Evolution and Original Sin: How to Read Genesis 1-3

Augustine once said something to the effect that Original Sin was the easiest doctrine for him to believe in.  All he had to do was look around.  Although that may be the case, it may also be one of the hardest doctrines to explain.  In this post it is my intention to examine in by no means an exhaustive way the testimony of Scripture.  In the subsequent post I will then begin a reflection on the more metaphysical implications of the doctrine.  

The doctrine itself comes not from Genesis 1-3 but from Romans 5:12. The meaning of the universality of sin is only understood in light of the universality of grace. Since the death of Christ is capable of saving all, then all the world must have been under the captivity of sin.But Romans 5:12 must be read as well within the totality of St. Paul.  Two passages are particularly important:

Romans 8:19-23

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.

Colossians 1:16;19-20

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth…. For in him all the fullnesss was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him.

Paul clearly understands Christ to stand at the head of creation.  This headship is not just of human creation, but of non-human creation as well, which groans along with humanity for its own “resurrection.”  There is nothing surprising about this. The Old Testament makes it clear that all creation is destined to be part of the reign of the Messiah when he should come, and Paul simply writes as a good Jew when he writes that Jesus, the Messiah, who has inaugurated the Kingdom of God, has absorbed the groanings of all creation into his salvific plan.  

Thus, if the doctrine of original sin has its origins in the soteriology of Paul, then as a doctrine it must include all of creation.  Furthermore, it becomes important to read Romans 5:12’s reference to “one person” as itself symbolic.  Paul’s purpose is not to single out a single individual as the cause of all evil in the world, but rather to set up the “type” for which Christ would be the fulfillment.  More on this later.  

To better understand Paul’s theology of Romans 5, we must turn back to the Old Testament.  What exactly is taking place in Genesis 1-3?  What I will attempt here is a brief exegesis of how to read those three seminal chapters.  

It is commonly agreed upon by scholars that the book of Genesis in its final form is the product of the redaction of the so-called “priestly school” that wrote upon the return from exile in 536 BC.  N.T. Wright argues that the main purpose of the writings of Second Temple Judaism is to point to Israel as the True Humanity.  One of the most important passage that points to this belief is in Daniel 7:13-14.  There is a figure, a “son of man.”  To understand the role of this “son of man,” we must look to chapters 1-6 which have two guiding themes.  First, Jews are invited to betray their religion, resist, are proved right, and are exalted.  Second, various visions are given to the pagan king which get interpreted by Daniel.  The content of these visions are the same as that of the first theme: Israel will be glorified in the midst of the nations that surround her.  Chapter 7 thus functions as a summary of the first six chapters.  A “human figure” is surrounded by threatening “beasts.”  The human figure is vindicated over the beasts.  In other words, there is a divine plan for Israel.  Insofar as she remains faithful and obedient to her God in the midst of the other nations, whether Babylon (which functions in Daniel as a symbol) or the Greeks, she will be vindicated and exalted.  

This is not a new reading of Israel’s role.  The author of Daniel is simply reflecting the promises of Third Isaiah, written in the time of the priestly school.  Third Isaiah is replete with these kinds of promises.  The child will play over the den of the adder. All of creation will be restored when the “exile” finally comes to an end.  Most Jews did not consider the return under Cyrus to be a real return from exile.  This return did not satisfy all the prophecies.  The true return from exile would come at a time when all of creation through Israel, would finally and completely receive the promises of God originally made to Abraham.  Israel, or “Adam”, surrounded by beasts on all sides, would finally be vindicated and exalted.  Through Israel, all the beasts and all of creation, would be brought into the reign of the Messiah.  

In this context, Genesis 1-3 is redacted to make a theological claim.  As Gordon Wenham points out, the word Adam is not used as a proper name until Genesis 4:25.  Adam is “humanity,” or rather, Israel representative of all of humanity.  The “original” intention of God is that Israel act as mediator between God and the “beasts,” or the other nations.  “Adam” names the beasts and is in harmony with them.  Adam and Eve are naked, in perfect covenant with God.  This is God’s intention, God’s final promise to Israel, that the priestly school, and later the author of Daniel, is upholding.  This is how God intends the world to be.  But “Adam”, rather than doing what Daniel and the three young men do in the first six chapters of Daniel, resisting the temptation to assimilate into the other nations, listens to the most clever of the beasts, the serpent, notices his nakedness, and clothes himself in the clothing of beasts when he is kicked out of the Garden.  

Notice how nakedness functions.  It is first of all a symbol of Israel or “Adam’s” intended relationship with God.  But in the prophets, particularly Hosea in the 8th century, it is what God will do to Israel when she plays the harlot.  He will “strip her naked.”  So Genesis 1-3 is both the general situation of Israel amongst the other nations around her, the “beasts” who she too often listens to, and God’s promise of his future plan.  The promise is Genesis 2.  The current reality is Genesis 3.  Israel is to keep the promise of Genesis 2, Third Isaiah, and Daniel 7 constantly in mind. This is what God will do for her.  

Paul, knowing this theology well, could thus speak of the sin of “one person” without intending that we understand one particular person.  He is invoking the old theme of God’s promise.  Just as Israel has consistently betrayed her role to be “Adam” in the midst of many “beasts,” so Christ has now become the perfect “Adam,” obedient Israel who can bring about the original promise of Genesis 2.  All, in relation to Christ and through him, can live now in relationship with God.

If we read Genesis 1-3 in this more correct context, we can see how the problem of Adam and Eve breaks down.  They are not, nor were ever meant to be, at least in the theological reconstruction of the priestly school, two original parents.  Rather, they function as symbols of what Israel’s relationship with God in the midst of the other nations should be, and what it has actually become.  Israel has been kicked out of the Garden (the Promised Land) because she has been disobedient and has listened to the other nations, the “beasts.”  When she becomes fully faithful in the Messiah, she will then live in the way that Genesis 2 envisages as a Promise.  

Original Sin in this Jewish context is Israel’s incapacity to remain faithful to the covenant with God.  Because Israel cannot be faithful, neither can the rest of the the world.  Adam and Eve primarily refer to Israel.  Of course, they can also refer to all human beings once the whole world is taken up into the reign of the Messiah.  Now it is no longer only Israel who is Adam and Eve, but all of us.  We are all called to be faithful to the covenant, but all find that instead we listen to the “beasts,” no longer the other nations, but Sin as a pervasive power.  The role of the “nations” in the Old Testament becomes “sin” in the New Testament.  

It has not been the intention of this post to answer the problem of where evil comes from and what it might have meant for the original human populations.  I will attempt a provisional answer to that in the next post.  My main point here is to show how we should read Genesis 1-3.  It is God’s plan and promise to Israel, and hence to us.  Because it is promise, fulfilled in Christ but still moving toward completion, we should not think of Genesis 2 as here yet, just as we don’t think of Third Isaiah as here yet.  That will take place in the future.  

What I do intend to say through this reading is that there was never a past idyllic state when Israel, or the original human populations, lived without sin.  Or at least, the story in Genesis 1-3 does not tell us that.  If we are going to be able to reconcile Original Sin with evolution, we must release the idea of an actual idyllic state of our “first parents.”  Nor should we ever have held to that.  Eden, at least in the minds of the priestly school and second temple Judaism was not intended to represent a past situation but rather a future one. Eden is where Christ takes us. It appears to be in this world because for Israel, heaven was never some other worldly reality, but this world transformed under the reign of the Messiah.  Eden is the eschatological state of this world.  Genesis 2 is God’s eschatological plan.  It is not the story of a past but a future.  

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11 Responses to Evolution and Original Sin: How to Read Genesis 1-3

  1. bill bannon says:

    It’s good to see someone working on this within the clergy and you are young. You write: “Adam and Eve primarily refer to Israel. Of course, they can also refer to all human beings once the whole world is taken up into the reign of the Messiah.”

    I think your view as it stands though leads to a contradiction of Romans 5:17
    “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.”

    It is one thing to see symbolistic writing of a primitive sort in Genesis but Romans 5:17 is not symbolistic writing and Paul is seeing Christ the one person as a response to Adam the one person.

  2. Unless of course Paul didn’t see Adam as one person. That of course is the question. If Israel had already incorporated the myth of Adam and Eve into their theology in the 6th and 5th century and later to refer primarily to “all humanity through Israel” then Paul is just using well known shorthand to set up his contrast. Remember, it is clear that for Paul Jesus is both “one person” and also him through whom “all the fullness was pleased to dwell,” and the “head of the body, the Church.” Christ can function for both in Paul without any contradiction. Why not Adam? Of course, Christ existed historically. But if Paul is being a good second temple Jew, that I think it easy to imagine that his “one person” of Adam is a symbol of “humanity in and through Israel” just as Christ is “humanity in and through the new Israel.” In other words, Adam was always meant to be Israel as a theological concept and a historical reality, the one of whom God spoke, “out of Israel I have called my son.” Adam is all humanity called to be in covenant, and Christ is that fulfillment. If we need something historical, we have that in Israel.

    The Rabbis believed that God created the world with the Law in mind as blueprint. We of course believe this of Jesus: he was in the mind of the Father before the creation of the world. In this way, “Adam” can include even the first evolved human beings insofar as they exist as “proto-Israel” just as Israel is “proto-Christ.” “Adam’s sin” is the sin of all of humanity. I will take this up more in the next post.

    Of course, that gets rid of one particular individual human sin as a historical fact that led to the rest. I see no way around that.

  3. bill bannon says:

    There are further problems with that. Paul (some deutero Paul) uses Adam in another place as having sinned but not having been deceived as the woman was: 1Ti 2:14 “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

    The whole of the passage as relevance for real couples and verse 13 shows that the writer is taking Adam for an individual since the woman is formed latter:

    1Ti 2:13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
    1Ti 2:14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
    1Ti 2:15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing (some…childrearing), if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

  4. Of course, anytime that Adam is mentioned in the New Testament, it will be a problem as long as we assume that Adam is read by Paul as being a real individual historical person. But why can’t we read this passage from Paul with the assumption that Paul, like many Rabbis who understood this story as myth, read it as myth. In which case, Paul is saying, as we often say and can say without any trouble, “(in the story) Adam was first formed, then Eve,” etc. In other words, the story is inspired, and there is something very relevant in this inspired myth about the character Adam being formed before the character Eve.

    In other words, all this happened in the story, and since it’s an inspired story, it teaches us something (for Paul) about men and women and how women should act. Leaving aside what this passage may actually mean, that could be a way to read Paul as not thinking of them as a literal couple. Just because he seems to write that way doesn’t mean anything. The question is, how did the Rabbi’s read this story. Many read it as not literal, so why not Paul?

  5. bill bannon says:

    Hmmm….but we have no text indicating that Paul is reviewing and is conscious of reviewing a form of metaphoric literature rather than an empirical account and Luke’s genealogy does not help you; and the parallel Paul makes of Christ bringing salvation just as one man Adam brought sin for all is a parallel that does not work if Adam is not one but is all Israel in its unfaithfulness (despite Israel not really beginning until Shem..one of the sons of Noah and thus removed from Adam by ten steps as to fathers).
    That the longer gospel genealogy (Luke) leads back in an empirical manner through actual people toward and reaching Adam father by father in a painstaking manner… is an obstacle you face also. It would mean that the Jews had a form of writing that seamlessly transitioned from the historical into the fictional symbolic with no problem for anyone and that does not seem to escape primitive delusionary tendencies rather than being wisdom literature. Although primitive delusions of a sort are present in scientific moments in the OT (waters above and below the sky or like there being light on the first day despite the sun and moon being created on the 4th day (a misinterpretation of overcast days and where they get their light…unless one goes with “light” meaning angels on the first day)
    nevertheless, Luke is not Genesis nor its time nor its forms of literature. It is Luke who gives a genealogy step by step which in your configuration leads back to a fictional man who Luke then calls a son of God and who is ten steps further back than the beginning of the line of Israel in Shem.

  6. The genealogy doesn’t bother me. Like Matthew, Luke just borrowed a genealogy from many ancient ones available. His goes back to “Adam” to prove, not historical lineage, but that Christ unites all mankind within himself. Both his and Matthew’s are primarily symbolic in nature. Even if they themselves think that these are literal, (which I’m not sure of), the original compilers of the genealogies are at fault for them being wrong, not the gospel writers. Under inspiration, they include them, and they function in the text for us not as historical but as primarily symbolic. I think there’s good chance that that is all Luke is doing.

    I think there is also good evidence that Israel didn’t start till the Exodus, and that the stories in Genesis are ancient legends inserted at the beginning of the story. Which doesn’t mean that some of them can’t be partly historically true, but that is a fairly dubious claim I think. They are true as authentic stories of God’s kind of calling of human beings into relationship. The historical value is a different question.

    So I guess I’m questioning if your reading is “literal” enough — respecting fairly enough the types of literature that we are reading here and attributing too much modern historicity to them.

  7. bill bannon says:

    I accept varying literature forms book to book but Luke’s genealogy is a different problem in that one must see two different forms of writing in one incident….historical and symbolic and one shading into another since Luke like Matthew partly has the motive of tracing Christ to certain definite men which means we can overstate the symbolic. The deepest meaning of Onan for example in my view which is brought out more in the recent NAB rather than the Douay Rheims (repeated coitus interruptus rather than one use of same) is that God wanted Christ to be descended from that little family of 4 men (Judah-Perez) and therefore Onan was risking the very non appearance of Christ which is a sacrilege of the highest sort even if inadvertent since Uzzah was killed for touching the ark in arguably an act of understandable epikeia even if inadvertent sacrilege like Onan. Had Onan used NFP with Tamar to avoid all children, he still would have been killed since Tamar could not move to the next son or man as long as Onan was alive. Augustine saw only sex but didn’t notice that Tamar was not killed by God for incest nor Judah for fornication in the same story…because that was Augustine’s background…sex and overdone at that….(Carly Simon….”you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”…is appropo and humanity followed him down that trail). Find every case of God killing intimately in the bible and it is sacrilege even in the Sodom case where attempted rape of angels is present right before the fire falls and Noah wherein murder is seen as sacrilege (Genesis 9:5-6). And the one case where Christ gets violent is sacrilege at the temple wherein the precinct space meant for gentile worshippers at the temple is usurped.

    So historicity was a concern of God as to genealogy in the Onan case….Luke:Perez or Pharez.

    In any event, God speed with your explorations.

  8. Joe says:

    “the original compilers of the genealogies are at fault for them being wrong, not the gospel writers. Under inspiration, they include them, and they function in the text for us not as historical but as primarily symbolic. I think there’s good chance that that is all Luke is doing.”

    GUFFAW! You can of course hold such a view, but then you ought to help the Mormons defend Joseph Smith’s Bible translation or his Book of Abraham. Your qualification of inspiration reduces everything to what YOU find reasonable. And that on top of centuries of patristic resoursement to the contrary. Really, Father, this posture of reasonableness smacks of cow-towing to the age. The only people who honestly believe Paul thought Adam mythic would be those hell-bent on embracing evolution. It is not the Fundies here who are engaging in wishful reading. Original sin is a reality, and a revealed truth. Without first man, it evaporates, as does Jesus. If they faith takes such backhanded explaining, perhaps it is a fraud? Can you blame anyone for thinking that? Genesis. MYTH. Red Sea, FALSE. Gospels, BIASED. Angels, MIDRASH. Gosh, your message really IS impressive. I think I’ll look elsewhere.

  9. George says:

    Hi, I’ve started to become convinced that Genesis 1-11 is an allegory borrowed from Sumerian and Canaanite mythology(Epic of Gilgamesh, etc)in order to teach truths to an idolatrous Israel in a ‘demytholized’fashion – primarily as a polemnic.There’s so much evidence in the Genesis texts to prove this. However, most sources that attempt to prove a literal interpretation of Genesis use Romans 5:12 and I can see why. This is what has led me to your site. So far, you’re the only source I’ve seen with the symbolic view to analyze Romans 5:12 – good work! However, I’m still struggling with Genesis 5 in particular (Adam’s 930 years). How could this be symbolic? What do the 930 years represent? What about Methuselah’s 969 years? Also, a good point is made in the previous texts about Matthew and Luke? If the genealogies are symbolic, all the names should be symbolic – not some as literal men and men before Abraham as symbolic. I’ve never seen partial symbolism – ever. Please clarify this if possible as I feel caught in the middle. Thanks.

  10. George, those are good questions. I don’t know much about the symbolism of these numbers. But last year I was talking to a kid who is a member of an Indian religion that I don’t remember the name of. He was telling me that they have old creation myths as well, and that in their creation myths, the first people were twice our height and were basically giants. As people became more sinful, they got shorter and shorter. Now evolutionarily speaking, we know that is not the truth: people are getting taller, not shorter; older, not younger. But as a metaphor or symbol of the capacity for human sophistication to lead to greater sinful possibilities – such as the atomic bomb – I think these are apt literary forms. So that’s what I do with the old ages. And remember, just because characters are given ages in a myth or story, doesn’t mean the story is historically true. It just means that they are given ages for the purpose of the tale.

    The texts you seem to be referring to are making a clear separation between symbol and history. This is our first problem I think. That divide simply did not exist for the writers of the genealogies. As far as I can tell, the genealogies are midrash. They are interpretations of past texts for the sake of a present truth about a present reality. I say past “texts” and not past “history,” because I don’t think the genealogies are making as strong a claim about history as sometimes we like to think.

    So, for example. The book of Genesis is composed primarily of Yahwist and some Elohist materials, and probably a whole lot of other old oral traditions that get thrown into the mix. But later on, the Priestly school comes to these many texts and puts them into order. That order is a ten part genealogy scheme called “Toledoth.” There are ten “Toledoths” in Genesis, or genealogies that are used to structure the whole text. Are they historically accurate? Probably not. They are put in there to reiterate that God’s promises continue despite what just happened to certain characters.

    I think that what the Priestly author does in Genesis is what Matthew and Luke are doing as well: using genealogy to make a theological point about God’s faithfulness to his promises of old. No more. But no less.

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