In the Bible Adam is the first man. The story about him is recounted in the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 2:4b-3:24, commonly attributed to the J or Yahwist source (otherwise known as non-P [Priestly]; see Pentateuch).
Name and meaning
The name Adam (Hebrew ’adam), means ‘man,’ in the sense of ‘human being’, ‘person’, or, most relevantly, ‘humanity’ in general. However, it appears to be used in this story to refer only to the male person of the first human couple as representative of humanity. It is not widely realized that the Garden of Eden narrative regularly refers to ‘the man’ (Hebrew ha’adam) rather than to ‘Adam’. Although there are just three places in this narrative where the standard Hebrew (Masoretic) text, with its vowels, makes the word a personal name, in the phrase le’adam “to/for Adam” (Genesis 2:20; 3:17, 21), this is a matter of a mere vowel point, and it is generally accepted that the word would originally have been read la’adam, ‘to/for the man,’ especially since the expression ‘the man’ (ha’adam) continues after these references. It is not until Genesis 4:25 that the text refers to Adam as a personal name, presumably because by then there are other men around. Adam also appears as a personal name in the Priestly (P) source genealogy in Genesis 5:1, 3-5.
The question of gender
Some feminist scholars, starting with Phyllis Trible, have argued that Adam was originally a genderless ‘earth creature’ (made from ’adamah, ‘earth’, Genesis 2:7; 3:19), who only subsequently became a man after the creation of Eve. However, this is probably mistaken, since Eve is specifically stated to have been ‘taken out of man’ (Genesis 2:23), using a different Hebrew word (’ish), which can only refer to a male.
Having been created, the man is placed by God in the Garden of Eden and forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But his wife Eve, subsequently created as Adam’s helper, having been formed from one of Adam’s ribs, is tempted to do that very thing by the serpent (Satan is a later interpretation). Eve then offers some of the fruit to Adam. As a result they are both said to be conscious of their nakedness, an example of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ they have acquired. Various punishments are subsequently inflicted in turn by God on the serpent, Eve, and Adam, and Adam and Eve are finally cast out of the garden, thereby denying them access to the tree of life, whose fruit bestows immortality. However, Adam (along with Eve) does not die on the very same day that the fruit is eaten, contrary to what God had originally threatened. Modern scholars dispute the reason for this; most naturally it was a consequence of God’s compassion.
The question of immortality
Another debated question is whether Adam and Eve, while still in the garden. are deemed to be immortal (so traditional Christian theology) or mortal (so James Barr). Probably it is best to envisage them rather as being potentially immortal, since while in the garden they were not prohibited from eating from the tree of life, but apparently had not got round to doing so. Though finally denied immortality in this life, Adam (along with Eve) is granted some kind of wisdom as a result of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this there is an aetiology (a myth of origin) of the human condition, and we find a parallel in the Mesopotamian myth about the primeval sage Adapa, of whom it is said, ‘To him he (the god Ea) gave wisdom; he did not give him eternal life.’ We can also discern a parallel in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, for Gilgamesh seeks immortality but when he finally finds the plant of life a snake snatches it away while he is bathing and eats it instead, thereby rejuvenating itself. The parallel themes of man being unable to achieve immortality, and a snake being responsible for denying man access to the plant or tree of life, might not be coincidental. However, the recent attempt to derive the Garden of Eden story from two fragmentary Ugaritic texts, KTU 1.100 and 107 (Marjo C. A. Korpel and Joannes C. de Moor) is unlikely to be correct, as the texts in question are very fragmentary and obscure and the reconstruction of the Ugaritic myth is highly speculative.
Once they are outside the garden, Adam and Eve are said to have had three children, Cain, Abel, and Seth (Genesis 4). Adam himself is said by P to have lived for 930 years (Genesis 5:5); this makes him the third longest-lived person in the Primeval History (Genesis 1-11).
Adam in the Old Testament outside Genesis
Surprisingly, the Genesis Garden of Eden story is not directly mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, but a variant of it is attested in Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Job 15:7-8. Also the Garden of Eden is mentioned in several prophetic passages as a symbol of fertility (Isaiah 51:3; Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:3). However, Adam and the Eden story come to greater prominence later in Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature (e.g., Sirach 17:1; 49:6; Tobit 8:6; Wisdom 2:13; 9:2; 10:1; 4 Ezra 3:7; 4:30; 7:11; 2 Baruch 23:4; 48:42; 2 Enoch 8:2; Apocalypse of Moses; The Life of Adam and Eve).
In the Priestly creation story in Genesis 1:26f. ’adam is used collectively to denote ‘humanity’, since the term here includes both ‘male and female’, though, judging from the genealogy in Genesis 5:1ff., humanity for P originally consisted of simply one man (Adam) and one woman. However, they are created contemporaneously, unlike in J’s story in Genesis 2.
Jewish interpretations Genesis 1:26f. led to some unusual later Jewish interpretations. First, taken in tandem with Genesis 2:7, it led Philo to maintain that there were two creations, first of the Ideal Man, a heavenly, incorporeal being made in the image of God, and secondly the earthly Adam of Genesis 2 modelled on him (Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesim, 1.4). We can detect Platonic influence here. Secondly, Genesis 1:26f. gave rise to the view that Adam was originally androgynous, since ’adam is here spoken of as embracing both male and female. Later, the androgynous Adam was split up into separate male and female figures (Genesis Rabbah 8:1; compare Plato, Symposium, 189). Thirdly, Genesis 1:26f. led to the notion that Adam had a first wife, Lilith, prior to Eve, since this passage speaks of woman being created contemporaneously with man prior to the account of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2. In the mediaeval Alphabet of Ben Sira Lilith appears as an early feminist, refusing to be subordinate to Adam and subsequently leaving him.
In the New Testament Paul emphasizes Adam’s disobedience as the source of human sin and death, and refers to Christ as ‘the last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45), the one who, in contrast to the first Adam of Genesis, brings eternal life and righteousness to humanity (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49). The idea that Adam’s sin and guilt were inherited by later humanity, what became known as the doctrine of original sin, was later elaborated further by Augustine and other Christian theologians.
Adam, for Muslims the first prophet, is mentioned a number of times in the Qur’an. Most commonly referred to there is the story of God’s commanding the angels to bow down to Adam and how they all do so except Iblis, i.e., Satan (2.34; 7.11-18; 15.26-44; 17.61-64; 20.116). This story is appropriated from the Christian Syriac Cave of Treasures. The Qur’an also knows the broad outline of the Garden of Eden story (2.35-36; 7.19-25; 20.117-124), though the tree from which Adam and his wife (unnamed) ate is mistakenly called “the tree of eternity” (20.120-121).
For those who accept the results of biblical criticism and science, Adam can no longer be regarded as a historical figure but is rather a mythical character. At the same time, the story of Adam reveals profound truths about human nature. As the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch declares, ‘each of us has been the Adam of his own soul’ (2 Baruch 54:19).
Barr, James. The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality. London: SCM, 1992.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Callender, Dexter E. Adam in Myth and History. Harvard Semitic Studies. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001.
Day, John. “Problems in the Interpretation of the Story of the Garden of Eden.” Pages 24-50 in From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11. The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 592. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Levinson, John R. Portraits of Adam in Early Judaism. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement Series 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 2-3. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Continental Commentaries. English translation. London: SPCK, 1984.