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David Opderbeck
 on April 15, 2010

A “Historical” Adam?

Biblical genealogy knows nothing of genomics or population genetics.


Here on the The BioLogos Forum there has recently been a spirited discussion resulting from various posts and videos on the nature of “Adam.” I’m grateful that a forum for such open discussion exists. I find many aspects of this discussion immensely helpful. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m not fully satisfied. I’m prepared to accept the basic facts of human evolution. I’m also prepared to consider generously the views of the many fine theologians and scholars writing here on BioLogos concerning a non-“literal” Adam. However, I’m not prepared to suggest that these facts elide any possibility of a “historical” Adam.

My concerns are theological. Significant parts of the Christian Tradition have always taught that human beings are incapable of not sinning; that this incapability is a form of corruption and not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort; and that this corruption was passed on organically from Adam to his descendants. If we elide any historical Adam and any “real” mechanism for the transmission of original sin, this raises some important difficulties for many Christians. In the recent past, this move has often led to Pelagian views of human nature, and then to merely existentialist views of Christian faith that cease to be meaningfully “Christian.” In addition, whatever approach one takes to the question of Biblical “inerrancy,” it seems to many Christians, including myself, that the Biblical narrative is difficult to hold together without a “real” primal event of sin by humanity’s progenitors.

My own theological presuppositions, then, compel me to consider ways in which the best scientific evidence can be accepted without giving up entirely on a “historical” Adam. So how can a historical Adam be reconciled with human evolution?

The biggest problem here, in my view, is the population genetics data described in in a post by Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk. There is compelling evidence that current human genetic diversity cannot have derived from only one breeding pair. We can construct any variety of scenarios under which God “selected” some hominid pair to be “Adam and Eve,” but none of those scenarios answer this population genetics data. “Adam and Eve” would have had many brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on, who also would have passed some of their genes on to us.

I’ve puzzled over this question for a long time, and here is an approach I believe might be fruitful: the distinction between “genetics” and “genealogy.” The Biblical writers and editors did not know anything about “genetics.” When Paul says in Romans 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man,” he is not commenting on the modern science of genetics. He is referring to a genealogical line in the context of ancient uses of genealogies.

A good comparison here is the Biblical notion of Abraham as the father of the Jewish people. Hebrews 11:12 says that “from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (emphasis added). (In fact, the word man in the translation does not appear in the Greek. Read literally, the texts says that from “one … came descendants….”)

I suspect that most of us would not be surprised to learn that, in the generations between Abraham and the first century, the Jewish gene pool would have become significantly diluted. Even if some of Abraham’s genes remained in the first century Jewish gene pool, because of intermarriage, there would have been a great deal of genetic diversity from people outside of Abraham’s line, including Canaanites, Moabites, and others.

Indeed, the Bible itself tells us that the Israelites repeatedly intermarried with surrounding people, often to their great detriment, as when King Solomon catered to the idol-worship of his foreign wives (see 1 Kings 11:1-6). Non-Jews—people who according to scripture itself were not physical heirs of Abraham—were considered by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to be part of the Abrahamic line of redemption, to the point of being included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: Tamar and Rahab, both Canaanite women, and Ruth, a Moabite woman. And Rahab is even mentioned again in the “Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame” (Heb. 11:31)?

So how can the writer of Hebrews suggest that the Jews came from “one” (or “one man”) when in the same passage he mentions a Canaanite woman who was not a direct descendant of Abraham? What about the progenitors of the Canaanite and Moabite family lines of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and of many other non-Jews who married into Abraham’s line over the centuries?

I confess I’m not a professional Biblical scholar, but from my study of scripture and its context, it seems to me that genealogy, in the ancient context, is at heart about the representative responsibility of the progenitor and of other key figures in the genealogical line. It is of course true that ancient genealogy also involves physical descent, but not every member of the progenitor’s line necessarily would have to be a direct physical descendant of the progenitor alone.

It seems to me potentially very significant for our conversation about Adam that people who were not physically descended from Abraham were included in the Biblical genealogy of redemption that derives from “one man,” Abraham. They were grafted into the Abrahamic line by marriage. Is it likewise possible that the universal genealogical line of “Adam” could include the in-grafting of physical lines of descent outside of Adam’s direct line, with “Adam” still remaining the progenitor with representative responsibility for the resulting mass of humanity?

Once again, the Bible itself seems to have no problem with this possibility. The story of the mark of Cain seems to assume that Adam and Eve were not the only humans alive in their times. (See Gen. 4:15). Apparently, Cain’s descendants intermarried with the people Cain eventually encountered. The descendants of Cain’s descendants would all have been descendants of Adam, but they also would have acquired genetic material from other people, just as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and others infused non-Abrahamic genetic material into the Abrahamic line.

What I’m suggesting is scientifically plausible. There is no problem at all in suggesting that every person alive today physically can trace his or her lines of descent—his or her “family tree”—to encompass a single pair in the recent or distant past. The problem arises when we try to suggest that this pair were the only humans alive at the time and that all of our present genes derive only from a single pair.

For example, I have a family tree for my father’s side that goes back to the 1600’s. If you look at the generation of Opderbecks alive in the 1600’s on that document, you’ll see that all the Opderbecks alive today can locate Johan and Christina Opderbeck, married circa 1730, in their own lineages. This does not mean Johan and Christina Opderbeck were the only Opderbecks, much less the only human beings, alive in 1730. The genetic makeup of present-day Opderbecks is quite diverse and reflects input from a wide range of other people. Nevertheless, we all share a recent common ancestral couple, Johan and Christina. (For a more technical discussion, see Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans).

It is true that the sort of idea I’m floating isn’t strictly biologically monogenetic. However, it seems to me that it could preserve Paul’s federal theology and provides a plausible, even Augustinian, mechanism for the propagation of original sin.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a “concordist” scenario of the sort that suggests the Bible contains “science” that was ahead of its time. I think it’s obviously right that we can’t hang on to literalism about “Adam” and the “fall” in the classical sense of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” However, like many evangelical Christians, my theological presuppositions compel me to look for some “literalism” about the “fall” in the sense of it being a real ontological “event” in space and time. And I don’t see any reason not to say that Genesis 2-4 is at least a highly stylized literary portrayal of “real” events. Science is helping us understand the form of the Bible’s “fall” narratives, but not eliding their essential content.

In short, Biblical genealogy is in some sense about biological relationships, but it primarily concerns spiritual-representative relationships. Biblical genealogy knows nothing of genomics or population genetics. The Bible itself, in its discussion of Abraham, demonstrates that descent from “one man” cannot be a reference to genetic science. If we move the search for a “literal” Adam away from genetics and into the spiritual and relational aspects of human nature, then, we act in a way that is more faithful to the text. And science cannot comment one way or the other on whether there is a spiritual-representative “Adam” ultimately connected to everyone’s family tree. The population genetics data concerning human evolution then pose a variety of fascinating, but perhaps less theologically troublesome, open questions.

About the author

David Opderbeck Headshot

David Opderbeck

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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