Was Adam “real”?
Well, it depends. What is your definition of “real”?
Must Adam be the actual, genetic, biological forefather of every human alive and who ever lived in order to qualify as “real”?
If so, we have a big problem with modern genetics.
If not, we have a big problem with the traditional creationist view of Adam.
A New Testament scholar (Scot McKnight) and an award-winning geneticist (Dennis R. Venema), writing in turn, each tackle the same question in Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science.
Was Adam real?
Venema Goes First
As a professor at a Christian University, Dr. Venema experienced the thin ice of accepting biological evolution and maintaining employment. But to his surprise, he caught more flak from university administrators for questioning a historical Adam than he did for teaching the common ancestry of humans and apes.
According to Venema, modern genetics is clear: the human population was never a set of two individuals.
Mapping the human genome was a turning point in history. For the first time, we could read the complete genetic blueprint for building a human.
Because we have the map, we know how many “versions” exist of a specific gene. For example, the genes that control hair texture come in many versions, including curly, straight, and the unfortunate “uncombable hair syndrome”. There are multitudes of gene versions throughout the human genome – our species is very diverse.
Mutations in a gene are the source of variation in a trait. We know the rate at which genetic mutations occur. Mathematically, the diversity of present-day humans is so extensive it necessitates a large initial population. Math models have been created using other genetic components as well, and all models arrive at the same point: modern humans are descended from an ancestral population of about 10,000 individuals, not two.
Dr. Venema uses the analogy of language to illustrate the point. Languages with only a few speakers (for example, some of the indigenous languages of North America) – have almost no variations.
On the other hand, languages with many speakers – English, for example – can tolerate a large number of variations. Modern English is a global language and varies a great deal from country to country, even region to region.
The fewer the speakers of a language, the fewer the variations. Many speakers, a multitude of variations. The connection between the size of a population and the variation within that population applies to both languages and genes.
Actually, it is possible for a modern species to have descended from an extremely small ancestral group – this is called a “bottleneck”. Tasmanian devils are one such species.
At some point in their history, the Tasmanian devil population experienced a severe bottleneck. The population was reduced to a very small group. All Tasmanian devils living today are descended from that tiny bottleneck. As a result, all Tasmanian devils are virtually genetic identical twins. Tissue transferred between one Tasmanian devil to another causes no immune response – the recipient does not recognize the tissue as foreign.
But don’t try that with humans – tissues transplanted between humans invariably produce a strong immune response because humans are highly genetically diverse. If at any time the human population was a bottleneck of only two people it would leave a definitive mark on the genome.
Scot McKnight drives right to the point: what is a Bible-believer to do with Genesis 1-3 when our best science demonstrates unequivocally that modern humans arose from a population of 10,000 individuals?
McKnight opens with four principles that the best readers of the Bible always bring into play: respect, honesty, sensitivity, and the primacy of scripture.
Respect: Let Genesis be what it is. The creation stories in Genesis are consistent with other creations stories of the ancient near east.
Respect, then, means we learn to listen to Genesis 1-11 in its own world (and not our own).
Honesty: Face the facts; do not fear them. Genesis sounds like other ancient near eastern creation stories for a reason. Honesty requires we admit both similarities and differences.
Sensitivity: Understand the devastating impact on the faith of young adults who are educated in public schools when a literal six-day creation is given as a non-negotiable component of Christianity.
Primacy of scripture: Go to scripture first and respect the Bible for what it is saying. The Bible is not a “question and answer” book or a theology text; the Bible is a developing narrative of God’s revelation to his people.
McKnight then presents twelves theses – twelve pictures of what the Genesis narrative says about God. Adam and Eve are obviously literary characters in the theses. This does not mean they are fictional; likewise, it does not mean they are historical.
The remainder of the book is an in-depth look at how pre-modern Jews, including Paul and Jesus, looked at Adam and Eve. Do we assume that they believed Adam was the actual, physical, biological, and DNA father of us all? This assumes that pre-modern Jews understood genetic principles that would not be known for another 2000 years.
McKnight’s examination of the variety of Adams and Eves in the Jewish world is fascinating. Using Old Testament writings, New Testament writings, intertestamental sources, and first-century sources, McKnight outlines how each author used the Adam story for his own purposes. No writer gave Adam a “historical” reading until long after Paul.
Some writers treat Adam as a literary character (but not historical). Others, as a genealogical character. Sometimes, allegorical. But never as a genetic, DNA ancestor.
What are you going to do?
So what is an intellectually honest, Bible-honoring person to do with Genesis?
This book presents a challenge to the reader. Both authors tackle complex topics with the non-scientist and non-theologian in mind.
The genome map provides black-and-white evidence that the human population was never only one man and one woman.
The similarities between Genesis and other creation stories are inescapable.
Read the book; weigh the evidence.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge
Janet: Thanks for the study we had on Genesis titled Genesis For Normal People which was mind popping. Because of that time together, I can read this blog and actually understand what each is saying….so good for me!