Peter Enns. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012. 192 pp. $17.99.
Peter Enns, professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, wrote this book because he is convinced that it is time for Christians to accept that, “The biblical authors tell a very different story of human origins than does science” (ix). Enns also argues that a modern critical approach to the origin of the biblical books supports the scientific conclusion that justifies Christians abandoning any notion of the biblical Adam as an actual person.
For the purposes of full disclosure I acknowledge that I have written my own book on Adam and Eve with very different conclusions than Enns’s on their historicity, and that Enns reviewed it with overall disapproval. By God’s grace the present review will focus on the issues and arguments at hand, and refrain from any quid pro quo foolishness. Instead I will summarize Enns’s book, and then discuss some key methodological points that I consider to be fatal flaws in his argument.
Enns has organized the book into an introduction, a section on “Genesis: An Ancient Story of Israelite Self-Definition” (chapters 1–4), a section on “Understanding Paul’s Adam” (chapters 5–7), and a conclusion with nine theses on thinking about Adam today.
The introduction (pages ix–xx) sets out clearly and unambiguously the perspective that Enns brings to the work, and therefore deserves careful attention. Two comments stand out: “The most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place—not merely so, but unalterably so” (xi); and, “If evolution is correct, one can no longer accept, in any true sense of the word ‘historical,’ the instantaneous and special creation of humanity described in Genesis, specifically 1:26-31 and 2:7, 22” (xiv). Enns dismisses all efforts to reconcile Genesis with “evolution” as producing a “hybrid” Adam who is “utterly foreign to the biblical portrait” (xiv-xv, xvii). (Here, as in general, Enns does not name those of whom he disapproves.)
Enns’s burden in his first section (chs. 1–4) is to explain that scholarly study of the origin and purpose of Genesis should keep us from attaching much in the way of “historicity” to its creation stories. As he puts it, “The Pentateuch was not authored out of whole cloth by a second-millennium Moses but is the end product of a complex literary process—written, oral, or both—that did not come to a close until the postexilic period. This summary statement, with only the rarest exception, is a virtual scholarly consensus after one and a half centuries of debate” (23, italics his). Further, the widely acknowledged parallels between the early chapters of Genesis and the mythical tales from other peoples in the ancient Near East show that the purpose of Genesis is to define Israel and her God over against these tales. And since these other tales are “clearly mythical” (37) and therefore unhistorical, why should we treat Genesis any differently?
Enns’s historical reservations are not limited to Genesis 1–11: from informing us that it “is widely known that the book of Exodus and the conquest narratives in Joshua and Judges do not give us a journalistic recounting of freed slaves and the beginnings of an independent nation,” he explains that “these narratives greatly embellished the events to serve another purpose” (62).
He posits, “Some elements of the [Genesis] story suggest that it is not about universal human origins but Israel’s origin” (65), offering a chart to show how the “Adam story mirrors Israel’s story from exodus to exile” (66). In such a reading Adam as an actual person is a misreading, since he is really “proto-Israel.”
In the second section (chs. 5–7), Enns addresses an obvious difficulty, namely that the apostle Paul presented Adam as an actual historical person, the first man. A major part of Enns’s argument will be familiar to those who have read his other writings on how New Testament writers use the Old—the idea that Paul’s Adam cannot result from a “straight exegesis” (81) of Genesis. He tells us, “what is missing from the Old Testament is any indication that Adam’s disobedience is the cause of universal sin, death, and condemnation, as Paul seems to argue” (82); he contends that this is true both of Genesis and of the way the rest of the Old Testament makes minimal reference to Adam.
When it comes to Paul, Enns contends, we must remember that he “was a first-century Jew, and his approach to biblical interpretation reflects the assumptions and conventions held by other Jewish interpreters at the time” (95). Second Temple Judaism provides a variety of takes on Adam, generally due to people filling in the blanks that the biblical story left open. Even though “we” can no longer accept Paul’s take on Adam as the first man (because of both science and historical criticism), Enns says, “death and sin are still universal realities that mark the human condition” (124).
The final section is a chapter consisting of nine theses that sum up his overall case:
1. Literalism [in reading Genesis] is not an option.
2. Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different language. They cannot be reconciled, and there is no “Adam” to be found in an evolutionary scheme.
3. The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way.
4. There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel’s story.
5. The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity.
6. God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him.
7. A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors—whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and the limitations of the cultural moment.
8. The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear of losing what it offers.
9. A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations.
This is an important book in many respects, but a difficult one to review in short compass. One reason for this is that Enns covers a lot of ground, his topics are controversial, and I disagree frequently with his judgments. But even more challenging is how hard it is to find extended arguments for Enns’s positions. He tells us that the post-exilic date for the final form of the Pentateuch (and indeed, for most of the OT) is the consensus opinion of scholars at research universities, and he gives a standard list of factors that move historical critical scholars in this direction. But other than a nod in the direction of the traditionalists (page 25, note 22, referring only to Umberto Cassuto [died 1951] and William H. Green [died 1900]), he never actually engages the traditionalist counter-arguments. Surely at this date we should at least acknowledge the work, say, of the British Tyndale Fellowship and those influenced by them (a number of whom are specialists in the languages and history of the ancient Near East, and thus hardly ignorant of the relevant data). The same goes for the text-linguistic works (say, by Longacre on the Flood Story) and literary studies that make it harder to justify dividing up biblical pericopes. Along these lines, does not research into literary conventions for conquest accounts show that idealization (and, as some suppose, a kind of hyperbole) is a better way of describing Joshua than “embellishment”? Besides, few today think that even journalists practice what Enns calls “journalistic recounting,” so it is another surprise to find its absence used as evidence for historical reservations.
One’s view of the origin of the biblical books is a historical judgment, and the logic we use is called “inference to the best explanation.” Such logic ordinarily requires engagement with the alternatives, and some gauge of the level of confidence to which we are entitled. Since this critical position on the origin of the Pentateuch plays such a large role in Enns’s own presentation, and since he is clear that the stakes are great, and since he wrote for a seriously Christian audience, the lack of such discussion is disappointing.
I am left to suppose, therefore, that Enns finds the case for a late Pentateuch persuasive, largely because of the list of factors he offers. Nevertheless, it is still not clear to me why I—or any other reader— should be persuaded. Is it the mere presence of the consensus he refers to so frequently? But that is not a critically valid argument. Assuming that the consensus actually exists (has anyone taken a survey?), one needs to know just how it came about, and with what combination of persuasion, inculcation, indoctrination, and coercion it is enforced. Further, consensus changes: as Enns is aware, what he calls the contemporary consensus has replaced an older one, and may well itself be replaced. (No believing reader of the early Christian apologists will be dismayed by our current situation in which traditionalists are marginalized in the world of scholarship.) In fact, I do not know if acceptance of some historical-critical conclusions entails historical skepticism about Adam and Eve; certainly Enns has not argued the point.
Further, surely some acknowledgement of worldview factors would be appropriate when addressing the consensus of scholars in research universities. Is there any link between ideology, method, and conclusions? Enns seems to proceed as if this consensus is value neutral—perhaps it is (much as I doubt it), but he ought to show it. After all, some historical critical authors come right out and state their naturalistic assumptions; hence there are legitimate grounds for wondering whether at least some of others’ scholarship stems from a presupposed naturalism that is inimical to the biblical perspective.
Enns makes frequent reference to the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish (called by some the Epic of Creation), but makes no reference to the work of Alexander Heidel, an important Assyriologist who also held fairly traditional Christian views of the Bible. If Enns thinks, contra Heidel, that the alleged connections between Genesis and Enuma Elish undercut the traditionalist positions, he is free to argue this; but I cannot see the sense of ignoring the work of so accomplished a scholar of the ancient Near East. Even more, many Assyriologists no longer think that Enuma Elish is in fact the relevant “parallel” to anything in Genesis, since it is taken to be sectarian and aberrant (according to Wilfred Lambert). The Mesopotamian works that are now considered relevant to Genesis date from 1600 BC and earlier, and were becoming available in the west in the latter part of the second millennium (the time of Moses)—which of course invites further interest in what effect that might have on the date of Genesis.
One last methodological critique before we get to the nub. Enns’s readings of biblical materials often come across as simplistic. For example, he tells us, “The Old Testament portrays humanity in general and Israel in particular as out of harmony with God, but the root cause of this condition is nowhere laid at Adam’s feet” (84). In the same context we find, “We do not read that hereafter all humans will be born into a state of sinfulness from which all efforts to eradicate oneself are in vain. . . . [T]his is not what Genesis says.” Enns is not the first person to make such observations, but it is still surprising to read anyone asserting this without discussion, when since the 1980s there has been so much work in narrative poetics for the Bible. The sparse nature of biblical narrative makes showing the norm over telling, while Enns is looking for telling; and Genesis 1–11 does indeed show humankind’s descent into sinfulness from a “very good” condition. If that were not enough, how can we miss the way that the “painful toil” (‘itstsabôn, Gen 5:29) surely evokes the “pain” that came upon the man and woman as God’s sentence for their disobedience (Gen 3:16, 17)? Likewise, Genesis doesn’t say that the serpent was the mouthpiece of Satan (cf. 99); but how can we read its vile speech and conclude otherwise? Similarly, Enns seems to have a very limited set of criteria for how any later author might “refer to” the Adam and Eve story. (I say “seems,” because I have to infer that from how he treats the matter; he doesn’t bring up the topic himself.) I come away puzzled over Enns’s naïve way of reading.
One way in which that naiveté shows itself is the “Adam-as-proto-Israel” reading that he posits, with its denial that Adam was ever presented as the universal ancestor. Quite aside from the way in which biblical, Second Temple Jewish, and early Christian writers do in fact view Genesis 1–2 as a story of universal origins, there is the well-established literary and theological observation that Genesis presents Abraham’s family as a fresh start on humankind—in other words, as a “new Adam.” In such a case, Genesis would indeed present Adam as “like” an Israelite, in order that each member of Israel would see his or her role as part of God’s “new Adam” in the world. In other words, it looks like Enns’s simplistic reading gets the relationship between Israel and literary Adam exactly backward.
Evolution and Literalism
Now we come to the nub topic. As noted above, Enns is convinced that “evolution” and “Biblical Adam” are utterly incompatible. A chief part of following his argument, of course, consists in knowing what definition he assigns to either of those terms; and Enns is clear about the second and vague about the first. I cannot tell whether he has a particular notion of what “evolution” is, or if it is a general term for “the results of the modern sciences regarding the antiquity of the cosmos and earth, and the development of life over a long period,” or some combination. Hence the book altogether lacks any discussion of what kinds of evolution he has in mind, or of whether the advocates of evolution all mean the same thing, or whether we lay persons have any right to evaluate the proffered theories.
Enns’s estimate of the “Biblical Adam” comes from a strongly literalistic reading of Genesis: “The biblical writers assumed that the earth is flat, was made by God in relatively recent history (about 4,000 years before Jesus) just as it looks now, and that it is a fixed point in the cosmos over which the sun actually rises and sets” (xiii). This is why he rejects as “hybrids” the efforts of so many to work Adam into a modern scientific picture.
But need we be so facile in simply writing off the way that such people as Benjamin Warfield, Donald Wiseman, Bruce Waltke, Gordon Wenham, John Walton, and N. T. Wright (to mention no others) have read the biblical account, with varying levels of interpreting “evolution”? I think the answer must be a clear "no.” There is no necessary correlation between history and literalistic description, despite Enns’s tacit, and thus unargued, assumption that there is (an assumption he shares with many in the historical-critical camp). Indeed, one advantage that comes from recognizing that Genesis 1–11 as set over against pagan (and mostly Mesopotamian) accounts of origins and flood is the awareness that such stories are intended to have historical referentiality (what Assyriologists call pre-history and proto-history), and that at the same time no one ever expected the material to be read too literalistically (the Sumerian King List, for example, attributes to the kings before the flood absurdly long reigns of thousands of years). Enns says that these comparisons help to “calibrate the genre of Genesis 1” (41), but I find his grasp of the poetics of both the Mesopotamian and the Hebrew stories wanting.
I gather that Enns shares with many historical-critical scholars a dismissal of appeals to “phenomenal language” and so forth. Their assumption is that a straightforward and literalistic link exists between the referent and the way an author represents that referent—that is, the representation simply reflects the author’s own conception. But this ought to be highly controversial, especially in view of the work done in contemporary linguistic semantics and pragmatics, literary theory, and rhetoric. All speakers and authors' representations of a referent are governed by a mix of conventionalities, of personal conceptions, and of rhetorical concerns—which makes it pretty difficult to prove that the personal conception is the prominent factor. Beyond that, one would have to show that the personal conceptions are bound up in the author’s act of communication. As far as I can tell, the age and shape of the earth plays no role in anyone’s communication in the Bible; and the likely explanation for that is—besides the obvious fact that such topics are outside of the authors’ purposes—what C. S. Lewis said about ordinary people in the Middle Ages: “There were ditchers and alewives who . . . did not know that the earth was spherical; not because they thought it was flat but because they did not think about it at all” (Discarded Image, 20). The texts from which the supposed world picture of the biblical writers is inferred are all either poetic or ordinary language, and thus this inference is quite likely wrong. But Enns has no discussion at all that justifies his tight connection between referentiality and literalism, and I should think that such discussion ought to be the heart of the book.
It is the traditionalists’ confidence that the biblical story of Adam is intended both to be referential (about real persons and events) and rhetorically artistic, together with a respect for science, that has motivated them to come up with historical-scientific scenarios by which to picture Adam and Eve and their progeny. Indeed, they have tried to challenge, and even discard, any naturalistic extrapolations from the scientific theories, much as they have differed somewhat in their judgments of where the naturalism comes in. Affirming the actual resurrection of Jesus, Enns is personally a Christian and not a naturalist; but if he can swallow that camel, why strain out the gnats by approving a naturalistic account of the Bible and of biological origins?
The Presence of Sin
Finally, a few words about Enns’s discussion of Paul. The first thing to say is that Paul is emphatically not the only New Testament author to use the Adam and Eve story. Besides the important imagery in Revelation 22:1–5 (where God will ultimately remove the effects of the sin of Genesis 3), there is the Jesus of Matthew 19:3–9 (see also Mark 10:2–9). Jesus rejects treating the family law of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 as the final ethic for God’s people, preferring instead the pattern of creation found in Genesis 1:27; 2:24. And how does he explain the family law? It is because of the hardness of the human heart, while “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). What has made the change if not the disobedience of Genesis 3? Enns mentions the Revelation passage (74) without seeing how it should affect our thinking; and I could find nothing on the Matthew text.
Enns acknowledges that Paul was convinced that “death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition” (124). To his credit, Enns does not make the move that some do, that of attributing sin to an inevitable consequence of human creation. Nevertheless without a first transgression (and transgressor), he cannot explain the presence of sin but thinks we can retain Paul’s theology without Adam. But, as Peter Leithart observed, “What does Pete [Enns] think Paul’s theology (or biblical theology as a whole) is if it is not an interpretation of history? And, having left Paul behind, how does he account for the contingency of sin and death—which, it seems, is a necessary presumption if we are going to talk about Christ’s victory over death and sin?” That contingency, by the way, is also why Revelation portrays God’s ultimate victory as a banishment of sin and death from his renewed creation.
In such a climate, all apologetic questions of whether humankind is a natural product of evolution or of something special, of whether there is such a thing as a humankind at all, of how sin came into the world, and of why our souls abhor sin and dysfunction as “not the way it’s supposed to be” and yearn for healing, are of course not to be found—all of which the traditional notions of Adam sought to explain.
In general, Enns presents what he takes to be the “consensus” view of “modern scholarship,” and underplays any critique of that consensus. Nor does he recognize that this approach can be highly circular: who qualifies as a “scholar,” and does dissent from the consensus disqualify one? Further, he tends to rely on a kind of either-or tactic: either it’s the critical consensus or it’s a simplistic brand of fundamentalistic literalism that is more simplified than that of any fundamentalist I know. There is no effort to warrant this stark antithesis and no awareness of the problem. The book is rife with oversimplifications like this. What’s more, as I have remarked, he gives no analysis of any ideological underpinnings for the consensus, or of whether that makes any difference. Simply on the basis of sound critical thinking the book’s case must be judged a failure.
I found a value in reading this book, because its argumentative style strengthened and clarified my own hermeneutical thinking in the process of disagreement. Nevertheless I do not recommend that anyone follow Enns into his conclusions. Indeed, I came away even more confident in traditional views of Adam and Eve as our specially created first parents through whom sin and evil came into human experience. If evolutionary theories are opposed to that, then those theories must adapt to accommodate the entire range of evidence.
C. John Collins is profesor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Crossway, 2011).