Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Scot McKnight

| By (guest author) on Faith and Science Seeking Understanding

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series of responses to Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, a new book by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Readers are strongly encouraged to read senior editor Jim Stump's introduction to the series.

Long long ago I gave an academic paper about Satan and demons. The paper was received well, and a publisher offered me a contract for a book. However, I got some wise advice from some veteran pastor-types, and I chose not to write the book. Why? I didn’t want to spend my time warding off all the complexities and downright weirdities of that kind of discussion, and the accusations and questions it provokes. I made the right decision, as I look back on it.

I wonder the same about the Adam discussion. Any discussion of Adam, in particular the probing into the so-called “historical Adam,” which is a theological construct in the history of the church but which was not believed by any single author in the entire Bible – well, any discussion of the historical Adam raises the hackles for many. But it is so entrenched in thinking that any discussion of it seems like taking on City Hall.

I’m neither interested in raising hackles nor responding to the hackle-raised. I came to this discussion largely for one reason: I had science students who were thoroughly convinced they could not believe in evolution and the Bible. They had been taught the incompatibility of the Bible and evolution by their pastors and parents or mentors, and they still wanted to believe. I write on this topic because I want to help students who know evolution is more or less true and want to know then how to read the Bible. For those who think evolution is buncombe the proposals by Dennis Venema and me will simply not be of interest. I’ll put this stronger: if you don’t accept Dennis Venema’s section, then my section of the book need not be read. I write in the aftermath of the kind of science found in Venema’s part of the book. Science provoked me and prodded me and pushed me to give more serious attention to the Bible, and to how I had learned to read the Bible and to how many of my fellow Christians were reading the Bible. Science provoked me to become more sensitive to my science students when they are reading the Bible.

Furthermore, how Adam is reconceived and interpreted in the Jewish interpretive traditions is essential for my proposal about Adam. If one doesn’t want to interact with that material then, once again, my section in the book may be of no interest.

I groped for answers during some of those years of teaching science students. I knew the answers lay in embedding Genesis 1-2 (or 1-3, or 1-11) in the Ancient Near East (ANE), but I was a NT specialist and needed guidance and a motivation for probing the ANE. That all coalesced one day when I read John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. That book “did it” for me – and by that I mean it gave me categories and some texts, and off I was looking into some of these ANE texts. I spent an entire week in a hermeneutics class looking at Atra Hasis. I came to the conclusion that my science students were in fact “safe” because Genesis 1 and 2 were not seeking to provide a scientific account of cosmic origins or human origins and shouldn’t be used that way.

I have never settled on the “genre” of Genesis 1-11, so when Pete Enns speaks of “myth” I wince just as I wince when I see someone refer to this section of Scripture as “history.” The book Four Views of Genesis 1-11 provides categories, and surely the genre is somewhere in that book, but no one convinced me. One might call it a “theological narrative” but that, too, seems a bit too undefined for me.

What I am convinced of is that the Adam of Genesis 1-4 is a theological, moral Adam, a literary Adam, a figure in a text who tells the truth of human beings – that humans are made in God’s image, that humans chose not to do what God commissioned them to do, and for that reason the blessing of God’s good creation is upstream and against the grain of humans. This perception of humans both counters and compares with ANE accounts of humans. The Bible’s distinctions are breath-taking in scope – all of us are “images” of God. And I am also convinced that the Adam of Genesis became the First Person as Hebrews, Israelites and Jews read the Bible. The interpretive tradition grew and Paul was part of it.

Pete said something intelligent about the science portion of Adam and the Genome: “I am happy to leave the scientific matters to real scientists rather than pretend, since my formal scientific training effectively ended when we were told to dissect a kitty in sophomore high school biology (but I digress).” I lasted longer than Pete, and I was never asked to dissect a kitty. Rather, we dissected a worm, and it was nowhere as interesting to me as German class. It will be interesting how many will be capable of interacting with Dennis Venema’s section of the book. My section rests entirely on the conclusions of his work.

But the battle remains because so many are suspicious of anchoring our Bible in the ANE context and reading out of that context.  So, I like what Pete Enns said in his review of mostly my portion of the book.

The controversy surrounding evolution stems not so much from the Bible as it does from deeply ingrained but false expectations imposed onto the Bible that put it onto a collision course with science. The problem is not the Bible, but how we have been taught to read it. Commonly, the assumption is made that (as I’ve heard Denis Lamoureux describe it) evolution imposes problems onto “the Bible,” and that “the Bible” is the stable factor that evolution needs to be “grafted” onto somehow. The truth, though, is that our readings of Genesis and Romans are what need to be adjusted to allow the graft to take (see #s 1 and 2 above).

I’ve seen this routinely in discussions, letters, and questions on these topics. One simply proceeds to show how the traditional reading is better while ignoring the science. I’ve tried to understand and even embrace the science, and it made me wonder if there was not a more historical reading of Adam.

Pete also pressed into a point that deserves more attention than I could give it in my book (Thesis 11, pp. 142-144), but it is one that I will perhaps return to in future discussions of the genre of Genesis 1-3.

The clear parallel between Adam and Israel, already noted in rabbinic Judaism, is a crucial element in understanding Genesis 2-3, and—if accepted—decentralizes the historical question concerning Adam and thus eases tensions with evolution. Adam is presented in Genesis 2-3 as a preview of Israel’s history: both are (1) “created” by God (Adam from dust, Israel out of slavery), (2) placed in a lush land (Eden/Canaan), (3) given commands to follow (the Tree of Knowledge/Mosaic Law), and (4) are “exiled” for disobedience, both of which are described as “death” (Genesis 2:17; Ezekiel 37 and Deuteronomy 30).

In other words, Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 are fashioned as the first narrative of the Story of Israel – obedient, disobedient, and then exiled. This approach to Genesis 1-3 deserves more attention.

In some important ways my sketch of the Adam and Eve of Genesis 1-4 is my own synthesis of John Walton, John Levison’s exceptional study of Adam in Judaism, Pete Enns, and J. Richard Middleton. My synthesis is then wrapped up in a discussion of what “historical” Adam means, and I think that Adam Construct I build at the end of my first chapter is an important stimulus to further study. I make the case, for instance, for a biological and DNA Adam and Eve, two approaches to Adam and Eve that were not even known in the ANE because my points are connected to modern science.

That discussion, Denis Alexander very clearly states, is quite nation-specific. Alexander’s book on evolution and the Christian faith is a truly helpful book and I have read it and will continue to use it. He’s right, though he himself has been part of “our” discussion for a number of years even if his nation, England, simply doesn’t know the intensity of this discussion as we do. He is worth quoting in full:

The book also acts as a reminder to non-American readers, should one be needed, of the very different cultural and theological context in many Christian communities in other parts of the world.  It is not that creationism does not exist outside of North America—for it surely does—but rather the topic does not seem quite so fraught nor, in many cases, even a topic that attracts much attention.

I was brought up in an evangelical home in Britain, but I cannot remember a time, at least since studying biology in High School, that I did not believe in human evolution, nor believe in a first couple who were the genetic progenitors of all humanity, nor think that there was any problem at all in calling myself an Evangelical and holding to these beliefs. Clearly the term “Evangelical” carries with it somewhat different assumptions on either side of the Big Pond.

Furthermore, when one of the authors states that, “like many evangelicals, I (Dennis) grew up in an environment that was suspicious of science in general,” I think I can honestly say that in the past half a century I have never (knowingly) encountered even one Evangelical in the UK who could say that. Indeed, it is often remarked that in evangelical churches in the university cities of Britain, there generally tend to be far more undergraduate students in the sciences than in the humanities (in an average ratio of 2.8:1 the last time I measured the ratio over a 5-year period in my own church in Cambridge when the science:humanities ratio as a whole at the university was 1.1:1).

I’ll tell you why I like this, and there are two reasons: (1) if this is the case, then this debate in North America is a context-specific debate and may well be as much derived from our history (the fundamentalist-modernist debate of the 20th Century) and may not be as profoundly orthodox as many think, and (2) his observation means very little to us: the issue is very much alive in the USA even if it isn’t in England. Hearing that this issue isn’t as important in England as it is here matters not to the critics of BioLogos, it doesn’t matter one wit to the many lay persons searching for answers, and it certainly doesn’t take the Angst out of the science student reared in a Christian conservative environment.

At one point I observe that NT Wright’s very creative suggestion -- Adam and Eve may have been elected out of the many (hominins) who were available, and that they in some sense represented all of humanity – sounded to me a bit concordist. Denis wasn’t so sanguine about my reading of Tom, though I would say when I first heard Tom say this in the midst of some pastors they were profoundly relieved by the interpretation because it got them off some of the scientists’ hooks. Even if I’m mistaken about Wright’s concordism, I see the same concordism in Alexander:

In the second type of model (my personal preference), God revealed himself to a couple, or community, of farmers in the Near East at the very beginning of a putative proto-Jewish era, the so-called Homo divinus. These lived in fellowship with God, understanding their responsibility to care for God’s earth, but subsequently turned their back on God in disobedience, leading to human autonomy and a broken relationship with him ("sin"). The emphasis in this type of speculation is on a single family or community – relationships built and broken over a short time-span. God’s new family on earth had to begin somewhere and at some time: this was it.

Perhaps I’m wrong again but I see Denis creating his own narrative, part biblical and part genome-theory and evolution-theory shaped. There’s a nice happy narrative here held by no one in the Bible but one that makes a scientist like Denis happier. That’s concordism. The concord I prefer is one that sees Genesis 1-3 more in conversation with the Ancient Near East accounts of origins and purpose.




McKnight, Scot. "Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Scot McKnight" N.p., 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 February 2019.


McKnight, S. (2017, February 14). Adam and the Genome: Some Thoughts from Scot McKnight
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/adam-and-the-genome-some-thoughts-from-scot-mcknight

About the Author

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.

More posts by Scot McKnight