Non literal Adam and Eve

Hey all.

I’ve become familiar with all historical A&E models and now I’d like to explore non historical models. So if anyone who holds to a non historical Adam, or finds it plausible, please explain why you think so and what in scripture leads you to think this. Who is Adam to you?



Have you read either Scot McKnight (Adam and the Genome, my co-author) or Pete Enns (Evolution of Adam)? Both would be non-literal approaches.

Adam means “human”. I think we can all agree that the narrative has all of humanity in view even if there is disagreement on whether that is solely what is in view or an additional layer on a historical narrative.


I have it. Haven’t read it. Now I have motivation too. Thanks


How do you define “historical A&E?” Does this include real people who actually existed but which were not magical golems of dust and bone, nor the sole ancestors of the human race, but simply two people whom God had spoken to?

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I highly recommend it. It’s quite a bit simpler and shorter than looking at first blush.

I’d like to ask in turn, what is the reason for a literal Adam and Eve, theologically? That may be another way to put it.

Thanks for this discussion.


If you don’t think the narrative is historical, you don’t need a “model” for how it played out. Do you just mean you’d like to hear other interpretations of Genesis 1-4?


John Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve gives some great insights. While I believe Walton holds to a historical Adam, his interpretation of Genesis does not require it.


Yes. Why believe Adam was literary and not literal.

I don’t know that this question has been confronted all that carefully. It mostly seems that people were simply jumping at the idea that “Adam” means man in order to say that you don’t necessarily have to take this as referring to an historical person. But besides resolving the conflict with evolution, it was probably just a way of dismissing the whole magical treatment of the text as a story of necromancy creating golems of dust and bone which along with a talking snake makes the whole thing sound like a fairy tale (and thus hard to see why it should be treated differently than other fairy tales). I personally don’t see any reason for not believing in an historical A&E, once the magical parts are understood to have a symbolic meaning.


“Evolution of Adam” does treat this really well, in depth, re the development of theological doctrines on Adam and why one would actually use Biblical evidence to not believe in a literal Adam (as well as the converse). It discusses OT themes, NT themes, and the intertestamental period too.

Walton’s book is also good regarding this, but from a different perspective, as I recall… Thanks.

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While science led me away from YEC, it was Scripture that shifted my view on Adam from one actual man to a literary figure for humanity. In Genesis, Adam is the name or word for humanity in 1:26–27 and 5:1–2. In between is the story of the Adam. Given what surrounds it, I find it most natural to read this as retelling the story of humanity’s birth in a symbolic story. Adam representing humanity is not the only symbol: there are also the trees, serpent, and a very human-looking God who potters about, firing dirt vessels with divine breath, enjoying their company, learning their needs, seeking their welfare.

A good comparison to how Genesis uses Adam is how Ezekiel uses Jerusalem. This book has lots to say about Jerusalem, which typically refers to the population of the capital city of Judah but also tends to represent all Judahites. Given all the surrounding references, it’s pretty clear that when the prophet switches to a graphic story in which Jerusalem is a woman (chapter 16), it’s a personification. When reading about the woman Jerusalem it’s best to see the whole nation within her story, both in the sense that her life tells their history, and in the sense that each Judahite can know themselves better by looking at her. So too with Adam in Eden: this is the historical/theological story of humanity, and also a story each of us can find ourselves within.

Eden works better as a story that condenses a long history into a few characters and trees loaded with symbolic meaning. When a snake talks, not through miracle or demonic possession but simply by being the most subtle of the beasts God made, it doesn’t take a degree in literature or herpetology to see symbolism. Forcing the story into the mold of prosaic history leads to missing-the-point questions: how the serpent talks, how one fruit gives immortality, where Cain’s wife and fellow city-builders came from, how Eve heard God’s prohibition to Adam, whether Adam had a navel or one less rib. It may also lead to separating the Adam of Eden from the Adam of the sixth day, leading to multiple classes of humans, each with a different biblical portrait.

Also, the use Paul makes of Adam depends on the symbolic Adam rather than the actual man Adam. Paul speaks of us being in Adam or Christ, not descended from them. Adam is a type of Christ. Jesus is the second Adam. While Paul may have thought Adam was a literal man, what he writes depends on Adam representing humanity, particularly sinful humanity. (And if one thinks pairing Adam and Christ requires both to be either actual people or larger representations, consider who Paul thinks is Christ’s bride.)

Traditionally, there’s widespread support to thinking Adam is us. Even when paired with the belief that Adam also was the first man, it was the belief that Adam is everyone that tended to do the theological heavy lifting. Whether or not one maintains a belief in the first man (and for some the genealogies provide reason to do so), I think good theology and theodicy come easier if we see that Adam is us.


This is very well articulated! Thanks very much for this contribution.

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This doesn’t support a literary Adam unless you believe Jesus was just a literary character too.

I don’t think so! What Paul writes depends on Adam being someone from whom we all inherit in some sense. A much much better argument can be made that this supports the idea of a memetic rather than genetic inheritance since we are clearly not physical descendants of Jesus.


On a basic level the Garden narrative does not ring true. Trees with special powers and God wandering around like the BFG, let alone the rather incongruous “punishments” that God meets out when He clearly must have know it was all going to happen (or taken better steps to prevent it) God comes across as incompetent and vindictive. The whole thing reads like a child’s complaint about the unfairness of the world and an idealistic “Eden”. Why would anyone want to take it literally? (other than some wild notion of Biblical inerrancy or it being God’s actual words)

As for what it means… how long have you got?


Good to see you again, TJ. Good timing, as well. I’m presenting a paper related to the subject this Saturday. (God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation: Exploring the Intersection of Scripture, Theology, and the Sciences Abstracts are available at the link.) Here’s a free paragraph and footnote! haha.

An overview of Genesis 2–3 starts with the generic first humans, “the man” and “the woman.” Contrary to popular opinion, “Adam” doesn’t appear as a proper name until Gen. 4:25. Why would the author use a de facto title, ha’adam, in the garden narrative rather than the man’s presumed name, Adam? The answer is found in the trajectory of the story. It begins with the man and the woman’s creation, naked and unashamed, and by the end of the tale, they have acquired the knowledge of good and evil and been barred from God’s presence. Symbolically, the child has been sent from home and become an adult, complete with spouse, offspring, toil, tears, sweat, pain, responsibilities, and, of course, guilt. As virtually everyone agrees, the story represents the human journey from childhood innocence to moral maturity. All of us have taken that journey. We immediately recognize ourselves in “the man” and “the woman.” The genius of Genesis 2–3 is that the creation and fall of the first humans mirrors the “coming of age” not just of them, but of every individual human being; ha’adam thus functions as an archetype – the “original pattern” that all have followed.6

  1. Walton reaches a similar conclusion in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, but he defines an archetype as “a representative of a group in whom all others in the group are embodied” (240). This definition seems drawn from Federal Theology rather than literary analysis. Within a text, an archetype is a character or situation that represents a universal pattern in human experience. Thus, “the man” does not function as an archetype because God chose him to represent a particular group of people; ha’adam is an archetype because his experience personifies universal human experience. He simultaneously represents our collective and individual journeys from childhood to maturity.

Exactly! Well said.


Here’s an entirely different way of answering: What does the literal Adam have in common with you, or me, or anyone else who’s ever lived? In The Concept of Angst, Kierkegaard pointed out that traditional interpretations of Genesis placed Adam “fantastically outside history.” This occurs as soon as we picture Adam as specially created in a state of sinless perfection and placed in a deathless paradise. Has anyone ever experienced something remotely comparable? What does this Adam have to do with me?

The literal interpretation immediately removes Adam from any semblance of human history or normal human experience and then, as an encore, asserts that his first sin resulted in fatal consequences for all of humanity, even though his sin was completely unlike the first sin of everyone else who has ever lived. For the rest of us, our “first sin” was not only a choice, it was a choice we were predisposed to make by the sinfulness that surrounds us.

If Christ, the second Adam, “had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect” to represent us before God (Heb. 2:17), shouldn’t the first Adam bear at least some resemblance to us in order to represent us before God? The answer, of course, must be “yes.”

If Adam’s sin has been charged to our account because he somehow represented all of humanity when he first sinned, then Adam, like Jesus, necessarily must be “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” to represent us before God.

Let’s apply this test to the specially-created Adam (though it applies to virtually any concept of literal Adam) and see whether the symmetry holds. We’ll begin, as we should, with Jesus.

Jesus was born of woman in lowly circumstances and raised in a village that was a byword for “backwater.” He grew up in a large family, attended synagogue, learned a trade, and was constantly exposed to the everyday examples of good and evil that all of us experience from cradle to grave. Everyone alive can identify with Jesus. Like the rest of us, he had to learn the lessons of life and “grow in wisdom and understanding” (Luke 2:52) as he matured.

Contrast that with the specially-created Adam, whom so many theologians postulate as a non-negotiable belief of Christian orthodoxy. The de novo Adam grew up an only child in a perfect environment. He never fought with a sibling. He never heard his parents argue. And he is my representative? This Adam was never mocked or despised. He never suffered the pain of rejection or desired revenge. This Adam was endowed with all knowledge. He never had to sweat over a difficult task or struggle to learn a new skill. Everything the specially-created Adam ever wanted or needed was right there, within arm’s reach. He never experienced hunger, disease, or the loss of a loved one. Tell me again: How does this man represent me, or anyone else who has ever lived, for that matter? More importantly, how does a literal Adam such as this bear any resemblance to Jesus? Everyone can identify with Jesus. He had no earthly advantages over me or anyone else – no power, no wealth, no prominent family, “no beauty that we should desire.” By the same measure, what, if anything, does the specially-created man named “Adam” have to do with me, other than the singular fact that he sinned?

If ha’adam , “the man” of Genesis 2-3, is to have any meaning for Christians today, he must be an archetypal symbol, capable of representing the whole of humanity and every individual in it.


Not sure how you see that following. Can you expand? Would you also see the way Paul and especially John speak of Christ’s bride as implying Jesus is purely a literary character?

I’ve appreciated what you’ve written about sin as a memetic inheritance. Paul uses both inheritance language (but not tied to heredity or literal ancestors) and identity language (such as how we are in Adam or in Christ). When inheritance is divorced from descent, it’s not at odds with the identity metaphor. But that kind of inheritance doesn’t require a literal first man.

Why would talk of us being in Adam imply that Adam is literary only while the talk of us being in Christ does not imply that Christ is literary only?

No would not. I don’t see any of Paul’s words implying that either Adam or Jesus is purely a literary character.

To be sure, I see a great deal of symbolism in both stories, but that doesn’t make either of them a purely literary character.

I don’t see it as implying literary-only. It just shows that the literary is what matters for making sense of Paul’s words. I draw the conclusion of Adam being literary-only from Genesis, just as I conclude Jesus is also one man primarily due to the gospels (though 1 Corinthians 15 also helps for this).

For those who continue to see value in Adam being both humanity and one man, maybe Paul’s focus on the symbolic helps to move the theological weight of Adam from one man’s shoulders to us all.

Ah! Gotcha… your intention in that particular argument was not to say why Adam had to be literary but to defend the possibility by showing that Paul’s teaching did not require an historical Adam. I certainly haven’t claimed that such an understanding of Adam as literary only is unworkable. I just don’t see the necessity (or advantages) of going that route.

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