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The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ Part 3: Jesus as the New Humanity

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April 30, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ Part 3: Jesus as the New Humanity

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 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.

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dopderbeck - #11810

April 30th 2010

Daniel—I appreciate this post, and I’m tracking with your NPP-ish reading of Pauline theology as narrative and as restoration eschatology.  I agree with you that Paul is not making a “historical” claim per se—he’s not saying “now I will write some objective details about the origins of human beings.”  But—isn’t the integrity of Paul’s narrative still dependent at some level on the fact that it is a narrative of things as they actually are?  To use N.T. Wright’s term, we need to be “critical realists”—but that means we’re still “realists.”  I’m reading Wright’s “Paul in Fresh Perspective” now,  and it seems to me that the narrative Paul tells absolutely relies on the fact that something really did go awfully, ontologically wrong in the creation starting with Adam.  I just don’t get how the NPP helps in any way to remove the need for an essential historicity to the “fall”.  What am I missing?

norm - #11813

April 30th 2010

Your premise may be correct that Paul does not require a historical Adam however why can’t we expand this application also to Abraham. Both Adam and Abraham’s stories are typologies of Israel when closely examined. Both Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sara have similar themes and as Adam represents Israel also Abraham’s journeys covers similar typological territory as does Israel history. It’s obvious both accounts have been constructed to illustrate that they are Hebrew stories tied to Israel primarily.

So the question begs where did Israel begin and end developing histories for themselves that would not reflect true historical accounts. Or is the question even that simple? Both Adam and Abraham are found bound up together in the same work (Genesis) with an obvious break from chapter 11 & 12. However they are both contained within the same structure reflecting the 10 toledots of generations. What then are the Hebrews doing in Genesis by mixing together possibly fictional and historical accounts in the same structure? Thoughts?

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #11814

April 30th 2010

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents” (CCC 390).

This whole “If you accept Evolution or a non-“literal” reading of Genesis u must deny a real historic Adam” meme is nothing more than an exercise in dogmatic liberal Protestant fundamentalism. 

I love orthodoxy but I have no use for fundamentalism.

Jeremy - #11825

April 30th 2010

To piggyback on what norm said, at what point in the lineages presented to we transition from typological to actual human beings? Abraham’s father? Grandfather? Was Adam typological, but his “son” was an actual person? I’m no expert on Hebrew/ANE literature, but that seems a very - VERY - odd literary device.

Justin Poe - #11827

April 30th 2010

Jeremy, you beat me to it.  If Adam and Abraham aren’t literal people, then the genealogies listed throughout the Bible, leading ultimately to the birth of Christ, are totally pointless.  I doubt God would use mythical people to “fulfill prophecy”.

Norm - #11829

April 30th 2010

Just to make clear, I agree with some of Daniel’s propositions as it is clear that Paul is comfortable with allegorizing the stories of Genesis in which he deals with the story of Hagar and Sara allegorically and applies the story of the two becoming one flesh in Gen 2:24 as prophetic concerning Christ and the church. It is also without dispute that Genesis is assembled in a highly allegorical construct throughout the entire piece. In fact the names of many of the individuals in the Genealogies appear to be Hebrew applied names to help develop the theme that is being presented. It is highly questionable that these were true historic names if these are historic individuals.  So the question is sitting there staring us in the face concerning what is indeed the purpose of Genesis? This question has to be dealt with in the context of Israel’s history and is pertinent especially to when and why and for what purpose they constructed Genesis. That is probably where the answer lies in much of these issues.

J. R. Daniel Kirk - #11833

April 30th 2010

Dobderbeck &  benyachov, the approach to the text I’m advocating is one that holds loosely to a literal reading of Gen 1-3, but is no less determinative for the story that it introduces. On the one hand, I’m saying that a certain kind of historical reading is unnecessary—the kind of reading that most folks would assume you’re talking about if you’re giving a “historical” affirmation of the text.

But on the other, it is important that the narrative of the world is one that affirms a good world gone bad, a calling for humanity that was forsaken—and Israel as the means for God’s restoration project.

My account is rather minimalist; I’m encouraging us to appreciate the functions of the texts as they stand in context and as they were read by other early Jews and Christians.

J. R. Daniel Kirk - #11835

April 30th 2010

The genealogy question keeps coming back up, and I don’t remember where I engaged it before.

But in dealing with genealogies it’s important that we not underestimate the creativity and shaping that happens in that genre. They are never simply “family trees,” but are accounts of ancestry to make particular points. The genealogies are crafted to reflect the narrative (and, probably, vice versa) that defines Israel as a people. This includes Adam, Abraham, etc. Rather than functioning as independent evidence of how we should assess the historicity of certain characters, they reflect Israel’s incorporation of these early characters into its collective, national identity.

Bilbo - #11837

April 30th 2010

I second (or third, after Jim Scott) Dave Opderdeck’s concern, that the fall have some actual basis in history.

Dan - #11840

April 30th 2010

This all reminds me of the old liberal views of the resurrection.  The historicity of the resurrection doesn’t matter as long as the “idea” or the “meaning” of the hope of resurrection is “believed”.  And soon resurrection could mean about anything from vague spiritual enlightenment to hope for a new start in some undefined earthly sense.  It’s the “story” that matters.

I could contrast it all to Joseph Smith discovering tablets handed to him by the angel Moroni.  One could easily say “what does it matter whether there is any historical truth to Smith’s story, as long as one gains spiritual insight from Mormnonism”. 

Christianity has always been a religion rooted in history.  Christ was crucified “under Pontius Pilate”, an historical figure.  Moses led Israel out of bondage in Egypt, a real place.  The genealogies that mention David, Abraham and Adam may not be “mere” history, but remove the historicity and all you have are nice stories.  Faith is not destroyed as much as made of no consequence.  A nice story, nothing more.

Chris Massey - #11841

April 30th 2010


Excellent article. You describe Genesis 1-3 as “reflecting God’s intentions for humanity on the earth,” and then in a comment you further describe the passage as affirming “a good world gone bad, a calling for humanity that was forsaken.”

Does that mean that the world was in fact good at one point and then became bad? Or are we talking about a world that simply isn’t in accord with God’s ultimate goal for the place? Is redemption through Christ a means of returning the world to a state in which it once existed, or is it a means of putting the world into a state that God ultimately intended, but which has never yet been realized?

Personally, I struggle to find a place for a “fall” in light of the earth’s evolutionary history.

dopderbeck - #11844

April 30th 2010

Daniel, thanks for the comment.  I guess I circle back here to the my semi-concordist post on this issue.  If we agree that the narrative affirms an ontological reality—“a good world gone bad”—and if we also agree that the narrative is nevertheless not cast in a “literalistic” genre—I’m not sure why we need to press so hard to argue that “Adam” wasn’t a “real person.”  The ontological reality the text relates to is relational and covenantal, not genetic and biological.  Science tells us lots of fascinating things about hominid groups and our genetic origins, but it can’t tell us anything about the origins of this relational and covenantal calling or about who, when or where the “first man” to receive this calling was.  Why not just leave it at that?  Not a challenge—genuinely a question.

Norm - #11846

April 30th 2010

Dan #11840

Are you perhaps comparing apples to oranges in contrasting literature (Genesis) that is self evident it’s symbolic and allegorical with the Resurrection account of Christ that was attested to by multitudes of eye witnesses? I agree that there is danger in under valuing the intent of the scriptures but the point is clear that Genesis is much more difficult to define precisely and we need to be careful of over generalizing the comparisons.

David T. - #11854

April 30th 2010

I don’t know where else to bring this up, so he goes. As you may know, one of the tenets of Epicureanism was the idea of natural evolution. I thought perhaps I could find insight on how the idea of evolution could be meshed with Christian belief by looking at the responses of the early church/early church fathers to the Epicureans. Ultimately, they made no attempt to synthesize the two, and their responses were incredulous, implying that it was obvious that the world was created. Indeed, in Paul’s speech at Areopagus, he faced Epicureans as well as Stoics. Acts 17:24-26 was most definitely (at least in part) intended to counter Epicurean evolutionary cosmology.
It is quite difficult from a historical standpoint to accept the idea that the early church would have tolerated the teaching of evolution, as it would have been seen as capitulation to the Epicureans. The “well duh, of course the earth was created” response of the church to Epicurean evolution was the standard until the latter end of the Enlightenment.

David T. - #11855

April 30th 2010

It may be true that Origen and Augustine allowed for a non-literal reading of Genesis; but this does not mean that they came anywhere close to allowing for what, at the time, would have been Epicureanism. They would have maintained the direct from-above action of God in the full sense of the idea of a creator and a creation, in line with Paul and the early church.

Dick Fischer - #11869

April 30th 2010

Chris wrote:

“Personally, I struggle to find a place for a “fall” in light of the earth’s evolutionary history.”

If we regard Adam as the first of the old covenant and not first of our species then the “fall” would be Adam’s failure to live according to God’s standards.  God demanded obedience, Adam was human and inherently disobedient.  A place would be southern Mesopotamia where Genesis places him and the time would have been about 7,000 years ago.

A historical Adam is not something I originally set out to find, but once I bumped into him (after 27 years of research) I find it particularly frustrating when there are those who don’t bother to look (the writer of this article for example), and make Scripture-laden attempts to justify erasing poor Adam off the biblical record of air-breathing, patriarchal Homo sapiens who preceded Christ.

Read my book, Daniel.  Just Google “Adam” and “Genesis” and you’ll find Historical Genesis from Adam to Abraham on the first page.

David T. - #11870

April 30th 2010

More to the point of THIS article and every other article dealing with the historicity of Adam, note what Paul said in speech in Athens:
“and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,” - Acts 17:26
That one man is Adam, which he places in the context of pointing out God’s creative acts.
Paul accepts that all mankind has Adam as a common ancestor, and that man is part of the wider creative act.

John VanZwieten - #11874

April 30th 2010

David T.,

Are you sure that man is Adam, and not Noah?

Norm - #11875

April 30th 2010

David # 11870

The translation in Acts 17 more correctly reads “from one blood” which does not infer Adam.

David T. - #11876

April 30th 2010

John V.,

Noah and his male offspring weren’t the only men on the ark (Gen 7:7).

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