Intertextual Adam

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.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Adam, Genealogical Adam, History, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Intertextual Adam

  1. RJDUFF says:

    I was so thrilled to read this post and see the recommendation for Greg Beale. I have A New Testament Biblical Theology sitting next to his Temple and the Churches Mission and Sailhamer’s Pentateuch as Narrative sitting together on my shelf. I have only read the first half of the former–the part I was most interested in–but the latter two are right up there as books that have had the biggest influence on me and I’ve read each multiple times. I give out Beale’s paper in JETS which is the short version of his Temple book as often as I can. I wish he were more widely read. Without wading into the Genesis controversies he has so much to say that can inform those dialogues.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      You’ve read the same half I have then, Joel!

      When I ordered the book I didn’t notice the page count and was a bit daunted at the size of the package, but it’s all high value stuff. There seems to be a confluence of views in the newest iteration of Evangelical biblical theology that I find not only compelling but awe-inspiring. Sailhamer, Postell, Beale, Wright, Middleton, even Walton. And it ties in with older scholarship like Gordon Wenham. It’s come a long way since Graeme Golsdworthy!

      But then I’ve been interested in the continuity of Old and New Testaments for as long as I can remember. Glad you liked the piece.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Re-reading the last part of my post, I can see why Mark over at Peaceful Science seemed to suggest I was making Adam more crucial than Jesus. It does read a little that way, on reflection.

    However, I think the explanation lies in the understanding of how Jesus stands behind the whole Scripture as the mystery hidden within the Godhead, and revealed in the gospel. It’s all about him, for sure, as is the cosmos, but the narrative is set up as the tragedy of man created in his image, and it is that narrative of Adam that plays out until Jesus, at the Incarnation, becomes the new Adam and unites not only God and man, but (eventually) heaven and earth.

  3. WayneFair says:

    For what it’s worth I fully concur with your post.

    And, while not the main point, it inevitably leads my mind to another issue of grand and cosmic scale (and here I will expose my soft theological underbelly); I wonder and muse over this: Will the mission (work, effect) of the “last Adam” have less effect upon humanity than the first?

    Full(er) disclosure – I am a 63 year old ex-Calvinist pastor (I have an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary). I think for me the crux of the issue that led to my departure from Calvinism was “limited atonement”: IF Jesus, as the supreme Adam, effectually died for ALL – then a “4 point” Calvinism leads inexorably to (at least) a “hopeful universalism”.

    If I take at face value the scandalous proposition, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” (to mention but one of Paul’s allusions to the possible universal scope of salvation), I find myself entertaining something that seems worthy of being called “the Gospel” in the fullest and unsearchable sense of the word. Or, “where sin abounds, grace [really does] much more abound.”!

    I welcome any and all feedback on this. I hope this is not “theological baiting” – and am pretty confident this ancient and alternative eschatology will never (in this age) be fully resolved.

    Thanks again, Jon for your stimulating and provocative blog!

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Wayne, thanks for sharing your story.

    Limited atonement, so far as I know, isn’t universal in Calvinism. However, the real issue is universal salvation, and for some reason our times are pretty unique in having so many unwilling to countenance any being lost. It’s worth pondering why that should be, given that so far as I know major historical stream of Christianity embraced universalism. Is our generation that much more loving than others? Or culturally conditioned in some way?

    Anyway, in any theological scheme with perfect divine foreknowledge, there is a sense in which the scope of the atonement is limited to those who in fact are saved, however abundant the provision. If I throw a party for everyone, knowing in advance that only half a dozen will come, then I actually threw a party for half a dozen, however much food is left over.

    It seems to me that in an “Arminian” type system, one is dependent on human free will, making God’s task mainly a psychological one – how to persuade 100% of sinners to repent and believe – a problem when millions never hear it. The Televangelists seem to have the best angle on that one – “never mind the quality, feel the width!”

    Only in Reformed theology is universal salvation (if conditional on faith in Christ – and if not, why the gospel?) even plausible, because sovereign grace is considered effectual. If God wishes to save, he is not stymied by human rebellion. Why, then, wouldn’t he?

    So there seem to be a few different issues flying around. Firstly, we’d all like to think that the God of love is both powerful and willing to save, as well as it seeming fitting for the blight of sin to be fully reversed without remainder. On the other hand Paul in Romans 9 points out that God is glorified by his justice as well as his mercy.

    Then there are “all” passages like that juxtaposed with Adam’s seed in Romans 5, or “God wants all men to be saved…”. But you’ll be aware from John Owen and others how, grammatically speaking, “all” in Scripture is seldom absolute.

    And of course, balancing those are passages like Jesus saying he has lost none given to him “except the son of perdition,” his end times “sheep and goats” prophecy, Paul in Acts 24 looking for the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (which of course accorded with the expectations of his Jewish audience), the fate of apostates in Hebrews with no sacrifice remaining, and the second death and lake of fire of Revelation. Plus, of course, the exclusive claims of the gospel – ” Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

    Cumulatively, given universal salvation, those begin to look a bit like a bluff to scare people into the kingdom – which is arguably less divine than punishing the wicked.

    Myself, I see the judgements of God in Scripture and history, recall his great mercies, and try to leave the rest to him. Eli seems to have got that right (if little else): “He is Yahweh – he will do what seems good to him.”

  5. Robert Byers says:

    Good thread. In fact i thought when I first visited here that you questioned adams reality etc etc.
    Indeed even a non believer must think the Adam story was meant to explain to those ancient audiences the origin of all people. Indeed Noah restarts it.
    it simply means God only created two and not thousands and then stopped.
    its so logical to see a orighinal, non born, couple created.
    Yes the bible is clear that Adam/Eve were real. nothing makes sense without them being real.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Good thread. In fact i thought when I first visited here that you questioned adams reality etc etc.

    Thanks. As you’ll have seen my aim (amongst many other things) is to account for Adam within the world of history and science.

    Yes the bible is clear that Adam/Eve were real. nothing makes sense without them being real.

    For once I agree with you, not because belief in the literal understanding of early Genesis is some kind of touchstone for salvation, but because I believe the biblical narrative derives its cohesion from the beginning chapters (just as it assumes the existence and divinely-ordered history of Israel and the physical truth of Jesus). More posts on that theme in due course, I hope.

Leave a Reply