Consider Melchizedek … and Adam

Lost World of Adam and EveThe next chapter of John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve focuses directly on the question of historicity. Walton holds to Adam and Eve as historical individuals, although they are used primarily as archetypal examples in Scripture. Here he lays out his argument for historicity. But first … he considers Melchizedek. This example helps to highlight the complexity of the question and the nature of inspiration.

Melchizedek appears in three passages of Scripture – Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 5-7. If it were not for the last passage we, as Christians, would pay him little attention. First, in Genesis 14 in a rather enigmatic section he welcomes Abram back from a successful campaign to rescue Lot and his family who were taken in a raid on Sodom:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

The reference in Psalm 110 is equally enigmatic:

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

Although the Torah restricts the priesthood to a specific family line in the tribe of Levi, the royal priesthood connecting king and priest – common in the ancient Near East – is invoked through the example of Melchizedek. These two references led to diverse speculation in Jewish thinking – which we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo, and other sources.

By the time we get to Hebrews 7, these Jewish traditions are mixed into the consideration of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews is not drawing his information on Melchizedek solely from the Old Testament; he is also interacting with the traditions known to his audience. It is the Jewish profile of Melchizedek, not just the canonical profile, that informs his comparison. He need not accept their beliefs, but he is demonstrating that Christ’s position is superior to the position in which they have placed others. He therefore relates not only to the Melchizedek of history, but to the Melchizedek of Jewish imagination. … The point for the author of Hebrews is not to argue the validity of his audience’s belief one way or another but to use their beliefs for a comparison to Christ. (p. 98)

Clearly there is far more involved here than a simple question of historicity. The argument doesn’t actually depend on the historicity of Melchizedek at all. Although some may argue that the giving of the tithe in 7:4-10 should have historical basis, not merely literary basis for the argument to work (and Walton appears to feel this way himself), I disagree. Melchizedek may well be a historical figure, but the strength of the argument in Hebrews doesn’t depend on this – or on the ancient understanding of reproduction that Levi was in the body of his ancestor.

Another example is found in the book of Jude where reference to a well known literary fact is separated from historical fact.

This is the path typically followed in the interpretation of Jude 14: “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them.” Even very conservative interpreters consider this a reflection of a literary truth, not a historical truth. None of them seriously considers the Enoch from the book of Genesis to be the author of the intertestamental book of Enoch. (p. 100)

If the book of Jonah is, in fact, satire rather than history as many interpreters believe – then the references to Jonah in the New Testament are references to a literary truth rather than a historical truth. But this does not diminish the impact of the statements made by Jesus concerning Jonah and three days in the fish. Walton doesn’t mention this as an example – and I don’t know his position on the book of Jonah – but it is an example that occurred to me as I read the chapter (see Satire or History? for more discussion of Jonah).

What does have to do with the question of Adam and Eve? As Melchizedek has a significant “after-life” in Jewish literature, so to do Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, however, receive far more attention in Genesis then does Melchizedek, so there is more canonical basis for the subsequent literature. Nonetheless Walton asks if Paul could be interacting with a literary Adam rather than a historical Adam.

If Paul is interacting with a literary Adam and Eve, it is with Adam and Eve as described in Genesis 2-3. Paul’s points about Adam and Eve center on sin and death (Rom 5), Adam as dust of the earth (1 Cor 15) and that Eve was deceived (2 Cor 11, 1 Tim 2).

Though these find significant elaboration in the Jewish traditional literature, they all have their rooting in the Old Testament text. As a result they cannot be dismissed as simply reflecting Jewish traditions with which Paul was interacting. (p. 100)

Walton does not find what Paul or his audience believed about Adam and Eve or Melchizedek or Enoch to be significant. What he does find significant are the elements that Paul made the foundation of his teaching – and this he sees as centered in the Fall.

Why believe in a historical Adam and Eve? Walton sees two primary reasons for believing in a historical Adam and Eve, one textual and one theological. The textual reason is the genealogies. Adam is included in the ancestor lists of Genesis 5, 1 Chron. 1, and Luke 3. In the ancient world genealogies included real people. They may be organized politically rather than by lineage ties, they may refer to groups rather than individuals, the lifespans may not be accurate, but “genealogies from the ancient world contain the names of real people who inhabited a real past.” There can be legendary, literary, and political elements to the organization – but the people listed actually existed once upon a time. Thus Walton sees no reason to doubt that there once was a person, referred to as Adam in Genesis 2-3 who actually lived. “By putting Adam in the ancestor lists, the authors of Scripture are treating him as a historical person.” (p. 102)

The theological reason concerns the centrality of the Fall in the New Testament (it plays no further role in the Old Testament).

The New Testament views the reality of sin and its resulting need for redemption as having entered at a single point in time (punctiliar) through a specific event in time and space. Furthermore, Paul correlated that punctiliar event with a corresponding act of redemption: the death of Christ with its resulting atonement – also a punctiliar event. … [T]he punctiliar nature of the redemptive act is compared to the punctiliar nature of the fall, which therefore requires a historical event played out by historical people. (p. 102-103)

The theological significance of Adam and the Fall will come up again in later chapters – including one contributed by N.T. Wright. Walton concludes “the question of the historical Adam has more to do with sin’s origins than with material human origins.” (p. 103)

Do you find Walton’s reasoning convincing?

What questions or counter points would you raise?

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