How do you know the story of Adam and Eve is true?
This question was recently posed to me (for those unfamiliar with the story see Genesis 2-3) First, this is a difficult topic and there are a variety of opinions and I’m only touching the surface here. Anyone interested in really studying the topic should see John Walton’s fabulous book The Lost World of Adam and Eve Or (though I haven’t yet read it is comes recommended to me) Dennis Venema Adam and the Genome.
The question “how am I certain the story of Adam & Eve is true” might look very straightforward, but it conceals some dangerous traps (and I might not avoid them all). The most pressing trap is the word “true”, because this word comes with a fair amount of baggage. When I say true do I mean historically true, scientifically true, theologically true, or perhaps all of the above? There is a classic statement in theology “The Bible is true in everything it affirms.” And in that sense yes I believe the story is true. But of course the next question is what does the Bible affirm in the story?
Is the Bible making a scientific/historic claim about the origin of the species?
Well no. If we read Genesis 1 we will one story of creation and in Genesis 2 we see a different story. In Genesis 1 People (plural) are created while in Genesis 2 God creates one person. In Genesis 1 the creation culminates with humanity in Genesis 2 it begins with humans. And the list goes on. Does this mean the Bible is making scientifically false claims about creation, no. It means the Biblical authors were invested in different questions than those we today find fascinating. We must admit we are the readers of someone else’s story we can see questions and answers the author did not, but we cannot force the text to be something it is not.
Does this mean Adam & Eve were not real people?
No. Some scholars argue that Adam and Eve were historic people separated from a larger group of people for a specific task and brought to live in a specific location. In this theory God made humanity and at a certain time selected one pair to be representatives of the Divine message to the rest of humanity. This pair fell away and rejoined the rest of the civilization. But the Bible is not trying to force this opinion either. Look at the characters’ names Adam & Eve are Hebrew words Humanity & Life. We know that Biblical Hebrew is a relatively late developing language so these names are stand-ins meant to show humanity as a whole and how we have rejected the place God has for us. All this means there might some level of historic basis for the Genesis account but there is no way of scientifically proving or disproving this hypothesis.
So what does the author want us to see in the Adam & Eve story?
The author wants us to see that God takes an intimate interest in humanity and that our relationships with each other (particularly the family relationships) are built from our relationship with God. The story further wants us to understand that death (not necessarily physical death but death defined as separation from God) came about because humanity has rejected the relationship God intended and chosen to define good and evil for ourselves. The text wants us to see evil is real and there are consequences to making ourselves the judges of right and wrong. The text is more concerned with God defining humanity’s purpose than with God as humanity’s creator. Ancient people’s generally agreed humanity was a divine creation, what set this story apart in its original context was the purpose for which God made humanity and how humanity fell from that purpose. Ancient Israel was not concerned about telling people where we came from and how, they knew God created us, the concern was why did God think humanity needed to exist. What was humanity’s function, our purpose, what was our relationship with God supposed to look like. These are the questions we approach the text with.
So what have I said?
Basically, the temptation we face today is to approach the words on the pages of Genesis 2-3 with a 21st century mindset (mine can be further classified as American) ; because of this fact when we read the words on the page our natural cultural conditioning leads us to ask certain questions which ultimately lead to a very silly story about two people and a snake. to properly understand the story we must lay aside this cultural conditioning and ask the kinds of questions the author would have asked and when we do we see that the story is true, it affirms the world as it is and gives me a framework for why it is this way.
If I’ve done my job there are a whole host of tangential questions readers have. This is probably particularly true if this is the first time these concepts have been raised for you. But the question is how do I know the story is true, I know it is true because I recognize that humanity has a mission from God which we abandon in our selfish desires to define good and evil. We have decided that we do not want to work next to God and we eat the bitter fruit of separation from God and one another. I hate to use the word mythic because for most that means “less than real” but here we have a story which is very truly real.
Another quick answer to this question is from BioLogos.