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The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ, Part 2: Jesus as the One Man

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April 22, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ, Part 2: Jesus as the One Man

Today's entry was written by Daniel Kirk. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Gregory - #11093

April 25th 2010

Bilbo, you are successfully moving beyond other arguments I’ve seen you raise in the past, here and elsewhere. That’s meant as a compliment. Yet now the talk has little to do with ID (or with anti-evolutionism) and I for one think that is just fine.

If I understand Dr. Enns’ position, not only was there no real, historical Adam and Eve, but also there was no real, historical ‘Garden of Eden’ and no real, historical trees of life or knowledge of good and evil. It is all *simply symbolical* and has nothing to do with *real earthly history*.

Nevermind that this need not challenge the historicity of the saving Christ and his earthly life. There simply was not and could not have been any real, historical *choice* to eat ‘the fruit’ and we were never really ‘forbidden’ from doing so, because there was no real *we* to actually eat a real, historical fruit.

Though the above might seem like an exaggeration (in light of Catholic and Orthodox Christian teachings it is simply heterodox), in fact, it is just an attempt to understand Pete’s position. Where his theology meets with history still seems quite blurry, at least to me. Not wanting to be uncharitable though…

Marshall - #11096

April 25th 2010

Hi Gregory,

I’d say that the man Adam and his wife Eve in Genesis 2-3 are as historical as the woman Jerusalem and her sister Sodom in Ezekiel 16. That is, they are characters in an allegorical story whose actions correspond to the wider historical actions of many people over many generations.

Jerusalem’s adultery is the nation of Israel’s idolatry, as described more plainly in Exodus. Adam and Eve’s forbidden snack is humanity’s rebellion against its Creator, as summed up more prosaically in Romans 1. Jerusalem’s jewelry and crown represent God’s providential care and blessing. Access to the tree of life represents full communion with God and his sustaining power. The serpent is our tempter and ultimately Satan, and so the serpent’s curse predicts God’s decisive action through Jesus to defeat Satan (without recognizing allegory, it’s just about snakes and one of Eve’s kids). Eve’s curse for grasping forbidden knowledge involves increased pain in childbirth. To me, that seems spookily similar to hominids with larger brains/skulls and narrower hips contending with further complications in delivery.

There is history. There is allegory. I don’t believe it’s a choice between one or the other.

davey - #11097

April 25th 2010

I’ve most enjoyed Pete Enns’ thoughts. I am inclined to think the world was pronounced ‘good’ because of its potential, though actually it never was or has been anything but dreadful for sentient life. But, it will be good, eventually, because of Christ, which was always the plan, and this ‘justifies’ God having undertaken the project. Adam stands for humanity, who were always defective, and therefore would all inevitably sin, which was enough to need death (and resurrection), even though some haven’t sinned (infants who die).

Bilbo - #11099

April 25th 2010

Again, I insist that the story has meaning in and of itself, without consideeing how it was later interpreted by Jewish writers, Paul, Lewis, Waltke, Enns, or Kirk.

My question:  Why were Adam and Eve not allowed to eat from the tree of life?

Bilbo - #11100

April 25th 2010

I think the answer is that Adam and Eve changed, from beings who trusted God to tell them what was right and wrong, to beings who decided for themselves what was right or wrong.

And that is our nature.  By nature we make ourselves gods, deciding what is right and wrong.  By nature we choose not to trust God to be God.

Now were we created that way, or was there a fall, or does it matter?

Bilbo - #11101

April 25th 2010

I think the story, at least, involves a fall.  Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from the tree of life before their disobedience.  So before that there is nothing wrong with their nature.  It’s afterwards that they “know” good and evil.  It’s afterwards that they are forbidden to eat from the tree of life.

If the story implies a fall, which I think it does, then is it important that we retain the fall as a historical event in our theology?  I think it is.

Pete Enns - #11102

April 25th 2010

Bilbo (11089),

I appreciate your answer, yet it raises the question of how we are innocent but also by nature (as you put it in 11100) rebellious.

My only point for asking these questions (and we’ve hardly begun) is that the meaning of the story itself (11099) is not as straightforward as you seem to assume.  The Garden scene is a famously “gapped” narrative, meaning it leaves certain important pieces of information unspoken that all biblical interpreters—including you—fill in. Don’t dismiss too quickly how this story was interpreted by “later Jewish writers” or Christian writers. That is precisely where we may learn how to address this narrative. Your understanding of the “pure” story before others got a hold of it is every but as much an attempt to interpret it as anyone else’s.

As for your question in 11099, the answer is, surely, “because they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The underlying question is “why would eating from the one tree disqualifies them from eating of the other?” That is something the text does not spell out. That connection must be inferred, and that inference is called “interpretation.”

Gregory - #11117

April 25th 2010

Thanks for your response, Marshall.

You wrote:
“I’d say that the man Adam and his wife Eve in Genesis 2-3 are as historical as the woman Jerusalem and her sister Sodom in Ezekiel 16.”

Do you mean that Jerusalem & Sodom are/were ‘real, historical’ places? Yes, they are also ‘named’ woman & sister in an allegorical sense. But this does not negate their real, historico-physical presence, right? That’s the key point, which seems to be dismissed by anti-realists re: A&E.

The Catholic & Orthodox churches *still* teach real, historical A&E. & they both have less problem with ‘evolutionary theories’ than the Protestant Christian church. Is that not paradoxical?

In an ‘evolutionary universalistic’ scenario (which BioLogos does *not* endorse), free will, agency, purpose & choice are undermined. So, on the one hand, though I appreciate attempts to grapple with evolution, a type of excessiveness lies nearby. E.g. if we rebel ‘by nature’ & not ‘by spirit’ then we are led down the path (linguistically) to a naturalism that favours scientism. I don’t think that’s the right road to take.

In Pete’s approach, “eating from the one tree” is a non-real event. But the choice to sin is real.

Marshall - #11123

April 25th 2010

Hi Gregory,

In Ezekiel 16, Jerusalem and Sodom represent real peoples, not places. The woman Jerusalem isn’t just the city of Jerusalem, but the whole nation of Israel from its inception to exile. During that time, the people were in many different places (Egypt, the promised land, Babylon). The woman’s story is the nation’s story, not a story of a specific place.

Similarly, I think Adam and Eve represent humanity, which again is something real. Adam’s name means humanity (Eve’s evokes “life-giver”), which like a woman named Jerusalem, is a clue that we may be seeing something other than plain history. The first human is split by God into man and woman, and marriage is said to result in the return to one flesh. (The Hebrew word for rib can also mean side. It was more than a bone: God adds more flesh to the man to complete the surgery, and the man declares the woman to be “flesh of my flesh” and not just “bone of my bones”. God did not restate the key command to the woman, since both were “in” the first human.) Again, a very symbolic picture that speaks meaningfully to the shared humanity of male and female and the mystical union of marriage. Jesus’ only reference to this story makes a point about marriage.

Marshall - #11124

April 25th 2010

In getting that down to the character limit, I chopped a lot of qualifiers such as “I believe”, “I think”, “I understand this as”, etc. Hopefully they go without saying.

Gregory - #11132

April 25th 2010

Hi Marshall,

I’m not denying that there is symbolism in the ‘story.’ But you are not addressing the history at all. Why not? E.g. choices happen ‘in real time’, they are not ahistorical or atemporal.

Humanity, as you say, is indeed real. And yet so is ‘human history,’ as we try to understand it and to inevitably interpret it, through texts, images, maps, memories, oral traditions, etc. There is a difference between speaking of ‘representations’ and about ‘actually existing things’ and I find your approach blurs them.

At least you could say that Jerusalem and Sodom are/were actual, real, historical places. If those places did not exist, the allegories in Ezekial would not exist. Again, there is a(n) historical precedent that speaks of real, historical things/people/places, etc.

Gregory - #11133

April 25th 2010


Sure, there are many people today who are non-religious or non-monotheists who embrace the logic: “there didn’t need to be a first human (our tradition named: Adam)”. It is still surprising when Christians say this given the clear teachings of the Catholic & Orthodox Churches on this, both of which have more or less successfully ‘accommodated’ evolutionary sciences. BenYachov made this clear in #10840 and his (and the Vatican’s) position has not been seriously challenged.

David Opderbeck’s recent thread “A Historical Adam?” also defends the traditional and contemporary view that a majority of Christendom accepts, i.e. that Adam and Eve were ‘real, historical’ people. It might be ‘universal evolutionism’ (e.g. degreeism) and ‘populationism’ that are the problems here. But then again, we’ve already faced down Rev. T. Malthus on this topic too.

Perhaps one issue to address is that Protestantism itself can be problematic in that it allows for and even encourages (too) many interpretations by non-professionals and non-scientists on questions where science and theology overlap?


p.s. no worries about the cut qualifiers

Marshall - #11137

April 25th 2010

Hi Gregory,

I’m not sure why I’m coming across as not addressing the history at all—I’ll say again that I think Genesis 2-4 is historical allegory. It does tell history, and it corresponds to real history if we allow it to speak allegorically, much like Ezekiel 16.

The progressions from humans foraging in a garden to pastoralist/agriculturalist brothers to building a city happen in a single generation, yet I think that corresponds to a real history that is far more complex (just as Israel’s slide into idolatry did not happen immediately, nor just in one place, nor only one time). Two sons of Lamech who are respectively fathers of “all those who play the lyre and pipe” and “who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools” seems to telescope large non-hereditary historical advancements into a tight genealogical story.

I think some of these historical details are incidental to revealing God’s hand and purpose behind that history. If the consonance between forbidden knowledge/skull size and painful childbirth is real, I still don’t think the point of Genesis is to reveal those details of anthropology. Other history, such as how Jesus enacted the serpent’s curse, is indeed crucial.

PS: I liked D. Opderbeck’s article too.

Marshall - #11139

April 25th 2010

A different approach:

Symbol: Jerusalem, a name that refers to a real city
Meaning: the nation Israel’s history that they continued to live out

Symbol: Adam, a name that refers to real humanity
Meaning: humanity’s early history that we continue to live out

So, I may negate that Jerusalem is just a woman or Adam just a man, but I don’t negate the normal referent of either name (the city or humanity), and neither do I negate the historical reality of what they represent in each story (Israelites and early humanity).

The reason I take an allegorical view is due to the way Genesis 2-4 reads, and the way the New Testament draws on its imagery. I have no problem with miracles, but the serpent doesn’t speak due to a miracle or possession; all the text says is that it’s the most subtle beast. That’s another clue that there’s more to these characters than first meets the eye. I was quite ignorant about genetics when I started to see how compelling the allegorical interpretation was, and how it eliminated many logical contradictions and curiosities within a literal reading. (And I’m only slightly less ignorant of genetics today!)

Rich - #11150

April 25th 2010

Roger (#10816):

Here a few times, and elsewhere, on another thread, you have made statements about “all other religions” or “other religions”.  Yet, the context of your statements indicates no knowledge whatsoever of religious traditions other than the Protestant one, and some of your statements about other religions are false.  If you want to praise Protestantism, do so, but don’t attempt to rest your case for it on erroneous characterizations of other traditions. 

Also, I echo the point about lower-casing “orthodox” Christianity.

BenYachov - #11151

April 25th 2010


Ace Ventura rulz!!!!:-)

Bilbo - #11229

April 26th 2010

Hi Pete,

What I take to be the important (non-interpretive) details of the Adam and Eve story:

1)  They are forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

2)  They are allowed to eat from the tree of life before they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

3)  After they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are denied access to the tree of life.

4)  The reason given is that they now know good and evil, and if they ate from the tree of life, they would live forever and become like “us.”

What I take to be essential Christian teaching about human nature is that we are by nature rebels against God, deserving death, and needing death before we can be changed.  It is easy to interpret the Adam and Eve story as offering an historical, causal explanation for this.

We can reject that interpretation, but why?  Because evolutionary history seems to rule it out?  But does it?  Is there a way to reconcile the two, such as Lewis tries, but enlarging the population of unfallen humanity?  And if we can reconcile the two, wouldn’t it be more advantageous to do so, rather than rejecting Pauline and traditional Christian interpretation?

Pete Enns - #11266

April 26th 2010

Hello there hobbit,

I agree with the 4 points you lay out, but at each point what has captured the imagination of the history of interpretation—through to today—is “what does all this mean?” WHY be kept from eating a tree that gives knowledge of good and evil (which are good thing to know, right?) What does it mean to be “like us?” That is where it gets interesting. Those are the “gaps” in the narrative that we ALL have to fill in some how. “Interpreting” is what you are doing in the two paragraph that follow.

Pete Enns - #11267

April 26th 2010


Just so we are clear, I do not mean to imply that your interpretation is necessarily wrong. But, it is “extra” material, a NECESSARY “going beyond the Bible.” And yes, we need to rethink origins in light of not just evolutionary science but science in general, which presents a view of cosmic and life origins that are very different than what the ancient authors of the Bible assumed. Lewis’s way of handling this is also very much a “rethinking” of the Bible in view of science. There is nothing wrong with that. The question is how compelling and cohesive his explanation is (which I will slave to side for now). In a way, Lewis is also “rejecting” Paul by going beyond him (which is one of the points of my “Creating Paul” post of a few weeks ago.

Bilbo - #11280

April 26th 2010

Hi Pete,

Just to be clear, are you saying that the view of human nature I presented —that it deserves to die and needs to die before it can become something better—is not necessarily part of mainstream Christian tradition?

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