Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2

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This is the second entry in a series taken from Denis Alexander’s essay addressing the question, “How Does a BioLogos model need to address the theological issues associated with an Adam who was not the sole genetic progenitor of humankind?” This essay was presented in November 2010 at the Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop in New York City. In Part 1, Alexander describes how models are used in science and explains how building models for relating theological and scientific truths is distinct from concordism. Today he lays the groundwork for two models that relate creation theology and anthropology. These models will be the subject of subsequent posts.

The last common ancestor between us and the chimpanzee lived around 5 – 6 million years ago. Since that time we and the apes have been undergoing our own independent evolutionary pathways. Today we have religion, chimps do not. At some stage humanity began to know the one true God of the scriptures. How and when did that happen?

The emergence of anatomically modern humans

Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa from about 200,000 years ago. The oldest well-characterised fossils come from the Kibish formation in S. Ethiopia and their estimated date is 195,000 +/– 5,000 years old.1 Other well-established fossil skulls of our species have been found in the village of Herto in Ethiopia and date from 160,000 years ago as established by argon isotope dating.2 Some limited expansion of our species had already taken place as far as the Levant by 115,000 years ago, as indicated by partial skeletons of unequivocal H. sapiens found at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel. But significant emigration out of Africa does not seem to have taken place until after 70,000 years ago, with modern humans reaching right across Asia and on to Australia by 50,000 years ago, then back-tracking into Europe by 40,000 years ago, where they are known as the Cro-Magnon people. By 15,000 years ago they were trickling down into N. America across the Bering Strait.3

The effective population size of the emigrant population from Africa has been estimated at between 60 and 1220 individuals4, meaning that virtually all the world’s present non-African populations are descended from this tiny founder population. Even the bugs inside human guts tell the same story, with their genetic variation reflecting the African origins of their hosts.5 But within Africa different groups of humans were living for at least 130,000 years before the emigration, many of them isolated from each other for long periods of time. Therefore one would expect greater genetic variation between different populations of Africans than between different populations of non-Africans, which is in fact what is observed.

Adam in the Genesis texts

The very first mention of ‘Adam’ in the Bible comes in Genesis 1:26–27 where the meaning is unambiguously ‘humankind’. These verses are reiterated in the opening words of the second toledoth section of Genesis in 5:1–2: ‘When God created adam, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.’ So adam can refer to humankind and it is only adam that is made in the image of God.

Then Genesis 2, enter a king - God’s ambassador on earth! But this is a dusty king: ‘the Lord God formed [Hebrew: yatsar] adam from the adamah [dust of the ground] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the adam became a living being’ [Hebrew: nepesh, breath, soul] (2:7). The very material nature of the creation, including the man, is underlined by verse 9: after placing the man in ‘a garden in the east, in Eden’, God then ‘made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground [adamah]’.

There are many important points packed into these verses. First, there is a perfectly good word for ‘man’ in Hebrew (’ish), the word most commonly used for man in the Old Testament (in fact 1671 times), so the choice of ‘adam’ here for man seems a deliberate teaching tool to explain to the reader that adam not only comes from the adamah, but is also given the important task by God of caring for the adamah – earthy Adam is to be God’s earth-keeper.

Second we note the use of the definite article in front of adam, so that the correct translation in English is ‘the man’, and the definite article remains in place all the way though to Genesis 4:25 when Adam without a definite article appears and ‘lay with his wife again’. Personal names in Hebrew do not carry the definite article, so there is a particular theological point being made: here is ‘the man’, a very particular man, the representative man perhaps of all other men. However we are to understand the use of the definite article, there is no doubt that it is a very deliberate strategy in this tightly woven text, with no less than 20 mentions of ‘the man’ in Genesis Chapters 2 and 3.

But at the same time there is some ambiguity in the use of the word adam, perhaps an intentional ambiguity, which makes it quite difficult to know when ‘Adam’ is first used as a personal name.6 For example in some verses, instead of the definite article in front of adam, there is what is called in Hebrew an ‘inseparable preposition’, translated as “to” or “for” in Genesis 2:20, 3:17 and 3:21. Different translations apply their own different interpretations of when adam starts being used as the personal name Adam, and these differing interpretations depend on the context. So it is best not to be too dogmatic about the precise moment in the text when ‘the adam’, the representative man, morphs with Adam bearing a personal name.

The third important point highlighted in Genesis 2:7 is that ‘adam became a living being’ or, as some translations have it, ‘living soul’. The language of ‘soul’ has led some Christians to think that this verse is a description of an immortal soul that is implanted in ‘the adam’ during his creation, but whatever might be the teaching of Scripture elsewhere on this point, it is difficult to sustain such an idea from this Genesis passage. The Hebrew word used here is nepesh, which can mean, according to context: life, life force, soul, breath, the seat of emotion and desire, a creature or person as a whole, self, body, even in some cases a corpse. In Genesis 1: 21, 24, 20 and 2:19 exactly the same phrase in Hebrew – ‘living nepesh’, translated as ‘living creatures’ – is used there for animals as is used here in Genesis 2 for ‘the adam’. And we note also that adam became a nepesh, he was not given one as an extra, so the text is simply pointing out that the life and breath of adam was completely dependent upon God’s creative work, just as it was for the ‘living creatures’ in Genesis 1. There is certainly no scope for understanding this particular passage as referring to the addition to adam of an immaterial immortal ‘soul’.

How do we relate the anthropological understanding with the profound theological essay that the early chapters of Genesis provide for us, with their carefully nuanced presentation of ‘Adam’? There are two main models that seek to answer this question, which will be the subject of my next post.




Alexander, Denis. "Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2" N.p., 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 19 February 2019.


Alexander, D. (2010, December 22). Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 2
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/archive/genetics-theology-and-adam-as-a-historical-person-part-2

References & Credits

1. McDougall, I. et al Nature 433: 733-736 2005.

2. White, T.D. et al Nature 423: 742-747, 2003; Clark, J.D. et al Nature 423: 747-752, 2003.

3. A useful account of the spread of humanity out of Africa can be found in: Jones, D. ‘Going Global’, New Scientist, 27 Oct, 36-41, 2007.

4. Fagundes, N.J. et al., ‘Statistical evaluation of alternative models of human evolution’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104:17614-17619, 2007. The ‘effective population size’ is defined as the number of individuals in a population that contribute offspring to the next generation.

5. Linz, B. et al., ‘An African origin for the intimate association between humans and Helicobacter pylori’, Nature445-: 915-918, 2007.

6. This is well illustrated by the way in which different translations introduce ‘Adam’ as a personal name into the text: the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) at 2:16; AV at 2:19; RV and RSV at 3:17; TEV at 3:20 and NEB at 3:21).

About the Author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is a founding fellow of the ISSR and Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. Genes, Determinism and God was published by Cambridge University Press on July 13th 2017, and is based on the author’s Gifford Lectures given at St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 2012.

More posts by Denis Alexander