Is the biblical Adam a myth?
Modern people in the modern age want hard facts. We’ve been infected with verificationism: that only statements that can be empirically verified are true. Never mind the fact that the principle of verificationism cannot be proven empirically, but then most modern people don’t spend much time thinking through matters anyway. In that way, modern culture is mentally anemic and philosophically anorexic.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that the way I earn money to pay the bills is somewhat geared towards my personality. I spend somewhere between 6 and 9 hours alone, every day, driving. Most people would probably go insane, but I’ve been doing it for almost 15 years, and I think that I’ve put that time to good use by listening to people and actually thinking about what they say. I listen to audio books, long-form interviews, in-depth news and analysis, it’s amazing just how much information is available if you just reach out and take it in. One of the many subjects that drive me, as a Christian and as a thinker, is the question of whether or not the biblical Adam is real.
That’s a lot of buildup for this post, which I am going to try to keep short, and by “short” I mean novella length, because I am writing this somewhat preemptively. I intend on analyzing a de-conversion story and I don’t necessarily want to bog it down with a bunch of argumentation about the question of historicity without having worked through it specifically first.
Where I Stand
The first point that must be recognized is that there is no stone marker anywhere that has been discovered by archaeologists that says, “Adam wuz here,” because it would be great if there were, but then we would have to ask, is this the same Adam or another one? But does this lack of evidence mean that a historical Adam did not exist? Let’s keep in mind that for 99.99% of people who have existed we have no, none, zip, zilch evidence for either, but I don’t hear anyone trying to argue that they didn’t exist because that would be absurd. Rather we have to push ourselves back from this kind of hard, physical evidence, ultra-skeptical system of affirmation that we employ selectively to counter things which could cause us some intellectual discomfort, which we do anyway just to live a normal life, to a more robust and reasonable method of thinking. I’m actually thinking back to an earlier post, where I posed the question of evidence related to belief, so you might want to check it out as well, but the question that I must answer here is what do I believe and why?
“Belief” is one of those words which we tend to be scared of because, like “faith”, it is thrown around and easily misunderstood and misrepresented. A few years ago, I discovered that I am color-blind. I lived the majority of my life absolutely oblivious to the fact that there were certain colors that I could not see. I believed that I could see color because I had not had any experience where I had the necessity to see a specific color. That is until I went for my yearly eye exam and I took the “dot test,” the one where a number is obscured in a series of colored dots. I could see none of them. Well, how is this story relevant?
The person giving the test to me stated that there was, in fact, a number among the dots. Looking at the dots normally, I could not see the number. However, this person began applying filters to find out what level of blindness that I had. It took several filters, but the numbers slowly began to emerge from the dots until I could see them with clarity. So, what’s the take away here?
Something that I believed (that I could see color) was proven to be false, while something else that I believed was proven true (that there were numbers among the dots). I believed the person giving me the test was telling the truth, so I looked for the numbers, I had no reason to believe that the person was lying or mistaken about the facts.
Now, to say that I believe the Bible is telling the truth when it says that there was a historical Adam falls along the same line of argumentation: based upon the authority of the statement, I believe that there was a historical Adam, no different that believing that there were numbers hidden among the dots on the test.
“That’s believing without evidence, the very definition of the word ‘faith’,” someone might say.
Actually, there was evidence: the testimony of the person giving the test. Now, the evidence (the testimony) was corroborated by additional evidence (the use of the filters to reveal the numbers). However, if I had rejected the first evidence in this chain, I would have never seen the corroborating evidence. My inability to see the corroborating evidence without aid said nothing about the reality of the numbers. What the skeptic is actually saying when they say there is no evidence, is that there is no corroborating evidence. They are, in fact, rejecting the evidence that they do have.
“But that’s like…just your opinion, man.”
That’s also, just an opinion, man.
What do the scholars say?
Probably one of the most accessible books on the subject is Four Views on the Historical Adam, published by Zondervan because it takes the time to put, as the title suggests, four views forward (a review of the book can be found here). Now, critics (atheists) will immediately dismiss this because that is what they do: anything that is reasoned and tries to interact with the evidence they just dismiss. I mean, I would be extremely surprised if an atheist—should one be reading this—has actually made it this far in this post. If you are, hi! Congratulations, you’re trying to be intellectually honest. But I digress…
In the Four Views book, the four views that are discussed—from a Christian perspective—are that there was no historical Adam (argued by Denis O. Lamoureax), and this is contrasted and responded to by three who believe that there was a historic Adam, but have unique views on this: the archetype view (John H. Walton), an old-earth view (C. John Collins), and a young-earth view (William D. Barrick). Each present their case and then are reviewed by the others and then give a brief response. In the end though, as one reviewer noted, when interacting, they seem, “…to talk past on another…” The scholars, biblical scholars at least, are no real help, but only seem to add to the noise, unless you just want to make an argument from consensus.
You might ask, well, what about scientific arguments?
This is really no help either since we don’t have anything directly related to Adam to test scientifically. “Ah hah”, the critic might exclaim, “then Adam didn’t exist!” Yeah, not so fast: we don’t have anything that we can directly link to 99.99% of the people who existed in the past and directly link to them either. Science is no help there, either. At least, until this happened it seems…
Is there any hope then?
A Great, Big Shrug
When it comes to the question of a historical Adam, there is no way that we can really say for certain, as much as we can be certain that such a person existed unless we are willing to make certain concessions, concessions that we might be uncomfortable with, but can lead us to greater consistency, at least hopefully, in presenting the gospel. This question seems to answered by the biblical text itself.
On Sources and Authorities
The biblical authors naturally assume that Adam was a historical person. The genealogy in Genesis 5 is meant to fix Adam as a historical person, as does the list that begins 1 Chronicles, as well as Luke’s genealogy. If we take these as independent sources, as the original writers clearly took the sources from which they drew. Now, the person that does not accept these as authoritative has a double edged problem. The first is that their rejection doesn’t make these not authoritative. Second, they bear the burden of demonstrating that they aren’t or that they are wrong.
But let’s assume that there was no Adam, that he was merely a mythical creation of an ancient writer that the authors considered to be historical but didn’t actually exist. A critic might argue, well that means that they believed something that wasn’t true, that even Jesus believed it. The problem is that we don’t know what Jesus believed about Adam as a historical person because Jesus never says anything about Adam that is recorded for us, so to say anything about what Jesus believed about the subject is to make an argument from silence. What we do have, from other authors is typological language with Jesus being held up as a type of Adam.
In the end we come down to one question: was there a historical Adam?
The biblical authors were convinced that there was a historical Adam who sinned with a high-hand against God, and his sin contaminated humanity both in being and in action. The question that seems to not be asked in this inquiry is, do we take the Biblical testimony to be that Adam was the first man, the primordial human being, or that he was a representative that was plucked out by God from an already existing population to represent humanity before God in his council? The biblical materials would seem to support both positions. Adam was the primordial man and the selected representative. What I think the problem is that people want to conflate biblical literalism with biblical inerrancy.
This comes from the false belief that the for the Bible to be inerrant that it has to be literally true. That means that the creation has to be a literal six days, and that Adam has to literally be the first human being and that woman has to literally made from the rib of the mad. There is no room for nuance. And no room for deeper metaphorical meaning. So the place that such literalists seem to be afraid to go, is into a place where Adam could be an actual, historical person, but could not be the firsthuman being.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of the argument that the biblical author, in transitioning form the initial creation narrative in, when he shifts to speak of human beings conflates two stories: one meant to demonstrate the unique relationship of that which is male and female into a story about Adam’s time in the garden. The problem is that all becomes speculation, and the scripture warns against such. So let’s break this down:
- The Bible simply say that God made man, it doesn’t say how god did this or when.
- Man was placed in the Garden, this “man” becomes known as “Adam”, whose task it is to tend the garden
- Adam sinned.
- For his sin he is cast out of the Garden.
- The Garden is identified with a physical location.
So, considering point (1), since there is no specific method named by which God made man, any arguments about evolution are moot. Condsidering points 2 and 3, we run into the problem of the geneaological charts. If we take the ages listed as literal ages, that Adam lived 930 years, then we may run into a problem or not because first, there’s intersection between the biblical genealogical lists and something known as the Sumerian King Lists, and those intersections are very interesting because those king lists have even more incredible ages listed. But let’s say that those ages were literal, then it seems that readers forget that there were two trees in the Garden: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We know that Adam and Eve ate from the latter, but what about the former? If they had been eating form that tree, before they ate from the forbidden tree, could that explain their long lives? This seems to be something that no one wants to even consider, but it should be.
Anyway, I doubt that this clears up anything, but it’s a lot to consider. So where do I stand?
I stand with the biblical authors: if they believed that Adam was a historical person, so do I. How that gets worked out depends upon any number of factors that I’ve highlighted.