In order to show how justification “works,” Paul alludes to Genesis 3, Adam’s rebellion against God in the Garden. Genesis 3 indicates the penalty for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is death, and Genesis 5 demonstrates that result since all of Adam’s descendants die. This is the only genealogy which includes the phrase “and then he died.”
Sometimes there are discussions of whether Paul was referring to Adam him as a name or the first human. In verse 12 he uses the word for man, in verse 14 he uses the proper name. The current discussion of a “historical Adam in the “misses the point that for Paul Adam existed. He completely accepts the story of genesis 2-3 and would not consider anything other than a real Adam.
Does death come to all because all people sin (or personal, actual sins)? Or do all people die because of Adam’s sin? How is Adam’s sin passed along to his descendants? The difficulty with Romans 5:12 is the meaning of the phrase ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. How should the preposition ἐφʼ be translated in this context? Fitzmyer has eleven possibilities, Longenecker reduces this to four viable options (Fiztmyer, Romans, 413-17; Longenecker, Romans, 587-8):
- “In whom,” referring Adam.
- “On the basis of which,” referring to sin. The NIV 2011 seems to follow this option, “and in this way death came…”
- “Because of this,” equivalent to a causal conjunction.
- “For this reason” or “so that,” equivalent to a consecutive conjunction, this seems to be what the ESV has done, “so that death spread…” In addition, by translating the verb “spread” the ESV gives the impression sin is like an epidemic spreading throughout the human race.
As a result of Adam’s rebellion, “death spread to all men.” The verb διέρχομαι can refer to crossing through a territory or moving toward a destination. Occasionally it can refer to passing through something like a sword (Luke 2:35). Longenecker points out the word “death” in 5:12 has an article. Paul is personifying death as a malevolent enemy of humanity (Longenecker, Romans, 587). Adam’s rebellion against God unleashed a powerful enemy into the world, one that will overcome all humans.
Paul’s view of the effect of sin on humanity differs from some other voices in Second Temple texts. Sirach 25:24 shifts the blame from Adam to Eve: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” Notice the title of this post refers to one man, Adam. For Paul in Romans 5, only Adam is responsible for sin. 2 Baruch 54:15, for example, connects Adam’s sin and the death of all of his descendants. Yet a few lines later, the writer says Adam is not the cause of our sin, because each person becomes “their own Adam.”
2 Baruch 54:15 For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. And further, each of them has chosen for himself the coming glory.
2 Baruch 54:15 Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam.
Paul’s claim is therefore that all humans somehow participate in the sin of Adam and are therefore destined to die. He does not build a theological statement compatible with later, post-Reformation theology. As a Jewish thinker, Paul understands that all people participated in the sin of Adam without working out the details of the doctrine of imputation.
For Paul, those who are “in Adam” die; those who are “in Christ” will live. All people are “in Adam” by default. The problem is how one becomes “in Christ.”