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Paul’s Adam, Part I

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March 9, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Paul’s Adam, Part I

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

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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Martin Rizley - #6437

March 10th 2010

Dr. Enns, It seems to me that “cognitive dissonance” stems from regarding the “assured results of modern science” as equally trustworthy as the teaching of Scripture.  But why assume that the mainstream interpretation of the scientific data must be true?  If someone accepts the supernaturalism of the Biblical worldview, why should it be difficult to believe that mainstream science has grossly erred in its reconstruction of earth’s ancient past precisely because it is interpreting all of the data through the lenses of pure naturalism?  “We know that radioisotopes decay at a certain rate, therefore the rocks must be old.”  I don’t see the difference between saying that and saying, “The soles on the Israelite’s sandals show no signs of wear, therefore they can’t be 40 years old!”  or “There’s no food or water to sustain two million people in the desert for 40 years, so they couldn’t have survived in the desert.”  But the Bible says that God sustained them and their clothing miraculously for forty years! Is that special pleading to “shore up” obvious impossibilities?  No, it is simply believing the God of Scripture works in the natural world in ways that far transcend our understanding.

Gordon J. Glover - #6475

March 10th 2010

Great idea Martin!  And perhaps the earth really is at the center of the universe and the sun and stars really do orbit the earth, just like the bible says.  To heck with stellar parrallax, Fouccault’s Pendulum, and the phases of Venus.  What do all of these scientists know anyway?  Why trust the modern interpretation of science when we the ancient Scriptures?

C’mon Martin.  Do you really think God would create the world one way, then go to such extraordinary lengths to not only fabricate mountains of evidence to the contrary, but to erase the original data?  And then why would God, after doing all of that, command his people to believe the original scenario that he went to such trouble to cover up?  If this is a test of faith, then why wasn’t biblical cosmology also a test of faith?  Perhaps the universe really does have a 3-tier structure?

Think about it.

Martin Rizley - #6488

March 11th 2010

Gordon,  What I “think” about God is really irrelevant, for “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, that they are futile.”  It is not for us to sit in judgment on God’s ways, but rather, to allow God to correct our thoughts about Him and His universe through the infallible teaching of His Word.  As I have said in the past, I don’t think the Bible teaches the ANE cosmology you allege that it teaches; for example, nowhere does the Genesis narrative describe the “raqia” that God created as a ‘hard dome’—that idea is read into the text from other sources.  Moreover, scientists have no one to blame but themselves if they reach erroneous conclusions about earth’s ancient past because of their refusal to let the light of special revelation guide them in their interpretation of general revelation.  Who told them to interpret the data of the natural world through the ‘lenses’ of a strict and unyielding naturalism?  Certainly not the God who causes axe heads to float and virgins to conceive and who stretches solar days to twice their normal length.  He certainly didn’t tell them to reject miracle and supernatural causation out of hand as a formative factor in His universe.

Gordon J. Glover - #6490

March 11th 2010


What you “think” about how the Bible handles ANE cosmology is irrelavent.  The plain fact of the matter is that there is no other cosmology found in the Bible but ANE cosmology.

“Moreover, scientists have no one to blame but themselves if they reach erroneous conclusions about earth’s ancient past because of their refusal to let the light of special revelation guide them in their interpretation of general revelation.”—Total nonesense!  Where would we be if modern science were held captive to the science found in the Bible?

Bruce Russell - #6500

March 11th 2010

>>> —Total nonesense!  Where would we be if modern science were held captive to the science found in the Bible? <<<<

For one, they would believe in the resurrection from the dead, the great day of final judgement, and the future glorious transformation of heaven and earth.  Scientists have no evidence to support any of these things.

The believe in supernatural miracles does not hinder our capacity to observe and harness natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine, etc.

Your observance of nature should give you a clue as God’s eternal power and divine nature, not your own capacity to divine a creation story opposed to the one revealed by Scripture, and thus subvert the apostolic gospel narrative.

Gordon J. Glover - #6507

March 11th 2010


I don’t disagree with anything you said.  But you missed the point I was making to Martin.  The everyday science in the Bible reflects the most up-to-date understanding of the time and place the Bible was written.  It’s cosmology, it’s biology, it’s geography, it’s botany, etc… are all “frozen” in ANE times, which is what we should expect.  After all, the scriptures had to make sense to the original authors and their immediate audience. 

My point to Martin is that when it comes to science, we can’t treat the bible as the last word on the subject.  Otherwise, we would be paralized when it comes to updating our working knowledge of creation as we learn more about it.

Harry - #6508

March 11th 2010

Martin, if the Bible is such a useful foundation on which to build scientific understanding, then why do those working within such a framework produce next to nothing? Andrew Snelling admitted at a creationism conference a couple of years ago that the movement had no better explanations or models since the publication of the Genesis Flood. Likewise, creation biology has come to a grinding halt because of the researchers’ inability to explain the genomic data. The most up-to-date paper is still Todd Wood’s from 2006 where he challenges others to explain the human:chimp genomes from a creationist perspective. This, as he admitted in a post this week, has still not been done, and there does not even appear to have been basic progress. I repeat the question; if this is such good way to conduct science is it so apparently unproductive? ‘Naturalistic’ science meanwhile continues to make discoveries in all areas at an incredible rate.

Martin Rizley - #6516

March 11th 2010

Harry,  I would like to know the precise quotation from Andrew Snelling in which he denies any significant advance in the development of creationist models since the Genesis Flood. His own “catastrophic plate tectonics model” represents a signficant advance over earlier creationist theories about possible mechanisms God may have used to produce a global flood.  I have a hard time believing that Snelling would not regard his model as an advance over earlier models.  Would you not agree that the Bible provides the only solid foundation on which to build scientific knowledge, since it alone provides the theological rationale for confidence in the orderly nature of the world around us.  That’s why we can develop medical and other technologies—because we can count on the world to function in an orderly way.  That also explains why creationists and mainstream scientists do not differ at all in their approach to ‘operational’ science, because both operate on the assumption of order in the natural world.  When it comes to “historical science,” however, one’s view of God will definitely affect how one approaches the data.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #6519

March 11th 2010

Mainstream science, in its study of the ancient past, operates on the assumption that God either doesn’t exist (the universe is self-explanatory, self-organizing, and self-directing); or that He is irrelevant to the study of earth’s history (He may have made the universe, but leaves it to run on its own).  Thus, nature is in a state of “absolute equilibrium.”  The universe is a uniformity of causes and effects operating in a closed system.  Creationists, on the other hand, operate on the assumption that God has intervened at certain key moments in the past—at the time of creation, the flood, the Exodus—producing effects in the natural world by miracle.  Nature is therefore in a state of “punctuated equilibrium:” that is, it conforms generally to certain predictable patterns, but not absolutely, for its ultimate submission is not to law but to the Lawgiver, who is subject to no law of any kind.  His sovereign will, not natural law, determines how matter ‘acts.’  Creationists say that historical science must take into account this miracle-working God, and not use the data of natural world—interpreted through naturalistic lenses—to “rewrite” the Bible.

Gordon J. Glover - #6529

March 11th 2010

“When it comes to “historical science,” however, one’s view of God will definitely affect how one approaches the data.”

Absolutely 100% WRONG!

The BioLogos team and its contributers adhere to the same creeds and confessions as the Young Earth and Old Earth Creationists.  It has nothing to do with one’s view of God.  It has everything to do with one’s view of the Bible. 

If you think the Bible spoke to questions of science that were beyond its time, and if you fear that if the science in the bible is found to be dated would undermine it’s authority on matters of faith, then you will reject any scientific conclusion that doesn’t agree with your specific interpretation of Scripture.

However, you if allow the biblical authors to draw from their common notions of the world around them, and you trust that an honest study of the created world can reveal truth, then you do not feel threatened when modern science contradicts traditional interpretations of Scripture.

Gordon J. Glover - #6530

March 11th 2010

“Creationists, on the other hand, operate on the assumption that God has intervened at certain key moments in the past”

Martin, that sound nice (like Hope and Change), but it fails miserably (like Hope and Change).  Even these events would leave some evidence behind—but there is absolutely nothing.  So in addition to believing that God worked outside the laws of nature to create the world in 6 days only 6000 years ago, and that he worked outside the laws of nature to flood the earth about 2500 years ago, you must also believe that he performed miracles to ERASE all evidence of these events and plant fake evidence of an entirely different scenario—all the while commanding his people to believe that which he erased all evidence of?

Is that what you believe, Martin?

John VanZwieten - #6537

March 11th 2010

But He did leave the evidence of the Grand Canyon, which was obviously carved by the floodwaters as they receded.

(Sorry, just have to laugh at myself for buying that “evidence” from YECs)

Harry - #6538

March 11th 2010

Martin here are the slides from Snelling’s talk;

What YEC organisations present to their non-scientific followers, and what the researchers within the movement say when speaking from a scientific perspective are two very, very different things. Their stance with regard to genomics is a prime example. They present arguments on their websites that Todd Wood has already refuted within the YEC research literature.

John VanZwieten - #6541

March 11th 2010


What you say is quite true about the different messages.  I recently attended what was billed as a “scientific/genetics case for intelligent design” seminar at a nearby university.  The same speaker was presenting at a church the next day.  Several slides from the church presentation somehow made it into the science presentation, which caused considerable consternation for the speaker, who kept saying “I wish I hadn’t included that slide today.”

Thanks for the links.

Martn Rizley - #6544

March 11th 2010

Gordon,  You cannot separate your view of God from your view of the Bible, since the Bible claims to be the very Word of God.  If, however, you believe that the Bible is filled with historical and/or scientific errors because God was not able to overcome the limitations of Israel’s culture in revealing Himself to them (an assumption refuted by the fact that God spoke in an audible voice to the Jews on Mt. Sinai, making specific reference to the six days of creation), then we definitely have a different view of God and the way in which He communicates propositional revelation to men.  You speak of “science in the Bible.”  However, there is no science in the Bible; science is a modern discipline that was unknown to the Hebrews.  What one finds are records of historical persons and events that carry scientific implications.  I just finished preaching on the Flood and I was struck by the detailed way information given in that record concerning the exact timing of the flood, its duration, the height to which the waters rose—not the type of details you find in a ‘just so’ story.  It clearly purports to be an event of history, and that is just how I presented it.

Gordon J. Glover - #6545

March 11th 2010


“If, however, you believe that the Bible is filled with historical and/or scientific errors because God was not able to overcome the limitations of Israel’s culture in revealing Himself to them…”—it’s not that God was not able to overcome the limitation of Israel’s culture, it’s a question of did or didn’t he.  Obviously, he did NOT, because there is not on thing in the Bible that transcends the scientific knowledge of the Ancient Near East.

When a missionary goes to far-away place to preach the Gospel, they must communicate within the contex of their audience.  It’s not that they are unable to communicate to them they way they communicate to your or me, it’s that they must accommodate their message to the langueage / culture of their audience.

Would we expect anything less of God when he communicates to us?

John VanZwieten - #6548

March 11th 2010


Good point about missionary communications.  I’m sure many Christians would be truly shocked by a literal translation into english of the scripture as presented to some peoples.  (But then again many are shocked just by a free translation like The Message.)

Martn Rizley - #6550

March 11th 2010

Gordon,  Missionaries obviously attempt to communicate to their target audience in ways they can understand, but that does not mean that they must affirm erroneous cultural concepts in the interest of communicating truth.  For example, a missionary working in a tribal culture does not need to agree that a child’s fever is caused by an evil spirit and call for the shaman in order to identify culturally with the people.  The God of the Bible is a God of truth.  He cannot lie.  Therefore, if He told the children of Israel in an audible voice that He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, then that is what He did, and that is what those who purport to be messengers of God must affirm.  Whether or not those days were all of 24-hour duration is a separate question, but God said on Mt. Sinai apart from the agency of any man that He made the made the world in six days, then rested; and since He cannot lie, that is what we must believe.  But what place does God’s resting from the work of creation have in an evolutionary scenario, which sees evolution as an interminable process from the big bang to the collapse of the universe?

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #6564

March 11th 2010

Paul’s Adam was the first adam.  Paul’s Christ was the last adam.

For those who claim adam = man, I have one question.  What are you?

If you claim to be a man, you have falsified your own assumption.  Adam does not equal man.

In typical ancient style, not just ANE, the first X is the first man of that tribe, a man named X.  Therefore, Adam was the first Adamite, the first man of his tribe.  That is the standard usage.

In Genesis 4, we have the Cainite genealogy, the descendants of their first man Cain.

In Genesis 5, we have the Sethite genealogy, the descendants of Seth.  Both lines are Adamites.

Abraham was called and Eberite (Hebrew) a descendant of Eber.  And on it goes.

The Jews (Judahites) were also Israelites, Eberites, Sethites, and Adamites.

What reason is there to read anymore than this into the accounts?

Martin Rizley - #6573

March 11th 2010

Very good point.  Clearly, the Scriptures present Adam as the first human being, with other human beings, both Sethites and Cainites, descending from him.  The genealogies of Scripture would seem to settle forever the question of Adam’s historicity, were people not reading the text through the lenses of their own MWR culture (modern Western rationalistic) culture, which says that there could not have been a first man; therefore, we must “reinterpret” the obvious and wrest the Scriptures in the process.

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