neanderthal bible

February 6, 2020

Who Is Included in Biblical Man?

Dominican scholar Simon Gaine explored whether non-Homo sapiens hominids were part of the family of Adam, and thus existed in the image of God and were human beings along with Homo sapiens in need of salvation at the Dominican House of Studies in the Thomistic Institute’s annual lecture in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas on January 30. In particular, he attempted to consider whether a very recent hominid, the Neanderthals, is to be regarded as part of Biblical man from a Thomistic viewpoint and in light of existing scientific evidence. Since human origins are crucial to the defense of the Christian faith, which has been under intense intellectual attack for more than 200 years, this issue must concern all committed Christians.

Gaine recounted that the first bones of Neanderthals were discovered by miners in Germany in 1856. They believed the bones to be of a bear. A university professor disagreed, holding that they were the bones of an early human species. While similar to modern human beings, the bones showed a body build which was different, with similarities to non-human primates. Later in the 1870s, a pathologist proposed that the Neanderthal bones were only the bones of a deformed human being. By the early twentieth century, “further remains were found,” and scientists believed that the bones indeed represented a previously unknown human species. It was “Neanderthal man.” But was this species also Biblical man, made in the image of God?

Gaine observed that the various finds of Neanderthal bones are dated from 430,000 years old to 40,000 years old. While they were centered in Europe, and Homo sapiens first appears in Africa, sapiens bones dated later also appear in Europe and Asia, so that for “thousands of years, Neanderthals and sapiens lived in proximity to one another.” There continues to be a lack of clarity about how they related to one another, nor is there any scientific consensus about the mental capacities of Neanderthals. Gaine said he does not claim scientific expertise, but does try to understand the theological implications of conventional science concerning hominid remains. Specifically, he asked the question “did Christ die for the Neanderthals?”

One point that is certain from theology, Gaine said, is that the worth of Christ’s sacrifice, being infinite, would certainly atone for wrongdoing by any creature. Attempting to understand the issue from a Thomist perspective, he contrasted the sin of angels with the sin of men. Christ’s death does not atone for the sin of angels; their sin, according to Aquinas, being that of entirely immaterial beings, is “unchangeable.” Gaine said that this is because Aquinas “associated immateriality with intellectual power,” and thus the angels “had very powerful intellects.” So powerful that any decision “for or against God” so affected their being that their orientation toward or against God was “unchangeable.” Because humans are “bodily material beings … our basic direction can be changed, albeit only through divine grace.” Thus Aquinas thought Christ could reasonably die for men, but not angels. But Neanderthals were bodily creatures, and so Gaine believes Christ might reasonably have died for them from a Thomist perspective, if they were rational creatures possessing the image of God.

Another related issue is the fact that the Son of God was incarnate as a Homo sapiens individual. While until the 1980s, evolutionary biologists believed that Neanderthals, along with other “archaic human species” contributed substantially in the evolution of Homo sapiens, as genetics has become more important in studies of human origins, it is now thought that all Homo sapiens populations in the world have resulted from the original African population, with only a few percent ancestry from Neanderthals. The famous “mitochondrial Eve” was from the African population, since the branches of the humanity’s genetic tree that “branch off most deeply” from her mitochondrial DNA are found in Africa. So she evidently was not a Neanderthal.

All this shows, Gaine observed, that Neanderthals were not the “parent species of European sapiens or any other sapiens.” It is thought by evolutionary scientists that both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals “descended from some earlier archaic population.” Since sapiens populations in Europe and Asia have about 2% Neanderthal DNA, it is reasonable to think that that is what Jesus received from his mother, so that roughly 1% of his nuclear (as opposed to his mitochondrial) DNA would have been of Neanderthal origin. His miraculous conception of course must make his full genetic makeup a mystery. Gaine does believe, however, “that we should conclude that when the Word became flesh, the Word became Neanderthal.”

Gaine noted in this connection that while there is some debate about “how to define a species,” it is commonly thought that “compatibility for breeding is a key criterion.” And interbreeding there certainly was. Gaine questioned whether this meant Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were two species, or a single species, but provided no answer to this question in terms of biology. But he did endeavor to provide an answer to who is in the image of God from a theological standpoint.

Since conventional science now believes from its assessment of genetic evidence that the Homo sapiens population was never less than a few thousand, Gaine said some theologians have asked if this requires a change in the doctrine of original sin, which is rooted in the sin of a single couple from which all humanity is descended. Aquinas believed that humanity descended from a single couple. Pope Pius XII held that original sin cannot easily be reconciled with a larger population, and the origin of sin in a single couple is required by faith.

It is critical, Gaine said, to distinguish “between the human species defined in biological terms, and the human species viewed in theological terms.” What makes the difference is the “presence of an immortal soul, making us human without qualification.” He said that “it is by way of this soul, which enables acts of higher knowledge and love and potentially acts knowing and loving God, that human beings are in the image of God.” This seems to be his answer as to what distinguishes those animals made in the image of God from those which are not.

It was additionally proposed that if “there was one original couple that was theologically human, but had a wider population with which they could procreate … we can conclude that the image of God would have spread throughout the population within generations, and all biological humans would eventually be theological humans too.” This means that “early theological human beings bred with non-theological human beings.”

According to Aquinas, we know of the presence of the image of God by what creatures do. We judge the image of God to be present where a being can abstract intellectual knowledge from material conditions. “Our knowledge is not just of particulars, but is universal.” The ability to abstract is necessary for theological concepts, scientific knowledge and the common sense of ordinary life.

Gaine said that Aquinas held a high view of the capabilities of non-rational animals, and would not have been surprised by the sophistication of the Neanderthals. Much of this animal capacity is “taken up” into human nature, from the fact that human beings are indeed animals, albeit rational animals. High capability, such as toolmaking, does not indicate a rational soul, Gaine seemed to say, but reflective ability on existence, such as burial of the dead, should be seriously considered as an indicator of rationality. Other suggested indicators were apparent sacred shrines, such as stone circles, or “care for the sick and elderly.” The best evidence, Gaine said, is language. It is language ability which clearly shows the ability to abstract ideas from reality, and “to form potentially an infinity of different of sentences.” No other animal than human beings has such ability, but when it appears is “lost to the limitations of the archeological record.” The earliest writing of any kind appeared about 8,000 years ago; language ability itself presumably much before that.

The fact that cultural capacity is found in Homo sapiens throughout the world far back into pre-history has suggested to some scholars that linguistic ability existed before the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa. Gaine observed that cave paintings in Spain were discovered in 2018 dating from before 60,000 years ago – before the time Homo sapiens are known to have existed in Europe. Thus, it is assumed they are the work of Neanderthals. Evidence for clothing and jewelry produced in Europe at this time and earlier suggests symbolic capacity, Gaine said.

It was asked how, if Neanderthals were truly human, made in the image of God, and thus objects of Christ’s atonement, “grace was made available to them.” Gaine believes “that salvation through Christ was effected in the kind of life Neanderthals led.” This writer would comment, however, that however possible Neanderthal humanity is understood Thomistically, the Bible surely requires faith in God for salvation, as it did for all persons who lived before Christ, Abraham being the prime example. If the Neanderthals had no concept of a righteous and supreme personal being in whom they trusted, and in consequence of saving grace, obeyed, they were not included in salvation, though they might have spoken some language.

But theology must take account of the possible humanity of Neanderthals “for apologetic reasons,” Gaine said, to ensure that faith and reason are not in conflict, but synthesized in a rational theology. This was the project of Aquinas, Gaine said, who was “confident that all truth comes from God.”

It is obvious that the true issue is original sin. It is from this doctrine that the need for salvation arises. Without it salvation is simply salvation from suffering, and not particularly a Christian doctrine. Most people think alleviating suffering or seeking a better world is a good thing. The rejection of original sin by Jean Jacques Rousseau can easily be cast as the commencement of the secular leftist thought of our day. Indeed acceptance or rejection of original sin can be seen as the heart of the cultural conflict of our day. Acceptance of the doctrine means an obvious need for salvation in the traditional sense of salvation from the wrath of God. Rejection of the doctrine leaves gospel proclamation pointless (other than merely exhorting for a better world, however one chooses to define such a world).

Recent decades have seen a roller coaster of turns with respect to the historicity of Adam and Eve. The discoveries of the mitochondrial Eve in the 1980s, and the Y chromosomal Adam in the 1990s were surprising and did not seem congruent with the picture paleontology has offered of human pre-history, although conventional science was always careful to point out it had no reason to think they were the Biblical Adam and Eve. This writer, from his layman’s viewpoint, has always found it difficult to understand how genetic evidence can point to just one individual at the head of humanity’s paternal and maternal lines, but has been happy to entertain the possibility that they might be the Biblical Adam and Eve. I do think that the judgment that later genetic evidence of pre-historic human population size speaks against their being Biblical Adam and Eve is premature, given such scientific revolutions as plate tectonics or the Big Bang.

But Christians must not allow our faith to be based on possible scientific developments, but on a God who has revealed himself in Scripture, and who asks us to love him with mind as well as heart and soul. This faith is given to us as a gift, and tells of the repeated rebellion of humanity, and then God’s people, Israel, starting from the very first human story in Genesis, and of God’s repeated judgments and deliverances of the penitent. If there were Neanderthals that were human, then they, like us, share in the sin of our first parents, and were saved by faith.


19 Responses to Who Is Included in Biblical Man?

  1. Mike says:

    Not sure I follow the reasoning in this article. I came to the conclusion a long time ago, as Abraham Lincoln so well expressed it, that I find it easier to believe that the Bible is what it says it is than that it is not what it says it is. In other words, since the Bible claims that Eve was the mother of all men, and that we all inherited a sin nation from Adam, there can be no human beings who are not descended from them. There are no missing links.

  2. MCW says:

    But Christians must not allow our faith to be based on possible scientific developments, but on a God who has revealed himself in Scripture, and who asks us to love him with mind as well as heart and soul. This faith is given to us as a gift, and tells of the repeated rebellion of humanity, and then God’s people, Israel, starting from the very first human story in Genesis, and of God’s repeated judgments and deliverances of the penitent

    Just this! No need for the rest of this speculative article.

  3. td says:

    Hmmm. I guess theologians concern themselves with this sort of esoteric discussion. For practical theology, i am not convinced it matters one bit because the neanderthals are extinct. Unless, of course, someone subscribes to the notion that any remnant “neanderthal dna” makes someone not part of biblical man. And that line of thinking gets a person pretty close to saying that the dna which produces skin pigmentation could disqualify you from the human family just as easily.

  4. David says:

    John Wesley and other Protestants also rejected original sin, and that was hardly a leftist takeover. “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk)…”—UMC Book of Discipline

    There misunderstanding of genetic “Adam and Eve” as there were almost certainly other lines of humans that died out over the years. These are merely figures of speech in science and not taken literally. By the way, if early man was in God’s image, then God looks rather ape-like unless he evolved too.

    • Mike says:

      “By the way, if early man was in God’s image, then God looks rather ape-like unless he evolved too.”

      When the Bible refers to man being made in God’s image, it is not referring to physical characteristics-after all, God is spirit. It is not coincidence that the Ten Commandments included a prohibition against making any sort of graven image to represent God.

      Man was made in God’s image in the sense that he had the capability to worship, and had also the characteristic of free will and the ability to determine his own course of action, as opposed to the animals who pretty much act on instinct.

      • td says:

        Of course the glaring thing of this is that Jesus existed from the beginning and fully both God and man. So in many respects, yes, man is physically created in God’s image.

      • David says:

        Well, we are told in Exodus 33 that God has a face, backside, and hands. Adam and Eve walked with God, so presumably he has legs and the usual body parts.
        21 “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes that place, I will put you in a large ·crack in the rock and ·cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will ·take away my hand, and you will see my back. But my face must not be seen.”

    • carr says:

      John Wesley absolutely did believe in original sin. His theology and ministry is based on that fact. You may have misread the Articles of the Church of England/ UMC Discipline. That sentence goes on to say, “…but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is ingendered in the offspring of Adam….” Pelagius believed that though Adam had set a bad example, men were born morally neutral and could do good or evil depending on the influences that most worked on them. Orthodox Protestants believe that as a result of the Fall, humanity is faulty through and through. All humanity, including so-called neanderthals, are (post-fall) marked with an inescapable error code that can not be overwritten except through the personal acceptance of Christ’s redemptive work.

    • Jason King says:

      That is incorrect; John Wesley definitely did believe in “original sin”, as he clearly states in his sermon entitled Original Sin:
      “Know your disease, know your cure: Ye were born in sin: therefore, ye must be born again, born of God. By nature, ye are wholly corrupted. By grace ye shall be wholly renewed. In Adam ye all died: In the second Adam, Christ, ye all are made alive. You that were dead in sins hath he quickened.”

  5. Slalom5 says:

    One blaring biblical exception – the mark of Cain (Neanderthals)- could be entertained as a explanation. Died out in the flood early on, dna passed on in Genesis 6 :1-4.

  6. George Brown says:

    Wow! Isn’t it interesting that SO much thought and discussion can be put into such unknowable things as this? It seems to me a bit like contemplating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Wouldn’t it be much better to wrestle with Christian persecution, enslavement and murder in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Or how about the question of why Jesus focused so much on casting demons out of people our theologians and seminaries can’t do it or teach it? A friend recently noted that Christians are tasked by Christ to follow His example, to go and do what He did until He returns.

    However interesting such questions are, does time & effort spent on on them count.

  7. Scott Sizer says:

    Neanderthals are only one of a number of extinct humanoid species that have been discovered, some fairly recently, such as the small men in the Indonesian Archipelago. Tricky, but very interesting question. Personally I would err on the side of inclusion as to which species get “saved.”

  8. Linda says:

    We are all (all human beings, that is) descended from Adam and Eve, and that includes Neanderthals. Neanderthals are not “hominids.” They were men who lived in a certain environment after the Flood. That’s it.

  9. MYron Heavin says:

    The first Homo sapiens, modern people, did come from Africa, at least 10),000 years ago. This is described in Genesis 1. Genesis 2 – 5 describes Adam and Eve, and hiw they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, about 6000 to 8000 years ago. They appear to be the first humans to have recognized right from wrong. One should not firget scripture clearly traces their genealogy in 3 separate places, the latest being in Luke 1. One cannot be a believer in a literal bible and la am and Eve at any other time than 6000 to 8000 ago. This main point is they ate of the tree of good and evil, and knew god. This event separates them from earlier humans. When you know right from wrong, and do wrong, you are then condemned. Knowledge if right from wrong also make civilization possible. In the 7th generation from Adam, Lamish had 3 sons who were far]theirs of those that worked with metals, played musical instruments, and kept animals. Wiring wth metals first occurred in the 6000 to 8000 years ago.
    A literal reading of scripture provides salvation history, with the obvious conclusion humans existed on this earth long before Adam and Eve were born. Adam and Eve were the first to sin, as they ate the forbidden fruit, and the rest is modern history.

    • John says:

      Given that the Creation stories and the sort of Mankind before the flood are such a short part of Genesis, It can be speculated without taking away from the theological truth they they tell us little of what happened on earth. But as Chesterton once wrote, we can discern from the character of man, that if any dogma is shown empirically to be true it is that of Original sin.

  10. Samuel Wellman says:

    Long ago I dismissed the theory of evolution as not only incompatible with the Bible but also seriously lacking in scientific evidence, which consistently points toward belief in the Biblical account, and not in other ‘hominid’ species preceding modern man. Neanderthals were most likely fully human and descended from Adam, therefore Christ died for them. Evolution’s dates are out of whack and Neanderthals could not have preceded Adam, not more than 10,000 years ago. A small lesson on dating illustrates how off evolutionary dating is: a man brought some bones to a scientist and asked him to date the bones; the scientist determined they were about 10,000 years old. That’s funny, said the man; this is a chicken I bought at the grocers only weeks before.

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