The Search for the Historical Adam (Oh yeah, and Eve too)!

In the most recent issue of Christianity Today (June 2011), the magazine’s cover and feature article sports a rendition of Genesis’ Adam as a Cro-Magnon man (and if you think that’s scary, you should see Eve). The article’s title reads “The Search for the Historical Adam,” and its subtitle promises readers a generalized “state of the debate” in light of ongoing genetic research into the human genome and its unmistakeable parallels and connectivity with less advanced creatures (think of mice and apes -not men-). This is certainly a hot topic for some Evangelical circles, especially those of more conservative spheres, and while Christianity Today serves up its usual, surface-level approach to far weightier issues, its editors do a sloppy job of keeping the lid on their own biases in the debate. What I mean is that they do not merely offer their readers a dispassionate “state of the debate,” but rather take sides and let a skewed perspective have the last word.

There are three instances in the article that betray the magazine’s bias. In its next to last paragraph, pastor Richard Philips of South Carolina goes unchallenged with his statement, “The [interpretive frameworks] behind theistic evolution are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall.” In the same paragraph he also asks, “Can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?” Then the entire piece ends with another voice offering that this issue “could produce a huge split right through the heart of conservative, orthodox, historic Christianity.” The message that Christianity Today not-so-subtly proclaims is that an ahistorical, non-literal appreciation of Adam means that proponents of the idea are not only militant traitors to the faith and have thrown out the entire Bible, but they also have potentially divided the Body of Christ right through the heart.

Excuse me, but gag. I object to the branding of those who ask legitimate questions as traitors. If anything is cult-like, it is the forbidding of honest questions and the vilification of those who ask them. That pastor Philips uses this tactic is indicative of his fear, and if I may speculate, I’d say it’s probably fear for the long-term sustainability of his own position. That he uses a liberal application of military analogies to describe his Christian faith is further evidence of this. The faith “fortress” metaphor is not only repugnant but indicative of a larger problem, namely, that some see Christianity (or at least their version of it) as some sort of brick and mortar, static object that must be defended from the hostile masses as well as dissenting Christians. This is a mistake, for Christ is anything but a static, impersonal object, and he certainly does not need our help in defending his survival. Furthermore, we must retire the use of military and war analogies when it comes to interpretive frameworks for the biblical text. Given the “love your enemies” aspect of Christ’s teachings and the heads that have rolled using so-called “just” or “holy” war rhetoric as a pretext for violent oppression should give us all pause before we use such verbal judo.

Secondly, Philips makes a subtle and underhanded move when he asks the polarizing question, “Can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?” The problem here is that he has confused his interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. The theological connection between them can be the same, but they can also be different. Even if we believe in a “perfect” Bible, there is simply no guaranty that our understanding of it is perfected. The question he should have asked is: “Can some of my preferred literal interpretations be true if the historical events on which they are based are neither literal nor historical?” I suggest that the answer might well be “no,” but this doesn’t require apostasy or rejection of the Bible, but rather that he adjust his theology in light of the evidence. This can be painful, but is it more painful than the alternatives in the long-run?

As for me, it does not stretch the imagination too much to allow for science to actually help us gain better insight into the biblical text and the world in general. Instead of seeing science and biblical revelation as adversaries, why not see them as dual threads of inspired “texts” to teach us about God and his creation? This is middle ground that both atheists and Christian literalists would prefer that we keep unexplored (more on that in just a minute).

Thirdly, just as we need not be so quick to draw lines and label others as traitors to the faith, we also need not blow things completely out of proportion nor use peripheral issues as a leverage point to “split right through the heart of [Christianity].” I recognize that over the past few hundred years we in the evangelical crowd have proved to be more concerned with being right than with being unified, but at its most basic level, discussion about the historical Adam is an in-house conversation among people who love Christ and want to serve him. Could we ever be so brave as to allow our Christian sisters and brothers to disagree with us on the issue of Adam’s historicity and still worship with the same congregation and share fellowship and life together? As I understand it, the historicity of Adam and Eve (or lack of historicity) has never been a core piece of what it means to follow Christ or to be covered by his love and grace. The precise age of the earth or exactly how God went about creating creatures in his image are also issues that I would consider unworthy of dividing over. At the end of the day, and regardless of how we interpret the Bible passages that address them, none of the respective positions change or overturn the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe that should tell us something.

While I cannot pretend to be a casual observer on the issue, I freely admit that I do not know if the Adam and Eve we find in the early chapters of Genesis were actually historical figures or not. That being said, I tend to think that interpreters err when they force the first 11 chapters of the book to be too literal at the expense of equally biblical and plausible alternate options. Similarly, I believe that Christians must move forward in their faith with eyes wide open and the humility to have their beliefs stretched and adapted as knowledge and experience increases. Show me a Christian with their eyes shut and fingers jammed in their ears or one whose understanding is purposefully static, and I’ll show you an immature and/or fearful faith.

Finally, what generates even more hesitancy for me regarding a literal or rigidly historical accounting of these early chapters in Genesis is that both devout Christian fundamentalists and their equally dogmatic and caustic atheist counterparts are committed to the same conclusions about the Bible. In my personal experience with atheists, they need their Christian challengers to have a rigid and literal approach to Genesis 1-11 (and indeed the entirety of the Bible) because it makes for an easy mark. There is so much hard evidence against these dogmatic literal/ historical interpretations that holding to them in the face of such evidence makes for a happy field-day of mockery for vocal, no-class atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al.

Even more tellingly, I have found that when possible alternative interpretive frameworks are suggested, both Christian fundamentalists and atheists engage in acerbic diatribes intended to push questioners back into either the allegedly “true” faith or the already-sighted target zone (one and the same in this case). I have personally found that many atheists don’t know what to do with us Christians when we don’t make for easy literalist targets other than to try and tell us that our fellow Christians would consider us heretics. Sadly, sometimes they are proved right on this front, but at present I at least have the luxury of not caring what label others would try and brand me with. Nevertheless, the deeper question is this: If the overwhelming scientific data is in favor of an ahistorical Adam (or old earth and creation via macro-evolution for that matter), then what advantage is there for Christians to clutch to an outmoded interpretive framework that merely denies this data, especially when equally viable, biblical options are available that allow not just for the reconciliation of science and Christianity, but for their cooperation in the pursuit of understanding our place and purpose in the cosmos? I still don’t have a good answer to that question.

But back to Christianity Today. Despite its thinly veiled biases (see also the editorial “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel” on page 61), the story on the Search for the Historical Adam did a fair job of presenting the Christian case for not being tied to a literal, historical conception of Adam and Eve as the first /only humans ever created. Indeed, given the evidence (both scientific and textual), multiple alternatives are allowed which do not undercut the legitimacy of the Adam and Eve narratives or the theology tied to them. As author and pastor Rob Bell has said, “The tragedy of [the sin in] the Garden of Eden is not so much that it happened, but that it happens.” Regardless of which side we come down on concerning the historical Adam, I have never met a Christian who didn’t believe that God created humanity or that humans have not gone wrong in catastrophic ways. As Adam allegedly chose, we all continue to choose, and in that sense Adam and Eve are very real proxies for the rest of us and the general human condition. There is no denying this.

Thank you for reading me.
-Corbin Lambeth


About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
This entry was posted in Atheism / Secular Humanism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Search for the Historical Adam (Oh yeah, and Eve too)!

  1. freetoken says:

    Do you really believe that Dawkins and Hitchens have “no-class “? At least with Dawkins I find that he treats other people with more class than many of the (various religions’) fundamentalists treat him.

    However, I do agree with you about the CT article – at best it was a hack job. Since the editors knew it would be a hot-button subject for American evangelicals and fundamentalists they obviously took an approach that would allow them a way out of most any accusation.

    • C_Lambeth says:

      To be fair, I think Dawkins’ level of class depends on which context he is in. In some of his earlier scientific work, he is clearly a levelheaded thinker and well respected authority. Similarly, in some of his interviews I have seen, he is respectful and composed. In other contexts however, especially when he ventures out of his area of expertise (into philosophy and Christian faith), he devolves into polemics full of vinegar and vitriol.

      Hitchens on the other hand seems to have only one mode, and that is one of hostility and biting sarcasm for anyone who does not already share his anti-faith, faith commitments. His rationale in God is Not Great was so convoluted and emotional that it was hard for me to even take him seriously.

      That being said, you are right to point out that some Christians engage in equally unhelpful responses to these vocal atheists. This is probably a feature related to purposeful anonymity in on-line discussion boards. But in any case, I suspect that the angry rhetoric (on both sides) is grounded in some sort of fear (perhaps subconscious) and lack of absolute certainty for the respective faith commitments. All of us can get uncomfortable when someone challenges our beliefs. We also long for certitude when it comes to our most cherished beliefs and values, but such confidence can be elusive. In the absence of that assurance, people have an unfortunate tendency to merely shout louder at one another.

      As for CT, I think you’re also right about them wanting to leave themselves an “out”. They like to tout the conservative Evangelical position under the guise of being “fair and balanced” (Hmmm, where have we seen that before)? Sometimes I wonder why they keep the title Christianity Today, when a more apt descriptor would be “Conservative, Western, Evangelicalism Today.”

      Thanks for your comments,

  2. Eric Lebs says:

    I was chewing on this for a bit and had one thing to bring up. Regardless of what one believes about Creation & Evolution & the whole debate there, from a Christian perspective, if there wasn’t a real historical Adam who sinned then where did Original Sin come from? If the First Adam was not literal then does that mean the Second Adam was not literal either?

    • C_Lambeth says:

      Good questions, Eric. These might be too superficial and in need of further development, but here’s my off the cuff attempt to provide “answers.”

      1) The question perhaps isn’t so much “Who sinned?” but rather “who hasn’t?”

      2) The original sin has its roots in Satan, but the doctrine of Original Sin came much MUCH later, initially with Paul perhaps, but has undergone multiple major revisions up to (and through?) the 19th century.

      3) No, if the “first Adam” was not literal, this does not necessitate that the “second Adam” (Christ) was not literal either. If I might ask a question of my own: Can a story be “true” without being historical?


      • Eric Lebs says:

        My initial response that since ‘true’ should = ‘fact’ then ‘true’=’historical’. That being said I don’t think the reverse is always correct, ‘historical’ isn’t always ‘true’. Yes definitely sin originated with Satan & his rebellion against God. But the Bible does say that sin entered the world through one man, Adam. And that salvation also comes from one man, Jesus. I guess I have a hard time seeing the need for a literal Savior if there was not a literal first “sinner”. Good stuff to contemplate & discuss.

        I’m spending some time this summer with my 12 yr old daughter doing deeper in scripture and studying some doctrine & theology on a more substantial level. Love it!

  3. C_Lambeth says:

    Eric, I think I am following your argument here, but you not so subtly acknowledge the conundrum involved when you suggest that true = historical, but also that historical ≠ true. I think I get what you are saying (because we often seem to make history dance), but technically speaking we cannot have it both ways at the same time.

    Nevertheless, I can agree with you depending on the contexts we use these words in. When it comes to stories that unequivocally intend to be (and function as) historical narratives, then “true”, “fact” and “historical” are appropriate terms to lean on. I don’t think that either of us would disagree that the Gospel narratives intend to be/ function as historical (even if not strictly linear) accounts of the events surrounding Jesus’ final years. So the question is: “Are the first 11 chapters of Genesis (the accounts of Adam and Eve in particular) intended to be strictly historical accounts?” Given some of the linguistic features and relative lack of information about who wrote these Genesis passages, a clear set of contrasts emerge between them and the New Testament Gospels. The very word ‘adam in Hebrew literally means “earth.” This is a fairly generic and perhaps all-inclusive term especially when contrasted with the specific and focused meanings of Jesus‘ name. At the very least, I think it could be argued that these two sets of documents in Scripture are of very different genres and that we should consider treating them as such. After all, we wouldn’t argue that all of the Bible must be interpreted through the lens of a single genre (literal, allegorical, historical, parabolic, poetic, apocalyptic etc.). We should do our best to let each text speak on its own terms in its own way.

    In that sense, something found in the Bible does not have to be absolutely historical for it to be true. Take most of Jesus’ parables for example. We are in big trouble if we demand to know what the Good Samaritan’s name was and where he lived. He is an anonymous proxy that Jesus uses to make a very true, very real point about what it means to be a legitimate God-follower. What would we say of a person who chooses to blow off the story, its author and its point just because the Good Samaritan was a representative (but ultimately fictitious) character?

    Back to Romans 5:12 and sin’s entrance into humankind. Paul would certainly seem to indicate a singularity here: Adam. I don’t necessarily dispute that. What I question is if either we or Paul actually need Adam to be a single, historical person in order for the theology attached to him to be valid. Why can’t he be a figurative representative used to make a significant point about the human condition? You say that you “have a hard time seeing the need for a literal Savior if there was not a literal first ‘sinner’,” but I think you might be overstating the case, especially since we have both already acknowledged that Satan was technically the first sinner. But ultimately, would you argue that you have chosen any differently than Adam did on a macro-level regarding sin and human rebellion? Is your culpability for sinfulness only grounded in that of your fathers’ (and mothers’) rebellion but not your own? I am going to guess that you answer both of those questions in the negative, and if that is the case, then it would seem that we still need a literal savior as described and personified in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

    It’s awesome that you are taking the time to invest in your daughter by exploring Scripture together. If you find it helpful, the sum of my graduate experience in Bible study can be boiled down to a single sentence: Don’t teach others what to believe so much as you teach them how to ask better questions (and healthy ways of resolving them).

    I appreciate your engagement here.

    • Jamie Dugger says:

      Some interesting ideas. I have a dissenting view about a couple things though. The word Adam is a masculine noun and when looking at a lexicon tells us the meaning is “man, mankind, human being, Adam the first man.” Second, I would disagree about the first eleven chapters of Genesis being historical. Parts of Genesis as serving as a genealogy of sorts similar to what is found at the beginning of Matthew. Also, in those first eleven chapters is the story of Noah and the flood. Jesus certainly believed that Noah was a historical figure and that the flood was a historical event (Mathew 24: 37-39, Luke 17:26-27). Also, Lot is mentioned at the end of Genesis Chapter 11 and Jesus also certainly referred to him as a historical person (Luke 17:28-29). Jesus also believed in a literal creation of an Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation (Mark 10:6).

      • C_Lambeth says:

        Thank you for your contribution to the discussion. I appreciate your resourcing a “lexicon,” but as with any reference source, entries are only as good (and as biased) as those who write them and their interpretive preferences. That’s not a huge issue here, but it is something to be aware of. Anyway, ‘Adam(a) is a Hebrew play on words as it refers to one of the humans created in the Garden of Eden. God forms this creature from the earth (‘adama) and calls the creature adam or quite literally, “Earth Being” or as we like to say, “human being.”

        As for the first 11 chapters of Genesis, I am skeptical, but I must remain open to the possibility that they are somewhat historical, but probably not rigidly literal. That many ancient cultures of a similar vintage as Israel around the Mediterranean, Asia and Eastern and Northern Africa incorporate massive flood narratives into their histories indicates that there likely was a catastrophic deluge. Even geology indicates a massive, undersea crater off the coast of Madagascar which would have been able to create a tsunami like our world has not seen in the past several millennia, but there is no chance that a single event created the Grand Canyon or that “The Flood” was as universal in scope as some fundamentalists would have us believe. It simply is unsupported by any hard evidence, or even a careful reading of the biblical text itself.

        But that’s a side issue, you mentioned genealogies and Jesus. Great issues to discuss. Regarding genealogies, we shouldn’t be too quick to take these as concise, linear accountings, either in the OT or the NT. What is it in the text that lead me to that conclusion? Consider the differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. They have points of contact, but they are anything but identical. Even if we go back to the OT and see who these different lists are talking about, we see that each list took liberties at skipping various characters in the lineage, sometimes they skipped several in a single bound. Then consider how they traced Jesus’ line through Joseph. That’s great that Jesus is of the “House of David,” and that works in the way ancients reckoned who belonged to what family, but technically speaking, none of Joseph’s DNA was passed on to Jesus. From a scientific, DNA perspective, the line is broken at Joseph. Of course Mary is also of Abraham and there is no reason to impose modern definitions of lineage onto the biblical idea of a generational “house of” so and so, but the fact remains that these genealogies are not to be understood as rigidly literal by either people in the 1st century or us in the 21st.

        As for Jesus’ use of Noah and Lot, I see little in the verses you cited that dictates a literal understanding of these figures’ historicity. If Noah and Lot were originally intended to be used as proxies for the Israelites at the time of Moses, then why wouldn’t Jesus make use of those same stories within Israelite culture? In both contexts, they communicated important things about God and humanity’s relationship with God. They are true and useful for teaching, correcting etc, but that does not dictate that they be either historical or mythological. Maybe Noah and Lott were actual, historical figures. But maybe they weren’t. Our faith rests in Christ, not literal (or figurative) Lotts and Noahs.

        Finally, Mark 10:6 doesn’t specifically mention Adam and Eve. Here Jesus reinforces that humans have not existed eternally and then comments on the dynamics of human relationships, but I doubt this can be forced to support literal, historical Adam and Eve characters.

  4. Jamie Dugger says:

    I also think of something someone told me once. I think it applies here. God doesn’t always tell us everything we want to know in his Word, but he definitely tells us what we need to know.

    • C_Lambeth says:

      Yes. Well done. Should we not incorporate the humility that accompanies a lack of certainty into our own understanding and claims about what the Bible says and means? For the sake of credibility, I’d say we must. I don’t “know,” yet I believe, and this is because of the evidence, not in spite of it.


  5. Pingback: Is God Male? | Exploring Faith

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