Does the Truth of Genesis 1-11 Depend on its Historical Accuracy? | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Note: This is the third post in a three-part series featuring excerpts from the newly released book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters, part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series in which top scholars present their perspectives on difficult topics and respond to each other’s presentations. Readers are advised to browse the previous posts in the series to give context to this final post.

The three scholars featured in this book—Hoffmeier, Wenham, and Sparks—represent vast differences in opinion about the extent to which Genesis reflects actual historical events. But the excerpts in the previous two parts of this series show a large degree of agreement about two things: First, that Genesis 1-11 is not pure fiction, and second, that these early chapters often have real events and places as their literary reference points. However, these two facts still leave the most important question unanswered: Were these “real events and places” only real in the ancient imagination? Are there parts of Genesis 1-11 which were assumed to be basically historical by the ancient Hebrew, but since have been shown false by modern science and history?

This is precisely the line that has historically separated the “conservatives” from the “modernists” in contemporary debates about the Bible’s authority. To conservatives, if the Scriptures describe an event as real, it must have actually happened more or less as it is described. For the modernists, events in the Bible should only be seen as historical if they first pass the tests of modern science, archaeology, history, and philosophy. None of the scholars in this series fit the stereotypes of either fundamentalist conservative or liberal modernist, but you will notice below how their differences of opinion show most clearly when discussing this question. Also included below is a short excerpt from the book’s conclusion, written by Dr. Charles Halton.

Hoffmeier (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology”):

“Like the Psalmists of old, Christian theology is founded on God’s ‘glorious deeds … the wonders that he has done’ (Ps 78:4) and we set our ‘hope in God and not forget the works of God’ (Ps 78:7). If one reduces the narratives of Gen 1-11 to fictitious stories and legends, the history of salvation lacks its raison d’ ệtre. Fortunately, the Christian committed to Scripture need not commit intellectual suicide by embracing the historicity of the events described in early Genesis, for the text itself is written in such a way to reinforce this view.” (p.58)

Wenham (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory”):

“...I prefer to describe Gen 1–11 as protohistory. It is proto in that it describes origins, what happened first. It is also proto in that it is setting out models of God and his dealings with the human race. It is historical in that it is describing past realities and the lessons that should be drawn from them. [...] But whereas history could be described as a photograph of the past and fiction as a movie, protohistory is akin to a portrait of the past. It is a valid representation that faithfully portrays the artist’s intentions. And it is these intentions that the modern reader must focus on. He is not obliged to decide whether this detail or that is historical or imaginative interpretation.” (p. 88)

Sparks (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography”):

“Did the authors accept as historical anything which cannot in fact be historical? In some cases they did, with the flood story being the poster child. Everyone in antiquity seems to have believed that this deluge took place because they were not privy to the insights of modern geology and evolutionary biology. [...] Rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by these limitations, we will do far better if we honor the humble medium of Scripture and try, as best we can, to listen to what the ancient authors were trying to say through that medium. Humanity will not be saved by accurate historical recollections or scientific facts. We are saved through God’s actual intervention in our world through the person of Jesus Christ.” (p. 139)

Halton (from conclusion titled, “We Disagree. What Now?”):

“In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1-11 ultimately points us toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate.” (p. 162)

A big part of my own journey in thinking about the Bible has been a shift from simply defending the Bible’s authority (as I understood it) at all costs, to endeavoring instead to respect and learn from God’s chosen medium of communication without pre-supposition. The latter option has proven to be enormously fruitful in understanding the Bible in its original context, and I continue to realize how much my modern assumptions damage my ability to hear what the Scriptures say. In that respect, I resonate most with Sparks, although I find Wenham’s definition of “protohistory” to be helpful in understanding the genre of Genesis 1-11.

God chose to communicate through ordinary people in ancient times. He easily could have dropped the whole Bible from the skies on a giant scroll, or given the whole thing in one heavenly vision. Of course, God did communicate like his in some parts of the Scriptures, but his choice to speak his word through so many people in so many places and times should not be overlooked—it distinguishes Judaism and Christianity from most other religious movements in the world, who rely on a single vision or golden tablet or so on. God’s character is communicated not only through his message, but also through his method. As a Christian, I serve a God who loves to work through the lowly and ordinary. To me, that’s a powerful reason to bow my knee in worship.

A final note: If you’ve been intrigued by these excerpts, I highly recommend reading through the rest of this excellent book. Each of the scholars applies their perspective to the stories of the Flood, the Nephilim, and the tower of Babel. The results are fascinating and instructive.

References and Credits

All passages are taken from:

Hoffmeier, James K., Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton L. Sparks. Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters. Ed. Charles Halton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology.

Brad Kramer is the BioLogos content editor. He completed his M.Div. at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and earned a BS in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Daily Beast, Patrol, and OnFaith.

James K. Hoffmeier (PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity International University Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Ancient Israel in Sinai and Israel in Egypt, and co-author of Faith, Tradition and History.

Gordon J. Wenham (PhD, University of London) is tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, England, and professor emeritus of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Story as Torah and commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.

Kenton L. Sparks (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) is professor of biblical studies and vice president for enrollment management at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, God’s Word in Human Words, and Sacred Word, Broken Word.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/does-the-truth-of-genesis-1-11-depend-on-its-historical-accuracy

(Brad Kramer) #2

Let me re-state my core question: Is it possible for a passage of Scripture to still be true and authoritative even if it is written about an event that the authors thought was historical, and yet is not historical? Think of the example of the Flood. If the authors were drawing on an ancient belief in a global historical flood, and yet the Flood was in fact a local event, is the Bible lying to us? Is it still true? You’ve heard my answer, but I want to hear your own.


(Matthew Winegar) #4

I think Sparks is pretty much on the mark here, with one minor quible:

Generally, this is fine, however, I think the statement should identify the ancient human authors as part of the medium, and God is the one speaking through the ancient human authors (using their own imperfect understandings and cultural moments to convey deeper truths, truths that themselves may even transcend “history”), and even later translators/compilers of scripture. For people to fixate on historical accuracy as an essential element of the inspired text is to miss the proverbial “forest for the trees”. God speaks to his people through scripture, and what he speaks is not confined to the author’s (or anyone else’s, ancient or modern or in between) interpretations or understandings of scripture.


(James Stump) #5

@mbwdev It seems to me that inspiration is more complex than just God speaking through humans. Perhaps that model works for the prophets and John the Revelator, but I’m not so sure about Gen 1-11 which has obviously gone through several layers of human redaction and compilation. And the Gospel writers and Paul seem to be responding to the revelation of God (in their language and cultural medium) rather than producing or channeling that revelation. In that case, inspiration must mean that the Holy Spirit guided their thoughts rather than being the author of the words on the page. And the compilation of the canon (which was awfully messy) adds another layer of complexity and human element to what we have now as Scripture.


(Larry Bunce) #6

The problems that arise from interpreting an ancient text with modern assumptions shows how wise the medieval Church was in not wanting ordinary people to be able to read the Bible in the vernacular.


#7

I think you’ve helpfully framed the discussion and key questions over these posts (I’ve read the book). I’d like to tease out the present question a bit, because I can’t decide if (a) this issue of historicity is essentially an example of the discussion of varying options of “accommodation” with respect to authority and revelation (even inerrancy)–such as teased out in Four Views on Historical Adam (especially the nuanced differences between Lamoureux, Walton, and Collins)–or (b) if this present issue is going to another level than the accommodation issue.

I suppose the rub for many evangelicals is the (human) authorial intent, which seems to me to encompass two hermeneutical questions: (1) What is the inspired human author teaching authoritatively vs. what does the human author merely believe and state about the world without trying to teach it (i.e., “incidentals”)? (2) Can I as a modern interpreter now legitimately (i.e., assuming an evangelical stance) disagree with anything the human author was presuming to teach authoritatively? It seems to me, while there can be wide acceptance on the validity of #1 (the accommodation question), the crucial distinction for evangelicals lies in the validity of #2.

So, using the flood as an example: (1) Presuming for sake of argument that the author believed in a worldwide flood (“global” is a bit anachronistic), is the universality of the flood also part of his intended authoritative message? (2) If I say yes, am I free to disagree (and still remain faithful) with that aspect of the human authorial intent, and consider the divine authorial intent some other way?

I’m happy to be corrected if my reshaping of the question is a misrepresentation.


(Jim Lock) #8

@BradKramer First, I’ve really enjoyed the format of the last few days. It feels as if the conversation is moving along and developing. Thanks for taking the time to plan this out!

I’ve always understood the definition of a lie to include intent. If I mistakenly tell you something that wasn’t true, I didn’t lie, I was wrong. In this case, if God used a previous event to impart a particular message to the people of Israel then I think it is safe to say that the Bible is still true. In other words, God used the saga of Noah to reassure the people of Israel that even though they were adrift and lost and choatic, God was still in control and could still bring order and function to their world.

@KJTurner has an interesting take on this question that I’d like to see the group work on. I’m still digesting it and we’ll see how my newborn sleeps tonight before I try a response.

Respectfully,
Jim


(Brad Kramer) #9

@KJTurner (and @jlock) thanks for the kind words. It was a fun series to put together, and Zondervan was very helpful.

I’m realizing more and more how questions of message, incident, intent, authority, etc. can only be answered when we first answer a deeper question: What does it mean that the Bible is God’s Word? Unless there is agreement on this question, people will inevitably just talk past each other. It seems to me that if you think of the Bible as God’s Holy Encyclopedia for all people in all places and times, with the original authors simply as God’s chosen marionettes, you end up with completely different expectations for the text than if you think of the Bible as first and foremost God’s Word to the people to which he was first speaking. Honestly, if God had given Moses (or whoever) a scientifically accurate origins account, wouldn’t God’s Word have failed to accomplish its original purpose of communicating truth to the Israelites (who could not possibly have understood it)? This was my own “aha” moment in seminary (to parrot Pete Enns’ phrase), when I realized that the enculturated nature of the Bible made the “Divine Encyclopedia” view absurd.

So instead of “true” or “false” as applied to any portion of the Bible, I agree with @jlock that we instead should just ask, “what is God trying to say to them?” and then “what is God trying to say to me?” This allows us to fully respect God’s choice to communicate in an ancient context, instead of performing the silly acrobatics that evangelicals love to do with the Bible in order to get it into manageable shape. I think one of the biggest tragedies of the fundamentalist/modernist debate is that Christians have been forced to pick between a Bible that is just timeless truth or just ancient myth.

@KJTurner I’m sure I am preaching to the choir here, but it was helpful to write my thoughts out. Thanks again for offering your thoughts. Did I answer your question?


#10

I would simply take issue Brad, with your statement that the Israelites could not possibly have understood an accurate account, and for that reason we have an inaccurate account. No one has explained to me how they could understand an inaccurate account. How could they understand a woman being taken from the rib of a man? How could they understand everything magically appearing in seven days? How could they understand light before the sun? How could they understand God taking some dust, mixing with water, stirring, and shaping a man? This is simply one argument that does not hold water. Hope this makes sense to you.


#11

@BradKramer I didn’t have a specific question other than whether my expansion was tracking with your original question. In my teaching and research on these sorts of things, including my 2/23/15 BL post on “Discordant Views of Concordism,” it has become more apparent (and interesting) the nuanced positions on fundamental questions that drive responsible, evangelical scholars to land at varying positions; it’s a continuum rather than a binary either/or. That is, even among evangelical OT scholars who are generally comfortable with an accommodationist, non-concordist approach, there’s a wide variety of application. To be more specific–and perhaps to hit the current discussion head on–many inerrantists have no problem with a non-concordist approach to “science” yet are less comfortable when it comes to “history.” Their rationale would be that the Bible makes no specific (or very few) scientific claims, but it does make historical claims. I think the current Zondervan book under discussion is pressing us to ask the tough questions about the meaning of “history,” whether we can separate “science” from “history” (especially with our expectations of biblical revelation and authority), etc.


(Connor Mooneyhan) #12

Jim, I agree with your statement about lying and intent, but I must not be understanding you correctly because right after you make that point, you say that God using something the people didn’t know was wrong was not lying. If I tell someone something wrong on purpose, and they don’t know it’s wrong, it is still a lie. Could you perhaps mean that God meant these chapters as a sort of parable using ideas that they already accepted?

In love,
Connor


(Matthew Winegar) #13

@jstump I absolutely agree that inspiration is more complex than I was describing; I tried to give a hat-tip to complexity by including and referring ‘later translators/compilers of scripture’ as part of how God’s message gets conveyed to us. It is messy, indeed.


(Jim Lock) #14

@Connor_Mooneyhan I wasn’t very specific but I was considering the human author (Moses) when I wrote that. The account cannot be considered a lie because the human writer neither realized nor intended his account to be scientific as we understand it. Now, as to God’s intentions, I think that is a separate and far thornier issue. Is it a lie to accommodate? To use an existing oral tradition to teach a deeper Truth even if the tradition omits historical and/or scientific truths? That I’m not sure about.

Basically, yes. :slight_smile:

Thanks for keeping me honest,
Jim


#15

Hi James,

If you are interested in a discussion about Inspiration and the bible, I would check this out:

https://academic.logos.com/category/unfiltered/

Keep scrolling down to see great blog posts and this discussion and the larger context of Interpreting the Bible. Frankly, I think you should get Dr. Michael Heiser to guest post something on BioLogos.


#16

@BradKramer said:

Honestly, if God had given Moses (or whoever) a scientifically accurate origins account, wouldn’t God’s Word have failed to accomplish its original purpose of communicating truth to the Israelites.

This seems a bit short sighted don’t you think? Couldn’t God present an idea that can resonate with everyone in all eras? We should not be deceiving ourselves to thinking that Genesis 1-11 isn’t a major reason people abandon the Bible. So while it worked great for the original recipients, it has near caused devastation for us. That’s why BioLogos exists….because there is a problem.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #17

@BradKramer
Think of the example of the Flood. If the authors were drawing on an ancient belief in a global historical flood, and yet the Flood was in fact a local event, is the Bible lying to us?

In my opinion the author or more likely authors of Genesis were “historians,” and what historians do is work with historical sources. When they wanted to understand the past they looked to the best source of that information, which for them was the ancient middle eastern Semitic culture this of course was the culture of Abraham.

The problem was that this culture was pagan, rather than Yahwist. Therefore the role of the Hebrew historian was to see the known history through their faith, which they did very well. Thus we should say that the important thing about Genesis is not what happened, but the role of God in history.

The purpose of God’s word is not to convey Truth as historical facts, but to convey Truth as the God Who acts in and through history.

God uses the story of the Flood to reveal Godself to the Hebrews and us, and since this is the purpose of the Bible, it is not a lie, even though historically there was no universal flood.

God uses people as they are and stretches them to what they can become. The Bible is not perfect in every way, just the most important way, which shows how much God cares for humans, Again the Bible is not a book of science or history, but a book of God’s revelation of Godself.


(Brad Kramer) #18

@Relates I think that is extremely well put. I completely agree.


#19

How do you know this to be true? Why are “truth as historical facts” different from “truth as the God who acts in history” different from each other? Why can they not be the same? How do you know that God acts in history? When you say that historically, Moses never led his people to Canaan, yet God delivers his people and keeps his promises, how will you be able to know that? If God did not historically promise not to repeat a world-wide flood, will you still have confidence that he will not permit one?


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #20

@johnZ

The problem with the Flood was that the historical sources that the Biblical historians had to work with were flawed. They indicated the Flood and humans survived the flood in an ark, but not how this happened. The inspiration from the Holy Spirit came in how they filled in these gaps to make this a Yahwist history rather than a pagan one.

The question is not how do we know this is right, but is it right? Does the revelation of God found in the story of Noah correspond to the revelation of God found in the rest of the Bible and in particular with that of Jesus Christ? That is a question you need to answer for yourself.

I will point out a part of the story that is troubling and that is the Curse of Canaan. As you know after the flood Noah got drunk and fell asleep in the tent naked. His son Ham saw him and as a result Ham’s son Canaan was cursed to being the father of a servile race.

While the taboo concerning looking at the naked parents may have been real, the penalty seems extremely harsh and strangely is applied to the son and not the father. What appears to be more germane is that fact that the Hebrews conquered the homeland of Canaanites. This curse was also used as a rationale for the slavery of Blacks in America who are descendants of Ham.

Thus there arises the question as to whether or not a self serving bit of tradition might have crept into this story that really did not belong. Again God did not curse Canaan, but Noah did backed up by God. I might mention also that the origins of the other peoples in Genesis tends to put the Hebrews in a good light.

It should also be noted that Jesus reversed the Curse of Canaan when He healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman after discussing with her whether He should grant her request.


Is Jesus the God of the Old Testament?
(Brad Kramer) #21

I moved 4 posts to an existing topic: Is Jesus the God of the Old Testament?


Is Jesus the God of the Old Testament?