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Scientist and theologian discuss human origins

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Scientist and theologian discuss human origins


According to Father Joseph Fitzmyer, Adam in Genesis is a symbolic figure denoting humanity, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Brazos Press)According to Father Joseph Fitzmyer, Adam in Genesis is a symbolic figure denoting humanity, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Brazos Press)

A new book is exploring human origins and “the historical Adam.”

Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture After Genetic Science (Brazos Press, 2017), by biologist Dennis Venema and theologian Scot McKnight, explores the recent scientific discovery that “we descend from a population of about 10,000 individuals rather than a pair.”

The book wisely avoids trying to solve every theological problem raised by the discoveries of population genetics. Instead it focuses on establishing (in the first four chapters by Venema) what we now know about the history of human beings and (in the last four chapters by McKnight) our theological options for understanding Adam.

Venema, the scientist, draws upon his professional expertise in genetics as well as his life experience, in which he learned how to reconcile evolution with his Christian faith. He explains the truth about evolution as a scientific theory and, in an engaging style, teaches the reader about genomes by drawing helpful analogies with books and languages.

Part of Venema’s life story includes his coming to see how the “intelligent design” critique of evolution, to which he was drawn at first, cannot be reconciled with the data. This fascinating part of his presentation will no doubt prove helpful to others struggling to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Venema has a patient and charitable way of calmly dealing with the truths we are able to know from biology.

Like Venema, the theologian McKnight also refrains from undue speculation, offering instead a basis for theological inquiry going forward. In his chapters, he helpfully presents four principles for reading the Bible in light of what we now know from the Human Genome Project, and proposes twelve clear theses about how to properly understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis in their context.

In addition, to further guard against theological misunderstandings of the Genesis text, McKnight also provides a highly informative overview of the variety of Adams and Eves in the Jewish world. This eye-opening chapter includes discussions of Adam in seven different texts and writers: the Wisdom of Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria, the book of Jubilees, Flavius Josephus, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.

Concluding the book with the Apostle Paul’s treatment of Adam in the book of Romans, McKnight presents his own theological conclusions about “the historical Adam.” To his credit, McKnight draws upon the work of the great Catholic biblical scholar Father Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, who died recently in December 2016.

McKnight approvingly quotes Fitzmyer, who notes: “Paul treats Adam as a historical human being, humanity’s first parent, and contrasts him with the historical Jesus Christ. But in Genesis itself Adam is a symbolic figure, denoting humanity.” In other words, “Paul has historicized the symbolic Adam of Genesis.”         

The theological point here seems to be that historicizing something does not make it historical. For example, the writers of Star Trek can make Kirk, Spock, and McCoy time-travel to a real historical time and place. But just because they can historicize the characters does not mean that those literary figures are historical people.

Although Paul was clearly historicizing Adam when he compared him to Christ, Fitzmyer writes: “Paul, however, knew nothing about the Adam of history. What he knows about Adam, he has derived from Genesis and the Jewish tradition that developed from Genesis. ‘Adam’ for Paul is Adam in the Book of Genesis; he is a literary individual, like Hamlet, but not symbolic, like Everyman. Adam is for Paul what Jonah was for the evangelist Matthew (12:40) and Melchizedek for the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:3). All three have been used as foils for Christ. But they are literary figures who have or have not been historicized, as the case may be.”

Although he follows Fitzmyer on this, McKnight’s own Protestant convictions apparently lead him to reject any reading of Romans 5:12 (“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”) that would interpret it as supporting the theological idea of “original sin.”

McKnight writes, “The early church father Jerome, ever fiddling with the text and not so good in Greek, translated ‘because [eph’ ho] all sinned’ as ‘in whom [in quo] all sinned,’ then Augustine made nothing less than an extensive case for the theory of original sin and original guilt, and we’ve been stuck with both of them and that theory ever since.” But McKnight thinks, “Humans somehow inherit something from Adam, but they die not because of that inheritance but because they sin.”

Yet this seems to be a hasty oversimplification. McKnight’s denigration of Jerome is bizarre, since Jerome’s Latin translation is literally accurate. Moreover, the Latin in quo need not mean “in whom,” but could also be construed, just like the Greek eph’ ho, to mean “on the basis of which” (as Theodor Zahn has argued, which is also my preferred translation of the Greek). Finally, McKnight’s dismissal of Fitzmyer’s own maverick translation of the phrase (Fitzmyer renders eph’ ho as “with the result that”) is likewise too hasty.

However, the great merit of this book is still evident. It highlights many of the most important aspects of the scientific and theological discussion about Adam. Although its theological treatment seems tailored to a Protestant audience, Catholics can still learn much from it, especially its brilliant discussion of genetic science.

Dr. C.S. Morrissey cultivates classical tradition by teaching the Greek and Latin classics. Learn more about the classics at


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