Bill Craig has presented us with an important book that does something that no other volume has done before, and that is to provide the reader with a comprehensive review of biblical, theological, and scientific data and arguments concerning the historical Adam. As a result, the book makes an important contribution to this (pun intended) evolving conversation. I am grateful to have the opportunity to review the book.

in Quest of the historical Adam

Eerdmans, 2021

Before diving into the specific arguments and claims of the book I would like to offer a brief comment on the current state of the discussion on evolution and human origins. And the news here is good. While orthodox Christians have been wrestling with questions about the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology, the notion of a historical Adam has always been especially challenging. Yet I think that we can now say that we have arrived at the point where we can confidently affirm that the basic evolutionary story is not the threat to Christian orthodoxy that we once feared, and not because we had to compromise on orthodoxy. Concerns about conflicts with the Genesis creation narrative or a historical Adam or deism or human uniqueness or the origins of the soul all turn out to be soluble without having to compromise core Christian doctrines.

And this news should provide us with a sense of excitement and urgency. Excitement because the findings of the sciences that bear on questions of cosmic and human origins now become crucial pieces of data for new theological discovery. And this means that theologians and Christian philosophers (and more besides) have some interesting work before them, sorting out how the pieces of this complex puzzle fit together. Urgency because the non-academic public, both Christian and secular, still see science as a threat to Christian belief in this domain. And scholars and those who engage the broader public need to re-double efforts to communicate clearly that science poses no threat here.

In any case, I am glad to see we are now at the point where we can look at how the biblical and scientific accounts of the world can be harmonized with each other and not think that orthodoxScholars and those who engage the broader public need to re-double efforts to communicate clearly that science poses no threat here. theological commitments require us to intentionally blind ourselves to obvious scientific truths.

Let me now turn to the substance of the book.

For those who are seeking to reconcile historical Adam with the basic evolutionary story the goal is to determine whether or not the scientific data leaves open the possibility that a single pair (Adam and Eve) could be the ancestors of the set of individuals that Scripture indicates are ancestrally related to Adam and Eve. I apologize for using that very circuitous locution. The reason for using it, as we will see, there is a non-trivial disagreement about what set of individuals that is.

Before turning to the question of how belief in a historical Adam is consistent with the most recent claims about human origins and ancestry, it will be helpful to have a very basic timeline of the history of human evolution.

Homo sapiens arrive on the scene sometime around 300kya. The species most closely related to Homo sapiens are Neanderthals and Denisovans. The former emerged roughly 450kya and the latter 250kya. It appears that each of these three groups diverged from the common ancestor, perhaps Homo heidelbergensis, which emerged roughly 600kya, and appears to goes extinct just as Homo sapiens come on the scene.

With that in place we can now ask: What does Scripture affirm about the progeny of Adam and Eve? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Adam and Eve are the (sole?) progenitors of every organism that manifests the divine image.
  2. Adam and Eve are the (sole?) progenitors of every organism that is a member of our species Homo sapiens.
  3. Adam and Eve are the (sole?) progenitors of all humans.

Note that the three possibilities above concern three different sortals: image bearers, Homo sapiens, and humans. The first is a theological classification which (obviously) captures all organisms that are made in the image of God as that phrase is understood in Genesis 1:26–27. The second is a biological/taxonomic classification that captures all members of our biological species. But what of the third sortal, human? What does this sortal capture? And what role is this concept supposed to play in our thinking about the historical Adam?

Different scholars define the term differently, and those different definitions are driven by philosophical and theological commitments that are not always fully articulated. In his book, Craig is clear about how he defines the term. Borrowing from the framework of anthropologists McBrearty and Brooks,In his book, Craig is clear about how he defines the term “human.” Craig defines “humans” as organisms that have the following four characteristics: they engage in abstract thinking, are capable of planning depth, display behavioral/economic/technological innovations, and display symbolic behavior.

Craig then argues, over the course of Chapters 8–13, that paleoanthropological and paleogenetic research indicates that organisms besides Homo sapiens, display these four characteristics—specifically Neanderthals and Denisovans. He further argues, or at least asserts, that because Scripture portrays Adam as the progenitor of all humans, two conclusions follow. First, Adam must be a member of a species that gave rise to these three broad types of humans, and thus was likely member of the species Homo heidelbergensis (assuming, as Craig does, that it is the common ancestor of all three). And second, Adam must then have existed prior to the emergence of these species, and thus must have existed more than 450kya.

I am not going to spend a lot of time objecting to Craig’s claim that Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all qualify as humans under his definition even though I think that the scientific evidence does not speak as clearly as he thinks (though in fairness his position is not different from that of most professional paleoanthropologists). But let me at least say, just to put it on the record, first that we have almost no evidence about the behavioral and cognitive characteristics of Denisovans. And second, that Neanderthal tools show little evidence of innovation over hundreds of thousands of years, that claims about Neanderthal oral language abilities have not been substantiated, and that evidence of Neanderthal “burial practices” and symbolic “artistic” representation are controversial (a bit more to come on language below).

Instead, I want to ask these questions: Why does Craig define “human” in the way that he does? And why does he permit that concept, so defined, to play the role that it does in his discussion? Why doesn’t he hold that what Scripture affirms about Adam and his progeny is captured in either #1 or #2 or both?Why does Craig define “human” in the way that he does? Why think Scripture affirms anything stronger than that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of those organisms that bear the image of God or are progenitors of all Homo sapiens?

Let’s consider these two options in turn. As best we can tell from the current data, it is not likely that a single human pair is the progenitor of all Homo sapiens. I won’t rehearse the reasons for this since it has been discussed extensively by others. But because the scientific evidence seems to weigh strongly against an initial pair that are the progenitors of all Homo sapiens, we can rule out the claim that this is what Scripture intends to affirm about Adam and Eve. So we can rule out #2. If Scripture means to affirm that, it is in error. But there is no reason to think that it does. And frankly there is no reason to think it would. Homo sapiens is a purely biological, taxonomic classification and it is hard to see why that sortal would be of any interest to the biblical authors.

But what about #1? What if we suppose that only a subset of Homo sapiens manifests the image of God, and that what Scripture affirms is that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of all and only those individuals? On that sort of view, at some point, God selected a pair of individuals from among a larger population of Homo sapiens and confers on them and their offspring the divine image. That might require biological or metaphysical modifications of their constitution. Or it might require initiating (and committing to sustain) a certain type of relationship with Adam and his progeny. Or it might require something else. But whatever it is, that selection (and any modifications that are necessary to effect it) suffices to render that sub-population different in an important way. And it is that sub-population that is of interest to the biblical authors when they refer to Adam and his progeny.

On this account, there would then be some Homo sapiens that manifest the divine image (the ones on whom it is conferred as a result of God’s actions), and others that do not. Craig, Josh Swamidass, and others sometimes describe this view as one that hypothesizes the existence of Homo sapiens some of whom are “inside the Garden” (the image bearers) and others of whom are “outside of the Garden” (non-image-bearers).See S. Joshua Swamidass, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 110–13, et al.

Note that this view has a few entailments that might be seen as liabilities. First, on this view, one would have to give some account of what happens to the offspring of those Homo sapiens “outside the Garden.” Since Scripture affirms, at least by the time of the birth of Jesus, that all organisms of our biological kind are affected by Adam’s sin (in part at least due to their ancestral relationship to Adam), then all of the lines of descent from individuals outside the Garden must have either (a) interbred with offspring of Adam (so that Adam counts among their progenitors) or (b) ceased to produce offspring. One might think that the odds of that are low if, as the genetic data indicates, the smallest population of Homo sapiens never dips below a few thousand.

In response, a defender of this position might agree that such an outcome is improbable if we just consider the state of the population at the time that Adam and Eve receive the divine image.If Scripture gives us sufficient motivation to think that this actually happened, then the fact that it was improbable does not give us reason to disbelieve its occurrence. But it is certainly not impossible. And if Scripture gives us sufficient motivation to think that this actually happened, then the fact that it was improbable does not give us reason to disbelieve its occurrence.

Second, on this view, one must suppose that there are individuals outside that Garden that are anatomically identical or very similar to those inside the Garden and yet do not manifest the divine image. Why might that be seen as a liability? Some might think it is a liability because they understand the divine image “structurally” and so are committed to the claim that if two organisms have the same kind-specific properties, it follows that they both manifest the divine image.

But that should not really be any concern here. For all we know, those inside and outside the Garden could be members of the same biological species, but those inside the Garden have something extra: an additional non-physical element conferred on them by God (e.g., an immaterial soul), or a special type of relationship with God (e.g., being designated as vice-regents or stewards of creation), or perhaps something else. As a result, even a structuralist can admit that these individuals can be members of the same species while not all manifest the divine image.

A third worry some might (and do!) raise is that in order for it to be the case that all Homo sapiens at the time of Jesus are descendants of Adam—given the genetic data we have—we are forced to conclude that some image bearers reproduced with non-image bearers. And one might think that this constitutes a form of bestiality.

It is not clear that this is a worry for two reasons. First, even if such behavior constitutes bestiality, what reason do we have to think that post-fallen creatures did not engage in such a sin (as they did in many other forms of sin)? Second, while at some point God does declare bestiality to be immoral, perhaps sexual relationships between image bearers and non-image bearers is not in fact sinful at this stage of God’s covenantal relationship with them. It might be an analogue of polygamy which, while falling short of the ideal, does not seem to have been morally obligatory from the time of the creation. But now one might ask: even if this view does not have these liabilities, is there any reasons to prefer it? There are.

One reason to prefer it is that it allows for the existence of a historical Adam that is much closer to the present time than 450kya. In part that is preferable simply because the Genesis narrative does not seem to countenance such a massive temporal gap between the creation of Adam and, say, the calling of Abraham. It could be that those admittedly incomplete genealogies in the Old and New Testament are really, really incomplete. But that would be, at least, a surprise.

Here is a second reason to prefer a more recent Adam. If we follow Craig’s lead in how we understand the genre of Genesis 1–3 we must then admit that it can be hard to discern which elements of the narrative are historical in nature. But the text seems to affirm that Adam and Eve lived during a period when these image bearers were engaged in agricultural practices (and, furthermore, Cain “worked the soil” and Abel “kept flocks”). There is some controversy over when Homo sapiens first began to practice agriculture,There is (at least) one more reason to prefer a more recent historical Adam. but it is likely not more than 15kya. If that is right, then the biblical and scientific evidence would lead us to favor the existence of a historical Adam much closer to the present than 450kya. For that reason, a more recent historical Adam seems preferable.

There is (at least) one more reason to prefer a more recent historical Adam. And that is that (a) it is hard to imagine a type of creature that is incapable of language-based communication manifesting the divine image and (b) it seems extremely unlikely that organisms in the genus of Homo had language more than 200k years ago. If that is right, then only Homo sapiens are image bearers, and Adam and Even lived much later than Craig supposes. I take (a) as obvious and Craig himself does not deny it. But what about (b)?

Craig cites various pieces of evidence related to the timing of the emergence of language. Readers can see the summary of the relevant evidence at the end of Chapter 11. That evidence can be boiled down to large brain size, thoracic and laryngeal structures that are necessary for complex vocalization, behaviors that signal social learning, social coordination, and symbolic thinking, and certain genetic similarities. However, none of these pieces of information, even taken together, are very strong. It is true that large brain size and certain anatomical features are necessary for language use. And it is true that social learning and complex coordinated behaviors can be more effective when linguistically mediated. But that does not give us reason to think that Neanderthals or Denisovans had language.

No one knows for sure when language evolved, but most scholars who study human evolution conclude that language originates with anatomically modern Homo sapiens between 150kya to 200kya in eastern or perhaps southern Africa. The archaeological record reveals that about forty thousand years ago there was a significant uptick of art and production of other cultural artefacts at Homo sapiens sites, leading some archaeologists to suggest that a late genetic change in our lineage gave rise to language at this later time. But this evidence derives mainly from Europe and so makes it hard to explain how language capacity spread to other Homo sapiens who had dispersed from Africa to other parts of the globe roughly seventy thousand years ago.

The Neanderthals indeed had large brains and were able to inhabit much of Europe and Western Asia from around three hundred and fifty thousand years ago. If the Neanderthals had language, that would place its origin at least as far back as the time of our common ancestor with them, as Craig hypothesizes. However, even as recently as forty thousand years ago in Europe, Neanderthals show almost no evidence of the symbolic thinking that Craig associates with language, and little evidence of the cultural attainments of Homo sapiens of the same era. By forty thousand years ago, Homo sapiens had plentiful art, musical instruments and specialized tools such as sewing needles. However, Neanderthals probably did not even have sewn clothing.

Finally, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals do, as Craig notes, share a transcription factor gene known as FOXP2 that differs from chimps at two loci. This gene influences the control of facial muscles required producing speech. However, despite these similarities, Homo sapiens have acquired changes to the regulation of their FOXP2 genes that seem likely to cause them to be expressed differently from that of the NeanderthalsThe evidence seems to point to an Adam and Eve that lives much closer to the present time than Craig supposes. and these differences are pronounced in brain neurons.Maricic T, Günther V, Georgiev O, Gehre S, Ćurlin M, Schreiweis C, et al., “A recent evolutionary change affects a regulatory element in the human FOXP2 gene,” Mol Biol Evol. 2013; 30(4): 844–52. Combining these genetic clues with the differences in symbolic and cultural behavior suggests language arose in our lineage sometime after our split from our common ancestor with Neanderthals, and probably by no later than one hundred and fifty thousand to two hundred thousand years ago.

So the evidence seems to point to an Adam and Eve that lives much closer to the present time than Craig supposes. Why, then, would Craig understand the role of the historical Adam in terms of #3 rather than in terms of #1? In other words, what motivates Craig to introduce this additional concept of “human,” define it as he does, and allow that to lead him to hypothesize a very ancient historical Adam that is the progenitor of all these humans?

The answer is found on pages 88–93 of the book though one would be excused for missing it (as I first did!) since it is not there cast as a reason for preferring this view over alternatives, but rather background for how to think about the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2.

However, Craig does explicitly cite these reasons as reasons to prefer his account over #1 in his response to Josh Swamidass’s book at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting last year.Video available here. Last accessed December 8, 2021. So what is the answer?

Craig says that there are three reasons to prefer his ancient-Adam-as-progenitor-of-all-humans, to the recent-Adam-as-progenitor-of-a-subset-of-Homo-sapiens-who-are-image-bearers. Let me list the reasons here and then comment on them.

  1. Postulating an ancient Adam explains why the author of Genesis does not begin the story of sacred history with the call of Abraham; the reasons is that the narrative seeks to manifest God’s original plan to bless all mankind not just some chosen subset.
  2. The genre of the creation story of Genesis 2 in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern creation narratives indicates an interest on the part of the author in telling how mankind in general came to exist, and not merely how those who are in some covenantal relationship with God (“image bearers”) came to exist.
  3. The account in Genesis 2, when read at face value, is about human origins generally. Adam in this narrative refers to “mankind” generally and is not used as a proper name until Genesis 4:1. And the name given to Eve in the account of Genesis 3:20 signals that Eve is not a proper name but an affirmation of her progenitorship of all mankind.

In order for this set of answers to have any weight, it must be the case that (a) Scripture affirms the existence of the natural kind “human” and (b) that this natural kind extends beyond those who are image bearers. But there simply does not seem to be any reason to affirm that. We just don’t need that concept to make sense of the biblical claims about Adam and his progeny.

It seems then that Craig has inserted this non-biblical and non-scientific notion of “human” into the equation, which he in turn thinks commits him to the claim that organisms aside from Homo sapiens (specifically Neanderthals and Denisovans) fit within God’s larger soteriological plan, and then finds himself forced to affirm that the progenitor of this class of organisms must be very ancient.

In his defense, Craig argues that the recent-Adam-as-progenitor-of-a-subset-of-Homo-sapiens-who-are-image-bearers has its own liabilities. Specifically, he says that following:

“To deny the humanity of past individuals who were anatomically similar to modern humans [i.e., those “outside the Garden”] and who exhibited such behaviors would be problematic because, one, it is implausible to think that such behaviors did not require the cognitive capacities of human beings, and two, to deny the humanity of past individuals exhibiting such behavior would permit one similarly to deny the humanity of people living today who share such behavior which is not only implausible but morally unconscionable.”

However, neither of these objections to the progenitor-of-image-bearers view are worrisome at all. With respect to the first, the progenitor-of-image-bearers view holds that those in and outside of the Garden differ not because of some “anatomical dissimilarity” but rather because those outside the Garden have not been specially gifted with whatever it is that constitutes the divine image. And with respect to the second, the progenitor-of-image-bearers view agrees that all Homo sapiens from at least the time of Jesus possess the divine image and so no member of the species from that time forward lacks the divine image. Nothing unconscionable follows from that.

Now Bill might wonder, or object: how can one suppose that Homo sapiens who existed 20 or 30kya who clearly had linguistic and artistic abilities, abstract thought, advance technology, and so on not count as human. And the answer is: perhaps they do under his definition. But if the biblical authors are primarily concerned about image bearers, then there is not the slightest incompatibility on holding that these creatures, possessing many, many abilities and talents (like many other non-human creatures) are still not image bearers. That feature belongs only to organisms that are Homo sapiens, and are human, and are much more recent than Homo heidelbergensis.