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A literal — and figurative — understanding of Adam

Early Mormon theology about the divine origin and destiny of Adam may have been an affront to contemporary Protestants, who revered such ambiguities as hallowed mysteries, but such candid new doctrine — like Adam's spirit existing before coming to earth — eventually encouraged Latter-day Saints to view Adam's roll as both a literal and figurative one.

The story of Adam and his and Eve's famed transgression have long been an important narrative for most of the world's largest religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

The account had influenced art, and therefore society, long before Michelangelo painted Adam and Eve on Sistine's ceiling. Eve's traditionally perceived role as a sinful temptress has been wielded by men to sustain anti-feminist traditions and ritually justify the creation of purely sociological male hierarchies throughout much of religious and political history.

Indeed, the story is an old one — the oldest, in fact. And, just like the fate of most ancient stories, it has gradually slipped further into a sort of legendary status with each new generation who hears it. The next generation is always more scientific and practical than the last.

Although Catholics have forever maintained a strong literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, many have doubted the couple's story as a literal one, and by the 19th century it had become a progressive and popular notion to reduce the two figures to a fable graded morality lesson.

In fact by 1909, a few decades after Darwinism had shaken hairline cracks into the faith of may Christian Old Testament literalists, the New York Times headlined news that "figurative belief in the story of the Garden of Eden now satisfies Presbytery." After shedding tears of concern, ministers of the large New York church gathered and eventually voted to accept a group of freshman clergy, whom, during an interview, said Adam and Eve's story is only figurative. One of the candidates, a recent seminary graduate, also reportedly admitted to the elder clergy that he had trouble believing the literal "flesh" resurrection of Christ, too.

While the Adam and Eve story had been crumbling from history to poetry status in the hearts of much of the world for centuries, Joseph Smith came along and shocked everyone. He didn't necessarily surprise anyone by declaring its literalism; many had stated the same before. But Joseph did more, much more. He verified the story's place in our timeline by essentially revealing Adam's back story — in great detail.

What Latter-day Saint could be confused that Adam was possibly written in the bible as a theatrical analogy, a composite person, made up to explain or represent an era of human evolution, if he is also Michael the archangel? Such specificity was unknown to contemporary Christianity.

But — enter paradox! — it's through this literal understanding of Adam and Eve that early Mormons were finally able to view our original parents as clearer figurative figures, too, according to Jacob Rennaker, a Hebrew Bible student at Claremont Graduate University.

Rennaker had fellow colleague Blair Hodges read his scholarly paper at the annual Mormon Scholars Foundation Summer Seminar, hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, last week while he attended an archeological dig in Israel.

Nine other Latter-day Saint collegians from all over the United States also presented subjects on early Mormon theology, primarily from the years between 1830 to 1850.

Adam was "viewed figuratively in very unique ways that ultimately served as a means for early Mormons to understand the nature of God and the human," Rennaker said.

Rennaker focused on several specific theological teachings that brought Mormons closer to not only understanding the epic events in the Garden, but understanding themselves and their destiny.

First, Joseph taught Adam's spirit existed long before he was given a body in the Garden of Eden.

"Joseph Smith's literal interpretation of Genesis 2:7 ('God made man & put into it Adam's spirit') required an antecedent for Adam's physical existence," Rennaker said.

Suddenly, mortality wasn't the beginning anymore. Latter-day Saints could start thinking in more eternal terms, knowing their spirits existed long before residing in their mortal "tabernacle of clay."

Second, Adam was identified with specificity, as Michael, a heroic Old Testament figure who was traditionally known to go before and command God's army. Besides his patriarchal role in presiding over mortal men, Revelations makes it clear in Chapter 12 that Michael (Adam), during the "war in heaven … fought against the dragon (Lucifer)."

"As such, Adam became a hero even before his earthly sojourn," Rennaker said.

Latter-day Saints learned of their valiant past, as they were told they fought alongside Adam while the devil "prevailed not."

Third, "Adam was seen as being so significant in that pre-mortal realm, in fact, that he was described by Joseph Smith as holding a position of priesthood authority prior to his mortal existence on earth," Rennaker said.

It was also taught Adam assisted in creating the world, and thus he used priesthood power.

This correlates with Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon. It teaches premortal men were foreordained for priesthood powers/positions.

Fourth, "Adam was seen by early Mormons as having spoken a very particular language," Rennaker said, which "served to further legitimize Adam as a historical figure who was familiar with a particular theological outlook concerning the nature of God and humanity."

Fifth, the physical creation of Adam was interpreted in a hyper-literal sense.

"Genesis 1:26 records God as saying, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,'" Rennaker said. "A literal reading of this passage resulted in a radical anthropomorphism. Joseph Smith was reported as saying, 'God himself … is a man like unto one of yourselves … If you were to see him today you (would) see him a man for Adam was a man like in fashion & image like unto him.'"

Although Joseph's interpretation of the Godhead gave Latter-day Saints a clearer, more intimate view of God, it rocked both Catholic and Protestant contemporary Christians who were traditional Trinitarians.

It was all of these particular teachings, and a few more, that led Rennaker to suggest Mormons could better be figurists because they were taught to be such stalwart literalists.

"This trend of extreme scriptural literalism and historical expansion was paradoxically augmented in early Mormonism by figurative interpretations of Adam," Rennaker said. "… This extreme literalism allowed early Mormons (to experience) figurative views of Adam in a way that went beyond the figurative readings of Adam among other Christians."