Was Adam a Real Historical Individual?

In a video clip that will no doubt stir up some discussion in the evangelical blogosphere, Professor Tremper Longman III has expressed doubts about whether the opening chapters of Genesis commit one to believing that Adam was a real historical individual (in the sense that Jesus, say, was a real historical individual). I’m not going to comment here on Longman’s particular views or his reasons for holding them, but merely offer twelve prima facie reasons why an evangelical view of the Bible commits one to the existence of Adam has a real historical individual.

1. On the face of it, the basic literary genre of Genesis 1-4 is that of historical narrative (as opposed to, e.g., poetry, legal code, or apocalypse). This isn’t to say that these chapters can contain no figurative language; many conservative OT scholars would readily grant that they do. But it does imply that these chapters (like the rest of Genesis) are intended by the author to report important events within historical space-time. As such, there should be a strong presumption that the Adam of chapters 1-4 is no less a real historic figure than, say, the Abraham of chapters 12-25.

2. The first five verses of Genesis 5 not only describe events in Adam’s life, they attach specific numerical dates to those events. This is passing strange if the author didn’t consider Adam to be a real historical figure. (This point applies equally to the human author and to the divine author!) For example, we’re told that Adam lived 930 years. Why would one make what seems to be precise factual statement about the lifespan of a certain individual if the individual in question never actually lived? (Cf. Gen. 25:17; 50:26; Num. 33:39; Deut. 34:7; Josh. 24:29; etc.)

3. The author of Genesis presents the book as a seamless historical account. There is no obvious shift from non-historical narrative to historical narrative. Rather, we’re presented with a series of narrative sections, each introduced with some variant of the formula, “These are the generations of . . .” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). The implication is that Adam and Eve were no less historical figures than Noah, Shem, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob.

4. Adam is named in the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1. The presumption is that Adam is just as historical an individual as the other people who feature in the genealogy. It’s one thing to grant (as many conservative OT scholars would) that there are gaps in the OT genealogies; the Hebrew words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ certainly allow for that. It’s quite another thing to suggest that this genealogy slides imperceptibly from the non-historical to the historical.

5. The interpretation of Hosea 6:7 is disputed, but a good case can be offered that taking ‘Adam’ as a reference to the first human being, rather than as a place-name or as ‘mankind’, makes best sense in the context. (The notes in the ESV Study Bible nicely summarize the rationale for this reading.) It would be foolish to rest too much on this verse; but on the other hand, it shouldn’t be overlooked. If this is indeed the correct reading, it lends some further support to the prima facie case for a historical Adam.

6. The genealogy of Jesus Christ given in Luke 3:23-38 traces all the way back to Adam. While it’s likely that the genealogy isn’t complete (and isn’t intended to be), it’s hard to believe Luke would have accepted the idea that his list is a mixture of the historical and the non-historical. If Adam were not a historical individual, wouldn’t that tend to undermine Luke’s point, namely, that Jesus is the saving hope for all human beings, both Jews and Gentiles? How would a partly fictional genealogy back up a factual theological point?

7. In Matthew 19:3-9, in answer to a question about divorce, Jesus refers the Pharisees back to the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-2. On the face of it, Jesus takes for granted that the Genesis account describes real historical events and individuals. If the paradigmatic married couple never actually existed, wouldn’t this rather undermine Jesus’ argument?

8. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul draws his famous parallel between Adam and Jesus.  The transgression of “one man” (Adam) brought judgment and death, but the obedience of “one man” (Jesus) brought righteousness and life. If Adam never actually existed (never mind sinned), Paul’s parallel — on which his theological argument depends — falls flat.

9. In the same passage, Paul states that “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (verse 14). Paul clearly means to refer to a specific period in human history; but if Adam wasn’t a real historical figure, then there was no historical period from Adam to Moses, in which case Paul’s statement fails to refer (and therefore fails to express a truth).

10. Paul’s parallel between Adam and Christ reappears in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (also verse 45). The same considerations apply here as to Romans 5:12-21. If Adam’s sin wasn’t a historical event, Paul’s argument is derailed.

11. In 1 Timothy 2:12-14, Paul refers to specific details about the creation and fall of Adam and Eve to support his instructions about women teaching in the church. The cogency of Paul’s argument depends crucially on the historicity of the events to which he appeals.

12. Jude 14 refers to “Enoch, the seventh from Adam”; it’s a reasonable presumption that the author of Jude viewed both Enoch and Adam as historical individuals. Yes, I realize that complications arise from Jude’s use of the pseudepigraphical book 1 Enoch, and I wouldn’t want to put any more weight on this point than on the interpretation of Hosea 6:7, but evangelicals should bear in mind three simple points: (1) all Scripture is verbally inspired; (2) Jude is Scripture; and (3) the author of Jude didn’t have to mention that Enoch was “seventh from Adam”.

Taken together, these twelve points add up to a strong prima facie case for the traditional Christian view that Adam was a real historical individual. Any scholar who holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, but denies this point, surely has a lot of explaining to do. If all we had to deal with were the first few chapters of Genesis, appeals to genre and other literary considerations might provide sufficient wiggle room. But the twelve observations above indicate that the historicity of Adam is a thread woven all the way through the Bible’s history, theology, and ethics. Pull out that thread and sooner or later the whole garment will unravel.

Addendum: Some readers may wonder why I didn’t include Acts 17:26. There are two reasons for the omission. The first is that this verse doesn’t mention Adam by name (although it’s hard to deny that Paul would have identified the “one man” with Adam). The second reason is that I forgot about it. :)

Update: I’ve posted some follow-up remarks here.

40 thoughts on “Was Adam a Real Historical Individual?”

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  5. Dr. Anderson,

    Your points regarding the historicity of Adam are well taken in the light of the aforementioned video, but I have a question on points 8 and 10. Do they *really* indicate a literal Adam as necessary/crucial to the point in these verses? One might say that there are many senses in which the NT realities are manifest out of the veils, cloudy-mirrors, and symbolic pictures of the OT. The NT brings clarity and direction to much of what might be entirely misunderstood or misused from the OT. Christ answers and fulfills a great many aspects of the law that seem completely alien/incomprehensible to us – He brings clarity and specificity to an arena of generality and vast scope. In HIM is a propitiation that is really beyond our ability to understand, or even recognize as entirely necessary (mixed fibers, etc, etc, etc et al). In the singular totality of His Person He deals comprehensively for all His own… the specific for the general. Would you really hold that these verses fall apart if Adam is not literal?

    PS: I am greatly enjoying your book right now (my mother-in-law got it for my birthday this month) – a stimulating read!

    1. Hi Matt,

      Yes, there are many theological truths that are ‘veiled’ in the OT. But I’m not sure how that point would apply here. Paul’s arguments are in the NT, not the OT. And the NT is intended to shed greater light on the teachings of the OT. As you’ll see, I’ve posted some follow-up comments that have some relevance to your question here.

      You have a great mother-in-law, BTW. :)

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  9. Well done James. Even allowing for some difference in views on creation, the historicity of Adam is a vital firewall. Calling it an “open question” seems just as bad as denying it in my view.

  10. James,

    Wow, it’s amazing how subtle yet blatant the attacks on Scripture have become within Evangelical circles. It reminds me of our Lord’s question: When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth? It would seem very little of it, once postmodern- and liberal-influenced Evangelicals have finished deconstructing the Bible and pasting their own ideas over top of God’s Holy Word. If I believed Longman’s view had any validity at all, I’d cast my Bible into a volcano and become an agnostic.

    Thanks for making a cogent argument to counter Longman’s errant assertion. Those of us who still believe in a Sovereign God and an inerrant Bible are becoming harder to find these days.


  11. The issue seems to boil down to how sin is transferred / inherited / imputed (which is directly related to penal substitutionary atonement – coincidence?). I haven’t read any specific arguments *in support* of how one might rectify the single man Christ contrasting with a general man “Adam”. Most of what I have seen are arguments *against* a historical Adam which are often framed in speculative questions and rooted in a view that says humans evolved (note Longman’s comment at the 0:25 second mark in the video).

    I don’t think this is sustainable because man seems to be individually created in distinction from all other creatures (cf. Gen 2:7 – “formed… of dust from the ground… breathed the breath of life”) which is in direct opposition to an evolutionary process that asserts man evolved from other animals/creatures. Note: I am not arguing against evolution itself, but only against a view that says humans evolved from other animals.

    The difficulty I see in a generalized-humanity view of Adam is that they must demonstrate how sin spread to all men. Thus far, I have not seen any support for such a view, only arguments against a single-Adam view. Where might I be able to read some positive arguments for how all men might have sinned in a generalized-humanity view of Adam.

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  14. professorvandelay

    The creation account in Genesis 1 contradicts the one in Genesis 2 in numerous ways. If one believes in the literal truth of the six day creation, then Adam and Eve is myth.

  15. I’ll comment on the point 1.
    Do you think that because the bible puts Adam in a historical perspective, it grants you automatically the same possibility to assert and treat him on the same level as Abraham of ch 12-25?
    It’s the same as saying that if i put a figure of my imagination in a book along with some real historical figures in a historical narrative, then IT MUST be the case the the first was real.

    1. “Same possibility”? Well, sure. Everyone ought to grant that the historicity of Adam is a possibility! :)

      But I’m saying more than that. My point is that given (among other things) the genre and narrative continuity of Genesis, there should be a strong presumption in favor of the historical existence of Adam (regardless of whether or not you grant some figurative elements in the narrative). It’s not a slam-dunk, of course; I grant that. But it’s one significant piece of evidence in favor of the traditional Christian view. And so there’s a significant burden of proof on those who would challenge that view.

      One problem with your analogy is that it takes the wrong perspective: the writer’s perspective rather than the reader’s perspective. Sure, a writer is free to write anyway he wants. He can freely mix history and non-history as he chooses. But the relevant question here is: What will he thereby be communicating to his readers? Or: How will his readers interpret what he has written, if they apply normal principles of literary interpretation?

      As evangelicals, we have to assume that God, as the ultimate author of Scripture, has generally communicated in such a way as to understood by his people as the readers of Scripture.

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  19. Dr. Anderson,

    Can you comment on the broader theological/hermeneutical/epistemological issues here?

    Let’s assume the following for the sake of discussion: (a) there are strong textual (referring to the whole Bible)reasons in favor of a historical Adam; (b) the textual evidence isn’t a “slam dunk” so it is possible that the text doesn’t necessitate a historical Adam; (c) there is a strong scientific consesus that the scientific evidence for evolution is a slam dunk; and (d) somehow evolution strongly undermines belief in a historical Adam. I leave (d) fuzzy because there are probably a number of ways one might think a belief in evolution would undermine belief in a historical Adam. (I can think of at least a couple quickly, but spelling it out isn’t necessary for the question I am asking.)

    What should one do in this epistemic situation? The textual evidence is much stronger for a historical Adam (assuming the above assumptions) but it isn’t a slam dunk. Yet the scientific evidence for evolution, which per the illustration undermines belief in a historical Adam, is a slam dunk. Does one count all evidence of the epistemic situation equally or does one first resolve the interpretive issue based on textual reasons and then hold to a historical Adam over against the undermining scientific slam dunk?

    I am asking, because I suspect that which side one takes often correlates with how one would resolve the epistemic situation in my illustration.


    1. Keith,

      This is a great question: very important and very well posed.

      It would take more than a comment here to answer it with any adequacy — and I’ve used up my self-imposed blog rations for this week! Lord willing, I’ll post some thoughts next week.

  20. I’d like to see one shred of true scientific evidence for evolution. I tend to think evangelicals are caving in to the cultural pressure from supposed scientists who are actually pushing a philosophical view that is diametrically opposed to Scripture, and are merely using “science” as a cover. They’ve got us duped, and we should not fall into their trap – especially when God’s Word is so explicit on this point. God sees ALL the evidence, and He says He created everything in 6 days. This means Dawkins, and his friends are dead wrong.

    Keith, your question assumes our culture’s evolutionary assumptions are valid (I’m not saying you do, but your question does). Biblically AND scientifically, evolutionary theory doesn’t stand the test – no matter how strongly atheists try to force us to believe their “scientific” view. They continually try to frame this as science vs. Scripture. But if God inspired Scripture, that has to be a false dichotomy.

    There’s a bigger question here: how scientifically accurate is the Bible? If we believe the Creator guided and guarded the contents of the Book, don’t we have to say it’s 100% accurate (though certainly not providing all the details)? If inerrancy is accepted, don’t we have to say that all true facts of science will necessarily fit within the framework of what God has revealed in His Word? Don’t we have to set Biblical boundaries? If scientists’ opinions and Scripture are not compatible, shouldn’t we question the validity of the scientists’ conclusions – rather than the accuracy of God’s Word? I don’t find any way to fit evolution into Genesis without shredding Genesis beyond recognition.

    That’s my response to your question, but James is likely to give you a more worthy and well-thought-out reply.


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  22. Derek: Thank you for the response. I especially thank you for being careful and distinguishing between my illustration and what I myself was asserting. Your questions are a good opportunity for me to flesh out a bit more of what I have in mind in raising the issue that I did. A person could reason one of two different ways:

    1. Premise 1: Evolution is true (since the scientific evidence is a slam dunk) and somehow evolution undermines belief in a historical Adam (assume for the sake of illustration that this is a slam dunk, this may be much more questionable, but it makes the analysis simpler).
    Premise 2: The Bible is wholly true in all that it affirms including scientific/historical issues.
    Conclusion: Scripture cannot be saying that there was a historical Adam. So we must be wrong in our interpretation if we think it is saying there is a historical Adam.

    2. Premise 1: Scripture affirms a historical Adam (since the textual evidence is far stronger for a historical Adam) and somehow evolution undermines belief in a historical Adam.
    Premise 2: The Bible is wholly true in all that it affirms including scientific/historical issues.
    Conclusion: Science must be wrong about evolution.

    Notice a few things about these two ways of arguing. First, both arguments affirm inerrancy even on historical/scientific matters. Both have such an affirmation as a premise of the argument. Anybody who argues the first way is going to say that they are not letting science trump Scripture. What they are going to say is that they are going to let science trump one’s INTERPRETATION of Scripture if the scientific evidence outweighs the textual evidence for one’s INTERPRETATION. So it isn’t a failure to affirm that Scripture and God speak truly on scientific/historical matters or choosing scientists over God, etc. since part of their way of arguing includes the very premise about the inerrancy of Scripture. Now I am sure you are going to still feel like they are letting science trump Scripture in some way (and I don’t necessarily disagree), but it is not as straight forward since they are indeed affirming inerrancy as a premise to the argument! Second, how you resolve this issue is going to depend on whether you are going to count scientific and textual evidence on the same level or you are going to give priority to one over the other. If you count scientific and textual evidence on par with one another, then in determining which way to argue depends upon comparing the evidence for the premise 1 in each argument. Is the evidence for premise 1 in the first argument stronger than the evidence in premise 1 in the second argument? Third, the more interesting question is whether choosing to count the types of evidence as on par with one another does in the end amount to thwarting the authority of Scripture. They aren’t denying inerrancy and authority formally, but in hermeneutical practice, are they undermining authority in counting both types of evidence as on par with one another?

    Also, let me throw another thought out for reflection. How do we identify metaphorical speech or sarcasm other than perhaps literary/verbal features or tone? We often identify it because what the person is saying makes no sense when taken literally so charitable people that we are, we assume they mean something else and then come up with what they must mean. The non-historical Adam could argue that they are being charitable in reading Scripture they way they do. Of course the question is when does such a “charitable” reading become uncharitable because it perverts what is being said? For example, somebody assumes I am making a joke about something I am saying because it just seems so crazy that I could really be asserting such a thing but in reality that is indeed what I am asserting.

    Dr. Anderson: I look forward to your response. I have read your book and think it is very good so I was hoping you might be able to give a good response.

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