The Search for the Historical Adam 7

We have been working through 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 good 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.

There are two prongs to the approach that Dr. Collins takes to the question of Adam – the first is, perhaps, best classified as hermeneutical (consequences of the authority of scripture), while the second, and more valuable, part of his discussion addresses the anthropological and theological questions raised by the references to Adam. Chapter 3 of Dr. Collins’s book looks at the biblical and extra-biblical texts concerning Adam. We’ve dealt with all but two of the texts concerning Adam in earlier posts of this series. The two texts remaining for us to consider are Romans 5:12-19 and Acts 17:26.

Romans 5:12-19 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned … This is a key text for many as we consider the question of Adam. Acts 17:26 is a reference that is not often brought into the discussion. This reference arises in the context of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, … since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation. (Acts 17:24a, 25b-26)

In this chapter Dr. Collins does not discuss the theological implications of Paul’s reference to Adam  and death in Romans 5. He focuses instead on Paul’s view of Adam. There seems little doubt that Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 is framed by the way he, and at least some of his contemporaries, read Genesis 2-3. Most commentators, James Dunn is the sole exception he cites (others considered include Cranfield, Fitzmyer, and Wright), conclude that Paul viewed Adam as an historical person, the progenitor of the human race, through whom the relationship between God and mankind changed. That is, Paul viewed Adam and Eve as a persons and took the fall recounted in Genesis 3 as a key historical event.

Overall I find Dr. Collins book well worth the time and effort for interaction. This section, though, is a bit unsatisfactory. Dr. Collins’s argument appears to hinge not on the significance of Adam to Paul’s main theological points, but Paul’s 1st century understanding of the nature of human origins based on Genesis. That Paul viewed Adam as a historical individual should carry, he appears to suggest, significant weight, perhaps definitive weight, in our view of Adam.

In what way should Paul’s view of origins influence our view?

How much of Paul’s view is determinative for our understanding?

Dr. Collins’s discussion of the other passage, Acts 17, is much more interesting – to my perspective anyway. Rather than opening the question of Paul’s belief regarding Adam Dr. Collins dwells on the significance of one universal source for all humanity. The unity of the human race is a key concept and the foundation for racial and ethnic justice. Paul is asserting such a unity and using the text of Genesis 2-3 to provide the foundation for his claim. God created one man from whom all descend – every nation of mankind. Dr. Collins quotes F. F. Bruce from two commentaries on this passage:

Against such claims of racial superiority Paul asserts the unity of all men. The unity of the human race as descended from Adam is fundamental in Paul’s theology (cf. Rom. v.12ff.). This primal unity, impaired by sin, is restored by redemption (Gal. iii.28; Col. iii,11). (F. F. Bruce The Acts of the Apostles)

And in the later commentary:

This removed all imagined justification for the belief that Greeks were superior to barbarians, as it removes all justification for comparable beliefs today. Neither in nature nor in grace, neither in the old creation nor in the new, is there any room for ideas of racial superiority. (F. F. Bruce The Book of Acts.)

This is a foundational idea in Paul’s understanding of both theology and anthropology. We are all one people. Dr. Collins expands on this:

The making of all kinds of people from one person is an historical statement, which grounds the universal invitation – an invitation that itself is established by an event (the resurrection), in the light of a sure-to-come future event (a day of judgment). p. 90

Paul’s views expressed in Colossians 3:11 (Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all) and Galatians 3:28 (There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus) find their foundation in his understanding of the inherent unity of all people grounded in Genesis 1 and 2. Ethnic, racial,  and class barriers all fall beneath our inherent unity. (Gender barriers fall as well – but that is somewhat peripheral to the current discussion). Genesis 3 takes us one step further – not only are we all one people, but we are all in the same boat. We are all in need of reconciliation to God through the redeeming work of Christ.

The unity of humanity. I find arguments for the historicity of Adam and the fall that are centered on Paul’s view of origins unconvincing. Paul was a first century man and his understanding of science, geography, cosmology, origins, was limited by his location in time and space. On the other hand I find arguments based on Paul’s Christology and his understanding of the unity of humanity more persuasive. Whether Genesis 1-3 is historical, metaphorical, or some combination of both – it is true, it teaches the unity of humanity and this is an important component of Paul’s understanding of the central event in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a key force in his mission to the Gentiles. Paul didn’t have evolutionary theory and genomics to convince him of human unity – he had a story, a cultural history that made this a natural conclusion and a starting point for his understanding of his call to preach to the Gentiles.

What do you think? Does the unity of humanity play a role in your understanding of Genesis 1-3?

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

If you have comments please visit The Search for the Historical Adam 7 at Jesus Creed.

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