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Since the nineteenth century the early chapters of Genesis have been very controversial. For some issues, like the age of the earth, it is well established that there have been many different positions through history. Is it the same for the general historicity of Genesis 1-3? Who was the earliest known Jewish or Christian theologian to explicitly reject the historical existence of Adam?

For this question valid answers would show evidence that someone explicitly taught one of these things:

  • That there was no man who is the ancestor of all humanity,
  • That there was no man (or married couple) who sinned, causing the fall,
  • That Genesis 1-3 tell us nothing about what really happened in history, so that we cannot know if there was a real Adam or not.

If someone taught that certain details, such as the talking serpent, or the first act of sin being eating some fruit, are not historical but are symbolic or allegories for a genuinely historical man and fall, then they would not be a valid answer for this question. Or in other words, I would like answers to distinguish between the historicity of the texts, and the historicity of Adam, no matter how figuratively or allegorically Genesis talks about him.

  • Would someone calling Adam himself a symbol for humanity as a whole, without explicitly saying any of your three points, count? (I do not have an individual in mind, but am curious how you would define such a case.) – ThaddeusB Jan 17 '16 at 2:23
  • @ThaddeusB No. I think that's a very natural interpretation of 1 Cor 15:45-49, and in and of itself does not imply anything about the debate over the historical Adam. – curiousdannii Jan 17 '16 at 2:48
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    I'd argue that in the original context it was written no one would have taken in this literal sense. So the better question would be who were the first ones who actually believed in a literal Adam? But this will require a level of ancient historical perspective I suspect won't be found here. – Dan Jan 18 '16 at 5:45
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    @Dan Please refrain from introducing the nightmare of a term 'literal' into this discussion ;) If you're so certain that the original audience wouldn't have thought they were really descendant of Adam then I hope you can find someone who explicitly taught that. :) – curiousdannii Jan 18 '16 at 5:47
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    I think @Dan is correct. My understanding is that the early Jews thought of Adam/Eve as a moral tale, not to be taken literally. However that is not what you asked and, as Dan says, a far more challenging question. – Dick Harfield Jan 18 '16 at 22:00
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Philo

The first-century Jewish theologian Philo may not have been the first Jew to reject the literal historicity of the creation stories, as it is my understanding that educated Alexandrian Jews had long understood the creation accounts to be allegories. According to Jean-Louis Ska (The Book of Genesis, page 20), Philo (prior to Josephus and the Talmud) was the first to attribute authorship of Genesis to Moses. In Concerning Noah's Work As A Planter, Philo appears to attribute the story of Adam to Moses alone - implicitly without divine guidance or recourse to more ancient records:

VIII ... For there is absolutely no one at all who is represented as inhabiting the Paradise, since Moses says that God removed the first man who was created out of the earth, by name Adam, from his original place, and placed him here.

In Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender(page 42), we read that Philo believed that Genesis chapters 1-2 provided two creation stories because there were two creations, and that he explored the allegorical dimensions of chapters 2 and 3 and the symbolism of Adam and Eve.

As to the historicity of the story, Philo says (Concerning Noah's Work As A Planter):

VIII For it is stated, "God planted a Paradise in Eden, towards the east; and there is placed the man whom he has Made." Now, to think that it is here meant that God planted vines, or olive trees, or apple trees, or pomegranates, or any trees of such kinds, is mere incurable folly. For why should he have done so? any one may ask.
...
IX We must therefore have recourse to allegory, which is a favourite with men capable of seeing through it;

Origen

The Church Father Origen appears to have been the first Christian theologian who explicitly taught that Genesis 1-3 tell us nothing about what really happened in history, so that we cannot know if there was a real Adam:

De Principiis, Book 4.1.16: as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. Nor even do the law and the commandments wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally...

Jean Meslier

Jean Meslier, a French Catholic priest who lived 1664-1729, was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism.

In his 'Testament', Meslier said:

The extravagances recorded in the Bible are no more worthy of credit than the miracles. Hence, to hold with Genesis, the primal paradise, the talking serpent, the story of the apple -- or of the plum, writes Meslier -- the tree of life, of knowledge, a first man and a first woman, an original sin, its transmission to all the descendants of Adam and Eve. Fable, fable, fable . . .

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    You appear to be interpretating those quotes eisegetically - it is not at all clear that they are saying what you are saying they are saying. – bruised reed Jan 16 '16 at 21:34
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    I don't think Origen is unambiguously explicit enough; he rejects the historicity of the passages, but I don't think it's clear that he rejected the historical existence of Adam. The prologue of De Principiis says "the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe, Sere, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets", naming Adam in the same breath as the others. But thank you for your time looking into this! – curiousdannii Jan 17 '16 at 0:46
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    @curiousdannii My assumption is that if Origen rejects the historicity of the passages, then he rejects the actual existence of Adam. But I take your point and will try to find a, possibly later, candidate who more definitely rejects his existence. The problem will be that from end of the 4th cent at least until the Renaissance, it was dangerous to express 'extreme' opinions. I'll have a look in the later time period. – Dick Harfield Jan 17 '16 at 6:46
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    @DickHarfield I really have no idea who or when such beliefs were first taught. It's something creationists would want to claim originated in the enlightenment, but I'm sure there were some outliers who believe it before. So whether it's early church, medieval, or later, I'll be interested to see who said what. – curiousdannii Jan 17 '16 at 9:09
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    @curiousdannii Hard work, but I think I've done it - Meslier. I don't know if I can come up with any further clergymen between Origen and Meslier :) – Dick Harfield Jan 21 '16 at 5:17

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