In a recent post, I critiqued “Old Adam” views of Genesis 2, mainly on biblical grounds. Rejecting such views either means embracing “No Adam” theories (including, of course, “Metaphorical Adam” theories), requiring a complete heterodox re-working of Jewish and Christian theology, which I won’t discuss here, or accepting a “Young Adam” within the last few thousand years.
It is not just Young Earth biblical literalism that favours such a conclusion. If nothing else, the YECs are right to see an historical core to the Genesis 2-11 narrative, the genealogies consciously linking Adam to the historical figure of Abraham, the recipient of God’s salvation promise, “the gospel announced in advance” (Galatians 3:8). To quieten any quibblers, I accept that Abraham, being a private individual, does not figure in contemporary inscriptions and so on. But his story, as in now well known, demonstrates so much cultural verisimilitude that whilst one might dismiss him as an invention, he is definitely not a timeless myth. Adam’s family, too, exhibits many cultural clues, and even his geographical location is described carefully, albeit cryptically to those living several millennia later. It’s history – or at least “proto-history.”
But here’s the rub – everyone taking a Recent Adam position, of whatever kind, has to deal with the demonstrated existence of men who are not recent, and particularly those fossil types of significantly different form to ourselves. The YECs back in the 1960s used to dismiss Neanderthals as ordinary men with serious pathologies, and Homo erectus as just a glorified ape. But with the increasing discoveries that even H. erectus had sophisticated intelligence, and probably language, the YECs have responded, characteristically, by blaming the Flood: either they were all aberrant descendants of Adam wiped out in the deluge, or they diversified afterwards. Either way their interbreeding with “us” is accepted from the genetic evidence, leaving a profound mystery of massive sub-species diversification and late intermarriage, all within a couple of thousand years. It’s the equivalent of finding a Polynesian island whose inhabitants have become Neanderthals since their ancestors migrated from Tahiti a few centuries ago.
At least Ancient Adam theories have the virtues both of concordance with the scientific evidence, and simplicity in placing Adam at the root of the entire tree of rational humans. I should mention again that these theories seem doctrinally mandatory for Roman Catholics au fait with science, for according to Ann Gauger Catholic dogma excludes any humans after Adam not descended from him. Another factor for Catholics is the incorporation into doctrine of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s belief that, since rationality is immaterial, the human soul must be intrinsically immortal – a characteristic closely linked in Catholic thought to the image of God. So if Neanderthals display, as they do, evidence of symbolic and even spiritual thought, we ought to meet them all on Judgement Day… and will they then be found to be good Catholics, unbaptized as they were?
As I noted in my previous article, I’m not bound by either RC doctrine or the philosophy of Aquinas, however excellent, but by the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. That principle does not entail that the Bible, written when Denisovans and Homo naledi were already fossils, has anything to say about ancient mankind. But as God’s word it might well give us some previously unnoticed guidelines.
With or without such scriptural guidelines, though, the thinking Christian cannot dismiss the theological conundrum of rational humans before Adam, and therefore also inevitably at the time of Adam, whether we’re thinking of the interbreeding sub-species with the sloping foreheads and brow ridges, or the “modern humans” known to have existed for 300,000 years as far from Eden as Morocco.
I think in this column I will simply raise the problems, seeking to answer them in another post. But note that the same question of the spiritual status of men before Adam arises whether you place Adam, as the Bible does, in the late Neolithic period, surrounded worldwide by sophisticated folks making colourful pottery, polishing axes and placing human burials under their megalithic monuments, or way back at the so-called cultural “Great Leap Forward” around 40,000 years ago. Even before that, there were crude symbolic art works, careful burial practices and technology that requires us to say it was created by “people,” not “animals.”
It’s a waste of time complaining, as some have done, that distinguishing Adam from others risks, or even embodies, racism. If you want a recent Adam (and I do) you have to explain recent, and ancient, non-Adams because they were simply there. Or (perhaps wisely) to shrug and leave the question to God. Genuinely human, but not invited into the garden? All made up, with nowhere to go?
To provoke your thought, though, let me remind you that in conventional Christian theology, we have always had to consider the question of those far-flung tribes whom we do believe to be descended from Adam, but who remained ignorant of the gospel of salvation – “without hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Is not the question of fallen humans “separated from the gospel” a far more troubling one than that of non-fallen rational people outside the garden of Eden? Yet that problem has been with us since Cain left home.
Neither does this question have anything to do with embracing evolutionary theory. Adam’s call to the garden was not a product of evolution, and whether his rational predecessors evolved by “natural” means, by divine saltation from a non-human precursor, or appeared by special creation ex nihilo, a recent Adam entails that they existed anyway. And if they existed, it ought to be possible to suggest what made them different from Adam, and what made them the same.
I’d be interested in any preliminary thoughts folks might have, before I start work on what the Bible actually says.