Adam Revisited: First Man or One of Many? Guest Blog by Hans Madueme

Published on May 2, 2016 by Todd Scacewater

unknown, 2014 | 352 pages


Editor’s Note:  Today’s blog is in response to an inquiry from one of our readers. The question was, given the historicity of Adam, whether Scripture demands that we understand him as the biological father of all humanity. The reader acknowledged both Adam’s historicity and representative headship, but he questioned whether that representative headship demands biological fatherhood. And he wondered if our bearing God’s “image” depends on a biological connection to Adam also. In short, his question is, Does Scripture demand that we understand Adam (with Eve) as the biological progenitor of all humanity? And if so, why?

The question arose in response to our interview with Dr. Hans Madueme on his excellent book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, co-edited with Michael Reeves. See our Summary also. We are grateful to Dr. Madueme for taking the time to provide answer for our readers on this important question.



Does Christian Theology demand the view that all human beings are biological descendants of Adam? Must we hold that conviction, or can we instead take Adam to be a representative, not genetic, ancestor of all humanity? There are other related questions: does humanity originate from just one couple, Adam and Eve—i.e., monogenism? Or, does the human race derive from a few or perhaps thousands of individuals—i.e., polygenism? This is an old debate, but in our current climate such questions are worth asking for those who want to take the Bible and science seriously. The consensus among evolutionary biologists is that there is no evidence of an original human pair in primordial history.[1] To say that Adam was our representative, not our biological ancestor, saves us from scientific ignominy while rescuing a historical Adam and Eve.[2]

Some might already be rolling their eyes, suspecting that scientists are illegitimately telling Christians what they can and cannot believe in Scripture. But this trigger-happy reaction ignores clues within the biblical text that potentially resonate with polygenism. While I agree with the traditional Reformed understanding that Scripture rules out polygenism, there is some evidence within the biblical text that have led others to speculate that Adam and Eve were not the only human beings. In these reflections, I shall begin by pondering a recent argument by the Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly in which he reviews these exegetical clues. I choose this work because Moberly’s essay is the most interesting analysis of the issue that I know of; engaging it is instructive. It also becomes evident that judgments about Adam and Eve are impossible to untangle from deeper elements within our theology of revelation. After interacting with Moberly’s work, I return to answer the main question—must Christians believe that Adam and Eve are the sole biological ancestors of all humanity?


Walter Moberly’s Hypothesis 

Moberly claims to have found evidence in Genesis that Adam and Eve are not the only human beings in the primordial Genesis narrative. His argument is that the early chapters of Genesis have two layers that are in conflict with each other. Superficially, it seems to be a tale about the very first human beings at the dawn of time, Adam, Eve, and their children; but within the telling of the story, paradoxically, there are hints of other people in the world. This discrepancy tips off the reader that we’re not dealing with a historical account; the Genesis story was actually written much later in Israel’s history reflecting the context of the narrator, i.e., a populated world. In writing Genesis 1-11, the narrator assumes his later context but has transplanted it far into the distant past—hence the conflicting layers. According to Moberly, the narrator thus creates an origin story that serves as an artificial backdrop for Abraham in Genesis 12.

If that summary captures Moberly’s thesis, what evidence does he have to support it? A good place to start is Genesis 4 and its account of Cain and Abel.[3] The narrative ostensibly covers the very early stages of humanity with only a handful of characters—Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel—yet according to Moberly, the text itself assumes the earth is already populated. There’s the old puzzle of Cain’s wife: Who was she? Where did she come from? Did Cain commit incest by marrying one of his sisters? Or, is that a clue that there were other human beings unrelated to Adam who were alive at the time?

That’s not all. We are told in Gen 4:2 that Abel is “a keeper of sheep” and Cain “a tiller of the ground”; these categories imply an already existing population—where those tasks are well delineated—rather than just a few people. Later in the text, Cain chooses to murder Abel in an open field (Gen 4:8), presumably because that would keep them away from any populated settlements and allow the dark deed to proceed in secret.[4] Again, the text itself seems to assume an already populated planet.

There’s more. After slaying his brother, Cain bemoans his fate as a “restless wanderer,” on the run from those who would kill him (Gen 4:14). That verse trips up the reader. Think about it. If only a few people were living on the planet, “the more Cain wandered, the farther away [he would be] from these other people” (p.8). Cain’s fear, then, actually assumes quite the opposite, a populated world; without the protection of a clan, he’s a sitting duck for outside marauders. Let us not forget, too, that Cain famously builds a city in v.17; while we’re not to think of a modern metropolis, it suggests to Moberly a sizeable settlement at odds with the idea that only a few people were alive at the time. From all this he infers that

if the story in itself presupposes a regularly populated earth, while its context requires an almost entirely unpopulated earth, there is a hypothesis that readily commends itself. This is that the story itself has a history, and in the course of that history, it has changed locations, moved from an original context within the regular parameters of human history—presumably, the world of ancient Israel, which would have been familiar to the narrator—to its present context at the very outset of human history. (p.9)

Moberly alleges similar discrepancies in the account of Noah’s flood. I’ll focus on the tensions he sees between “the internal logic of the story and its narrative setting” (p.12).[5] Based on Gen 7:19-20, 21-23, etc., Moberly takes Scripture to be depicting a global not local flood; that’s what the text intends to communicate to the reader. And yet, other aspects of the narrative point in a different direction. For instance, a global flood would have annihilated the Nephilim mentioned in Gen 6:4, but in Num 13:33—long after the Deluge—Israel’s spies report back to Moses and Aaron that there are Nephilim in the land of Canaan. But how could there be Nephilim in Canaan? Weren’t they all destroyed by the flood?

There is a similar conundrum in Gen 4:17-24, a passage listing Cain’s numerous descendants. Jabal is the ancestor of those who live in tents and raise livestock (v.20); Jubal is the ancestor of harp and flute players (v.21). The narrative implies that the people being referred to here are “known in the time of the narrator” (p.13). Tent-makers, flute players, etc., they’re all familiar to the Genesis narrator, contemporaries, else why take the time to mention those ancestors? But here’s the thing—all of Cain’s descendants were destroyed by the flood. Only Noah and his family survived (descendants of Seth not Cain).

What is going on? Moberly invokes his earlier hypothesis, namely that these individual narratives have their own unique histories: “they have been transposed from their original context and relocated in their present context. In that way, one can both do justice to the implications of the particular units in their own right and still appreciate the use to which they have been put in their narrative context” (p.13). In short, Moberly views the early chapters of Genesis as a quasi-fictional narrative constructed with parts originating from much later, and disconnected, historical periods.


Theology of Revelation

All this naturally prompts a question about how these chapters in Genesis are supposed to function as divine revelation. How does Moberly put it all together? Here, again, is his take on the story of Cain and Abel: “A story whose narrative assumptions apparently originate from the world familiar at the time of the biblical narrator has been set in a context long antecedent to that world—the very beginnings of life on earth” (pp.9-10). Nevertheless, Moberly still believes we should “take seriously the narrative sequence from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel, but that this narrative sequence is, in an important sense, artificial” (p.10). It should not be understood historically, “but rather as a literary construction whose purpose appears to be to juxtapose certain archetypal portrayals of life under God so that an interpretive lens is provided for reading God’s calling of Abraham and his descendants, which follows” (p.10). For Moberly, these are simultaneously human constructions and God’s self-communication to us.

Moberly’s argument is much richer than what I’ve conveyed here.[6] Those familiar with his work know he’s an excellent model of theological exegesis who respects earlier church traditions and cares deeply about reading the Bible theologically as a Christian.[7] I also agree that, from a certain perspective, his hypothesis clarifies several puzzling features in the biblical text; and yet, I confess that I find it very unsatisfying. For the purposes of this short piece, I will not engage his specific textual examples (how convenient for a systematic theologian!)—though I will say that I find more compelling the older interpretation of past theologians like Augustine and Calvin, which is that early Genesis is a highly selective narrative that omits many other descendants of Adam and Eve.[8] While that doesn’t resolve all of Moberly’s questions, by any means, it has one key theological virtue: it assumes the biblical text hangs together as a unified, consistent whole. That’s not the case with Moberly’s solution.

Here’s what I mean. The basic problem is that his approach is ambiguous on the historical integrity of Scripture. Moberly takes Scripture to be the product of human imagination, a reality that he says is not in tension with divine self-communication, as though “writers singly composing narratives of historical factuality are acceptable in a way that editors and scribes reworking legends preserved by a community are not.” Moberly continues: “Yet surely any significant mode of human communication should in principle be acceptable as a vehicle for the divine word.”[9] He’s right that we should not pit the human elements of Scripture against the divine; the two components work in harmony. In my view, however, the issue is not whether God used editors or scribes in the process of composing Scripture; the real issue is whether God incorporated reworked legendary material into the biblical narrative. Moberly’s position, if I understand him correctly, is that the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, etc., are not historical at all; editorial scribes have taken myths from their day and reworked them into a made-up origin story. Since the New Testament apostles, for instance, take those very same narratives to be historical—which is not to deny literary or figurative elements—there seems to be a problem. Moberly claims these are non-historical, legendary stories, yet the apostles read things differently.[10]

In a nutshell, here is Moberly’s account of Scripture: In following the normal, literary conventions of their day, the human authors construct or rework biblical stories using fallible source material; God then appropriates the artificial product as canonical. If that’s fair to Moberly’s position, it sounds like an “adoptionist” approach to the inspiration of Scripture.[11] He writes, “the early chapters of Genesis—like the Bible as a whole—is a work of human construction,” one that “is itself a response to antecedent divine initiative, and so mediates a reality beyond itself.”[12] We agree that Scripture is “a response to antecedent divine initiative”—but surely it is more than that! The entire process of writing, editing, and collecting these sixty-six books was eminently human but concurrently—and gloriously—a miraculous work of divine construction. The human narrators are not merely responding to God. In their very writing of Scripture, God’s superintendence inheres throughout, supernaturally, over and above his general providence (e.g., see 2 Pet 1:21).[13] In fact, it is the very Word of God.

The redemptive events of Scripture unfolded within actual human history. Genesis 1-11 is organically connected to the rest of the Bible, and it is connected to a broad range of theological realities with deep roots in that same biblical soil. Those realities presuppose the basic historical integrity of the canonical story. Imagining that Genesis 1-11 is a reworking of disparate, legendary material from unrelated historical contexts destabilizes the historical-theological integrity of Scripture. If Genesis 1-11 is historically ambiguous, the same ambiguity will seep ineluctably into the rest of the canonical witness.


Polygenism vs. Monogenism

When the early chapters of Genesis are read in the context of the entire canon, it is clear that Adam and Eve were the first, and lone, couple created by God. That is why all branches of the church for centuries have read those texts in just that way. However, as Moberly points out, some indirect textual clues can be taken to suggest Adam and Eve were not alone. Not only is this alleged discrepancy problematic for a genuinely evangelical doctrine of Scripture, but I have argued that historical-critical attempts to resolve it, like Moberly’s, only exacerbate the situation. The cure is worse than the disease.[14]

Moberly, as far as I know, does not believe Adam and Eve are historical; human authors reworked ancient legends for theological-rhetorical purposes. But there are others who read Genesis 1-11 more historically than Moberly and have interpreted those same exegetical clues he lays out as evidence for polygenism. If one claims that Adam and Eve were historical people inhabiting an already populated earth—what then? What are the theological implications of this hybrid position?

A key implication of this hybrid position is that human beings today are not all Adam’s biological descendants. On this view, Adam bringing sin into the world does not entail monogenism (Rom 5:12). Consider Romans 5:12-21 and its striking symmetry between Adam and Christ. Christ is historical, Adam is historical; Adam brought sin and death, Christ brings justification and life—and so on. But notice, those who experience justification are not Christ’s biological descendants, so why think that those who died in Adam are his biological descendants? If the fact that sin came through Adam doesn’t necessitate a biological connection (Rom 5:12), then perhaps our connection to Adam is merely covenantal.[15] Adam may have had thousands of ancestors and/or contemporaries, and many of us alive today may be genetically descended from such pre-adamites or co-adamites. But there’s no harm done, advocates say; Adam was our federal head not our biological ancestor. This position preserves the doctrine of original sin, while shedding the more controversial ideas that Adam and Eve had no ancestors and that they generated the entire human race. The payoff: more resonance with the current scientific picture.

In the historical debate over monogenism vs. polygenism, Christians wondered about the ontological status of people not descended from Adam. If we are not all his descendants, some of us alive today are not “Adamic.” That led some Christians to treat (alleged) non-Adamic humans as an inferior species. They were judged racially inferior and it was unclear whether they were even made in God’s image. There were also questions about the soteriological status of such non-Adamic persons. Christ was a descendant of Adam (cf. Luke 3:23-38); he became incarnate, taking on human flesh, sharing in Adamic humanity. As Gregory put it, “That which [Christ] has not assumed he has not healed.”[16] Where does that leave those who cannot trace their lineage back to Adam? Can Christ save them?

These are not insurmountable questions. One can endorse polygenism and still hold that all people alive today are descended from Adam and Eve.[17] On this view, perhaps there were thousands of pre- and co-adamites in primordial history, but they all perished with the global flood. The only survivors were the eight people in the ark—Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives. Since all human beings post-flood are descended from Noah, then they’re all de facto descended from Adam and Eve. And yet, this is an odd line to take given that the original motivation for denying Adam and Eve as first couple was to relieve conflict with science; resorting to a global flood only salts the wound.

Some take a more elegant option—just stipulate that Christ came to save humans. If God created other humans apart from Adam and Eve, then Christ came to save them too. Biological descent from an original couple is irrelevant; being human is what matters. Although this is a tidy resolution, the assumption throughout the canon is that to be human is to be descended from Adam and Eve (e.g., consider the biblical genealogies; see also Gen 9:19 and 10:32). That Adam was “alone” before Eve came on the scene seems to rule out any other humans (Gen 2:18). Eve is called “mother of all the living” in Gen 3:20, suggestive of monogenism. The same goes for Acts 17:26 (“From one man he made every nation of men …”). It’s hard to make sense of the biblical storyline if Adam and Eve were not the first human beings.[18]

Even if there’s no open-and-shut case exegetically, ontological questions persist. Severing the link between Adam as biological head and Adam as representative head reflects the modern tendency to limit the scope of divine revelation. The domain of biblical jurisdiction is rapidly shrinking. The modern scientific picture fills in more and more of the “facts,” e.g., truths about our biological ancestors; Scripture, now demoted, is left to offer us ethical and spiritual truths. No doubt there are genuine instances when traditional dogmatic pronouncements were heavy-handed and suffered from overreach, theological claims that in retrospect we now know Scripture was silent on. Scientific developments that help chasten us here are a good thing. But the converse is also true. Scientific claims can and do suffer from overreach; in such instances the corrective Word of God in Scripture is our only hope.[19]


Some Conclusions

Should Christians claim that all human beings are biological descendants of Adam? I answer affirmatively.[20] I’ve tried to show that it’s the most natural way to read the relevant biblical texts (and church history bears ample witness). The gospel story places Adam at the head of the human race. All Jews and Gentiles are his descendants. Jesus, in turn, as the Second and Last Adam, inaugurates a new humanity. People from every tribe and nation have been rescued from the diabolical kingdom of the air, ushered into the kingdom of light (Eph 2:2; Col 1:12). The gospel is for all those complicit in Adam’s original disobedience; we’re in this mess of sin and death because we’re implicated in the fall (cf. Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:21-22). We are implicated in Adam’s sin through our biological descent from Adam.

But more needs to be said. According to Gen 2 and 3, Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:21-22, etc., God established a covenantal relationship with Adam and through him with the entire human race. He ordained that Adam would be a representative, a “federal” head, for his progeny (i.e., all humanity): as it went with Adam, so with the rest of us. This covenantal connection is the actual basis of our solidarity with Adam in the fall. Adam’s sin was imputed to his descendants because of the covenantal relationship we, his descendants, have with him as our federal head, and through him with God. The importance of biological descent, then, lies in the fact that God entered into a covenant with Adam and his posterity—a covenant that established Adam as the federal head of all who would proceed from him by natural generation. We see the same dynamic in redemption; the covenant relationship we have with Christ as our federal head is essential to our solidarity with him. As Christians, we are not merely human beings, descendants of Adam; we are also human beings related to God in a certain way—a way that is defined by his relationship with us through our representative heads, the first and last Adams.[21]

To close with a historical note: St. Augustine, a fellow African, defended a “realist” view of our union with Adam. Biological descent was central to his account. I hail from the tradition of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and we have a slight disagreement with Augustine about how to understand our solidarity with Adam. We take the representative (i.e., federal) rather than realist approach. We didn’t actually sin in Adam; his sin was imputed to us—because he was our representative. My point is this. The Reformed position does not deny biological descent but simply builds on it. Our biological unity with Adam, implied in realism, is insufficient for understanding the imputation of Adam’s sin. A deeper account of our moral unity with Adam is needed. In the words of Herman Bavinck, “Federalism certainly does not rule out the truth contained in realism; on the contrary, it fully accepts it. It proceeds from it but does not confine itself to it. It recognizes a unity of nature on which the federal unity depends.”[22] Bavinck, as usual, seems to have the balance just right.


Hans Madueme (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and an adjunct professor at Trinity Graduate School, Trinity International University. He also serves as a book review editor for Themelios.


[1] For further discussion, see Dennis Venema, “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 166–78.

[2] For a recent account along these lines, see John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).

[3] For what follows in this paragraph, I’m summarizing salient points in Walter Moberly, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” in Reading Genesis After Darwin, ed. Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5-21. Page references are to this essay.

[4] Moberly is aware of the textual issues related to Gen 4:8 (see p.8).

[5] I urge readers to take up Moberly’s essay to read for themselves; it’s very engaging and crackling with humor (e.g., Og’s exploits on the roof of Noah’s ark [p.12]; and the sinless fish on p.20n26).

[6] E.g., see his suggestive comments on pp.14-15 about the use of the Hebrew language.

[7] For a sampler, see Walter Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and his The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[8] For example, see John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 215: “This, however, is without controversy, that many persons, as well males and females, are omitted in this narrative.” Moberly knows this tradition but finds it wanting. In addition, as Jack Collins reminded me, it’s odd that Moberly takes the Numbers 13 reference to indicate that Nephilim actually existed in Canaan. That mention of Nephilim is from the report of ten unfaithful (!) spies; we’re meant to discern their cowardice and unreliability as reporters. The text does not imply the actual existence of Nephilim at this stage of redemptive history.

[9] Walter Moberly, “On Interpreting the Mind of God: The Theological Significance of the Flood Narrative (Genesis 6-9),” in The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays, ed. J. Ross Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe, and A. Katherine Grieb (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 65.

[10] I don’t think I need to argue this point, but see Robert Yarbrough, “Adam in the New Testament,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 33-52.

[11] Adoptionism was the ancient heresy that Jesus was born merely human and was adopted as God’s Son later in life; he was not a divine person throughout his entire life. Moberly’s claims about how Genesis 1-11 became God’s self-communication strike me as similar to the adoptionist’s Christological error. However, I welcome correction if I’m wrong about this.

[12] Moberly, “On Interpreting the Mind of God,” 40.

[13]Over and above his general providence,” otherwise Scripture would be no different ontologically from any other book.

[14] This pattern goes back at least to Isaac La Peyrère, who was infamous for embracing a polygenetic reading of early Genesis, and whose hermeneutical maneuvers sowed the seeds that would eventually grow into modern historical criticism. Cf. Heikki Räisänen, “The Bible and the Traditions of the Nations: Isaac La Peyrère as a Precursor to Biblical Criticism,” in Marcion, Muhammad and the Mahatma: Exegetical Perspectives on the Encounter of Cultures and Faiths (London: SCM, 1997), 137-52.

[15] Derek Kidner famously entertained this idea in his commentary, Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1967), 29.

[16] Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 438.

[17] One should distinguish 19th century polygenism from more modern versions. The former had racist and other theological problems (e.g., if Aborigines or Africans, say, are not descended from Adam, did Christ come to save them?); recent polygenism does not necessarily have those same entailments.

[18] Another approach—with both pre-adamite hominins and a real Adam and Eve—takes this point seriously. In this picture, Adam and Eve were the first to be created in the image and likeness of God, from whom all humanity is descended biologically. The hominins survived for a time but eventually became extinct (among Christians who hold this view, opinions vary on whether there was any mating between these hominins and descendants of Adam and Eve). Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana from Reasons to Believe (RTB) defend this position.

[19] In other words, I do not find current interpretations of population genetics convincing enough to outweigh the clear biblical witness to Adam and Eve.

[20] I answer affirmatively because God’s Word unambiguously posits Adam and Eve as progenitors of the human race, but I wouldn’t rank the claim as an essential doctrine that strikes at the heart of the gospel.

[21] Readers who disagree with my particular Reformed understanding of original sin will likely not feel the force of my comments here.

[22] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:104. Or, as he put it elsewhere: “On the basis of a common physical descent an ethical unity has been built” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:579, my emphasis).

Related Posts:
Interview with Hans Madueme
Summary of Hans Maduemes’ Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin
Interview with Matthew Barrett & Ardel Caneday, Four Views on the Historical Adam, Part 1
Interview with Matthew Barrett & Ardel Caneday, Four Views on the Historical Adam, Part 2
Summary of Matthew Barrett & Ardel Candday, Four Views on the Historical Adam
Review of Richard Gaffin’s No Adam, No Gospel

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Adam, The Fall, And Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, And Scientific Perspectives

unknown, 2014 | 352 pages

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