Adam in the Academy

The discussion of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the “proper” interpretation of Genesis 2-3 among American evangelicals has achieved mainstream media attention with more evangelicals exploring non-historical interpretations of the narrative in Genesis. Along these lines, the two books I am currently reviewing  for academic journals have weighed in on the subject. Each suggests that there are reasons intrinsic to the text itself or to interpretive traditions of the text that promote a non-historical reading of it.

In Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (Baylor University Press, 2011), they appeal to interpretive tradition. Here, their point is not to argue that Paul does not read Genesis 2-3 historically, but rather that Paul’s connection between wrongdoing and death as it relates to Genesis 2-3 was already anticipated in Second Temple Jewish literature, and this connection was arrived at outside a historical interpretation to “the myth of the fall.”

It is a mistake to understand this interpretation of death [1 Cor 15:21; Rom 5:12-19] through recourse to the myth [Genesis 2-3] only as an explanation in the limited sense of a historical derivation. The Wisdom of Solomon, which refers to the devil as the author of death in its use of Genesis 3, already demonstrates quite clearly how the godless, by orienting themselves in relation to death as ultimate reality and savoring their lives as a “last chance” with no regard for what it costs others, reproduce the life-destroying power of death. In this manner, they “summon” death; in their blindness, they consider it a “friend” and make a “covenant” with it (Wis 1:16). The myth of the fall clearly functions heuristically here. It directs attention to the internal relationship between misguided human being and doing and the resulting disruption of cosmic order that makes room for the destructive power of death. (397)

The context of the text to which they refer, Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-16 reads:

Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. (NRS)

In Matthew R. Schlimm’s From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis (Eisenbrauns, 2011), Schlimm places emphasis on the metaphorical transference of the world and events in the narrative to the world and events of the reader:

Fundamental to all of Genesis, and to the discussion below, is the driving metaphor WE ARE EXPELLED FROM PARADISE. No reader of Genesis has literally been expelled from the Garden of Eden. No reader has seen firsthand the cherubim and whirling, flaming sword east of the tree of life. And yet, Genesis clearly invites its readers to adopt Adam and Eve as metaphorical representations of themselves. In fact, it is a casualty of translation that the Hebrew אדם and חוה are typically rendered ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, when in fact their names literally are ‘Humanity’ and ‘Life’. Few readers of the English Bible are aware of this connection, and thus they fail to realize how the text invites them to see these characters less as historical figures and more as metaphorical representations of the human race. Once one understands the driving metaphor WE ARE EXPELLED FROM PARADISE, however, suddenly the remainder of Genesis and even our own lives make much more sense. (125)

(I was a few chapters behind in my reading of the book when he posted this quote, so HT: James Spinti)

Finally, Pete Enns’ book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Baker Academic, 2012) is about to be released. Enns’ own arguments, the first fruits of which are available here (Adam is Israel, Paul’s Adam 1, 2, 3, 4, The Apostle Paul and Adam, and Creating Adam), follow similar lines of logic to Feldmeier, Spieckermann, and Schlimm. For Enns, the ANE background of the narrative in Genesis encourages a less-than-historical reading, at least in certain respects. Moreover, Enns finds Paul’s argument persuasive, even if Paul does not share a scientifically informed understanding of human origins. For more on his soon to be published book, see posts on his blog here and here.


4 thoughts on “Adam in the Academy

  1. How exactly are we to understand the phrase, “expelled from paradise?” According to natural history death and suffering has been around for a lot longer than humanity. So have aggression and sociability. So how exactly are we to understand the “paradise” that we were supposedly “expelled from?” Living things suffer and die, species become extinct, sometimes they die off in mass extinction events. At other times they get along without much aggression, even sociably, especially if they are a social species such as elephants, dolphins, primates, et al. So where can one situate “the fall from paradise” if birth/extinction, as well as aggression/sociability already existed prior to humanity? [edited for length and irrelevant/unnecessary discussion by blog author]

    1. Ed, I think you fundamentally misunderstand the metaphorical impact of the idea that “we are expelled from paradise” is intended to communicate. Schlimm is specifically arguing against those who would interpret the expulsion from paradise in Genesis as an event in natural history.

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