Patrilineality and Genealogical Adam

I’m curious why in the discussion of GAE, I haven’t read anybody who has brought this point up before. Namely, have we considered the influence of patrilineality in assigning the significance of genealogy in the Bible?

Patrilineality in the Bible

Patrilineality is the idea that one’s family membership derives from one’s father, not mother. This idea is prevalent in the Bible, especially Genesis, which describes the period of the patriarchs. Jacob has 12 sons who each fathered new tribes of Israel, but he also has a daughter, Dinah, about whom we do not hear about again after the incident of her rape by the Shechem (Genesis 34). There is no “tribe of Dinah.”

Secondly, the Bible also mostly lists fathers in genealogies, for example in Genesis 5:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.

This is one of the few passages in the OT which talks about the image of God other than Gen. 1:26-27 (the other famous one is Gen. 9:6). Adam, being in the image of God, fathers a son which is similar to him (inheriting both his pious and sinful tendencies). Eve is not mentioned at all. Not a single woman is mentioned in the Genesis 5 genealogies. A few are mentioned in Numbers 26 and 1 Chronicles 1-2, but fathers always define the family line. There is almost no case where a man X has a daughter Y who marries another man Z whose offspring is defined as “belonging” to X instead of Z’s father.

The only exception I can think of is the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, who had no brother (Numbers 27:1-11). There, the daughters appeal to Moses to let them keep their father’s inheritance. The request is granted, and strict laws are stipulated so that a man’s inheritance is always kept within his clan, even if he doesn’t have any sons. But later (Numbers 36:1-11), the daughters are also admonished to only marry men from their father’s clan, so that their inheritance will never be passed on other clans. So even here, patrilineality is assumed!

In the New Testament, patrilineality is seen in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. No women are mentioned in the genealogy of Luke 4. A few famous ones are mentioned in Matthew 1 (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary). But still note there the emphasis on fathers.

One passage which may seem to contradict patrilineality is Genesis 3:15, where the serpent is cursed by God in the Garden of Eden:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Here we have reference to the offspring or seed of Eve, and not just Adam. This seems to confer legitimacy and importance to Eve being an ancestor of humanity and not just Adam.

Patrilineality, Spermism, and Christian Theology

The prevalence of patrilineality may have also been influenced by the widespread ancient belief in spermism, the idea that the father contributes the essential characteristics of their children while the mother only contributes the material. This would support the patriarchal notion that fathers should define a child’s status - whether social, economic, or religious. This view was held by several important figures in Greco-Roman culture, such as Pythagoras and Aristotle, though it was not held uninamously: Empedocles believed that both male and female contributed genetic material to the embryo.

More importantly for our purposes, the influence of spermism can be seen in Augustine’s theory of original sin. Augustine famously held that Romans 5:12 taught that we sinned in Adam. What this meant is that we already existed in Adam’s testicles when he sinned in the Garden of Eden, and so we all shared the guilt, just like Adam’s hand was an instrument of sin in receiving the forbidden fruit from Eve. Augustine’s theory would make more sense if spermism were true, because one would be able to say that all of subsequent humanity - basically, mini-versions of each of us - literally resided in Adam when he sinned. This would give an ontological basis for Adam (but not Eve) being appointed as our federal representative, and also why Paul only talks about Adam in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5:12-21. In the GAE book, this theory of original sin is discussed on p. 196, noting the outdated biology and arguing that Augustine’s theory should be “shelved”.

Now I’m not sure whether the Jews historically believed in spermism, despite the prevalence of patrilineality in the OT and NT. Did they view the father as contributing the essential characteristics, the mother, or both parents? I would be interested to know more if someone has already done research on this. However, we do have the following passage from Hebrews 7:8-10:

In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.

(This refers to the Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20. Levi was one of Abraham’s great-grandchildren.) Now, at surface value, the argument in Hebrews would be less convincing if spermism were false and only parts of Levi’s DNA were in Abraham’s body (as we now know from modern genetics). There is no longer a clear causal connection between Abraham paying the tithe for Levi, because Levi didn’t actually exist at the time when Abraham did so. I suppose one could argue that Abraham paid the tithe for his family, including any future members, regardless of whether they actually existed at the time. But even so, family here would be defined by descent from the father, not mother.

Implications of Patrilineality on the GAE

Where am I going with this? Well, if some biblical authors apparently believed in patrilineality and/or spermism (as the writer of Hebrews seemed to), would that influence how they viewed the significance of genealogies, which mostly listed only fathers? As far as I know, the recent GAE thesis assumes that either parent (father or mother) is allowed to count as an ancestor. So say if Adam and Eve had Cain, who had a daughter X who married someone outside the Garden, then all descendants of X would still be counted as descending from Adam and Eve. But the situation drastically changes if you can only “count” your father. Each person only has one father; genealogy would spread much less rapidly. I’m not sure if anybody has done a calculation using these assumptions. It would be interesting to know.

Throughout the GAE book, Joshua states repeatedly that the Bible talks about genealogy, not genetics. In his exploratory proposal for the propagation of original sin (p. 197), he posits that original sin is spread by our causal connection to God’s act of mercy upon Adam. Now of course, we as modern readers no longer hold to spermism, and even many evangelical Christians would not hold to patriarchal notions like patrilineality. I do not intend to turn this into a complementarian/egalitarian debate.

Still, I do want to bring up a question: isn’t it more accurate to say that when the Bible talks about genealogy, it is mainly concerned about patrilineal genealogy? Even if one believes that patrilineality is no longer important in the New Testament, where there is no longer “male or female” (Gal. 3:28), it is clear that patrilineality is central in the Old Testament genealogies, laws, and patriarchal narratives, which define the identity of the nation of Israel. In contrast, Joshua’s proposal of genealogical connection (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) to Adam and Eve being significant is a distinctly more egalitarian idea. But it seems to me that if you want to downplay the the modern Christian relevance of patrilineality (for example, if patrilineality was just an ancient accommodation to the patriarchal culture of the ANE), you might also have good reason to downplay the relevance of genealogy as well. The two seem to be coupled together.


Good question. I think it is interesting that both matrileneage and patrilineage are considered to be important in the Gospels. It is notable that woman are sometimes noted, of course, but more striking is the decision to include Mary’s genealogy.

Also, Augustine’s conception of Original Sin would have it pass only by patrilineage, and I specifically explain that this would not work, and that this mode of transmission was never cannonized.


Yes, but as you know, that is not the only possible explanation. In fact, on Luke 3:23-38, my ESV study Bible says that “very few commentators defend this solution (that Mary’s genealogy is listed) today, because 1:27 refers to Joseph, not Mary, and taking 3:23 as a reference to Mary’s ancestry requires the unlikely step of inserting Mary into the text where she is not mentioned but Joseph is mentioned.”

To be clear, if genealogical descent is only “valid” if it is patrilineal, that would drastically increase the time to a most recent ancestor, right? In fact it would seem almost identical (mathematically) to the Adam as sole genetic progenitor model.


It seems so. I’d say we would have a coalescent model for the male population.


Yes, but that wouldn’t (at least in the technical language of science) be genealogical descent. It would be patrilineal descent.

Perhaps some fringe groups thinks this is important. What I can say is that Augustines mechanism of transmission, and patrilineal descent specifically, we never canonized.

Such as Y-Adam.

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That is correct, but the biblical points still stand though. The vast majority of genealogical descent that is described in the Bible (especially the OT, where this matters the most) is patrilineal.

You’re right. But this would be another possible example of how the theological and scientific meanings of a term differ, in this case “genealogy”.

Remember that the “case” I’m making here is more of a Devil’s advocate. So I don’t know how important this really is.

It’s true, though, that patrilineality is so important (or pervasive) in the cultural environment of the OT that several Mosaic laws are crafted around it (which I described). Another example is Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10).

That being said, a point against the enduring importance of patrilineality (as opposed to being merely an cultural accommodation) is that when the Israelites are instructed not to intermarry with the Canaanites, that applies to both sons and daughters (Deut. 7:3).


@Marshall, this is quite a claim you have there:

The GAE theory helpfully exposed the anachronism of expecting biblical statements about descent to have something to say about genes. It shifted the discussion from genetics to genealogies. However, as @dga471 recently pointed out, it seems to get stuck in a new anachronism by conflating the genealogies of the Bible with modern “genealogical science”:

Book Reviews: The Genealogical Adam and Eve - Scientific Evidence - The BioLogos Forum

That is not what @dga471 claims and in fact I directly addressed this in the book. Care to explain your reasoning?

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I agree that it’s helpful to recognize that we should not expect the biblical authors to be referring to genes when they speak about descent. In the same vein, we should also not expect their genealogies to be speaking of family trees (tracing mothers and fathers) rather than lines of male descent.



This is a false equivalence.

  1. Biblical authors cannot possibly refer to DNA, but they did have cognitive capacity to refer to genealogical descent. That should be enough to point out the difference.

  2. This is not about the OT alone, but also the NT, and there is good textual evidence that that they cared about both matrilineal and patrilineal descent in the NT (e.g. see Jesus’s genealogy through Mary).

  3. This not merely about Scripture, but also Church tradition, and there is no place I am aware that patrilineal descent from Adam was canonized (though Augustine toyed with it). Recall, that original sin was canonized, but not patrilineal descent was not canonized. That demonstrates they had the ability to conceive of both, and in fact rejected the idea of canonizing patrilineal descent.

It is hard to build a case for universal descent from AE based on the OT alone. One really needs to look at both the OT, NT and Church tradition to understand the teaching of universal descent, not merely Genesis alone.

Now, we can imagine a hypothetical person or tradition that insists on universal patrilineal descent. Can you identify any Church traditions that have this a doctrinal claim? Can you identify any leading creationist group that holds this position? I have not found any one. If you can, I’d love to know who, as it is always good to know the exceptions to the rule.


It strike me that this could give some significance to the Virgin Birth that I had not considered. One value of it is that it makes clear that matrilineal descent was important. Perhaps it would not have been as clear otherwise.

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If Adam’s got to be everybody’s patrilinleal ancestor 6,022 years ago, that’s going to create a big problem reconciling it with Y-chromosome diversity. GA would then no longer be someone who passed on no genes to us.


Totally agree @Joe_Felsenstein. That means Adam would have to be at the date of Y-Adam, or more ancient. So more than 150,000 years ago. Then, also, it raises questions about appearance of common descent if AE were de novo created. So it is a thicket.

However, I am unaware of any one who insists on patrilineal descent from Adam. Even Augustine’s view on this was just speculation.

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Right. They also had the capacity to speak of inheriting something from a father (and not just land and property after he dies). I don’t think genealogical connection alone does justice to what is embedded in inheritance. Lacking the knowledge of genes does not mean they lacked the cognitive capacity to speak of inheriting traits from one’s father.

I agree that Jesus being born of Mary is good evidence they cared about the mother. However, both Matthew and Luke’s genealogies are presented as genealogies through Joseph, and Matthew’s genealogy continues to trace through the men even when it also mentions some women. In both testaments, when they actually did genealogies, they traced through men.

To come at it from another angle, the New Testament authors thought there was something special to being a son of David. Of course, from what we now know of genealogy, practically every son in Israel in that era would descend from David. Would you agree that it’s fair to say the biblical authors would have been as unaware of this as they were of genes?

Can you explain what you mean specifically about how the church “canonized” original sin? Which church, what understanding, etc.? Do you just mean that Romans 5 is within the biblical canon?


That is a good question. Regarding Augustinian transmission, I’ll defer to the historical theologians. Perhaps @jongarvey can give some good references. The key point I’ve seen several people make is that while original sin was considered core to doctrine (in some parts of the church), particularly in response to pelagianism, the precise mechanism of transmission was never insisted to be patrilineal descent.

In the more recent history, I am more familiar with it and cover it in the book. The articulation of monogenesis has always been in the language of “descent” which is met by genealogical descent. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out. Ed Feser and Ken Kemp are examples of Catholics who have made this point before.

Thats true, but that also fits their culture. You can’t actually trace all lineages back. It’s impractical. Some convention is needed and it makes sense that their convention was patrilineal in most cases. Critically, it is not only the patrilineal lines they discuss, that deviation goes against their cultural river and has a strong claim as a teaching of Scripture.

They would have been unaware but the actual prophecy here was not about genealogical descent per se but membership in a tribe, right? So everyone might have descended from David, but not everyone would be from his tribe. That is a consequential difference it seems.

Regardless, the concern is not what Jewish people understood of descent alone, but what becomes the articulation of Church doctrine. That articulation was never insisted to be patrilineal descent from Adam.

Sure, but almost every theologian I know of conflated genetic and genealogical ancestry. Our modern conception also grants too much centrality to genes inheritance. There is work to do by theologians to clarify what it is that theology requires us to inherit from Adam and Eve.

I explained one way to think of it, others have explored other ways. From some theological points of view, such as covenant theology, it seems trivial to make use of it. It seems there are many ways to make it work. You are a theologian, right? Maybe you can add something to the conversation now too.