Sole Progenitors

Now we come to the most controversial aspect of the idea of an evolutionary creation. (It almost feels like we should have the theme music from a Western playing in the background). Let’s do a quick recap to set the scene…

Over the last few pages, we have progressed through Genesis 1, 2 and 3. Our journey through Section Two began in Genesis 3 and 4 by looking at various questions that hinted at the existence of other humans contemporary with Adam and Eve.

To answer those questions, we then looked at the archaeological evidence showing that there were cultures from different parts of the world flourishing at the same time as Adam and Eve during the Neolithic period. We then looked at the genetic evidence that showed we can track human existence even further back to ancient human settlements from 30,000 years ago or more; and also palaeoanthropological evidence that extends back even further to ancient human settlements in the Middle East/Levant that are in the region of 90,000 years old. We also looked briefly at disciplines such as genomics and population genetics that are helping to piece together the development of various cultures, as well as showing the evidence that we are made of the same building blocks as other creatures in God’s creation.

These multiple lines of evidence that we considered in Section Two confirm beyond doubt what we sought to understand from those original questions: Yes, there were other humans that existed before, and contemporary with, Adam and Eve.

That’s all good and well, and if we didn’t have the Bible to refer to we’d be none the wiser, right? But we do have the Bible, and we respect it as the word of God. Plus, up until now we’ve been very clear to make the point about eisegesis and not reading modern views into the text. So, we’ve set ourselves a high standard to follow in addressing two verses that could potentially stop us in our tracks.

  • Genesis 3:20 – “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”
  • Acts 17:26 – “And he made from one [man] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”

On the one hand, it’d be easy to just wave our hands dismissively and say that we’ve already established that the ancient peoples mistakenly believed things that God chose not to correct, and these are just two more examples. However, in this instance it would also deprive us of far more meaningful spiritual lessons. First, a general observation to give more context to our thoughts, and then we’ll consider each verse in its own right.

Assessing the weight of evidence

The beauty of the scientific method of enquiry is that it is open to challenge. It thrives on challenge. If a hypothesis is flawed, it will fall eventually, because there is only so far an erroneous idea can go.

The hypothesis of descent with modification has grown stronger and more robust over the last two hundred years, from initial concepts of progressive creations through to what we understand today through the synthesis of evolutionary theory. If the science underlying this theory was flawed, then it would have fallen with the ability to map the genome; and if there was any evidence that supported the idea of Adam and Eve as the sole progenitors of the human species, then this breakthrough would have helped us find it. Instead, some of the strongest proof for an evolutionary creation has come from finally being able to sequence and analyse DNA. It’s little wonder that the scientist who was responsible for sequencing and publishing the human genome called it “The Language of God”.

The underlying premise behind everything in this book is that God’s word and God’s world must be in harmony. If something is not in harmony, then we are misinterpreting or missing something. In this instance, if these verses are correct then there must be some evidence to support them. Yet we have seen from the natural world there isn’t. So perhaps these verses aren’t talking about the natural world as we know it? Let me restate that with the right emphasis: Perhaps these verses aren’t talking about the natural world as WE know it. It is an option we can’t ignore.

We have to consider options like this, because the assertion that Adam and Eve are not the sole progenitors of the entire human species is backed up by such a large and diverse body of evidence. Here’s what this means; as we’ve just noted above, the scientific method thrives on challenge. That’s how hypotheses are refined and corrected over time.  Therefore, in this instance, it’s not good enough to simply reject the weight of evidence because it doesn’t suit our theology. We have to provide alternative hypotheses that can be proven and tested across so many different scientific disciplines that it’s just not a realistic notion (we spoke about this earlier the third conversation).

Therefore we have explore these verses more deeply, and keep our twenty-first century options open.

Genesis 3:20 – The mother of all living.

We really do need to see this scene through Adam’s eyes.  First, he has been formed and taken into the garden of Eden.  We have no evidence from the text that he would have known of any other worlds besides the one he knew. Outside the garden, it was the Neolithic age. Communities or groups had begun to trade their surplus goods with those close by, but there weren’t far-reaching trade routes as we understand them today. In Section Two we looked at cultures such as the Mehrgarh in the Indus Valley or the Yangshao in China. We know of their existence because we have found the remains of their cultures, but Adam would have had no knowledge of their existence, let alone those further afield in places such as the Americas, Australasia or Melanesia.

Second, Adam had just been part of a discussion with God in which he and Eve had received the judgment for their sin; but which included the promise of a seed who would resolve the enmity with the serpent.  If we rightly understand this passage as being about Christ – the seed of the woman – then in a very real sense life would come through Eve.  In naming his wife this way, Adam is acknowledging this promise.  This is not a new interpretation in our community: Harry Whittaker noted “The emphasis on “mother” underlines Adam’s faith in the promised Redeemer, the seed of the woman”,⁠1  and HP Mansfield believed this “revealed his [Adam’s] faith in the promise made”.⁠2

Third, as noted in the previous chapter, it was a common practice of ancient peoples to apply a collective role to an individual. In this case Adam and Eve are representatives whose actions and experiences demonstrate God’s purpose with all humans.  Hence Adam is a representative, or collective head if you like, similar to Christ (e.g. Romans 5:14); and in this sense Eve can be viewed as the mother of the living in the same way that holy women are daughters of Sarah (1 Peter 3:6), and we are all children of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).

When viewed through Adam’s eyes, this account reflects a tremendous humility. Even though he had just been rebuked and severely punished for his (and Eve’s!) transgression he still placed his faith in and trust in God’s promise.

Therefore, given the points noted above, it seems a perfectly reasonable – and faithful – thing for Adam to have referred to his wife as the “mother of all living”.

For us, in the twenty-first century, to assume this means “mother of all living humans” is to demand an interpretation of the text that just isn’t there.  This verse has such a powerful message of faith and humility when read through ancient eyes, and that is the lesson we should take from it. It should not be abused as a tool to underpin a distrust in modern science, as that was never its purpose.

Acts 17:26 – of one…

Given his heritage as a Jew, Paul was probably referring to Adam, but this shouldn’t be taken for granted as all the Greek says is “he made from [one] every nation of man”. (The KJV rendering, “of one blood,” is based upon a textual variant which has very little support.⁠3)

Having announced the theme of creation, it seems very likely that the author has such texts as Genesis 2:7 in mind, and thus the reference is to the creation of the whole human race from Adam, which would be a fundamental idea for Pauline thought.⁠4 However, again, we’ll stress the point that to truly understand a text we need to hear it though the ears of the original audience.

Paul was on his first visit to Athens. He was no uncultured philistine, and in our terms he was a ‘graduate of the universities of Tarsus and Jerusalem’. Visitors to Athens were often struck by splendour of the city’s architecture, history, and wisdom, yet it was none of these things which struck Paul. Rather, what he saw was ‘a veritable forest of idols’.⁠5

He was greatly distressed (Acts 17:16). How greatly? The Greek verb paroxynō, from which ‘paroxysm’ comes, originally had medical associations and was used of a seizure or epileptic fit. Its only other occurrence in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians, where Paul describes love as ‘not easily angered’.⁠6

Paul saw this as an opportunity to preach Christ, and began engaging with the Athenians. Some of the philosophers noted that Paul “seemed to be advocating foreign gods”, which was one of the charges brought against Socrates who had been executed 450 years previously.⁠7 Whatever the motive of the philosophers may have been, they brought Paul to a meeting of the Areopagus to hear more of his ideas.

Paul used the altar to the ‘Unknown God’ as his means of teaching them about the real God, and every point Paul made was carefully targeted at the Greek philosophers present. The Athenians believed that they originated from the soil of their own land of Attica, and that Greeks were innately superior to other ‘barbarians’.⁠8  They also favoured philosophies that focused around happiness (i.e. the avoidance of pain and emotional disturbance) to be the highest good, and believed that a man’s happiness consisted in bringing himself into harmony with the course of the universe.⁠9

Therefore, Paul is telling them that all humanity is from ‘one stock’, and that our purpose in life is not to pursue happiness but to seek God because we are his offspring.⁠10 The emphasis on Paul’s message isn’t talking about origins specifically, but rather about human commonality before God.

The context of this verse sees Paul preaching a message relevant to the Athenians who viewed themselves as superior beings to all others, and that is the lesson we should be taking out of this. There is no room in God’s creation for racial or moral superiority, because we are all ‘of one’ and our purpose in life is to seek God together.

To be fair, it’s reasonable to assume that Paul might well have believed Adam was the father of all. After all, he didn’t have access to the wealth of evidence that we have today. But… this is not sufficient evidence to disprove what we know today about human origins. Does the passage conclusively prove all humans are descended from Adam? No, it doesn’t, because that is not its purpose. Therefore, once again, we ought not wrest a text out of its context to try and solve a modern problem, because when left in its context, it gives us a far more meaningful spiritual lesson.

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1 Harry Whittaker, Genesis 1-4 (Biblia Books, 1986) p109

2 HP Mansfield, Key to Understanding of the Scriptures (Logos Publications, 1997) Electronic Edition

3 Barclay Moon Newman and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on the Acts of the Apostles (UBS Handbook Series; New York: United Bible Societies, 1972), 341.

4 Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 526.

5 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 277.

6 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 278.

7 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 282.

8 F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 337.

9 James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, Manners & Customs of the Bible (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 529–530.

10 Robert James Utley, Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts (vol. Volume 3B; Study Guide Commentary Series; Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2003), 208.