not divinely revealed, therefore the other statements are the ones that *are* divinely revealed.

Additionally, you say:
“But that doesn’t mean that Paul is untrustworthy in the core message that he has been inspired to write - salvation from sin through the cross of Christ.”
How are we to know 1) that that *is* the core message and 2) that Paul didn’t get the core message wrong too?

JHM - #6341

March 9th 2010


If the historicity of Adam were just a matter of misunderstanding the technical details of human origins I doubt anybody would much complain that Paul viewed Adam as historical/literal. The problem is that this intersection of scripture and science has real theological consequences. Gordon is completely right to say:
“Paul’s understanding of sin with [respect] to human origins had to intersect a scientific paradigm somewhere.”
but this is a case where one seems to end up with a different theological outcome depending on the scientific paradigm chosen. Genesis 1 is almost trivial in comparison to Genesis 3 in this regard.

P.S. I’m half way through your 16 part YouTube series. You did an incredible job! My hat’s off to you for the obvious effort you put into that.

JHM - #6346

March 9th 2010


Interesting thoughts, but I’m a little confused as to what your actual view of the Fall and origin of sin is. You said:
“The Jew was taken out of mortal humanity (the dust of the earth) or Gentiles and given the opportunity to remain in fellowship with God but could not.”
I looks to me like you’re saying that sin originated with the Jews and I guess therefore the Gentiles didn’t have sin BC. Is that what you mean by ” given the opportunity to remain in fellowship with God but could not”?

Gregory Arago - #6347

March 9th 2010

Does anyone know, what does Dr. Enns call his approach/position?

He writes: “A strictly literal reading of the Adam story does not fit with what we know of the past.”

Later he puts literal/historical together. He also speaks of a ‘simple reading.’

In contrast to literal/historical and simple, does Dr. Enns propose symbolical/mythical or non-historical and complex? Or…?

While I agree with this: “what Paul says about Adam is a very important point of Christian theology,” I think it goes to far to suggest: “The tensions between science and faith, specifically evolution and Christianity, center on the issue of Paul’s Adam.” There are other ‘core/centre issues’ involved as well.

For the sociology of theology, however, unless Pete can convince Christians that Paul’s Adam was *not* historical, he’s got a tough road going forward.

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