What’s the Problem with Adam?

Michael Bird has put up a nice post about Rom 7, and I agree with much of what he says: the rhetorical “I” is a speech-in-character reflecting the pre-Christian’s plight under the law, understood retrospectively and for the first time ever, from the vantage point of faith. It’s a hindsight perspective, in other words. Paul’s actual experience under the law was positive. How often does Philip 3:4b-6 need mentioning after Stendahl?

But who exactly is the speech-in-character? Who is “I” in Rom 7:7-25? Is it no one in particular, Israel, Adam, or a Medea-like character out of Greco-Roman literature? Michael opts for Israel, while I say it’s clearly the last two (Adam and Medea). Let’s procede through Michael’s post and see why.

Michael begins with the preliminary point:

What was the purpose of the giving of the law in the first place? In Romans 7, Paul sets out to answer this objection where he defends the giving of the law in redemptive-history.

It’s worth noting that Paul took a crack at this question earlier in Gal 3:19-26, and with a different result. There he argued that God gave the law to consign people to sin so that they might subsequently be saved on the basis of faith. The law was an active agent confining people to sin so that they could be redeemed on another basis. But in Rom 7 the law is passive in its relationship to sin. God now gives the law “unto life” (Rom 7:10), but his purpose is foiled by the power of sin. Sin consigns people to sin, against the will of God — but again demanding the solution of faith.

In other words, Rom 7 is essentially about Paul exonerating God from perversity (though at the expense of his sovereignty), in order to assure the Jewish faction in Rome that the Torah is holy, and that God always acted for the good in dealing with Israel. This is the most important preliminary point to be made about Rom 7.

For it forces the original question even more: who does the “I” represent in Rom 7:7-25? If Paul is really talking about the law’s purpose in salvation history — as opposed to an individual’s plight under it — then who illustrates the imposed plight and why?

Michael answers:

[Rom 7] cannot refer to the pre-Christian Paul since we find no evidence that Paul was tormented by the gravity of his sin and anguished over his inability to find a gracious God. The pre-Christian Paul knew that atonement was available through the sacrificial system in the temple and, at any rate, in the letter to the Philippians he apparently regarded himself as ‘blameless’ not guilt stricken (Phil. 3.6).

Agreed. Paul was no Lutheran, Puritan, existentialist, or whatever kind of anguished soul-searcher we like to suppose.

Paul is not talking about post-conversion Christians in this section since the statement ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22).


Paul is not talking about Adam since Paul finished talking about Adam in Rom. 5.12-21 and it is hard to think of Adam as being under the Mosaic law… Paul is speaking in the first person as ‘Israel’.

This baffles me. Paul is definitely talking about Adam in Rom 7:7-13, for Rom 5-8 is a unified argument. That Adam wasn’t under the Torah is no obstacle here. Paul’s point is that Israel’s sin under the Torah replicates Adam’s disobedience under the Edenic commandment. Look at all the parallels:

(a) Adam, “alive” and newly created, is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9 ~ Rom 7:9) and (b) “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17 ~ Rom 7:8-12), whereafter (c) the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5 ~ Rom 7:8) and (d) Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13 ~ Rom 7:11). God then (e) kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23 ~ Rom 7:11).

Rom 7:7-13 is saturated with the Genesis story and is a clear argument to the Jewish faction in Rome: Jewish behavior under the law replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the primal commandment in Eden, and thus sin continues to foil God’s purpose, demanding a solution to salvation apart from the law. In effect, Paul refers to himself (“I”) on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication (“those who know the law”, Rom 7:1), but he’s really referring to Adam/Eve. His argument is exegetical, saying in effect that the Jewish plight under the law traces back to the horror of the fall.

In the next half of his argument, however, Paul draws on the common moral dilemma found in Greco-Roman literature and speaks, for the moment, as a pagan. Thomas Tobin (Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, pp 232-235) notes the following comparisons to Rom 7:14-25, especially Medea:

“I am conquered by evils. And I understand the deeds I am about to do are evil. But anger is greater than my resolves — anger, the cause for mortals of the greatest evils.” (Euripides, Medea 1077b-1080)

“But some strange power draws me against my will, and desire persuades me one way, and my mind another. I see the better and approve, but I follow the worse.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7:19-21)

Paul has assumed the role of a Medea-like character in order to portray Jewish behavior under the law as conforming to the dilemma often found in the Hellenized world — again illustrating how useless the law has been against the power of sin. Again he refers to himself (“I”) on the surface, and thus to other Jews by implication (“those who know the law”, Rom 7:1), but he’s really invoking an argument foreign to Jews who easily counted on the grace of God no matter how often they sinned.

And that is precisely the point. The Edenic commandment and pagan plight are invoked as analogies to drive home the hindsight perspective Paul is aiming for. Adam and Medea work wonders where Israel (as Michael supposes) can’t possibly carry any punch, because Israel never really had a problem under the law (as Philip 3:4b-6 makes clear). Israel has a problem only in hindsight, and that hindsight can be appreciated only by calling on examples where the problem is real and acute.

One thought on “What’s the Problem with Adam?

  1. The way I’d put it is that the ‘I’ is Adam, and Israel, and those who are ‘in’ either or both (to use Paul’s language). The point, as I understand it, is that there was pre-existing evil (the serpent in the garden, the problem of our Adamic heritage even in Israel) which derailed the good commandment (about the fruit, or at Sinai) leading to life, and led it instead to bring judgment.Paul’s point, in other words, is that the Law doesn’t solve the problem of sin for Israel because Israel is ‘in Adam’.

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