Fact or Fiction: Adam and Eve

Many heated debates have been held about the topic of Adam and Eve. Were these figures historical, or merely symbolic? If Adam and Eve were two individuals, how is it possible that all humankind descended from them? How can the Bible account possibly square with science if Adam and Eve came into being around 6,000 BC, but science has found fossil evidence of some homo sapiens and other hominoid  creatures that date back to 200,000 years ago? For many people, the story of Adam and Eve, which seems very mythical, is an easy starting point for attacking the veracity of the Bible. A few clarifications, however, show that the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, properly understood, is perfectly compatible with scientific reality.

Genesis was not written as a scientific work. It never set out to provide a complete scientific explanation of man’s origin. Rather, like the rest of the Scriptures, Genesis presents a spiritual, but nonetheless real, truth – that of salvation history. Although not scientifically complete, the content is true.

The idea that Adam and Eve in the Bible refer to a specific man, whose name was Adam, and a specific woman named Eve is a common misconception. While we currently view “Adam” and “Eve” as proper names, they began as common nouns, in much the same as modern day surnames, such as “Smith” began as common nouns used to describe people and gradually became last names. The Hebrew term Adam, in addition to being used as a proper noun, or name, simply means “man” or “mankind.” It may also have been derived from adamah, which signifies the ground or earth. Eve means “mother of the living.” Therefore, Genesis was not necessarily referring to two specific individuals with the personal names of “Adam” and “Eve.” It could easily be interpreted as using the terms to signify the first man and the first woman. In either case, the two individuals referred to were historical figures, whether or not named Adam and Eve. If you adopt the position that “Adam” and “Eve” are being used as common nouns, representing the first man and the first woman, it still follows that Adam and Eve – the first man and first woman –  existed, and were therefore real historical figures, regardless of their proper names. We might not know who the first people were, but based on the principle of causality, given that mankind currently exists, but did not always exist, there must have been a first, for there to have been a second, and so on.

How can the view that Adam and Eve do refer to two specific historical figures with these names be reconciled with science? Interestingly, the most widely accepted and thoroughly proven scientific theory regarding the origin of man is monogenism, or the theory that all people have descended from the same particular group of people and, more specifically, from two common ancestors. The likelihood of this theory has been verified by DNA testing which shows that the mitochondria of all people can be traced back to one woman and one man. Granted, there are still some gaps between this scientific theory and the Biblical account. According to the scientific theory, for example, the common female ancestor, called “Mitochondrial Eve,” lived around 200,000 years ago, but the common male ancestor, “Y-Chromosomal Adam,” might not have lived until around 140,000 years ago. This discrepancy does not discredit the theory, however, given that science is still studying the issue, and too many factors are still unknown. For example, studies about the “Y-Chromosomal Adam” vary in their calculations by up to 80,000 years, with some scientists claiming that the common male ancestor only lived 60,000 years ago, rather than 140,000. Given this wide margin of error, the hypothesis that the original female ancestor lived at a different time period than the original male ancestor has not been sufficiently proven, and is too indefinite to discredit the probability that the two lived at the same time.

Finally, what about all the other scientific theories, such as evolution? How do we reconcile the time difference between Adam and Eve, assuming that they lived around 6000 BC, and all the other human, or human-like species that have been around for a couple hundred thousand years? To answer this question, we must begin by again clarifying what Genesis states. Basically, regarding the creation of man, Scripture gives a few main points:

  • God created man in his image.
  • God created Adam from the dust of the ground, and Eve from Adam.
  • Adam and Eve sinned, leading to fallen human nature and the beginning of salvation history.

Many people read the Genesis account and make assumptions based on these facts. They assume, for example, that Adam was the only human form (hominoid) created at the time. Genesis, however doesn’t say that – it says that Adam was the first man, i.e. the first human person with a soul created in the image and likeness of God. It is possible to believe that there were other hominoids, especially if you believe that man’s body developed through evolution, but these other hominoid forms would not have been men, as the human person came into being when God infused the soul (breathed life) into the first man, Adam. We need to remember that the Bible does not strive to give a comprehensive account of history or science. Rather, it only focuses on truths that relate to its purpose, which is to tell salvation history and preserve God’s revelation. As a result, there are many details, facts and accounts that the Bible leaves out. This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, or that it is impossible, as a Christian, to believe them; it simply means they didn’t pertain to revelation and salvation history. Given the many unknowns about the details of creation, as well as the hypothetical, unproven nature of many current scientific theories, the Catholic Church, and most other Christian denominations do not adopt or promote one scientific theory above another, but adhere to the basic truths of Scripture. These truths, however, are not incompatible with many of the scientific theories being studied today.

Take evolution as an example. Many Christians assume that the creation story is incompatible with evolution, given that God created man Adam from the dust of the ground and did so in his own image and likeness. However, the Bible does not give specific details regarding how God created man’s body from the matter. People assume he did so instantly, but the Bible does not say so. It is possible that God may have fashioned the human body from pre-existing life forms. Man’s body may, indeed, have evolved from apes. Christians are therefore free to believe in evolution [cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159 and Humani Generis (Pius 12), 36], as long as they realize that God infused the soul into the first human being. Any previous creatures were not human, even if their bodies began to resemble what would become the human body.

Science also proposes that man, or at least human-like forms have existed on earth for up to 200,000 years. This can be reconciled with Biblical truth in one of two ways. Either, these forms could have been stages in the evolutionary process prior to the infusion of the soul, or Adam and Eve may actually have existed far earlier than many people assume. Bearing in mind that the Bible presents the truth, but does not attempt to give a comprehensive history, it is completely possible that there were many more unmentioned generations of people between the creation of man and the other important figures from salvation history discussed in the Bible. If these people did not play an active role in the story of salvation history and did not form part of the chain that received revelation, the writers of the Bible had no reason to include them.

Please note that these explanations are not meant in any way to discourage Christians from believing the interpretation of Genesis that many people assume, such as God literally molding Adam from clay in a given instant, rather than allowing the human body to evolve over time, or Adam and Eve being not only the first man and woman, but also the first hominoid forms created. They are simply meant to respond to various questions that arise from current scientific theories, such as evolution, that are backed by various degrees of evidence, even if they have not been definitively proven. It is important for Christians to realize that, while the Bible does not offer enough details to support a specific scientific theory, the information it does give, which revolves around the relationship between God and man, particularly in terms of salvation, is true, and is compatible with many of the scientific theories that have been put forth. The Bible presents creation from a different perspective than scientists, with a different purpose, and utilizes forms of writing that differ from what we know today, and must therefore be interpreted in context, but what the Bible says is true (cf. Providentissimus Deus, 18, and Divino Afflante Spiritu, 35-36). As a result, it would conflict with Christianity to deny the reality of Adam and Eve, the idea that God created all things from nothing, or the other truths about creation presented by the Bible. However, many scientific theories, such as evolution, are  compatible with the Biblical account and, rather than prove the Bible to be inaccurate, simply provide evidence that gives us a fuller picture of the scientific or historical details pertaining to how God carried out the truths presented in the Bible. In this way, as people of faith, we should not fear valid scientific truths and discoveries, but should use them as a means of understanding and appreciating God’s work even more (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283).

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159 

3 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction: Adam and Eve

  1. The church does teach that we have only two first parents, though. And since they both fell, everyone has original sin … there wasn’t a separate “sinless” branch of humanity.

    Of course, like you say, I don’t see any conflict between that and science. Some scientists like to believe there were many first parents, but there is no definite scientific evidence to prove this.

    • Sheila, I agree completely. One of the Popes – I believe it was Pius XII or maybe Paul VI – specifically clarified that polygenism (more than two original parents, thus bringing up the question of the universality of original sin) is incompatible with Christian teaching but that theory is also very shaky even on the scientific level. The Church doesn’t doubt that there were two parents – the room for interpretation is basically over names and identity. Many people believe that Adam and Eve were the first names of the two first parents – according to the Church, this is fine, but not necessary. It is quite possible that the names of those two people are unknown, and that “Adam” and “Eve” were attributed to them due to the meaning of those words (man, mother of the living). Thus, they could be generic names that did not actually belong to the first two people, but were later attributed to them. Nonetheless, the two persons these names now refer to were real, and were the ancestors of all humanity, regardless of what they were or weren’t called…

    • After reading your comment, I went back and clarified terms in a few parts of the post, to make it clearer that there is not the option of believing in polygenism. When I said in one of the paragraphs that Genesis doesn’t explicitly say that Adam was the first and only “human” God had created, it was a typo – it was supposed to be “hominoid.” The room for interpretation is that, if you believe in evolution, which is not in itself contrary to Christian teaching, it is possible that there were many other hominoid (human form) creatures on the earth at the time of Adam, as the gradual evoltuion of the human body reached its final stages. However, these forms were not “human” because they had no soul, and are therefore not “additional parents,” but simply part of the evolutionary process. If evolution were true, Adam and Eve, as the first hominoids that God breathed life, or the soul, into are still the first and only two parents of the human race. Anything before was not human, while everyone descending from them is… I hope that clarifies, without complicating things too much!

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