Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity.So writes Derek Kidner in his pithy little commentary, Genesis (vol. 1 in the "Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries" series), p. 28. The observation is key to Kidner's speculation about human beginnings.
Kidner accepts the scientific evidence in support of evolution. On the other hand, he is a thoroughly evangelical scholar; accordingly, he maintains that Adam was a real, historical human being.
Palaeontology … depicts a species fashioned over perhaps a million years or more into the present human form, showing the outward characteristics of modern man upwards of twenty thousand years ago, not only in his bodily structure but in his practice of making tools, using fire, burying his dead, and, not least, creating works of art comparable with those of any period. Even at this remote time the apparent forerunners of our chief racial groups seem to be distinguishable, and the species had already spread widely over the world, displacing another type of hominid, "Neanderthal Man", whose own relics, rough as they are, indicate that tools, fire and burial had been in use for long ages before this. On the other hand, the first known signs of pastoral and agricultural life and, later, of metal working (e.g. by hammering copper or meteoric iron [Gen. 4:19-24]) are much more recent, appearing in the Near East, on present evidence, somewhere between the eighth and fifth millennia BC at earliest.As asserted in the title of this post, evolution is true and Adam is historical — those are Kidner's twin convictions.
How the two pictures, biblical and scientific, are related to each other is not immediately clear. … The latter may need the whole range of literary genres to do it justice, and it is therefore important not to prejudge the method and intention of these chapters.
Other scriptures, however offer certain fixed points to the interpreter. For example, the human race is of a single stock ("from one", Acts 17:26); again, the offence of one man made sinners of the many, and subjected them to death (Rom. 5:12-19): and this man was as distinct an individual as were Moses and Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14). Others too are counted as individuals in the New Testament: e.g., Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noah. These guidelines exclude the idea of myth … and assure us that we are reading of actual, pivotal events. (pp. 26-27)
Kidner points out that the vast age of the earth is only one of the difficulties we must tackle if we intend to reconcile Genesis with science. He emphasizes that we must also explain how the first farmer follows so soon (130 years is the upper limit) after the first man in Genesis.
To the present author [i.e., Kidner] various converging lines point to an Adam much nearer our own times than the early tool-makers and artists, let alone their remote forbears. On the face of it, the ways of life described in Genesis 4 are those of the neolithic and first metal-working cultures alluded to above, i.e., of perhaps eight or ten thousand years ago, less or more. The memory of names and genealogical details also suggests a fairly compact period between Adam and Noah rather than a span of tens or hundreds of millennia, an almost unimaginable stretch of time to chronicle. Yet this seems to widen the gap still further between Genesis and current chronologies.I am not committed to Kidner's reconstruction of human beginnings. In fact, Kidner himself describes it as an exploratory suggestion and invites correction and a better synthesis (p. 30).
The answer may lie in our definition of man.
Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God's image and breath, nothing less. It follows that Scripture and science may well differ in the boundaries they would draw round early humanity: the intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of "modern man" to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam. If, as the text of Genesis would by no means disallow, God initially shaped man by a process of evolution, it would follow that a considerable stock of near-humans preceded the first true man, and it would be arbitrary to picture these as mindless brutes. Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity, with already a long history of practical intelligence, artistic sensibility and the capacity for awe and reflection.
On this view, Adam, the first true man, will have had as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world. One might conjecture that these were destined to die out, like the Neanderthalers (if indeed these did), or to perish in the Flood, leaving Adam's lineal descendants, through Noah, in sole possession. Against this, however, there must be borne in mind the apparent continuity between the main races of the present and those of the distant past, already mentioned, which seems to suggest either a stupendous antiquity for Adam … or the continued existence of "pre-Adamites" alongside "Adamites". …
It is at least conceivable that after the special creation of Eve, which established the first human pair as God's viceregents (Gn. 1:27,28) and clinched the fact that there is no natural bridge from animal to man, God may have now conferred His image on Adam's collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam's "federal" headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.
There may be a biblical hint of such a situation in the surprising impression of an already populous earth given by the words and deeds of Cain in 4:14,17. Even Augustine had to devote a chapter [of The City of God] to answering those who "find this a difficulty". … It may be significant that, with one possible exception [Gen. 3:20], the unity of mankind "in Adam" and our common status as sinners through his offence are expressed in Scripture not in terms of heredity but simply of solidarity. We nowhere find applied to us any argument from physical descent such as that of Hebrews 7:9,10 (where Levi shares in Abraham's act through being "still in the loins of his ancestor"). Rather, Adam's sin is shown to have implicated all men because he was the federal head of humanity, somewhat as in Christ's death "one died for all, therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14). Paternity plays no part in making Adam "the figure of him that was to come" (Rom. 5:14). (pp. 28-30)
I have gone to the trouble of typing it out because I wish Kidner's proposal was in wider circulation. By daring to offer a bold and original interpretation, I think he shows up most evangelical interpreters, who demonstrate a lamentable paucity of imagination. Kidner shows that it may be possible to read the early chapters of Genesis as history without repudiating the theory of evolution, which has the weight of scientific evidence in support of it.
It seems to me that death was in the world long before Adam's sin. But consider:
- that human beings may not have had the moral capacity to sin until after God had breathed into Adam's lungs and reconstituted him in the image and likeness of God; and
- that the earlier deaths may have been physical only: whereas spiritual death (estrangement from God) appeared for the first time as a consequence of Adam's act of disobedience.
Nonetheless, Kidner provides a reconstruction that is thoughtful, scholarly, and evangelical. It merits our consideration, if only to show us how blinkered our perspective on scripture usually is.