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Daniel Kirk
 on April 15, 2010

The Historical Adam and the Saving Christ

Daniel Kirk looks at Paul’s theological arguments concerning Jesus Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians 15, exploring to what extent Paul’s statements rest on the historicity of Adam and Eve.


Daniel Kirk looks at Paul’s theological arguments concerning Jesus Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians 15, exploring to what extent Paul’s statements rest on the historicity of Adam and Eve.

In this article, Daniel Kirk looks at Paul’s theological arguments concerning Jesus Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians 15, exploring to what extent Paul’s statements rest on the historicity of Adam and Eve. He first explains how Old Testament stories relate Israel’s history to the purposes of God in the world. After looking at the Old and New texts, he concludes that Paul is interpreting the Adam narrative in light of Christ and not vice versa. As Kirk finishes his discussion, he scrutinizes Paul’s claims in 1 Corinthians as he searches for their underlying purposes.

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

Earlier, 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. In this section 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 the previous section, 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 Gen. 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 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.

In this final section 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 Cor. 15:20). This offsets the work of Adam as the firstfruits of a harvest of death (1 Cor. 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 (Num. 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 (Num. 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 (Gen. 1:16-28; 2 Sam. 7:9-16; Ps. 2; Ps. 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 Cor. 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.