Who sinned first—Adam or Cain?
What is the origin of sin and death in the Bible? Who was the first sinner?
To answer the latter question, today people would probably debate whether Adam or Eve sinned first, but in antiquity, it was a different argument altogether. They debated whether Adam or Cain committed the first sin.
John Byron of Ashland Theological Seminary explores ancient interpretations of the origin of sin and death in the Bible in his Biblical Views column “Who Sinned First—Adam or Cain?” published in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
So, who sinned first in the Bible?
According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans. Cain was their first son, and Abel their second. The majority of Biblical interpreters—throughout the ages—have considered Adam and Eve’s disobedient act of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6) as the first sin in the Bible—the moment sin and death entered the world. However, in antiquity, some believed that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8) was the first sin; certainly, this was the first human death in the Bible. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon is one text that expresses this view.
The Wisdom of Solomon credits Cain’s unrighteousness as ushering in death—and the Biblical flood:
“Wisdom protected the first-formed father [Adam] of the world, when he alone had been created; she delivered him from his transgression and gave him strength to rule all things. But when an unrighteous man [Cain] departed from her [Wisdom] in his anger, he perished because in rage he killed his brother [Abel]. When the earth was flooded because of him, Wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man [Noah] by a paltry piece of wood.” (Wisdom of Solomon 10:1–4)
John Byron explains that in the Wisdom of Solomon’s interpretation of Genesis, “neither mortality nor bad consequences resulted from Adam’s sin. Rather, Wisdom saved Adam, and his sin is glossed over.” It is Cain who rejects Wisdom, sins and ushers in death.
To learn more about the ancient interpretation of Cain as the first sinner in the Bible, read John Byron’s Biblical Views column “Who Sinned First—Adam or Cain?” in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in July, 2017
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.