I think one of the main reasons why the existence of an historical Adam and Eve is considered unimportant (or unlikely), at least by Christians who generally take the Bible seriously, is that references to Adam are apparently so sparse throughout Scripture.
Apart from a cryptic reference in Ezekiel and a contested one in Hosea, any discussion of the importance of Adam to Christianity flies immediately to the two passages of Paul, Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15, which seem to show that he believed in their real existence. Most even agree that he regarded their reality as important for Christian doctrine, but those like Scot Mcknight argue that he was mistaken on both counts. Adam, they say, works nicely as a myth.
I’ve been arguing for some time (principle treatment here) that the narrative structure of the Bible is, at its simplest, the story of how Israel failed, and Jesus succeeeded, both in reversing the damage done to the creation by Adam, and succeeding in the task wherein he failed. This I’ve used to give support to the Genealogical Adam hypothesis.
With respect to the question of Adam’s historicity, the logic of the argument is this: Jesus’s task and ministry are moulded on, and prefigured by, the history of Israel. Israel’s task and ministry are, in turn, moulded on, and prefigured by, the story of Adam. These parallels – rather like Paul’s concept of Jesus as a parallel “Federal head” of the race to Adam – lose much, or all of their force if some of them are fictional.
Put it this way: the problems of mankind are all too real, and if we accept Jesus’s real life, atoning death and resurrection to be God’s salvific solution to those problems, it would be bizarre for them to recapitulate closely a mythical or allegorical narrative that bore little resemblance to how those problems truly arose.
It would be as if Jesus had solved the worlds problems by flying around gathering them all up from individuals and stuffing them into a large jar, declaring at the end that all the ills released by Pandora had at last been recaptured, and mankind could truly prosper. If we have no reason to believe that the myth of Pandora is any more historical than an allegorical Adam, why would that be the way to go about things?
Well, I now find this problem is greatly compounded because, in fact, despite the infrequent mention of Adam by name in the Bible, literary allusions going back to that crucial episode in the early chapters of Genesis are found, on close examonation, both to pervade the Old Testament, and to underpin the use the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, make of the Old Testament. This particularly involves the crucial prophetic passages about the coming Christ, such as Psalm 8 and Daniel 7 – but also many, many, more.
The subject is dealt with in painstaking detail by Greg Beale, whose astonishing book A New Testament Biblical Theology weighs in at a little over a thousand pages, only half of which I’ve read so far. Beale’s general view of biblical theology builds on the views of the same scholars I rate highly in this regard, including John Sailhamer, N T Wright, and R T France. As with the other book of his that has greatly informed my thinking, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, the book shows his gift for exhaustive, and exhausting, treatment of the whole breadth of the biblical material, and particularly in treating its intertextuality in far more depth than I ever could.
Intertextuality is a rather post-modern term which, in the context of biblical studies of this type, studies in detail how the later biblical authors utilise the earlier writings (and to some extent how extra-canonical books such as the 2nd temple apocalypses and the Dead Sea Scrolls add understanding). It involves observing the re-use of themes such as creation, de-creation or re-creation, or exile, waters, mountains and so on; but also myriad examples of the re-use of clusters of words which reveal less obvious allusions to such themes.
One very obvious example would be the prologue of John, where his “In the beginning…” (identical to the first words of the Greek OT) immediately invite theological exploration of Jesus’s role in the Genesis creation story, as the “word” which God speaks, as “life,” and as “light” which the “darkness” cannot overcome. To read John without understanding Genesis is to fail to understand the whole structure and purpose of his gospel.
Beale’s work draws attention to literally hundreds of such cross connections, revealing (to cut a long story short) that much of the Torah, a great deal of the psalms and prophets, and a high proportion of the New Testament are built around re-interpretation of the Genesis account of creation and fall.
One crucial example is Beale’s study on how the phrases “Son of Man” and “Son of God”, as used in the New Testament, are usually associated with other keywords which link them in the first instance, to the “Son of Man” prophecy of Daniel 7. But they also tie them to whole strings of other passages that demonstrate how, behind the important Daniel passage, lie the ideas of this Messianic figure as both one who represents the nation of Israel, and one who represents the whole human race – that is, a new Adam. After all, the Aramaic for “son of man” in Daniel 7 is “bar adam” anyway.
The net result of all this is to show that, in both the Old Testament and the New, authors deeply versed in the Hebrew Scriptures – and in their interpretive history – saw the whole of God’s salvation history as the outworking of the Eden narrative. Israel was a corporate Adam, and Israel’s troubles led to the expectation of a Messianic new Adam (also, thereby, a true Israel), an expectation fully, if surprisingly, met in Jesus. This (amongst many other things) accounts for the close verbal correspondence between the creation ordinance for man in Genesis 1, the covenant with Noah, the patriarchal promises, the Israelite covenant, the prophetic glosses upon the promises, and related language in the gospels, Paul’s epistles and Revelation – it all stems from Genesis 1, channelled through the Eden narrative.
Greg Beale summarises this whole biblical theological narrative in terms of the new creation which Adam was called, and failed, to bring into being, and whose arrival is the substance of every promise, until its fulfilment in Jesus. This is very gratifying to me, since I have been saying for a little while now that the whole Bible, after Genesis 1, is about the new creation – and that Genesis 1 is essentially just the setting for that theme. Nice to find I’m in good company.
What this all means is that despite the infrequent use of Adam’s name, it’s as if virtually every page of the Bible alludes to him in some way, in order to explain and explore its major themes. All the problems of the creation, and all the solutions including all that the Lord Jesus has achieved, are described in terms of Adam.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that the gospel of Jesus would still stand if that all-encompassing foundation should prove to be fictional. But I confess, I lack the imagination to say how that could be, unless the twentieth century de-mythologizers were correct, and Jesus is an ahistorical figure whose gospel consists only of mystical truths unrelated to space and time and history.