August 23, 2010

Genesis AS IF History

Was there a historical Adam?  Was there a historical Eden?  Leading minds these days - even among conservative Christians! - either demure or suppose that, most likely, there wasn't.  The text of Genesis, they say, is so obviously heavy on figurative language, the original writer almost certainly meant the original readers to take much if not all of the Creation Story as allegory.

They may be right, though I like knowing that no one is certain.  Personally, I still hold out audacious hope that it all really happened, very much like the Bible says it did.  And I don't care who thinks that's "stupid".

But that's not my point.

My question is - how much of Genesis can be practically useful for studying History?

Jewish, Christian & Muslim tradition all assert Abraham was a historical figure, though not everyone accepts every claim of the text to be true, about Abraham's life.  Babylonian ziggurats suggest there may be a historical kernel, at least, behind the Babel Story, and evidence suggests there was actually some type of Great Flood, whether that jibes to the letter with Genesis or not.  To rephrase the question - how much of those stories is history, and how much is [what scholars call] "myth"?

The problem is - there's no absolutely reliable academic method for discerning.  Was there a cataclysmic regional flood?  Probably, at least.  Were two cities destroyed by fire?  Perhaps, somehow.  Were Adam, Eve, the snake (!) & Eden real?  Almost no one goes so far, these days.

I would like to suggest one way of dealing with all this, in Historical terms.

First of all, it is NOT evidence for Adam's historicity to point out that both Jesus and Paul spoke about Adam as if he were real.  This is unfortunate, from one way of thinking.  However, the pattern of Jesus and Paul IS an example of how we might speak and write about Adam.  Thus, we might do as well as Jesus and Paul did if we continue speaking AS IF Adam were, in fact, a historical figure.  (Was he?  That's an important but unanswerable question.  I'm saying, of necessity, we might do well to let these remain separate issues.)

How is this method defensible?  That depends.  Here's an example.

Advanced Mathematicians work with something called the Limit, which theoretically can stretch to "infinity".  There's no such thing as infinity (no such number, at least) but working AS IF it exists made it possible for Mathematical work to proceed around that little problem.  The payoff was that doing this just so happened to make all their results work out nicely, and those results later turned out to be verifiable.  In other words, they proceeded without reasonable justification, but proved that doing so was a reasonable method, under certain parameters.

On the historicity of Genesis, I suspend judgment, officially.  For rhetorical and investigative purposes, however, I'm going to proceed AS IF every word in Genesis speaks of historical fact.  If that's true, goody.  If that's not true, so what?  Since nobody can tease out for certain what is or isn't true about Genesis, we're leaving evidence on the table if we treat the whole thing like it's mostly Fiction.

Besides, if the River of Life is merely allegorical, then what does it represent?  If Enoch didn't really walk with God, what does Genesis mean to imply by constructing that tale?  We'd have no idea.  We'd find ZERO historical value from analyzing things that might or might not have happened.  And without even attempting such a perspective, that's at least one major facet of Reason being left unapplied.  Who knows what we're missing out on?

If, instead, we suppose that things in Genesis really did happen... we can analyze these things as events, and allow that natural mode of reasoning to lead us towards observations we might not reach, otherwise.  Again, I say we may as well analyze Genesis AS IF all those stories did, in fact, really occur.

Did they?

Maybe they did.  Maybe they didn't.  Some say "Maybe they 'did', even if they didn't".

But maybe - in more cases than we might ever know, at least - maybe they just simply did.


Douglas Mangum said...

Good thoughts, Bill. I linked to your post from Biblia Hebraica. I've been writing on the same issue recently.

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

This is a great post Bill! I do wonder (about Adam) whether it matters as well that Adam is specifically treated as historical in all of the genealogies (including Jesus own). I do understand the arguments that it wouldn't matter whether he is a historical figure or not, but find the opposite to be more persuasive for my own understanding (and as it relates to the unity of humanity that is at least in part rejected if one postulates no historic Adam and the notions of common descent found in evolutionary models). I agree that these things are beyond definitive answers for our current standing and for myself the best way forward would seem to be an "as if" model (much like what you have proposed).

Bill said...

Doug - thanks for the great compliment. I had noticed your posts recently, but failed to check the comment threads until just now. Anyway, you were definitely a comforting influence.

Here's a paragraph I drafted a year ago that never saw the light of day:

"There is both merit and balance in this approach, because it was the Lord’s own method. Consider that Christians today disagree on whether we should take Adam & Eve to be literal persons or if God simply gave us a metaphor. There were also Jews in the first century who thought some scriptural characters were fictional. Jesus, however, spoke as if Adam & Eve were real people. So did Paul, by the way. Anyone who agrees with this view will accept our presentation and those who disagree can play along but believe what they like. We cannot prove what Jesus really thought about Adam & Eve, but we can follow his example. We will trust the content of the Gospels as far as we possibly can, as if it is factual. Again, many of us truly believe that it is."

Obviously, that needed work! But the core is there.

So yes, your recent posts helped a great deal. Thank you, Lord, that iron does sharpen iron.

Bill said...

Doug - I meant comforting and confirming. Both.

Rick - the genealogies are a major question. Ostensibly, they purport a direct chain of causation in chronological time. But do they? I like to think so, but I'm not certain. Matthew's genealogy, at least, played by different rules.

Btw, I don't think either one of us agrees with those who say that it "doesn't matter" whether A&E were historical or not. It absolutely does matter... and probably for more reasons than I care to know!

Thanks, too, for your compliment at the end. Nice to think I did sumpin good today!

Anonymous said...

Can you please refresh my memory and tell me where Jesus spoke of Adam and Eve?
(I don't like to post anonymously but I can never get Wordpress to work)

Bill said...

The names 'Adam' & 'Eve' don't get into the Gospels, but see Matthew 19 & Mark 10. Also, Matthew 23 & Luke 11 seemingly refers to their son Abel.

The context of Mt19/Mk10 is very interesting, too.

So again: Assuming Jesus said these things still doesn't prove Jesus thought about them as historical persons. But he talked about them AS IF they were historical persons. And so, perhaps, should we.

David said...

Thanks, I'll have to look those scriptures up.

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