The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ Part 3: Jesus as the New Humanity
In this final post on Jesus and Adam in Paul’s thought, I want to move into Paul’s claims in 1 Corinthians 15. This, in addition to Romans 5, is where Paul calls Adam a “type” of Christ and directly addresses the connection between them.
As in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15 first brings Adam into the discussion to compare him to Christ as one human who determined the fate of all humanity. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s exposition of Adam is more clearly set within a larger framework of Jesus as representative of a new humanity. As Paul puts it, the resurrected Christ is the firstfruits of a larger harvest of resurrection-life, i.e., the resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15:20). This offsets the work of Adam as the firstfruits of a harvest of death (1 Corinthians 15:21).
The major thrust of these posts on Adam and Christ has been that we cannot separate Genesis 1-3 from the function these chapters perform throughout the canon. This is true for the blessings of “fruitfulness and multiplication,” as we have seen. It is also true for reversing the death that Adam and Eve were stricken with for their disobedience in the garden.
The hope that saturates the Pentateuch is that obedience to the Torah will lead to life. Where Adam and Eve were given one command as they lived in the presence of God’s garden, Israel is given numerous commands, including, especially, those tied to the Tabernacle. Where Adam and Eve were given the garden to serve and keep (2:15), the Levites are to serve and keep the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26)—itself adorned with trees, fruits, and guardian angels evocative of the lost garden. The Levites are “second Adam” figures, representing all the community in presence of God, even ransoming their lives for God (Numbers 3:11-13).
Again, in the Old Testament itself, the story of Adam is told not simply to tell us “what happened.” It tells us who Israel is called to be before God and how Israel-as-Adam is both God’s means for affirming his purposes in creation, and for reversing the shortcomings still inherent in the world, as we know it.
Now back to Paul. He claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s work represents humanity by bringing it life even as Adam’s work represents humanity by bringing it death. When he does so, he is joining with the Old Testament writers in reading Israel’s story as God’s means for setting the entirety of creation to rights. This is not a claim that requires a historical Adam as depicted in Genesis 1-3, though it does depend on taking those creation stories seriously as reflecting God’s intentions for humanity on the earth.
Paul’s use of the Adam story follows in a long trajectory of Jewish use of these stories. Not only do they reverberate through the Pentateuch, but also into the traditions of Israel’s kings. The kings of Israel, like Adam, are seen as sons of God who rule the world on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:16-28; 2 Samuel 7:9-16; Psalm 2; Psalm 110). The Adam story sets the trajectories for the story of Israel, as the writers of the creation accounts, themselves, tie Adam to Israel in the Pentateuch, and as the imagery is found in other OT writers.
So when we find Paul engaging in an extended contrast between the first and last Adam, we are not encountering any new mandate that Adam be a particular historical figure. We are in the presence of a Jewish man participating in the long tradition of retelling the creation story so that it dovetails with his understanding of how God is at work to save the world by means of human agency. The very presence of two creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 indicates that historicity was not the principal concern when these stories were first told. There is no reason to add such a requirement when the apostle Paul takes up the stories.
“The first Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15:45-46). The case Paul makes here is simply that Jesus is the representative of a new kind of humanity. Embodied, yes. But with a Spiritual, resurrection body. Perhaps it is important to note here that the point is contrast: the resurrected Jesus is not like Adam. The image of God has been remade, so that those who are “in Christ” will bear the heavenly image. Jesus is the start of something new.
The resurrection of Jesus was a surprise. It was not expected that the Messiah would be crucified and raised from the dead, and thereby enthroned. When we see Paul invoking Adam as a point of comparison and contrast, we are observing theological reflection at work striving to communicate how it is that Jesus determines the destiny of all humanity. The determining factor for Paul is not what Genesis 1-3 tells us about Adam, but what his vision of the resurrected messiah tells him about the climax of Israel’s story.
Surprise! The Torah is not God’s means of salvation!
Surprise! An accursed death is redemptive!
Surprise! Jesus is the new humanity, and the rest of us will follow in his train.
In light of these (and other such surprises), Paul reinterprets the story of Adam in light of the Christ event. His convictions about Christ do not ride on Genesis 1-3 taking place just so in history. His assessments of Adam ride on his convictions about God’s redeeming work in Christ.
For Paul, as for the writers of the OT, the creation stories are true introductions to the story of God irrespective of their literal historicity.
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.