Paul's Adam and Paul's Christ
Reading Paul on Protology and Eschatology After Greek Patristic Theology and Modern Science
Alexander Khramov has successfully argued, in my opinion, for what he calls the “alterist” view of origins.1 In this protology, the original state of human beings was angelic in character: not absolutely incorporeal (since in traditional Greek, Syriac, and indeed Latin theology up to Aquinas and after him in the Franciscan tradition, only God is absolutely incorporeal), but possessed of a corporeality which was radically glorious, in which time, space, and matter were full of the divine presence and means of communion. The human fall plunged humanity and, because humans are microcosms that contain the rest of the universe within themselves, the macrocosm as well into a fallen state of existence. Where previously our corporeality was angelic and glorious, it is now futile and vain: time is a parataxis of loss, space is a means of separation, and matter is, in the words of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, “opaque” to the divine glory. Insofar as the beginning and the end coinhere with one another, then, the final end of humanity will be a restored angelic corporeality, in which the human body and the material kosmos are restored to their proper state in the divine pleroma of God’s indwelling presence, what rabbinic theology and Kabbalah after it would call the Shekhinah.
I and others have called this a kind of “orthodox gnosticism”: that is, the story alterism tells is gnostic in its apocalyptic dualism and philosophical pessimism about the state of bodily life as we experience it, but it is also orthodox insofar as it does not posit an oppositional ditheism between the Creator God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus Christ in the New. Both Testaments witness to a single God, and therefore the God who creates the world is also the God who saves it: and within those two poles even the fallen state of corporeality which we experience is itself an expression of divine oikonomia, “economy” or “administration” of the human fall so as to orchestrate human and cosmic redemption, centered around the covenants with Israel, the advent of Christ, and the communion of the Church. “Heterodox gnosticism,” as it were—not a singular belief system or community, remember—could be defined as the rejection of one or both of those points.2
Alterism succeeds where perseverism fails as a metaphysics. Perseverism is the view that God created the spatiotemporal and material world as we currently experience it, and therefore that everything we learn scientifically about the world is reflective of the divine will. To their credit, perseverists tend to be the most able and willing to take the sciences seriously, and scientists of faith are usually metaphysical perseverists on questions of origins: the Biologos Foundation is probably the best example of an academic community brilliantly committed to, for instance, strong scientific narratives of cosmic and biological evolution seen with the eyes of faith.3 Certainly, perseverists are right that these physical dynamics described by the natural sciences do speak to God’s creative Wisdom and seminal goodness in the material universe, and they are absolutely spot-on to think both that Christians should be generally educated about scientific matters and able to appreciate their logical relevance to questions of faith. This applies both protologically and eschatologically, backwards and forwards, to the universe’s material origins and ends, as well as to the physical, chemical, and biological processes within it. But perseverism suffers from a certain metaphysical problem, insofar as it is impossible to hold to either without positing a kind of mythical prehistory in which physical laws functioned differently than they seem to have and appear to now, within the bounds of this world, and without holding to a realization of God’s Kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future of this kosmos. Both positions end up attributing Death to God as an aspect of the divine will: the engine of chaos, conflict, violence, suffering, death, and dissolution which drives the universe’s evolutionary tendency towards brief epiphanies of order, harmony, peace, beauty, life, and flourishing would therefore be a necessary aspect of God’s creative activity and purposes. Every dead star and planet floating frozen in the void, every mass extinction event, every roadkill, every act of cruelty and murder driven by the residual psychic darkness of evolution’s social kinks and neurochemistry—each of these are inevitably divinely willed by the perseverist position, insofar as the notion that God created the world as it is, exactly as it is, entails that he also created those factors that condition both natural and moral evil fully comfortable with what they might eventuate.
The problem becomes acute when we consider human origins. For contemporary perseverists that embrace theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism, it is obvious as it is for biologists and anthropologists more broadly that we are not the only humans who have ever existed, and that our present dominance is largely the product of an extended project of annihilation and assimilation of other human groups.4 There does not seem to be a moment we can point to at which humanity existed in a state of some abstract, perfect biological differentiation from the rest of hominids and animals, on the one hand, or when the instinctual and habitual tendencies which Christian theology tends to identify with sin, what rabbinic Judaism traditionally calls the yetzer hara or “evil inclination,” were not present to us by virtue of our evolutionary ancestry. Without the theological need for a historical Adam and without the scientific or historical impetus in believing in one, then, on the perseverist view we are left with a God who created human beings from a situation defined by natural and moral evil, in a state of natural and moral evil, and that in some sense this was necessary for the realization of a world in which humans achieve the good of moral perfection.
As Khramov points out, this metaphysical view is not necessary in order to accommodate evolution within Christian theology. Alterism allows for a.) the fact that the material universe as we experience it is defined by an evolutionary process that b.) includes human origins and c.) reflects a bifurcation of competition between the goodness of existence and life and the evil of death and decay. By seeing Adam’s fall as a transhistorical event5—not an event within cosmic history, such that we should be looking for a lost Garden in Mesopotamia or agonizing over polygenism, but happening in some sense above, in, and through history—alterists are able to acknowledge the evolutionary creation as God’s work, yet to attribute it not to the eternal divine intention of theologia but to the spatiotemporal and material interval of the salvific oikonomia, and therefore to acknowledge that it is not eternally willed by God in se. It is perfectly well possible to see in the epic of cosmic and terrestrial history, physical, chemical, and biological, the infinite breadth and depth of God’s creative possibilities, and to see in the sagas, small and large, of creatures the yearning of Creaturely Sophia for her deification; yet it is also possible here to have compassion for dead cats and sorrow for predation and downright anger that someday this good Earth will burn hotter than it already does by human folly in the conflagration of our local star or indeed the forthcoming heat-death or freeze or crunch or snap of the universe at large. Alterism does not reject evolution, not even as a divine process; it simply acknowledges an extra metaphysical layer that preserves the fundamental truth in classical Christian theology that “God did not create Death” and it “came into the world through the devil’s envy” (Wis 1:12-14; 2:24), and therefore that evolution itself as a liturgical procession of “unfolding” the infinite forms which reside in the Divine Wisdom is presently fallen.
As Khramov argues, alterism better reflects the inheritance of patristic theology, in the Greek East down to and inclusive of St. John of Damascus and John Scotus Eriugena in the West; perseverism is the position of the later St. Augustine, which is why it was the position of St. Thomas Aquinas and subsequently of most Latin theologians (hence the Western debate, sometimes but not always echoed in the East, over evolution in early modernity). But alterism also happens to better reflect the Early Jewish milieu of the New Testament, especially the apocalyptic and sapiential traditions which envision human origins and destiny by reference to the angels. In several Early Jewish texts, Adam begins his existence as a kind of angelic or even quasi-divine being.6 There are already inklings of this tradition in the combination of the Priestly and Yahwist creation myths by the redactor of the Bereishit, insofar as the Adam made in Genesis 1:26-28 is in the divine image while the Adam of Genesis 2:4-3:24 is made from the dust of the earth and inbreathed to become a nephesh chayyah, a “living being” or “living soul” (in Greek, psyche zon). In the Greek translation of the Septuagint, the distinction between these two creation narratives is signaled by the verb poieio, “make” in the first narrative and plasso, “mould” in the second. Early Jewish expansions and commentaries on the Adam stories pick up on these ideas, whether by the multiplication of Adams—a divine, celestial Adam and a terrestrial shadow—or a divine Adam who becomes a terrestrial being through his sinfulness. So Philo writes in De Confusione Linguarum 62-63 that the heavenly, androgynous man of Genesis 1:26-28 is none other than the Logos, the deuteros theos who mediates between God and kosmos, while the man of Genesis 2:4ff is an earthly copy. In a variety of rabbinic texts, the heavenly Adam—so big he fills the entire universe—must be miniaturized to pacify angelic fear that he rivals God’s own power (e.g., B. Hagigah 12a; B. Sanhedrin 38b; Genesis Rabbah 8:1, 9-10; 24:2; Leviticus Rabbah 18:2; Midrash Tanhuma, Bereshit 25; Midrash Aleph Bet 15:26; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 6:12).7 In 2 Enoch 30:12, Adam is created a “second angel” on the earth. In other texts, the angels are dazzled by Adam’s celestial glory—since the light with which he is enrobed is in fact the light of creation’s first day in Genesis 1—that God must put Adam to sleep to clarify the difference between them (B. Bava Batra 58a; B. Sanhedrin 38b; Leviticus Rabbah 20:2; Genesis Rabbah 8:9-10; 11:2; 12:6; 20:11; Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:3; Numbers Rabbah 13:12; Song of Songs Rabbah 30:3; Midrash ha-Gadol 126-130; Midrash Mishlei 31; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:4; 12:1; 26:3; Pesikta Rabbati 14;10; Zohar 1:142b; Kedushat Shabbat 5). Adam’s body is also often thought to have been androgynous originally (B. Eruvin 18a; B. Berakhot 61a; B. Ketubot 8a; Genesis Rabbah 8:1, 10; Leviticus Rabbah 14:1; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 1:8; Midrash Tehillim 139:5; Shoher Tov 139:5; Maharsha on Genesis 1:27; Zohar 3:44b; Zohar Hadash 55c-d; Likutei Moharan 1:108). In Testament of Abraham 10-11, Adam is enthroned in heaven, presiding over the judgment of souls at death; in Life of Adam and Eve 12.1-16.3, at his creation, despite his lesser composition, the angels are commanded to worship Adam.
Eve, furthermore, is created as a kind of diminution of Adam’s divine, angelic, celestial, and androgynous glory as he is split into male and female. Together, in the communion of marriage beneath the ten chuppot adorned with chalcedony, topaz, diamond, beryl, onyx, jasper, sapphire, emerald, carbuncle, and gold (and probably referring to the heavens), the two continue to form the primal Adam even once parted (Sefer haZikhronot 7:1-2). It is only at Adam’s expulsion from the Garden that God gives Adam and Eve “garments of skin,” thus demoting them to fleshed existence (Gen 3:21). Just as Adam is thought to have contained Eve, originally, so too many Early Jews seem to have thought that he comprehended all human souls, an idea that would become essential to later Kabbalah (e.g., Exodus Rabbah 40:3; Sefer haGilgulim 1:3a). But periodically throughout the Old Testament and in early Jewish thought, different humans could reclaim “all the glory of Adam” (kol kavod adam; 1QS 4.23; CD 3:20; 1QHa 4:15).8 Noah, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Elijah all receive some form of metamorphosis to this angelic, divine glory in several of the Early Jewish texts in which they appear, and many Early Jews seem to have believed that the Jerusalem Temple (or, for Qumranites, its temporary replacement) offered a kind of angelic deification.9 And of course, some early Jews, as I noted here, also believed in angelic or divine messiahs, like the community that produced the Parables of Enoch, including the followers of Jesus, who conceptualized him in this way, all of whom were followed by later rabbinic and kabbalistic thinkers, several of whom also believed in the Messiah’s heavenly preexistence and descent into the world.10 Adam’s glory was lost in this world but periodically regained, piecemeal in the present aeon (olam hazeh) but nationally by the people of Israel (and perhaps the righteous among the gentiles) in the aeon to come (olam habah). Indeed, the restoration of Adam’s glory even to this world, the restitution of the Adam Kadmon, remained the mystical ideal in Judaism well into the period of the medieval and early modern kabbalists.
When Paul talks about Adam—our only primary New Testament author who does so—he should be read with the grain of Early Jewish apocalyptic and sapiential thought about Adam, as it was received in later Judaism and Christianity, not against it. And in point of fact, reading Paul from within Early Jewish discourse about Adam makes several of Paul’s comments on him far more intelligible. So, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, thus also in the Christ all will be made alive.”11 The perseverist has two options here: either Adam is a historical figure, parallel to Christ the historical figure, whose dolorous blow to humanity must be historically parallel to Christ’s saving wounds; or, Adam is a historical metaphor for early humans whose historical sin still acts to counterbalance Christ’s death on the cross. But the alterist has a different option entirely: in Adam—that is, the divine, angelic, celestial Adam, the paradisaical Adam existing in a pretemporal form of the universe to our own—all die, because all human souls were contained in that Adam; in Christ, all will be made alive, for the exact same reason. This is not Augustinian original sin: it is something much more metaphysically complicated and morally demanding. On this reading of Paul, every human soul is a fragment of the primordial Adam, whose sinful moral activity in this world is in fact the very condition of the pretemporal Adam’s fall. Likewise, in the eschatological future, all will be made alive in Christ, in whom the primordial unity of the fallen, cosmic Adam is restored. How shall this be? 1 Corinthians 15:45: “Thus also it is written: the first human Adam ‘became a living soul’; the last Adam a life-creating pneuma.”12 Again, reading Paul in the context of Early Judaism, and on the ground of the reading of 15:22 above, I want to wager that it is completely possible to read Paul as creatively retconning the creation story of Genesis 2:7 from being a story about Adam’s first creation to being a story about Adam’s diminution from his heavenly, pneumatic state to a terrestrial, psychic state, what Origen of Alexandria would have called his “cooling” from being a pneuma to being a psyche (playing on a fun, but wrong, etymology of the latter word). Just as the first Adam was demoted to psychic existence, Paul is saying, so the last Adam has reclaimed pneumatic existence: hence, Paul goes on to say, so too shall we in and through him, the “celestial” man (15:42-49). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” Paul writes in 15:50, but pneuma—the substance and state of the original, heavenly Adam—can. Hence, as my friend David Burnett has argued,13 Paul’s notion of salvation is nothing less than reclamation of the angelic, astral state of deified beings, including the original Adam, in Early Judaism.
There are many conclusions to draw from this (though I already have too many hanging chads in the way of incomplete series), so I will just content myself with this: the notion that science and theology conflict with one another on origins or ends or anything else depends entirely on the kinds of conditions we use to construct both our science and our theology. In particular, whether Paul’s Adam and Paul’s Christ are scientifically or theologically untenable depend largely on whether we are judiciously reconstructing Paul’s own views—which are far more versatile than we typically give them credit for—or are merely retrojecting our own habits of thinking. Paul—and the rest of the New Testament authors, for that matter—are often not saying what we are used to thinking they are saying; for that reason, we often invent more problems for ourselves than are necessary in theology.
David Bentley Hart has signaled his forthcoming series of articles on gnosticism, to which be sure to turn for more.
See Charles Andrew Gottshall, “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution.”
Here and throughout, I am dependent on Schwartz for references in Rabbinic literature.
See Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls STDJ 42 (Leiden: Brill, 2002). See also my own thesis, “A Kingdom of Priests and Gods: Angelic and Participatory Deification in John’s Apocalypse.”
Broadly, see John Kincaid and Michael C. Barber, “Cultic Theosis in Paul and Second Temple Judaism,” JSPL 5 (2015), 237-256; Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam.
See Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 481-491 for an overview of texts and traditions. It is clear that older apocalyptic conflations of divine and angelic messianism continue to persist in later Judaism, with complications for allegedly unitarian Jewish monotheism, as has also been the subject of the scholarship of the late, great Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 2002), and more recently Daniel Boyarin, in Borderlines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012) and Peter Schafer, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) and Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν, οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.
οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται· Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν.
See especially David Burnett, “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions,” JSPL 5 (2015): 211-236; idem, “A Neglected Deuteronomic Scriptural Matrix for the Nature of the Resurrection Body in 1 Cor 15:39-42,” 187-212 in Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in 1 Corinthians, ed. Linda L. Belleville and B.J. Oropeza (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019).