Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Paul and Adam Redux

While responding to a comment on my Adam post a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I wanted to say something more about Paul and his use of Adam theologically.

Most of what I have to say is pretty obvious....but I never let that keep me from talking! ;-)

In trying to understand why Adam seems to be absent from the Old Testament, outside of Genesis, I realized a very obvious thing....Israel didn't care about theological issues that encompassed the entire world. They weren't trying to find a way to make everything fit together, to understand what God was going to do with everyone else on earth.

That wasn't their concern.

Their primary goal was to uphold their particular chosen tribe in what they saw as the ways of God. Because their religious narrative involved God choosing Abraham and blessing his physical descendants, or at least those descended from Isaac, they had no reason to worry themselves about pagans, Gentiles, or outsiders.

This shows up in their slavery laws and in their wars with surrounding nations.

God had made his choice. The other nations were only receiving whatever judgement they deserved. Israel was God's path to blessing or cursing the nations according to many of their Scriptures.

As a result, tracing all of humanity back to a literal Adam would have been relatively meaningless for their theological perspective.

What Paul does with Adam is actually quite ingenious. By bringing Adam into the picture and making his comparison to Jesus, Paul declares a new creation that resets humanity back at an equal starting place. Suddenly, being Jewish holds no special privileges. Anyone can be accepted by God and equally receive his favor.

In Romans, Paul equivocates, speculating that God's promises to Israel which have been extended to all, might be even greater if Israel, as a whole, accepted Jesus as their Messiah. Even Paul is not willing to completely close the door on Israelites. So, while developing a theology that is wide open to pagans and Gentiles, he still hopes that Israel will have a special place with God.

However, the point is that Paul uses the figure of Adam in a way that permits everyone to participate in the Kingdom of God.

This is always Paul's mission--to bring the Gentiles in, to declare that all are welcome.

Paul uses the same technique in Galatians when he turns the idea of Abraham's seed completely on its head and gives it a novel interpretation:
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.
He's doing the same thing he did with Adam, taking a figure from the Scriptures and using it to persuade others that God really did want everyone on board.

I'm left with the feeling that I usually have for Paul, annoyance that he so boldly moves forward in new directions, with what I would think are less than pure exegetical moves, and admiration that he could find a way to make it work and admiration for the general thrust of trying to open the doors as wide as possible for everyone.


JS Allen said...

To be clear, the idea that Paul made a break from Christ's teachings is itself a pretty bold and new break from what Christians have always believed. I don't think anyone seriously promoted this theory until 1950 or so, and by 1970, Sanders had rebutted the idea in his famous book, "Paul and Palestinian Judaism".

On the topic of Abraham, Luke 3:8 and Matthew 3:9 give pretty clear evidence that Paul's interpretation of Abraham preceded Christ. Neither Paul nor Christ were being new or unique.

On the topic of Paul's theology about Adam, it's fun to think about, but I really don't find the theory plausible.

For starters, if you had asked any pre-Christian Jew, "Why do people die?", they would all give the same answer -- "Because Adam sinned." If you asked, "Why must we toil 6 days a week?", the answer would be the same. The Jews in no way evicted Adam from their theology simply because he wasn't Isaac.

And of course, comparing Paul's epistles to the OT is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Paul's epistles tend to deal with theological exegeses of the OT, and the proper comparison would be with what the non-Christian Rabbis were saying about Adam and the OT during the same period. Since the talmud was being transmitted orally at the time, we don't have written documents to compare, but we can make a pretty good judgment call. The written Talmud purports to capture the oral tradition of non-Christian Jews from the time of Paul, and does treat Adam in a similar manner. Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, and the Talmud lists Gamaliel as a respected leader of the Hillel school of thought, including many quotes. Are we to also assume that Paul's theology about Adam somehow made it into the Talmud, and corrupted the words of Gamaliel? This seems implausible in the extreme.

The place were Paul makes a bold new break from Judaism of the day is in his proclaiming of Christ as Messiah and God (i.e. "new Adam"). But this, of course, is not a break from Christ.

Jacob Neussner is a prominent Jewish writer on religion, and wrote a book "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus" which makes these same points. Not only was Paul consistent with Christ; both Paul and Jesus were entirely consistent with the Judaism of their time -- right up until the point Jesus claims to be God. It's exactly at that point (when Jesus claims to be God) that the "bold new break" happens.

terri said...

A few things..

I never said that Paul made a break with Jesus' teachings. I said that he had a novel interpretation of Adam and Abraham that he used to open the doors to Gentiles.

You said:

For starters, if you had asked any pre-Christian Jew, "Why do people die?", they would all give the same answer -- "Because Adam sinned."

It depends on what you mean by the term "pre-Christian". If you mean within a hundred years or so of Jesus, then maybe I would agree with you, per the evidence of Jubilees that sparked my previous post.

However, if you are claiming that the Israelites always would have answered the question that way, I'm not so sure that I would agree.

Adam wasn't "evicted" from their theology as much as He was only a starting point. Once the ball got rolling, it was all about Abraham and his descendants, Jacob and the twelve tribes, Moses and the freed Israelites....a large ethnic, racial group which was related by blood. That's the whole point of all those genealogies throughout Scripture, to show the lineage of the Israelites.

As far as comparing the non-Christian rabbis with Paul.

There are a couple of problems with that. One is that we don't know how the Talmud developed. Just because there were oral interpretations that may have existed before it was written down, doesn't mean that the oral tradition wasn't flexible. The other problem is that religion doesn't develop in a vacuum. Theological movements arise in reaction to other theological movements. As such, whatever the Talmud has in it will certainly, at least partly, be in response to the early Christian movement of the time.

Do you have quotes from Gamaliel that are relevant to a discussion about Adam? Because I was unable to locate any. How can you say that Paul
's words corrupted Gamaliel's without providing evidence that Gamaliel believed the same way that Paul did.

The place were Paul makes a bold new break from Judaism of the day is in his proclaiming of Christ as Messiah and God (i.e. "new Adam"). But this, of course, is not a break from Christ.

Once again, I did not say that Paul was breaking from Jesus/Christ.

AS far as Paul and Jesus being completely consistent with Judaism. Yes, they a point. But they had visions, not of abandoning Judaism, but changing it.

Affirming that they were a part of the Jewish community doesn't mean that they didn't upset that very same community with what the leadership would have seen as undermining the prevailing theology of the day.

That's what Paul's whole conversion story is about.....going from an integral part of the Jewish community, persecuting Christians, to becoming a new outspoken preacher of The Way, who called all his former achievements "rubbish".

Paul is in opposition to the Judaism of his day. It drips from his letters. He gets worked up about it. He emphasizes it.

Why is it so unbelievable that he would take his knowledge of Judaism and use it to advance his ideas?

JS Allen said...

OK, you're right about Jesus and Paul making a very major change from the Jewish religion of the day. Paul and Peter both fought against "Judaizing".

I'm just reacting to the claim that Paul "boldly moves forward in new directions", in the cases of theology about Abraham and Adam. I just don't buy it. The Abraham case is obvious, and you've already cited evidence about the case of Adam in the form of book of Jubilees.

I think you're correct that Talmud doesn't quote Gamaliel talking about Adam, but modern Jews do claim that the Talmudic references about Adam are part of the oral tradition passed down through Gamaliel. Do we assume that the chain of transmission got corrupted somewhere, and that Adam wasn't important to Gamaliel? What evidence do we have to support such a speculation, other than the fact that it would be useful to support some innovative theory about Paul being unorthodox? That seems super speculative to me. We might as well assume Christ was a myth, if we're going to allow speculation like that.

FWIW, I think there is a plausible argument to be made that the Jews did not consider it critical for Adam to be a literal person. One can make a case that "h'adam" is representative of the human race; and is a figurative person. But I don't see how this matters.

In any case, Jews would still answer all of these questions the same way:

1) Why do we die? Because Adam disobeyed God.
2) Why do we toil 6 days? Because Adam disobeyed God.
3) Why is murder wrong? Because Adam was created in God's image.

These are three extremely important questions, and I suspect that Jews since at least the time of David would answer them all the same way. Since that time, Jewish kids memorized Genesis by heart, and the answers are pretty clearly articulated. Replacing "Adam" with "Mankind" seems to make little difference.

terri said...

The Abraham case is obvious

In what way is it obvious? Are you saying that you think that before Paul wrote Galatians that it was common for first-century Jews to think that anyone could be a descendant of Abraham...even pagans or Gentiles?

I'm not disputing that Gentiles could convert to Judaism. But in those cases, conversion meant circumcision and keeping the Law. Gentiles could also informally follow the Noahide laws, a group of general moral rules, and be considered "righteous Gentiles"...but doing so might earn them a place in the world to come, but not the designation of being a descendant of Abraham.

I think you're correct that Talmud doesn't quote Gamaliel talking about Adam, but modern Jews do claim that the Talmudic references about Adam are part of the oral tradition passed down through Gamaliel. Do we assume that the chain of transmission got corrupted somewhere, and that Adam wasn't important to Gamaliel? What evidence do we have to support such a speculation, other than the fact that it would be useful to support some innovative theory about Paul being unorthodox? That seems super speculative to me. We might as well assume Christ was a myth, if we're going to allow speculation like that.

OK...FIrst off, I am looking at this question from a 21st Christian perspective. So, I am looking at the literature that has guided my particular journey. I feel no obligation to make everything from the Talmud fit into that category.....because it wouldn't.

The Talmud says a lot of things. Many which I don't think that either you or I would take at face value as requiring us to agree with it, or make it part of our religious beliefs. Any discussion of the Talmud, or other texts that existed during the time that Paul was writing and preaching are only useful as supplemental information to elucidate some of the ideas that might have been floating around in a general period of time.

The Book of Jubilees says that animals could talk before the fall of Adam. Are we required to believe that? Must we assume that Paul believed it just because that story exists?


Saying that some texts are more important than others, or that certain ideas had more prominence and force than other ideas isn't speculation. It's true.

I don't worry myself about trying to make every apocryphal or pseudo-epigraphal text fit into the same category as The Old and New Testaments. I'm going to guess that Paul and others didn't try to do that either.

People keep and use the things that are meaningful and useful and connect their beliefs together. That's what theology is all about.

JS Allen said...

My point is that Paul's stance on Abraham was taken from John the Baptist, as attested by Matthew and Luke. I've also verified that Gamaliel is quoted in Talmud (Sanhedrin) talking about Adam in a theologically significant way. In the examples you cited (Abraham and Adam), Paul was theologically in line with his contemporaries.

In any case, you seem to be backing away from the claim that Paul "boldly moves forward in a new direction". It's a pet peeve of mine, since it's so easy to refute. I already cited two books you could read about the topic. Another good book would be Pope Benedict's "St. Paul"; which hammers home the point that Paul is entirely consistent with the synoptics.

terri said...


Secondly, I don't like the word "corrupted" because it implies malice, or purposeful deception. Oral tradition is an awfully slippery appeal to make, because we have no way of knowing what developed when, and what received priority when it was written down. People can make the claim that oral tradition existed from the time of Moses, but that is an incredible thing to expect people to believe.

Some Modern Jewish thought does believe this. That there was the Torah given to Moses that was written down, and that there was an oral Torah given at the same time.

Well...that's a nice method for Jewish people to bridge the chasm of ancient Jewish religion and ritual and modern Jewish religion and ritual...but I find it hard to believe. In a religion that reveres the text, having large portions of their beliefs not written down or preserved for thousands of years seems like a stretch.

To be fair to Jewish thought, they are just doing what most people do when they find conflicting themes and stories in their religious texts. Christians do this all the time. They look at point A and point B and find a way to bring them together by providing what they think would be a probable explanation.

It seems to me that many of your arguments are working backwards through time. You say that modern Jews affirm that the Talmudic passages about Adam are part of the oral tradition passed on by Gamaliel, and therefore must have existed before and during his time and been "important" to him.

And if they were important to him, then they must have been important to everyone else for a long could take that line of thought all the way back to Adam, I suppose.

Such a view assumes that there is an ancient consistency that has always existed and has never changed or developed. Yet, I don't see how anyone can say that so confidently.

Things have changed and developed. You can find examples of that throughout Scripture.

The Story of the Blessing of Israel begins with one man and his descendants; Abraham.

Paul is simply making the story bigger. The story can't contain all of the complexity of 1st century life in Palestine anymore.

Paul is finding a way to make it work, to broaden the scope so that the story is not ended but continues on to more fantastic and adventurous chapters.

terri said...

About Luke and Matthew.

Luke is Paul's "biographer" in a sense. Why wouldn't he and Paul have consistent views?

Matthew's quote about God raising descendants from stones also doesn't really bear on anything that I have written about. I have not portrayed Paul as being in conflict with the synoptics, or Jesus.

For some reason you keep going in that direction even though I have only discussed what Paul has to say in comparison to the Old Testament.

Who do you think that John the Baptist was baptizing? Romans? Pagans? Gentiles?

No, he was preaching and baptizing in Judea....the Jewish people. Do you think he would have gone to Rome to ask Caesar to be baptized?

Even Jesus declared that his mission was focused on Israel when he was reluctant to help the Canaanite woman's daughter. He healed her, and I think other "pagans" occasionally, but their healings are the result of the overflow of his mission to Israel, not as a direct emphasis on bringing his message to the Gentiles.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Anything I might contribute would get too snagged in about 50 points already touched on, so I doubt it would add clarity.

As to Paul taking a somewhat different direction or interpretation, I suspect it goes back before the 50's, though I can't verify that offhand. But the idea was mentioned in my confirmation class in 1966-67. I don't think we would have gotten much that was cutting edge.

Hmm. Let me check my CS Lewis on that. I vaguely recall something from God In The Dock.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Took longer than expected. I don't think it deeply affects any of the arguments here, but it caught my eye.

CS Lewis: "A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul… that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the Epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St. Paul. If it could be proved that Saint Paul altered the teaching of the Master in any way, he altered it in the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed. But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from Saint Paul’s. The Epistles are, for the most part, the earliest Christian documents we possess. The gospels come later. They are not “the gospel,” the statement of the Christian belief. They were written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted “the gospel…” [Actually] the epistles are more primitive and more central than the gospels, though not, of course, than the great events which the Gospels recount. God’s act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis comes in the Epistles…

…nor is the cause [of those seeking to discredit Paul] far to seek. In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage at which you do not yet attack the King in person. You say: “The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans – which, I’m sure are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect.” And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself. In the same way, the nineteenth century attack on St. Paul was really only a stage in the revolt against Christ. Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ himself. They made the normal first move – that of attacking one of His principal Ministers. Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St. Paul. It was unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the gospels and the epistles with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the victory was won. St. Paul was impeached and banished and the world went on to the next step – the attack on the King Himself.

From God in the Dock, “Modern Translations of the Bible” (229).

terri said...


I'm not heading for the King. I'm heading for Adam! ;-)

What sparked all of this in my head was trying to figure out what happens to Jesus if evolution is true. If there is no literal, historical Adam....does Christian theology fall apart?

The biggest hurdle to most Christians finding a way forward from evolution is the way that Paul links Christ with Adam.

The question is....are we bound to accept Paul's linking to Adam? Did Paul use the figure of Adam as a way forward for Christianity simply for the elegance of the argument?

What worked for Paul then, and opened the doors to a wider movement, is possibly having the opposite effect in our current times. Paul burst out of a particular box and proclaimed a wider freedom...sometimes it feels like 21st Christianity is going in the opposite direction, trying to get us all back into the box of 1st century Judaism, making us shove all of our scientific findings back into an old wineskin...that just can't hold it inside.

I want nothing more than to keep "the King". I'm just having a hard time trying to figure out how to make all the chess pieces fit on the board. SOmetimes it feels as if the board is so crowded that the King is trapped behind his ministers and is about to be checkmated because no-one will move out of the way and let him pass.

Death by too much protection. A rookie move I've made in chess.

Though, I am still a rookie.

JS Allen said...

@AVI - Yeah, I had that passage highlighted in Lewis (I'm pretty sure I saw the essay in another collection as well). IIRC, that's from Lewis's post-WWII period, and would've been from around 1950. But it's true that Chesterton reports some similar sentiment in his time, and he was writing around WWI timeframe. Based on Chesterton's history, though, I don't think this interpretation of Paul had much traction prior to Chesterton's time.

@Terri - I don't think it changes the theology at all. I've observed the same about the whole YEC debate; it's theologically a non-issue. The reactionary Christians who try to react against the atheist critics are equally complicit, IMO.