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Scot McKnight
 on May 27, 2015

The Wax Adam: Historical, Biographical, Archetypal, or Literary?

The history of interpretation of Adam from Genesis to the 1st Century reveals a bold and astonishing diversity in which the authors made of Adam what they needed of Adam.


After a careful examination of how “Adam” is used in the early chapters of Genesis, John Walton offers a way of thinking about Adam that can provoke us to deeper thinking about Adam in the Bible. Walton, in his most recent The Lost World of Adam and Eve, says:

These chapters are not just giving biographical information on a man named Adam. Larger statements are being made. When the generic is used, the text is talking about human beings as a species. When the definite article is being used, the referent is an individual serving as a human representative. Such representation could be either as an archetype (all are embodied in the one and counted as having participated in the acts of that one) or as a federal representative (in which one is serving as an elect delegate on behalf of the rest). In either case, the representational role is more important than the individual. Only in the cases where the word is indefinite and by context being used as a substitute for a personal name would the significance be tied to the individual as an individual, historical person. (61)

To clarify, Walton says the way we can tell if the Adam of the Bible—

say the one in Romans 5:12-21—is an individual or an archetype is to ask this question:

In order to determine whether the treatment of Adam in the text focuses on him primarily as an archetype or as an individual, we can ask a simple question: is the text describing something that is uniquely true of Adam, or is it describing something that is true of all of us? (75)

Walton is making the case that the biblical authors’ references to “Adam” sometimes refer to—at least but also more than—the so-called “historical” or (better yet) “biographical” Adam. In fact, a cursory sketch of Adam in Jewish sources outside the Bible could make one wonder if Adam wasn’t himself a “wax figure” for these authors. That is, they could make him into any one of the above terms: he could be the historical, the biographical, the archetypal, or the literary Adam.

An example from the world of fiction might help. Ralph Ellison wrote a famous book about the social invisibility of black men in American society and called his book Invisible Man. The novel tells the story of a single man without a name coursing his way through America’s systemic injustices and exploring the options available to such a man. When you close the novel after a reading it, it is painfully—woefully—obvious that Ellison’s man is both a single figure and an archetypal figure. That’s the sort of thing we need to consider when it comes to the Adam of the Bible as well.

But this sketch and example only exacerbate the existing problem we Christians who explore the Bible and science constantly confront: all theology leads to Adam (and Eve, his neglected partner).  Not to whittle the pen to a fine point, but one could reasonably say the theology of the Cappadocians, Augustine, the Thomists, the reformers Luther and Calvin, the Wesleyan movement, and the Edwardsian synthesis in the United States were each in their own manner developing a theology rooted in a view of Adam as the first human, the first sinner, and the one from whom sin was passed on to all humans. That is, they all assumed a historical or biographical Adam. Human solidarity and human sinfulness are the foundation of many Christian theologies of salvation. The human needs to be saved, one can say, because the human is Adamic, and to be Adamic is to be fallen, sinful, and (in some articulations, therefore) damned.

All roads then lead to Adam, and the problem is only heightened if one aligns oneself with those who have concluded, on the basis of evidence and careful thinking, that the universe is some 13.8 billion years old and earth is some 4.5 billion years old and that the DNA of humans on earth today could not have derived from two solitary individuals, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  No sooner than one makes such a claim than someone with a Bible in hand opens it to Romans 5:12-21 and begins knocking off Bible verses that say something else. Thus,

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam, and Eve don’t forget], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned . . .

For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

There you have it: the biographical or historical Adam. One man, with his partner Eve, were created and that one man brought death. One man brought life.  Death and life, Adam and Jesus. The thought of course is that Adam’s sin (and Eve’s sin) corrupted his nature and that nature—sometimes called the “sin nature” and often discussed as “original sin”—was passed on from one human (Eve too) to all others. For this to have happened it is also assumed it had to happen physically or soul-fully in some manner. Therefore, if you disturb that physical reality, whether by suggesting there was actually more than one man (or hominid) or that the process of creation was actually evolution (and therefore “image of God” is not as simple as one might think), you disturb the sinful reality, or the sinfulness of each human. Then the whole game of salvation is out the window.

This is a fast-paced presentation of a view that, while hoary and assumed, has as much evidence against it as it does for it. To begin with, the belief that Adam (note the persistent and problematic absence of Eve) passed on the sinful nature physically—through sexual reproduction—is not found in Romans 5:12-21. In fact, Paul says “because all sinned” in verse 12 and not “because all sinned in Adam.” Jerome, who produced the first Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century AD, in poorly translated Greek wrote, “in whom all sinned” (in quo); Augustine made the case for this theory,1 and we’ve been stuck with his translation ever since. But the text does not mean “in whom”, but “because all sinned,” the blame is not laid at Adam’s (or Eve’s) feet but at each individual in history. The game changes, if only slightly, with this interpretation, but what does not change is the importance of Adam.

What is clear is that when Paul refers to Adam he is referring to the Adam of Genesis. It is contagious to call such an Adam the “historical” or “biographical” Adam, for that term implies that Paul himself had a historian’s mind about Adam. That is, when Adam is mentioned he meant “Adam, and he lived historically as the real husband of the real Eve in the real Garden.” It is indeed possible that, Paul believed these things, but it is also impossible to know whether Paul thought that way. So others call the Adam of Genesis the “mythical” Adam, and by that they mean they believe that no such Adam existed and that the author of Genesis was writing about a fictional or imaginary person named Adam (and his imaginary wife, Eve). Because “historical Adam” and “mythical Adam” are not the focus of Paul or anyone else in the Bible, in spite of what many claim, we might learn to call the Adam of the Jewish tradition the “archetypal” or “literary” Adam. By this we mean the “Adam we read about in Genesis” who at times is more than himself.

Yes, it all comes down to Romans 5 eventually, but before we can even get ready for a discussion of Romans 5:12-21, (and that is beyond this short post), we must understand the Jewish waters in which Apostle Paul (and Jesus before him) were swimming . That is, there is a history of interpretation of Adam from Genesis to the 1st Century, and that history reveals a bold and astonishing diversity in which one might say accurately that authors made of Adam what they needed of Adam. Or, if you prefer, that the literary, archetypal Adam was a “wax Adam.” Jesus and Paul talked about Adam in a world awash in this swelter of interpretive diversity.

I give but one example to illustrate that the Apostle Paul’s famous interpretation of Adam in Romans 5:12-21 relies on an interpretive tradition. One can read the Old Testament from cover to cover and not find a single example of an Adamic fall tradition operating to explain why Israelites sin and are unfaithful to the covenant. In fact, the emphasis in the Old Testament is that Israel sins because Israel chooses to sin, and that is within the power of each and every Israelite to live faithfully and observant before the God of the covenant. James Kugel, well known for his investigations of the interpretive traditions of the Hebrew Bible, when commenting on the “Fall of Man,” observes,2

In fact, even today, most people think of it in these same terms, and they are surprised to learn that the phrase “Fall of Man” is not to be found in the Genesis story, nor is there any mention of sinless existence in Eden, nor is the serpent identified in the story as the devil (he is just a talking snake). All these familiar elements are actually the creation of ancient interpreters.

Yet Paul sees humans, at some level, locked into the line of Adam and his sin—where did Paul get such an idea if it is not from the Old Testament? The interpretive tradition, about which much more needs to be said.

To synthesize the Adam of the Jewish tradition, I’d say Adam is the paradigm or prototype or archetype of the temptation to choose the path of obedience or of disobedience, the path of Torah observance or of breaking the commandments, the path of Wisdom and Mind and Logos or the path of sensory-perceptions or pleasure or bodily desires. For the Qumran community, Adam, though formed in the image of God (4Q 504 f8r:4), is a prototype who “broke faith” (CD 10:8); Israel, “like Adam, broke the covenant” (4Q 167 f7 9.1). Those who are faithful, however, will inherit the “glory of Adam” (1QS 4:23).

For some Jewish writers of that time, Adam comes off more positively than for others, but in each, Adam is not just the first human being but also the archetypal first sinner whose sin had an impact on those who followed him. In no instances is Adam simply the first human being in a long chain of history; Adam is always the archetype of humans in general or of Israel in particular. How did these authors learn to read Adam as an archetype and come to know these things? Not by historical investigation as we do it, not by scientific inquiry as we do it but, put plainly and simply: they knew Adam as the literary Adam found in their sacred book, the Torah, in Genesis. The archetypal Adam, then, came to them by learning to read about the literary Adam—and sometimes they saw him as biographical and historical and at other times in less than biographical and historical terms. We are too precise if we think they always thought in historical terms just as we are too precise if we think they always thought in archetypal terms.

The entire Jewish tradition focuses, as does Paul, on Adam and not Eve. She makes guest appearances but when she does she is often enough seen as inferior to Adam, as texts in Jewish history illustrated. We are then led to ask how the Apostle Paul fits into this story of Jewish diversity, this story of multiple Adams, a story that is undoubtedly male-centered as well as free-will centered. In this swelter of diversity, Paul would have felt free to mold this wax Adam in such a way to convey his theological message.

About the author

Scot McKnight Headshot

Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus and Christian spirituality, is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornerstone University, a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written fifty books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004. You can read more from McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.

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