The Search for the Historical Adam 4

I began this series a while ago, but had to put it on the back burner to concentrate on other things. Today I would like to get return to the topic of Adam and to the recent book by C. John Collins entitled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. This book looks at the question of Adam and Eve from a relatively conservative perspective but with some nuance and analysis. The questions he poses and the answers he gives provide a good touchstone for interacting with the key issues. Later this fall we will look at the question of Adam from an equally faithful, but less conservative perspective, in the context of a new book coming out by Peter Enns entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.

Chapter 3 of Dr. Collins’s book looks at the biblical texts concerning Adam. Today we will consider his discussion of Genesis 1-5. The first point of note here is that Dr. Collins has respect for the form of the text we have and cautions against reading it too literalistically. He also cautions against reading it shallowly, with a dismissive attitude, as myth or as a loosely edited collection of ancient stories.  He points out that many will claim that the accounts of creation in Genesis 1-2:3 and 2:4-25 cannot be reconciled with each other.

As for the question of separate sources, the arguments for and against such sources will be forever indecisive, since none of these putative sources is actually known to exist. The only text we have is the one that places these two passages together. Further, we have no reason to expect that the whoever did put these passages together was a blockhead (or a committee of blockheads), who could not recognize contradictions every bit as well as we can. … Therefore, if literary and linguistic studies point to a way to read the whole production coherently, we do well to pay heed. (p. 52-53).

I agree with Dr. Collins here – although not entirely with the way he then takes the idea. Genesis 1-5 is a coherent whole, put together for a purpose and in an acceptable fashion by the editor(s) of the text we have, whatever sources were used. It isn’t a sloppy jumble of dissonant pieces. To me this suggests that any apparent contradiction, say the apparent contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, should inform our understanding of the mindset, culture, and purpose of both the original author/editor and the original audience.  We should not twist the text to match our expectation for the literary form of the text.

What should be our attitude toward the text of Genesis 1-5? What should we look to learn from the text?

Given that the text of Genesis 1-5 is a coherent whole, Dr. Collins goes on to discuss the interpretation or potential interpretation of many elements of the story.  Dr. Collins is describing a “third way” to read the text of Genesis 1-5. He advocates a reading between the overly literalistic reading of the text as a reporter’s account of events as they happened and the overly literalistic reading that sees myth, magic, folklore and etiological “just so stories” and thus dismisses the text as fiction, an ancient Near East creation myth with theological meaning. I will highlight only a few of his points here.

The Creation Narratives. Dr. Collins takes the view that Genesis 1-2:3 is, as he describes it, almost “liturgical”.

[I]t celebrates as a great achievement God’s work of fashioning the world as a suitable place for humans to live. “The exalted tone of the passage allows the reader to ponder this with a sense of awe, adoring the goodness, power, adn creativity of the One who did all this.” Perhaps the best way to read the passage is in unison, in a service of worship. (p. 54)

Genesis 2:4-25 on the other hand, takes a specific part of God’s creation, the formation of humans, and expands it in detail. Again the text is not simply history, but it carries much intentional meaning.  Dr. Collins finds it persuasive that Adam and Eve are presented as a unique pair from whom all humanity descends and that this was the intent of the author. But this doesn’t exclude Adam from a representative role as well. He discusses the names Adam and Eve, and the potential for wordplay with these names, although he downplays this aspect. Adam is intended in some sense at least as a proper name.

The Garden, The Snake, and The Trees. The form of Genesis similar to Mesopotamian prehistories, where the term prehistory refers to the time before written records. Genesis 1-11 connects the story of Israel to the past hidden in the mists of antiquity.

I say “the mists of antiquity” to remind us that we are dealing with the kind of literature that deals with “prehistory” and “protohistory.” … And, as Kenneth Kitchen argues, in the nineteenth century B. C., people “knew already that their world was old, very old.” Therefore the phrase “mists of antiquity” represents the perspective the ancients themselves would have held. (p. 57)

Because Genesis 1-11 is a record of prehistory it uses elements that are common to the genre – both figurative elements and literary conventions. The form of the stories tell us that we err if we read them too literalistically. But the figurative elements and literary conventions serve a purpose within the context of a true story of origins.  We do not have a collection of magic, myth, and folklore with talking animals and magical trees. For example, Dr. Collins sees the snake as a reference not to a talking snake,  but to Satan. The snake serves a purpose in the story, but the purpose is not to provide an etiological explanation for snake locomotion. The snake is as a mouthpiece for the Evil One, a creature used by Satan. He considers it a faulty reading to ignore the connection of the snake with Satan. The lack of connection in the text of Genesis is inconsequential, because the intent is clear. Likewise the trees are not to be viewed as magic trees, capable of providing life or knowledge, rather they have a sacramental function in the Garden.

According to Dr. Collins the point of the story of Genesis 3 is not in the details of dust and trees and snakes, but in the disobedience introducing sin into the world and the connection of this sin to all people.

The Genealogies. The genealogies play a significant role in Dr. Collins understanding of Adam and Eve. The genealogies link Adam and Eve to Abraham – in other words they connect Israel through Abraham to the beginning of humanity hidden in the mists of antiquity. The fact that the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 and those in 1 Chronicles and Luke 3 connect back through time to Adam does not mean that every generation is listed with absolute precision. We cannot add the numbers and arrive at the age of the earth. But Dr. Collins suggests that this connection does mean that the authors of Genesis, Chronicles, and Luke assumed that Adam was a historical figure. Although he does not state it explicitly the implication is that this assumption of historicity should influence our understanding of Adam as a historical figure at the beginning of the human race.

We will get back to the idea of Adam as a historical figure in later chapters of the book – this too can be nuanced. Adam as historical does not necessarily mean Adam as a unique individual, although it may. But it does mean that the story, according to Dr. Collins, cannot be dismissed as mere myth describing the current state of mankind.

Do you think that there is a “third way” to read the text of Genesis 1-5?

Is there a valid middle ground between reported history and fiction with theological meaning?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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