Home > Bible > The Apostle Paul did not Believe in the Historical Adam

The Apostle Paul did not Believe in the Historical Adam

A debate has been raging about whether Adam was an historical figure. I think it’s important, because it represents a more general debate about how to live a modern religious life. I also think it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding.

Paul didn't believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam.The historical Adam is apparently important for fundamental Christian theological reasons, which is why Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that, “The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity … produces a false grasp of the Gospel” and told NPR that “without [an historical] Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense…”

His basic point, shared by many others, is that, “the Apostle Paul … clearly understood Adam to be a fully historical human.”

It may surprise some that I don’t agree at all. I don’t think that Paul believed in an historical Adam.

I think that the whole notion of “historical” is a modern one, created by modern science, and that it’s this entirely modern approach that pits history against myth. Paul didn’t believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam. He just believed in Adam. It’s only as modern readers that we divide things — for ourselves — into historical and non-historical.

Even ancient historians like Herodotus (5th century BC) and Josephus (1st century AD) freely mixed what we would now call history with literature. As part of their histories, they included verbatim conversations that they had no way of knowing. Similarly, they mixed history with myth, as when Herodotus writes about the phoenix in the same terms as the crocodile or when Josephus, whose life overlapped with Paul’s, describes a cow that gave birth to a lamb during his own lifetime.

So while I understand the modern inclination to ask whether or not the Adam that Paul believed in was historical, I think it’s an anachronistic question. And more than any answer to it, it’s the question itself that parts with Scripture.


[Update: John Farrell has a review on Forbes.com of Peter Enns’ new book, Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, including a discussion of some issues surrounding the historical Adam. Also, Dr. Enns just posted a 40-minute lecture in which he talks about the material in his book. (5/14/2012)]

[Update 2: Along similar lines, my father, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, has a piece that I think everyone should read: “Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because…” Read the rest. (5/31/2012)]

[Update 3: Bible Gateway has a series of four videos with four views about the historical Adam: New Videos: Did a Historical Adam Really Exist? (1/22/2014)]

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  1. May 11, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Agreed! The same debate arises from the question of whether the first creation story reveals God to have made the universe from nothing. It’s fascinating to me how this understanding came to be since Philo and the early [Christian] Church fathers didn’t believe in creatio ex nihilo, nor is there convincing evidence from the Hebrew text [available to us] that the divine author had creatio ex nihilo in view (I cite my own translation as well as Sarna, Friedmann, Alter, and others).

    There is something in the nature of the contemporary humans to prefer the truths of history and science to those of metaphysics which can not be defined in concrete, empirical terms. Indeed, for most of us, the nature of, say, good and evil, are expressed most eloquently in narrative works not scientific experimentation.

    Blessings,

    Michael

  2. Kris Webb
    May 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Well, hmm. . . . I have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. How can we not divide things between historical and non-historical, between truth and untruth? How did ancient people conceive of truth and fiction?

    • May 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Kris,

      I think that because we live in the modern, scientific era, we naturally divide things into “real” and “not real,” or “true” and “not true,” or — in this case — “historical” and “non-historical.” And we tend to think that the same kind of system is at work in each case. So “real” differs from “not real” in the same way that “true” differs from “untrue” and “historical” differs from “non-historical.” We also tend to think that there’s no other way to see things.

      But both of those assumptions reflect our modern bias, and the ancients had a different world view.

      For example, references to “God’s truth” suggest that there could be more than one “truth,” which isn’t how modern “truth” works. Passages like John 4:23 (“true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”) seem to put “truth” into the same category as “spirit,” just as 1 Corinthians 13:6 (“[love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth”) puts “truth” into the same category as “wrongdoing.”

      These all point toward a way of understanding “true” that differs from our modern one.

  3. May 11, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    If I understand correctly, Paul wouldn’t have been asking the question, historical or not. The issues that have prompted the question today, weren’t being asked back then.

    • May 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Exactly.

      • May 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm

        Let me guess as to why this has come about. Did it start over whether the Genesis creation story was literal or an ancient cultural narrative? And now the debate has spilled over into Adam and Eve?

        • May 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm

          Actually, no. The debate — before I got involved — began because Adam is central to Paul’s theology, at least as understood by many people.

          It piqued my interest because it demonstrates what I see as a poorly framed debate that in general pits science against religion to the detriment of both. In this case, I believe, Paul can be right and modern science can be right.

  4. May 12, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Well said! Although it might, perhaps, need a more extended explanation, before it makes sense to a lot of people.

  5. ru popper
    May 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Dear Joel, I perfectly agree with your statement. Our forefathers fully believed in the accounts handed down to them by their anteriors. There was no question that for them Adam, Abraham and the prophets were a certainty. Best regards, Ruhama

  6. May 15, 2012 at 1:22 am

    Not only “World View” but “word View” particularly use of metaphor. This, to me, is very timely because I am in the middle of Steven Pnker’s (another brilliant linguist) book “The Stuff of Thought; Language as a Window Into Human Nature.” This Adam story is such a great example of what Pinker talks about (particularly) in ch 5. On p. 245 he says, “Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experiences. And the concept of absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purpose of the people who lived by them.” I think this supports, and is consistent with, what Joel is saying and it helps me understand it better to read two different way to describe the nature of human thought.

    • May 15, 2012 at 8:15 am

      I actually haven’t read Steve’s latest book on language, so I can’t be sure, but I believe he’s addressing how we perceive the world, leaving open the possibility that there’s still an absolute world out there.

      I make a similar point briefly in And God Said when I write that even rational people are more likely to believe things that rhyme. But I don’t mean that things that rhyme are literally more likely to be true.

      Here, our question is whether the Adam described in the Bible existed in the same sense that Jesus existed. What interests me is that the answer could have been “yes” for Paul and can be “no” for us, and we can both be right.

  7. May 19, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Fabulous conversation here. I’m grateful for everyone’s participation. The struggle to understand our ancient faiths, and to do so with the courage to learn beyond the edges of what we’ve been taught, this (I believe) is where our religions can move forward with true integrity.

  8. June 19, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Your argument is very clever but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone today would […] try to argue that Adam and Eve were actual people or that they were misled by a talking snake or that God couldn’t find them in the Garden of Eden and had to call out to find out where they were when they were in the bushes just learning how to enjoy each other’s company . . . The whole thing is a very, very silly story.

    As you probably already know, the 17th century French explorer and diplomat, Isaac de la Peyrere, thought that Adam and Eve were not the first humans, that they were merely the first Jews. He thought that the indigenous population of North America was of much more ancient origin than Adam and Eve. He wrote a book, Prae Adamitae (“Men Before Adam”), published in English in London in 1656, which nearly got him burned at the stake. Fortunately his family had money. After he agreed never to write again, he was allowed to live his life out in a cloistered monastery. Because his persecutors thought that they spoke for God they believed that they had the right to kill anyone who disagreed with them. In some parts of the world today it’s still the same way . . .

    I think it’s unwise to try to reconcile science with religious fiction. I hope that anyone who has not already read Giovanni Garbini’s “History and Ideology in Ancient Israel” will go out and get a copy at once and read it from cover to cover. One of Garbini’s points is that the prophet Ezra was an entirely fictional character. Garbini is a Professor of Philology at the University of Rome, Sapienza. Another book that I hope everyone will read is S. David Sperliing’s “The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers”. Sperling is Professor of Bible and Chair of the Faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion–as well as being an ordained rabbi. One of Sperling’s points is that the biblical Moses is an allegorical character representing Israel’s first king, Saul, rather than a historical character.

    [Note: I edited out a tiny bit of the comment that could have been perceived as a personal attack. -JMH]

    • June 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      Thanks for weighing in, Fred.

      Actually, there are many people today who not only argue that Adam and Eve were real people, but go one step further and suggest that to believe otherwise is to betray Christianity.

      My point is that they can be right without Adam and Eve being historical. There are other ways of being “real.”

      Regarding the attempt to “reconcile science with religious fiction,” I highly recommend a short piece my father (Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman) recently wrote, “The Bible is Fiction,” in which he claims, and I agree, that “[e]ven if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction.”

  9. June 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    No problem. Actually, I think you’ve made it “read” better!

  10. July 16, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Joel, you say in one of your comments that “Here, our question is whether the Adam described in the Bible existed in the same sense that Jesus existed. What interests me is that the answer could have been “yes” for Paul and can be “no” for us, and we can both be right.”

    This is very confusing; I mean how would you explain this to a classroom full of kids? I know you’re a theoretical linguist and a master in your field, but how is your approach going to help the average person?

    At the end of the day, we all know that Adam may or may not have been “real”, and Jesus may or may not have been “real” either – regardless the science or the history, or anything else for that matter. Everyone will decide these questions for themselves, ultimately. From an academic viewpoint, I’m really not sure what you were trying to achieve by this article.

    Personally, for myself, I believe that Adam was as real as Jesus – and have believed so since I was about 11 years old. If people want me to change my mind about that, I think that’s their problem. But what is it to me if people choose to believe that Adam was real and Jesus wasn’t, or Jesus was real and Adam wasn’t, or both Jesus and Adam were not real? Perhaps this was the point you were trying to make.

  11. April 18, 2013 at 5:17 am

    I’m sorry, but there is NOT more than one way to be real. A thing is or it isn’t; a person existed, was born, lived, and died, or not. If a person was NOT born, lived, and died, (or is not currently somewhere in that linear process) then that person was/is not real.

    Now if you want to talk about conceptualizing, ideas, and ideals, that’s another matter. But it is intellectually dishonest to insist that Adam can be “real” and “not-real” depending on your point of view. Or Jesus, or Moses, or Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, or any other figure of myth, legend, and folk tale.

    Paul and other early xtian proselytizers may or may not have believed in the literal existence in the past of any number of Biblical figures; I don’t see why I should be guided by that belief (or lack thereof). There is no way to prove or disprove absolutely the existence of a person who was born into the “stream of time” as it were and lived his life and eventually died who was the historical Adam (ignoring the magical creation from dust and the whole talking-snake thing). It surely seems very unlikely.

    The Adam of the Bible is a figure of myth, not a historical figure; the fact that that causes a problem for some people reflects more on their LACK of faith than the contrary. If you have faith in your religious beliefs, you don’t need to take every single word in the Old or New Testaments (or the Torah or the Septuagint or the Rig Veda or whatever your religious text of choice is) as absolute literal truth, but rather accept that some things are allegorical and intended to teach or make you think. And frankly, some (probably even most) things were stories made up to make the world seem more controllable and less frightening, or just plain for fun/entertainment – seriously, the Song of Solomon as literal truth? REALLY?

    There is no doubt in my mind that the Biblical Adam was not real, eg did not exist as a single person in history, even if you ignore the trappings of having been created by a magical sky-being from the dust or clay or theological spit. However I fail to see why that should matter to a believer anyway; the whole point of xtianity seems to me to have been about how to live your life and not about useless arguments about whether or not Adam really lived. Whether or not Adam really lived has absolutely no effect on not killing people, or being kind, or practicing compassion, or anything else that ought to matter to a Christian (or Jew, or Moslem, or any other human being). You can argue and fuss about whether we should be worshiping the holy sandal or the holy gourd (and stoning the heretics on the other side of the argument) from now until the cows come home, but you’re missing the point.

    Human beings have limits, and part of any spiritual path is accepting that we are limited and working within or around those limits to the best of our abilities. This is frightening to literalists because it means accepting that we are NOT in control of much of anything.

    Which is sort of diverging from the subject of concepts of “historical” and “real”. When we are talking about things made up of atoms that we can see and touch (as opposed to ideas and concepts), a thing cannot be both real and unreal. People are made up of atoms. There is not a difference between a “historical” Adam and a “real” Adam. If Adam was born, lived, and died, then he was “real” and “historical”. If not, then he was/is NOT real, and unreal people cannot exist in the historical record. They can be figures of myth and legend, but not historical figures.

    Reality does not depend on any particular person’s belief or disbelief. So, if Paul believed in Adam as a person who really existed, and I don’t, we cannot both be right, regardless of how people thought about “history” at the time. What KIND of person a putative historical Adam may have been may be subjective (eg varies through the eye of the beholder, culturally dependent, etc), but whether or not he was born, lived, and died is purely objective, regardless of what people BELIEVE.

    Saying that Paul didn’t believe in a historical or non-historical Adam, “he just believed in Adam” isn’t even quibbling, it’s just meaningless. If he believed in Adam as presented in the Bible as a real person then he believed in a historical Adam, whether or not he had a contemporary (to us) conceptualization of history, and independent of whether or not his belief had any basis in fact/reality.

    • Ron Knight
      May 2, 2013 at 4:05 am

      Dr. Hoffman, what are the Hebrew and Greek words used for faith in the old and new testaments, and what is your interpretation as to what they mean? Im wondering if you have any fresh insights like you did for levav and nefesh. Im particularly wondering if there is any component of the meaning and importance trust has as explained by Robert Wright in *Nonzero; the Logic of Human History.*

  12. April 4, 2014 at 12:05 am

    Elohim God Made Male and Female equal In “our Image” . Was Lilith the first woman?

  13. louis
    August 9, 2014 at 5:38 am

    #a# historical.

  1. May 11, 2012 at 9:49 am
  2. May 11, 2012 at 10:25 am

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