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Many Christians are concerned that Adam in the book of Genesis is to be understood as a “first” human of some sort–either literally so or “first” in terms of importance.

In my book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, I spend half its pages talking about what I think is the heart of the issue for many Christians: not how to read Genesis, but how to read Paul, who appeals to the Adam story twice in his letters (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) to make a point about the human condition and how Jesus came to deliver humanity from that condition.

For Paul, Adam seems to be the first human. As the logic goes, if Adam was not the first human in some sense of the word “first,” then Paul’s subsequent arguments about Jesus fixing what Adam broke are likewise wrong. An extreme form of that argument is that the gospel itself crumbles to the ground if Adam was not the first human.

Of course, this is why many Christians freak out about evolution, and so either turn away from it like they just saw a car wreck, or work overtime to “reconcile” evolution and Christianity, usually by inserting an “Adam” of some sort into the evolutionary scheme. I find neither option remotely viable.

My argument in the second half of The Evolution of Adam is that Paul did indeed understand human origins in the way that you would expect ancient people to, namely an original first pair. I explain in my book in more detail why I think this and, more importantly, why this has no bearing on whether or not the gospel is true.

Another approach taken by some Christians, however, is to suggest that Paul wasn’t a “literalist” when it came to Adam, but understood him figuratively. We shouldn’t assume, as is often done, that Paul was a modern fundamentalist with no literary sensitivity, stuck on equating “truth” with “it literally happened.” James Dunn, for example, in his commentary the book of Romans, makes this point, as do others.

I have always considered this interpretation of Paul to be possible, though I took a different approach in my book.

I treated Paul as a “literalist” about Adam for 2 reasons:

1. I was deliberately taking the worst case scenario for Christian theology–that Paul was wrong about Adam as the first human–and exploring the implications of that scenario. Even if Paul understood Adam literally, we do not need to and yet what Paul says about Jesus remains.

If that train of thought is convincing (see the book), the head-on collision between evolution and Christianity is averted. Though other philosophical and theological problems certainly remain, at least the hermeneutical issue is reframed.

2. I also treat Paul as a literalist about Adam because the issue, as I see it, isn’t how he handles his Bible. Rather, the issue is what we can reasonably assume of Paul as an ancient person thinking about human (and cosmic) origins.

It seems most defensible–least complicated–to see Paul as an ancient person (duh) who simply accepted as a natural course of events that, if all babies (animal or human) came from the union a male and female, then working backwards you’d have to conclude that somewhere back in primordial time God made the first two humans capable of procreation.

That is the biblical scenario in Genesis and in antiquity as a whole, and Paul accepted it in due course as a base point for discussion. Reason #2 is the main reason for why I also accepted reason #1.

Having said that, if James Dunn and others are right, that Paul was not bound to ancient ways of thinking, but understood Adam figuratively, then the whole discussion of Adam and evolution shifts somewhat dramatically, I would think.

Of course–and here is our thought for the day–if Paul did rise above ancient assumptions of human origins when talking about Adam figuratively, then we can conclude that Paul did so by divine revelation. In which case, the Spirit inspired Paul to understand Adam figuratively, meaning that God doesn’t think Adam was the literal first human either.

In any case, I’m fine with Paul being a “figurativist,” though, as I said, reason #2 above seems a more reasonable starting point. I would need to see some support for why Paul thought of human origins differently that other ancients did, especially other ancient Jews armed with the book of Genesis and its account of human origins.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.