Is a literal Adam necessary for Catholics?


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #41

I also am very curious about this.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #42

I don’t see it. Human languages could have been around for a long long time before him. So why would he have been near the root?

Also, we adopt new vocabulary all the time, both “de novo” and by “horizontal” transfer, and by “fusion”. We are just saying that the original word for mankind was not Adam, not in any language, but was a proper name. However, it becomes a word for humankind, not by chance, but because of the Adam story.


The relevant Catholic teaching on this is from the Code of Canon Law, 752:

Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

Note that here “submission of the intellect and will” is a technical term that refers to giving the teaching of the pope and the college of bishops reverence and the benefit of the doubt, and does not imply blind faith in them. This means that a Catholic should not openly disagree with teachings that have a high “level of certainty” if they do not have a well reasoned argument. This does not mean that those teachings (unless they reach the lowest rung of the “infallible” level) are beyond reproach.

In modern language, this translates to the statement that I have been saying multiple times in this thread:

(John Harshman) #44

That depends on the scenario. How old is your preferred Adam these days? But unless he was speaking Hebrew or something quite near to it, my point stands.

Are you actually saying that, or is it just a bit of speculation? There seems no internal textual evidence for that claim; in the case of Eve, it’s in fact directly contradicted by the text, which implies that Adam spoke Hebrew when he named her.

And in fact I don’t see why you care about the name. What difference does it make whether Adam is the actual name of this hypothetical person, rather than Clarence or Gilgamesh?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #45

I’ll let @jongarvey pick this up, as this is closer to his expertise. But I still don’t see the clear falsification of the scenario, or the reason it needed to be a language near Hebrew. There also is internal textual evidence.

(Edward Robinson) #46

So what you are saying is that, in Catholic jargon, “submission of the intellect and will” does not really mean “submission of the intellect and will”, but only “hesitancy to openly disagree with the Pope unless one has a well-reasoned argument.” That is not what most people would mean by “submission of the intellect and will.” One wonders why the Catholic writers who invent this kind of hair-splitting language don’t simply use different words to express different concepts, rather than torture everyday language to use phrases in ways that will be very misleading to any reader or listener.

I’m not of course saying that every statement made in every Papal document is automatically without error. Obviously the position of the Church on certain matters has changed over the years, and it’s conceivable that it will change regarding Adam as well. My point is not that if the Pope says it, it must be true. I’m merely wondering about the motivation and justification of someone who goes explicitly against a Papal teaching.

Let me give you an example. As you must know, the Church has repeatedly condemned most methods of birth control. But I remember, many years ago, talking to some Catholic Irish people who said that most Catholics in Ireland simply ignore the Papal teachings on the subject, and use birth control. Now, do these hundreds of thousands of Catholics all have “well-reasoned arguments” – have all of these bus drivers, barmaids, accountants, hotel owners, civil servants, construction workers, etc. studied the moral and theological arguments behind the Papal statements, mastered the relevant ethical theory, and pointed out the flaws in the Papal position? Or do they just find the Catholic teaching on the subject darned inconvenient? How do you discern when another Catholic has a deep, principled disagreement of conscience, and when that Catholic is just a moral slacker or even disrespectful of Papal authority? Maybe if we moved the discussion to concrete cases, instead of legal abstractions which only Catholic canon lawyers fully understand, we could make the principles more clear.


Haha, welcome to Catholic theology! This field is 2000 years old and contains a variety of historical, philosophical, and linguistic baggage.

I understand.

Two answers on this:

  1. I don’t want to make a judgement about the theological acumen of drivers, barmaids, etc. However, in my experience often people reject the Church’s teaching out of convenience instead of well reasoned theology. This just makes them bad Catholics.
  2. The teaching against birth control is a special case, because there is strong evidence that it is infallible through the Infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium. When someone uses birth control, they are going against the Infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium instead of a non-infallible teaching of the Church. This is not the case with Adam and Eve in Humani Generis.

This is difficult to ascertain, and with current technology, perhaps is only knowable to the person themself and God. It is not my place to say whether someone sinned due to their disagreement just stemming from being a moral slacker.


Wow. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a litany of its own issues, but right now, I’m very glad to have swam the Bosphorus. Things are much looser in Orthodoxy than Catholicism but also properly firm in key areas in contrast to Episcopalians and other Mainline denominations.

(Edward Robinson) #49

That’s what happens when you put a bunch of lawyers in charge of anything!

(Canon lawyers, that is.)

Thanks for the rest your discussion, which was interesting and helpful.

(Neil Rickert) #50

The lawyers for Canon cameras?

(I know that’s not what you meant – I’m just pointing out the ambiguity).

(Kenneth Turner) #51

I’d be interested in more clarity here. What date(s) would you assign for when “Genesis was written”? Specifically, are we talking about final editing or some hypothetical early stage? Also, what evidence is there that the term 'adam meant something different at an early stage? And, does all this presume a level of precision in the meaning of the Hebrew term that maps on to the current discussion? IOW, why argue for an early definition of 'adam that does not mean “humanity,” generally speaking? (What I sense/fear is the attempt to pigeonhole the grammar to speak to the precision of the modern discussion in a way that feels unnatural.)

I’m a bit sympathetic with some of @John_Harshman’s push-back, even if I don’t presume the “legend” label. The wordplays–Adam (Human), Eve (Life), ground ('adamah), man/woman ('ish/'ishshah), etc.-- only make sense from a Hebrew perspective…and there simply is no reason to assume that Hebrew existed from the beginning or early on, and it certainly seems unreasonable that Hebrew somehow preserved nuances of an original language. It seems far more plausible that the story was crafted in a way to speak in language that “worked” for the implied author/audience. What “really happened” can still be debated. But I see no reason to think that the original “man” (even if assuming some level of historicity, as I do) was really named “Adam.”

(Jon Garvey) #52

I’d qualify this, Josh - the point would be that “Adam” came to mean “man” (generically) after the existence of Adam - or at least after the tradition became more or less fixed - rather than after Genesis was written.

John is reasonable to question how a “late” document (even if composed at the dawn of the Hebrew language) would create a core word like “man”. That said, it would not be impossible, since the evidence is that Hebrew diverged from Canaanite at around the time Israel was developing as a nation - so they could have seen themselves as the “people of Adam” from the staert of the language.

However, against that is the fact that “adam” also means man in Aramaic - I don’t knowabout other related tongues. But that would cause no problem in relation to the biblical material, which describes in the table of nations the spread and influence of Adam’s line over much of the ANE. Thus it would not be surprising for a shared tradition to generate, early on, the application of the proper name first to the people, and then to all people, by the process described in my article.

(Jon Garvey) #53

John, on the kind of Genealogical Adam scenario being considered by Josh as his default (and by me), Adam does not come at the beginning of the history of Homo sapiens, and therefore need not come at the root of human language. His distinctiveness is, primarily, in his calling by God.

My own thinking bypasses Joshua’s stress on special creation (which I would, at most, limit in scope to any new characteristics required for that calling, which I wouldn’t attempt to specify). And so he would be taken from the existing stock, and speak an existing language, long-established and evolved.

So language would be for us a useful, but crude, tool for tracing the history of “the people of Adam”, as it is in history generally. So, for example, finding cognates for “adam” is western semitic languages would support, rather than disconfirming, the migration and genealogical patterns in Genesis, especially if it is localise to that region. As I have said, that is at least true for Aramaic.

But it wouldn’t deal with the possibility that the Hebrews in their migrations from Mesopotamia, to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to Canaan (and then to Babylon and back) didn’t simply adopt or adapt the local languages, and translate the “Adam” tradition. Language maps only imperfectly to genealogy, as we know. In that case, Adam’s original name could have been whatever “red” or “earth” is in proto-Anatolian, or whatever language was spoken.

That last possibility is diminished significantly by the coincidence of “man” being related to “earth” is different languages - but it is by no means impossible, since English “human” derives (via latin “homo”, etc) from the proto-indo-european word for “earth.”

(Jon Garvey) #54

Agree, Ken - I omitted this more literary approach in my previous replies, because I was addressing the linguistic possibility on which I’ve written before. As far as “adam” is concerned, Genesis doesn’t point out the word-play with “earth” specifically - it just uses it, and could well do so for subtle literary reasons, just as if translating it into English we might say that God made Human from humus, our word choice having both poetic and ontological significance.

The name of “Eve” is more clearly directly dependent on Hebrew word-play, since the pun involved in “taken from man”, as far as I know, doesn’t work in any other language.

One way or the other, by the time we get to the Genesis texts, both names function as titles as much as they do names. But that no more cuts across their basic historicity than, as we’ve been discussing, the fact that “adam” is both a generic term, a common noun and a proper name in the text.

(John Harshman) #55

I didn’t know that. Interesting coincidence. As in “humus”? What is that reconstructed word, and how did it get to “homo”? Anyway, wouldn’t “vir” be the proper Latin equivalent to “adam”?

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #56

The root of human language is with Homo Erectus, millions of years prior to Homo Sapiens.

(Ashwin S) #57

Can you prove this?
Homo erectus did not have the same capability of speech that modern humans do… and there is no direct evidence that homo erectus could speak in anything similar to human languages.

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #58

Yes it is proven by the mountains of Homo Erectus artifacts that Homo Erectus had culture, language, technology. That language culture and technology evolved slow through millions of years through many species of the genus Homo to the advanced language, culture and technology of today. The book below explains the evidence well:

(Ashwin S) #59

I have heard of this… what about the fact that homo erectus did not have the anatomical requirements for speech… they weren’t more advanced than modern gorillas in that respect…

(Jon Garvey) #60

Interesting indeed - when I punned “homo” with “humus” in another post, I was thinking of a merely verbal pun (which it would be, in English, or even in Latin). But indeed, the Indo-European words of both words turn out to be the same. From Wikipedia (humus):

From Proto-Italic *homos , from Proto-Indo-European *[*dʰǵʰomós](ʰǵʰomFrom Proto-Italic *homos, from Proto-Indo-European *dʰǵʰomós, from *dʰéǵʰōm (“earth”). Cognates include Sanskrit क्ष (kṣa) and Ancient Greek χθών (khthṓn). Related to homō (“human being, man”).[1]

So someone more imaginative than I might suggest that some version of the Adam story is reflected in PIE. Biblically speaking, that’s not impossible as the hypothesized homeland of PIE is within the area the Table of Nations covers in Genesis. But coincidence is also possible.

Which adds the interesting nuance that a “false etymology” (like that in Hebrew between “woman” and “man”) can turn out to be true in an older language.

No, actually - “vir” is equivalent to Hebrew “ish”, the male of the species. “Homo” and “adam” are the generic terms. Hence the Hebrew wordplay "she shall be called woman (ishshah) because she was taken out of man (ish). That too works in English, but ostensibly the Hebrew words have separate etymologies.