Were Adam and Eve literal, historical figures?
Tremper Longman (professor of Old Testament Studies at Westmont College, author of numerous commentaries, and co-author of An Introduction to the Old Testament) explains why, for him, it’s an open question.
In response, James Grant offers twelve prima facie reasons to believe Adam was a literal, historical figure.
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 are featured 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.