Was Genesis 1-11 Intended to Reflect Accurate History? | The BioLogos Forum

This is the second 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 cases and respond to each other’s presentations. Readers are advised to browse the first post in the series for an introduction to the book and the subject matter.

As we saw yesterday, all three scholars thought the word “myth”—according to the common definition of an invented story disconnected from actual history—is not an appropriate category for the first eleven chapters of Genesis. But this hardly solves the question of historical accuracy. Even if the author(s) of Genesis had real events in mind as they wrote, we shouldn’t assume that their goal was to produce an exhaustively precise historical account the same way David McCullough or Ken Burns would. Here’s another spoiler: None of the three scholars think Genesis is simply a chronologically organized bundle of facts. The modern obsession with precision is exactly that—modern.

Again, I invite you to read these excerpts not as an argument between warring perspectives, but instead as a joint invitation to re-think the way we approach Genesis. Perhaps we are a bit too eager to get behind the text, and should instead learn from the text as it given to us.

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

“The general tenor of the book [of Genesis], and Gen 1-11 in particular, is intended to be thought of as describing real events. A piece of ancient literature concerning past events does not have to be recorded with the kind of historiographical precision that would be expected of a modern academic historian or journalist. The geographical clues provided in Gen 1-11 suggest that these events from an ancient past occurred...in a real world, a world recognizable to the ancient reader or narrator of the narratives.” (p. 58)

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

“[There are] good reasons for affirming that the stories of Genesis are like history in some respects. . . . These chapters contain stories that both illustrate important social and theological principles, as myths are often alleged to do, yet they also tell of unique occurrences. These may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events.“ (p. 85)

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

“Did the authors intend at every point to write reliable history? As I see it, the answer must be no. Our comparison of the texts and sources reveals pretty clearly that the authors were so invested in shaping and reshaping their sources that they cannot have intended their work to yield similitude with actual events. [...] In saying this, I don’t intend to suggest that the authors were avoiding history, as might be the case in full-fledged allegory. I mean instead that they were so busy doing something else that historical questions were not in the foreground of their thinking.” (p. 138)

Here’s my attempt at a summary of all three views: Genesis frequently references events and places that the writer(s) (and listeners/readers) thought of as real, but its message does not rely on its pinpoint historical accuracy. Tomorrow, we will deal with the elephant in the room of this discussion—the relationship between historical accuracy and biblical authority. Not surprisingly, this is the point at which the scholars most sharply disagree. What does it mean that the Bible is authoritative? What does it mean that Genesis is a divine revelation? How does Genesis 1-11 fit in the big picture of God’s Holy Word? These are the most important questions in this discussion, and tomorrow’s excerpts will get to the heart of the matter.

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/was-genesis-1-11-intended-to-reflect-accurate-history

Does it bother you that the author(s) of Genesis were not as concerned with historical precision than modern historians? How does this affect the process of interpreting these chapters? Is it legitimate to then use modern historical methods to understand the text? (I’m aware the question is directed at Christians, but skeptics are welcome to comment as well)

It does bother me that the author(s) didn’t really care about historical precision or chronology, but only because it is inconvenient for us. I think that if we look at ancient near eastern texts from around that time, we can get a better idea of how they would have thought and written about events. The process of interpreting chapters should include two things: historical background and scientific revelation. The historical background, as I said before, is thoroughly important because we are not anywhere near the culture in which they lived. We do not interpret or write about things in the same way, so we should use the resources we have from that time period in that region of the world to clarify how the author(s) meant for it to be read. Scientific revelation, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. Our dating methods aren’t precise, but they are generally accurate. They get across the main point of our interest. Because we can know (not only by radio-dating) basically how old a thing is, we can tell a decent amount about the way things were. God created the world, and therefore the study of it as well, which we call science. Both of these tenants of Biblical (especially Old Testament) interpretation work with each other towards a common goal: the accurate understanding of the purpose held within the writings of ancient texts.

I’ve been thinking about this all morning and am going to go with a cautious yes. Modern historical tools can provide considerable depth and insight into Genesis 1-11. A historiographical study, for example, provides an excellent summary about how and why people have read these chapters. It can also provide insight into our own motivations. (whig or post-modern). Modern historians can also draw inferences from obvious exaggerations. For example, modern scholarship has a rough idea about how much it costs to build and maintain a chariot. Given that, the numbers of chariots credited to King Solomon are suspiciously large. However, we still learn a lot by looking at broad patterns in Israel’s development. They progress from large infantry armies generally dominating their more mobile foes (part of a broader trend in the period) to seemingly impossible numbers chariots. Why? Perhaps because Solomon was moving to establish his legitimacy among his neighbors. Even if the conclusion winds up as incorrect, I believe that the tools historical scholarship has to offer are still valid.

I think all available tools, including modern ones, should be used. By comparing what we know about reality to what was written in Genesis, we can better understand the motivations of the writers. Brad’s example of Solomon’s chariots is one of many imaginative legends which seem to have the purpose of glorifying certain lineages, justifying wars and conquests, etc. The claim that there is a god directing and protecting this tribe is a common theme in most of the world’s origin myths (though of course each group thinks that THEY are the chosen ones). Modern comparative tools can help people decide how to interpret such claims.

@Connor_Mooneyhan very well said :smile:. I will just add this quote from B.B. Warfield:

We must not, then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whither soever it leads.

I appreciate your contributions here a lot, Connor. Your knowledge and insight at such a young age is amazing.

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@loujost just to clarify, @jlock mentioned the chariots, not me :grinning:.

Oops, apologies to both of you.

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