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Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 1)

Image: Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, public domain

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 beforeGenesis 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)

Image: by me. Feel free to use, just link back to this post.

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

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9 comments on “Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 1)”

  1. Interesting. What's your take on Gen 2:7, where God formed a man from the dust of the ground? Is that purely figurative? It's in the section you treat as the literal record, so why would God tell us something that's utterly untrue (as it would be, if Adam and Eve were simply chosen from a pre-existing population of genetically-modern humans)? If, as you suppose, the Biblical couple were chosen, rather than formed, the Bible could simply have said:

    "Then the Lord God breathed into the nostrils of a man the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

    That would then be strictly true, and compatible with your theory. But that's not what the Bible says. It says that God formed a man from dust. And while the curse in Genesis 3 is poetic in language, it's still literal (we do indeed eat what we work hard for - and believe you me, Australia's terrain makes that pretty clear - and when we die, our bodies definitely do become dirt), so it would make good sense for the part about having been taken from the ground to be equally literal. God didn't say that we evolved from monkeys who evolved from etc etc etc that crawled out of the sea etc etc and ultimately came from an amoeba that was somehow alive; No, He says that we were formed from dust and then breathed into. (I can accept that "became a living being" is talking only about spiritual life, but it does sound more like a Geppetto/Pinocchio or Pygmalion/Galatea story to me - first form something that looks like a person, then make it alive.)

    Why would God say something unnecessary and false in an otherwise strictly-literal passage?

  2. I actually deliberately left out whether I thought Adam and Eve were created by an act of special creation, or simply chosen from among the group of preexisting people. My model is compatible with either. I can accept Gen. 2:7 as being purely literal - God makes a figurine out of dust, then breathes into it to make him both biologically and spiritually alive. But I can also accept "dust from the ground" as a pre-modern shorthand for saying "preexisting, terrestrial, mundane materials".

    In any case, do you think this model can work well with a literal interpretation of Genesis? I think there's room for God creating people other than Adam and Even even in a literal interpretation. All that Genesis says is that they were the first humans, and that we're all descended from them, not necessarily that they were the only ones to exist. It would solve some thorny problems in a literal interpretation too, such as the incest problem involving the wives of Cain and Seth, and who Cain was afraid of after he was exiled.

  3. Stuff we know for sure:
    * All of us are direct physical descendants of Adam - see the analogies with Christ (in Adam we all died, in Christ we're all made alive).
    * We're told about the Nephilim, but we're not told about any other non-Adamite people interbreeding with Adam's line.
    * All of Creation is subject to sin because of what Adam and Eve did.
    * People are *very* important to God.

    I think we can safely conclude that every being on this planet not descended from Adam and Eve is not a person - they are lesser beings (animals, plants, computers, etc), and subject to man's dominion (as stated in Gen 1:28 and reinforced by Rom 8:22). So the real question here is: Would God create "sub-humans", genetically identical to us but without spiritual life? And if so, how are they to be treated? What's it like when a person with the breath of life marries a person without the breath of life?

    You stated that you're confident that there are no more of these "sub-humans" left on the planet, and that this therefore cannot be used to justify racism of any form. Well and good. But suppose there's some dark, forgotten corner of the planet (maybe Atlantis really does exist?) in which there are some of these genetically-identical-but-not-truly-alive people - if it's possible for that to have been true just a couple of millenia ago, what's to stop it being true still? - and more importantly, if it's ever been true, the question of proper treatment of pseudo-humans has to be addressed. God didn't tell the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanite nations because they lacked the breath of life - it was because they had sinned, which means they must have been descendants of Adam. (See, for instance, Lev 18:24-28.) There's no time when the Bible tells us of God's people meeting non-people; there are a few mysterious ones (Melchizedek, for instance), but they're clearly spiritual beings just as much as we are.

    Also, picking up on Lev 18: verse 23 makes it very clear that sex is to be between humans. Where do you draw the line between humans and non-humans, if we're all part of a single evolutionary tree? By your theory, people will have been having sexual relations with pseudo-people all through history, up until the pseudo-people died out.

    What is acceptable and what is not? If the lines are vague, how can we be sure of the fundamental rules of morality and correctness?

  4. Good questions! This issue of "merely biological humans" is one of the things that, frankly, bothers me the most about my theory. In fact, dealing with this will be a big part of my post next week, where I'll make one major modification to the theory as presented here, as I mentioned in this post.

    But even so, as I said this is purely academic, as I believe that we are now all descendants of Adam and Eve, and have been for quite some time.

    I don't really worry about Leviticus 18 though. I think that's pretty clearly about bestiality, not anything about some issue that the Israelites would never have even known about.

  5. Lev 18 is indeed about bestiality. But if we're supposed to have sex only with other humans (and only humans of the opposite gender, but I am not going to get into a homosexuality debate here!), then we have to be able to define humans. One way to define humans is "those descended from Adam and Eve", but that directly contradicts your theory, which requires that non-Adamite men and non-Eveite (if that's a word?) women be brought into the family tree. Somehow, we're supposed to know who's "our kind" and who's not - and it's not meant to be a difficult question.

  6. May I respectfully suggest a different scientific scenario that still defends a literal Adam and Eve. I have just published an article entitled,"The rational credibility of a literal Adam and Eve." It appears in a peer-reviewed Spanish philosophical journal and can be downloaded in full here:

    I suggest that Adam and Eve are, indeed, the first true human beings with spiritual/intellective souls, that they lived much further back in time than usually assumed, and that all human beings are their biological descendants. I suggest that this theological position is compatible with evidence based evolutionary theory without recourse to some form of young earth creationism. Please read the entire article before forming any conclusions.

    Dennis Bonnette, Ph.D.
    Professor of Philosophy
    (Retired, Niagara University)

  7. Thanks for stopping by my page! I am working through your article, and I haven't yet finished reading it. But I'll definitely try to get back with some feedback when I do.

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