The Evolution of Adam: Moses, Paul, and Enns- Just Men of their Times

Many Christians debate how best to interpret the creation account in Genesis. Was it 6 literal days that took place about 6,000 years ago? Was it allegorical days a long time ago? Did God direct the process of evolution to bring about the diversity of animal life we see today? Did Adam and Eve really exist? All of these are questions that have been the source of numerous books and articles in recent years.

While there are a great variety of answers to these questions, most conservative Christians believe that Adam must be an historical figure of some kind. The source of their belief is that regardless of how one interprets Genesis, the New Testament teaches that Adam was the first man and the reason we are all born with original sin. In his book, The Evolution of Adam:What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Dr. Peter Enns disagrees. Or rather, he accepts that Paul believed Adam was the literal first man, but he doesn’t believe that this means that all Christians must believe it too.

Dr. Enns’ book sets out to explain what the Bible teaches about human origins. Since the Bible and evolutionary science explain human origins so differently, Dr. Enns’ goal in writing is to demonstrate that a synthesis between Christianity and evolution is possible and desirable (10). He believes that “[a] healthy theology is one that shows a willingness – even an expectation – to revisit ways of thinking and changing them when need be” (13). Dr. Enns explains his purpose this way:

I am arguing that our understanding of Adam has evolved over the years and that it must now be adjusted in light of the preponderance of (1) scientific evidence supporting evolution and (2) literary evidence from the world of the Bible that helps clarify the kind of literature the Bible is – that is, what it means to read it as it was meant to be read (13).

In looking at the various ways people have attempted to handle the differences between Christianity and evolution, Dr. Enns lays out four options:

  1. Accept evolution and reject Christianity.
  2. Accept Paul’s view of Adam as binding and reject evolution.
  3. Reconcile evolution and Christianity by positing a first human pair (or group) at some point in the evolutionary process.
  4. Rethink Genesis and Paul (18).

He then begins to explain why he believes that only the last option is a viable one. He believes that it is important to: “reevaluate what we have the right to expect from Genesis and Paul” (18) because “[u]nless one simply rejects scientific evidence (as some continue to do), adjustments to the biblical story are always necessary. The only question is what sorts of adjustments best account for the data” (15). Dr. Enns explains that “[d]eep Christian commitments lead one to read Paul and Genesis with utmost seriousness, but scientific sensibilities do not allow one to dismiss evolution” (17).

Most importantly, Dr. Enns maintains that:

[Paul’s] use of the Adam story, however, cannot and should not be the determining factor in whether biblically faithful Christians can accept evolution as the scientific account of human origins – and the gospel does not hang in the balance (20).

The Evolution of Adam is divided into two parts. Part one focuses on Genesis and part two on Paul. In part one, Dr. Enns makes three main points. First, the majority of the Old Testament was written after the Babylonian exile. Second, Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch were not written as history, but instead as a polemic against the surrounding cultures in an act of self-definition by the postexilic Israelites. Third, the story of Adam is therefore best understood as proto-Israel and was not meant in any way to be a story of universal origins.

According to Dr. Enns, most believers have a faulty understanding of Genesis and why it was written. As a result, they look to Genesis to answer questions that “it will not answer” (53). The first point that people need to understand is that Genesis was not written by Moses in the early days of the Israel’s national history. Instead:

[M]odern scholarship understands the Old Testament as a whole, and Genesis and the Pentateuch in particular, to be Israel’s statement of national self-definition in the wake of Babylonian captivity (586-539 BC) (19).

As a result:

The final form of the creation story in Genesis (along with the rest of the Pentateuch) reflects the concerns of the community that produced it: postexilic Israelites who had experienced God’s rejection in Babylon. … These stories were not written to speak of “origins” as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people (24).

Because of this, “Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena” (51). Dr. Enns believes that if we understand the correct genre of Genesis, then we will “hear Genesis in its ancient voice, not impose upon it questions it will not answer or burden it will not bear” (53). The proper category for Genesis is a polemic against the Mesopotamian stories of creation.

The discovery of creation and flood stories from the ancient Near East in the last couple of centuries have presented a challenge to biblical scholars in how to understand Genesis. Some have suggested that Genesis and the Mesopotamian stories have so much in common because of a shared cultural history, i.e., the events described in Genesis are actual history and the Mesopotamian stories are therefore non-inspired distortions of the actual history. According to Dr. Enns, the similarities between the creation and flood accounts in Genesis and other ANE literature are due to the biblical authors drawing on the Mesopotamian stories, such as Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, to define themselves and their God.

Dr. Enns is quick to point out that the Mesopotamian stories must be much older than Genesis because “[t]he polemical function of Gen. 1 requires that the Mesopotamian stories, whether written or oral, be older – otherwise there is nothing against which to polemicize” (172). He does not accept the idea that Genesis represents accurate history as opposed to the myths of their neighbors:

[A]ny thought of Genesis 1 providing a scientifically or historically accurate account of cosmic origins, and therefore being wholly distinct from the “fanciful” story in Enuma Elish, cannot be seriously entertained (58).

Dr. Enns does not believe that the authors of the Old Testament were particularly interested in giving historically accurate accounts. He cites alleged historical inaccuracies in Esther and Exodus (49) as well as internal inconsistencies in the creation and flood accounts (31) as evidence that the biblical authors were creative in their rewriting and reworking of their history. He also uses the Exodus account to illustrate his point that the Old Testament is not history as we would define it:

[T]he historical evidence for Israel’s presence in Egypt, the exodus, and the conquest of Canaan is somewhat sparse. … [T]he stories themselves are not blow-by-blow accounts of historical events. Rather, these narratives greatly embellished the events to serve another purpose … (77-78).

By “historical evidence” he means:

There is no positive, direct evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt or a massive departure of 600,000 men. … It stretches the imagination to think that a group that large, which then spent forty years wandering around the wilderness, would leave Egypt without a trace in either Egyptian literature or the archaeological record (174).

To summarize, Dr. Enns believes that Genesis (and most of the Old Testament) were written after the Babylonian exile. The creation and flood accounts are not history but rather polemics against the other Mesopotamian stories. And the biblical authors wrote to explain Israel’s place as God’s people not to explain the origins of all things (77).

In light of this, how then should we view Adam? Dr. Enns maintains that Adam is best understood as “proto-Israel” (82). What he means is that Adam is Israel’s history told in primordial time. Israel’s historical pattern of creation, fall, and redemption are illustrated in the story of Adam. He doesn’t believe that there actually was an Adam, an Edenic paradise, a deceitful serpent, or a fall from perfection. Rather, the whole of the creation and Adam stories are simply Israel’s explanation for their role as, and failure to be, God’s people. Even the seven days of creation reflect the pattern of temple worship instead of the other way around:

The creation story was written with Israel’s temple and the Sabbath rhythm in mind. The seven-day pattern of creation in Genesis 1 is not the source of the rhythm of Israel’s liturgical week. Rather, as with Adam, Israel’s seven-day pattern is brought into primordial time (88).

In the second part of The Evolution of Adam, Dr. Enns focuses on Paul and his view of Adam. He agrees that Paul believed Adam was the literal first man and the cause of sin and death in the world. However, he believes that Paul’s Adam is the result of creative handling of the Old Testament Scriptures driven by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, and it is not the result of straight exegesis. Furthermore, he believes that Paul was simply a man of his time whose understanding of human origins was colored by the time in which he lived (95). Lastly, regardless of what Paul believed about Adam, Dr. Enns does not believe that Paul is the final word on what contemporary Christians must believe concerning human origins nor that the gospel is at stake (110).

Dr. Enns’ first point is that Paul does not arrive at his view of Adam as first man and cause of original sin by “doing a ‘straight exegesis’ of the Adam story” (95). He points out that Paul seems to go beyond what the Old Testament actually says on the subject of Adam and sin:

Further, the Adam of Paul’s theology – as the explicit cause of human sinfulness and death – does not seem to be found in the Old Testament either. The Old Testament portrays humanity in general and Israel in particular as out of harmony with God, but the root cause of this condition is nowhere laid at Adam’s feet (99).

And

[W]hat Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians – or at least the way in which many Christians have understood Paul after Augustine (108).

Dr. Enns does not deny here the universality of sin and death. He just believes that:

Paul’s view of the depth of universal, inescapable human alienation from God is completely true, but it is also beyond what is articulated in the Old Testament in general or Genesis specifically (103).

Dr. Enns also points out that much of the emphasis on Adam as the cause of original sin comes not from Scripture, but from biblical scholars in the early medieval times (104). In particular he credits Augustine for formulating the doctrine of original sin as the “baseline that most Protestant Christians at least presume as the biblical teaching” (103). Dr. Enns prefers the interpretations of Theolphilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons in which:

[T]he garden story is not about a descent from a pristine, untainted original state of humanity (which is how the Adam story is popularly understood.) Rather, it tells the story of naïveté and immaturity on the part of Adam and Eve and the loss of childlike innocence in an illicit move to grasp at a good thing, wisdom, represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (104).

Read this way, the Adam story is both a wisdom story and a story of Israel’s exile. Dr. Enns prefers this approach because it supports his view of Adam as proto-Israel (107) and maintains an Israel-centered focus rather than a universal one (106). Because of the differences in interpreting Adam by biblical scholars, Dr. Enns believes that it is unwise to “cling too rigidly to any one approach” (107).

Dr. Enns next moves on to explain that Paul was simply a man of his time:

Nevertheless, as unique as Paul’s gospel was, he wrote as an ancient man and naturally held widely accepted views on a good number of things. However much he was guided by the Spirit of God to proclaim his gospel, as Christians confess, he was guided by the Spirit not as an empty vessel but as a first-century Jew (109).

And

The fact that biblical authors wrote these things down does not mean they are accurate descriptions of physical reality (descriptions of highest heaven, etc.) (109).

He goes on to explain what me means by this:

We can safely add other examples: Paul’s world did not include the Western hemisphere or the arctic poles; reproductive barrenness is solely the woman’s fault; the world was created by discreet acts of God in relatively recent history, not through an evolutionary process over millions and billions of years. … Most important, this would also include Paul’s understanding of humanity as created by God in a discrete act, not by a lengthy process that involved common descent. We are fully warranted in concluding that Paul shared with his contemporaries certain assumptions about the nature of physical reality, assumptions that we now know are no longer accurate (110).

Dr. Enns cautions believers to be careful not to make assumptions as to what inspiration means. To him, it most certainly does not mean that the ancient writers wrote without error:

If we begin with assumptions about what inspiration “must mean,” we are creating a false dilemma and will wind up needing to make torturous arguments to line up Paul and other biblical writers with modes of thinking that would never have occurred to them. But when we allow the Bible to lead us in our thinking on inspiration, we are compelled to leave room for the ancient writers to reflect and even incorporate their ancient, mistaken cosmologies into their scriptural reflections (110).

Interestingly, Dr. Enns takes a similar approach to whether or not Jesus attributed the authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses:

Jesus seems to attribute authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses (e.g. John 5:46-47). … I do not think that Jesus’s status as the incarnate Son of God requires that statements such as John 5:46-47 be understood as binding historical judgments of authorship. Rather, Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case (168-169).

Dr. Enns also points out that Paul frequently used Old Testament passages in ways that were not the obvious original meanings:

The principle that Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament is driven by his prior conviction of the lordship of the risen Jesus can be plainly seen in his use of Isaiah 49:8 (120).

According to Dr. Enns:

Paul does not feel bound by the original meaning of the Old Testament passage he is citing, especially as he seeks to make a vital theological point about the gospel (118-119).

It is Dr. Enns contention that “Paul’s handling of the Old Testament may raise questions in our minds about the nature of Scripture” (128). In spite of that:

[W]e cannot and should not assume that what Paul says about Adam is necessarily what Genesis was written to convey – any more than we should assume that what Paul says about Isaiah or Habakkuk is exactly what those authors had in mind, or that Jannes and Jambres actually were the names of Pharaoh’s magicians, or that a rock followed the Israelites through the desert (132).

Dr. Enns goes on to explain that while accepting evolution requires one to reinterpret Scripture (97) by moving past what Paul believed to be true about a literal Adam we do not lose the truth of the universality of sin and death only Adam as the cause of it:

Admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul’s Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined. A literal Adam may not be the first man and cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, but what remains of Paul’s theology are three core elements of the gospel: The universal and self-evident problem of death, the universal and self-evident problem of sin, the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ. These three remain; what is lost is Paul’s culturally assumed explanation for what a primordial man had to do with causing the reign of death and sin in the world. … Even without a first man, death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition. Everyone dies, and this hardly needs further elaboration. … And what the Judeo-Christian tradition calls sin is likewise as clear and present as the sky above … (137-138).

For those who equal the historicity of Adam with the historicity of Christ, Dr. Enns points out that for Paul Adam and Christ are not on “equal historical standing” (139):

Unlike Adam, Christ was not a primordial, prehistorical man known only through hundreds and hundreds of years of cultural transmission. The resurrection of Christ was a present reality for Paul, an event that had happened in Jerusalem about twenty-five years before he wrote Romans. … I am simply pointing out that Adam as disobedient primordial first man and Christ as obedient and raised-from-the-dead historical last man are not of the same historical category, even if Paul’s historical Adam represents an unquestioned historical reality for him. It is commonly argued that, as goes the historicity of Adam, so goes the historicity of Christ. I disagree and suggest that we need to move beyond that obstacle (139).

Dr. Enns goes on to add that the historic Reformed understanding of the theology of Romans (i.e., saved by works versus saved by grace) ought to be rethought. He gives an explanation of the New Perspective on Paul which sees Romans as a treatise on how Jew and Gentile can live together as the people of God. In other words, how could Gentiles be included in Israel? (140). This reworked view of Paul’s theology in Romans fits with Dr. Enns’ view of Paul’s purpose in his use of the Adam story:

Paul’s goal is to show that what binds these two utterly distinct groups together is their equal participation in a universal humanity marked by sin and death and their shared need of the same universally offered redemption. Paul’s Adam serves that goal (141).

Before moving on to his final chapter on how to go about synthesizing evolution and the Bible, Dr. Enns summarizes his understanding of Paul and Adam:

Paul invests Adam with capital he does not have either in the Genesis story, the Old Testament as a whole, or the interpretations of his contemporary Jews. His reading of the Old Testament is general is creative, driven both by hermeneutical conventions of the time and – most importantly – by his experience of the risen Christ. Hence, Christians who take Paul’s theology with utmost seriousness are not also bound to accept Paul’s view of Adam historically. How we today explain the origin and development of human life does not affect our acceptance of the reality of the human plight of sin and death or of God’s unexpected, universal solution (149).

Dr. Enns concludes his book, The Evolution of Adam, by laying out nine theses that form the foundation for how contemporary Christians should view Adam today in light of evolution. The first thesis, Literalism is not an option, is fairly self-explanatory:

One cannot read Genesis literally – meaning as a literally accurate description of physical, historical reality – in view of the state of scientific knowledge today and our knowledge of ancient Near Easter stories of origins. Those who read Genesis literally must either ignore evidence completely or present alternate “theories” in order to maintain spiritual stability (150).

Dr. Enns does not believe that literalism is merely outdated. According to him:

Literalism is not just an outdated curiosity or an object of jesting. It can be dangerous. A responsible view of the biblical stories must account for the scientific and archaeological facts, not dismiss them, ignore them, or – as in some cases – manipulate them (150).

Thesis 2: Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different “language.” They cannot be reconciled, and there is no “Adam” to be found in an evolutionary scheme (150).
Dr. Enns reiterates that even though Paul considered Adam to be the first man doesn’t mean we have to find a way to incorporate a literal Adam into an evolutionary theory (152).

Thesis 3: The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way (152).

Thesis 4: There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel’s story (153).

In other words, the story of Adam is not an account of universal origins.

Thesis 5: The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity (155).

Thesis 6: God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him (155).
In other words:

One can believe that Paul is correct theologically and historically about the problem of sin and death and the solution that God provides in Christ without also needing to believe that his assumptions about human origins are accurate. The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam (156).

Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors – whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment (156).

Thesis 8: The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear of losing what it offers (159).

Here Dr. Enns writes that the Reformation idea of sola Scriptura needs to be rethought. His suggestion is that:

Creating ecclesiastical and academic cultures where at the very least the nature of biblical authority can be seriously discussed, if not conceived of differently, is central to moving beyond the uneasy and hostile relationship between evolution and some examples of Christianity (160).

Thesis 9: A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations (160).

Specifically, Dr. Enns does not believe that it does justice either to Scripture or to evolutionary science to attempt a hybrid explanation like that of a group of hominids adopted by God to be in the image of God (15).

In addition, Dr. Enns envisions a need to rethink various theological issues including the origin of humanity, the origin and nature of sin, and death:

Although … sin and death are universal realities, the Christian tradition has generally attributed the cause to Adam. But evolution removes that cause as Paul understood it and thus leaves open the questions of where sin and death have come from. More than that, the very nature of what sin is and why people die is turned on its head. Some characteristics that Christians have thought of as sinful — for example, in an evolutionary scheme the aggression and dominance associated with “survival of the fittest” and sexual promiscuity to perpetuate one’s gene pool — are understood as means of ensuring survival. Likewise, death is not the enemy to be defeated. It may be feared, it may be ritualized, it may be addressed in epic myths and sagas; but death is not the unnatural state introduced by a disobedient couple in a primordial garden. Actually, it is the means that promotes the continued evolution of life on this planet and even ensures workable population numbers. Death may hurt, but it is evolution’s ally (160).

In conclusion, Dr. Enns believes that it is necessary for us to synthesize evolution and Christianity so that we may “deliver a viable faith to future generations” (161). He believes that such a synthesis may be a great boon to Christianity:

As for Christians, perhaps evolution will eventually wind up being more of a help than a hindrance. Perhaps it will lead Christians to see that our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself (162).

And

Working through the implications of evolution may remind Christians that trusting God’s goodness is a daily decision, a spiritually fulfilling act of recommitment to surrender to God no matter what (162).

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Adam: Moses, Paul, and Enns- Just Men of their Times

  1. MikeB says:

    Rachel,
    Thanks for your detailed overview of Enns new book.

    I was not aware that Enns also was skeptical about the Exodus. Enns seems to be willing to throw out just about everything but Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    One has to wonder if a non-believer read through this review/the book why they would consider Christianity.

    MikeB

  2. Rachel Miller says:

    Mike~ Thanks. Enns actually starts and Genesis and works his way through all of the OT books (practically) for why they can’t be literal history. It’s pretty depressing by the time you get to the end of that section.

  3. Jilly says:

    Rachel,
    I would have to agree with Mike on two accounts. (1) You really summarized well, thank you. (2) Why consider Christianity when one cannot take the Bible in it’s entirety to be actual/literal?

    It rises to the surface and shows me, after all the heat, that what we have is a whole lot of men’s stance and interpretation, education, culture, enviornment and so on…to go on. He does not present scientific proof, of what I have read.

    What is your relationship to the author?
    Jilly H.

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