A book review of
In Quest of the Historical Adam:
A Biblical and Scientific Exploration
by William Lane Crag
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018).
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Philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s latest work, In Quest of the Historical Adam, is an impressive, bold interdisciplinary exploration into the historicity of Adam (and Eve). Analyzing key texts in the Old and New Testaments, Craig concludes that Scripture presents Adam as a historical person and progenitor of humanity who introduced moral evil into the world through disobedience.
Craig adopts an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s origin. To reconcile a human evolutionary history with the biblical account of humanity’s creation, he makes the case that Genesis 1–11 belongs to a genre called mytho-history (a sacred mythical origins narrative that also makes allusions to real people, places, and events). Craig holds the view that it is up to modern science to determine who Adam was and when he (and Eve) lived. Based on the evidence from anthropology, Craig provisionally concludes that Adam lived between 750,000 and 1,000,000 years ago as a member of the hominin species Homo heidelbergensis.
Craig’s theological and scientific conclusions are unlikely to be accepted by many evangelicals and theologically conservative Christians. Because my training is in the life sciences, I touch only briefly on the theological concerns I have with Craig’s proposal, including the need for a stronger demarcation between myth and history. Instead, I direct most of my focus on the scientific issues — in particular, how symbolic artifacts in the fossil record provide compelling evidence that Adam (and Eve) are best understood as modern humans, who alone display cognitive capacities that reflect the image of God.
Did Adam and Eve really exist? Is there scientific evidence that supports the biblical narratives of human origins? Do these questions matter? According to philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s latest work, In Quest of the Historical Adam, these questions are of central importance to the Christian faith. This affirmation is one of the book’s strengths.
Adam’s Historicity Matters
Craig argues that Adam’s historicity bears on biblical inerrancy. He writes, “If the Scriptures clearly teach that there was a historical Adam at the headwaters of the human race, then the falsity of that doctrine would have a reverberatory effect on the doctrine of Scripture with regard to Scripture’s truthfulness and reliability.”1
He also believes that Adam’s historicity reflects on Christ’s divinity. Craig affirms that Jesus believed in the historicity of Adam and Eve. He argues that if Adam and Eve weren’t historical individuals, it would mean that Jesus held false beliefs — an impossibility for an omniscient being.
So, who was Adam? To address this question, Craig explores two different tracks. He devotes the first half of the book to the biblical data on the historical Adam. The second half represents a scientific exploration, with a final chapter tying his investigative work together.
Biblical Quest for Adam’s Historicity
Adam figures centrally in Genesis 1–11. For this reason, Craig begins his study by determining the literary genre of this unit of Scripture. He notes that several Old Testament scholars have observed a close resemblance between Genesis 1–11 and the ancient myths of Mesopotamia, leading him to ask: Is Genesis 1–11 mythical?
Surveying the work of several scholars, Craig identifies ten features shared by myths and shows that Genesis 1–11 displays all of these characteristics. He concludes that Genesis 1–11 exhibits “the family resemblances that mark the folklorist’s genre of myth.”2
Despite this mythical designation, Craig argues that the author of Genesis also appears to have had historical considerations in mind, as evidenced by (1) the chronological arrangement of the narrative’s elements and (2) the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, which culminate with real people who actually lived. So, in Craig’s view, even though Genesis 1–11 is “myth,” it makes references to real people (including Adam and Eve), real geographical places, and real events in primeval history. These two features lead him to agree with Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen that Genesis 1–11 belongs to a literary genre called mytho–history.
Craig then turns his focus to the biblical data from the New Testament. He maintains that in Paul’s epistles to the churches in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:21–22) and Rome (Rom. 5:12–21), the apostle is, indeed, describing a progenitor of humanity who actually lived and introduced moral evil into the world through his disobedience.
Scientific Quest for Adam’s Identity
Having established the biblical Adam as a historical person, Craig turns to modern science, which he believes will determine when “human beings first appear in the evolutionary process.”3
On Being Human. Craig begins his scientific analysis by asking a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? He argues that some of the hominins4 that make up the fossil record, namely Neanderthals and H. heidelbergensis, may classify as human if these creatures bear enough of an anatomical similarity to modern humans. More significantly, he holds that the personhood of these creatures can be established using the criteria delineated by anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, namely:
- abstract thinking
- planning depth
- economic and technological innovativeness
- symbolic behavior
Brain Size. To assess when the above behaviors appear in prehistory, Craig surveys the scientific literature, beginning with a discussion of work in paleoneurology — the study of hominin brains based on fossilized skulls. Here, the primary feature Craig emphasizes is hominin brain size. He concludes that Neanderthals and H. heidelbergensis would have had the cognitive capacity to display the four behavioral features that define personhood.
Archaeological Artifacts. Craig contends that artifacts, such as blades, stone points, hafts, composite tools, and grindstones, along with inferred hunting practices and structured use of domestic space, suggest that H. sapiens, Neanderthals, and, to some degree, H. heidelbergensis, displayed abstract thinking, planning depth, and economic and technical innovativeness. Craig also maintains that the capacity for symbolic expression, rather than being limited to H. sapiens, was also evident in Neanderthals. Because many anthropologists believe that H. heidelbergensis is the common ancestor for the lineage that led to Neanderthals (and Denisovans) and modern humans, Craig argues that personhood should extend to H. heidelbergensis and all its evolutionary descendants.
Tying It All Together
Based on his assessment of the scientific record, Craig concludes that Adam and Eve were real historical people, most likely members of H. heidelbergensis, who first appeared in the fossil record before 750,000 years ago. He proposes that God selected these two members of H. heidelbergensis and performed biological and spiritual renovations on them — “endowing them with rational souls” — to create two persons who bore His image.5 Craig writes, “If Adam and Eve were the ancestors of Neanderthals and other archaic humans, then it follows that members of these species are, like Adam and Eve, made in the image of God, for they are included in the generic statements of Genesis 1:26–27.”6 Craig also explores the eschatological implications of his proposal by stating, “as members of the human family, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others were, like us, people whom God loves and for whom Christ died.…Christ’s atoning death must have therefore encompassed the sins of these archaic humans.”7
Upon arriving at the end of Craig’s quest, Christians may find themselves in an unexpected place that feels quite foreign, particularly for those who hold to traditional views of Scripture and embrace conservative theological positions. Craig’s conclusion is astonishing, to say the least.
A CRITICAL BIBLICAL ASSESSMENT OF CRAIG’S MODEL
Craig’s startling conclusion about Adam and Eve’s identity will undoubtedly raise red flags for many Christians. His classification of Genesis 1–11 as mytho-history is unlikely to sit well with many evangelicals and theologically conservative Christians. Most people in these ranks — whether scholars or laity — view Genesis 1–11 as history, and for good reason. Christians accept the theological claims made throughout Scripture because they are grounded in actual historical events. If the theological claims of Genesis 1–11 are to be considered reliable, they, too, must be anchored in reality.
Distinguishing Biblical Creation from Ancient Myth
Features of Genesis 1–11, such as (1) the chronological arrangement of the narrative’s elements; (2) the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, culminating with people known from history (i.e., Abraham); and (3) the references to real places, lead Craig to believe that the author of Genesis had historical considerations in mind. But these are the same features that convince many Christians that Genesis 1–11 is historical and not mythical.
Genesis 1–11 indeed shares elements with the origin myths of the ancient Near East, but scholars such as John Oswalt have argued that these shared features are superficial, not essential. In his classic work The Bible among the Myths (Zondervan, 2009), Oswalt shows that Genesis 1–11 (in fact, all of Scripture) presents a worldview that is diametrically opposed to the one shared by the myths of the ancient Near East. For example, Genesis 1–11 stands apart from the others by soundly rejecting polytheism and affirming monotheism. Yahweh does not proceed from matter; He transcends the world He creates. And the world He creates does not arise out of chaos and conflict but out of divine intention.
Genesis 1–11 also presents a radically different view of humanity from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts. No mere afterthoughts brought into existence to serve the gods, human beings are described by the Bible as creatures made in God’s image by God’s choice. And because humans bear God’s image, they participate in God’s work in the world as the pinnacle of His creation.
Are There Fantastic Elements in Genesis 1–11?
One argument Craig makes for the mythical nature of Genesis 1–11 is the occurrences of fantastic elements in this portion of Scripture — features that, if taken literally, would be patently false to the original audience. Included in this list are:
- creation of the world in six days
- vegetarianism of the first humans and all the animals
- two trees in the Garden of Eden
- talking serpent that tempted Eve
- cherubim that guarded the tree of life after the Fall
- long life spans of the patriarchs
- command to take two of each species of animal on board the ark
By rejecting the historicity of Genesis 1–11 based on these so-called fantastic elements, Craig comes dangerously close to stripping Genesis 1–11 of its supernatural content. Scholars such as Hugh Ross in his book Navigating Genesis (RTB Press, 2014) demonstrate ways that this portion of Scripture can be read literally without compromising scientific integrity. In fact, by adopting the view that Genesis 1–11 consists of unbelievable, fantastic elements, Craig dismisses the remarkable scientific prescience of the Genesis creation accounts, a feature that helps establish the inerrancy of Scripture and that serves as a powerful tool to engage skeptics who believe Genesis 1–11 is riddled with scientific errors.
What Is Mythical? What Is Historical?
If Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history, then readers are left with nagging questions about which elements are to be understood as mythical and which as historical. For example:
- Is the creation of Adam and Eve in God’s image mythical?
- Is the temptation of Eve, and the Fall, mythical?
- Is the transmission of sin to Adam’s lineage mythical?
Craig offers no real criteria to address these questions. It seems that he makes arbitrary decisions about which features of Genesis 1–11 are historical and which are mythical. His approach leaves key Christian doctrines — such as creation in God’s image and the transmission of sin — vulnerable. For, if they are rooted in myth instead of real historical events, why should these doctrines be considered valid?
A CRITICAL SCIENTIFIC ASSESSMENT OF CRAIG’S MODEL
To be fair, the conclusions Craig draws about the shared cognitive capacity of H. heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and modern humans are held by many paleoanthropologists. But Craig does not discuss studies that count against his model. Some paleoanthropologists regard anatomically and behaviorally modern humans as fundamentally different from other hominins. By not mentioning their work, Craig disregards the perspectives of a growing number of evolutionary anthropologists who regard human beings as exceptional. When these studies are considered, Craig’s model becomes less convincing.
Questioning Craig’s Criteria for the Image of God
To assess the appearance of personhood in the archaeological record, Craig takes an approach similar to the one I take in my book Who Was Adam? (RTB Press, 2015). We both argue that the artifacts in the archaeological record are manifestations of cognitive and behavioral capacities that help determine whether a particular hominin displays personhood (and, ultimately, the image of God).
My concern relates to three of the four criteria Craig uses to establish personhood: abstract thinking, planning depth, economic and technological innovativeness, and symbolic behavior. The first three qualities are behavioral capacities that are not unique to humans; they are evident in many animals. As a case in point, chimpanzees have been observed, both in the wild and in captivity, to engage in remarkable behaviors that include:
- making spears to hunt (which involves a six-step manufacturing process)
- making tools to extract termites from their nests
- making stone tools to break open nuts
- culturally transmitting technological know-how to the next generation
- using tools to fish
- occupying caves seasonally to avoid inclement conditions
- fabricating beds from tree branches possessing tensile and insect-repellent properties
- exploiting natural wildfires
- using plants for medicinal purposes
- mourning their dead
Chimpanzees display Craig’s first three criteria for personhood, and they share anatomical, physiological, and genetic similarities to humans. In fact, some anthropologists have argued that humans and chimpanzees should be classified as the same species based on their high degree of genetic similarity, which ranges between 90 to 98 percent, depending on the criteria used to establish the similarity.
But chimpanzees do not demonstrate Craig’s fourth criterion, symbolism: the capacity to represent the world with symbols and manipulate those symbols in uncountable ways. Yet neither does H. heidelbergensis. So, by using Craig’s reasoning, one could justifiably conclude that Adam and Eve were members of the ape-like species that lived six to seven million years ago and gave rise to the lineage that culminated in modern humans and chimpanzees.
Symbolism. In Who Was Adam?, I argue that symbolism is the best criterion for the image of God. This quality appears to be unique to humans. According to Scripture, our uniqueness as human beings stems from the fact that we are image bearers. So, in our quest for the historical Adam, we should look for traits that make us unique. Symbolism fills the bill.
Symbolism (which manifests as language, art, music, and body ornamentation) can be directly detected in the archaeological record, unlike the first two criteria on Craig’s list (abstract thinking and planning depth). Those two qualities must be inferred, and inference often becomes highly speculative.
One reason Craig includes Neanderthals (and by extension, H. heidelbergensis) in the human family is due to claims in the scientific literature that Neanderthals displayed the capacity for symbolism. To be fair, these claims do, indeed, abound. Yet Craig largely ignores the fact that for every published claim of Neanderthal symbolism, several follow-up studies exist that undermine that claim.
For example, based on the discovery of “flutes” made from cave bear leg bones, anthropologists maintain that Neanderthals crafted musical instruments and, hence, possessed the capacity for symbolism. These artifacts contain a series of perforations, giving the hollow bone the appearance of a musical instrument. One of the most well-known examples was recovered in 1995 from a Slovenian cave. However, a detailed microscopic analysis of the bones indicates that the perforations were generated not from humans or hominids using tools but from the gnawing of spotted hyenas.8
Perhaps the feature of the archaeological record that most thoroughly undermines the claim for Neanderthal symbolism is the difference in trajectory observed for Neanderthal and modern human technology. Neanderthals lived on Earth longer than modern humans have, yet their technology largely remained static. In contrast, human technology has exponentially progressed since its outset. This difference appears to be due to modern humans’ unique capacity for symbolism. According to a research team that included Noam Chomsky and Ian Tattersall, “Our species was born in a technologically archaic context….Evidently, a new potential for symbolic thought was born with our anatomically distinctive species, but it was only expressed after a necessary cultural stimulus had exerted itself. This stimulus was most plausibly the appearance of language….Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”9
Planning. The criteria of planning depth faces another vulnerability. Johan Lind from Stockholm University has demonstrated that animals engage in behavior that resembles flexible planning through associative learning.10 Researchers working in artificial intelligence (AI) have discovered that associative learning can produce complex behaviors in AI systems. As a result, these systems appear to have the capacity for planning. In other words, planning-like behavior can emerge through associative learning. The same processes that give AI systems the capacity to beat humans in chess may well account for the planning-like behavior of animals like chimpanzees.
These results mean that animals “plan” for the future in ways that are different from humans. Could it be that the behaviors inferred from archaeological records associated with H. heidelbergensis and Neanderthals reflect an outworking of associative learning, instead of the flexible planning that is characteristic of modern human reasoning?
The Case for Adam as a Modern Human
One of the most difficult-to-accept aspects of Craig’s model is his claim that Adam and Eve were members of H. heidelbergensis. It is highly unlikely that the author of Genesis 1–11 had any concept of hominins preceding the creation of Adam and Eve. I argue in Who Was Adam? That it makes more sense to view Adam and Eve as anatomically and behaviorally modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens) because that is who we are.
Human Exceptionalism. A growing number of evolutionary anthropologists have adopted the view that modern humans are exceptional. We stand apart from all extant and extinct species, including Neanderthals. The basis for humans’ exceptional nature is a combination of four qualities that modern humans uniquely possess:
- open-ended generative capacity
- theory of mind
- social capacity
These qualities can be understood as scientific descriptors for the image of God.
Physical anthropologists have also uncovered further evidence for human exceptionalism, discovering that modern human skull shape is distinct from those of hominins. Neanderthal and H. heidelbergensis skulls were elongated, but the skull shape of modern humans is globular, with bulging and enlarged parietal and cerebral areas. This feature impacts modern human brain shape and the relative sizes of brain regions. Many anthropologists believe that these anatomical features help explain the advanced cognitive abilities of modern humans.11 For example, the parietal lobe of the human brain is responsible for:
- perception of stimuli
- sensorimotor transformation (which plays a role in planning)
- visuospatial integration (which provides hand-eye coordination needed for making art)
- working and long-term memory
In other words, a trek through the hominin fossil record reveals continuity with respect to brain size and shape. Late-appearing hominins display a little more of the same brain features compared to hominins that appear earlier in the fossil record. But when humans come on the scene, scientists observe a sharp discontinuity. Skull and facial anatomy are distinct. Human brain shape is unique and helps account for the capacity for symbolism. Modern humans are truly different in kind, not degree, in a way that aligns with the biblical narratives describing humanity’s origin, nature, and identity.
IN QUEST OF A FULLY INTEGRATIVE HUMAN ORIGINS MODEL
When the first edition of my book Who Was Adam? Was published in 2005, few evangelicals had made any real attempt at integrating the scientific and biblical insights about humanity’s origin into a coherent model that treats both sets of data with integrity. Thankfully, today a growing number of Christian scholars have taken on this worthwhile quest, including Craig. Focused attention on the question of the historical Adam is much needed because, as Craig points out, the question of human origins is foundational to the Christian faith.
Though I disagree with his proposal, I am glad that a scholar of Craig’s stature has taken on the question of humanity’s origin. It is through vigorous and respectful discussions on these important issues that we will one day soon be able to answer the question: Who was Adam?
Fazale “Fuz” Rana is Vice President of Research and Apologetics at Reasons to Believe. He earned his PhD in chemistry from Ohio University and is author of Who Was Adam? (RTB Press, 2015) and Humans 2.0 (RTB Press, 2019).
- William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 6.
- Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam,
- Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam,
- Extinct creatures believed by many anthropologists to be evolutionary ancestors to modern humans.
- Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam,
- Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam,
- Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam,
- Cajus G. Diedrich, “‘Neanderthal Bone Flutes’: Simply Products of Ice Age Spotted Hyena Scavenging Activities on Cave Bear Cubs in European Cave Bear Dens,” Royal Society Open Science 2 (April 2015): 140022, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140022.
- Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?,” PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
- Johan Lind, “What Can Associative Learning Do for Planning?” Royal Society Open Science 5 (November 28, 2018): 180778, doi:10.1098/rsos.180778.
- Simon Neubauer, Jean-Jacques Hublin, and Philipp Gunz, “The Evolution of Modern Human Brain Shape,” Science Advances 4 (January 24, 2018): eaao596, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao5961; Takanori Kochiyama et al., “Reconstructing the Neanderthal Brain Using Computational Anatomy,” Science Reports 8 (April 26, 2018): 6296, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-24331-0