I was moved recently when I heard that Rob was counselling a young woman who is having a crisis of faith that was triggered, at least in part, by her studies in theology at university. I myself faced some difficult questions last year that were triggered by considering the historical and archaeological context of the Bible. Underneath these triggers one will invariably find a wealth of other questions. How we view the Bible is often a significant part of this struggle.
As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the word of God – but what do we mean by this? Those within the spectrum of “orthodoxy” can all agree (I hope) that the Bible tells us something about the spiritual world and about the moral order. This starting-point, however, eventually leads to divergences about how the Bible communicates its message, which entails the question of how we interpret or “decode” the Bible, and to divergences about what other fields of enquiry the Bible may or may not address (e.g. scientific questions).
Our instinctual thoughts on the matter are a priori, for the Bible does not directly tell us how to read it. The Bible tells us that it has authority, that, to use Jesus’ words, “it cannot be broken”, and that it is useful for instruction in righteousness. However, the Bible also tells us that there is a distinction between the letter and the spirit; in other words, that there can be disharmony between the intended principle of a passage and an application derived from a particular treatment of the words that make up said passage.
We must ask ourselves what the Bible is for, because the answer to this question determines how we will interact with it. People who stumble because they are unable to reconcile the scientific theory of evolution with the creation accounts in Genesis are tormented because they feel obligated to reconcile two teachings they perceive to be mutually exclusive. This belief that the two propositions need to be reconciled is an a priori one and may be changed on the a priori level, but also through examination of the context in which the Bible was composed.
It is an assumption that the veracity (inerrancy) of the Bible must also be manifested on the scientific level. By way of analogy, consider the following example. Should a man judge a textbook on Latin grammar as useless if it makes an error regarding the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus? Of course not! The purpose of the textbook is to impart knowledge regarding grammar, not the details of a particular story. As long as the book covers its intended subject well, the incidentals are of no account.
In the same way, we should not judge the creation accounts in Genesis because they cannot be reconciled with our modern scientific theories in biology and cosmology. To do so is to confuse the doctrine “Yahweh made the cosmos” with the doctrine “how Yahweh made the cosmos”. An account can, of course, treat both matters in the same way – but it need not do so.
At this point, “conservatives” may cite the argument that the rest of Genesis appears to be a standard historical account (e.g. the Joseph narrative), so we should assume that the beginning is meant to be read in the same way. This argument, however, relies on a number of a priori assumptions that can be challenged (and have been by reputable scholars).
- The whole of Genesis was written by the same person (e.g. Moses).
- The unity of a work is disrupted if one “suddenly” shifts from the allegorical to the historical.
- Ancient historical narratives work in the same way as modern historical narratives.
- Genesis falls, essentially, within the historical genre (as opposed to, for example, tragedy).
There are other, broader assumptions pertaining to how texts are interpreted generally, but let us consider these four for the time being.
(1) We do not know for certain that one person wrote Genesis. Tradition tells that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch, but the end of Deuteronomy narrates the death and burial of Moses. Unless one wishes to speculate that the ghost of Moses dictated the final words of Deuteronomy to a scribe, one must conclude that Moses did not literally write all of the Pentateuch.
Other kinds of evidence (e.g. the treatment of geographical locations) strongly suggest an editorial hand that made the Pentateuch intelligible to people living after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. Consideration of Mesopotamian parallels to Genesis material leads to the strong possibility that portions of Genesis were composed during the Babylonian Exile as a polemic against the prevailing culture.
(2) Unity comes in various flavours. Unity of message does not ipso facto require an author to doggedly stick to one genre or medium to communicate his message. The Gospels are a classic example of this: they feature parables, theological language, actual historical accounts, and interpretation of prophecy (often in ways that look like “cheating” to post-Enlightenment readers).
Subtle authors do not usually express their message in a clear-cut sentence. None of the four Gospels actually tells the reader in the opening sentence what the Gospel actually is. The end of John is one of the clearer sections on this issue: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31, NIV). Note that this verse does not specify how salvation is achieved beyond belief in Jesus; there is no reference to the crucifixion or resurrection here.
This being so, we must acknowledge that we derive the message of the Genesis through a process of interpretation. If we can make mistakes about the message, then we can make mistakes about the unity and methods of the book in question.
(3) The Enlightenment has had a profound impact on the study and writing of history. Hume made a circular argument against the possibility of miracles, and this argument has led modern historians to omit or carefully qualify miracles in their accounts. Ancient historians did not write in this manner, although Thucydides serves as an interesting precursor to the Enlightenment avoidance of miracles. If ancient historians were happy to “break the rules” on miracles, and one can hardly say they were breaking rules, since the “rules” were not in place in their day, then we must be open to the possibility that they were happy to “break the rules” in other ways.
Indeed, there is an interesting parallel to Genesis that illustrates this principle. The “Sumerian King Lists” feature reigns of individual kings that last thousands of years. These numbers are obviously symbolic, but that does not entail that these lists are of no historical value. Unless one can determine the precise point of departure from “reality”, one cannot say that the whole text is fictitious. Perhaps the names of many of the kings are accurate, but the lengths of their reigns are not.
The same sort of consideration must be paid to Genesis. We cannot assume that the author(s) intended to follow our historiographical conventions, but that does not entail that the author had no historical intentions whatsoever. Perhaps the author wanted to record that the Israelites really had lived in Canaan and really had migrated to Egypt; but maybe he was not too concerned about the exact number of Israelites who settled there.
(4) What is genre? What is history? Do writers always slavishly follow the conventions of genre? To the last question, we may answer “No.” Genres are created: there are no rules to follow at their inception because the rules are created at their inception. Subsequent authors may subvert genres, and there is ample scholarship on this phenomenon across a variety of literary fields from Biblical to Greco-Roman to modern English. The generic nature of Genesis is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but we must remember that our modern conceptions are anachronistic: the best way to determine how the text works is to consider similar texts from the same sort of context. Modern science is not the context of Genesis.
I would like to conclude this post by expressing my sincere prayer that the Lord will bless Rob’s efforts in ministering to this young woman.
Comfort one another with the comfort you have received.