Note from CM: Since this subject came up in the discussion yesterday, I thought I would re-post a piece that I recommended in a comment (with edits and updates). I have also inserted additional material from another post, called “Paul, Christ, and Adam.”
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Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
• Romans 5:12-14, NASB
[Paul] does not posit a perfect pre-fallen state, nor does he attribute later human sin to the sin of Adam. Rather, he sees Adam as a kind of beginning — the beginning of a death-bound mode of life.
• Peter Bouteneff, Beginnings
Christian tradition has held certain views about “the fall,” “original sin,” and the part Adam played in plunging humankind into ruin on the basis of a few words by the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans (5:12-21). There is also a short statement focusing on the resurrection in 1Corinthians (15:21-22, see v. 45). Other than these two passages and the seminal story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-4, the Bible is virtually silent about Adam and the nature and results of his first-recorded transgression.
The only other certain references to Adam in the OT are found in genealogies: in Genesis 5 and 1Chronicles 1:1. In the Gospels, Jesus never mentions Adam and Eve by name or refers to their sin. Matthew and Luke include him in Jesus’ genealogies and Jude names Adam in another genealogical reference. Paul writes of Adam and Eve on one other occasion in a discussion about men and women in the church (1Timothy 2:13-14).
This paucity of material may come as a surprise to some, since the Creation-Fall-Redemption template using the account of Adam and Eve in a prominent role has become part and parcel of the way Christians present the message of the Bible and salvation.
Given this background, why did Paul set his attention on Adam in Romans 5?
First, there was an explosion of interest in the paradise narratives in post-biblical Jewish literature in the intertestamental period.
As Peter Bouteneff writes,
[D]uring the centuries under review, and especially during the first century of our era, several of the key, enduring questions surrounding the creation and predicament of the human person as treated in Genesis 1-3 were already on the table, even if they were not yet receiving clear and consistent answers. (p.25)
A vibrant discussion was taking place in Jewish literature in this period, raising questions (1) about Adam — was he a figure who stood for humanity in general or an individual? (2) about Eve — was she (a woman) ultimately responsible for the entrance of sin? (3) about the state of the first-created humanity — a dual legacy emerged, that of both a glorious Adam and a tragic transgressor, (4) about what the effect was of the first transgression on subsequent humanity — there is a whole mixed bag of opinions and interpretations, from denying that Adam’s sin played any causal role, to exonerating him completely and blaming Cain, to holding him responsible for subsequent human sin because he was the progenitor of all humanity.
One prominent voice was that of Philo, whose view Bouteneff summarizes: “The transgression is regarded neither as the greatest of sins nor as the cause of subsequent sin. Rather, subsequent sin becomes progressively worse, effecting an ever greater distancing from the noble protoplast.” (p. 29) But Philo also set forth allegorical interpretations of Genesis that paved the way for later Christian allegorical thinkers such as Origen.
Paul’s use of Adam must be seen in the context of this discussion. He wasn’t the first to take up the topic.
It is clear that the primary reason Paul turned his attention on the one man Adam in the biblical story is because he began his thinking with the one man Jesus Christ.
The Apostle’s starting point was Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, who rose from the dead and was thereby declared Son of God and Lord of all, Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 1:1-5). For Paul, one Man now ruled the world, bringing life to everyone. As he sought to communicate this good news to both Jews and Gentiles, he thought through the biblical history and found a type (Romans 5:14) in Adam, one man who likewise had a worldwide influence by his actions.
In Romans 5, Paul is especially concerned to show how the world was filled with sin and death in the beginning, that is, in the time before the Jewish Law was given at Mt. Sinai, which made clear God’s religious, moral, and ethical standards (Romans 5:14). As he writes, “death reigned from Adam to Moses.” By his transgression, Adam set that “beginning” era into motion.
According to Paul, what did Adam do? As the first recorded transgressor, he initiated an ongoing process of sin and death that affects the entire world. Therefore, Adam is the perfect foil for Christ. “Putting Adam and Christ together in Romans 5 is merely a way of showing how the actions of one lone figure can have profound (though opposite) effects on many people” (Bouteneff, p. 40). Paul is not analyzing and explaining Adam’s story as much as he is interpreting Christ through setting up the well-known case of Adam as his antithesis.
It is important that we not take this comparison too far and draw conclusions from it that are unwarranted. Again, Bouteneff: “[Paul] does not posit a perfect pre-fallen state, nor does he attribute later human sin to the sin of Adam. Rather, he sees Adam as a kind of beginning — the beginning of a death-bound mode of life.” (p. 45)
There is nothing here about drastic changes in the world or the nature of humanity after Adam’s sin, nothing about how Adam passed on a newly acquired sin nature to his progeny, or how his children bear original guilt because of the ancestral transgression. Nowhere in Genesis, the rest of the Bible, or in Paul is Adam blamed for any sin other than his own. Sin and death passed to all people, Paul says, because “all sinned,” which is fully consistent with what we read in Genesis 1-11.
In fact, Bouteneff observes that one of the more interesting facts about the “Adam” narratives in Genesis 2-3 is that, in and of itself, the transgression portrayed within “is not portrayed as an anomalous infraction that uniquely and permanently sullies a theretofore perfect humanity” (p. 7). Instead, Adam’s sin-story serves as the first in a series of similar “fall” narratives. These lead to God’s climactic judgment in Genesis 6-9 (the flood), and then the cycle starts again with another “garden” fall narrative in which Noah and his sons are the main characters. Ultimately, all humankind gathers in Babylon to continue the pattern. But God scatters them and chooses Abram as a “new Adam” to begin anew.
All the stories in Genesis 1-11 follow the pattern set by the Garden narratives. God relates to his chosen people, they disobey, and judgment and salvation follow. There is no denying the universality of sin and death, and that story begins with Adam, but we each bear our own blame.
We might also note that the “death” which is described in both the Adam story and in Romans is death of a certain kind, pointing to a reality that goes beyond mere physical human death. The “death” he speaks of, which is the consequence of Adam’s sin, is a “death” that brings “judgment” and “condemnation” from God.
This reflects the emphasis of Genesis itself. God told Adam that he would “surely die” upon eating the forbidden fruit (2:17). Yet Adam did not die physically for more than 900 years, according to the record. However, he was prevented from eating of the Tree of Life and was cast from the Garden into exile.
Some call what he experienced “spiritual death.” I think it is more accurate to call it “covenant death.” God invited Adam and Eve into a covenant relationship with himself. Their disobedience severed that relationship and brought about alienation and separation from its benefits (“life”). Exile portrays banishment from covenant relationship and privileges. Death.
God defined this kind of death as that which would come upon Israel if they failed to keep the covenant: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 —
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
So, in the context of the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the story of Adam and the threat of covenant death had its most immediate application to Israel. As God’s covenant people, they were given the Promised Land and God’s Law, with the promise of blessings for obedience and the warning of curses (ultimately leading to exile) for disobedience. In the N.T., in the light of Christ, Paul takes the illustration even further, suggesting that what Adam and Israel underwent is the universal experience of humankind.
All that Paul seems to want to say is that this epoch of human history is characterized and determined by the fatal interplay of sin and death — a partnership first established in power at the beginning of the epoch, through the one man Adam.
• James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC)
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The main adjustment that Paul must instill in Jew and Gentile alike is the establishment of Jesus Christ as not only a prophet and not only a prophet to the Jews but also universal Savior and, still more, the one in whom is founded not just Israel but all of creation.
This is part and parcel of Paul’s transformation of the scriptural message. Genesis becomes the story not just of the origins of Israel but of the beginning of universal humanity, and this in turn paves the way for stressing the universality of salvation in Christ for the Jew and for the Greek. Paul’s universalization of the Scriptures and his understanding of the Scriptures as revealing Christ are thoroughly interrelated. Together they constitute the cornerstone of his work in the establishment of Christian thought. (Bouteneff, p. 38)