For Christians (and Jews and others) seeking to maintain the historicity of a first human couple, Adam and Eve, there are really three broad ways to proceed. My aim here is to cast doubt on one of them, from a biblical standpoint, and so I’ll break the usual pattern of such discussions by stating my own position first, and then leaving it to one side!
One view that has gained traction since, perhaps, the middle of last century is the so-called Homo divinus model. This comes in several flavours, but all take seriously the many strands of evidence, both scientific and historical, that biologically human beings have been around for a very long time indeed. Yet they hold that Adam is an historical, not a palaeontological, figure. And so as C. S. Lewis speculated, and as the conservative Bible scholar Derek Kidner put in his 1967 Tyndale commentary, Adam and Eve could have been taken from an existing human race, and in some way (whether by creative act or revelation, or both) made capable of personal relationship with Yahweh in the sacred space of the garden of Eden.
Many of the residual problems of such a view were solved by the rather belated appreciation of the nature of genealogical descent, with reference to the first couple, by David Opderbeck in 2010. Through scientific modelling it had become clear that a first couple living five or six thousand years ago, or more, whose offspring intermarried with the existing race, would almost inevitably become universal common ancestors of everyone alive today, and indeed even in Jesus’s time.
Joshua Swamidass produced a popular scientific treatment of this work at the end of 2019, and a month or so later (not coincidentally) my own book was published, intended to weave together both the scientific history of the human race, and a thoroughgoing biblical theology, using the Genealogical Adam paradigm. Needless to say, mine is the definitive treatment of the historical Adam and Eve in relation to history, sin and salvation – or that’s my story!
Strict biblical literalism has always, of course, been an option for the Bible believer. Among educated Christians though, particularly Evangelicals, it had almost entirely been abandoned until the publication in 1961 of Morris and Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, which introduced the world to “flood geology” and “creation science.” Its biggest problem was, and remains, that it has to reject the findings of nearly every branch of mainstream science that deals with the past, often seeing them as some kind of conspiracy against the Bible.
I’d be the first to grant that Darwinian evolutionary theory has metaphysical foundations that consciously or unconsciously seek to exclude God – the Bible, however, being only a subordinate target. But old-earth science pre-dates Darwin by several decades, and was easily assimilated by most conservative Christians in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, perhaps as the negative implications for faith of an increasingly totalitarian Neodarwinian establishment have become clearer, and in the absence of an adequate alternative, Young Earth Creationism came to dominate conservative evangelicalism, particularly in America. After all, if it seems that the only alternatives are to reject the word of God or reject current science, a Christian’s choice is clear.
However I would argue, strongly, that that is not the choice, provided the science of the past is interpreted dispassionately, and if adequate scholarship is brought to the Bible on matters of genre, inspiration, and so on.
At around the same time as I was conceiving my book, a third alternative became available – and it’s this one I want to critique. Before people started to view the problem genealogically, it was claimed that the science proved, unequivocally, that the human race could never have numbered only a single couple. Ergo Adam and Eve must either be interpreted allegorically, or abandoned altogether, despite the serious theological consequences.
As I mentioned in a comment on a recent post, in 2018 Dr (now Prof) Richard Buggs visited the BioLogos forum, and together with Joshua Swamidass (typically working to support an hypothesis opposed to his own!) and Stephen Schaffner engaged in a long and highly technical thread refuting Dennis Venema’s claim of the impossibility of a “two person bottleneck.” They used the standard tools of population genetics, and proved their point (and BioLogos, though not Venema if I remember, changed its sceptical position) that a single couple “bottleneck” is possible. However, they found that such a bottleneck, and therefore a genuinely monogenetic Adam and Eve, would have to have lived more than 200,000 years (if I remember aright) in the past.
More of less simultaneously, my ID acquaintance Ann Gauger, together with Ola Hössjer and Colin Reeves, came to a similar result using other methods, though their preferred date was 500,000 years ago, conveniently around the time of origin of Homo sapiens. This date allows for Neanderthals and Denisovans to be divergent races of the species, so that the evidence of interbreeding between them in the fossil record would involve only races of “true” (meaning Adamic) mankind.
William Lane Craig, a philosopher and apologist rather than a scientist, wrote a book supporting this “old Adam” view, and judging by the correspondence I had with him about my own book before publication, it was the clean separation of man-in-God’s-image from the non-human world that makes him favour this rather than my genealogical Adam and Eve idea.
However, the problems I see with this view – apart from its vulnerability to any future scientific discoveries of intelligent species before this time, or of implausible rates of human spread across the world from Adam and Eve – are biblical. In Ann Gauger’s case, the criteria she wants to meet, as a Roman Catholic, are what Catholic doctrine requires as a “minimum standard.” According to her recent book, the relevant criteria are:
- Monogenesis from Adam and Eve as a single couple
- An immortal soul
- No “true man” on earth after Adam not descended from him
Apparently, Catholicism is comfortable with evolutionary origins for Adam’s body, since God is free to create from existing matter (as indeed Genesis 2 affirms), though my reading of Gauger is that she, like Joshua Swamidass in his Genealogical Adam and Eve, affirms the special creation of Adam and Eve. But the doctrine of the special creation of every human, eternal, soul at conception makes a clear demarcation, in Catholic Thomistic thinking, between man and animal.
An ancient Adam clearly meets these doctrinal constraints, which are not far from those I assume to be held by Protestants like Craig or Buggs. But my criteria are not based on papal pronouncements or philosophical theological convictions about the nature of humanity, but upon what the Bible actually teaches. And my problem with the ancient Adam paradigm is that in several ways it establishes systematic theology at the expense of Genesis itself, which is a narrative containing more than just Adam and Eve. Genesis 2-11 is a single unit describing, albeit it in epic language, a history culminating in Abraham, the man called by God to initiate God’s salvation plan. (I exclude Genesis 1 from this narrative because creation is divine action, not history – but also because, in my view, it was composed by Moses as a phenomenological account of the world around us, and a theological account of the universe as God’s temple.)
So the first problem we encounter is Adam as a gardener, at a time when no evidence exists for any lifestyle other than hunter-gathering. This problem is compounded by the next episode, the murder of Abel by his brother in the second generation. The cause was jealousy over a sacrifice (not known before the Neolithic) of Abel’s flocks (not known before the Mesolithic) and Cain’s crops (once more Neolithic at the earliest). Once exiled, Cain goes and builds a city, apparently 500,000 years before the first known city, Eridu – we are in the territory of Graham Hancock and ancient Atlantis! Within a handful of generations, Cain’s descendants have invented the harp, tent-dwelling herding, and metalworking. I venture to suggest that to find a bronze arrowhead or sheep-bones in an Acheulean site would be the equivalent of finding a Precambrian rabbit.
Sound interpretation of Genesis does not require a worldwide flood, and an ancient Adam gives us, I suppose, a choice of many more historically massive floods ten generations after Adam than a more recent Adam does, from the flooding of the Mediterranean or the Black Sea to the inundation of the English Channel. But if we are equating Adam with the first modern human, we ought to be looking somewhere down in Africa, not in Odessa or Bognor Regis, and the ark is contemporaneous with hypothetical log rafts, not shipbuilding.
A few more generations (still, then, in the 1/2 million year old time-frame), and we must fit in the tower of Babel incident. This works pretty well with the known third millennium BC civilization of Mesopotamia, but not with the deep Palaeolithic. And of course, then we have the table of nations, which reflects the known bronze-age geopolitical map, suggesting that the nations became fixed in stone for the next half-million years – a clear absurdity.
But now we’re getting into the Bible’s more historically comparable frame, and after the Flood, just nine generations take us to Abraham, who came from an historical metropolis, Ur, kept camels, witnessed Sodom’s destruction plausibly dated to 1800-1700 BC, and whose tomb may be visited today in Hebron.
It is the genealogies that define Genesis 1-11 as history, and however many generations may be skipped in biblical convention, compressing around 25,000 generations into 20 is entirely meaningless. This is especially so because some importance is given in the Genesis proto-history to the line of Seth holding more firmly to Yahweh than Cain’s descendants down to Abraham. But the Table of Nations is all about the branches off that favoured family line. One may not accept my Genealogical Adam theory, but the science behind it is sound – despite the different nations and races, the human species mixes thoroughly every few thousand years. It is simply inconceivable that Abraham’s ancestor Seth, if 500,000 years before Abraham, was not also the ancestor of everyone in the world – as would be Cain, of course.
The nature of inspiration is another big problem for ancient Adam. Genesis 1-11 has both cultural and direct literary connections with the early myths of Mesopotamia. It is well known, for example, that the flood narratives of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis and Ziusudra share many features, including even the raven and the dove. This is easily explained if they reflect a shared tradition of actual events a few centuries before, but no such tradition could last 500,000 years, and if it did it would be universal, not just in the ANE. If Adam lived back in the Palaeolithic, his story, and that of the next 10 chapters of Genesis, would have to be the product of divine dictation, rather than inspired interpretation of history – a dictation that, misleadingly, sets the whole narrative in a bronze-age world when, it would seem, an entirely mythic treatment would have served better. Such a view of inspiration is Islamic, not Jewish.
But my last objection is a soteriological one. Ancient Adam places the whole creation of mankind, his innocent communion with God, and his fall into perdition at the very dawn of our species, so long ago that no human remains have so far been found less than 200,000 years later than that, and those mere fossilised fragments. The apostle Paul tells us that, until Christ, the gentiles were “without hope, and without God, in the world,” and “by nature, children of wrath.” For the Jews we might put the covenant of hope back to Moses or Abraham, but scarcely before.
This means that salvation by faith has, according to the Bible, only been available to mankind for 2000-4,000 years. If ancient Adam is true, then God did nothing whatsoever to redeem Adam’s fall for over a hundred times that long. Peter assures us that “God is not slow, as some count slowness,” but still many Christians have wondered at the time between Adam, Abraham and Christ even on a YEC chronology. In my book, I have pointed out that six thousand years, sandwiched between a physical creation 12 billion years old, and a new spiritual one of eternal duration, is indeed short. Perhaps, on my model, that was the time necessary for the genealogy of Adam, and hence his sin, to become universal and the atonement of Christ both necessary and all-embracing.
But on any reckoning leaving 25,000 or so generations in their sin does seem inordinately slow. And even if we postulate that, in his mercy, God might apply the blood of Christ to that vast, lost multitude posthumously and raise them to eternal life in the age to come, that would appear to make the concept of salvation by faith a mockery. In what could all our Palaeolithic forebears have put their trust before law, covenant and promise?
So I have to conclude that, for me, a Paleolithic Adam is a non-starter, even if proving its scientific viability is a significant victory over scientific hubris. In my book, I speculate on the possible spiritual character of human beings (of, perhaps, a number of separate species) before an historical Adam in what was, probably, the Chalcolithic period. Before Adam, remember, there was no sin – but no intimate communion with God either, and no vision of eternity. There might very well have been a primitive natural religious awareness, though, which I take to be a good gift from God when he created them. And who knows – if we’re not wedded to an evolutionary model perhaps that creation was of a single couple, 500,000 years ago, as the genetics suggests.
In that case, though, we must be careful not to slap the names “Adam and Eve” on them.