Adam and Sin in the Bible

Posted on December 24, 2011

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Romans 3:22-23 “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.”

In my experience, questioning the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve is often met with theological objections rather than scientific ones. Some of the concerns raised, such as Adam’s appearance in certain genealogies and several mentions of the first man, pertain to inerrancy and the reliability of the Scriptures. Another set of issues center around the source of human’s sinful nature. Some have asked how our understanding of Adam affects the need for a Savior, doctrines of Jesus’s atonement, and the common Christian narrative of humanity (creation, fall, redemption, restoration). These questions are based on the issue of sin and the fundamental message of the gospel, and that’s what I’d like to examine in this post (I’ll focus on inerrancy in a later post).

In the heat of the current debate, some are continuing to assert that Adam is “crucial to the Gospel“. On this side of Augustine, that may be the case. The thing is, Jesus and the Apostles hardly even mentioned Adam in the Gospels and Acts, let alone use his sin as a starting point for the gospel message or explanation for human nature.

Most 1st century Christians and even the majority of Jesus’s twelve disciples did not leave a written legacy. The movement seemed more interested in taking the message to the streets than writing for posterity (their early audiences were most likely illiterate, anyway). If it weren’t for the letters from Paul, a well-educated thinker, and Luke, a Greek writer with an appreciation of history, the New Testament would be less than half the size it is. Roman persecution prevented the formation of church buildings, monasteries, seminaries, and other institutions of academic Christianity. It wasn’t until a little later in the Church’s history that such entities began to appear.

By the 5th century, Christianity had changed from a minority sect which the Roman Empire violently persecuted to the official, authorized religion of the Empire. That’s when formal councils began to be held where professional theologians debated alongside emperors and politically powerful bishops. It was during that time period that the influential theologian Augustine developed the doctrine of Original Sin. After that point, it seems that Adam has played a much more significant role in theology.

Augustine based his doctrine on several verses from two of Paul’s epistles, Romans and I Corinthians. It’s important to realize that Paul doesn’t go nearly as far as Augustine (and then Calvin) took it, and the view was never as much as suggested anywhere else in the Bible. A careful look at how sin was addressed in the Old and New Testaments shows that Genesis account, the preaching of the prophets, and even the words of Jesus and the Apostles do not explicitly endorse the Augustinian interpretation. The Bible is full of missed opportunities to reveal such a view, and several examples seem to call Augustine’s interpretation into question. This uncertainty may explain why it took a few centuries for theologians to tease it out of the texts. This also highlights the need to check their work, especially in light of new evidence which was unavailable to medieval theologians. Aside from the scientific data, let’s take a look at how the Bible addresses sin and the Fall.

The Old Testament

Although the doctrine of Original Sin is tied to the Fall of Man found in Genesis, Augustine’s interpretation never developed in Judaism. Without Paul’s New Testament writings, there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible (Protestant Old Testament)1 suggesting that Adam’s sin changed human nature. Read through the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. You will notice that there’s no suggestion that Adam and Eve’s sin or guilt would be passed on from generation to generation. The punishments and curses dealt to them are specifically listed, but you won’t find any mention of their offspring being born guilty and corrupted. In the next chapter, God told their son Cain not to sin. Genesis 4:6 “…but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” In this case, God doesn’t seem to assume the doctrine of total depravity as Calvinists do today.

After this section of Genesis, the rest of the Old Testament continues without mentioning the Fall of Man. Individuals are held responsible for their own sins, and Israel and Judah are judged as nations when they would turn from God’s ways. In no instance are people presented as helpless slaves for sin, and Adam is never implicated as the cause of the wickedness. There are also several clear instructions not to judge children for the sins of the father and other statements that seem to stand against the concept of inherited guilt. For example, Ezekiel 18:20 “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (NIV). Also, see Deut. 24:16, 2 Kings 14:6, and Jer. 31:29-30.

Throughout the writings of the prophets, you will see that none of then mention Adam at all 2 , let alone blame him for the current generation’s disobedience – even though sin is the central theme most are addressing. It’s hard to imagine such silence on this side of the Augustine, but you can read the Old Testament prophets going on and on about sin and they never attempt to connect it to the Fall. The only clear mention of Adam found outside of the beginning of Genesis is in the post-exilic book of Chronicles, where Adam is merely listed in the genealogy.

The Gospels

In the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the only specific reference to Adam is found in Luke’s genealogy and does not mention sin, the Fall, or even Eve. Matthew’s genealogy traces back to Abraham, and there’s no mention of Adam at all in Mark or John. This is especially interesting in the case of the Gospel of John since the opening of the book concerns itself with creation and theological reflections on Jesus. None of the four Gospels refer to the Fall of Man or present anything resembling the doctrine of Original Sin. Among Jesus’s words, we find the other reference to Adam, which is actually a non-specific mention of “male and female” in a discussion about marriage and divorce found in Matthew 19:4-5. Jesus doesn’t compare himself to Adam, mention the Fall, or reveal how sin originated. Jesus never says “I’ve come to fix what Adam messed up” or make any suggestion of inherited sin. There are lots of things Jesus said and did which were never recorded (John 21:25), but I believe it’s noteworthy that while Jesus mentions Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets many times, we have no record of Him mentioning Adam by name. If Adam is to blame for all the sin of the world, one would expect him to come up often enough to be written down in at least one of the four Gospels. In modern messages about sin, Adam seems to come up every time. In the writings of the Reformers and earlier theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, Adam is placed front and center when sin is discussed.

Acts

Although the book of Acts is full of gospel messages and sermons, Adam is never used to explain the need for a Savior or the origin of sin, and there are no references to the Fall. Let’s take a look at a few of these messages and how the issue of sin is addressed:

The first apostolic salvation message is found in Acts 2:22-40. Peter, freshly filled with the Holy Spirit, preaches to a crowd in Jerusalem. He mentions Jesus’s death and resurrection. He refers to prophecies from David and Joel. He addresses sin and Jesus’s forgiveness by urging the crowd to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” This format is a good representation for the other salvation messages which follow. The main points seem to be that Jesus is the Messiah, He was killed, and He rose again by the power of God, we are all sinners, and we can be forgiven in Christ.

You can read several other gospel messages from Peter and the preaching of other apostles found in Acts 3:11-26, Acts 4:8-12, Acts 5:29-32, and Acts 10:34-48. They focus on Jesus and his death, resurrection, and forgiveness of sins as they preach and answer their accusers.

Other early Christians such as Stephen in Acts 7 and Phillip in Acts 8 preached that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah, but the writer of Acts does not record any of them mentioning the Fall or using Adam and Eve to explain the need for a savior or even to explain why the world is the way it is. Stephen mentions Israel’s past sins as he retold their history from Abraham, but does not seem to suggest that his contemporaries inherited the tendency to murder prophets from sinful ancestors, and he doesn’t go back to Adam when explaining their history of sinfulness. He held his contemporaries personally responsible for breaking God’s law and for killing Jesus.

When Saul (aka Paul) converts to Christianity and begins to preach, he proclaims that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah and mentions Jesus’s miracles, death, and resurrection in messages found in Acts 13:16-41 and Acts 16:30-34. Again, there’s no mention of the Fall or man’s sinful nature through inheritance.

Considering the quantity of messages from Jesus’s disciples and early Christians, it’s interesting to note the absence of Adam when discussing the need for a Savior.

Paul’s Epistles

In two epistles, Paul deals with Adam and plants the seed for Augustine’s doctrine. Peter Enns wrote an interesting series on Paul’s use of Adam for BioLogos that I would recommend reading. There are also books on the subject, rebuttals, and lots of resources for explore this issue. In the end, we need to realize that even assuming that Paul perfectly understood and explained aspects of the Fall not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, he still didn’t take it as far as Augustine.  In Romans 5:12, Paul writes “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (NIV)

Paul left room for debate by not going into as much detail about how this happens and if/how guilt and a sin nature may be transferred. That’s why Pelagius and Augustine argued the issue centuries after Paul, and why Christians still argue about it today. Paul built a foundation in Romans, but Pelagius and Augustine tried to construct the whole building from there. Paul didn’t share any further details into what he was envisioning when he laid that foundation, so all development will inevitably contain speculation and should be scrutinized.

Augustine ending up winning that 5th century debate over the Fall with his interpretation, but there are lots of things Augustine believed that Protestants later rejected (like these), and many ideas from him and his contemporaries that have been modified or even abandoned by all Christians today. Augustine also knew nothing about genetics and modern biology, yet his construct contained some assumptions in those fields. There’s also a vibrant debate occurring right now about Paul’s context and original intent, referred to as the New Perspective on Paul.

Adam Today

The historicity of Adam as the single progenitor of the human race has been seriously called into question in modern times. Although some theologians have loudly stated the importance of affirming an ancestral connection to a first sinner, science is marching forward with discoveries that make such a scenario increasingly unlikely.  Before Christians get bent out of shape proclaiming how “crucial” Adam is to the gospel, perhaps we should take a step back and reflect on how the gospel was shared by the Early Church.

I think everyone understands that they’ve personally sinned at some point or another.  I’d love to have all the answers as to why sin exists and how it’s spread, but the fact is that many philosophical and theological questions like these remain open.  This uneasy situation demands both diligence and humility on our part.

Aside from the disruption to popular doctrines, there are also issues about the reliability of Scripture and interpretive methods wrapped in the Adam question.  These are big questions that have been debated for a long time, often behind the closed doors of seminaries and in scholarly discourse.  It’s my conviction that these issues should be brought out into the light and engaged by all Christians interested in understanding the nature of the Bible and the message found within.  I plan to start some conversations here in upcoming posts.  Thanks for joining the discussion.

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Note 1
Adam is mentioned a few times in Deuterocanonical and non-canonical texts. The Book of Tobit, found in the Catholic and Orthodox cannon, mentions God making Adam and Eve, but doesn’t refer to the Fall. The Book of Sirach mentions man’s creation and seems to assume mortality and skips the Fall: 17:1-3 “The Lord created man of the earth, and turned him into it again. He gave them few days, and a short time, and power also over the things therein. He endued them with strength by themselves, and made them according to his image.” That book also states that hard work and even death are part of God’s plan, not the result of Adam’s sin. The Wisdom of Solomon, found in the Catholic and Orthodox canons and the Jewish Septuagint along with Sirach, conversely states that man was made to be immortal, but that Adam’s sin brought death. The fall is mentioned in chapter 10 “She [Wisdom personified] preserved the first formed father of the world, that was created alone, and brought him out of his fall.” There are also other 2nd Temple Jewish works which are not found in any canons of scripture that offer us a look into the views of Jewish thinkers in the era stretching from the rebuilding of the temple after the exile until the time of temple’s destruction in AD70. It’s in this context that Paul studied and the New Testament was written, so we can gain valuable insight into the worldview and interpretive environment of that time by reading these works.  In the non-canonical book of 2 Esdras, likely written after Paul’s death, the Jewish writer blames Adam for the troubles of the world: “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.”  This writing wasn’t accepted as inspired by Jews or Christians, but interestingly bears witness to the type of interpretation Paul used – even though that view is not found explicitly in the Old Testament.

Note 2
Although Adam does not appear in Hosea in many translations such as the King James, some Bible translations include Adam’s name in Hosea 6:7. This discrepancy is due to the fact that the original Hebrew word for “Adam” is the same as “man” or “men/mankind”. How to interpret depends on context, and is apparently debated in this instance. Here’s a comparison of two translations:

King James: “But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.”

NIV: “As at Adam, [footnote indicated] they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.”
Footnote: “Or Like Adam; or Like human beings

Since the translations differ, pastors, theologians, and Bible commentators have had to deal with this issue when explaining the text. Some have interpreted the word “men” in this verse as “Adam”. Others have argued against that understanding. In John Calvin’s commentary on Hosea, he states: “…the Prophet says that they had transgressed the covenant of God as men. Others explain the words thus, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant.” But the word, Adam, we know, is taken indefinitely for men. This exposition is frigid and diluted, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant;” that is, they have followed or imitated the example of their father Adam, who had immediately at the beginning transgressed God’s commandment. I do not stop to refute this comment; for we see that it is in itself vapid. Let us now proceed -” He then moves onto the next verse without giving the “Adam” translation enough respect to bother refuting it any further, even though he accepts Augustine’s view on Original Sin and argues against free will.

It appears as though his fellow reformer Martin Luther translated it “as Adam“. Matthew Henry and John Darby’s commentaries show that they concluded Adam was being addressed. John Wesley, John Gill, the Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown commentary, and the Geneva Commentary seem to accept the word to be “men” and some explicitly rejected the rendering “Adam”. I compared these commentaries through an online collection at www.ewordtoday.com/comments/hosea/darby/hosea6.htm.

However, those asserting that Adam is being mentioned don’t go as far as to say that Hosea was suggesting they are sinning because of Adam. Augustine believed Adam to be the reason, but neither he nor his supporters have tried to use Hosea 6:7 as a prooftext for this doctrine. There is no reasonable way to translate the Hebrew to suggest they are sinning because of or due to Adam – merely like Adam, or as Adam.

In the end, if Hosea did intend to refer to Adam, my point still stands: Adam is not a central Old Testament character outside of the opening of Genesis, and he is not blamed for the sins of future generations which the prophets were directly speaking against. If the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles viewed sin as being the result of Adam, we should expect that view to come out in at least one of the many written discussions on the topic.

Sources and Further Reading

Adam in The Old Testament. [go]
“Outside Genesis 1-5 the only case where it is unquestionably a proper name is 1 Chronicles 1:1”

A study of The Fall and the name of Adam which favors interpreting that the story of the Fall is an exposition and not a straight-forward historical record. Written by John Franklin Genung for the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, published in 1915.
[go]

I highly recommend watching this lecture from Peter Enns. He is a well-informed Old Testament professor who has emerged as an expert scholar on this subject. [go]
“Sin and death are real regardless of what cause we attribute them to” 43:40

I love finding old, scanned books that contain scribbling and notes. This author went deep into the apocryphal/pseudepigraphal books and the works of the Church Fathers to trace the origins of the Doctrine of Original Sin before Augustine. I found this work interesting and useful in this post. [go]

A useful blog series from an Orthodox priest comparing how Adam has been used theologically in Paul’s writings, the Deuterocanonical book “The Wisdom of Solomon”, and 2 Esdras (found in the Jewish Septuagint but not the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Bibles). [go]
“Whereas 2 Esdras emphasizes the omnipotence of God, who is the creator of everything, including death, the Wisdom of Solomon emphasizes the goodness of God who created the entire cosmos as good; it is humans who have brought death into being through their own sinfulness.  God is free from all blame in this theology.   Creation is originally good, just as God is good.  Humans have corrupted God’s creation.” from part 3.

A research paper comparing the views of Augustine and Aquinas [go]
“Paul writes, ‘by the disobedience of the one [Adam] all were made sinners’ (Rom 5:19). Unfortunately, he offers no explanation of how this is. In response to Pelagius, Augustine of Hippo articulated the Catholic response to the Pelagian heresy, insisting on the doctrine of original sin, and eventually the controversy subsided. About seven hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas would outline his own thinking on the issue of original sin”

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