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Monday, 24 November 2008

The Historicity of Adam: Q&A with George Murphy (Part 1)

This is a guest post by George Murphy, and is the eighth installment in a guest-post series discussing his paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. George is a physicist, theologian, and pastor, and has authored numerous articles and books including The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

This is the first of two Q&A posts. The first three questions deal with various aspects of the historicity of Adam.

Reader Questions #1-3

1. I wonder if there could be some additional commentary about the seeming parallelism in Romans 5 - just as one man's sin led to the condemnation of many, in the same way one man's obedience led to the justification of many (paraphrasing from memory). Christ was an individual person and the first member of the Race of Heaven, so don't we have to think of Adam as an individual person and the first member of the Race from Earth? That doesn't mean he had no prehuman ancestors.

2. Apparently, the first part of the Hebrew text uses the word adam in a non-personal way (i.e. adam means "the man"). The personal syntax only occurs at some distance into the narrative. I have heard it argued that this does not necessitate a belief in a literal man called "Adam" in the early part of the narrative. What is your opinion of this idea?

3. Hi George, thanks for a great article. You say Jews at the time of Christ took Adam and Eve literally and that Paul's statements about Adam should be read in that context. But is that really the situation historically? Certainly there were those who took Adam literally, but we also have first century Jews from as diverse background as Philo of Alexandria and the Jerusalem priest Josephus who understood Adam and Eve allegorically. Paul actually tells us as he compares Adam and Christ in Romans 5 that he sees Adam as a figure of Christ (verse 14). Could Rabbinically trained Paul have been talking figuratively, an allegorical illustration of Christ and the cross, rather than a history lesson about Adam?
Thank you for your questions. I’m going to bundle my answers to the first three which, in different ways, deal with the historicity of Adam. I’ll mention that I’ve dealt with this issue in more detail in my paper “Chiasmic Cosmology and Atonement,” (published in the December 2008 PSCF) than in the article discussed in this series.

a) Historicity of Adam: OT View
As Questioners 2 and 3 suggest, we should not be dogmatic in saying the biblical writers of both testaments believed that there was an historical individual named “Adam.” The Hebrew ’adham is a generic noun for “human being” and the point in Genesis where it becomes a proper name is debated. (See Note 20) In addition, the fact that none of the Old Testament’s recitations of salvation history begin with Adam, but start at the earliest with Abraham, suggests that Adam was not seen as an historical individual in the same way as were Abraham, Jacob or Moses (Note 22).

On the other hand, Genesis 3 is a story about “the man” and “the woman,” and while (as Lamoureux and I agree) the idea of humanity beginning with a single couple may be seen as divine accommodation to cultural understandings, there is no indication that the ancient Israelites did not see this story as indeed an account of what happened to a real man and a real women. Furthermore, the genealogy of Genesis 5 (which most critical scholars link with the first creation account, 1:1-2:4a rather than 2:4b-4:26) begins with Adam. That is clearly intended to be a personal name, in the same way as the succeeding Seth, Enosh, etc.

b) Historicity of Adam: Inter-testamental View
In the inter-testamental period we do have a recitation of salvation history that begins with Adam. Wisdom 10:1-2a begins a long commentary on divine Wisdom in history. In the RSV it reads,
“Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world, when he was created; she delivered him from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things.”
The name “Adam” is not used but the text clearly refers to Genesis 2 -3.

In this same period, in part because of Hellenistic influence, allegorical interpretations of scripture also gathered some popularity among Jews. We ought to remember though that giving an allegorical interpretation of a text does not mean that the events portrayed in that text are necessarily non-historical.

c) Historicity of Adam: Paul’s View
We can’t absolutely rule out the possibility that Paul had an allegorical interpretation of Adam in mind: Our access to Paul’s thinking is, after all, only through what he wrote. He does use allegory in a few places: Mowry’s article “Allegory” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible lists I Cor.5:6-8; 9:8-10; 10:1-11 and Gal.4:21-31.

In the first, third and fourth of these passages it seems very unlikely that he rejected the historical sense of the Old Testament texts (unleavened bread for Passover, the Exodus and the story of Sarah and Hagar), and with the second, where he questions the historical sense, that very fact makes it clear that he is allegorizing. In Galatians he says explicitly that he’s doing that. We simply don’t have any such indication that he is allegorizing, let alone rejecting the historical sense, when he refers to Adam.

The Parallel between Christ and Adam
Does that conclusion, and the way in which Christ is paralleled with Adam in Romans 5, then mean that we should understand Adam as an historical individual if we take scripture seriously, as Questioner 1 suggests? I don’t think so.

To begin with, we should not overemphasize the importance of Adam for Paul’s argument in Romans. 1:18-3:20 is an extended argument to show that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23 RSV). 3:21-4:25 then sets out God’s answer to the problem of sin, Christ’s saving work made available through faith to all. There is no reference to Genesis 3 or Adam here. Clearly Paul can express the basic law-gospel message at some length with no reference to Adam.

This does not mean that Adam is of no importance for Paul. In Chapter 5 he sets up a parallel between the figure of Adam, most likely understood as historical (as above), and Christ in order to provide structure to the story of sin and salvation. But he does this to highlight the significance of Christ, not of Adam. As James Dunn puts it in his Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 38: Romans 1-8 (Word Books, 1988, p.290),
“[T]the effect of the comparison between the two epochal figures, Adam and Christ, is not so much to historicize the individual Adam as to bring out the more than individual significance of the historic Christ.”
I have argued that the fact that Paul accepted the historicity of Adam need not mean that Christians must hold that same view today. Whether or not that argument can be accepted depends on (among other things) whether the concept of the Holy Spirit’s accommodation to cultural beliefs in the inspiration of scripture is valid. I believe that it is, not simply because it provides a way of avoiding conflicts between scripture and modern scientific and historical knowledge but because it is part of a fundamentally incarnational way of understanding scripture and God’s activity in the world in general. As the divine Word chose to be limited to the human condition in Christ, so the Holy Spirit operates within the limits of human understandings of the world in bringing about the written witness to Christ. Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005) is worth reading in this connection.

This ends Part 1 of the Q&A - Part 2 to be published in a few days. Comments are now open.


John Farrell said...

...in my paper “Chiasmic Cosmology and Atonement,” (published in the December 2009 PSCF)...

Are you sure that's the right year? Is this paper coming out next year?

Steve Martin said...

Hi John,
Oops. Editorial mistake. Corrected to December 2008. This edition of the PSCF has actually been delivered to American ASA members. Unfortunately, we poor Canadian members - sniff, sniff - must wait a few extra days/weeks to get ours.

Martin LaBar said...

Yes, it's the December 2008 issue.

Thanks for the insight in this post.

Stephen Douglas said...

I'm right with you in this one, Dr. Murphy. I've written a bit along these lines myself. I appreciate your voice!