Jesus on Adam and Eve

michelangelo's Adam 2There has been small internet storm surrounding the remarks by Andy Stanley on Adam and Eve, and on Denny Burk’s response. Scot posted on this yesterday (link here), but focused on what he saw as a poor hermeneutic at work in the remarks of Burk. I would like to address a different issue, also hermeneutical, and one that has significant ramifications for the integration of science and Christian faith.

As quoted by Scot, Andy Stanley said:

Here’s why I believe this actually happened. Not because the Bible says so, but because of the Gospels – Jesus talks about Adam and Eve. And it appears to me that he believed they were actually historical figures. And if he believed they were historical, I believe they were historical because anybody that can predict their own death and resurrection and pull it off – I just believe anything they say.

This is a very common argument, one I have heard repeatedly in the discussion of Adam, Eve, science and Christian faith. Thus it is worth our while to look very carefully at the logic behind this statement, the evidence from the Gospels, and at how it stands up.

1. Jesus is the Center. This statement focuses on Jesus who is the center of our faith. Here I agree completely. We need a hermeneutic that reads scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ and through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future hope. We believe in the bible because we believe in God, not vice versa. Yes, it is something of a spiral not cleanly separated. We know God and of his mission largely through revelation in scripture, but not solely through scripture. The emphasis of primacy is important though. God (and Jesus) first and foremost.

2. Jesus alludes to Adam and Eve only indirectly. In the major reference found in the gospels Jesus takes Genesis 1:27 (So God created mankind … male and female he created them) and the institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24 (That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh) and then describes divorce as a concession to the hardness of the “your hearts”.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mt 19:4-6)

Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mk 10:6-9)

One need not believe in a historical Adam and Eve to believe that God ordained marriage between a man and a woman, or that this was part of his plan for creation from the beginning. One also need not believe in a historical Adam and Eve to use Genesis to teach about marriage.

Dr. C. John (Jack) Collins has written a book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care that makes an argument for the historicity of Adam and Eve in some real sense. When he considers the evidence in the gospels (pp. 76-78) Collins also points out that the major allusion to Adam and Eve is really a statement about marriage. He takes this one step further, though, and suggests that the fact that the law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 allows divorce is because something changed after the beginning when God instituted marriage. This leads him to Genesis 3: “The obvious candidate for making that change – indeed the only one – is the sin of Adam and Eve, with its consequences for all human beings.” (p. 77) Thus, it appears that Collins’s main reason for thinking that Mt 19 and Mk 10 point to the historicity of Adam and Eve is because he reads in this passage a reference to the Fall.

The other possible references to Adam and Eve in the gospels are slim indeed. Collins notes that Jesus makes a passing reference to Abel (Mt 23:35 and Lk 11:51) – but “since this is just in passing we need not make much of it.” There is also, perhaps, a passing reference to the serpent and Genesis 3 in John 8:44: “You belong to your father, the devil, … He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.” Collins thinks that the phrase “murderer from the beginning” is an allusion to the serpent in Genesis 3.

This is the extent of the evidence we have concerning Adam and Eve from recorded words of Jesus. (The genealogy in Luke 3 goes back to Adam, but this is not part of Jesus’s teaching.)

3. Jesus may, or may not, have “believed they were historical.” I don’t think this is a question we can answer based on the text of the exchanges recorded in the Gospels. Jesus knew and used the teachings of the OT text including Genesis as an accurate view of God’s work in the world. Whether he had “unnecessary” knowledge as the incarnate son is not clear, he was clearly limited in some ways.

Jack Collins believes that “it is fair to say that the Gospel writers portray Jesus as one who believed both that Adam and Eve were historical and that their disobedience changed things for us” (p. 78). I take a somewhat different view and think that the Gospel writers portray Jesus as a biblically literate 1st century Jewish male who was steeped in the scripture and the culture – he was localized in a time and place. What he thought about historicity can’t be discerned, and our opinion of this rests in part on what we take as the consequences of incarnation.

4. Jesus knew his mission. The fact that Jesus predicted his death (part of his mission) doesn’t tell us anything about his knowledge of past (other than what was learned as any human learns) or the future (where we know he was limited – Mt 24:36 and Mk 13:32). Jesus as the incarnate son knew his Father and he knew his mission. That may have been enough.

5. Non-historical characters can be used to teach true lessons. This should go without saying, but there is no necessary reason why Adam and Eve (or Abel) must be historical to make the lessons taught by Jesus true. The stories of the Good Samaritan and of Lazarus and the rich man teach true lessons whether the characters are historical or not. With respect to Genesis 1-4, we should consider the options. If Jesus, as the incarnate son, knew a truth his audience didn’t know, what would he have done? Would he have avoided the allusion on that account? Would he have added an caveat that would have made no sense to his audience? It is quite likely that he would have used the context of his audience to make the point he wished to make. It was, after all, a lesson about the institution of marriage that comes clearly from the text.

So what about Adam and Eve? The question of Adam and Eve is a theological question and a hermeneutical question. It isn’t really a scientific question. Nor can it be decided by submission to the allusions of Jesus recorded in the gospels. The most significant theological questions are raised by Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15.

There are ways to reconcile a literal Adam and Eve with the scientific data. I have posted on the question of Adam many times. See for example the last part of Evolution, Entropy, and Human Beings 2 or other posts on the question of Adam listed about 3/4 of the way down the Science and Faith index. Reconciling a literal Adam and Eve with the scientific data requires something of a stretch, but is not impossible if one feels that the theological teaching of the sweep of scripture requires Adam, Eve, and the Fall.

There are also ways to understand the sweep of scripture and the fallen nature of mankind without reference to a historical Adam and Eve. These do not necessarily diminish the inspiration and authority of scripture as witness to the work of God in the world.

This shouldn’t be a make or break issue. Rather, it is an issue where we need to spend more time and thought.

What do you think?

Do the references and allusions by Jesus to Adam and Eve mean that we should consider them historical?

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

If you would like to comment please see Jesus on Adam and Eve at Jesus Creed.

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