Galileo meets Adam

The historicity of Adam is very much up for debate among Western Christians at present. One of the things that has made this debate possible is the increasing popularity of “non-literal” readings of Genesis 1; the ascendancy of such readings, in turn, has been prompted by a desire to bring the church’s interpretation of Genesis into accord with the findings of modern science. It is said that the church must do with the historicity of Adam (which is based on a certain reading of Genesis 1) what it eventually had to do with geocentric cosmology (which was based on a certain reading of the Psalms) after Galileo’s findings four centuries ago.

I really, really wonder about this Galileo analogy. One hears it all the time, but the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as facile. If we accept the popular rendering of Galileo’s story, he found himself up against a church that treated certain poetic imagery as a scientific description of the world, not because scripture itself demanded this reading (comparing scripture with scripture, it’s usually not that hard to tell when a biblical writer is waxing poetic), but because the reading was in accord with an older cosmological paradigm than the one Galileo was proposing. If the church looks foolish in retrospect, it’s because its interpretation of scripture was over-determined by an outdated model of the cosmos.

I don’t think the church actually needed Galileo’s extrabiblical findings to chasten its reading of scripture; I happen to think a more careful comparing of scripture with scripture would have compelled it to keep its cosmological options open. But be that as it may, what I want to argue rather vigorously is that comparison of scripture with scripture demands belief in a historical Adam and Eve, regardless of anything extrabiblical science has ever had to say on the subject.

Even if one were somehow able to make a compelling case that Genesis 1 is poetic (whatever exactly that means), the hard fact is that scripture – both in the rest of Genesis and elsewhere – traces the historical lineage of the human race back to a man named Adam and his wife named Eve. There is not a hint anywhere in the Bible that our historical genealogy tails off into poetic mist when we get all the way back to the opening two chapters. If Noah begat three sons named Shem, Ham, and Japheth; and if Abraham is the father of Isaac and Ishmael; then Adam is the father of Seth (1 Chronicles 1:1; Luke 3:38); Enoch is the seventh from Adam (Jude 14); and if Enoch is seventh, than Adam is the first. If we have some doubts about this, Adam was formed “first,” then Eve (1 Timothy 2:13); and after they were both deceived (non-poetically, it would seem, given the fallout), the whole human race (“all”) died “in Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:22), the “first man” (protos anthropos, 1 Corinthians 15:45).

One may sneer at this, because one holds that Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam are the equivalent of Galileo’s cosmology and it’s time for the church to get with the program; but do let’s admit that the biblical case for Adam’s historicity is enormously more airtight than a geocentric reading of the Psalms. It doesn’t require much interpretive discernment to notice that the Bible regularly describes the earth in metaphorical language, whereas every time Adam is mentioned he’s either the terminus ad quo of our human (biological, historical) genealogy or the original source in a universal etiology of sin (one does speculate at what point the descendants of Mitochondrial Eve might have become subject to divine judgment).

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