William Craig on the Historical Adam. Apologetics Impulse vs Doctrinal Formulation

This post should not be construed as an attempt to cast doubts on William Lane Craig’s (WLC) commitment to evangelical orthodoxy or to minimize his immense contribution to the intellectual defence of Christian faith. It only seeks to demonstrate how the tension between WLC’s apologetic impulse and theological formulation of doctrine may cause confusion for his readers, based on an analysis of his recent article published in First Things, “The Historical Adam.”

On the one hand, WLC’s categorization of the Genesis 1-11 as “mytho-history” raises questions about the existence of the historical Adam:

1) Regarding the book of Genesis
– “The primaeval history of Genesis 1–11, including the stories of Adam and Eve, functions as Israel’s foundational myth, laying the basis of Israel’s worldview…Rather, the claim is that the primaeval narratives belong to the genre of myth principally on the basis of their sharing common mythic themes and their effort to anchor present realities in the deep past.”

“In terms of genre, Genesis 1–11 has key characteristics of myth…On the basis of comparative studies of Sumerian literature, the eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen proposed that we recognize a unique genre of literature, which he dubbed “mytho-history…If Genesis 1–11 functions as mytho-history, then these chapters need not be read literally. The accounts of the origin and Fall of man are clearly metaphorical or figurative in nature, featuring as they do an anthropomorphic deity incompatible with the transcendent God of the creation account…Then there is the infamous snake in the Garden.” /1/

“Since the Pentateuchal author [is the use of the singular evidence of WLC’s evangelical commitment?] has an interest in history, he intends for his narrative to be at some level historical, to concern people who actually lived and events that really occurred. But those persons and events have been clothed in the metaphorical and figurative language of myth. If the stories are not meant to be read literally, what central truths do they convey?

After listing ten central truths conveyed by the Pentateuchal author on the nature of God, man and sin, WLC concludes, “Such truths do not depend upon reading the primaeval narratives literalistically.”

2) Regarding the New Testament
WLC notes that the book of Jude makes use of the figure of a literary Moses taken from the apocryphal book, The Assumption of Moses. The literary Moses is obviously not the historical figure of the Pentateuch. Jude also uses the figure of a literary Enoch who is different from the Enoch found in the book of Genesis.  WLC suggests that “This distinction implies a further distinction between truth and truth-in-a-story.” He adds, “This text is the reductio ad absurdum of facile arguments for Old Testament historicity on the basis of New Testament citation…On the basis of such examples, we can see how naive it is to argue that merely because some New Testament author refers to a literary figure, whether found in the Old Testament or outside it, that figure is asserted to be a historical person. ” As such, we need to distinguish the literary Adam from the historical Adam. We cannot conclude that there is a historical Adam just because the New Testament makes literary references to the Adam found in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, WLC seems to accept the historicity of Adam when he writes, “By contrast, in Romans 5:12–21, Paul’s exposition of the effects of Adam’s sin upon the world does imply the historicity of Adam and his fall into sin…It follows that Adam and his sin are ­asserted by Paul to be historical.” It is interesting that WLC does not follow other critics who draw the logical conclusion of his earlier discussion on the literary Moses or the literary Enoch to assert that Romans 5:12-21 needs not refer to a historical Adam since Paul could be using the device of a literary Adam. But then WLC adds, “What Paul asserts of the historical Adam does not, however, go beyond what we have already affirmed on the basis of our genre analysis of the primaeval history of Genesis 1–11—namely, that there was a progenitor of the entire human race through whose ­disobedience moral evil entered the world.” This qualifier adds ambiguity to his understanding of the historicity of Adam.

[In passing, I would like to point to an observation given by Ben Witherington in his response to the suggestion that Adam was considered a literary figure or ‘everyman’ in intertestamental Jewish literature]:

To begin where the last post ended— In none of this literature is Adam ‘everyman’, any more than Eve is ‘every woman’ though there are some hints in the latter direction in Sirach.
What is in any case assumed in all these intertestamental reflections is that Genesis is telling a historical story about real people who affected not only themselves but their descendants in various ways. They are not merely literary figures who set bad examples for those who read their stories. It is thus not helpful to say “no author cared about giving Adam a historical reading” (p. 168). None of these authors defended the historicity of Adam because it was not a question or an issue, nor did any of them view the historical Adam in light of later Christian tradition. This is however very different from saying none of them thought Adam was a historical = real person in space and time. In fact, none of them would have spoken of Adam as they do in regard to genealogies and effects on descendants if they did not take it for granted that he and Eve were real persons. And finally, at Qumran the story is the same. CD 10.8; 4Q504; 4 Q167 1 QS 3-4 depict[sic] an Adam who is the first breaker of faith with God, the first breaker of the covenant, the first formed in, and the first to deform the image of God, and so on.
Yes, the later full form of the Christian analysis of Adam by Augustine and subsequent interpreters is not found in these texts, and doubtless some of those interpreters went not just beyond but against what the Bible says, and need correction. This however doesn’t mean that anyone in the Biblical and intertestamental tradition thought Adam and Eve were mere literary figures, or ciphers for everyone, but not real ancestors of God’s people. Source: Adam and the Genome– Part Twenty Three. May 9, 2017 by Ben Witherington

3) WLC proceeds to consider the possibility that Adam and Eve could be a historical pair based on current paleoanthropological evidence – “We may imagine an initial population of hominins—animals that were like human beings in many respects but lacked the capacity for rational thought. Out of this population, God selected two and furnished them with intellects by renovating their brains and endowing them with rational souls…Given the recent archaeological findings, Adam and Eve may plausibly be identified as belonging to the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, usually denominated Homo heidelbergensis or Heidelberg Man, living more than 750,000 years ago.”

Question: Does WLC believe in the historical Adam or not? There is obvious tension, if not conflict, between WLC’s adoption of a literary Adam and his affirmation of the historicity of Adam. The question remains whether WLC has provided adequate evidence to support his reading of the historical Adam, given the ambiguities that arise when one regards Gen. 1-11 as belonging to the hybrid genre of “mytho-history”.

4) It is not surprising if some readers become confused about what WLC actually says about the historicity of Adam. Perhaps the confusion would be resolved if we read WLC not as giving an outright affirmation or denial of the historical Adam as understood by orthodox Christianity. He is trading on an ambiguous reading of “mytho-history” Scripture as this would somehow allow him to affirm the historicity of Adam which takes into account evidence from paleoanthropology. The ambiguity in both the reading of mytho-history Scripture and the inherently contestable evidence from paleoanthropology would enable WLC to put on hold the question of the historical Adam which would otherwise continue to pose considerable challenges the task of defending the historical reliability of the Bible. As WLC explains elsewhere in his defence of the two-natures of Christ, the strategy “doesn’t raise the bar too high for sceptical unbelievers because we’re offering the model merely as a possible explanation.”

Question: Is WLC’s reading of Genesis as “mytho-history” a good and acceptable strategy for Christian apologetics? The fact is that Christians cannot isolate the issue of the historicity of Adam from other fundamental doctrines of the Bible. For example, one wonders how apologists would defend the doctrine of original sin if they are so tentative in their understanding of the historical Adam. Likewise, how would this affect their estimation of the authority of Jesus as he evidently adopted a literal reading of the historical (non-mythological) Adam in his dispute with the Pharisees over the issue of monogamy (Matt. 19:8).

Food for thought: We should appreciate the vital contribution of apologists in defending general truths of Christian faith. Many of them are required to spend most of their time in inter-disciplinary matters related to philosophy-science-history. The result is that oftentimes their competence in theology and biblical exegesis is not anywhere comparable (perhaps even lacking) to their admirable expertise in matters of apologetics.

WLC is an outstanding world-class apologist who deserves much applause. But it is of some concerns that when he moves into theology, he comes up with questionable theology related to middle knowledge, neo-Apollinarianism and now questionable hermeneutics which regard Genesis as mytho-history found in other Ancient Near East texts. A better hermeneutic would acknowledge the genre of the Book of Genesis as sui generis, that is, it is neither history (as defined by secular historiography) nor fiction. As God’s special revelation it should be read on its own terms in the light of progressive revelation with its final fulfillment given in the New Testament.

**The question is whether it is theology which regulates apologetics or whether it is apologetics which shapes theology.

Caveat: To be fair to WLC, these questions are based on WLC’s short article rather than on his forthcoming book, In Quest of the Historical Adam (Eerdmans, 2001). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the article is an accurate reflection of the basic teaching of the book.

/1/ WLC’s adoption of Thorkild Jacobsein classification of Genesis 1-11 as mytho-history is problematic. A cursory reading of Jacobsen’s classic, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Yale UP, 1976) would show the stark contrasts between the characteristics and ambience of mythological tales (Babylonian myths) and the historical narratives (Bible) which make them incomparable. Much less should we group them into a hybrid literary form called “Mytho-history”.

John Oswalt highlights some of the common features of myths that differentiate them from biblical historical narratives.

Polytheism: “There are many different forces in this world and there must be a god for each one…The world is an emanation of the divine and the world is multiplex. Therefore, there must be many gods.”

Images: “The idol is an ideal representative of continuity. First of all it is a part of nature…second, it is commonly in the form of a human; and third, it is ritually invested with the names and trappings of a particular god. Thus the typical idol is at the same time divine, human, and nature.”

Eternity of Chaotic Matter: Myths assume that matter is the fundamental element that has always existed, the essential constituent of the universe…Out of this matter come the first gods, who in turn form the chaos into the present order.

Personality Not Essential to Reality: “although matter is always animate, it is not necessarily personal…Thus, it is not surprising to discover that the deities in the mythical pantheons are not fully personal, but represent personalized forces.”

Low View of the Gods: “the myths take a uniformly low view of the gods. The gods are untrustworthy, seeking their own ends rather than caring for their worshipers’ ends…They are limited, both in knowledge and in power. They are subject to magic, both that of the worshipers and that which they may apply to each other. All of this may be summed up by saying that the gods are not absolute.”

Conflict is the Source of Life: “conflict is the source of life. There is never-ending conflict between the forces of construction and the forces of chaos. The cosmos itself is the result of such a primal conflict between chaotic matter and the gods whom she has spawned.”

Low View of Humanity: “Humans were created to serve the gods, and to a significant degree their creation was an afterthought…Humans seem insignificant when we look at the world of nature.”

No Single Standard of Ethics: “there is no single standard of ethics. Again, reasoning from the given to the divine would not allow such a thing. There are many gods and goddesses and each of these gods has varying likes and dislikes…What one god wants, another god hates. So it clear that there cannot be any single standard of ethical behavior that has some universal divine warrant behind it.”

Cyclical Concept of Existence: “world myth is uniform in imagining reality to be a continually turning wheel that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. The past is only significant insofar as it shows us continuities that will repeat themselves…The shape of reality is determined by “now,” and “now” is going nowhere.”

[Source: John Oswalt, The Bible and Myths (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 57-62]

Related Posts:
Monotheism in Ancient Israel
The Historicity of Adam : A Biblical Defence (With 4 Supplementary Scientific Articles)


Added on 5 Oct 2021
Christianity Today (20 Sept 2021): Interview with William Craig, “William Lane Craig Explores the Headwaters of the Human Race.”


You describe Genesis 1–11 as “mytho-history,” arguing that an ancient-Near-Eastern audience would not have understood this text as a literal historical narrative. How do you define mytho-history, and how does it function in divine revelation?

I’m not using the word myth in the popular sense of a falsehood, but rather in the folklorist’s sense of a traditional, sacred narrative explaining how the world and humanity came to be in their present form. History is a narrative concerning real people and events, and so a mytho-history would be a sort of fusion of the two: a narrative concerning real people and events told in the language of myth in order to ground a culture’s identity and institutions in events…

In examining the relevant scientific data, you accept the theory of common descent—the belief that life on earth, including human life, evolved from a common ancestor. As for the “founding pair,” you propose that God might have “lifted them to the human level” through a “radical transition” that “plausibly involved both biological and spiritual renovation.” Why is this scenario a better explanation than a de novo (“from scratch”) creation of Adam?

Several questions here need to be teased apart. First, it’s very important to understand that this book is not concerned with how man came about, but when. I assume, for the sake of argument, common descent. But that isn’t to say that I defend or propound it. Given the assumption of common descent, I ask if we can identify when human beings first appeared in the process.

Moreover, I think that the question about the first appearance of man is not equivalent to when the genus Homo appears on the scene. Early hominins were lumped into that category rather artificially, so we shouldn’t assume some form is human simply because it’s classified as Homo. We need other criteria for humanity. In terms of the biological and spiritual renovation that lifted these prehuman hominin forms to a fully human status, I assume the evolutionary scenario simply to show that there isn’t any incompatibility between it and the existence of a primordial human pair from whom all humanity is descended. We can identify when in human history this original human pair probably appeared. I argue that Adam is plausibly to be identified as Homo heidelbergensis (Heidelberg man).

Would you say that evolutionary history, up until Adam, was divinely guided or naturalistic?

It’s important to understand that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. I believe God can have providential control over both human history and evolutionary history without the necessity of miraculous interventions. But I do defend the view that in order to have a human being you need to have the infusion of a rational soul into some preexisting hominin form. What I suggest is that God may have brought about both a biological and spiritual renovation of a hominin form that would make it truly human, biologically capable of sustaining a rational soul.

So, it is possible to have a divinely guided, providentially directed evolutionary process that is purely naturalistic but under God’s sovereignty.