Some of the highest hurdles for setting aside the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve are raised by the New Testament. In Romans and 1 Corinthians, in particular, Paul presents Jesus as a “Second Adam.”
Does this not, then, imply both that Paul himself thought that Adam was a historical figure? More importantly, doesn’t the validity of his claims about Christ stand or fall with the historicity of his claims about Adam? I don’t think so.
In wrestling with the question of the significance of the historical Adam for Paul’s theology of the crucified and risen Jesus, I begin with the Old Testament stories themselves. In short, I would argue that ancient stories of beginnings are never simply written to tell their readers what happened. They are written to tell readers how their own story is connected to the purposes God (or the gods) had in making the world and people upon it.
In the case of Israel, this means that the creation narratives are written at later stages in Israel’s story to show that Israel is the means by which God is acting to fulfill God’s purposes for the world. God calls Israel to be and to do what humanity was created to be and to do. Read through the Old Testament stories with the creation narratives in one hand and you find myriad ways that the scriptures say, “God did not give up on creation, but is bringing its purposes to fruition through the people of Israel.”
To give but one example, Genesis and the early part of Exodus echo the blessing God spoke to humanity at creation: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). This language is not only repeated when God recreates the earth after the Flood (Gen. 8:17; 9:1, 7), it is used after Abraham is singled out as the mediator of God’s blessing.
Genesis 17:6 contains this promise to Abraham: “I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you and kings will descend from you.” Not only does this pick up on the language of fruitfulness from creation (Gen. 1) and re-creation (Gen. 8-9, after the flood), it also indicates that Abraham’s family is going to fulfill what God originally intended for humanity: to rule the world on God’s behalf (Gen. 1:26-28).
The blessing of fruitfulness and multiplication is passed along to Jacob, later called Israel (Gen. 28:3; 35:11).
The point here is not to give an exhaustive account of the significance of Genesis 1 as the introduction to the Old Testament canon. Rather, I want to illustrate that stories of creation are told in order to help people interpret their place in the cosmic story. For Israel, this means that the creation narratives are told in order to illustrate how the creator God has placed his name on them and chosen them to fulfill his desires for humanity.
People were created to represent God’s reign to the world, which includes a mediation of God’s love and blessings. When humanity as a whole fails to live up to this calling, Israel is assigned to play the role as a representative of the whole.
This is the point at which, I will argue, Paul is in perfect harmony with the Old Testament narratives. Next week, we will explore some ways in which the apostle makes similar interpretive moves, but with a new fundamental conviction. Paul’s concern is no longer how Israel in general fulfills God’s purpose for creation, but instead how Jesus in particular, as Israel’s messiah, brings humanity’s vocation to completion.