Genesis, Myth and History

Wright makes some good points here. The Genesis 1-3 debate is stalked by generalizations and false antitheses. There is always a real danger in distorting and domesticating the Bible via the preoccupations of our own modern situation. As much as possible, we should start with Scripture and the priorities and structures within the text itself, instead of those of our own context. We should always seek to faithfully and accurately embed the text in its own literary, historical, and canonical context.

Understanding the genre is crucial. Just as, today, different literary genres have different means of making rhetorical effects and of taking about reality, so do the varied Biblical genres. And this diversity of literary forms means we must sensitive to the fact that the Bible contains more (though not less) than propositional truth. This isn’t to say that all literary genres convey truth plus something else but that some genres shape their purposes and priorities differently. Wright is correct to point out that if we reduce a passage (say, a narrative passage) to a number of propositions or single notes we miss the way the (narrative) genre can speak through themes, character development, plot, etc.

Furthermore, the ancient literary categories do not neatly overlap with ours and that is why we must be careful when we talk about biblical genres (I think this cuts against the the current definition of “myth” invented by modern anthropologists as much as it does against a scientific reading). Whatever category we do use for the opening chapters, a fair amount of nuance is necessary.

Even if we do understand the purpose of Genesis 1-3 as primarily theological/mythical, we haven’t escaped the question of whether it belongs to a matrix of thought that implies or is undergirded by historical events and characters (the “primal pair” that Wright affirms). Just because the message is theological, this does not mean that it is not also historical (or that it can be disentangled from the historical). Take some examples in the New Testament (some borrowed from D. A. Carson), where, although the writer is making a theological point, in each case the argument is grounded in and inseparable from a historical claim:

– In Galatians 3, Paul’s theological argument is made via appeal to the order of events in redemptive history. He argues that the law is relativised by the fact that both the giving of the promises to Abraham and his justification by faith preceded the giving of the law.

– In Romans 4, Paul makes an argument about the relation between faith and circumcision that again depends on the historical sequence of which came first.

– In Hebrews 3:7-4:13, the author argues that entering God’s rest must mean something more than merely entering the Promised Land because of the fact that Psalm 95 (which is still calling for God’s people to enter into God’s rest) is written after they were already in the land.

– Again in Hebrews, the theological point of chapter 7 is that because Psalm 110 promises a further priesthood and is written after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is therefore obsolete.

-Paul’s argument about the reality of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19.

Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened. It won’t fly to say that the ancient Biblical writers weren’t concerned with history or couldn’t distinguish between fable and reality (observe how much Judges 9 stands out from the rest of that passage). The early chapters of Genesis are certainly not a scientific treatise, but even if we understand that the point of these chapters is explain that all of creation is God’s tabernacle and that creation itself is finite and not divine, are we completely off the hook? We need to ask if the writer is telling us true things about God, and about real people and events that took place in history.

9 replies
  1. Damian
    Damian says:

    Also, Paul (in Romans 5:12-14) treats Adam and Eve as literal characters, before whom there was no death:

    Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned — for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

    The death Paul talks of is not just a kind of ‘soul-death’ as some people would have it. It’s literal, bodily death. The reason we know he’s talking about literal death is that just prior to this he says:

    You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    If people are prepared to soften the kind of death that started at Adam to a non-literal, non-bodily one then they will need to be prepared to do the same for the type of death that Christ experienced. But not many are willing to go down that path.

    Paul’s view of a literal Adam with a literal starting point for literal death reinforces a somewhat literal reading of Genesis. Some people I know believe the figures of Adam and Eve to be representative of the human species where Genesis 1-11 belongs to a genre that conflicts with the genre they read Paul’s writings as and I’ve not yet received a satisfactory answer as to how they reconcile the two.

    This series of verses alone are enough to cement in most professing Christians (who believe in the authority and truthfulness of the Bible) a stance against the scientific discoveries showing creatures (and hominids) living and dying many millions of years prior to Adam. And I’ve not yet met anyone who believes that Adam and Eve were out and about 600,000,000 years ago when the only life was constrained to the oceans.

  2. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened.

    I think that the motive behind genesis was theological, but that people back then also thought it to be literal; they didn’t distinguish between genres, I dont think they posessed enough ‘scientific’ knowledge about the world around them.

    I also think that ALL of the bible is theologically motivated, including the gospels, as opposed to being factually motivated. Maybe we’re a few years off being able to accept this one though.

  3. bethyada
    bethyada says:

    It may be correct to say it is not scientific, but this is different than saying it is not historical, and narrative historical claims compete with scientific historical claims; and eye-witness usually has precedence over reconstruction.

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Other Simon,

    I think . . . that people back then also thought it to be literal

    What reason do you have for thinking this?

    ALL of the bible is theologically motivated. . . as opposed to being factually motivated

    You say this as though if it were one it could not at the time be the other. Maybe you’re a few years off being able to accept this one though.

  5. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Stuart,

    What reason do you have for thinking this?

    If you could talk to a person from back then I just can’t imagine them saying “Oh, no, the creation event is not supposed to be literal, it’s just in a framework pattern”* or “Oh, no, that god specifically and purposefully made man is not literal, it is just polemic against the cosmogonies of surrounding cultures”.

    You say this as though if it were one it could not at the time be the other.

    Yeap. I am a few years beyond this. I should imagine I treat christianity like we both do scientology, for example: factual fabrication motivated by good intention.

    *e.g. http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/fw.htm

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I wanted to know the reasons why you think people back then considered the narrative of Genesis’ early chapters to be a literal description of what happened. A clue – your imagination, or lack of, is not an appropriate response. Your answer is just a massive assumption, and without actual evidence or better reasons than what you have already given, there is no reasons why I should consider your response nothing more than a “factual fabrication.”

  7. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    there is no reasons why I should consider your response nothing more than a “factual fabrication.”

    I think that the reverse is more crazy: believing that an ancient tribe wrote down how the universe was created and when asked about it respond: “oh, no, no, it’s just metaphorical”
    Hahaha. Hilarious!

  8. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    No. Because it’s crazy. But enlighten me. Show me some evidence to the contrary. I am quite open to it. But I suspect this is just about trying to win a tiny battle to ease the feelings of losing the war.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *