The Evolution of Adam: Was Adam Historical? (Book Review)

I have waited for this book for a long time.

Peter Enns has recently written a very controversial book entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. As one might already guess, for a Christian to put the term “evolution” and “Adam” together in an implied affirmative manner will, no doubt, churn heated discussion, especially for popular audiences. And it has. While Rachel Held Evans has given it aheartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation,  Ken Ham has labeled Dr. Enns as willfully ignorant and implied that he has sought the favor of academics over being true to God’s Word. A number of others have just threw out a number of Bible verses to Dr. Enns, perhaps thinking that if he would read the Bible (it would be a good idea for a Bible scholar to do so!) he would realize the error of his ways. So, with talk like this, why would I not want to read this book!

Brazos graciously sent me a review copy of the book and I cannot say it let down my expectations. I approached this book with a genuine sense of intrigue and curiosity as the question of Adam seems to be the greatest looming question in my mind which often is left unanswered by many theistic evolutionists. It is not a question which determines whether or not I accept evolution, as I recently made clear, but it is a question to be seriously dealt with. Enns, in my opinion, has made a major and well deserved contribution to the discussion and though the book is not without its faults, it is a contribution to the discussion of Genesis which deserves a hearing.

The book is separated out into two sections: Part 1 deals with Genesis; Part 2 deals with Paul. These are, correctly, the hinges upon which the literal Adam story hangs. Without Paul’s statements in Romans 5.12-21 and 1 Cor 15.20-58 and without the Genesis narrative of Adam, Eve, and a literal Fall, the controversy between evolution and theism would hardly be what it is. In Part 1, Enns handles the Genesis text very well. What lays in these pages is far from being common knowledge, though, and for anybody who hasn’t been exposed to contextual commentary on Genesis, much of it will come as a large surprise. I remember, for example, first hearing about Enuma Elish in my Intro to Old Testament in college. The truth is, I should have heard about it much earlier as an individual who had grown up in the Church, in a Christian home, and spent seven years at a Christian school. We watched videos on how dinosaurs still existed, but nobody even mentioned that Enuma Elish was the Mesopotamian creation myth which Genesis 1 models itself after. Nobody mentioned that The Epic of Gilgamesh was a flood narrative which predated the Genesis one and  in which the character “Utnapishtim” was an ancient parallel to Noah and that the story contains numerous parallels in story line to the Genesis account (for anyone interested in a good survey of this–and might not be interested in a book–Dr. Gary Rendsburg has an excellent course with the teaching company which outlines much of this!). Even Genesis 2-8 is postulated to be an Israelite version of the Atrahasis Epic. Dr. Enns is careful to note that such a recognition does not damage scriptural authority but, in fact, makes it something real; it makes it incarnation: “To put it this way in no way discredits the story or devalues it as God’s Word but respects the story on its own terms as it functioned in the world in which those stories were written” (56). For more on Dr. Enn’s approach, see his book Inspiration and Incarnation.

To get much of this out-of-the-way is to the benefit of the readers, even if they don’t directly impact the story of Adam. Together they culminate to show one simple fact: the Bible did not fall from the sky. In my words, the Bible is not the Book of Mormon. Just like the incarnation, God humbles himself to doing things our way, whatever dirt and mud and sloppiness that entails. We have, in the Bible, something which is infallible and authoritative (like Jesus) and yet clothed in process and development (“the Word became flesh”). The incarnation is more than what God simply chose to do in Jesus; it seems to be part of his very nature to do things in this way!

With a couple of points of exception, I can say that Dr. Enns has done an excellent survey of the Genesis material. The Genesis story is certainly modeled after various ancient myths like it. The purpose, as Dr. Enns notes, is not to describe something scientific, but to show “that their [the Jews] God is not like the other gods.” Take, for example, the difference between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1. As similar as they are, the latter text does not see the Creation as a result of a cosmic battle in which the world is created in the dead carcass of a divine being! It sees it, instead, as “very good” and something of which God has an intimate relationship with it and its inhabitants. Or take the flooding in the story of Noah. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the gods flood the earth for no supposed reason. In Genesis, however, it is a judgement in which God has reason to do so. The message? God does not cause a cosmic flood for nothing! Further, Dr. Enns has helped point the reader towards seeing Genesis as a story of Israel’s origins. It is, in his words, “self-definition” (73).  Israel’s central question, especially in times of exile, was “Who are we and who is God?” Genesis went a long way to answer that and to separate their identity from the gods of Babylon.

Now, onto Paul.

The section on Paul is, ironically, the least controversial and the more controversial of the two chapters. It isn’t that controversial because Dr. Enns fully admits that Paul believed in the historical Adam, a literal historical Fall, and that Adam was the beginning of the human race (119-20)…”Without question.” It will certainly be more controversial for the simple fact that Dr. Enns encourages his readers to separate from Paul on these beliefs. Evolution, in his mind, has provided the sufficient blow to taking Adam historically, and Paul’s words must be viewed in light this. He sets Paul’s use of Adam as a cultural idiom in the same light that many Pauline scholars place his use of “works vs. grace.” Paul was attempting to emphasize a point, not describe the Jewish religion as entirely works driven! In the same way, we must allow Paul to use the OT in the way which he needed to make a theological point: “Paul’s Adam as first human, who introduced universal sin and death, supports his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same Savior” (134). This is the main reason Paul saw Adam as historical and why so many Christians find it troubling to dispense with Adam. To be blunt, I agree with Dr. Enns on this point as well.

But I don’t think he has succeeded to remove Adam from the story completely. Indeed, even in the ancient flood story we have a probable historical kernel which arose out of a cataclysmic eastern flood event. Was there a character which built a boat? Maybe, maybe not. I personally find it hard to believe that all flood epics have a Noah-like character without there actually having been one who, perhaps, was a well-known survivor of the local flood. The specifics, the names, the pairs of animals, etc. These are points which surely come later in the story’s development, but many of these ancient myths, it seems, come from historical kernels  Gilgamesh was a historical king, though certainly the story builds off of him in drastic ways to a point of redefinition. But I find it interesting in the latter case and–perhaps the former–we don’t see creatures created out of whole cloth. We see individuals that are significant for one reason or another; they are built off in later narrative constructions, to be sure, but their name obviously continued to be significant to the point of being included in later literature.

It’s possible, as Dr. Enns admits, that we have two creatures which arise in the evolutionary process, endowed with the soul and the Imago Dei.  I agree with him, this is not the view of Paul. But I also disagree that such a speculation is merely “speculation.” We cannot read the evolutionary story into Genesis 1-3 but it is possible to envision the necessity for a historical Fall and to recognize that an Adam figure–in whatever way he looks–is our most likely candidate for such an event. If the Fall must be historical, and I think it does to make sense of redemption (how can you redeem something that was always broken), our Adam story may be much like the Noah epic. A historical kernel (and certainly the Fall would be an event which would carry on through generations), built upon by those seeking self-definition. Again, I stress that this is not a biblical perspective, but I think it is a theologically necessary perspective. Genre differences must be taken into account, but historical ambiguity does not trump the need for something to have occurred in history. Was there a snake? Probably not. Was it a fruit? Who knows?! But I think we have to admit, as Christians, that redemption means the correction of something gone wrong; I think free will entails that we have rejected God, both as individuals and as a corporate people; I think we cannot blame God for our evil and moral defects; and I don’t think Jesus, the second Adam, could not have come to fix something which the first Adam never made wrong in the first place. In other words, Genesis like or not, we have to conjecture that some figure–which we might as well label “Adam” for the sake of convenience–is our best place for pointing to a Fall.

Of course, Dr. Enns should be glad to know that this discussion is still something I am listening to. These are my thoughts, for now, and perhaps my view–like that of evolution–will eventually change. But for now, I simply cannot find a way to say the “why” of our human predicament may remain entirely open while dismissing all attempts to point to an Adam. And perhaps this is not that controversial of an idea. As noted, Dr. Enns freely admits that such a position is tenable. I think we disagree in that I think holding to some sort of “primitive Adam” is absolutely necessary for understanding our place in this world, our sin-natures from birth, and the mission of Christ to redeem the whole of Creation.

With all of that said, this is a book which I commend immensely. You may disagree with many aspects of it, but it cannot be accused of being mere fluff or theological liberalism. It is a serious attempt to reconcile the difficulties which we are now recognizing and I think, along with Dr. Enns, the identity of Adam and the literal interpretations we give Genesis, must be part of the discussion. Pick it up! Read it!


  • Paul Bruggink

    Thank you for your very fair and thoughtful review of Peter Enns’ book. I’m still struggling with the theological necessity (or lack of necessity) of an historical Adam, and I think Peter Enns made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion.

  • Steve

    Just another reason to loath “christian” TV.

    • Steve

      I’m sorry. I meant for the above comment to go on the piece describing TBN & Daystar video taping the return of Jesus.