Skip to content

Book Review: “In Quest of the Historical Adam”

In Quest of the Historical Adam is one of several books[i] published in recent years that attempts to grapple with recent findings in genetics that directly question the historicity of the Judeo-Christian belief that all mankind originated with a single pair of humans as described in Genesis. William Lane Craig’s contribution is not entirely unique, but its depth of theological analysis, paired with Craig’s extensive overview of human evolution, makes it a significant contribution. Craig is a Visiting Scholar in Philosophy in the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. He is a Wesleyan theologian who has published extensively on such topics as Natural Theology, Christian apologetics, the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God, and the historical plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus. He also believes that evolutionary biology is compatible with Christian belief, something that soon becomes apparent when reading this book.

The opening chapter of the book, titled “What is at Stake,” sets the parameters of the book. Many Christians, when confronted with potential evidence that Adam may not have been a real, historical figure, immediately discount the evidence, assuming that if there were no historical Adam, the Bible and Christian belief are invalidated. Craig confronts the issue directly, and does identify some Christian beliefs that would fall, but ultimately does not consider the loss of Adam as an historical person to be fatal to Christianity. The doctrine of original sin is invalidated without an historical Adam, a fatal flaw for some Christians, although maybe not for Adventists. Adventist theologians, although largely rejecting the doctrine of original sin, do suggest we have inherited Adam’s disposition to sin (just not his guilt),[ii] which still means loss of an historical Adam would require some theological adjustments. Craig also admits that his treatment of the topic will likely make neither traditional nor revisionist theologians happy, but he believes an open and honest approach is essential.

Of potentially more serious concern is what the loss of an historical Adam could do to the deity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is considered to be fully man and fully God, meaning He had full knowledge of truth when He lived on this earth. Jesus refers to Adam several times in His teachings, and if these references are clearly about an historical person, rather than a “literary” Adam, they could be considered as proof that Adam did exist. So, if it could be proven that Adam could not have existed, then Jesus would have been wrong, and being fully God, how could he make such a mistake? It could be argued, according to Craig, that Bible is only to be considered factual in its theological content, and that when it is wrong about historical or scientific facts, it is only because God speaks through humans who wrote the Bible in their own words and in the then understood historical and scientific contexts. In other words, a proper view of inspiration would expect writers, with no personal knowledge of factually accurate history or science, to make factual errors, but because everyone at that time held those things to be true, Jesus Himself might also have couched His teachings in the same generally accepted context.

The main thrust of Craig’s approach is summed up well here:

The temptation to come up with new interpretations of the text that are scientifically acceptable may prove irresistible to those committed to biblical authority. We should nonetheless resist such concordist impulses in favor of trying to understand the text as the original author and his audience would have understood it. When we do, we may well find that Gen 1-11 belongs to a literary genre that does not support a literal interpretation.[iii]

With that in mind, Craig spends Part 2 of the book using Biblical data alone to determine whether the writers of the Bible intend Genesis 1-11 to be literal history, or a more mythical/figurative presentation where Adam need not be a literal, historical figure? Before getting to the heart of that question Craig spends considerable space defining what myths are, which is important, because even a myth can contain strong elements of historical truth, if not theological truth. After considering a variety of definitions of what a myth is, Craig settles most strongly on William Bascom’s definition which, in part, says this:

Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. They are accepted on faith; they are taught to be believed; and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred; and they are often associated with theology and ritual.[iv]

Craig considers Bascom’s definition to be ambiguous when it says “truthful accounts of what happened,” as this does not distinguish between literal truths and deep truths presented in a figurative guise. He also emphasizes that myths are “traditional stories handed down from generation to generation”[v] and that they are often part of an oral tradition, which the Genesis account clearly was until it was written down at a much later time. In an oral tradition the myth is open to change over time, often in response to changes in the way the community views and uses the myth. A myth can even be found in alternative forms, but once written down becomes solidified. Lastly, myths contain fantastical elements which need not be logical or coherent, a characteristic that may be troubling to the modern mind.

Craig spends two chapters answering the question, “are the primeval narratives of Genesis 1-11 myth?” Craig first establishes that these first eleven chapters are in a narrative format, albeit from multiple sources, rather than being written solely by Moses. He loosely adheres to Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis, identifying it as the paradigm of contemporary source theories, while also recognizing the difficulty of identifying each source in the text. Genesis 1-11 is clearly a sacred narrative derived from a combination of oral and written sources that was believed to be true by the Israelites.

What sets Genesis 1-11 apart from other contemporary narrative myths of the time is the concept of a single God creating and ruling over all. All other ANE (ancient Near East) myths are polytheistic, and nature itself is infused with Gods who are responsible for natural events. The Hebrew narrative desacralizes the world, removing natural phenomena from control by individual deities, but Craig argues this does not mean the Hebrew narrative demythologizes the story. In other words, desacralizing the narrative does not imply that the story must be taken literally, nor does it imply that the flow of time in the narrative is literal. Time is more likely intended to be relative, as is typical of primaeval narratives.

Craig takes considerable space confronting the question of whether the Biblical narrative borrows from other ANE myths. Although some evidence suggests possible borrowing, and some theologians have even suggested that ANE myths might have borrowed from the Genesis narrative, Craig concludes that there is no solid evidence of extensive borrowing. Similarities may be more due to awareness of the other myths and common concerns than direct borrowing. Of greater interest is that the Genesis narrative establishes certain cultural practices such as animal husbandry and viticulture, and established the cultic practice of Sabbath observance, which arises directly from Genesis 1 with God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.

Craig saves the strongest evidence that Genesis 1-11 represents myth by recounting the numerous fantastic and inconsistent elements of the stories. The list is long and such elements pervade the narrative. A few examples include the rivers of Eden, which have no modern equivalent as described; the fantastically long lifespans of the antediluvians, parallels of which are found in other ANE myths; Noah’s flood with its various fantastical elements; and the implied age of the earth, if the time in the narrative is taken literally. All of these, and many more elements, suggest that Genesis 1-11 is a typical myth.

It needs to be remembered that the term myth does not mean that real individuals and historical events are not represented. Craig concludes, like many other Biblical scholars that Genesis 1-11 represents mytho-history, or for those averse to the implications of the word “myth,” proto-history. Central to his argument is the repeated use of what he refers to as the tôlədôt formula, the Hebrew word tôlədôt meaning “begetting.” Genealogies pervade Genesis 1-11, implying that the narrative is intended to be treated as a kind of history, regardless how accurate or inaccurate it might be. Why the patriarchs’ life spans are so long remains a mystery, but the patterns of the numbers suggest some kind of contrivance, and it is intriguing that ANE king lists have equally baffling ages, albeit even more fantastical, with some of their kings having ages well in excess of 20,000 years.

To the big question, did the Israelites believe their mytho-historical account to be true, Craig says yes, but he also takes to task the traditional position that they believed it all to be literally true. He does this by both considering how surrounding ANE cultures viewed their myths and how Israelites viewed theirs. He contends that the physical descriptions of the cosmos common to all the ANE cultures were intended to be figurative descriptions. He believes we give too little credit to ancient peoples’ understanding of the cosmos. Although they did not have the understanding we do today, he claims they did not believe in a literal solid dome above the earth separating the earth and water below from a vast ocean of water above. Astronomical observations and calculations of the ancient Babylonians clearly show they did not accept a literal dome on which the stars were embedded and were open to a more complex arrangement.

Craig summarizes:

If Gen 1–11 functions as mytho-history, then these chapters need not be read literalistically. Some of the accounts, such as the origin and fall of man, are clearly metaphorical or figurative in nature, featuring as they do a humanoid deity incompatible with the transcendent God of the creation story. Others, as we have seen, would be fantastic, even to the author himself, if taken literally. Since all we have of the primaeval history is the one written account, it is very difficult to know, given the lack of consensus concerning the tradition history of these accounts, the degree to which these narratives exhibit the plasticity and flexibility characteristic of myth. . . On the other hand, the prima facie inconsistencies between the order of events in the creation account and the account of the creation of mankind suggest that the pentateuchal author would not have been overly concerned about relating events in a somewhat different order, so long as the central theological truths are faithfully expressed. Perhaps the author did not even take his own account to be static and final, but rather saw it as a plastic and flexible account, capable of retelling in different ways and capable of adapting to new challenges.[vi]

In the concluding chapter of part 2, Craig scrutinizes the references to Adam that appear in the New Testament (NT), with special attention paid to statements by Jesus. The major question is whether the NT, and notably Jesus, recognizes an historical Adam, or just a literary Adam:

Many scholars have attempted to distinguish between the literary Adam and the historical Adam. Unfortunately, the distinction is not always clearly conceived. The literary Adam is a character in a story, specifically the stories of Gen 2–3. The historical Adam is the person, if such there be, who actually existed, the actual individual that the stories are allegedly about.[vii]

This is an important distinction, as noted above, because if the NT writers and Jesus refer to only the literary Adam as a way to teach spiritual truths, there would be no need to accept the existence of an historical person named Adam. In his survey of the uses of Adam in the NT, Craig concludes that many references can plausibly be just literary in nature, including references made by Jesus. However, there are cases where both the Gospel writers (e.g., the genealogy of Luke 3) and Paul appear to reference an historical Adam. In particular, the imputation of Adam’s sin to all humanity requires an historical Adam, if that is indeed Paul’s teaching. Some scholars maintain that Paul does not teach such a doctrine, even though such is assumed by many who read Romans. There is no mention of the doctrine of original sin in Romans 1-3, where Paul develops the concept of universal sin and condemnation. Craig and others also call into question the belief that there was no death before the Fall, something which is not inherently taught in Genesis. Most scholars now see that Genesis 3:22 (And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”) implies that humans were mortal beings from the beginning, otherwise why would limiting access to the tree of life lead to their death? Thus, Adam’s choice to sin led to all mankind losing access to immortality not by some change in human nature, but by loss of access to the tree of life. Still, since a number of references in the NT (mostly Paul’s writings) treat Adam as an historical figure, Adam must have existed in Paul’s mind, the question now becoming when?

Part 3 of the book covers the scientific evidence for the historical Adam. Craig begins by giving a broad overview of geological, paleoanthropological, and archeological time scales. His focus is on the Quaternary period of geologic history which began 2.5 mya (million years ago). He briefly lays out the scientific evidence for the existence of such a timescale and then summarizes the evidence for human and pre-human existence during this period and the evolution of man from primates. Many traditionalists will find this portion of the book disconcerting and overwhelming. Craig simply accepts the well-established scientific evidence and as Part 3 of the book progresses, lays out his theory of when Adam existed. He assumes that Adam, rather than literally being the first man, was a member of a population of “modern” humans from the paleolithic who became the ancestor to all humans today.

Why does Craig place Adam so far back in time? Given the genetic diversity of the current human population, most population geneticists consider it impossible to consider all humans having been derived from a single pair of humans. If such were the case, genetic diversity estimates from modern and ancient DNA would reveal a bottleneck, a period of greatly reduced genetic diversity, caused by the human population at that time being so small. There has been no such bottleneck identified in the last 500 kya, let alone the last 6,000 years. A few population geneticists, however, have suggested it might be possible for a single pair of humans to be our ancestors if pushed far enough back in time. So, Craig’s main goal in Part 3 is to push back the origin of Adam as far back in time as possible, to make the development of genetic diversity from a single human pair more feasible. To do this he uses our existing knowledge of human evolution to infer a point at which the genus Homo was sufficiently developed neurologically to support human personhood. In the search, Craig suggests the following criteria:

·       abstract thinking, the ability to act with reference to abstract concepts not limited in time or space

·       planning depth, the ability to formulate strategies on the basis of past experience and to act on them in a group context

·       behavioral, economic, and technological innovativeness

·       symbolic behavior, the ability to represent objects, people, and abstract concepts with arbitrary symbols, vocal or visual, and to reify such symbols in cultural practice[viii]

In the remainder of Part 3 Craig exhaustively examines evidence from paleoanthropology, paleoneurology, archaeology, and ancient DNA for evidence of ancient humans who could support human personhood. After examining data from artifacts, human skeletal remains, important genes in early human DNA, and ancient dwellings and artwork, Craig concludes that all three recent branches of Homo, including H. sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, and Denisovans are all sufficiently modern to be candidates, but that the ancestor to these three is more likely to represent the location for Adam. He finally settles on H. heidelbergensis, which is often considered to be the most recent common ancestor to the above three modern Homo species. This places Adam from 600 kya (thousand years ago) to possibly a little more than 750 kya, and he may even have lived in the Near East in the biblical site of the Garden of Eden.

When ancient DNA samples from before 700 kya are obtained, it may be possible that such a bottleneck will be observed, which would be consistent with a single founding pair. Even should such results never surface, our ancestry from an historical Adam could be viewed from another perspective. As suggested by S. Joshua Swamidass, The historical Adam may not be our “genetic” ancestor, but he could be our “genealogical” ancestor.[ix] In short, over the many generations since Adam, assuming he was alive over 750 mya, most of us would not have any DNA actually inherited from Adam, since every generation the descendants share only half their DNA with each parent, and this quantity drops again by half with each new generation. Thus, I share, on average, 25% of my DNA with my paternal grandfather, and only 12.5% with my paternal great-grandfather, and so on. After a few hundred generations pass, very little of the DNA, if any, from a specific ancient ancestor will be found in my genome. I still, however, am related to individuals from way back then by genealogy, and if I kept a careful family tree, could identify each of those ancestors. Similarly, I could be genealogically related to Adam, as could all other humans today, even though most of us have none of his DNA.

For those Christians who view the creation narrative in Genesis as figurative and have accepted a more theistic creation model consistent with the teachings of evolutionary biology, but who also consider that Paul’s teachings on the origin of sin require an historical Adam, Craig’s proposal may be useful. Locating Adam as a member of H. heidelbergensis over 500 kya who may have represented the last common ancestor to H. sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans certainly requires other adjustments to theology, but at least preserves the mytho-historical Adam, father of all “mankind.” This most obviously means considering Adam an outgrowth of evolution. Adam represents the point at which humans and God intersect. God chooses to bestow special responsibilities and privileges on Adam who is to represent God’s image to all creation.

Craig also explores the implications that such an ancient historical Adam and Eve have in relation to the other humans around them, suggesting that even Neanderthals and Denisovans might be considered in the image of God, and that their salvation through Christ may also be possible. In Craig’s dualist theology he envisions the possibility that God chose Adam and Eve out of a small population of early hominins, gave them the attributes needed for rational thought, along with a soul and the free will to choose right from wrong. They chose to commit the “original” sin and thus were guilty and subject to spiritual death, but not physical death, because their bodies were already mortal.

Craig’s proposal for rescuing the historical Adam likely introduces too many theological dilemmas for most Adventists, not the least of which is that we don’t accept a dualist theology. In spite of this, I think it is valuable to consider his proposal and use it as a starting point in confronting the mounting problems that confront Christianity as more and more scientific data confirm evolutionary theory, including that humans have evolved from primates and that the world and humanity are much older than just 6,000 years. If these findings from science are indeed true, and the evidence is so overwhelming at this point that it is considered impossible, according to a growing number of theologians, to defend a literal reading of Genesis, Adventist theologians need to begin exploring alternative ways of interpreting Genesis that preserve a coherent doctrine of the Fall and the Plan of Salvation. Simply ignoring the difficulties will not make them go away, and more and more believers when confronted with scientific realities may simply choose to abandon Christianity entirely.

Notes & References:

[i] See also McKnight, S. and Venema, D.R., 2017. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Brazos Press and Swamidass, S.J., 2019. The genealogical Adam and Eve: the surprising science of Universal Ancestry. InterVarsity Press.

[ii] Pfandl, G., Some thoughts on original sin. Shelf Document, Biblical Research Institute GC, p.15. Accessed August 8, 2022.

[iii] Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 37.

[iv] Bascom, W., 1965. The forms of folklore: Prose narratives. The Journal of American Folklore, 78(307), pp.3-20.

[v] Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 76.

[vi] Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 285-286.

[vii] Ibid., p. 305.

[viii] Ibid., p. 372.

[ix] Swamidass, S.J., 2019. The genealogical Adam and Eve: the surprising science of Universal Ancestry. InterVarsity Press. See also Johnson, J., 2021. The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass. Spectrum Magazine Online, Accessed August 9, 2022.

Bryan Ness has BS and MS degrees in biology from Walla Walla University and a PhD in botany (plant mo­lecular genetics) from Washington State University. He is currently a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union Col­lege (PUC), where he has been teaching for 30 years.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.