The Creation of Adam’s Body in the Apostolic Fathers

By Bradford Fellmeth, MA

What follows is a chapter from an upcoming publication of the Kolbe Center: Thou art Dust: Recovering the Catholic Doctrine of the Origin of Adam’s Body. In this book, the author will conduct a theological investigation into the revealed truth and Catholic doctrine about the origin of the body of Adam. This doctrine, or “thesis,” is that the body of Adam was formed immediately (that is, directly) by God from the mud[1] of the earth. This means that the efficient cause of Adam’s body is God alone, and the material cause is earthy dust (mixed with water, as the Tradition unanimously explains). This article examines the teaching of the earliest Church Fathers on this doctrine, this thesis; other chapters will deal with later Fathers and Theologians, with the teaching of the Magisterium, and with Sacred Scripture itself. That this is unanimously taught in the Church’s tradition as the proper understanding of Genesis 2 and the creation of Adam’s body shows, following the teaching of the first Vatican Council (see Dei Filius, ch. 3), that this “thesis” is a matter of Catholic dogma; it is infallible. For more information, see the author’s talks on this subject, available on Sensus Fidelium.[2]


The Apostolic Fathers are those saints and authors who lived within the first two centuries or so of the Church. Several of them, such as Sts. Clement and Polycarp, knew the Apostles personally, while others knew those who themselves had known them. Simple and forceful in style, they provide us a valuable testimony to the Faith as preached in the nascent Church. The early Apologists, such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenæus, and Tertullian—the latter of whom we’ll take up with the Latin Fathers—do as well. These dealt with opponents of the Faith, whether pagan, Jewish, or heretical, and often in a more philosophical manner. The early errors they combatted are important, since we see many of them resurfaced today in a more developed and sophisticated mode, which makes the work of the Apologists additionally valuable.[3] When we examine the teachings of these apostolic witnesses to the Faith on the subject of Adam’s body, we find a remarkably clear and consistent exposition of our thesis against a host of ancient errors.

Pope St. Clement of Rome (r. 88–99)

St. Clement, the fourth pope after Sts. Peter, Linus, and Cletus, provides the first patristic testimony in support of our thesis. He is identified by several Fathers as that Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3, but while this is the more common opinion it is not certain.[4] His first Epistle to the Corinthians, the only work of his recognized as genuine, was widely read with high authority, even being included in the Biblical canon of some early communities (though never universally accepted as such).[5] Though most authors have dated the letter to around AD 95, recent scholars have put its composition as early as AD 70.[6] The former date would place the letter during his pontificate, thus making it a magisterial document, and the text does begin marking the author as not merely Clement but “the Church of God which sojourns at Rome,”[7] but for our purpose I will treat it merely as an ordinary document from the apostolic Fathers, albeit one of great and widely-recognized authority.

In the first place, Pope St. Clement confirms the efficient cause of man in describing how God “by His infinitely great power” created the heavens, and performed all the works of the six days, until lasty, he says, “with His holy and undefiled hands [God] formed man, the most excellent [of His creatures].”[8] Second, he confirms man’s material cause. Having already begun to speak about the body, he says:

Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made,—who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness [cf. Ps 138:15] . He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.[9]

He is therefore going to consider the matter from which man’s body was made, declaring simultaneously the maker to be God, using the language of Job and Psalm 118. What immediately follows is an elegant blending of, and thus interpretation of, several passages from Job:

Foolish and inconsiderate men, who have neither wisdom nor instruction, mock and deride us, being eager to exalt themselves in their own conceits. For what can a mortal man do? or what strength is there in one made out of the dust? […] The heaven is not clean in His sight (Job 15:15): how much less they that dwell in houses of clay, of which also we ourselves were made! (cf. Job 4:19–21)[10]

Clement here uses two words to describe “of what matter we were made”: first, γηγενής (gēgenēs, Lt. terrigenæ) literally “earth-born”—the same word as in LXX Psalm 48:3—not “dust” as it is loosely translated here. Second, following Job, he calls man’s body—that of both “foolish men” and “we ourselves”—an οἰκία πηλίνας (oikia pēlinas, Lt. domus lutea), a “house of clay.” His purpose in saying these things—which he describes a few sentences later as “being manifest to us”[11]—is to exhort the Corinthians to humility and from thence to more moral behavior.

We see, then, from one of the earliest genuine Patristic texts—by a man who not only likely knew the Apostles personally (and was perhaps ordained by St. Peter), but who occupied a place of great authority in the early Church (whether or not his letter is properly a magisterial document)—a clear confirmation of both aspects of our thesis: man was made directly by God, as it were by His “hands,” and the matter from which his body was made was mud or clay, so that man can rightly be called “earth-born.” While this is a strong start to a long chain of consensus, later authors will grow increasingly articulate and detailed in their unanimous interpretation of this doctrine.


The Recognitions and Homilies are two versions of the same work, long attributed to St. Clement of Rome, though generally recognized now to be products of the 4th century (possibly by an Arian).[12] Still, they are important for what they say on the making of man’s body, since they are often referenced by later authors as authoritative. Broadly they take the form of a first-person narrative of Clement’s conversion and interactions with St. Peter and others, in which is couched long and elaborate doctrinal and philosophical discussions. In Book VIII of the Recognitions, one of Peter’s disciples, Nicetas, has a long argument with an old man (chapters 8–34). After having made an interesting defense of creation and providence against various Greek theories of the origin of the universe—such as the vacuous notion that the world was made “by the gradual concurrence of atoms,” which “things are done by [the power of] nature”[13]—he has a lengthy speech about the substance of man and how wonderfully he reflects the wisdom and providence of God; he begins by saying:

But let us come now, if you please, to our own substance, that is, the substance of man, who is a small world, a microcosm, in the great world; and let us consider with what reason it is compounded: and from this especially you will understand the wisdom of the Creator. For although man consists of different substances, one mortal and the other immortal, yet, by the skilful [sic] contrivance of the Creator, their diversity does not prevent their union, and that although the substances be diverse and alien the one from the other. For the one is taken from the earth and formed by the Creator, but the other is given from immortal substances.[14]

He then proceeds to go through the structure of man’s body and his parts, concluding his proof of a divine origin for man and the whole of creation, as opposed to mere fate, thus:

But if we see the members in man arranged with such method, that in all the rest there is seen to be similarity of form, and a difference only in those in which their use requires a difference, and we neither see anything superfluous nor anything wanting in man, nor in woman anything deficient or in excess, who will not, from all these things, acknowledge the operation of reason, and the wisdom of the Creator?[15]

The very construction and ordering of the human body, then, is a witness to the wisdom of God in creating it; other Fathers take up this theme as well. Elsewhere, this author speaks more on the matter of man’s body. Writing about the “ancient serpent,” he says:

For he, for his wickedness, was condemned from the beginning to eat dust, for that he caused to be again resolved into dust him who had been taken from the dust.[16]

As we saw above in comparing Genesis 2 and 3, the earth from which man is made is the same as that which he must till and that into which he must return. Here the same parallel is expressed, adding now that the serpent is condemned to eat the same. This puts a whole new light on St. Peter’s warning that the ancient serpent, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour (1Pt 5:8).

In the Homilies, the author gives testament to God’s power over matter, saying: “Yea, even man, who is dust, He changed by the inbreathing of His breath into flesh, and changed him back again into dust.”[17] The author also has St. Peter saying that

as they who honour the clay image of a king have paid honour to the king himself, whose shape the clay happens to have, so the whole creation with joy serves man, who is made from earth, looking to the honour thus paid to God.[18]

The theme, then, of Pseudo-Clement’s belief in man’s origin is that man is made to honor and glorify God, displaying His power and wisdom in the manner and result of his formation.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35–108)

St. Ignatius, while very important for patristic scholars, does not seem to have much to say on this topic. He does call Adam “the father of our race” in the longer version of his letter to the Trallians.[19] There is also a spurious letter to Hero the deacon, included with Ignatius’ letters in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, in which the author says the following, commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:11:

“Neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man,” except in the case of those who were first formed. For the body of Adam was made out of the four elements, and that of Eve out of the side of Adam.[20]

This idea that the body of Adam included not merely earth but the other three “elements” of water, air, and fire, gets taken up again by St. Thomas, which I will address in that place; for now it is sufficient to state that this does not contradict our thesis, but merely elaborates it.

The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130)

The author of this ancient epistle has little to say. It is interesting, though, that despite the fact that “the epistle is characterized by the use of exaggerated allegory,”[21] the author makes this argument: “For man is earth [ges] in a suffering state, for the formation of Adam was from the face of the earth.”[22] He bases his allegorical interpretation of the promised land [ges] on the truth of Adam’s formation from the earth, showing simultaneously that an allegorical interpretation (even in so early an interpreter) does not necessitate a lack of literal understanding but presupposes it, and that the matter from which Adam was taken was indeed earth, specifically that which is found on its “face” or surface (πρόσωπον, prosōpon): the dust.

St. Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165)

St. Justin, the Platonist philosopher turned Catholic apologist, in defending the existence and divinity of the Son against Trypho the Jew, employs God’s reference to Adam as one of Us in Genesis 3 in this manner:

I do not consider that teaching true which is asserted by what you call a heretical sect of your religion, nor can the proponents of that heresy prove that He spoke those words [Gn 3:22] to angels, or that the human body was the result of the angel’s work.[23]

This is significant in that St. Justin is rejecting the idea that angels were an efficient cause of Adam’s body. Previously he had affirmed that “Adam [was] the result of God’s creative act,”[24] though perhaps a better translation would be that he is “the form [plasma] which God formed [eplasen],”[25] as this captures the Greek’s implicit reference to the matter upon which God acted. Thus he believes man to be the work of God alone. He is explicit about man’s material cause in a fragment of his lost work on the Resurrection:

we must now speak with respect to those who think meanly of the flesh, and say that it is not worthy of the resurrection nor of the heavenly economy, because, first, its substance is earth; and besides, because it is full of all wickedness, so that it forces the soul to sin along with it. But these persons seem to be ignorant of the whole work of God, both of the genesis and formation of man at the first, and why the things in the world were made. For does not the word say, “Let Us make man in our image, and after our likeness?”3 What kind of man? Manifestly He means fleshly man. For the word says, “And God took dust of the earth, and made man.” It is evident, therefore, that man made in the image of God was of flesh.[26]

In addition to affirming that the “substance” of the body “is earth,” thus verifying our thesis, St. Justin here connects the descriptions of man’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2 to assert that the image of God, to which man was made, is in the flesh. While the later theological tradition would teach otherwise, namely that the image of God is principally in man’s rational soul, there is a note of truth to this assertion in that, as many icons and some mystics have expressed, Adam was in appearance very similar to Christ, the first Adam being made to the image of the second.[27]

In another fragment of the same work, he implies that Adam’s creation from the earth is a matter of faith by calling it a testament to the omnipotence of God, saying:

much more ought we, who hold the right, excellent, and true faith, to believe in our God, since also we have proofs [of His power], first in the creation of the first man, for he was made from the earth by God.[28]

Pseudo–Justin and ancient Pagan testimonies

We also have a spurious work, long attributed to St. Justin but probably from a fourth century author, the Exhortation to the Greeks. The author there shows how many pagan sources were cognizant of the nature of man’s origin; he believed that Plato, for example, had (mis)read the books of Moses while in Egypt, and drawn from them much of his philosophy. He cites in this regard a few passages from Homer’s Illiad:

Moses first mentions the name of man. Later, after describing the creation of many other beings, he returns to man and describes his creation in these words, ‘And God made man, taking dust from the earth.’ [Gn 2:7] Plato was deceived into believing that the man who was first named [by Moses] existed before the man whose creation was later described, and that the creation of the man formed of the earth was according to the pre-existent form. Even Homer, after having read that ancient and divine history which states: ‘Dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return,’ [Gn 3:19] and realizing that man was formed from the soil, calls the corpse of Hector dumb clay. In censuring Achilles for dragging the dead body of Hector, he wrote somewhere: On the dumb clay he cast indignity, Blinded with rage [Iliad 24]. In another passage, he describes how Menelaus addressed these words to his warriors who were reluctant to accept Hector’s challenge to single combat: May you all return to earth and water [Iliad 7.99]. Thus, in his anger, he wished them to return to their ancient and original formation from the earth. Both Homer and Plato expressed these opinions in their own writings, after they had learned them in Egypt from the ancient books of history.[29]

Here we begin to see what will become increasingly explicit as Catholic doctrine continues its development: the matter from which Adam was formed was not merely dust, but a mixture of earthen dust and water which formed clay, or mud. The fact that the Tradition so consistently and unanimously explains it as such, or at least implicitly teaches it by referring to the matter of man’s body as mud or clay, shows that such is the interpretation which the Church herself gives to the words of Sacred Scripture, and is therefore infallible. Whether Pseudo-Justin is correct about Homer and Plato reading Genesis in Egypt ultimately makes no difference to the weight of the Church’s doctrine.

A little later the author also references the Sibylline Oracle, stating:

If you are in doubt and find it hard to believe our doctrine of the creation of man, at least listen to those whom, up to this time, you have considered worthy of belief; realize that your own oracle, when requested by someone to utter a hymn in honor of Almighty God, spoke these words in the middle of the hymn: ‘Who formed the first man and called him Adam.’ [cf. Sibylline Oracles 1.26[30]] Many persons whom we know still keep this hymn at hand to convince those who refuse to believe this truth which is attested to by everyone.[31]

The author here indicates both that Adam’s formation by God is a matter of “doctrine,” or rather of faith (the Greek there is pisteōs), and that this truth of faith “is attested to by everyone.” This is another critical point which will become increasingly manifest as we move through the Fathers: there appears to have been an early consensus regarding the doctrine of the first man’s creation—both as to efficient and material causes, though those terms would only be introduced to describe this truth much later—which was recognized and articulated by the Fathers. If this is so, then we have more than sufficient reason to declare a consensus of the Fathers on this doctrine, which they evidently believe is in fact a doctrine of the faith, a revealed truth. On the other hand, we have the reason why the Magisterium hasn’t had much to say explicitly on this subject (although we will examine what it has taught, to great effect, in Part 6), since it had no need—a doctrine is generally only clarified when it is attacked, and given not only the profound consensus among Christians but even the recognition of this truth by pagans, there was no cause for the Magisterium to definitively teach from what matter and in what manner God made man—except in one important yet overlooked instance.

As for the knowledge among the pagans of man’s earthy origin, this is not incompatible with said doctrine being a matter of faith. The material object of faith is that which God has revealed. Now while God has at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, and last of all, in these days, hath spoken to us by his Son (Hb 1:1–2), we have to remember that the His first revelation was not to Moses or Abraham, but to Adam himself. For we read of God speaking to Adam individually in Gn 2:16–17 and to both Adam and Eve in Gn 1:28–29, as well as after the Fall in chapter 3. It was here that God revealed to our first father, among other things, the nature of his body, saying: dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return (Gn 3:19), which he could not otherwise have known with supernatural certitude.

Now it is indubitable that Adam would have passed this revelation down at least orally to his progeny, which doctrine would then have been preserved through the Deluge by Noah. But with the confusion of tongues at Babel, the nascent nations now began to fall little by little from the purity of the truth, their minds being increasingly darkened by sin, and the revelation handed down being corrupted by human fancy. Only among the children of Israel was the truth preserved, being defined, as it were, by Moses, and preserved in the inspired books authored by him. It is not surprising, then, that some remnant of the original revelation to Adam—and the antediluvian history passed down with it—remained among the Gentiles. Pseudo-Justin here uses the Greek sources of Plato, Homer, and the Sybil; some scholastic authors also cite regarding Adam’s formation Ovid’s Metamorphoses,[32] Hesiod’s Theogony,[33] and others.[34] But one of the most striking examples comes from the Miao, the traditional inhabitants of inland China. In a religious poem recited by memory at funerals and weddings, passed down by oral tradition, this tribe records with astonishing accuracy the history of the human race from Creation to their own establishment, including:

On the earth He [God] created a man from the dirt. Of the man thus created, a woman He formed. Then the Patriarch Dirt […] pondered the ways of the Deity, God. The Patriarch Dirt begat Patriarch Se-the [Seth]. The Patriarch Se-Teh begat a son Lusu [Mathusala?]. And Lusu had Gehlo and he begat Lama [Lamech]. The Patriarch Lama begat the man Nuah [Noah].[35]

Such an amazing record from a people far from Christian influence, amidst all the similar remnants in other cultures, rather than diminishing the quality of our thesis as an article of faith, should rather confirm our faith in the initial revelation of this doctrine to Adam, the traces of which revelation remained even to the time of Christ as a preparation for the preaching of the Gospel. This reality is recognized and taken advantage of even by St. Paul, when in Athens he quotes the Stoic poet Aratus as a proof for the One Creator God: And [God] hath made of one, all mankind For in him we live and move and are: as some also of your own poets said: For we are also his offspring (Ac 17:26–28).

On a practical note, since this doctrine that man was created by God from the mud of the earth was revealed to our first father and passed down to all nations, confirmed by Moses, restored by Christ, and promulgated universally by the Church, the nations have no excuse for doubting and denying this foundational truth, except that malicious men, denying divine revelation and the patrimony of human history, have labored for several centuries to expunge it from our collective memory.

St. Theophilus of Antioch (d. ca. 185 or 191)

St. Theophilius has only one extant work, a collection of three pieces To Autolycus forming an apology for the faith. We have already seen how he in book two considers the first chapters of Genesis as historical, quoting almost the whole of chapters one through three with the epithet: “Such is the account given by holy Scripture of the history of man and of Paradise.”[36] This he does specifically to refute the pagan creation mythologies and cosmogonies with their resultant errors, juxtaposing them with those “men of God, […] prophets, being inspired and made wise by God, […] through which wisdom they uttered both what regarded the creation of the world and all other things.”[37] When he comes to the work of the sixth day, the creation of man, he begins thus:

But as to what relates to the creation of man, his own creation cannot be explained by man, though it is a succinct account of it which holy Scripture gives.[38]

This initial comment is important, as the holy bishop underscores the necessity of revelation in order to understand the creation of man; it is only from Sacred Scripture, that is, by faith, that we know the true account of “what relates to the creation of man;” by his own powers man cannot explain it. He continues:

For when God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” He first intimates the dignity of man. For God having made all things by His Word, and having reckoned them all mere bye-works, reckons the creation of man to be the only work worthy of His own hands.[39]

This is the reason for man’s being made, as the Scriptures elsewhere speak, by God’s hands: because he is the crowning work of creation, that for which the rest of the material universe was made, and that which is made after God’s own image. Hence it is necessary (a necessity of fittingness[40]) that God made man immediately, directly, “with His own hands,” because this is the only appropriate manner of creation for the creature made to God’s image and likeness.

After thus explaining the text of Genesis 1, St. Theophilus proceeds to that of Genesis 2, saying:

But that the creation of man might be made plain, so that there should not seem to be an insoluble problem existing among men, since God had said, “Let Us make man;” and since His creation was not yet plainly related, Scripture teaches us, saying: “And a fountain went up out of the earth, and watered the face of the whole earth; and God made man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul [Gn 2:6–7].”[41]

He sees the text of Genesis 2 being merely a further explanation of what was summarily narrated in chapter one, as all the other Fathers teach. He says that the purpose of the recapitulation is that “the creation of man might be made plain,” that is, made known. That he then records Genesis 2:6–7 as having “plainly related,” that is, revealed (φανερόω, phaneroō) man’s creation, shows us (as does the rest of his text) that he intends to take the words of Sacred Scripture in their plain and historical sense, as they stand. We have, then, the revealed truth that man was created, as well as how, by Whom, and from what matter. St. Theophilus considers the text of Scripture to be so clear and authoritative as to refute the errors of the Greeks merely by its presentation.

St. Irenæus of Lyons (ca. 140–202)

St. Irenæus gives us the first significant exposition of some of the most important teaching regarding the origin of man in his work Against the Heresies. He first describes the Gnostics’ mythologized and erroneous interpretation of Genesis:

he (the Demiurge) also created the earthy [part of] man, not taking him from this dry earth, but from an invisible substance consisting of fusible and fluid matter, and then afterwards, as they define the process, breathed into him the animal part of his nature.[42]

According to the heretics, then, the Demiurge created only the animal part of man’s nature—he was not yet a spiritual being. Irenæus continues by describing how, according to them, the mother of the Demiurge, Achamoth,

took advantage of [the Demiurge’s] ignorance to deposit it (her production [the spiritual part of man’s nature]) in him without his knowledge, in order that, being by his instrumentality infused into that animal soul proceeding from himself, and being thus carried as in a womb in this material body, while it gradually increased in strength, might in course of time become fitted for the reception of perfect rationality. Thus it came to pass, then, according to them, that, without any knowledge on the part of the Demiurge, the man formed by his inspiration was at the same time, through an unspeakable providence, rendered a spiritual man by the simultaneous inspiration received from Sophia. … This, then, is the kind of man whom they conceive of: he has his animal soul from the Demiurge, his body from the earth, his fleshy part from matter,[43] and his spiritual man from the mother Achamoth.[44]

So man received, according to the Gnostics, the spiritual and rational part of his nature only “gradually… in the course of time,” while the animal and fleshy parts had been created prior. I cannot help but notice a similarity between this doctrine, this heresy, and evolutionism, the latter of which is forced to admit something like that man’s rational soul somehow gradually emerged from the development and increasing complexity of matter—or that God just slapped the rational soul on some advanced primate. While the similarity is not exact,[45] we can see the beginnings of a thread of error that will gradually develop, as it were, into the scientistic heresies of today.

St. Irenæus begins to refute this error shortly thereafter; in showing how many of their so-called deities are actually just different names for the Word Who was made flesh, he says that “flesh is that which was of old formed for Adam by God out of the dust, and it is this that John has declared the Word of God became.”[46] But in book three he focuses in on Adam and his relationship to Christ, and in doing so gives us several important points. First, at the conclusion of chapter 21, he shows the parallels between the first and last Adam:

And as the protoplast himself, Adam, had his substance from untilled and as yet virgin soil (“for God had not yet sent rain, and man had not tilled the ground”), and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Word of God, for “all things were made by Him,” and the Lord took dust [limum] from the earth and formed man; so did He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin. If, then, the first Adam had a man for his father, and was born of human seed, it were reasonable to say that the second Adam was begotten of Joseph. But if the former was taken from the dust, and God was his Maker, it was incumbent that the latter also, making a recapitulation in Himself, should be formed as man by God, to have an analogy with the former as respects His origin. Why, then, did not God again take dust, but wrought so that the formation should be made of Mary? It was that there might not be another formation called into being, nor any other which should [require to] be saved, but that the very same formation should be summed up [in Christ as had existed in Adam], the analogy having been preserved.[47]

Here we have the first expression of one of the most important typological relationships between Adam and Christ: as the first Adam took his body from the “virgin” earth which had seen neither rain nor the plow, so the last Adam took his body from the flesh of the Blessed Virgin who likewise knew not man (Lk 1:34), thus fulfilling the prophecy of the Incarnation: Truth is sprung out of the earth: and justice hath looked down from heaven.  For the Lord will give goodness: and our earth shall yield her fruit (Ps 84:12–13). Therefore our belief in the Incarnation of Christ is itself a testimony to, and a protection of, our belief in the formation of Adam; the “hand of God” performed both, in a similar and analogous fashion, “the very same formation” being “summed up” and “preserved” in Christ. Adam’s formation by God from the earth also protects the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, for the last Adam was made without human seed just as the first was.

Notice, too, how he uses “earth” and “dust” interchangeably in the same thought to refer to the matter of man’s body, and that it is “the hand of God,” the “Word of God,” who forms it—not some “Demiurge” which is not God; this confirms, against the Gnostic heresy, that the efficient cause of Adam’s body is God alone, and that the material cause is earth. Interestingly, in the Latin (the Greek of this portion is not extant), the word pulvis, dust, is not used, but rather limus, mud. That this occurs when Irenæus is practically quoting Genesis 2:7 is even more interesting, since only in the Vulgate—which would not be produced for another two centuries—is the word for mud used rather than that for dust. This suggests, especially considering what we’ve seen from St. Clement, that either there was some manuscript circulating which had this alternate reading, or that the teaching of Sacred Scripture beyond Genesis is so consistent in describing man’s matter as clay that the interpretation found itself into the text, at least as quoted (often from memory) by the Fathers. It may also have something to do with that the Greek word for clay, πηλός (pēlos), is also used (at least in Scripture) for mud, and can thus be translated into Latin as either lutum (clay) or limus (mud). Perhaps further research will uncover St. Jerome’s source for this textual variant or his reasons for translating it so.

In what immediately follows, St. Irenæus refutes the Gnostics’ error that Christ did not take true flesh from the Blessed Virgin, and was not therefore true man but only apparently so.

Those, therefore, who allege that He took nothing from the Virgin do greatly err, [since,] in order that they may cast away the inheritance of the flesh, they also reject the analogy [between Him and Adam]. For if the one [who sprang] from the earth had indeed formation and substance from both the hand and workmanship of God, but the other not from the hand and workmanship of God, then He who was made after the image and likeness of the former did not, in that case, preserve the analogy of man, and He must seem an inconsistent piece of work, not having wherewith He may show His wisdom. But this is to say, that He also appeared putatively as man when He was not man, and that He was made man while taking nothing from man. For if He did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, He neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if He was not made what we were, He did no great thing in what He suffered and endured. But every one will allow that we are [composed of] a body taken from the earth, and a soul receiving spirit from God. This, therefore, the Word of God was made, recapitulating in Himself His own handiwork.[48]

Note his logic: the formation of Adam’s body and the formation of Christ’s body are analogous, the one being a type of the other. “But every one will allow that we are composed of a body take from earth,” that is, there is a consensus as to the matter from which the first man was made—even the Gnostics admit this, in their own weird way, as we saw above. Therefore, as “the one [who sprang] from the earth had indeed formation and substance from both the hand and workmanship of God,” therefore “the other,” the body of Christ, comes “from the hand and workmanship of God,” and was a true human body as Adam’s was.

The fact that St. Irenæus here declares there to be a consensus that man’s body was “taken from the earth” is enormous. This seems to indicate, as does what we saw from Pseudo-Justin above[49] and in a similar statement from St. Augustine which will be considered below, that a consensus Patrum existed regarding the material (and consequently the efficient) cause of Adam’s body from the earliest days of the Church. If so—and given the contents so far of this book we have no reason to doubt it—then we can safely say that the formation of Adam’s body from the earth by the “hand” of God is the definitive, ordinary teaching of the Church; it is de fide.

Proving this point with only the Apostolic Fathers, however, would not be prudent, since many doctrines which were either implicit or ambiguous in their writings became clearer after the Church emerged from the catacombs and beyond. Tracing the development of this doctrine is critical, since the greater clarity and precision gained in subsequent centuries will make it all the more definitive that: first, this is indeed the ordinary and universal, and therefore infallible, teaching of the Church; and second, this doctrine absolutely excludes any and all evolutionism regarding man’s origin.

In the final book of Against the Heresies, Irenæus continues to give us not only clear confessions of the faith regarding Adam’s origin, but important connections of this doctrine to others. Speaking of the power of God being manifest in man’s weakness, he writes:

For if He does not vivify what is mortal, and does not bring back the corruptible to incorruption, He is not a God of power. But that He is powerful in all these respects, we ought to perceive from our origin, inasmuch as God, taking dust [Gr. χοῦν; Lt. limum] from the earth, formed man. And surely it is much more difficult and incredible, from non-existent bones, and nerves, and veins, and the rest of man’s organization, to bring it about that all this should be, and to make man an animated and rational creature, than to re-integrate again that which had been created and then afterwards decomposed into earth (for the reasons already mentioned), having thus passed into those [elements] from which man, who had no previous existence, was formed. For He who in the beginning caused him to have being who as yet was not, just when He pleased, shall much more reinstate again those who had a former existence, when it is His will [that they should inherit] the life granted by Him.

Again we see the formation of Adam from the earth used as a primary example of God’s wisdom and power. But note the argument: he compares the first formation of man from earth to the re-formation of all men from the earth on the last day. He says it is a greater witness to God’s power, and thus more difficult to believe—requiring faith—to make man initially than it will be to re-make the bodies of all men. The general resurrection and the creation of man, then, are intimately connected. We can take his argument even further: if we believe, as we profess in the Creed, in the resurrection of the body, which undoubtedly will happen from the dust and ashes into which the corpses of men have decayed, how much more ought we believe that God took dust in the beginning to form one man? The one is a protection of the other; if one denies the latter, how can he admit the former?

A few chapters later, St. Irenæus gives us a last type of Adam’s formation, commenting on Christ’s healing of the blind man in John 9:

He [Christ] replied, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” [Jn 9:3]. Now the work of God is the fashioning of man. For, as the Scripture says, He made [man] by a kind of process: “And the Lord took clay [limum] from the earth, and formed man.” Wherefore also the Lord spat on the ground and made clay, and smeared it upon the eyes, pointing out the original fashioning [of man], how it was effected, and manifesting the hand of God to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust.[50]

Unfortunately the Greek of this passage is not extant; otherwise we would know whether limum is a translation of chous or pelos, of dust or clay, which would tell us much about the Greek text of Genesis 2:7 that Irenæus used. But more importantly, the saint here explicitly teaches that it was God alone who made man, and that from not just dust but clay, since it was clay that Christ made to anoint the blind man’s eyes, thus recapitulating His creation of the whole man in a principal part of man; after all, the light of thy body is thy eye (Mt 6:22), and so by remaking the eye, as it were, in the manner of the original making of the whole, Christ gives light “to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust,” thus “manifesting the hand of God.” We will see this interpretation of John 9 come up repeatedly, as with virtually all the types and teachings we have so far encountered, gaining more and more clarity and specificity until a certain codification of the thesis is reached. By now, however, we have more than sufficient light to understand “the work of God, … the original fashioning of man.”

Before leaving Irenæus, we should look also at his work, the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching; it covers much of the same content as Against the Heresies, but in a didactic and catechetical rather than apologetic mode. He begins the treatment of what we know as the first article of the Creed as follows:

And therefore it is proper, first of all, to believe that there is One God, the Father, who has created and fashioned all things, who made that which was not to be, who contains all and is alone uncontainable. Moreover, in this ‘all’ is our world, and in the world, man; thus this world was also created by God.[51]

Note his emphasis both that God created and fashioned all things, and that this certainly includes the earth and man. He has no place for the idea that God only made some things, or only made unformed matter, which then one way or another gradually became the forms we know today. A little later he speaks directly about man:

But He fashioned (πλάσσω, plasso) man with His own Hands, taking the purest, the finest and the most delicate [elements] of the earth, mixing with the earth, in due measure, His own power; and because He sketched upon the handiwork (πλάσμα, plasma) His own form—in order that what would be seen should be godlike, for man was placed upon the earth fashioned in the image of God—and that he might be alive, “He breathed into His face a breath of life”: so that both according to the inspiration and according to the formation, man was like God.[52]

This, then, is what the “Apostolic Preaching,” that is, what the Catholic Faith, teaches about the creation of man’s body: he was made, fashioned, by God’s own “hands” from the earth.

St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. ca. 235)

St. Hippolytus is fascinating since he “appears to have been the first Christian theologian who attempted an explanation of the whole of Scripture,”[53] yet was also antipope during the reigns of Ss. Calixtus, Urban, and Pontian (ca. 217–235)—he was later reconciled with the Church and died a martyr. He was also possibly a disciple of St. Irenæus.[54] His schismatic status, sadly, has led to many of his works being lost except for various fragments. In addition to commentaries on many books of Sacred Scripture—the commentaries on Canticles and Daniel still exist more or less in full—there remain his books on Antichrist, on The Apostolic Tradition, and the Philosophumena, or “Refutation of All Heresies.”[55] Fortunately for us, we still have fragments of his commentary on Genesis, one of which is directly on our primary text:

“And God formed man of the dust of the ground” [Gn 2:7]. And what does this import? Are we to say, according to the opinion of some, that there were three men made, one spiritual, one animal, and one earthy?[56] Not such is the case, but the whole narrative is of one man. For the word, “Let us make,” is about the man that was to be; and then comes the word, “God made man of the dust of the ground,” so that the narrative is of one and the same man. For then He says, “Let him be made,” and now He “makes him,” and the narrative tells “how” He makes him.[57]

In addition to taking the text of Genesis 2:7 in its plain and historical sense, as have the other Fathers so far, Hippolytus is here doing two things. First, he is showing that the descriptions of man’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2 are complementary rather than contradictory, the first showing that God made man, and the second “how He makes him.” Second, he is refuting the Gnostic error that there are three kinds of men, and that the Demiurge is responsible for the material part(s) of man; on the contrary, the Scriptures are explicit: God alone made man, and only one man, and that man from the dust of the earth. Several times elsewhere in his fragments he refers to man being made from the earth, even specifically by the Word.[58]

In another place, it would be expedient to look more closely at St. Hippolytus’ works, especially the Refutation of All Heresies, since there he deals almost primarily with errors concerning Creation, not merely from ante-Nicene heretics but from the Socratic and pre-Socratic philosophers, a number of whose errors are similar to the scientistic errors of our own day; these the saints confound not so much from the so-called science of their interlocutors, but from faith and reason, from Revelation.

Chapter Summary

In this first chapter investigating Catholic Tradition on the origin of man’s body, we have seen a remarkably clear and consistent doctrine articulated by the Church’s earliest authors. All the Fathers and ecclesiastical authors of these first two centuries show either implicitly or explicitly a historical and “plain” reading of the text of Genesis 2, which is seen as complementing rather than contradicting Genesis 1. The formation of Adam’s body was done by God alone, by His “hands,” that is, by the Word, which shows the immense dignity of man in being the crown of God’s creation, requiring such direct and personal intervention in its making. The matter from which God formed man is described interchangeably as earth, dust, and clay, that which is from the “face of the ground,” showing that these terms amount to the same thing: earth and water mixed together—though this is not yet explicitly stated, merely implied.[59] Not only do several of these authors more or less state that these truths are a matter of faith, but St. Irenæus and Pseudo-Justin go so far as to indicate an early consensus among Christians as to the material cause of the human body. Thus already we are beginning to fulfill the requirements for a dogma of the ordinary and the universal Magisterium, seeing a consensus of Fathers on a matter of faith—just a beginning, but a very strong one.

We have also seen a number of important concepts related to this thesis. First, we have good evidence that this doctrine was first revealed to Adam, passed down through the centuries, and preserved in various states of integrity by the Gentiles, though only in its entirety by the Israelites; this and other remnants of the truths revealed prior to the dispersion of nations served as a preparation for the preaching of the Gospel. Further, we have seen some of the important typological relationships between this doctrine and other articles of faith—an expression of what the Catechism calls the “analogy of faith,… the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.”[60] There is the intimate connection between the formation of Adam from virgin soil and that of Christ from the Virgin Mary, the forming of Adam from dust on the sixth day and the re-forming of all men from dust on the last day, and Christ’s powerful testimony of His identity as man’s Creator in His healing of the man born blind. These and other relationships which will be expounded by later authors all serve to confirm and elaborate our thesis, already admirably clear from these apostolic witnesses to the Faith: that Adam’s body was formed directly by God from the mud of the earth.


[1] A better translation of the Latin limo, the equivalent also of “clay,” which the Douay-Rheims renders “slime” in Gn 2:7.

[2] Part 1: Part 2:

[3] Cf. Anthony Maas, “The apostolic Fathers and apologists,” s.v. “Biblical Exegesis,” OCE.

[4] John Chapman, “Pope St. Clement I,” OCE 4,; C. Lattey, S.J. “Philippians,” in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard and Edmund F. Sutcliffe (Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1953), 1130; Origen, in Ioann. 6:36, in FOTC 80:244, PG 14:293; St. Jerome, De viris illustr. 15, in FOTC 100:31. Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. eccl. 3:15, in FOTC 19:163.

[5] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3:16, 4:23, in FOTC 19:164, 259; John D. Barry, “Canon, Books in Codices.” John D. Barry, et al., eds., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[6] Chapman, “Pope St. Clement I,” OCE 4; Thomas J. Herron, Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Scott Hahn, ed. (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2008), 94.

[7] St. Clement of Rome, I Clem. 1, in ANE 1:5; cf. ACW 1:9.

[8] St. Clement of Rome, I Clem. 33, in ANF 1:13–14 (ACW 1:29; PG 173–74). Note the similar language to the institution narrative of the Roman Canon: “[Christ], the day before He suffered, took bread into His holy and venerable hands, etc.” This suggests both a historical and theological connection.

[9] Pope St. Clement of Rome, I Clem. 38, in ANF 1:15 (cf. ACW 1:32–33; FOTC 1:40; PG 1:285–86), emphasis added.

[10] Pope St. Clement of Rome, I Clem. 39, in ANF 1:15 (cf. ACW 1:32–33; FOTC 1:40; PG 1:285–86), emphasis added.

[11] Pope St. Clement of Rome, I Clem. 40, in ANF 1:16.

[12] John Chapman, “Clementines,” OCE 4.

[13] Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 8.18–20, in ANF 8:170.

[14] Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 8.28, in ANF 8:173, emphasis added.

[15] Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 8.32, in ANF 8:174.

[16] Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 5.17, in ANF 8:147.

[17] Pseudo-Clement, Homilies 20.6, in ANF 8:341.

[18] Pseudo-Clement, Homilies 16.19, in ANF 8:317, emphasis added.

[19] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians 10, in ANF 1:71.

[20] Pseudo-Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to Hero, a Deacon of Antioch 4, in ANF 1:114.

[21] Paulin Ladeuze, “Epistle of Barnabas,” OCE 2.

[22] “The Epistle of Barnabas” 6, in ANF 1:140.

[23] St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 62, in FOTC 6:246 (PG 6:617–18); cf. ANF 1:228.

[24] St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 40, in FOTC 6:209.

[25] Ibid, PG: 6:561–62; ANF 1:214 has “the creation which God created—to wit, Adam.”

[26] St. Justin Martyr, “Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection” 7, in ANF 1:297, emphasis added.

[27] A prominent example: “On the sixth day he formed and created Adam, as it were the of age of thirty-three years. This was the age in which Christ was to suffer death, and Adam in regard to his body was so like unto Christ, that scarcely any difference existed. Also according to the soul Adam was similar to Christ. From Adam God formed Eve so similar to the Blessed Virgin, that she was like unto Her in personal appearance and in figure.” Ven. Mary of Agreda, The Mystical City of God, vol. 1 “The Conception,” no. 137, trans. Fiscar Marison (Washington, NJ: Ave Maria Institute, 1971), 126–27.

[28] St. Justin Martyr, “Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection” 5, in ANF 1:296.

[29] Pseudo-Justin, Cohortatio ad Græcos 30, in FOTC 6:412–13, emphasis added; cf. ANF 1:286, PG 6:297–98.

[30] “And then later he again fashioned an animate object, making a copy from his own image, youthful man, beautiful, wonderful. He bade him live in an ambrosial garden, so that he might be concerned with beautiful works. But he being alone in the luxuriant plantation of the garden desired conversation, and prayed to behold another form like his own. God himself indeed took a bone from his flank and made Eve, a wonderful maidenly spouse, whom he gave to this man to live with him in the garden.” The Sibylline Oracles 1.22–25, in OTP 1:335.

[31] Pseudo-Justin, Cohortatio ad Græcos 38, in FOTC 6:422, emphasis added; cf. ANF 1:289, PG 6:309–10.

[32] “But one more perfect and more sanctified, / a being capable of lofty thought, / intelligent to rule, was wanting still / man was created! Did the Unknown God / designing then a better world make man / of seed divine? or did Prometheus / take the new soil of earth (that still contained / some godly element of Heaven’s Life) / and use it to create the race of man; / first mingling it with water of new streams; / so that his new creation, upright man, / was made in image of commanding Gods? / On earth the brute creation bends its gaze, / but man was given a lofty countenance / and was commanded to behold the skies; / and with an upright face may view the stars:— / and so it was that shapeless clay put on / the form of man till then unknown to earth.” Ovid, Metamorphoses 102–119, Brookes More, ed., Perseus Digital Library (Medford, MA: Cornhill Publishing Co., 1922), emphasis added.

[33] “And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind…” Hesiod, “Works and Days” 60ff., trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Perseus Digital Library (London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1914).

[34] “The most ancient profane writers assign the same origin of man, received from tradition more or less corrupted, as for example Abydenus according to Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel, book 10), and Sanchuniathon according to the same (Ibid., book 1, chapter 10), with which the most ancient Greek poets agree: Orpheus (Hymns 1, 2, and 5), Hesiod (Days, book 1), and again Aristophanes (in The Birds, v. 667); and from the Latins, Ovid (Metamorphoses, book I, v. 76ff.). The mythologies and traditions of the old peoples agree, as for example those of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Chinese, Greeks, and the indigenous of America and the islands of Oceana, among all of which the first men are said to be produced by the gods, and indeed generally from the mud of the earth, and from these the whole human race was propagated. The production of woman from the side of man is also handed down by some nations, as for example the indigenous of New Zealand and of the islands of Tonga.” Ubaldo Ubaldi, Introductio in Sacram Scripturam, vol. I, q. I, th. 38, pars. 2.2 (Rome: 1882), 719.

[35] Edgar A. Truax, “Genesis According to the Miao People,” Acts & Facts 20.4 (1991),; see the same also at Bernard E. Northrup, “Genesis Chronology according to the Miao People of South China” (January 3, 1997),

[36] St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.20–21, in ANF 2:102–103.

[37] St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.9, in ANF 2:97.

[38] St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.18, in ANF 2:101.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Cf. ST III.1.2 resp.

[41] St. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.18, in ANF 2:102; cf. PG 6:1081–84.

[42] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 1.5.5, in ANF 1:323.

[43] They distinguish between the body and the fleshy, sensitive part of man: “After all this, he was, they say, enveloped all round with a covering of skin; and by this they mean the outward sensitive flesh,” Adversus Hæreses 1.5.5.[43]

[44] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 1.5.6, in ANF 1:323, emphasis added.

[45] Irenæus later points out how “they conceive of three kinds of men, spiritual, material, and animal, [which] three natures are no longer found in one person, but constitute various kinds [of men].” Adversus Hæreses 1.7.5, in ANF 1:326.

[46] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 1.9.3, in ANF 1:329.

[47] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 3.21.10, in ANF 1:454, emphasis added; cf. PG 7:954–55.

[48] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Hæreses 3.22.1, in ANF 1:454, emphasis added; cf. PG 7:955–56.

[49] Pseudo-Justin, Cohortatio ad Græcos 38, in FOTC 6:422.

[50] St. Irenæus, Adversus Hæreses 5.15.2, in ANF 1:543, emphasis added; cf. PG 7:1165.

[51] St. Irenæus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching 1.1, ed. and trans. John Behr, vol. 17, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 42.

[52] St Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching 1.11, Popular Patristics Series 17:46–47.

[53] Anthony Maas, “Biblical Exegesis,” OCE.

[54] Johann Peter Kirsch, “St. Hippolytus of Rome,” OCE.

[55] The latter was occasionally attributed to Origen, but is now generally acknowledged to be authentic to Hippolytus.

[56] As the Gnostics taught; see the discussion of St. Irenæus of Lyons (ca. 140–202)

[57] St. Hippolytus of Rome, fragment “From the Commentary of the holy Hippolytus of Rome upon Genesis,” in ANF 5:168.

[58] Cf. St. Hippolytus of Rome, “A Discourse on the End of the World” 43, 45, in ANF 5:253; idem, fragment on Psalm 109, in ANF 5:170.

[59] The first explicit statement of this interpretation is found in Tertullian, De Baptismo, ch. 3; it quickly became the universal interpretation of the Church. Cf. ST I.91.1.

[60] CCC 114.

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