Collins: Theological Response to Joshua Swamidass, The Genealogical Adam and Eve

First , there is the relationship of science with epistemology. Most of us think that science has a strong relationship to reality and truth. I’m on board with that. At the same time, we have to be able to talk about the revisability of scientific claims without fearing that we have undermined our basic realism. In our scientific reasoning we inevitably make judgment calls, and some of these calls warrant higher levels of confidence than others do. I do not find this troublesome. It would help the general public if we could be frank about that.

Second , and related, we need to be able to talk about how science and faith interact. Swamidass has, reasonably, sought to allow each its own intellectual integrity.

But where does “science” leave off and some other intellectual endeavor begin? I expect that the boundaries are there, but that they are often fuzzy. In our culture, however, science is often granted a high level of authority, rightly or wrongly (rightly, Swamidass thinks). Further, everyone wants to pronounce on larger questions that go beyond his or her disciplinary expertise. I don’t blame them, but it would be good if we could recognize when that is happening and what are the guidelines for doing it well. Here is where C. S. Lewis can be helpful:13

The distinction thus made between scientific and non-scientific thoughts will not easily bear the weight we are attempting to put on it. … The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics [philosophy] or mathematics. If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. … We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.

At least, we can encourage people to be careful not to overstate their results!

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Great review from @jack.collins, but this part is surprising…

Another issue is that of the Nephilim (Genesis 6). Swamidass wonders whether the Nephilim could somehow connect to the Neanderthals, as humans outside the Garden. However, Neanderthals et al. have no relevance for the ancient audiences, who would have known nothing of them. Far more relevant for the ancient Israelites would have been other peoples’ claims of semi-divine founders, and the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of man correspond to these figures. Such claims, if believed, could intimidate the Israelites and undermine their loyalty to the Lord. But these fearsome beings were themselves subject to divine judgement, and therefore Israel should not fear them.

That is not true at all. I did not wonder if they were Neanderthals. This is, rather, what I wrote:

The meaning of Nephilim cannot be understood with confidence. I, nonetheless, will join the Genesis tradition by speculating alongside ancient readers. Perhaps the daughters of adam (from Gen 2) began to intermix with those created earlier, the sons of Elohim (from Gen 1). The author, then, would be discussing ancient interbreeding between Adam’s lineage and another long-lost lineage.24 This interpretation is speculative. It is, also, less fantastic, raising fewer theological questions, than many ancient readings of Genesis. (p. 145)

No mention of Neanderthals, and that wouldn’t make sense in this timeline any ways!


Look’s like a correction was made. Thanks @jack.collins.

That paragraph now reads:

Another issue is that of the Nephilim (Genesis 6). Swamidass mentions the notion that Nephilim could somehow connect to the Neanderthals, and rightly recognizes that Neanderthals et al. have no relevance for the ancient audience, who would have known nothing of them. But neither would his suggestion, a separate group of people outside the Garden, be likely.

Note: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that “Swamidass wonders whether the Nephilim could somehow connect to the Neanderthals, as humans outside the Garden. However, Neanderthals et al. have no relevance for the ancient audiences, who would have known nothing of them.” The paragraph was corrected on March 26, 2020 at the request of the author.

Of course what I am proposing here is highly speculative, and the GAE does not hinge here in any way. I am curious what @jongarvey and @deuteroKJ think about this though.

I don’t think your interpretation is as speculative as Jack’s on intermarriage with angelic beings, venerable though that tradition is back to 1 Enoch. I don’t think non-biologists really appreciate the problems with that, if one assumes Genesis is treating history, rather than fable.

Linguistically “sons of elohim” could mean angelic beings, though that usage hasn’t appeared in Genesis, where it seems to me Adam’s line (rather than the “outside the gardeners”) are those who have alone been specifically linked to God as “family.”

Cain’s line has also traditionally been the subject of intermarriage, but as you point out in GAE, on the traditional reading of Adam as sole progenitor, such intermarriage occurred from the first.

So to me, the most natural solution is that the author of the tradition assumed people outside Adam’s line from the start, and describes, in effect, the beginning of the Adamic inheritance through the race (to be continued in the Table of Nations."

However, as I argue in my book, Genesis doesn’t actually spell out that the Nephilim are the offspring of those marriages, but merely that they existed at the same, significant, time.


I don’t think he is arguing that:

The issue is that @jack.collins’s cultural background actually supports your reading and mine @jongarvey!. @jack.collins suggests Genesis 6 is describing biological humans (not angels) who claimed to have semi-divine founders interbreeding with Adam and Eve’s lineage. It is notable that the text does not challenge the claims of an alternate founding of the Sons of God. Rather, the issue is that the existed and they interbred.

We can’t take it literately as Israelites interbreeding with other nations though, because Isreal (AKA Jacob) has not even been born yet, and the nation has not been founded! I do agree that the imagery is strongly parallel to “Israelites interbreeding with other nations,” but occurring in protohistory like this raises the question of who exactly where these people who did not descend from Adam?

So, I do not understand how the cultural context is a spoiler here. It seems @jack.collins reading is more culturally informed than mine, but actually dove-tails nicely with speculative reading. Of course, @jongarvey, your book takes this much farther than me, and might argue that people outside the garden helps with interpreting passages like this and making sense of traditional theology.

That is what makes sense to me.

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(I’m not a biologist.) What are the problems with the angelic view of Genesis 6? If angels can temporarily inhabit physical bodies (as it seems from e.g. Abraham’s visitors and the angels that go to warn Lot), what prevents those bodies from being capable of reproduction?

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@swamidass we discussed this in St. Louis, but it’s been a long time :slight_smile: i take the angelic view of sons of God in Gen 6 (I think the NT confirms the Enochean tradition). I also think the Nephilim are the offspring of the illicit sexual union, but agree with @jongarvey that the text is not explicit. I may be wrong (on either or both accounts), but really don’t see how/why GAE even enters this text/discussion. But I also don’t put as much stock in the focus on the term 'adam as you do (even though I generally agree, or am inclined to, the conclusion that the biblical story is concerned with the descendants of Adam and not really addressing those outside the garden, except in tangential ways [e.g., Gen 4]).

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Great to hear from you.

Well, it comes up exceeding rarely in the book.

Perhaps the key point isn’t a speculative reading I offered, but rather that it shows that for thousands of years people have been wondering about “biologically/reproductively-compatible beings” interbreeding with AE’s lineage for a long time. Call them what you like, but they were reproductively compatible.

Ancient ideas of reproduction were like mixing two glasses of water. They might be one reason some pagans were mating with beasts hoping for a chimera to be born (but I’m not expert on the paganism). However, we no know that reproduction works more like lock and a key. There has to be a really good match. Mating with animals will not produce a goat-human. Period.

Angels might take the form of humans, but it is hard to imagine how they could also be reproductively compatible unless (1) they were created by God to be reproductively-compatible with us or (2) they had the intrinsic creative power to create themselves reproductively-compatible against God’s original plan, or (3) they were possessing humans who had been created reproductively-compatible.

That’s the puzzle.


I don’t think that’s what the text(s) say - that angels appear in human form temporarily doesn’t equate to their being human, getting married, and having families - that would be incarnation, which has a rather special reference in the Bible!

It also presupposes a preference for this supposed embodied life by angels, whose hallmark is their currently exalted status, so that men actually bow to them when they encounter them. I would further argue that Satan’s hatred of mankind in the garden resulted from disgust that God favoured them to share his rule.

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If@structureoftruth is suggesting that the appearance of human form is an exact biological correspondence, then not only do we have to ask questions about how they got their “temporary” genotype (since God certainly did not create them to reproduce (Matt 22:30)), but assume that they were also susceptible to human diseases, human parasites, and chromosomal disorders.

If the correspondence is that exact, then (like Adam in Josh’s GAE scenario) they were effectively human rather than angelic anyway.


I missed that nuance of Jack’s words. So we take “sons of man” as “sons of Adam”, and “sons of gods” as people who aren’t sons of Adam, but claim to be sons of ancestral gods. Adam’s line is distinguished in an important way from “the others”, and Adam as a special line within humanity is confirmed, as per GAE.

I agree “Israel” is an anachronism in that context, but if we suppose that Genesis’s interest in Adam is that he is the proto-Israel - the first to be dedicated to Yahweh - as in Seth Postell’s work, then that’s GAE too.


17 posts were split to a new topic: Biblical Basis for “Satan”

How does the New Testament affirm the Enochean tradition of sons of God or Nephilim in Genesis 6. Are their passages you could point me to? Thanks!

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For those who might be interested, here is the link to the BioLogos Forum thread discussing the 3 GAE book reviews:

Collins had a beautiful conclusion to his essay:

I must finish, leaving much unsaid. But I will not leave unsaid my appreciation for what Swamidass has done, and its potential contribution to good thinking about science, faith, and the good human life.

In a previous essay of mine, in a book supported by a BioLogos grant, I mentioned the value of scenarios. I acknowledged that what I had outlined is “just a scenario, an illustration of one way to imagine the events. Other ways may occur to those with enough imagination.” 15 In another place I wrote:16

I once heard Peter Harrison say that if certain theological views are well-founded, and fundamentally important to a well-grounded system of belief, it can be rationally responsible to maintain those views, even if, for the time being, the science seems to call them into question. I believe he was right, at least for these basic beliefs about the origin of humankind and of sin. These are too well-connected to the kind of experiences that are universally accessible and all-but-universally recognized. Sometimes, if we wait, new light will come in the scientific thinking. And sometimes, as well, someone with enough imagination will propose a workable scenario that helps us past the apparent hump. It looks like Dr Swamidass has indeed provided an imaginative and serviceable tool for our toolkits, to promote “peaceful science.”

I thank Josh Swamidass for what he has offered!


Michelle, sure. The main NT texts that connect to 1 Enoch (chs. 6-16)–note angels/spirits and Noah (implicit or explicit)–are 1 Pet 3:18-20; 2 Pet 2:4-6; and Jude 6-7. I can’t think of reading these texts without Gen 6 being in the background, especially given 1 Enoch.