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Why the Biblical Adam Must Be a Real Historical Figure

Creation of Adam

I am not a theologian. I have not attended seminary. I’d like to think of myself as an average Christian who reads their Bible and grapples with its message and implications.

That said, the trend to mythologize certain Bible stories and figures always seems to end up in bad places. NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion, notes the obvious:

Once you depart even an iota from a literal-factual-commonsensical reading of Scripture you’re on a slippery slope to denying basic Christian dogma

As an example, Douthat references Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who, in the 1980’s, began questioning basic biblical doctrines like the Virgin Birth before ultimately denying the very existence of a personal God. Similar doctrinal reshuffling seems to occur when the “historical Adam” card is removed from the deck.

A Bible without a real Adam eventually leads to a Bible without a real Jesus.

I was reflecting on this after reading Peter Enns recent Patheos post, Framing the Evangelical Discussion of Adam and Evolution. Enns is rigorous in debating biblical literalists, especially as it comes to the creation myths and evolution. He shows his hand immediately:

My starting point for how I handle this issue of Adam is twofold: (1) I accept the overwhelming scientific consensus concerning evolution, and (2) our considerable knowledge of  how ancient stories of origins functioned. These factors affect how we read the Adam story and they cannot be dismissed or marginalized.

You should note, I don’t have a big issue conceding biological evolution insofar as it was 1.) Guided and 2.) Harmonizes with essential Scripture. This may reveal the real divide between my lay interpretations and Enns’ more academic approach. Whereas Enns elevates Science above Scripture, I don’t.

Both approaches have consequences. For instance, If you make Adam a myth, where do you stop?

  • At Cain and Abel?
  • At Noah?
  • At Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob?
  • At Joshua?
  • At Esther or Nehemiah?
  • At King David?
  • At Solomon?
  • At the prophets, major and minor?
  • At Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?
  • At Jesus?

Or maybe the better question is: For the revisionist, where does REAL biblical history actually begin?

The apostle Luke, whom some consider a premiere historian, opened his Gospel with these words:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. — Luke 1:1-4 NIV

Luke’s “careful investigation” led to the recounting of events and people, culminating in the arrival of the Messiah. Along the way, the apostle does not appear to be referencing a metaphor. In fact, he becomes even more specific in Luke 3:23-28 where he traces Christ’s lineage back through Judah, David, Isaac, Noah, Methuselah, all the way to Adam (vs. 38).

So which one of these historical dominoes can be removed without affecting the chain?

Then, of course, are the words of Christ Himself:

“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 NIV

Christ bases His teaching on marriage from a specific creation event. It assumes a very real “beginning,” and a very real couple who emerged there. If Adam and Eve were simply a gene pool (as some biblical revisionists suggest), how can we realistically extrapolate any marriage ethics from that? Much less the even bigger issue of the entrance of sin into the world and “the Last Adam” who would remove it.

  • If Adam was the mythological First Man, why would we need a very real Final Man?
  • If Eden was the illusory First Paradise, on what grounds can we be assured of a Final Paradise?
  • If the world was only plunged into a metaphorical Fall, why did it require a very tangible Resurrection to break its spell?

All that to say, biblical history is grounded in historical events, accounts, and real people, culminating in a very Real Man, who suffered a very Real Death, for very Real Sins, before rising to a Real Heaven, from which He will really return.

Point being: A Bible without a real Adam eventually leads to a Bible without a real Jesus.

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Margaret April 24, 2013, 6:55 AM

    Excellent post. Brings to mind what the Bible tells us in Romans 5 — that just as sin and death entered the world through one man (Adam), so salvation and life redeemed the world through one man (Jesus). If we declare Adam as merely of symbol of all humankind and not as an actual individual, where do we stop?

    • DD May 7, 2013, 6:45 PM

      Romans 5 states man’s death was caused by sin, not that sin caused all death. Think of it this way: If all death was really from evil, what of God who killed animals to clothe Adam and Eve? Or the people in the OT punished by death? All death doesn’t stem from evil.

  • Matt Mikalatos April 24, 2013, 7:48 AM

    A lot of the argument on this topic revolves around a question of genre, and it doesn’t require that one agree with evolution or science at all. If near east mythology as a whole is looked at, there are such strong parallels with the Genesis account on so many levels that it’s hard not to look at Moses’s account as an answer to those. A lot of the book reads like, “God is bigger and better than you’ve been told” when compared to myths of the time (i.e. he created with his word, not his hands. He created humanity because he wanted companionship, not because he wanted slave labor. Etc.). Of course, on the literalist side what is argued is that the pagan myths are corruptions of the historical events.

    Either way, I don’t think that belief in the mythological Adam requires a rejection of the historical Christ. C.S. Lewis, for instance, was perfectly happy to believe in both, and I have plenty of friends who have stayed right in that exact position without any slippery sloping. The question is: do you believe that the story is true? Many who believe Adam to be a myth still believe the story to be true, but true as story, not as history.

    I can dig up some of the posts arguing these things if you’re interested. I have (evangelical, Christ-believing) friends on both sides of the question.

  • Mike Duran April 24, 2013, 8:53 AM

    Matt, I’d love to see any articles. But I’m afraid I haven’t read any persuasive ones yet. For instance, if Moses’ creation account was just to rebut or clarify the truth about God and His creation, to what truth was he pointing? Was there an actual — as in tangible, physical, real-time — beginning to matter and man? If not, where did the world history we are experiencing actually start? After Noah? After Abraham? If Abraham was just an archetype who journeyed to a symbolic Promised Land and was asked to sacrifice a make believe son, why should I believe he is the father of a very real Israel? I believe Lewis’ “Myth became Fact” idea. For the person who believes that The First Adam was myth and the second wasn’t, I’d restate my question: at what point did the allegorical lineage of Jesus become the real one He was born into?

    • Matt Mikalatos April 24, 2013, 9:31 AM

      Ha ha ha. Well, I didn’t say I had anything you would find *convincing* necessarily. I just said the slippery slope argument doesn’t hold much water for me, as there are plenty of conservative evangelicals who believe Adam = myth and Christ = history without any cognitive dissonance.

      I can’t, of course, answer for where individuals would say that the mythological gives way to historical. I know Noah is often on the list as mythological, and Abraham as historical.

      • Lyn Perry April 24, 2013, 6:10 PM

        I’m one of those evangelicals that holds to Adam/myth-Christ/history without any cognitive dissonance. In general, Gen 1-11 is the dividing line. Abram is likely an actual historical figure, others in his lineage? could be…not worried about it.

        • Lyn Perry April 24, 2013, 6:36 PM
        • Mike Duran April 24, 2013, 8:26 PM

          Lyn, it would be strange if we treated any other history as you do Bible history. “Lyn Perry’s father is likely an actual historical figure, others in his lineage? could be… not worried about it.”

          Question: So what made Abram’s history non-historical? Did a portal open up and archetypes spill out? And then there’s that annoying geneology stuff…

          • Leanna April 24, 2013, 8:57 PM

            What other history >isn’t< like that?

            No, seriously. How often do we know people's exact lineages for generations back in history outside of the Bible?

            • Mike Duran April 24, 2013, 10:09 PM

              Leanna, so at what point was Luke’s record of Jesus’ lineage off? I may not know my exact lineage back for generations, but I’m hopeful they aren’t traced back to a metaphor. And if Luke was off about Jesus’ lineage, could he have been off about other things?

              • Lyn Perry April 25, 2013, 5:35 AM

                Even the genealogies are primarily theological in nature and not specifically purposed for a literal rendering. The evangelists’ motivations for including Christ’s lineage in their gospel accounts shaped how they crafted them (since Luke’s and Matthew’s lists are obviously quite different). So asking “where” the genealogy becomes myth misses the point completely. The thrust of the whole thing is how God is connecting the divine plan to Jesus.

                For example, the opening line of Matthew is “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ.” Which harkens back to Genesis, of course. The key difference is that OT genealogies show a spread of descendants (the idea is that one’s fullness/meaning is determined by how many ‘children’ they have) whereas Matthew points out that Jesus’s ancestors find their meaning and fulfillment in one person – the messiah. In other words, the gospel genealogies teach something; they aren’t data to be posted to a timeline.

                Those who want to determine dates and such quickly run into problems when they try to explain how 3 sets of 14 generations equals 40 in Matthew’s account, let alone how Rahab could have been Boaz’s mother (and thus King David’s great great grandmother). And Luke’s reference to Adam as the son of God? If all the other mentions of “son of” are literal, why is that one metaphorical? Problems all around, imo., for the literalist trying to force something into the text that isn’t there. That’s eisegesis at it’s height.

  • Bob Avey April 24, 2013, 10:48 AM

    Excellent post, Mike. What’s your take on the age of the earth?

    • Mike Duran April 24, 2013, 8:29 PM

      Bob, I tend to believe in an old earth, but have read some interesting stuff from young earthers too. Frankly, I think either position is permissible from a biblical point of view.

      • Bob Avey April 25, 2013, 5:16 AM

        I, too, believe in an old earth. With all of the evidence around us, it’s difficult to imagine the earth only being 4000 years old.

  • Jill April 24, 2013, 9:10 PM

    “A Bible without a real Adam eventually leads to a Bible without a real Jesus.”

    This is a false statement. I think you can easily see its falseness. Jesus’s existence can’t be this shaky. Does your faith or our (the church’s) faith really depend on Adam’s life and not on Christ’s? I don’t deny a literal Adam, but I find your statement to be problematic. What if there were the tiniest possibility that Adam was a metonymous figure? Would Christ’s life and death and resurrection become mere rhetoric at that point? I would certainly hope not! What I’m trying to say is this: there’s a lot that God doesn’t tell us about the beginning, what came before, how he accomplished creation. But he gives us enough to believe on his son (multiple eye witness accounts, for example, that we completely lack for Adam.)

    • D.M. Dutcher April 24, 2013, 9:30 PM

      I would agree with this, but with caveats. I’d ask if Mike believes in a literal Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the same way, or accepts if this can be figurative without ruining the account. I think viewing Adam as either a real human or the first human community God created can be acceptable.

      However, I notice when people do pick symbolic meanings, it can get very weird very fast. No literal tree has made people believe some nutty things about the sin that led to the fall-whether it was due to adam and eve having sex, or even eve having sex with satan. Or they reason from no literal adam to no fall of man. I think really, only parts of Genesis can be interpreted symbolically, and that is always about detail, not content. The creation happened, the fall happened, and the rest did; its just the nuts and bolts of how aren’t given to us. Kind of like an advanced case of whether or not adam and eve had belly buttons, I guess.

      • Jill April 25, 2013, 1:03 PM

        I agree with what you say.

  • J.S. Clark April 25, 2013, 3:58 PM

    For me, I don’t see a reason TO question a literal Adam. The only arguments I’ve heard are science suggests otherwise. But as people of faith, if we take any part of the Bible seriously, God is the creator. That means a supernatural act. Not only that, but if God is sovereign and had a plan from before the foundation of the world, then the way it has unfolded is also supernaturally designed. And further, if any prophecy for the future is to be believed than the course ahead is also sovereignly determined. So if it has to be supernatural, what reason do we have to say that the supernatural must ‘act’ natural?

    When you say a “day later” in a story, do you actually have to wait a day to write it? When you begin your story do you write from before time or do you set up a universe with an implied past that never actually ‘happened’? What is the law that binds God saying he cannot create a maturely functioning universe?

    So why bother? It had to be supernatural, therefore the most reliable account of when/where/how that happened would be God’s revelation.

  • DD May 7, 2013, 6:55 PM

    There have been many books lately trying to read Genesis in ways to avoid the classic science-Genesis issues. Most of these people are honestly trying to find the best way to read Genesis, but for others, it’s just an easy way out. Many have probably been exposed to some “either-or” reading of Genesis and are tired of being told to believe an interepretation that doesn’t fully make sense. Some of the alternatives also take an extreme position, however.

    For example: Yes, Genesis has signs of being a product of the Near East culture it was born into, but to say that this is all that it is strips other layers of meaning from it. If it’s truly inspired, wouldn’t we expect a little more than another Near East creation story? No, it isn’t a full-blown science book either, but that is the point. Extreme positions, by definition, are missing the truth in the middle.

    Two books I recommend on this topic: “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?” by C. John Collins for a mostly theological look at the issue (with a little science); and “Who Was Adam?” by Fuz Rana for a mainly science-based look at Adam and the origins of mankind.

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