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Adam: Ancient Sources

by Martin J. Palmer

Adam is portrayed in ancient Jewish and Christian sources as the first human and progenitor of the race. Many apocryphal texts rework the Old Testament Adamic narrative and contain or reflect valuable ancient traditions. Some Latter-day Saints have profitably compared a few of these views with certain concepts about Adam given in Latter-day Saint sources.

In Judaism, Genesis 1- 2 is used as a basis for understanding mankind's relationship to God. Adam's posterity inherited his fallen nature, yet Adam is regarded as the archetypal model for mankind—as indicated in texts that date back at least to Hellenistic times (second century B.C.) and is amplified in medieval Jewish philosophy. Philo, following a Platonic model, saw in the two creation narratives of Genesis a distinction between a heavenly or spiritual man, created first spiritually in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; cf. Moses 3:5), and a second, earthly man, formed out of the dust (Gen. 2:7). Most early Jewish exegetes accepted the historicity of the biblical account, though Genesis 2:8-3:24 was often interpreted allegorically. The Talmud and the Aggadah supplied rich details to the Adamic story, including an impressive description of how all future generations—and their prophets—passed before Adam and were viewed by him (Sanh. 38b; Av. Zar. 5a; Gen. R. 24:2; cf. D&C 107:55-57). Adam was given the Noachian laws (Sanh. 56b) and the law of the Sabbath (Mid. Ps. to 92:6). He was the first man to offer sacrifice (Av. Zar. 8a; cf. Moses 5:5). The medieval cabalists added mystical interpretations as well, although Adam is never identified here as Michael, as in the Latter-day Saint scripture (see D&C 27:11; 107:54; 128:21).

Orthodox Christian theology, articulated during the second century by Irenaeus and others in response to the challenges posed by gnosticism, faithfully saw the Old Testament through the role of Christ. Early Christianity regarded the incarnation and Atonement of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the work begun by Adam. While Adam was the prototype of the old, mortal man, Christ became the prototype of the new man, blessed with the promise of immortality. Jesus became the "second Adam," whose Atonement enabled mankind to overcome the effects of the Fall (1 Cor. 15:22, 45).

The creation story and the Adamic narrative in Genesis were especially important in gnosticism, which interpreted the Fall as the downfall of the divine principle into the material world. This contributed to gnosticism's negative attitude toward the physical creation. Several Gnostic writings deal with Adam. One of these, the Apocalypse of Adam, found at Nag Hammadi, is heavily dependent upon Jewish apocalyptic traditions and contains no explicit Christian doctrines. It purports to be a revelation given to Adam after the Fall by three heavenly messengers, explaining the nature and extent of the Fall and providing the promise of a future Redeemer. This knowledge is then passed by Adam to Seth and his descendants (cf. D&C 107:41-57).

The Life of Adam and Eve is a significant apocryphal work dealing with the life and death of Adam. It was probably written in Palestine between 100 B.C. and A.D. 200. It has been preserved in Greek, Latin, and Slavonic recensions, each considerably different from the others. This work describes Adam's and Eve's repentance after leaving the Garden of Eden at length (cf. Moses 6:50-68). No clear and central doctrine emerges, but the text stresses the ideas of final judgment and resurrection. Other eschatological features are missing. It conveys no hint of the traditional doctrine of original sin. Adam is perfect; Eve, weak but not wicked, deplores her own shortcomings while loving and obeying Adam.

A central feature of the Cave of Treasures, a Syriac work, is its story of a cave where Adam lived and was buried. His body was retrieved by Noah, who took it into the ark and afterward reinterred it on Golgotha. By this account, the redemptive blood of Jesus, also called the "last Adam," shed at the Crucifixion first flowed on the grave of Adam, demonstrating an inexorable link between the Fall of Adam and the Atonement of Christ. Thus, in the Gospel of Bartholomew 1:22, Jesus says to Adam, "I was hung upon the cross for thee and for thy children's sake," and in 2 Enoch 42, Adam in Paradise is brought out "together with the ancestors…so that they may be filled with joy" and eternal riches.

Many ancient texts about Adam exist, notably the Ethiopic Book of Adam and Eve, and the Armenian books of Death of Adam, History of Adam's Expulsion from Paradise, History of Cain and Abel, Adam's Sons, and Concerning the Good Tidings of Seth.

(See Adam: LDS Sources)


Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, pp. 3-142. Philadelphia, 1937.

Johnson, M. D. "The Life of Adam and Eve." In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. Charlesworth, Vol. 2, pp. 249-95. Garden City, N.Y., 1985.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library, 2nd ed. New York, 1989.

Robinson, Stephen E. "The Apocalypse of Adam." BYU Studies 17 (Winter 1977):131-53.

Robinson, Stephen E. "The Book of Adam in Judaism and Early Christianity." In The Man Adam, ed. J. McConkie and R. Millet, pp. 131-50, listing titles of many ancient works. Salt Lake City, 1990.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Adam, Ancient Sources

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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