Adam and Eve were exactly who the Bible says they were: the first humans created in the image of God, having been endowed with a living soul by God's breath. They are the ancestors to all humans alive today. Through them, we too bear the image of God, but we're also impacted by their sin and its consequent curse.
As such, they are of seminal importance in understanding our spiritual history, and form the crucial component in the Genesis creation story and my interpretation of it. Now, as I've said before, Genesis 1:1-2:3 uses a broad, abstract, metaphorical language befitting its placement as the prologue to the whole Bible. But starting with Genesis 2:4, the language settles down to the matter-of-fact style used for the remainder of Genesis, and the stories thereafter should be interpreted "literally". So, Adam and Eve were historical persons. They lived in a physical Garden of Eden, where they ate a real fruit, after being deceived by a snake that actually talked.
At this point it's important to remember what the Bible does NOT say about Adam and Eve. These are common but unfounded assumptions that people often read into the story, assumptions which in fact cannot be true based on our understanding of history and science. So: the Bible does NOT say they were the first members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. That is a designation that did not even exist until modern taxonomy, and it would be ridiculous to use it in our interpretation of Genesis. The Bible also does NOT say that they were the only anatomically modern humans God created. It actually often hints at the existence of other humans outside their family. The Bible only says that Adam and Eve were the ones to be created in the image of God. I am here making a very clear distinction between biological humans and spiritual human beings. Biological humans evolved around 200,000 years ago, according to our current best estimates, but Adam and Eve lived around 6,000 to 12,000 years ago, depending on how you interpret the genealogies. Adam and Eve were not the first biological humans or the only ones that lived in their time, but they were the first spiritual human beings - full, biological humans who were also ensouled bearers of the image of God.
You may object that I have divided the human race into two classes: "spiritual human beings" and mere "biological humans", which I suppose can be termed "mere animals" if one were in an inflammatory mood. I will come back to this point later, but for now, it is of little practical importance. Everyone you meet, every individual you've read about, everyone that appears in the Bible or in history, and every person that you've ever felt a human connection to, are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and all spiritual human beings. This distinction therefore cannot be used to justify any kind of discrimination or oppression.
But what happened to the race of merely biological humans? Did they die out? No, their biological progeny continues, and they're doing very well. They were fully biologically human, after all. Characters in the Bible like Cain's wife, or Seth's wife, came from this group of people. Like with Cain and Seth's wives, they all eventually mated with a descendants of Adam and Eve, and thereafter their children are counted among the spiritual human beings. This processed continued on, until the entire human population is now descended from both the merely biological humans, and also Adam and Eve. Since they far outnumbered the two people living in the Garden of Eden at the time, our biological heritage - our genes - comes mostly from this group of people. But our spiritual heritage comes from Adam and Eve.
But how could Adam and Eve be ancestors to all the humans alive, if they only lived 6,000 to 12,000 years ago? Isn't this all rather contrived? Not at all. It is actually perfectly natural for a population to have a relatively recent common ancestor. It would be contrived if such a common ancestor did not exist - That would basically mean that the "population" was in fact two or more populations. And the scientific time estimates for the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for all humans is shockingly recent - possibly as little as 2,000 to 4000 years ago by some estimates. Needless to say, this timeframe agrees remarkably well with the biblical timeframe for Adam and Eve.
(Please read that linked Wikipedia article on the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) - the concepts there are key to understanding my interpretation of Adam and Eve. I will illustrate the all the important points in this post as they come up, but you should still understand the bigger picture, and know that none of this is something that I'm just making up)
So humanity could have had biologically started 200,000 years ago, yet really have a recent common ancestor as little as 2,000 years ago? Absolutely. Consider this simplified example: there is an isolated village in the mountains, numbering several hundred individuals. They have been around for a thousand years, isolated from everyone else and marrying among themselves. But one year, all their menfolk die, due to some sex-selective plague, or perhaps a catastrophe at a village-wide male-only ritual. Now it looks like the village will die out from the failure to reproduce. But one man, an outsider, wanders upon the village and settles there. He then dutifully impregnates all the women of the village for a generation, until his sons could take over, and the village is saved from extinction.
So the village existed for a thousand years, yet the most recent common ancestor of the village was this man from the outside, in just the last generation.
How about a more realistic example? The descendants of Genghis Khan are said to number in the tens of millions, and that's just counting the men along the patrilineal (father to son) line. They form a nontrivial fraction of the entire world population. You can easily imagine that in another millennium, this group of people will move around, mix, and marry other people, to the point that everyone in the world will be a descendant of Genghis Khan.
At this future point, the human race would still be some 200,000 years old, but their MRCA would be Genghis Khan, who would have lived less than 2000 years ago. Also, this would not imply that Genghis Khan and his mates were the only people to exist in their time, or the only ones to contribute to the gene pool of the world population. In fact, even with Genghis Khan being the MRCA, his genetic contribution to any given individual at this point would be quite small, as it went through many intervening generations where it was mixed and diluted with other people's genes.
So, Adam and Eve were a recent common ancestor (RCA) to the human race. Note that they don't necessarily have to be the MOST recent common ancestor (MRCA); they could have been an ancestor to the MRCA, for instance. Note also that the biblical Adam and Eve are almost certainly not the mitochondrial Eve or the Y-chromosomal Adam. These individuals are the ancestor to only the members of their own sex, following only the matrilineal or patrilineal lines. This is a strong restriction on leaving descendants: for instance, if a couple only had a son, who then only had a daughter, this would break both the matrilineal and patrilineal lines, whereas the MRCA could still trace their descendants through this line. Because of this same-sex restriction, the lines of ancestry for mitochondrial Eve and the Y-chromosomal Adam converge far too slowly, making these individuals far older than the MRCA and too old to be the biblical Adam or Eve.
Lastly, there is the question of when, exactly, Adam and Eve became the common ancestor to the whole world. As I mentioned above, I believe that every person in the Bible, and everyone that we have a written historical record of, is a descendant of Adam and Eve. This means that their descendants had to spread to each of the major civilizations before it began to flourish, and probably spread out to nearly everywhere by the time of Christ. This is a strong constriction which forces back the lastest possible date for the common ancestor. An important reason that the MRCA of humans living today lived so recently is the relative ease with which we could travel to, colonize, conquer, and trade with the people living in far off places. This mixes the people of different lineages and allows quicker divergence from the MRCA. But the MRCA of the people living in the first century might have lived quite a bit further in the past, as the starting point is pushed back 2000 years, and travel was more difficult. But I believe that even under these constraints, Adam are Eve are sufficiently old enough to be the ancestors to all of humanity.
All these possible difficulties and implications, along with one major modification to this model that I have not yet mentioned, will be elaborated on in the next few posts. But for now, this is the skeleton outline of my model: Adam and Eve were recent common ancestors to all the humans that lived at the time of Jesus. Thereafter, all of us - all humanity - are their descendants. We inherit our spiritual condition from them, both the image of God and the effects of the original sin. Big Bang and human evolution all took place, but they happened far before Adam and Eve. I believe that, with the modifications that I'll discuss next week, my model squares with all the relevant scientific, historic, and biblical facts. In fact the the agreement between the biblical date for Adam and Eve, and the historical/scientific dates for recent common ancestors, is quite good.
You may next want to read:
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 2) (Next post of this series)
Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction
Why we should interpret the Bible in light of science
Another post, from the table of contents