Adam and Eve's Race

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I've been reading J. Daniel Hays, From every People and Nation: A biblical theology of race. I'm really enjoying it so far. Occasionally something puzzles me a little. Consider the following passage:

The Bible does not begin with the creation of a special race of people. When the first human is introduced into the story, he was called adam [special characters removed because I have no idea how to do them], which means 'humankind'. As mentioned in Chapter 2, Adam and Eve are not Hebrews or Egyptians or Canaanites. It is incorrect for the White church to view them as White or for the Black church to view them as Black. Their 'race' is not identifiable; they are neither Negroid nor Caucasian, nor even Semitic. They become the mother and father of all peoples. The division of humankind into peoples and races is not even mentioned until Genesis 10. Adam and Eve, as well as Noah, is non-ethnic and non-national. They represent all people and not some people. [Hays, pp.48-49]

After the word 'Semitic', he places a footnote number, which leads to the following footnote:

[W.D.] McKissic [in Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible, 1990] disagrees, raising the issue of genetics, both for Adam and Eve and for Noah and his wife. The genetic pattern for all the races of humankind, argues McKissic, had to be present in both these sets of people. Thus they had to carry the genetic pattern for the Negroid race. If they carried these genes then one of them at least, according to McKissic, would have had Negroid features.

I'm not sure there's any real disagreement here, though, at least in substance. Hays seems to be thinking of race as some later subdivision of people, and of course Adam and Eve couldn't be of any race if it necessarily involves that. McKissic, on the other hand, is thinking of race in a very different way. If at one point you had two people who became the ancestors of every human being, including those who would be parts of pretty diverse races, then you must have had the genetic material necessary for those races to exist later. One thing McKissic doesn't take into account, at least in this quote (although I think he might in the book; it's been many years since I read his book, and I don't have it in front of me at the moment) is that mutations can explain changes in skin color, hair type, and so on. It doesn't have to stem from just genetic information present in the ancestors.

I seem to remember McKissic making the argument that darker skin color genes tend to be dominant, which means at least one of the ancestor-pair would have to be black. Using the term this way clearly does not indicate species sub-division into races, as Hays seems to be treating it. All it means is that we in our day have identified various characteristics that we associate with various races. Someone is identified as being in a certain race according to such characteristics. An earlier ancestor with those characteristics would rightly, as the English words are now used, be called black or white (or whatever) according to the criteria we now use to assign such terms. So if Adam, say, looked enough like the typical African or black American today that were he seen today he'd be so classified, then he was black by the meaning of the current term. That, as far as I can tell, is what McKissic means. He's simply talking about something different from what Hays is talking about.

Now there's actually been a DNA discovery since McKissic's book (and since Hays's book, for that matter) that shows that light skin color is a mutation and that the ancestors of white people were black by the current definition (as McKissic is using the term), so I think his view is pretty much scientifically confirmed at this point. Hays doesn't want to acknowledge that as Adam and Eve belonging to the black race, because his notion of race is defined as a sub-division that later occurs. But racialized terms aren't always used that way, as the meaningfulness of McKissic's claim shows. I think it's perfectly ok (at least linguistically) to say that Adam and Eve were black. It doesn't seem to me to involve any misuse of the terms involved. If this is right, then it has an interesting consequence for those who claim race terms involve an ancestry component. It doesn't remove an ancestry component, but it does allow someone with no ancestry (or no human ancestry, depending on how you view Adam and Eve) to have a race under one important concept of what it is to be a member of a race.

5 Comments

I've read through this now a couple times, and I'm trying to see if there's a different way to view Hays' comments. But, I think you're right, there really isn't a substantial disagreement.

But, while I'm here, I'll ask if you've heard Thabiti Anyabwile's sermon on race (well, he discusses race) from the Together for the Gospel Conference. The free audio link is here: http://t4g.org/08/media/

I haven't heard the sermon, but I've read what he has to say in his blog posts and commented here.

I really enjoyed this blog, the name caught my attention.

In christ
Munoz

womancandidatemaster.blogspot.com

How come all these races have occured in 6000 years from Adam and Eve. As per bible's number of generations between Adam to Jesus and 2000 years from Jesus should have created these many races and colours.

Verghese, I don't know if you mean this as a serious question, but I'll assume you do. It's not entirely clear what the numbers refer to in Genesis. There are several possibilities, and it's possible several of them are at work at different times.

One issue is that the geneaologies often use the names of people-groups and may not be referring to individuals. If you compare the lists with other lists, it becomes clear that some of the lists have gaps, so there's no way to know just from the numbers given if we're being given a complete list. At times there's a clear theological reason for presenting the information in the way it is. For example, Matthew has (if I remember correctly) 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and 14 from the exile to Jesus. Comparisons with other genealogies make it clear that generations are skipped, perhaps more generations than are included, and that was presumably accepted practice in Hebrew ancient near eastern genealogies.

Another issue is whether the years given for the ancient patriarchs really mean years the way we measure years. There are other occurrences of large numbers in the Hebrew scriptures that are hard to make sense of. Some people think the word for "thousand" can often mean a fairly large unit that's less than what we call a thousand but can sometimes mean an actual thousand. I think the same is true of the word for "hundred". For all I know, there's some other mathematical system lying behind some of the puzzling numbers. It's possible that whatever lies behind that issue also explains the high ages given for these ancient figures. If so, then we can't use the figures with the assumption that it's the same counting method we have.

So there are plenty of possible explanations of the biblical data that affirm both (1) that the Earth is as old as contemporary science says it is, and humans have been around a lot longer than 6000 years and (2) that the events recorded in Genesis actually happened with real people.

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