Archetypes and individuals

In my last post I examined how John H Walton discusses the role of Adam in Genesis in The Lost World of Adam and Eve. The predominant emphasis he notes is Adam as an archetype. But perhaps I should have drawn more attention than I did to the fact that in the complex pattern of individual, generic and archetypal use which Walton uncovers, where Adam is not being presented as an archetype he is being presented as something else, that is as an actual individual.

This is Walton’s emphasis when he turns to the New Testament for his Propositions 10 and 11. The first of these presents the evidence that the New Testament, like Genesis, is most interested in Adam as an archetype representing all humanity. But in so doing it also makes the New Testament case for his historicity as an individual (though not as the sole progenitor of humanity), which is the subject of Proposition 11.

For brevity I’ll major on Romans 5 (though Walton deals with all the NT passages). Paul’s greatest interest here is in the archetypal importance of Adam as representing all men. This he compares with Christ, also seen as an archetype representing all who are included “in him” through faith. Walton has previously argued that Adam’s origins in Genesis (from dust) are archetypal, not only from ANE comparisons but from the fact that Scripture refers to humans generally as “but dust”. Paul, though, is not interested in that aspect, but in Adam as the archetype of human sin: “Death came to all people, because all sinned.” I have already shown, in the last post, that Paul’s aorist tense for “sinned” implies not imitation or inheritance of sin, but participation in that first sin of Adam. This is a fundamentally archetypal argument.

But prior to that, Paul has stated that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin”, which is clearly not an archetypal statement, but a claim about one individual. Not only that, but it is an historical claim, inasmuch as if Adam did not exist, then sin and death did not enter the world through one man, any more than many would be made righteous by the obedience of Christ had Jesus not existed, nor obeyed.

Walton emphasises this historic aspect by citing Paul’s statement that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a commandment.” That period is a specific interval between two individual lives, albeit that those who died within it did so because of Adam’s archetypal action.

Similar distinctions between the representative and the personal are shown in the other NT passages mentioning Adam. In some Adam (or Eve) are used not as archetypes but as simple examples, for instance when, in 1 Cor 11.3, Paul warns his readers not to be led astray as Eve was. It would be legitimate to argue that, in such cases, it is of no importance whether they were real or fictitious: the warning “Don’t be greedy like King Midas” loses none of its force if neither the character nor the story about him were actually true. But this is very different from the “individual” statements about Adam in Romans 5. Sin and death came into the world through one man, whose role is directly comparable to Christ’s, or they did not. If not, Paul’s whole argument is specious.

Walton goes on to illustrate this in detail by comparison of Paul’s use of Adam with Hebrews’ use of Melchizedek. He shows how the author of the latter makes use not only of the Genesis account of the Priest-King of Salem, and of the commentary on it in Psalm 110, but also some of the inter-testamental legend and gloss that had come to be associated with him. Walton shows, though, how his use of the non-scriptural material, familiar to his readers, is legitimate, yet that his theological teaching is built exclusively on the inspired biblical text. The only historical information we are asked to accept as doctrinally important is what is put forward in the (proto-)historical passage of Genesis 14: ie that Melichizedek was a priest-king of Salem to whom Abraham paid a tithe as tribute.

In contrast with this story, Walton points out that the “traditions” Paul uses about Adam are not simply what his Jewish readers had come to believe about Adam, but what was asserted in Genesis itself, and with the same purport, that is:

1. Sin and death entered through Adam (Rom 5.12)
2. Adam was of the dust of the earth (1 Cor 15.47) [that being an archetypal, not a physical, claim]
3. Eve was deceived (2 Cor 11.3; 1 Tim 2.14)

It is pretty clear that, in a non-confrontational way, Walton is making his closely-argued case in order to contradict certain recent scholars who say that the historicity of Adam is of no theological importance, even if Paul erroneously believed in it and based his arguments on it. As he writes:

The argument of the author of Hebrews would not work if Abram did not give a tithe to Melchizedek. In the same way, I would contend that Paul’s argument would not work if there was not a historical moment when sin entered the world… His whole approach to the presence of sin, the need for redemption and the role of Christ to bring such redemption is based on those details.

A second, more straightforward, line of argument Walton uses for the essential historicity of Adam is his presence in genealogies, not only in Genesis 5, but in 1 Chronicles 1 and in Luke 3. In literary terms, this shows that the use these genealogies make of Adam is in the “individual” rather than the “archetypal” category: Everyman does not have a family tree.

Much weight has often been put on the claim that biblical genealogies are often incomplete, idealised and so on, with the implication that they are therefore historically valueless. Walton, however, with his ANE specialist hat on, has a different viewpoint. Indeed, the functions of genealogies vary in different cultures, so that we cannot assume we’re looking at the sort of thing you’d find at But he asks whether the ANE has any examples of genealogies in which non-historical figures such as gods, legendary characters or toponyms (ie place-names representing inhabitants, as in the table of nations in Gen 10) appear. He concludes that they do not, the closest being gods who appear in some king-lists, not genealogies:

Studies in the ancient world have concluded that genealogies typically are more interested in political unity than in lineage ties, but as such their objectives would not be achieved if imaginary or legendary characters were used. Future discoveries may yet provide an example that could lead to a different conclusion, but based on the information currently available, genealogies from the ancient world contain the names of real people who inhabited a real past. Consequently there would be no precedent for thinking of the biblical genealogies differently. By putting Adam in ancestor lists, the authors of Scripture are treating him as a historical person.

Against that would seem only to be the hyperskepticism of 150 years of liberal scholarship that would prefer to make Genesis the exception that proves the rule. For the Bible to be plausible is just too implausible, on principle!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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10 Responses to Archetypes and individuals

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, could the N.T. era authors have thought of us as sinning in Adam in a literal sense of their thinking that each of us did exist as seed within seed inside our paternal ancestors? As I recall, their notion of heredity was that a man’s seed was the whole person (the woman being a “mere” carrier for it). I’ve heard that explanation for how later Jews could think of themselves as having tithed to Melchizedek since they were all inside Abram’s body when he tithed. So could that same line of thought be in play when Paul says we all sinned in Adam?

    I’m still wrestling over these thoughts towards Adamic historicity (being moved by both you and Walton), though I haven’t arrived at a place where I’m willing to chuck all the non-historical impetus overboard as mere liberal invention (though I guess it must now be considered liberal by definition). Our modernist inability to acknowledge any truth from vehicles of fiction (your King Midas example, or Boy Who Cried Wolf, for another) itself smacks of a modernist, if not liberal gloss; though how that escapes the pejorative label of “liberal” seems to be only through the convenience of knowing that’s the way our very own great grandparents thought. The assertion that Paul or other N.T. era writers thought only in this way seems a bit precarious when their own writings easily slip between the “actual person” genealogical styles and the “archetypal person” representational ways. That we can be confident they would have affirmed a historicity of the person of Adam (were we able to travel back to press them on the issue) seems easy enough. They had no reason to think otherwise, after all. That they would press this same confidence forward as an essential part of that same Christian doctrine, were they to now have our expanded perspectives on creation, seems much less clear-cut to me.

    We do have some clarification from Paul in the parallel arena of bodily resurrection (from his I Cor. 15 passage). “How can you say there is no resurrection …”, Paul asks of those contemporaries who apparently did stumble at just that point. Had there been any in his day (there were not) with motivation to challenge whether or not Adam was a historical figure; would Paul have similarly written: “How can you say there was no actual person, Adam …”? followed with an avowed bundling together of his entire Roman 5 exposition as one body of Truth to rise or fall together on the fact of historicity alone. Fundamentalists today would find that most satisfying if he had, and indeed it is easy to imagine he might have. But he didn’t. And he slips in and out of metaphorical expressions of truth with a fluidity that seems to me to be embarrassing to our contemporary well-meaning fundamentalist brethren; not that they would repudiate anything Paul says (God forbid!); but more in the fact that the manners of Paul’s expressions in that form [are we children of Sarah? or of Hagar?] are merely tolerated or better yet, ignored in favor of those passages which highlight genealogical-style literalism and emphasis. And Paul was far from alone as we have Christ himself constantly using near mystical representations of truth to a bewildered and stubborn discipleship who (in their initial dullness –“what do you mean we’re supposed to eat your body?!!”) never seem to get any affirmation for being so “faithfully literal” in their thinking. Instead, some [one] of them endure the stinging rebuke: “you are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand this?!!”

    I hope I can be forgiven for asking who indeed it is here who is being the most mischievously “liberal” with the germ of the Biblical witness.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      The idea about the seed in the loins of Abraham is actually from the Hebrews passage (7.9), as one additional plank in the “Melchizedek a greater priesthood than Levi” argument. It’s possible that that’s in Paul’s thought, I guess, but I doubt it somehow because the Hebrews writer introduces it as an unfamiliar conceit, “and so to speak…”. But for Paul, our identity with Adam is central to his explanation for death and sin. And of course, as Walton points out he does not link it in any clear way to universal common decent from Adam (and certainly Walton argues that such an assumption isn’t necessary or even probable in Genesis).

      The concept of participation is perhaps too far from our experience now to be quite sure what would be in mind in Paul’s argument, though remember that Adah, Jubal and Tubal-Cain in Gen 4 were all archetypal fathers of professions with no pretence at heredity at all. The idea of federal (covenantal) headship fits just as well as the hereditary one you suggest, and appealed more to the Reformers as an explication of the text. It’s equally participatory, though more forensic than the “archetypal” view.

      Augustine, on the other hand based his view not so much on heredity but on sexual impurity/”concupiscence” – sin was not so much an inheritance as a STD. That idea isn’t participatory at all.

      On the question of being willing to accept biblical arguments based on non-historical people or events, of course the point of Walton’s detour via Hebrews is to show that such use can be made (in fact he also points deliberately at the quote from 1 Enoch in Jude as a clear example). But in the case of Paul’s use of Adam, he argues that the argument fails if Adam was fictional. It would be like warning small children to learn from King Midas not to touch things greedily in case they turn into gold – they simply won’t.

      Reminds me of those who say that it doesn’t matter if the Exodus is fictional because it teaches us that God rescues us from all our bondage, to which the obvious reply is that if it’s fictional it only teaches us that God rescues people in stories.

      But I agree with you in the need to break free from quasi-modernistic literalism, and that the Fundamentalist is as misguided in insisting on it to affirm it as the Liberal is to insist on it to deny it.

      The question is what a passage actually means, and the point of real disagreement is over whether the Holy Spirit oversaw its writing so that we would be taught by God through it, or whether mere humans oversaw it, with attempts at “interference” by the Spirit where he could get a word in (thus requiring us to teach the Scripture from our own wisdom).

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Ah — I’d forgotten that the reference to the seed within was directly within Scripture itself; thanks for the reference.

    It is a fair point that one shouldn’t boast of a rescue that happens in story only. Historicity is definitely demanded there. If someone, according to their spiritual life is observed to be of a lineage of God (or of the devil!) or of other symbolic ancestors in between, then demanding biological historicity there is patent nonsense; then and now. If the Scriptural authors attend more to teaching truth in all this than they do into delineating between our modern categories for us, that may in itself speak to the relative priorities involved. But you are right that I will get into trouble by carelessly using too broad a brush with all this. I will continue to try to absorb some of the scholarly finesse that Walton (and you) are bringing to bear on discerning important distinctions.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The example you give of “sons of God” and “sons of the devil” is another good one for showing that the Bible doesn’t necessarily think in “genetic” terms. Thanks. As always, it’s a question of careful assessment of what it does, and doesn’t, assert.

      In William Tyndale’s view, I think those phrases would be part of the Bible’s literal meaning – the relevant people are literally children of God or Satan. But we learn that the Bible doesn’t necessarily speak genetically when it speaks literally. So Jesus’s teaching on the Fatherhood of God to believers is meant to convey something even stronger than human paternity – and conversely his condemnation of his enemies as children of the devil was very sober, and not “laying it on a bit strong”.

      On the other hand, when Jesus addressed Peter as “Satan”, he clearly wasn’t speaking literally, either in seeing Peter as the devil, or as monetarily possessed by the devil. He was doing something more like demonstrating to Peter how close he was to doing Satan’s work for him.

      Sometimes those nuances overlap: when John or Jesus addressed the religious leaders as “you generation of vipers”, was he describing them metaphorically, or was he making a more literal but non-genetic allusion to Genesis 3.15?

      The categories are subtle, complex and in many ways unfamiliar to us, but that’s not to say the ancients simply blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Quite the reverse – if you’re going to use subtle language, you need to have a pretty clear idea of the thread of reality running through them.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi John,

    In the context of our post-modern era, my comment may appear provocative, but I will say, just why should we avoid discussing an event where God created a distinct human being out of the dust of this earth? (and a woman as his companion), and this Adam was perfect and able to commune with God, until he made the wrong choice (act and decide contrary to God’s Word). With so much scholastic effort on this subject, my suggestion would appear radical – but should any scholar avoid this obvious understanding of Scripture?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      You said that without removing your tongue from your cheek!

      From the scientific point of view, I’d say there are no problems with that view at all (though some scholarly work would need to be done because there are some scientific problems with the usually associated view that this couple were the sole progenitors of mankind).

      To tie in seriously with Walton and the points I’ve been making here, his position is supernaturalist: God could act in exactly the way you describe, and to object to the possibility, per se, would be to submit to scientism.

      Walton’s point, though, is that the original author and readers of Genesis would not have understood the account that way, and (contra some other modern scholars) that nothing in the New Testament entails that particular “literal historic” understanding… though it does entail a good part of what you suggest, including most notably a distinct human being (and his wife), the communion with God, and acting contrary to God’s direct command. Nothing else in the biblical account is to be negated – just understood in the “literal” sense intended by the author.

      But the key point is that what the Bible does assert is not to be set aside as “human ignorance” out of consideration for scientific accommodation. Setting human wisdom against God’s words has a bad track record.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Hi John,

        As a somewhat side-ward comment for your posts on the subject, I have a few quotes to continue my “provocative” approach; these are from Orthodox sites that do not side with Protestant theology/scholarship/science, but they may be of some interest:

        (a) “Please be very clear that I am not telling you that I can disprove the theory of evolution by science; I am only telling you that the theory of evolution can neither be proved nor disproved by science. Those scientists who say that evolution is a “fact” are actually interpreting the scientific facts in accordance with a philosophical theory-those who say that evolution is not a fact are likewise interpreting the evidence in accordance with a different philosophical theory.”

        (b) “And now I must ask you a very elementary scientific question: what is the evidence for the “evolution of man”?…..The scientific fossil evidence for the “evolution of man” consists of: Neanderthal Man (many specimens); Peking Man (several skulls); the “men” called Java, Heidelberg, Piltdown (until 20 years ago), and the recent finds in Africa: all extremely fragmentary; and a few other fragments. The total fossil evidence for the “evolution of man” could be contained in a box the size of a small coffin, and it is from widely separated parts of the earth, with no reliable indication of even relative (much less “absolute”) age, and with no indication whatever of how these different “men” were connected with each other, whether by descent or kinship…..Now it is an interesting fact that Teilhard de Chardin was one of the “discoverers” of “Piltdown Man”-…. I do not have the evidence to say that Teilhard de Chardin consciously participated in the fraud; I think it more likely that he was the victim of the actual perpetrator of the fraud, and that he was so anxious to find proof for the “evolution of man” …. And yet in evolutionary textbooks printed before the discovery of the fraud, Piltdown Man is accepted as an evolutionary ancestor of man without question; ….Some time later this same Teilhard de Chardin participated in the discovery, and above all in the “interpretation,” of Peking Man.” Several skulls were found of this creature, and it was the best candidate that had been found until then as the “missing link” between modern man and the apes. Thanks to his “interpretation” …..”Peking Man” also entered evolutionary textbooks as an ancestor of man-in utter disdain of the uncontested fact that modern human bones were found in the same deposit……

        If you will examine objectively all the fossil evidence for the “evolution of man,” I believe you will find that there is no conclusive or even remotely reasonable evidence whatever for this “evolution.” …..Of all the fossil “men” only Neanderthal Man (and of course Cro-Magnon Man, who is simply modern man) seems to be genuine; and he is simply “Homo Sapiens,” no different from modern man than modern men are different from each other, a variation within one definite kind or species. Please note that the pictures of Neanderthal Man in evolutionary textbooks are the invention of artists who have a preconceived idea of what “primitive man” must have looked like, based on evolutionary philosophy!”

        I am sorry the quotes are so lengthy but if I cut it anymore we would lose the “flavour” of this comment – I have added it because it can (and has) formed a part of a lengthy Orthodox discussion on the nature of mankind. Patristic writings, if studied in detail, show us the nature of man is intrinsically linked to the account in Genesis. My (serious) point is that those who have a need to re-interpret Genesis, or seek numerous accounts and/or theories of what it means to be a human being, could do well to consider both the fragmentary data from evolutionists, and perhaps for Christians, a great need to better understand the teachings of the Church.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Didn’t have much to say to this comment, but I did like your recent comment on the BioLogos “Atonement” thread, which sums up my feelings exactly:

    if someone has critical comments to make regarding Orthodoxy on this central topic, it is imperative they commence with a sound understanding of Orthodoxy, and from there we may try and understand what they have to say. Even heretics put that effort in the past – nowadays, it seems all they need to do is say they are discussing evolution, do not like YEC, and suddenly they achieve legitimacy – imo they are naïve and unscholarly.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi John,

      I continue to feel astonished at some of the comments I read at times at BioLogos.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        I know what you mean. Some of the articles, as much as the comments, make the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem conservative and orthodox. (Topical issue – a car load of them almost ran me and the dog into the hedge yesterday, on their way to getting short shrift from my wife!)

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