Published by Eerdmans on September 28, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction
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Was Adam a real historical person? And if so, who was he and when did he live?
William Lane Craig sets out to answer these questions through a biblical and scientific investigation. He begins with an inquiry into the genre of Genesis 1–11, determining that it can most plausibly be classified as mytho-history—a narrative with both literary and historical value. He then moves into the New Testament, where he examines references to Adam in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul, ultimately concluding that the entire Bible considers Adam the historical progenitor of the human race—a position that must therefore be accepted as a premise for Christians who take seriously the inspired truth of Scripture.
Working from that foundation of biblical truth, Craig embarks upon an interdisciplinary survey of scientific evidence to determine where Adam could be most plausibly located in the evolutionary history of humankind, ultimately determining that Adam lived between 750,000 and 1,000,000 years ago as a member of the archaic human species Homo heidelbergensis. He concludes by reflecting theologically on his findings and asking what all this might mean for us as human beings created in the image of God, literally descended from a common ancestor—albeit one who lived in the remote past.
In Quest of the Historical Adam is the result of over half a decade of work by theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig to explore the question of human origins and reconcile Scripture with modern science. This is a unique project for Craig, known primarily for his Christian apologetic works and defense of the historicity of the Resurrection. Craig is also a fairly conservative evangelical, meaning that his conclusion that Genesis 1-11 is not literal history but evolution is stands at odds with many in his theological tradition. Further, Craig is a theologian (D.Theol. University of Munich) and philosopher (Ph.D. University of Birmingham), not an expert in Ancient Near Eastern Literature or evolutionary biology and anthropology, so his perspective is not necessarily as an expert in the field but as one well equipped to research these fields and write about them through the lens of his areas of expertise.
Craig’s writing is both exhaustive and exhausting. It would be correct to say that I learned a lot reading this book, but I’m also not sure how much of its content was directly necessary for the quest to discover a historical Adam. Craig shares every scrap of information he comes across, speaking about it with the assumption that you know as much about it already as he does, and only occasionally tying it back into the book’s central theme. In short, In Quest of the Historical Adam is full of information and analysis, but lacks a cohesive narrative. Craig focuses on too many individual trees in his attempt to describe the forest, never really pulling all of his information together in any compelling or satisfactory way.
An Overview of the Book
But before too much analysis, let’s have a brief overview of the book. In Quest of the Historical Adam is divided into four parts. An opening chapter lays the foundation by discussing what’s at stake in the conversation. A closing chapter reflects theologically and summarizes the conclusions Craig makes along the way. The meat of the book are the two middle sections, one which focuses on biblical data concerning the historical Adam and one which focuses on scientific data. In the former, Craig draws extensively from ANE literature to compare with Genesis 1-11 to make the case that this portion of Genesis can be interpreted as mytho-history. As such, his “biblical” argument actually spends most of its time outside of Scripture. In the latter, Craig assumes theistic evolution de facto—a mistake, I believe, given his likely audience—and tries to ascertain at what point in evolution “humanness” developed.
The thing that In Quest of the Historical Adam does the best is make it clear that one can believe that the creation narratives are literary/symbological/mythological and still be committed to a literal interpretation of Scripture. If the literary genre of a text is myth/poetry, then a literal interpretation is to see it as such. It is also clear that New Testament references to the creation narrative do not automatically indicate that narrative was historical. For example, if I reference a television show to make a theological point in a sermon, it is understood that I am using a fiction to serve as illustration. As the NT authors reference other mythical or pseudepigraphal figures, Craig is right to caution that NT citations should not be used as easy proofs of OT historicity.
Some Flaws in the Argument
Beyond this, however, Craig is less compelling. He spends a chapter defining “myth,” parsing the difference between myth, legend, and folklore, only to then say it doesn’t really matter anyway “so that it is probably impossible and unprofitable to lay down necessary and sufficient conditions for each of these narrative types.” So why then devote the majority of the chapter to it?
The end of his first chapter answering the question “Are the primaeval narrative of Genesis 1-11 myth?” ends with “The history of Genesis 1-11 is thus set in a primaeval time, a characteristic of myths, especially myths of origination.” Notice what this does. The chapter title assumes the narrative is “primaeval,” then asserts that the quality of being primaeval is a characteristic of myth. In the question, Craig has assumed his answer! It’s also a bit redundant to say that “myths of origination” are set in a “primaeval time” as primaeval literally means “of the earliest time in history” (literally primus aevum, “first age”). Craig may very well be correct that Genesis 1-11 is myth, but this particular argument is circular, hidden only through a flourish of many words.
Craig also discounts much of the historicity of Genesis 1-11 on the basis of alleged fantastical elements—from a talking snake to a worldwide flood, and so on. While Craig may be correct, he does not offer a robust enough apologetic against those who do see Genesis 1-11 (or 3-11) as literal history. Simply put, the way in which Craig makes his assertions are going to remain unconvincing to those who do not see Genesis 1-11 as myth.
Moving into the section on science, In Quest of the Historical Adam gives an exhaustive overview of human evolution. I think it’s a mistake for Craig to assume theistic evolution—again, even if true, it stands counter to the beliefs of many with his evangelical faith tradition. To assume this stance rather than defend it theologically or scientifically leaves Craig with what will be to many an unconvincing argument because there is immediate and irreconcilable disagreement on fundamental assumptions.
“Humanness” = Cognition
The most troubling aspect of In Quest of the Historical Adam is its effort to pinpoint an exact point on the evolutionary timeline that proto-humans became simply human. What is it to be human? Rather than approach this question theologically—A human is a being made a “living soul” by the breath of God—Craig chooses to approach the question anthropologically, specifically through brain size. He writes “Despite being classified as Homo, so-called Homo habilis was, as mentioned, almost certainly not human, given its brain size of 550-687cm.” He portrays humanness as beings capable of abstract thought; deep planning; capable of behavioral, economic, and technical innovations; and capable of symbolic behavior. This is problematic, because what does that say of the humanness of neurodivergent individuals for whom abstract thinking and symbolism is difficult? What does it say of the humanness of individuals with severe mental disabilities? The natural conclusion, under this model, is that these individuals are not human. Craig protests this briefly, but makes no case for why it shouldn’t follow. In my opinion, it is incredibly dangerous to locate the imago Dei, as Craig does, in “the properties of personhood that are manifested by the cognitive behaviors” (p. 370) and assume that an organism must have a certain “neurologic structure to support a rational soul” (p. 377).
Probably the most interesting part of In Quest of the Historical Adam is Craig’s insistence in a literal Adam and Eve while rejecting Genesis 1-11 as literal history. This is based on 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 and Romans 5:12-21, which Craig interprets as clear assertions of a historical Adam. But it’s not altogether clear why this would need to be the case. Craig has to bend over backwards to keep some elements of his conservative theology even having become convinced of a more progressive model.
You also see Craig’s commitment to his conservative theological biases when he writes that even though the creation account isn’t literal, two important lessons from it are that marriage is between only a man and a woman and that women are to be the “helper” of men. (With no discussion of how “helper”—ezer in Hebrew—carries no connotation of subordination, as it most commonly refers to Yahweh himself in Scripture.)
As such, Craig’s final conclusion is that the historical Adam and Eve were a single pair of Homo heidelbergensis around one million to seven hundred fifty thousand years ago. They were imbued by God with a rational soul and became the progenitors of Neanderthals, Denisovans, other archaic humans, and, finally, Homo sapiens. While I think there is a case to be made for theistic evolution, I don’t think that In Quest of the Historical Adam is particularly compelling, either in its narrative structure or in many of its arguments. The book lacks personality in its writing as Craig comes off sounds aloof with a sense of intellectual superiority. (Ironic, considering that the majority of the book’s content lies outside his academic expertise.) I suppose one can hold up this book as an example of how evangelicalism and evolution can live in harmony, but it’s obvious that its quite tense and occasionally discordant.