Book Review: Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? by C. John Collins

Posted: May 23, 2011 in bible, books, creation, exegesis, review, science, theology

I wish I could shake C. John Collins’s hand.  It has been a long time since I last read something as lucid, even-handed, and gracious as his latest book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care.  Right off the bat, I have to say that the book’s simple title may serve to conceal it’s scholarly depth.  Collins does not pull any punches in carefully examining a variety of facets related to the historicity of Adam and Eve.  However, despite its depth, the simple title correctly portrays the book as accessible and engaging, which is perhaps its greatest strength.  Collins does a fine job of distilling difficult concepts into their most basic form, succinctly summarizing complex issues without losing the required nuance.  This is a book that every Christian can and should read.

However, for many Christians, discussions related to the origins of man are uncomfortable, to say the least.  For some, the near-constant bombardment of “naturalistic” propaganda from the scientific establishment is enough to make them cower in shame, content to hold fast to their “traditional” understanding of human origins while intentionally cultivating a functional ignorance related to modern science’s “findings,” in fear that such “findings” might prove a death blow to their cherished beliefs (I’ve been there).

Some Christians lean too far in the other direction, abandoning the biblical text in favor of more recent scientific theories.  They view Genesis as an old book full of old myths that do little more than provide us with an interesting (yet unhistorical) back-story of the Jewish people.

Finally, there are some Christians who see modern science as generally in conflict with the biblical witness.  They often look at science and boldly declare that it changes nothing about the way they read the Scriptures, because to allow science to induce a revision of our “traditional” interpretations would be tantamount to usurping the authority of Scripture.  Additionally, these people generally hold to an extremely literalistic interpretation of the creation account, dismissing literary and historical considerations in favor of a more “plain reading” of the text.  Although Collins ultimately agrees with this camp in regard to the historicity of Adam and Eve, he would probably disagree with their basic perspective on the relationship between science and the Bible.

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? answers all of these people in the same way: “the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve as our first parents who brought sin into human experience is worthy of our confidence and adherence” (133).  Now, of course there is a lot that goes into that statement, and when Collins mentions the “traditional understanding” of Adam and Eve, he is speaking about what he calls, “mere-Adam-and-Eve-ism” (see below), not necessarily all that has been associated with the belief in a literal Adam and Eve throughout history.  This allows room for a variety of theories about what actually took place and how it happened all those years ago.  But, the core point remains nonetheless: Adam and Eve did really exist and it does matter.

Goal

To that end, Collins is unambiguous about his goal in writing the book:

My goal in this study is to show why I believe we should retain a version of the traditional view, in spite of any pressures to abandon it (13).

However, this does not mean that he forces his view down the readers’ throat.  Rather, Collins has written a carefully structured book, with a very specific focus and outline.  He fairly presents many different viewpoints, praising their strengths and criticizing their weaknesses in turn.  Collins adds that his goal is, perhaps more foundationally, “to help you think these matters through for yourself,” (20).  My experience in reading the book proved this to be true.  Collins respects his readers and lets his well-reasoned arguments do the persuading, allowing room for disagreement and ambiguity where the “evidence” is less certain.

Scope

Collins limits his discussion to “mere historical Adam-and-Eve-ism” (borrowed from C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”), thus not significantly dealing with many related issues, such as the age of the earth, the origin of Adam’s body, the meaning of the “image of God,” the means by which sin affects all people and the exact impact of that sin, etc.  Although each of these important topics is commented on from time to time, they do not fall into the primary purview of the book, as Collins does not consider agreement on them “crucial for the traditional view” he advocates (14).

This limited focus is actually quite helpful, in my opinion.  It enables the author to remain “on target” in discussing the many intricacies related to the book’s main question.  Although at times I found myself wanting more in regard to specific issues mentioned only in passing, Collins regularly cites his own work (Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary and Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?) and the work of others, so interested readers know where to look for more information.

Structure

Collins breaks his book up into four main sections:

1. The Shape of the Biblical Story
2. Particular Texts that Speak of Adam and Eve
3. Human Uniqueness and Dignity
4. Can Science Help Us Pinpoint “Adam and Eve”?

In the first section, Collins’s frames the discussion of the historicity of Adam and Eve in the overarching storyline of the Bible, demonstrating that there are serious problems when one attempts to remove Scripture’s origin story from it’s truly foundational place in the biblical narrative.  One interesting point (which he devotes an appendix to) that he makes is that Genesis was designed to contradict the prevalent Mesopotamian worldviews of the time, providing an alternative set of values for the people of Israel to adhere to.

The second section deals with the specific biblical texts that refer to Adam and Eve.  It is in this section of the book that Collins’s abilities as a Hebrew scholar can be clearly perceived.  He examines passages from the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus, and elsewhere in the New Testament, honestly exegeting the text and drawing conclusions about the authors’ perspectives on the creation account.  Most fascinating was Collins’s brief look at extra-biblical second temple Jewish literature, which he argues provides valuable clues regarding how to understand the biblical creation story.  It is my opinion that Collins successfully makes his case from the passages he cited.

In his third major section, Collins argues that reflecting on human uniqueness and dignity provides us with important help in understanding Adam and Eve.  Specifically, he looks at the image of God in man and universal human experiences (like yearning for justice).  This chapter, in my opinion, is his least convincing one.  However, I applaud his efforts to consider the whole range of evidence in coming to a conclusion about Adam and Eve.

Finally, Collins looks at some of the scientific evidence, examining and evaluating a number of theories put forth by those who are attempting to do justice to the biblical text.  However, Collins is careful to warn his readers of the risk of reckless concordism (trying to make the Bible and science “fit together”) that “assumes that the Bible writer’s purpose was to describe the same sorts of things as the contemporary scientist does” (107).  This dangerous assumption, so often perpetrated by young earth creationists reading with an overly literalistic approach to the text, can have a detrimental impact on interpretive conclusions.

Perspective

One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Collins’s measured perspective regarding the the many complex issues related to human origins.  Collins does not fall into the “all or none” tendency so often advocated by those who regard the “correct” interpretation of the Genesis creation account as perfectly obvious (whether they are young earth creationists or unbelievers who write off the text as pure fantasy).  Rather, Collins demonstrates that there are a range of viable theories about how to best understand what the biblical writer was trying communicate, and how that message can fit with the findings of modern science.

When Collins does lay down boundaries that must not be crossed, he does so humbly and graciously, and only after first meticulously demonstrating (from the biblical text, human experience, and science) why it must be so.  The author’s careful inquiry and gracious tone provide a model to be emulated.  Too often, when emotions escalate (as they often do when discussing this issue), logical and exegetical fallacies begin to rule the day, and thus the biblical text is dishonored, even by those who claim it as their final authority.

Reading the Text “Literally”

More as a matter of personal interest, I was especially impressed with Collins’s section on history, myth, and worldview story.  He carefully defines what he means by each of these terms, venturing to explain some of the details related to reading the biblical text as a piece of carefully constructed literature.  This entails study related to literary devices used in the text, the author’s laconic style of writing, linguistic considerations, the author’s worldview, and the readers’ worldview.  All of these factors contribute to a “literal” understanding of what the author wrote.  Unfortunately, many people confuse a “literal” understanding with a “concrete” understanding, where all words are taken at face-value and are simply interpreted on a “plain reading,” which is often insufficient when dealing with complex pieces of literature (like the book of Genesis).

Conclusion

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? is an insightful book that has the potential to help many lay Christians navigate the often tumultuous waters surrounding discussions about humanity’s origins.  Although not comprehensive in dealing with all the important issues related to the biblical account, Collins’s book is a valuable contribution to the conversation, especially in it’s accessible depth and nuanced perspective.  As I have already said, I think that all Christians would benefit from a careful reading of this book.  At the very least, it will be a helpful tool in fostering productive discussions regarding this divisive issue.

Additional Resources:
“Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay People” by Tim Keller (free PDF)
A Matter of Days by Hugh Ross
The Genesis Debate edited by David G. Hagopian
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis by John Sailhammer
Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins
Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? by C. John Collins
“Free to Disagree” by Matt Tully (my 4-part series on the creation debate)
Reasons to Believe
The BioLogos Forum

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Comments
  1. kakmakdad says:

    Compelling! I feel compelled as a responsible believer to study this book in hopes of strengthening my biblical faith. In fact, I just ordered it. Thanks for an excellent review.

  2. John Thomson says:

    Unsure if you are saying Collins believes in an historical Adam and Eve. And if he does, treating Gen 2,3 as history, what are we to say of Ch1? Indeed if ch4 is historical why not 1-3?

    • Matt Tully says:

      John,

      Collins does believe (and argue) that Adam and Eve were real people, in history. As I quoted in my review, Collins maintains that “the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve as our first parents who brought sin into human experience is worthy of our confidence and adherence” (133).

      In regard to how we read Genesis 1 compared to chapters 2-4, Collins has much to say about what it means for something to be “history” in his first section entitled, “The Shape of the Biblical Story.” I would suggest reading the book for a more detailed account of his reasoning.

      Thanks for the comment!

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