The other week I picked up the biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretical physicist who played a key role in the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. After World War II, however, he worked unsuccessfully to prevent a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, fearing the devastating power of his own invention. Naturally enough, his biographers liken his story to the myth of Prometheus, writing in the preface of the book:
Like that rebellious Greek god Prometheus–who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humankind, Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers-that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him. (xiii)
It would be hard to think of a more apposite comparison, a better metaphorical lens for understanding Oppenheimer’s place in our world. But of course, there are a few differences between Prometheus and Oppenheimer, chief among them being the fact that Oppenheimer is a historical figure of recent memory and Prometheus is a fictional character of a mythic past. But no one in their right mind would say that that fact diminishes the validity or the power of Bird and Sherwin’s comparison. No one would say that Bird and Sherwin’s likening of Oppenheimer to Prometheus commits them to the historicity of Prometheus’s story, or that believing that Prometheus’s story is mythological somehow undermines one’s grounds for believing in Robert Oppenheimer.
This morning I was reading the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he likens Jesus to Adam. Paul writes:
Therefore, just as (hosper) sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–for sin indeed was in the world before the Law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type (typos) of the one who was to come. (5:12-14, ESV)
With Bird and Sherwin’s biography in the back of my mind it struck me today as never before that Paul’s comparison of Jesus to Adam is fundamentally just that, a comparison. More specifically, Adam’s role in the comparison is that Adam is the typos, the figure, the pattern, the model for Jesus, “the one who was to come (tou mellontos).” Jesus, like Adam, is one man whose singular decisive action has had ramifications for all of subsequent humanity.
The analogy isn’t perfect, as Paul acknowledges:
But the free gift is not like (ouk hws) the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like (ouk hws) the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:15-17, ESV)
The analogy isn’t perfect. Whereas Adam’s action (like Prometheus’s) was catastrophic, Jesus’s action was, to borrow Tolkien’s word, eucatastrophic. Whereas Adam’s was an act of disobedience, Jesus’s action was one of obedience. Whereas Adam’s action was a betrayal of God, Jesus’s action was a gift of God. Whereas Adam’s action brought about a regime of death, Jesus’s action brought about the victory of life. Jesus, in other words, is like Adam turned right-side-up.
The more I look at this passage, the less I see how it makes a lick of difference to the force of Paul’s argument whether Adam is a historical figure or not. To my mind, the fundamental analogy still holds even if we were to add one more disanalogous element to those we have already rehearsed: whereas Adam was a fictional character of a mythic past, Jesus was for Paul a historical figure of recent memory. No matter. The comparison still holds. Jesus is, in some important ways, like Adam, just as He is said elsewhere in the New Testament to be like Moses, like Jonah, like Jeremiah, like Elijah, like a lamb, like a vine, like a door, like a shepherd, and like dozens of other things.
So did Paul personally believe in a historical Adam? Probably. He was a first century Jew. I’d be surprised if he didn’t (and I’d also be surprised if he didn’t believe in a geocentric cosmos, for that matter).
But does Paul need Adam to be a historical figure in order to make his argument in Romans 5? No, not really. And I would say the same, mutatis mutandis, for his argument in 1 Corinthians 15. The link between Adam and Jesus that he is making is more like Bird and Sherwin’s link between Prometheus and Oppenheimer than it is like the link between, say, Jesus and Pontius Pilate. It is a fundamentally anological link, not a fundamentally historical link.
All of this, of course, matters for those of us who take the New Testament to be our primary source for thinking about life, the universe, and everything, and who are keeping abreast of conversations in both the natural sciences and biblical scholarship which suggest that Genesis is not best understood as a textbook on natural history (see, e.g., this story by NPR). The evidence isn’t all in. It never is. But it is getting harder and harder to make a case for a historical Adam and that is disconcerting in excelsis for many Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and others who see the Christian faith itself as being on the line in these discussions.
But, really, who needs a historical Adam? I don’t think Paul does. Nor do I think that the essential trustworthiness of the Bible depends on Adam’s historicity.
So who needs–really needs–a historical Adam? Adherents to a traducian account of the soul and a peculiar understanding of original sin? Devotees of the Westminster Confession of Faith? Biblical literalists?
But these are all varieties of Christian faith, not Christianity per se. There have always been within the Christian tradition (better?) alternatives to these particular theological stances, some of which do not logically depend upon the historicity of the Adam story. If the evidence should continue to mount against the historicity of Adam, the choice before us should not be whether we will be Christians or not, but whether we will be these sorts of Christians or those sorts of Christians. Christianity itself is simply not at stake.
So do you need a historical Adam? If so, help me understand why you do. If you don’t, you can tell me about that too.