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Dr Paul Marston: Was there really a literal Adam and Eve and serpent in Eden? Printer friendly version


Popular Culture and the Purpose of the Bible

Adam and Eve

Unfortunately, many people get their ideas about Adam and Eve from popular culture rather than what the Bible actually says. Moreover we should note that to Christians: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16). It is not to teach cosmology, geology or anthropology, and neither Jesus nor his apostles so use it. There are two accounts of creation in Genesis, one in ch.1 and the other in chs 2-3; both refer to “ādām but have a different order of events. Jesus plainly believed that both were inspired and God-given, and used quotes from both in Matthew 19 in teaching that God intended marriage to be a two-person, faithful, lifelong, male-female bonding. He did not use them to teach cosmology or anthropology. But let us look a little more closely at Jesus’ other references to the passages.

Everyone knows the story of how “Eve” was tempted by the “serpent” in Eden. After this, God said to the “serpent” : “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." (Genesis 3:15). But Jesus plainly did not see this as being about literal snakes. It was his human enemies that he called a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34; 23:33 etc), and of whom he said they were descended from “the devil” who was a “from the beginning” the “father of all lies” (John 8:44). The serpent in Genesis 3 is a symbol of a spiritual being, the devil or Satan, not a biological snake. This identification is explicitly confirmed also in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2. Some may suggest that perhaps the Genesis serpent was both a literal snake and a symbol of Satan. But the account refers only to one serpent, not two, and it would be odd to ascribe to a biological snake all the features (intelligence, relational language and moral accountability) which are unique to humans made in God’s image. As well as the serpent the book of Revelation also speaks of the “tree of life” (Rev 22:2, 14, 19) – putting it alongside the symbols of the river of life (Rev 22:1-2 compare John 4:10,14) and the heavenly city that symbolizes the church. The New Testament, then, shows that so much of Genesis 2-3 deals in symbolic language.

But what about “Adam and Eve”? Many people do not realize that the Hebrew word “ādām” used in Genesis 1-3 is not a name: it either means “humanity” or “the man”.

It means “humanity” when Gen 1:27 says God created ādām - male and female. This is repeated in Gen 5:2 where it adds that God named as ādām the male and female creation – actually the only place God “names” anything ādām. It plainly is not a personal name here.

The word ādām can also mean “the man”, particularly if ādām either has the indefinite article (the) or is governed by a preposition. One or other of these apply right throughout Gen 2-3, which is why most modern translations simply translate it throughout as “the man”. As for “Eve”, the word appears only in 3:20 where the ādāmcalls his woman’s name “Eve” which the Jews translated in the Greek version ST Paul used as “Life”, because the point is about a function not a new personal name.

The first place either “Adam” or “Eve” could be seen as names of individuals is in Gen 4:1: Adam had sex with his woman Eve, and she became pregnant.

Genesis 3 pictures God as making “the ādām” and then the various animals to try as potential companions. Failing to find (literally) an “ally corresponding to him”, from the ādām, Genesis says that God took the s$ēlā‘ =rib/side.to make the ’îššâ (woman), leaving the ’îš (man). This is why (as Jesus confirmed in Matthew 19), the bonding of male-female in marriage was meant by God to form the basic unit of humanity –reflecting the image of a trinity-in-unity- God which has the deepest kind of relationship within itself. First century Jewish thinkers like Philo[1], and early Christian leaders like Chrysostom[2], whilst sharing the highest view of the divine inspiration of the Genesis passages, did not take the side/rib story as literal; rather, they too it to be intending to convey the equality and companionship of man-woman in marriage.

Adam and Eve in the New Testament

Jesus and the New Testament show us that the serpent and tree are symbolic, but what about the man ādām and the woman ’îššâ? Well Jesus clearly believed that both the Genesis accounts of creation were divinely inspired, but he believed they were to teach us about God’s intentions for humanity, not about cosmology, biology and anthropology. In Matthew 19, then, Jesus refers to Genesis 1:26-27 for the male-female element in marriage, and Genesis 2:24 to show that the leaving of parents and cleaving together to become an item are central to God’s intentions for permanent, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. It teaches God’s intentions, not science.

The only direct reference in the gospels to “Adam” (as the Hebrew name is transliterated in the Greek of the New Testament) is in Luke 3:38 where Luke enigmatically gives Jesus’ genealogy back to “Enos of Seth of Adam of God”. This (as Jude 14) relates directly to the list of descendants in Genesis 5.

Other references come only in the writings associated with Paul. Paul sometimes uses “Adam” like a name, but also plays on the “humanity” meaning of ādām. Thus in 1 Cor 15:21-2: For since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. Here “Adam”, like “Christ” is collective, and in 15:15 Paul calls Christ the “last Adam”. Paul is not much concerned with literal chronology either. Thus in Romans 5:12 we find that through one man sin entered the world but in 1 Timothy 2:14 Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. So did the man or the woman sin first? Paul is happy to assume either in order to bring out different theological point s from the account – giving a strong indication that theology rather than a literal historical account is what he sees it as for.

In Romans 5 Paul notes that, following the first sin, sin has spread to all men (he means all humans) because all have sinned. The late first century Jewish book Baruch 2 has the phrase each of us has become his own Adam - a similar idea of sin spreading to all as all sinned. Later, in Romans 7:9, Paul says “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” Paul speaks, of course, of spiritual death, and this came to him, he says, at the point where he first realized the moral compulsion of a law of God, and then broke it. He is recording in his own life the principle “death spread to all men because all men sinned.” This also refers back to Romans 3:21: “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.


Adam and Eve?

So where does that leave us with “Adam” and “Eve”? We have seen that in both the Genesis creation passages and in comments on these in the New Testament, the language is highly symbolic and the main point is the theological lesson. Was it through a man or a woman that sin first came into the world? The fact that Paul’s own materials differ should make us wary of taking the account too literally. Yet, there was no sin before there were any humans – animals (including biological snakes) do not have moral responsibility. Logically, then, there must have been some first sin – a first occasion on which a clearly perceived moral law was broken. In this sense, then, there must have been an “Adam and Eve” – a humanity and life-source – in which this first came.


None of these conclusions are anything to do with modern science. They come from careful study of the Bible itself – rather than relying on popular culture. Yet we may wonder how it all does tie in with modern science.


In the late 1980’s studies on human mitochondria (mtDNA is a circular structure composed of over 16 thousand nucleotides) led to a surprising conclusion:

The transformation of archaic to anatomically modern forms of Homo Sapiens occurred first in Africa, about 100,000 to 140,000 years ago, and that all present-day humans are descendants of that African population.[3]

By the early 1990s Leakey could write:

The mitochondrial DNA in each human being can be traced back to a single female who lived in Africa over 100,000 years ago. [4]

The male descent can be found using analysis of Y-chromosomes, and this leads to a similar timescale. Modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) are believed to have developed in a small breeding population between 100,000-150,000 years ago – which is very recent in geological terms. The Times (May 8th 2007) stated: “latest research by geneticists at the university of Cambridge reinforces the theory that all modern human beings… are descended from a small number of Africans who left their home between 55,000 and 60,000 years ago.” The species homo sapiens originated “about 120,000 years ago”, and “there is no evidence of any interbreeding with homo erectus”. We already knew that there is no genetic connection between them and eg Neanderthal man, and their precise ancestry is disputed. There is a totally human “mitochondrial Eve” and “chromosomal Adam” from whom all present humans descend – though this descent is neither exclusive nor is it assumed that these two were married together and living in a garden. The assumed process of genetic mutation, occurring is a very small population, through which moral awareness arose, can be assumed to be sudden or gradual as we have little present idea of the genetic mechanisms. There are those Christians who believe that the first such humans arose dramatically and miraculously, whilst others believe that the creation (bara) of mankind could be through natural processes just as God form mountains and creates (bara) the winds through natural processes (Amos 4:13). “Nature” is not an alternative agent to God. The biblical account of the temptation with the fruit is a symbolic picture of the first time a human (male or female?) felt the moral compulsion of a divine “law”, broke it, and (in that day!) “died”. Where exactly it happened in this story, and how it spread from the first one to the others in the community, we cannot really now well imagine. All that we know is that if “sin” is a present reality rather than an illusion, then there must have been a first sin, and it must have spread to others.


[1] Philo The Second Book of the Treatise on The Allegories of the Sacred Laws vii.20; On the Creation 13-14.

[2] Homily 15

[3] Wilson Science (1987) vol 237 (2nd October) p.1292 and Wilson et al (1987).

[4] Leakey (1992) p. 220.

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