Why I Think Adam was a Real Person in History
Resources Editor Kathryn Applegate shares her view on Adam and Eve.
I have always loved the opening chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 reveals the broad brush strokes of God’s mighty acts of creation and the declaration by God that all that he made is very good. Genesis 2 begins the story of God’s relationship with a particular couple of people—Adam and Eve—and their offspring.
These accounts of creation are old stories, full of profound mystery and beauty. In acknowledging mystery, I am not saying we can’t understand them. In one sense they are so simple my four-year-old child understands them. Yet countless wise scholars have plumbed their depths for millennia and still haven’t come to the end of their meaning. So it is with a keen sense of my personal limitations—as one trained in the sciences, not in biblical studies, but also as a 21st-century Westerner—that I offer my perspective on Adam and Eve.
I have long wrestled with God over how to think about the Garden story, both on its own and in the context of the New Testament. I have benefited from many wise counselors, both in my church community and through my work here at BioLogos. There are many elements that seem fantastical—man and woman made of dust and rib, God walking in the Garden, a talking serpent, two unusual trees, and an angel with a flaming sword, just to name a few. All of this sparks my imagination and makes me yearn for a time machine. I’d love to go back to the time when God first revealed himself to humankind, even more than I want to see the dinosaurs (which is a lot).
Evolutionary creationists have many views of Adam and Eve
The Bible raises its own difficult questions about Adam, and the evolutionary account of the origin of humanity only adds to the complexity. Scholars have described many possible ways of interpreting Adam as they have explored the theological ramifications if evolution (especially human evolution) is true.
Among Evolutionary Creationists (an admittedly modest slice of the creationist pie), there is quite a diversity of views on Adam and Eve. Since there exist multiple views that are consistent with both the Bible and current science, BioLogos doesn’t elevate one view over another, and Adam and Eve are not referenced in our statement of beliefs. But everybody in our community has a view (or more than one).
Three beliefs are shared by all Evolutionary Creationists with respect to the origin of the first people: 1) the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God; 2) the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth (including humans) are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent; and 3) God made all people in his image. There is a lot of latitude for how to fit these beliefs together.
Not surprisingly, then, the possibilities for how to think about Adam and Eve are dizzying and not mutually-exclusive. Some believe Adam and Eve were a real, historical couple, recognizing varying degrees of figurative language in the text. Others believe the story is myth (and I mean ‘myth’ in the technical sense: “a story or parable having the main purpose of teaching eternal truths without the constraints of historical particularity”). Some view Adam and Eve as the beginning of Israel, not of humanity as a whole; or as archetypes—people who represent us all; or as literary, not literal. Each of these latter three views could fit with either of the first two, and with each other, in various ways.
Among Evolutionary Creationists who envision a historical first couple, there are two main views: 1) Adam and Eve lived among a few thousand people at the “headwaters of humanity,” perhaps 200,000 years ago in Africa. 2) Adam and Eve lived just 10,000 years ago (give or take) in Mesopotamia, at a time when people had already spread across the globe. In either of these scenarios, Adam and Eve could be related to us today via a representative relationship or a genealogical one. All Evolutionary Creationists agree that the scientific evidence indicates that the human population has never dipped below a few thousand within the last 200,000 years.
Each Christian’s view of Adam and Eve is informed by a variety of biblical and scientific data as well as by theological tradition and personal intuition. Unfortunately many Christians have been demonized for not taking the “right” view, though I believe the accusers are driven by legitimate concerns. Those who hold to a historical first couple worry that doing away with historicity may lead to the watering down or outright rejection of the doctrine of original sin, or that it may lead to doubts about the historicity of other biblical figures and events. Those who see Adam and Eve as figurative think the literal Adam approach does not fully appreciate the theological richness and cultural backdrop of Genesis. There are scientific and philosophical questions on both sides, not just hermeneutical ones. I’m sympathetic to concerns on both sides. I personally know faithful followers of Christ in most “ecological niches” of the Adam and Eve landscape, and that gives me hope. We have much to gain by rolling up our sleeves together to examine the possibilities.
My view of Adam and Eve
So, what do I think? I prefer to believe that Adam and Eve were a real couple in history who lived in Mesopotamia, among a larger population of people, perhaps around 6,000 B.C. Their bodies bore the marks of millions of years of evolution; they shared common ancestry with others of God’s creatures. Their very distant relatives lived alongside and even occasionally interbred with other hominin species (Neanderthals and Denisovans).
Thriving cities existed when Adam and Eve lived. Art, trade, tools, language, and farming were familiar to their contemporaries. The people of that day bore God’s image, for it was bestowed on them when God brought them into being, and they were already engaged in subduing the earth. Yet they knew him not and did not call on his name, though perhaps they were seeking God and reaching out for him (Acts 17:27).
In the fullness of time, God called two people, Adam and Eve, into a special covenantal relationship with himself, and into a one-flesh unity with each other. They were chosen for a purpose: to begin a family that would include others who were specially chosen—among them Abraham, Moses, David, and many other men and women whose deeds are recorded in Scripture. Ultimately this family, which became the Israelite people, would give rise to Jesus Christ, the ultimate source of blessing to all the nations.
God revealed himself to Adam and Eve in an intimate way. A spiritual birth had taken place: for the first time they knew God and they knew God had a will and so did they. They were selves, free to obey or rebel. He gave them rules and consequences for breaking those rules. And they chose, in their freedom, to rebel.
Whether or not there was an actual piece of fruit involved is interesting but beside the point: they were after what it represented—knowledge of good and evil. They sensed that God was withholding something from them, and they rejected his right to do so. This was the first sin, the first transgression of the law of God. This first or “original” sin brought death in the form of alienation and eternal separation from God. Brokenness, guilt, shame, isolation, and death—all of these we inherit from Adam as our representative (or as theologians would say, our “federal head”). Adam’s sin became our sin.
Hitting closer to home, Adam and Eve’s sin is my sin. When I read Genesis 3, the story we call the Fall (though the Bible never uses that term), my heart aches. It aches because this is my story: I am guilty for Eve’s sin, but also because I sin like Eve. I know in my head that God knows what’s best for me, but I chafe against his timing and against particular circumstances in my life. I crave and take things that God has declared off limits. I tend to love people and things more than God. I can turn a blind eye to injustice. I prefer the standards I have set for myself, rather than God’s standards. In my heart are pride and fear and lust and greed.
For all this and much more, I deserve the curse of death. God’s righteousness demands judgment, and it has come, but not on my head. It has come on the beautiful, bloodied head of Jesus.
I must emphasize again that what I’ve described here is my view, not “the BioLogos view” on Adam and Eve. On any given weekday at the BioLogos office you can find several of us clustered together for a few minutes having a feisty argument about a particular Bible verse (or about apologetic approaches, God’s sovereignty vs. human freedom, hermeneutics, inerrancy, the moral status of early hominids, theories of atonement, and so on). It isn’t tense (most of the time) because we’re iron sharpening iron. We are brothers and sisters trying to work out our best understanding of the Bible and science.
My view on Adam will be considered too narrowly conservative to many people I know and love. It will be considered dangerously progressive by others. But perhaps a few people will find it helpful. It isn’t novel by any means, but it may be new to many readers. So I’d like to anticipate and respond to some questions that may come to mind.
Wouldn’t it be easier to simply reject human evolution?
Many Christians accept evolution of plants and animals but draw the line at humans. Why don’t I? Because I have encountered compelling evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that supports common ancestry of humans with other animals. While it might be convenient in church circles to dismiss or downplay this evidence, to do so would violate my integrity. I simply must testify to what I believe the created order is revealing about itself and about God.
If accepting evolution meant I had to reject core doctrines of the Christian faith, or deny the authority of Scripture, I wouldn’t do it. As outlined above, I affirm the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of original sin. I also affirm humankind’s being made in God’s image and human uniqueness. I believe God’s word is our ultimate authority in matters of life and faith. Evolution may conflict with certain interpretations of Scripture or with certain doctrinal theories, but other interpretations and theories remain viable.
If I accept evolution, then why do I accept a historical Adam?
In my experience, many people assume that if you accept human evolution, then you reject a historical Adam and Eve, and if you accept a historical Adam and Eve, then they can’t be part of the evolutionary story. But as explored above, there are ways of reconciling historicity of Adam and human evolution.
It’s conceivable that the author of Genesis never had a real couple and real events in mind when he wrote Genesis 2-3, or that he did but was mistaken, and was only a “man of his time.” Intuitively, however, I feel that it is much more likely that real events involving a real couple were “mythologized” as they were told and retold over many generations. As Kenneth Kitchen writes,
The ancient Near East did not historicize myth (i.e. read it as imaginary “history”.) In fact, exactly the reverse is true—there was, rather, a trend to “mythologize” history, to celebrate actual historical events and people in mythological terms….
Through all the fantastical bits of the Adam and Eve story, I read a historical narrative. This narrative, told in ancient Near Eastern, figurative, archetypal language, seems to have real events in mind. This impression helps me make sense of the enduring power of the opening chapters in Genesis. No mere piece of fiction has ever explained the human condition more simply and profoundly than Genesis 3.
A related reason why I prefer a historical Adam and Eve scenario is that beyond Genesis, multiple biblical writers seem to talk about Adam as if he was a real person. Adam is important in Paul’s theology; he compares Adam and Christ in both Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. It could be argued that Paul’s point still holds if Adam is simply a character in a story. I’m sympathetic to this. I think of Frodo Baggins, Elizabeth Bennett, Precious Ramotswe, Atticus Finch, and a great many others as “real” in an important sense. They are dear to me and I’ve learned important things from them. But it’s hard for me to imagine that Paul would base important theology on a literary character—or worse, an imaginary one he thought was real.
Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. (Matt. 19:4-6)
Interestingly Jesus does not refer to Adam and Eve by name, but the one-flesh idea is directly tied to Genesis 1 and 2. It may be that Jesus was affirming the one-fleshness of marriage, and not explicitly affirming a historical couple, but for me it adds to the weight of scriptural witness on this point.
There are also references to Adam in genealogies (1 Chron. 1, Luke 3, Jude). Genealogies do a lot of theological heavy lifting that the original audience would have noticed immediately; they are not simply lists of father-son relationships. So this is a less impressive data point but a data point nevertheless.
Now, having argued for a historical Adam, I need to point out that the Gospel does not fall apart in non-historical scenarios. My friends and colleagues who embrace non-historical views of Adam recognize their own sinfulness and need for salvation, and they see the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the answer to that need.
If I accept a historical Adam, why not also accept a special, de novo creation of Adam?
It might be construed as cherry-picking to accept a literal Adam but reject the vivid description of Adam and Eve being formed of dust and rib. Indeed, one recent proposal put forward by Joshua Swamidass envisions just such a de novo, special creation of Adam and Eve, whose offspring interbred with biologically compatible beings outside the Garden, who were created by an evolutionary process. Any such genetic evidence would not be expected to be preserved. This approach has the hermeneutical advantage (according to some) of de novo creation of a single pair, while at the same time allowing for evolution of the rest of humanity.
Science is silent here: it doesn’t point to this possibility, nor does it rule it out. God could have miraculously created Adam and Eve in this way, but it doesn’t seem necessary to me in order to affirm a historical pair. Among other things, one wonders why God would make two individuals who are presumably biologically identical to other humans at that time. While I am not yet personally persuaded, this proposal is creative and deserves further reflection.
For my part, I am indebted to a number of Bible scholars who have persuasively argued that Genesis 2 is not intended to be a blow-by-blow account of how God fashioned two people’s bodies from dust and rib.
Consider Genesis 2:7: “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground.” As Old Testament scholar John Walton has pointed out, the word is very clearly dust, not clay. But dust cannot be formed into a shape. More likely this is a reference to Adam’s mortality. Psalm 103:14 states, “for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” If we who were born in the normal biological way are made of dust, why is Adam’s body necessarily different? It may be that Adam was born of a woman and is also made of dust, just as the Bible indicates repeatedly elsewhere.
As for Eve, Walton points out that the Hebrew word for “rib” could also be translated “side.” Eve is literally Adam’s other half. Also, Adam says Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” I have been intrigued in my journey through the Old Testament this year to discover that the English Standard Version includes multiple references to someone being “my bone and my flesh.” This is a recognition of a close familial relationship and the unity that it represents. This is also what we have in marriage, where the two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).
Why do I think Adam and Eve are representatives, and not necessarily sole progenitors, of all humanity?
One reason I don’t believe Adam and Eve were the sole progenitors of all humanity is because the Bible itself gives hints that there were other people around when Adam and Eve lived. When their son Cain murdered his brother Abel and was cursed to wander, he was terrified: “whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14). Of whom was he afraid? Surely not his own family. Also, Cain has a wife: are we prepared to say she was his sister? And when he builds a city, is it just for his small family? No, there seem to be lots of other people in view.
I don’t think ancestry is unimportant. Even in a recent-Adam scenario such as I’ve described, Adam and Eve could be ancestors of us all: there have likely been “many individuals, and potentially couples, across the globe who are each individually genealogical ancestors of all those alive when recorded history began.” It must be emphasized, though, that there has never been a time in the past couple hundred thousand years when our ancestral population was as small as two.
I have difficulty with scenarios that locate a non-Homo sapiens first couple in the ancient past (i.e., more than a few tens of thousands of years ago). The biblical genealogies would have to be missing massive numbers of generations, and the setting of the Garden near the Tigris and Euphrates (modern-day Iraq) would seem to be at odds with the African origin of humanity as pictured by current science.
While sole progenitorship of Adam and Eve is a hill to die on for many Christians, I suspect it may be a red herring. When I read Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, which are the two main places where Paul compares Adam and Christ, I can’t help but notice that our salvation in Christ does not depend in the least on our having a genetic or genealogical relationship with him (Jesus had no children, after all). Yet his righteousness is imputed to us all the same. So if Adam is a “pattern of the one to come [Christ],” it seems to me that Adam’s sin does not necessarily depend on being passed down in some genetic or genealogical sense. No, the logic in this First Adam–Second Adam comparison is about representation.
I will close with some words from N.T. Wright who beautifully articulates a representative view of Adam and Eve:
…just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purpose to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, was to be taken forward. God the creator put into their hands the fragile task of being his image bearers.
I may be wrong, but if so I am in good company. For a topic with as many possibilities as this one, the only thing we can be sure of is that most of us are wrong!
Editor’s Note: Minor edits were made June 12. Thanks to Joshua Swamidass for helpful comments.
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