The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ, Part 2: Jesus as the One Man
In last week’s post, I pointed out that the creation story was written to tell the Israelites how their own story is connected to God’s purposes in making the world and people upon it. The historicity of Adam is not the point. This week I want to bring Paul into the picture, and here is the bottom line: the validity of Paul’s theological agenda, in which Christ is compared and contrasted with Adam, is not dependent on the historicity of Genesis 1-3.
Why can we make this distinction between the historicity of Adam and the theological validity of Jesus as the representative human? Because Paul employs Adam in the same way that the biblical writers employed Adam: Adam’s role in a story of beginnings helps Paul’s contemporary audience make sense of the present and their own role within it.
For the Old Testament writers, convictions about the later story of Israel shaped their telling of the story of Adam. And for Paul, convictions about Jesus as the culmination of the story of Israel shape his narration of the first man.
What holds Paul’s argument together is not a commitment to a particular first human, or to a particular reading of the story of Adam. Rather, it is a commitment to Jesus as the one savior and deliverer for all people—Jew or Gentile. For Paul, it is not Adam who determines a particular understanding of Jesus. Instead it is a prior conviction about Jesus that determines a particular reading of Adam.
In my previous post, I noted how the creation narrative is echoed in later stories about Israel, including an expectation that Israel would one day have a king. Paul reads the Adam story very differently. His vision has been shaped by what he sees to be the ultimate act of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus. This event shapes Paul’s understanding of Adam.
So in Romans 5, when Paul launches into his description of the work of Adam, he gives a reading deeply colored by his convictions about Jesus. We need to attune ourselves to the interpretive decisions Paul is making. Paul could read Genesis as teaching that Adam’s act introduced corruption into the human heart, and that’s why people stand under judgment (“Every intention of their heart is only evil all the time”, as Genesis 6:5 puts it). But he didn’t. Paul points back to one act. Similarly, Paul could have read Genesis 3 as a narrative that gives equal blame to both man and woman or even a story that teaches that sin entered into the world through woman (Eve). But he doesn’t. Why does he interpret the stories as pointing to the decisive act of one man? Because of his prior conviction about the gospel as a story surrounding the decisive act of one man.
There is a two-way conversation taking place in scripture. The Old Testament creates some expectations and tells stories with plot lines that anticipate resolution in the future. Then the New Testament comes along, but not merely to say that those expectations are met and stories are resolved. Rather, they find a surprising climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This surprise ending often transforms how the Old Testament stories are read.
Paul has rewritten the Adam narrative to correspond with his convictions concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection. Once we understand this, the pressure to hold onto Adam as a historical figure is released. Paul is using the creation stories for precisely the same function as that for which they were written: to show how God’s act of redemption corresponds to God’s act of creation.
When speaking of Jesus and Adam in Romans 5, Paul’s point is this: God has provided for universal salvation through one man’s one act. This act of salvation more than offsets the universal need for salvation. According to the biblical story as Paul portrays it, one man introduced this need for deliverance. And according to the gospel that brings this story to its consummation, one man’s act met this need for salvation.
Next week we will continue to explore Paul’s claims about Adam as a forerunner of Christ, shifting our attention to the correspondence Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15. Once again we will see how Israel’s calling to take up the mantle of Adam paves the way for Paul’s claims about Jesus, the surprise ending of Israel’s story.
Daniel Kirk is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary in Northern California. He is the author of Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God and blogs regularly at Storied Theology. He has published articles in numerous venues including Journal of Biblical Literature, Zeitschrift for Neues Testament, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and Christianity Today.