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Still in the Weeds on Human Origins

By December 16, 2011 No Comments

C. John Collins has taken on the important task of explaining who Adam and Eve were in view of evolutionary theory—which he accepts, at least in its broad outlines. More importantly, Collins wishes to instill in his readers a firm confidence in Adam and Eve as the historical “headwaters” of the human race, and so retain the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption. In other words, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? is an apologetic for the traditional view of Adam and Eve as the first human pair in light of evolutionary theory. Book cover I commend Collins for attempting to bring under one roof the truth of evolution as the proper paradigm for explaining human origins and the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The topic is timely, thorny, and absolutely unavoidable.

I see two audiences for this book. The main audience is those who share Collins’s doctrinal commitments but may be skeptical of, or hostile to, the Adam/ evolution debate. Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church of America (in which he is ordained). The document that governs their theological deliberations is the seventeenth-century Westminster Confession of Faith, which clearly stipulates a first couple. I commend Collins for the courage to engage this group in a conversation about evolution.

The other audience is a broader Christian one, already invested in and knowledgeable about this discussion, but not necessarily committed to Collins’s theological predispositions, and not pressured to conform to them.

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? may help the former audience by nudging them toward some openness to accepting scientific realities and addressing the theological ramifications. Those familiar with these sorts of delicate negotiations will quickly perceive where Collins goes out of his way to remind readers of his firm theological commitments.

In the long run, however, I am not convinced that all—or even most—of these readers will feel comfortable following Collins. Collins’s synthesis requires an ad hoc hybrid “Adam” who was “first man” in the sense of being either a specially chosen hominid or a larger tribe of early hominids (Collins is careful not to commit himself to either option). Although I am sympathetic to Collins’s efforts to blaze such a path (and he is not alone), I do not see how such an ad hoc Adam will calm doctrinal waters, since the Westminster Confession of Faith leaves no room for anything other than a first couple read literally from the pages of Genesis and Paul, and therefore entails a clear rejection of evolutionary theory.

Further, this type of hybrid “Adam,” clearly driven by the need to account for an evolutionary model, is not the Adam of the biblical authors. Ironically, the desire to protect the Adam of scripture leads Collins (and others) to create an Adam that hardly preserves the biblical portrait. Evolution and a historical Adam cannot be merged by positing an Adam so foreign to the biblical consciousness.

As challenging as Collins’s synthesis is for conservative Reformed readers, numerous obstacles exist for a broader readership of theologians, scientists, biblical scholars, and others who have circled around the block on these issues more than once. In my estimation, Collins’s efforts will not advance this discussion. It is evident that Collins’s assessment of the biblical and extrabiblical data is driven by a doctrinal position he feels compelled to defend, which leads him to numerous questionable conclusions, some of which, if presented in other intellectual contexts, would be summarily dismissed. I outline these problems below.

1. Ancient Near Eastern mythology. Collins stresses that ancient authors were under the conviction that they were writing about real people (which is debatable, but I leave that to the side). Curiously, Collins believes that we need to allow the intentions of these ancient authors to shape our own thinking about whether or not these literary figures actually were real people. But surely, what ancient authors intended does not determine historicity. If Collins’s defense of a historical Adam is rooted in such a claim, it is only a matter of time before he reaches his desired end. He need only point to Paul, who (and I agree with Collins here) assumed Adam was the first human, thus making further argumentation superfluous.

Collins finds support for the above notion in the work of the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, who claims that ancients tended to mythicize historical accounts (however minimally historical they might be), rather than simply conjuring up mythical stories out of whole cloth. I agree that “mythicized history” accounts well for the manner in which biblical authors spoke of their past (e.g., the “cosmic battle” theme that appears throughout the exodus story).

But Collins spends much time discussing the mythicized history of the flood story. This is a problem for two reasons. First, Collins apparently thinks that what holds for the flood story holds automatically for any part of the primeval history, including the Adam story. But this is not the case. To support his argument that the Adam story is mythicized history, Collins would have needed to focus on origins stories of the ancient Near East. But these origins stories can scarcely be considered “mythicized history.” What, after all, is the historical “core” of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which includes many well-known parallels to Genesis 1, or the creation of humans in Atrahasis, which bears striking similarities to Genesis 2–9? One cannot read these stories and extract from them a historical core to be used as support for a historical Adam.

Second, even though I would concur that a massive local flood around 2900 BC accounts for the existence of the flood accounts in Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and Genesis, this does not help us address whether the stories themselves have any historical value. The flood-event has been so mythicized in the written accounts that we can conclude only that they have no historical value whatsoever, other than reminding us of an ancient echo of a cataclysmic flood.

Stepping back from these details reveals a much deeper difficulty. Collins is appealing to ancient Near Eastern parallels to Genesis 1–11—the very texts that generated the historical problem of Genesis to begin with—to establish the historicity of Adam. This is a stunning move that, if taken seriously, amounts to a complete reorientation of biblical scholarship on this matter. The monumental impact and pressing hermeneutical and theological challenges of the ancient data cannot be credibly handled like this.

2. Second Temple Judaism. Collins catalogues how Paul’s Jewish contemporaries all understood Adam to be a real person, and I generally agree with his observations. But, as with his use of the ancient Near Eastern texts, Collins again presses this observation in a baffling direction. He somehow considers the Second Temple Jewish view of Adam to be evidence that should be included in our own deliberations over human origins. This is an inexplicably odd use of ancient sources. One can only ponder what would happen if we treated all ancient points of view in this manner. The Second Temple view of human origins is not part of the solution—it illustrates the very problem before us, the divide between ancient and modern ways of thinking of origins.

3. The view of other biblical authors. Collins claims that biblical authors all bear witness to Adam as a historical figure (e.g., the author of Chronicles and Luke’s genealogy), and so we should follow their lead. But here, too, what biblical authors thought about Adam (sparsely mentioned as he is) does not solve the problem—it exacerbates it.

We all know that the biblical view of origins and scientific models are in tension in many areas, not merely human origins. The whole point of this discussion is to address how we today, confronted with the compelling evidence for human evolution, can view that biblical metanarrative. Stating “the biblical view” of Adam is simply restating the problem, not solving it. Bringing ancient and modern views into conversation requires a willingness to explore hermeneutical and theological territory, not a mere rehearsal of biblical passages. Moreover, as I mentioned above, the hybrid “Adam” Collins leaves us with is most certainly not the Adam of these biblical authors, so it is not clear to me what is gained by this line of argumentation.

4. Scientific data. Collins makes a questionable move by implying that some debates in genomic studies implicitly support a single first pair of humans in relatively recent history (an ad hoc Adam of about 40,000 years ago) from whom all current humans are descended. Although I am neither a geneticist nor the son of a geneticist, Collins seems to dispatch mainstream genomic studies far too quickly in this regard, particularly for a readership with likely little means to evaluate the scientific literature. Also, the sources Collins cites (a 1997 study, years before the human genome was mapped; another study now five years old; an essay from a well-known Christian apologetics organization) would be viewed with suspicion by the mainstream scientific community.

Further, Collins argues that scientific studies on human origins must account for the apparently universal “intuitions” that the world is not as it should be. Since the biblical story of Adam and Eve “makes sense of these intuitions,” Collins asserts, science must also account for these intuitions when offering scientific models of human origins. I am sure scientists will want to weigh in on whether religious intuitions are the stuff of scientific investigations.

5. The biblical story. Collins insists that, contrary to common opinion, Adam is a prominent character in the biblical narrative. His catalogue of biblical passages, however, refers to the Garden story in general, not to Adam and Eve specifically—which actually undermines his point about Adam’s prominence. (After Genesis 5, Adam is mentioned only one other time in the Old Testament, in 1 Chronicles 1:1).

Further, the Adam that Collins finds typologically in the Old Testament is indeed prominent: Noah, Abraham, David, and others are “Adam figures.” But I fail to see why typological Adams require an historical antecedent. Moreover, these typological Adams do not fit the description of Paul’s Adam in Romans— the first human, cause of universal sinfulness and death. Collins does not address satisfactorily that the Adam needed to support the Christian metanarrative is absent from the Old Testament.

Collins has not arrived at a conclusion about Adam but has begun with one, and finds creative—but unconvincing—pathways through various scholarly terrains to support a first pair of some sort. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? offers a succession of “it’s possible” arguments: casting doubt, however minimal, on alternate positions is presented as counterargument and, ipso facto, as support for the possible plausibility of the traditional position. Such arguments will have little effect on those Christians who are seeking lasting solutions to a very real and pressing hermeneutical problem.

Peter Enns is a biblical scholar, teacher, and author. He is the author of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005). His book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Brazos) has just been released.