At the THINK Conference last week Tom Wright made the interesting observation that Judaism shows very little interest in Adam and his original sin until after the destruction of the temple. With slightly different emphases the apocalyptic texts 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, written around AD 100, both make frequent reference to Adam as the source of the world’s and Israel’s problems. 2 Baruch is especially concerned with the sin of the nations:
O Adam, what did you do to all who were born after you? And what will be said of the first Eve who obeyed the serpent, so that this whole multitude is going to corruption?
The writer of 4 Ezra, however, reflects on the connection between Israel’s failure and the sin of Adam. Because the people of the earth were ungodly and unrighteous, God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him, promising that he would never forsake his descendants. He brought Abraham’s family from Egypt and gave them the Law at Sinai, but he did not deal with the root of the problem:
Yet you did not take away from them their evil heart, so that the Law might bring forth fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained. (4 Ezra 3:20-22)
The writers of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, however, were not the first Jews to consider the eschatological significance of Adam’s sin.
Hosea calls rebellious Israel to return to the Lord in order to be healed of its sickness and be raised up on the third day. But Israel’s love for God is fickle, so it is rebuked by the prophets and God’s “judgment goes forth as the light”. This is the context for the reference to Adam:
But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. (Hos. 6:7)
Then, of course, we have Paul and his argument about Adam and Christ in Romans 5:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Rom. 5:18)
If we read Paul, the Jewish apocalypticist, in the light of the other texts, there are a couple of general points that could be made regarding the significance of Adam for his thought.
First, I would suggest that for Paul, as for Hosea and the post-AD 70 Jewish apocalypticists, Adam becomes important specifically because Israel has transgressed the covenant and must face the consequences. Yes, all humanity shares in the sin and condemnation of Adam and must accept death as a consequence. That existential reality is in the background. But the central argument in Romans has to do not with the sin of humanity but with the failure of Israel to keep the commandments. Much of the Letter reflects the lengthy, recurrent disputes with the Jews that characterized Paul’s apostolic mission.
The reason for the failure was sin, and sin can be traced back to Adam. As 4 Ezra puts it: God gave his people the Law but he did not take from them the “evil heart” which they inherited from Adam. So the Jews were no less “under sin” than the Greeks (Rom. 3:9-18), and as a consequence Israel faced the “final” judgment determined by the Law. This then raised the theological question of how God would be justified, how he would show himself to be righteous, faithful to the covenant—and as we know, how the rightness of Israel’s God was to be revealed is exactly what Romans is about (cf. Rom. 1:17).
Secondly, if first century Judaism became interested in the original sin of Adam in response to the catastrophe of AD 70, should we not suppose that Paul’s thinking ran along similar lines—only prophetically rather than retrospectively? Wright thinks that it was Paul’s understanding of the cross which impelled him to construct the Adam argument of Romans 5:12-21. I would suggest, rather, that it was the same prospect of destruction (cf. Rom. 9:22) that led him, first, to reflect on Israel’s bondage to sin in the light of Adam’s primal disobedience, and then to discover such abundance of life for Israel—a future for the people of God—in Christ’s singular act of obedience.
In other words, I suggest that Paul’s recourse to an Adam-grounded soteriology is evidence that he expected wrath against the Jew to be manifested in concrete historical form, rather than as a final, absolute judgment at the end of history.
He reached the same conclusion before the event that the authors of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch would reach after the event: that the judgment of AD 70 brought sharply into focus the problem of human sin—for the world, but more significantly for the family of Abraham. The difference was that he believed that God had provided in Christ a solution to the problem, a means apart from the Law by which his people might experience the life of the age to come—and by which God himself would be shown to be in the right (cf. Rom. 3:21-22).