Throughout church history, there have been three basic proposals to identifying the “I” of Romans 7:7-25. (1) The “I” is Adam. This post will consider whether that proposal holds any water.
(1) The “I” is Adam. You might be surprised to find that “Adam” was ever proposed at all. After all, Adam’s name appears nowhere in Romans 7. But people have noticed several phrases that seem to point to a Garden-of-Eden-like experience. Read 7:7b: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.'” This verse perhaps recalls God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–which, of course, is the one Adam and Eve ate from.
And read 7:9: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” If Adam is indeed the “I” of Romans 7, this is the verse that most supports that interpretation. If “alive” means “spiritually alive,” then there was only one person in the world who was spiritually alive before the Law of Moses…and that person was Adam. After the Fall of Man in Genesis 3, everyone is spiritually dead. [But does “alive” have to mean “spiritually alive”?]
Finally, notice 7:11: “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” This seems to retell a bit of the Eden account, doesn’t it? “Sin” (or the “Serpent,” to be more specific) “deceived” (which makes you think of the Serpent deceiving in the Garden), and sin “put me to death” (which makes you think of the Fall itself). With just a little explanation, then, it is possible to see why “I” could be identified with “Adam.”
“But isn’t it clear,” you might object, “that the I refers to Paul, since he is the one writing? What would make anyone think that anyone other than Paul himself is the intended referent?” Part of the explanation depends on noting the rhetorical letter-writing skill in the first-century. It was common practice to “put on a character,” so to speak, especially a character renowned in biblical history. It is a fact, too, that Jews relived the Passover account in the first-person, even if they didn’t experience it themselves, all in the effort to identify with their people. They would say things like: “I was held in Egyptian slavery. God delivered me through his servant Moses.” In other words, speaking in the first-person could be a way of creating solidarity with others by taking on a character.
In writing Romans 7, then, some people propose that Paul puts on the character of Adam in the Garden of Eden to tell the story of sin’s entrance into the world. So the objection “But the I must refer to Paul himself since he is the one writing” isn’t exactly true.
But just because Paul might be putting on a character, that doesn’t mean the character is limited to Adam in the Garden. For, while the “Adam” interpretation has the above strengths, there are weaknesses as well. And I think the weaknesses overcome its strengths.
First of all, God did not tell Adam “Do not covet” (which Paul quotes in Rom 7:7). The command is not found in the Garden scene at all, but instead occurs in Exodus as the tenth commandment (Ex 20:17). Since Paul knew the Garden of Eden story, he could have quoted what God told Adam in the Garden (“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Gen 2:17), but he did not. Instead, Paul quoted the Mosaic Law, which he believed (as did the Israelites) came at Mount Sinai (Rom 5:12-14).
Second, the serpent deceived Eve, not Adam. Then Eve gave some fruit to her husband and he ate it. Thus, Romans 7:8 better fits Eve than her husband.
Third, Adam is not mentioned at all in Romans 7.
For these reasons, identifying the “I” as Adam is improbable. Though elements of Romans 7 seem to fit the Garden of Eden story, the fact that Paul quotes the Law of Moses (Ex 20:17) strikes a fatal blow to the “Adam” interpretation, because Paul’s case in Romans 5 rested on the fact that Adam did not have the Law of Moses (Rom 5:12-14; see also Gal 3:17).