The Wax Adam: Historical, Biographical, Archetypal, or Literary? | The BioLogos Forum

After a careful examination of how “Adam” is used in the early chapters of Genesis, John Walton offers a way of thinking about Adam that can provoke us to deeper thinking about Adam in the Bible. Walton, in his most recent The Lost World of Adam and Eve, says:

These chapters are not just giving biographical information on a man named Adam. Larger statements are being made. When the generic is used, the text is talking about human beings as a species. When the definite article is being used, the referent is an individual serving as a human representative. Such representation could be either as an archetype (all are embodied in the one and counted as having participated in the acts of that one) or as a federal representative (in which one is serving as an elect delegate on behalf of the rest). In either case, the representational role is more important than the individual. Only in the cases where the word is indefinite and by context being used as a substitute for a personal name would the significance be tied to the individual as an individual, historical person. (61)

To clarify, Walton says the way we can tell if the Adam of the Bible—

say the one in Romans 5:12-21—is an individual or an archetype is to ask this question:

In order to determine whether the treatment of Adam in the text focuses on him primarily as an archetype or as an individual, we can ask a simple question: is the text describing something that is uniquely true of Adam, or is it describing something that is true of all of us? (75)

Walton is making the case that the biblical authors’ references to “Adam” sometimes refer to—at least but also more than—the so-called “historical” or (better yet) “biographical” Adam. In fact, a cursory sketch of Adam in Jewish sources outside the Bible could make one wonder if Adam wasn’t himself a “wax figure” for these authors. That is, they could make him into any one of the above terms: he could be the historical, the biographical, the archetypal, or the literary Adam.

An example from the world of fiction might help. Ralph Ellison wrote a famous book about the social invisibility of black men in American society and called his book Invisible Man. The novel tells the story of a single man without a name coursing his way through America’s systemic injustices and exploring the options available to such a man. When you close the novel after a reading it, it is painfully—woefully—obvious that Ellison’s man is both a single figure and an archetypal figure. That’s the sort of thing we need to consider when it comes to the Adam of the Bible as well.

But this sketch and example only exacerbate the existing problem we Christians who explore the Bible and science constantly confront: all theology leads to Adam (and Eve, his neglected partner). Not to whittle the pen to a fine point, but one could reasonably say the theology of the Cappadocians, Augustine, the Thomists, the reformers Luther and Calvin, the Wesleyan movement, and the Edwardsian synthesis in the United States were each in their own manner developing a theology rooted in a view of Adam as the first human, the first sinner, and the one from whom sin was passed on to all humans. That is, they all assumed a historical or biographical Adam. Human solidarity and human sinfulness are the foundation of many Christian theologies of salvation. The human needs to be saved, one can say, because the human is Adamic, and to be Adamic is to be fallen, sinful, and (in some articulations, therefore) damned.

All roads then lead to Adam, and the problem is only heightened if one aligns oneself with those who have concluded, on the basis of evidence and careful thinking, that the universe is some 13.8 billion years old and earth is some 4.5 billion years old and that the DNA of humans on earth today could not have derived from two solitary individuals, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No sooner than one makes such a claim than someone with a Bible in hand opens it to Romans 5:12-21 and begins knocking off Bible verses that say something else. Thus,

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam, and Eve don’t forget], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned . . .

For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

There you have it: the biographical or historical Adam. One man, with his partner Eve, were created and that one man brought death. One man brought life. Death and life, Adam and Jesus. The thought of course is that Adam’s sin (and Eve’s sin) corrupted his nature and that nature—sometimes called the “sin nature” and often discussed as “original sin”—was passed on from one human (Eve too) to all others. For this to have happened it is also assumed it had to happen physically or soul-fully in some manner. Therefore, if you disturb that physical reality, whether by suggesting there was actually more than one man (or hominid) or that the process of creation was actually evolution (and therefore “image of God” is not as simple as one might think), you disturb the sinful reality, or the sinfulness of each human. Then the whole game of salvation is out the window.

This is a fast-paced presentation of a view that, while hoary and assumed, has as much evidence against it as it does for it. To begin with, the belief that Adam (note the persistent and problematic absence of Eve) passed on the sinful nature physically—through sexual reproduction—is not found in Romans 5:12-21. In fact, Paul says “because all sinned” in verse 12 and not “because all sinned in Adam.” Jerome, who produced the first Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century AD, in poorly translated Greek wrote, “in whom all sinned” (in quo); Augustine made the case for this theory, and we’ve been stuck with his translation ever since. But the text does not mean “in whom”, but “because all sinned,” the blame is not laid at Adam’s (or Eve’s) feet but at each individual in history. The game changes, if only slightly, with this interpretation, but what does not change is the importance of Adam.

What is clear is that when Paul refers to Adam he is referring to the Adam of Genesis. It is contagious to call such an Adam the “historical” or “biographical” Adam, for that term implies that Paul himself had a historian’s mind about Adam. That is, when Adam is mentioned he meant “Adam, and he lived historically as the real husband of the real Eve in the real Garden.” It is indeed possible that, Paul believed these things, but it is also impossible to know whether Paul thought that way. So others call the Adam of Genesis the “mythical” Adam, and by that they mean they believe that no such Adam existed and that the author of Genesis was writing about a fictional or imaginary person named Adam (and his imaginary wife, Eve). Because “historical Adam” and “mythical Adam” are not the focus of Paul or anyone else in the Bible, in spite of what many claim, we might learn to call the Adam of the Jewish tradition the “archetypal” or “literary” Adam. By this we mean the “Adam we read about in Genesis” who at times is more than himself.

Yes, it all comes down to Romans 5 eventually, but before we can even get ready for a discussion of Romans 5:12-21, (and that is beyond this short post), we must understand the Jewish waters in which Apostle Paul (and Jesus before him) were swimming . That is, there is a history of interpretation of Adam from Genesis to the 1st Century, and that history reveals a bold and astonishing diversity in which one might say accurately that authors made of Adam what they needed of Adam. Or, if you prefer, that the literary, archetypal Adam was a “wax Adam.” Jesus and Paul talked about Adam in a world awash in this swelter of interpretive diversity.

I give but one example to illustrate that the Apostle Paul’s famous interpretation of Adam in Romans 5:12-21 relies on an interpretive tradition. One can read the Old Testament from cover to cover and not find a single example of an Adamic fall tradition operating to explain why Israelites sin and are unfaithful to the covenant. In fact, the emphasis in the Old Testament is that Israel sins because Israel chooses to sin, and that is within the power of each and every Israelite to live faithfully and observant before the God of the covenant. James Kugel, well known for his investigations of the interpretive traditions of the Hebrew Bible, when commenting on the “Fall of Man,” observes,

In fact, even today, most people think of it in these same terms, and they are surprised to learn that the phrase “Fall of Man” is not to be found in the Genesis story, nor is there any mention of sinless existence in Eden, nor is the serpent identified in the story as the devil (he is just a talking snake). All these familiar elements are actually the creation of ancient interpreters.

Yet Paul sees humans, at some level, locked into the line of Adam and his sin—where did Paul get such an idea if it is not from the Old Testament? The interpretive tradition, about which much more needs to be said.

To synthesize the Adam of the Jewish tradition, I’d say Adam is the paradigm or prototype or archetype of the temptation to choose the path of obedience or of disobedience, the path of Torah observance or of breaking the commandments, the path of Wisdom and Mind and Logos or the path of sensory-perceptions or pleasure or bodily desires. For the Qumran community, Adam, though formed in the image of God (4Q 504 f8r:4), is a prototype who “broke faith” (CD 10:8); Israel, “like Adam, broke the covenant” (4Q 167 f7 9.1). Those who are faithful, however, will inherit the “glory of Adam” (1QS 4:23).

For some Jewish writers of that time, Adam comes off more positively than for others, but in each, Adam is not just the first human being but also the archetypal first sinner whose sin had an impact on those who followed him. In no instances is Adam simply the first human being in a long chain of history; Adam is always the archetype of humans in general or of Israel in particular. How did these authors learn to read Adam as an archetype and come to know these things? Not by historical investigation as we do it, not by scientific inquiry as we do it but, put plainly and simply: they knew Adam as the literary Adam found in their sacred book, the Torah, in Genesis. The archetypal Adam, then, came to them by learning to read about the literary Adam—and sometimes they saw him as biographical and historical and at other times in less than biographical and historical terms. We are too precise if we think they always thought in historical terms just as we are too precise if we think they always thought in archetypal terms.

The entire Jewish tradition focuses, as does Paul, on Adam and not Eve. She makes guest appearances but when she does she is often enough seen as inferior to Adam, as texts in Jewish history illustrated. We are then led to ask how the Apostle Paul fits into this story of Jewish diversity, this story of multiple Adams, a story that is undoubtedly male-centered as well as free-will centered. In this swelter of diversity, Paul would have felt free to mold this wax Adam in such a way to convey his theological message.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I recently read both of Walton’s Lost World… books and am very personally interested in this topic. Will there be a follow-up to this post? It ended so abruptly that I feel there was more to be said.

JacobRyan, there certainly is more to be said. One place to start would be Denis Lamoureux’s book “Evolutionary Creation.” Another would be Christopher M. Hays and Stephen Lane Herring’s essay “Adam and the Fall,” which is chapter two in the book “Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.” A third would be the four articles in the Sept 2010 issue of the journal "Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, available on line at ASA Database Search: Results. Have fun!!


I really like this post and look forward to more people talking on this subject. A couple questions i have related to the topic are- Since Eve was the one who listened to the serpent and disobeyed God’s explicit command why is she not included in the naming of how sin entered the world??

Secondly- If satan rebelled in heaven and was banished for fighting against God where is the mention of him being responsible for the original actual cause of sin??

Are there more posts covering the serpent on BioLogos?? I think there must be a wide array of speculation as to just who and what he is and represents.

A fun, if useless followup question might also be: what if Eve had sinned, but a stalwart and faithful Adam had refused? What then?

To me, these possibilities reveal the futility, indeed the wrong-headedness of trying to invest modern focus and importance where it doesn’t belong.

I find Scot’s analysis here excellent and very helpful in our consideration of the contextual application of Adam by Paul. This is a more nuanced approach that I’m hoping more scholars would pick up on and round out and hopefully Scot will enlarge further upon his work presented here elsewhere.

In my opinion Romans 5-8 is a very difficult section to break down and put into order due to Paul’s scattered contextual approach to writing. As an example I believe that one must take into consideration Paul’s application in Romans 7 in order to follow his theology found in Rom 5. There it appears that Paul puts on the persona of Adam and Israel and explores the Garden scene historically. He does so through his acting out Adam/Israel/Paul as a member of Adam’s corporate “wretched Body” contrasted to Christ Glorious Body as illustrated in Ph 3:21. “who shall fashion anew the BODY OF OUR HUMILIATION, that it may be conformed to the BODY OF HIS GLORY, …”

Paul in effect tells us in Rom 5:14 that he considers Adam as similar to Christ as a “type”, so he sees him as a form or representative model of faithful humanity. I emphasize faithful humanity because that is the overarching theme and implication that Paul infers and assumes throughout his presentation in Romans. Otherwise it risks presenting Paul as inconsistent in his thinking if we believe he is speaking generically to humanity outside of the faithfully active to God.

Contextually Paul’s usage of Adam’s “THE SIN” in Rom 5 appears in contrast to the generic “sins” of all humanity. Generic sin was in the world but it was not attributed or held against the faithful one until the introduction of the Law/commandment entered into the arena. Paul’s implication that he builds further upon in Chp 7 is that this inability of Adam/Israel to maintain obedience to the introduction of Law/commandment is what Adam’s specific “THE SIN” entailed that was introduced in Rom 5:12. It’s not the generic “sins” of humanity which Paul largely differentiates between but the imposition of “rules” that man could not keep by their own strivings introduced originally as a commandment for Adam. These mortal strivings are what separate the two Adam’s from each other: see 1 Cor 15:45-49 and are where Adam and thus Israel and Paul as a member of that inept Adamic Body are being rescued from.

Romans 7:24-25 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
1 Corinthians 15:56-57 The sting of death is sin, and the POWER OF SIN IS THE LAW. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Another consideration is that Christ is effectively presented as a high Priest and IMO I believe Adam also is representative of that Federal headship as illustrated in the 2nd T literature of the book of Jubilees. Adam is removed from the Garden and yet is instructed to offer sacrifices for himself and for the “others” whom are represented as various animals in need of cleansing. See Acts 10 and the inclusion of the animals/gentiles as illustrative of Jewish imagery of the “other”. So Paul and his audience would likely have a view of Adam that indeed is representative as a “type” of high Priest and because of his “THE SIN” (the breaking of Law) has corrupted his standing as a High Priest without Sin and thus there is no ability to provide atonement for the “faithful in God”. Christ corrects that issue as we see in Romans 6, which is sandwiched between Rom 5 & 7.

So in conclusion I definitely see Paul exploiting Adam in a much more nuanced Jewish manner than a traditional biological take would allow for in reading Romans 5. Without this contextual understanding of Paul I believe we over simplify Paul from our historic western view starting very early in the church. Therefore this can have important implications for how scholars perform their analyses of Paul’s Adam if they tend to follow western instead of early Jewish eyes.

I will make a couple of points on this topic; Paul goes to some lengths to show us the “fruits” of the flesh and contrasts these with the fruits of the Spirit. This shows us that human beings are understood as beings with the attributes of the flesh, and the story of Adam and Eve is another way of showing us that God offered (and continues to offer) a choice between an “animal” nature (the flesh) and a Spirit guided nature. This is fundamental to our views on sin, the Law, and living in Christ. No matter how we elaborate on the description in Gen 1-2, we are always grounded in these teachings by Paul.

The second point is obvious; the Bible is sacred writings, animal farm is not. I agree that for a fuller understanding of how the Bible is written, and how it may be understood, we should know a great deal more about the Hebrew language and how early Israel communicated. Central to this is the Covenant between Abraham and God, and the Law given to Israel by Moses. I think imposing various literally genres and impacts of creative writers we know nowadays may not provide the insights we wish to obtain.

This is an interesting discussion and including Paul’s writing is a positive step.

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Excellent post on a topic I am currently obsessed with. To be able to talk sensibly on Adam & Eve is something to strive for as a Christian in today’s world.

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