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Hebrew Bible

Adam is the Hebrew word used for the prototypical human being created by God in the two creation accounts in Genesis (1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-3:24). In the first account, it refers to the apparently androgynous creation made on the sixth day (1:26-27). In the second account, it means a male-gendered human, as is made explicit after the creation of a female-gendered human (e.g., 2:22). An explanation for the term appears in the second account, where it is connected with the word used for the earth (adama) that God shaped in order to fashion the first human body (2:7). Contrary to later usage in both the Bible and post-biblical literature, in the two accounts the word should not be read as a proper name but in a generic sense, either “the man” or “humans.” Though the man gives names to the animals (2:19) and to his wife (“Eve” [3:20]), he is never explicitly named. Only after the creation narratives is there a suggestion that Adam may be his proper name (e.g., 4:25), though it may also retain a generic sense, as in the genealogy that starts with the first human generation (5:1-2; compare 5:3, where it is juxtaposed to other proper names).

Adam, along with the woman Eve, are archetypal beings from whom all humans are descended. Though later biblical texts seldom refer explicitly to Adam and to the creation narratives, his nature and his actions serve to define the qualities of humanity in the Hebrew Bible. His mortality (Gen 3:19; cf. Eccl 12:7), likeness to God (Gen 1:26; cf. Gen 9:6), status at the climax of creation (Gen 1:31; cf. Ps 8:7), worldly dominion (Gen 1:28; cf. Gen 9:2), and moral nature (Gen 3:17) are among the distinctive human qualities first attributed to him. Likewise, his and Eve’s experiences are etiological. The need to work to survive, the shame of nakedness, and women’s pain in childbirth are among the divine consequences that they face for eating of the forbidden tree and that serve as precedents for later human’s universal experiences.

Outside the two creation narratives in Genesis, the person Adam appears only rarely in the Hebrew Bible. In just a few cases, the word Adam is connected to the specific human in Genesis, for example, when he is identified as the first of the human race (e.g., Job 15:7; 1 Chr 1:1). Much more often, the word adam, in a generic sense, is used for an individual male, sometimes with the prefix “son of” (e.g., Ps 8:5; Ezek 2:1 and often in Ezek).

Second Temple Period

In contrast to the relative lack of interest outside Genesis in Adam (and in other pre-Abrahamic characters) in the Hebrew Bible, the two creation narratives gave rise to a rich tradition of post-biblical statements about this enigmatic and allusive figure. Interpreters turned to these narratives with profound questions about the biblical portraits of humans and God. Ambiguities in the original text sparked intense interest, about, for example, whether the being created in Gen 1:26 was androgynous; the identity of the snake; the nature of the transgression that was committed; and more. Later, in both Jewish and Christian pre-modern interpretations, many sought to harmonize the two accounts, as if the Adam in the first three chapters in Genesis was one male figure seen from different angles.

Despite Adam’s transgression and ejection from Eden, there is a pattern in Jewish literature from the period after the Bible portraying Adam surprisingly favorably. Ben Sira (early 2nd cent. BCE) places him at the apex of humanity: “Above every other created living being was Adam” (49:16). The Wisdom of Solomon (1st cent. BCE) celebrates Adam’s authority over the created realm, attributing to him such qualities as “holiness and righteousness” (9:1-3) and, unexpectedly, even wisdom “that delivered him from his transgression” (10:1-2). The Qumran sectarians (2nd cent. BCE - 1st cent. CE) thought that members of their community were able to possess “all the glory of Adam” (CD III:20). Philo (1st cent. BCE - 1st cent. CE) too viewed him as far superior to later humans, who were created not by God (as was Adam) but as the offspring of other humans, even though Adam did lose some of his grandeur because of his transgression. In line with his allegorical approach, Philo links Adam with noble attributes of reason and mind, describing him in grandiose terms as “full of intuitive wisdom and self-taught,” unlike Eve, who was easily led astray by sensory perceptions (On the Creation 140, 148, 165).

Ancient Jewish writers turned to the narratives about Adam when considering the origins of sin and death. Most prominently, 4 Ezra, soon after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE, struggles to understand the evil deeds that humans do. All the way back to Adam, transgressions are attributed to an “evil heart” (3:21-26). This aspect of his nature was not something he received because he disobeyed God but appears to have been present within him when he was created. Furthermore, this aspect was not limited to Adam but was shared by “all his descendants.” Importantly, they did not inherit it as a result of a sin committed by Adam. Like him, they possessed it inherently, by virtue of being human. However, they are not doomed, but if they act righteously they can overcome this will to transgress (7:128).

The New Testament

The figure of Adam appears in a few places in the New Testament, when authors draw on different parts of the two creation narratives in Genesis. Jesus’ sole reference to Adam and Eve is in a dialogue with Pharisees, in order to buttress his rejection of divorce (Mk 10:2-12 // Mt 19:3-12; cf. Mt 5:31-32). In Mark’s version, he cites the first creation account—“God made them male and female” (Gen 1:27; the MT introduces zakar and the LXX and Jesus use arsen)—and the subsequent institution of marriage—“the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24)—as the ideal. Jesus’ method of citing a biblical text not originally related to the issue currently under discussion (divorce) is a familiar feature of halakhic disputation in ancient Judaism. He also introduces the unexpected polemical claim that the provision for divorce in the Torah was a divine accommodation to the “hardness of your hearts,” a harsh indictment of both (some) other Jews and implicitly of the Torah as fully conveying God’s will.

Adam is included in the Lucan genealogy (3:23-38). This likely hints at the theme of the universality of the gospel in the two-volume work Luke-Acts. Much of the narrative, especially in Acts, is devoted to demonstrating the providential spread of the gospel to non-Jews, who respond favorably to preaching, unlike most Jews. While most of Luke’s genealogy includes Israelites / Jews, it extends beyond the patriarch Abraham all the way back to the creation, including Noah, Shem, Enoch, and others. It ends by labeling Jesus “son of Adam, son of God.” This incorporation of figures outside the bounds of Israel suggests the later inclusion of believing gentiles (e.g., Acts 10). This is underscored when contrasted with Matthew’s genealogy, which ignores the figures in the primeval history and begins with the patriarch Abraham (1:2). This reflects the comparatively greater stress Matthew places on Jesus’ Jewishness.

In the context of discussions of sexuality and gender norms, other New Testament writers mention Adam, sometimes by name, and sometimes using the generic Greek aner (man) with explicit reference to the creation narratives. Paul repeatedly draws upon the creation accounts and descriptions of the first man. Addressing women’s roles in the community, he refers to the nature and order of creation in both Genesis accounts. In 1 Cor 11, he reads Gen 1:26 from the first account as if the seemingly androgynous figure was actually a male: “he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man” (1 Cor 11:7; the LXX and Paul use aner, not Adam). Next, he draws on the second creation account, in which Eve is made from Adam’s rib, and notes that “man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (1 Cor 11:8, referring to Gen 2:22; the LXX uses Adam, while Paul uses aner). Paul, however, seems not to be satisfied with the implications of this interpretation of Genesis. He immediately precludes what could have been seen as an endorsement of gender hierarchy: “For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12). Elsewhere in the letter, in chapter 7, he cites Adam and the creation narratives in his discussion of marriage. He views the acceptance of sexuality and the establishment of marriage in Gen 2:18-24 negatively, especially in light of the imminent eschaton. (Note the absence of any statement linking marriage and procreation.) While he grudgingly permits it in order to avoid sexual immorality, he views it as inferior to his own behavior (he appears to have been unmarried and celibate) (1 Cor 7:1-9; see also 1 Cor 7:32-34, 38; cf. Mt 19:10-12). Such an attitude toward marriage, and perhaps an endorsement of celibacy, is rare among Second Temple or Rabbinic Jews, with the exception of sectarian groups such as the Therapeutae or Essenes (e.g., Philo, Hypothetica 11:14).

Paul introduces Adam into a complex discussion of resurrection (both of Christ’s and, in the near future, of human believers). The afterlife and possibility of resurrection and post-mortal existence was a contentious issue among Second Temple and Rabbinic Jews (such as Pharisees and Sadducees; cf. Josephus, BJ 2:163; Acts 23:8). In 1 Cor 15 Paul offers a lengthy exposition of the nature of Christ’s resurrection and the hope for humans by drawing upon the biblical portrait of Adam. He juxtaposes the punishment of death that Adam introduced into the world because of his transgression (“all die in Adam”) with the expectation that “all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22). Paul explains the nature of the resurrection and transformation through a series of contrasts. The “perishable” human body of “flesh and blood” he links with the “first” Adam of Genesis 1-3. He was “sown in dishonor” at creation, for he had a purely “physical” existence, being made of “dust” and subject to “weakness” (15:42-50; cf. Gen 2:7). While he had worldly power, greater power lies with “the Son himself,” who will “put all things in subjection to him” (1 Cor 15:27, quoting Ps 8:6). Christ is the “last” or “second” Adam. Though a “human being” who experienced death, through his resurrection he “became a life-giving spirit.” Most importantly for the believers, soon they will transcend their lowly Adamic nature. Though they are only humans like Adam, they “bear the image of the man of heaven [i.e., Jesus].” They should anticipate a transformation like his. Exchanging their “perishable” for “imperishable” bodies, they will avoid the fate of Adam and of all humanity—death. (In later Christian art, this reversal is visually represented with images of Christ’s cross raised on the spot of Adam’s tomb with his blood purifying the dead Adam.)

In a multi-chapter polemic against the “law” in Romans, a similar contrast appears in the form of a typology between Adam (the type) and Christ (the anti-type) (5:10-21). In order to explain the nature of the “reconciliation” offered to his readers, Paul adduces the example of Adam. His transgression, he argues, had profound effects on later humanity. This “one man’s trespass” introduced sin and death into the world. It thus led to God’s “judgment” and “condemnation” of all. Christ, as the anti-type, fully reverses this human status. The “grace of this one man” likewise affects “many.” The disobedience of Adam that made all his descendants sinners is nullified by Christ’s “free gift.” Though sinners, they now can seek “justification” and be “righteous.” Their end is no longer death as experienced by Adam and other humans but “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A later reference to the creation story appears in 1 Timothy. The author, likely writing at the end of the first century, justifies the subordination of women to men by appealing to Adam’s status as the first-formed of humanity and hence in authority over Eve (2:13-14).

Early Christianity

References to Adam appear in Christian anti-Jewish texts, especially from the early centuries of the common era, during the so-called partings of the ways, when many composed adversus Judaeos texts. One of the earliest of such appearances of Adam is in the Epistle of Barnabas (late 1st cent. - early 2nd cent). The author devotes much of his letter to interpreting the Hebrew Bible / Septuagint christologically. Throughout, he harshly criticizes non-believing Jews (called “Israel”) for their failure to understand the Bible as Christians do, as well as for their opposition to Jesus. In a complex catena of biblical citations (including Gen 1:26), he draws upon the first creation narrative in his christological rereading of the promise of land to Israel. Exploiting the ambiguity of the Greek term ge, which can mean either “land” (as in the land of Israel) or “earth,” he links the first creation of Adam from the “earth” to the “second creation,” when Jesus will lead believers into the “land,” meaning Christian faith (6:8-19).

Adam appears in some early adversus Judaeos texts in arguments against the binding authority on Christians of (some) biblical commandments. (Almost always, it is the commandments regarding food, sabbath, circumcision, and other ritual markers of Jewish identity that are rejected.) Writers include Adam among the pre-Abrahamic biblical figures who were not required to be circumcised. Citing this precedent, Tertullian (late 2nd cent. - early 3rd cent.) writes that “God originated Adam uncircumcised” and, likewise, God “did not circumcise him, even after his sinning.” From this, Tertullian deduces, it is unacceptable to demand that Christians be circumcised. The same argument applies to sabbath observance, which, he says, Adam knew nothing of. Tertullian makes another argument against Torah-observance by Christians based on the commands given to Adam. He argues that God first revealed to him so-called “unwritten laws.” These include, for example, love of neighbor, love of God, the prohibition of murder, and the prohibition of covetousness. Together, these moral laws constitute the “general and primordial law of God.” This was known by the earliest biblical figures (including Adam, Abel, Melchizedek, and Noah) and alone could serve as a sufficient guide to righteous living, long before the revelation of the Mosaic law. Christians can therefore trust in “natural law” and need not be circumcised or follow the specific precepts of the Torah. The latter apply solely to the Jews (Tertullian, Against the Jews 2-4).

Justin (mid-2nd cent.) is similarly critical of circumcision, insisting that Christians need not be circumcised. He supports this view by noting Adam’s lack of circumcision. He says this ritual surely has no merit; if it did, “God would not have made Adam uncircumcised.” He goes on to note that Abel and Enoch, though living long before Abraham (to whom the commandment of circumcision was first issued), were viewed favorably by God without undergoing circumcision. Therefore, this ritual, and also rituals in the Mosaic law that could separate Jew from gentile, should be rejected by Christians as unnecessary and divisive. His critique is harshly anti-Jewish; besides its irrelevance to Christians, he argues that circumcision was given in order to restrain the Jews’ particularly base instincts (Dialogue with Trypho 19-20). Aphrahat (early 4th cent. CE) makes a parallel critique of Sabbath observance. Like the commandment of circumcision, it appeared long after the time of Adam. If it was necessary for “righteousness,” surely it would have been “appropriate” for God to inform the first man about it. It is not, though Jews “vainly” observe it (Demonstrations 13:4-12).

Early Christians increasingly ceased to have any attachment to the land of Israel, and they justified this from the narratives about Adam. Minimizing the importance of the land and the promise of inheriting it, they insisted that Christians were equally at home anywhere (e.g., Heb 11:15; Diognetus 5). Jews, by contrast, foolishly yearned to return to a land they had justly been exiled from as divine punishment for opposing Jesus (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:4:3; Origen, Contra Celsus 4:22). Some critiqued claims that the land retains any theological significance. For example, Origen (mid-3rd cent.) challenges the biblical praise of the land as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Contra Celsum 7:28). Instead, he applies the generic curse pronounced on the land following Adam’s transgression (“cursed is the ground because of you” [Gen 3:17]) especially to the “land [eretz] of Judea” (CC 4:28; note the Hebrew uses different words for the “land”: adamah [Gen 3:17]; eretz [e.g., Ex 3:8]).

These patristic writers contrast Adam with Jesus. The devil, Justin notes, appeared as a serpent and deceived Adam. Christ, however, resisted the devil’s temptations (Dialogue 103). Origen symbolically links Adam and Christ through the symbol of the tree. For Adam, “through the tree came death,” referring to the prohibited tree of knowledge of good and evil and the punishment of death. For Christ and Christians, “through the tree comes life,” referring to the cross (CC 4:36).

Christian theological claims are supported by reference to the story of Adam. For example, Aphrahat writes that the resurrection of the dead has its precedent in the creation of Adam. In the second creation account, God was able to make Adam “from nothing.” Compared with that remarkable deed, the resurrection of the dead will be comparatively easy for God. Therefore, one should have no doubts that God will be able to do that too (Demonstrations 8:6). Adamic language is used elsewhere in this context. Speaking of the first human being as representative of all humanity, he says that upon Jesus’ return, “the whole body of Adam” will be raised (Demonstrations 8:13).

Rabbinic Literature

Beginning in the third century, rabbis present a range of views on Adam (as on most subjects). They make many references to the creation narratives, often in midrashic contexts, and are often quite favorable about Adam. It is unknown whether any statements were intentionally directed against Christian views. However, in general Jews and Christians over time adopted divergent views regarding the nature of Adam and his transgression.

Like Philo, many rabbis praise Adam, acclaiming his unique status and deeds of piety. He rejected idolatry and properly worshiped the one God, they said. Under his guidance, all the other creatures “adorned in majesty and might and acclaimed their Creator as King over themselves” (PdRE 10). Most striking are favorable statements about him from the time after his transgression. He was eager to repent, fasting and separating from his wife for 130 years (b. Eruv. 18b; see also b. AZ. 8a; but see Num. R. 13:3). God graciously pardoned him, and he was a model to all future humans of God’s willingness to pardon even grievous transgression (Lev. R. 29:1). Despite ejecting Adam from the garden, God clothed him gloriously in “garments of light…which were like a torch” (Gen. R. 20:12). His appearance was stunning; he was more attractive than anyone else, even the biblical patriarchs (b. B.B. 58a). He is grouped with the “seven shepherds” who will rise to defend Israel, alongside David, Moses, and Abraham (b. Suk. 52b). Likewise, he is buried at a place of great honor, with Israel’s earliest heroes in Kiryat Arba (b. Eruv. 53a). Against more critical views, Rabbi Nehemiah insists that Adam will enter the world to come (Gen. R. 21:7).

Adam’s sin was recognized as having fateful consequences, above all mortality for humanity (Num. R. 10:2; Deut. R. 9:8). The world lost some of its original glory (Gen. R. 11:2). Nonetheless, later humans did not inherit Adam’s guilt. Certainly the world was changed because of his transgression, but the transgressions of others cannot be blamed on him (Num. R. 19:18). To those humans who reproach him when facing post-mortem judgment, he insists that they bear responsibility for their own misdeeds: Adam said, “I died having committed but one sin; however, there is not a single one of you who has committed less than four sins” (Tanhuma, Chukat 16). This illustrates rabbinic theological anthropology in general. Humans by nature, as early as Adam, were formed with two competing inclinations, a yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and a yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) (b. Ber. 61a; Gen. R. 9:7). Actions are not pre-determined, nor are humans fated to yield to one or the other inclination. Rather, individuals are free to choose whether to obey or disobey God and the commandments. For those who do succumb to sin, there is also nearly always the possibility of repentance.

Adam’s sin is said to have caused the divine presence to partially retreat from the world (Gen. R. 19:7), though it did not irreparably damage the world. On the contrary, God created Abraham after Adam so that the great patriarch could “come and set things right” (Gen. R. 14:6). This claim shows that the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 marked a profound break with the earliest times, that is, the primordial history that is filled with human failures. The break has world-changing consequences, in this case a decrease in sin, though there is not an alteration in human nature or the abolition of death.

Augustine on Adam

Some prominent early Christian writers claimed that humans were not burdened by any inherited sinfulness as a result of Adam’s transgression and were given free will whether to sin or not (e.g., Justin, Second Apology 7; Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus I:7). However, Augustine (4th cent.-5th cent.) proposed an idea of “original sin” going back to Adam. He drew extensively on the account in Genesis 1-3, especially in his controversies with Pelagius and his followers. Against their optimistic account of humans’ ability to do good and resist evil despite their descent from Adam, Augustine offered a pessimistic view of human nature. Adam’s prideful transgression, he wrote, brought not only death into the world but also sin. As all humans are affected by the emergence of mortality that struck the first couple, so are all inheritors of the sinful nature of Adam. Regardless of their own actions, by virtue of their creation through sexual reproduction humans necessarily take on the same lowly status of their parents and those before them, back to Adam and Eve: “The fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it guilty” (The Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin 2:39:44). His views, which were developed over a few decades and in multiple works, met with strong resistance. However, they eventually became dominant in Western Christianity. His position also stands in contrast with the mainstream rabbinic position as found in classical rabbinic texts from the early and middle periods of the first millennium, though there is no evidence for direct engagement between Augustine and the rabbis on this issue.

Later Views

Adam shows up occasionally in later polemics. In Christian literature, Adam is cited in critiques of the authority of the biblical commandments and in contrasts between the Old Adam (linked with Judaism) and New Adam (linked with Christianity), much as he was in earlier writings (e.g., John of Capistrano [14th cent.-15th cent.]). In their disputation in Barcelona in 1263, Nachmanides and Paul Christian disagreed about Adam’s sin and whether Jesus had overcome it. In an important study of supersessionism, Kendall Soulen has demonstrated how much Christian soteriology rests upon a highly circumscribed view of Scripture, one that gives Adam’s sin disproportionate significance. By constructing a scenario that leaps from Gen 1-3 (Adam’s sin / fall) to the coming of Christ (the reversal of the fall), the rest of the intervening biblical narrative, and in particular the story of the people of Israel, is rendered nearly irrelevant.

Bibliography

  • Greenblatt, S., The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (New York 2017).Google Scholar

  • Kvam, K. E., L. S. Schearing, and V. Ziegler (eds.), Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Bloomington 1999).Google Scholar

  • Pagels, E., Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York 1988).Google Scholar

  • Soulen, R. K., The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis 1996).Google Scholar

  • Visotzky, B., “Will and Grace: Aspects of Judaising in Pelagianism in Light of Rabbinic and Patristic Exegesis of Genesis,” in The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity (ed. E. Grypeou and H. Spurling; Leiden 2009) 43-62.Google Scholar

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