Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither?

Many readers of Genesis 1-11 are not entirely sure how this part of the Bible relates to world and natural history. Creation? Nephelim? Flood? Babel? What is this all about? As the Christian community I am part of begins a “Summer Bible Study” series on this part of the Bible, these type of challenges are more important that ever. I can boil it down to this question: Are these chapters written from the perspective of a human eyewitness observer recording the events as they happen?

When it comes to the Gospels, the New Testament writers make it clear that we are dealing with eyewitness testimony. For example, Luke explicitly claims that he gathered the sources for his Gospel from eyewitnesses to the original events (Luke 1:1-4). But when we come to Genesis, things get a bit more vague. For example, the authorship of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses himself. But even the most conservative perspectives must acknowledge that Moses, who lived centuries after the events described in Genesis 1-11, was not sitting up in a tree in the Garden of Eden with his videocamera. So, then how do we understand Genesis 1-11 in relation to actual historical events?

Zondervan Publishers has released a book that tackles the topic, Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither?, as part of its Counterpoint series. The book editor, Houston Baptist University professor Charles Halton explains the purpose behind the book in the following video. The contributors include some veteran Old Testament scholars representing diverse points of views:

  • James K. Hoffmeier: Theological history.
  • Gordon J. Wenham: Proto-History.
  • Kenton L. Sparks: Ancient Historiography.

The book is important for not only Christians who are trying to make sense of the Bible but also skeptics who are trying to figure out if Christianity really makes any sense.

The Historicity of Genesis 1-11?

The bottom line for me is that Genesis is a theologically critical part of the Bible’s message, and you simply can not dismiss it if you seriously take Holy Scripture as being God’s Word. There you will find some of the most fundamental Christian doctrines, including the concept that God is creator, that humans are created in God’s image, and that humans are subject to sin and rebellion against God.  I believe these things to be true because I believe God’s Word to be true. But how do these doctrinal teachings relate to history?

As a young Christian, I read the apologist C. S. Lewis who clearly believed that Genesis is a type of  “myth,” but not a “myth” in the popular sense. Instead, Lewis believed that early Genesis reveals a true myth. A true myth, for Lewis, is not a modern type of historical account of events, but nevertheless it reveals actual, genuine truth about the human condition grounded in historical realities. Lewis was an expert in literature, so it is difficult to dismiss his opinion lightly. However, while Lewis is still popular among many evangelical Christians, there are many who are rather embarrassed by Lewis’ rather contrarian views.

I also had some friends in college, as well as one of my college pastors, who approached things quite differently. They believed that Genesis is a type of revealed history, practically dictated in a sense, where Moses received this direct revelation from God for the entire story of the Book of Genesis as though Moses was there watching things happen right before his own eyes. Yet while I understand why this view is held, I have always scratched my head over the fact that there is no specific prooftext to be found in the entire Bible explaining when God, or an angel representing God, appeared before Moses with this particular revelation with the exact journalistic script. Of course, I can not say it could not have happened like this. If God wanted to reveal His truth in such a manner, who am I to challenge it? But I have always been puzzled as to why it is so difficult to find where the Bible explicitly teaches this, particularly by people who intently insist on this viewpoint.

Genesis essentially just tells the story, without telling us how the story was actually recorded, or how it was revealed to Moses, either directly or indirectly.We just know that the Bible considers this story authorized by Moses to be inspired, trustworthy revelation. Were the stories in Genesis 1-11 passed down orally from generation to generation through the history of Moses and then through later generations of Israel over the centuries into the written form we have it today? Most scholars say so, but questions still remain.

I am content to let things remain a mystery where the Bible is silent, and not venture into speculation that can not be adequately supported by the Scriptural text. Nevertheless, the question of historicity remains an important one for many, arguing that the historicity of the events described in Genesis 1-11 are crucial to understanding the very message of the Bible.

Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither presents three different approaches to this question, which can be summed up this way regarding the question of the historicity of Genesis:

  • Hoffmeier: Yes.
  • Wenham: Sort-of.
  • Sparks: Probably not.

In looking over the reviews for the book, you will find a number of helpful responses. For a detailed review, Kyle Greenwood, Old Testament Professor at Colorado Christian University, covers a general overview, an analysis of each position (Hoffmeier, Wenham, and Sparks), and an interview with the editor Charles Halton.

This review by Nijay Gupta is most sympathetic with Wenham’s view. Gordon Wenham’s ideas are influential to me in this previous Veracity post.

Blogger Tim Challies offers a review that generally follows Hoffmeier. Hoffmeier is illustrated in several previous Veracity postings (#1 and #2). Interestingly, Challies writes from a Young Earth Creationist perspective, and he raises the important point that the book lacks a specifically Young Earth Creationist viewpoint being presented. I would have to agree that this was an oversight on the part of Zondervan and it takes away from the otherwise broad appeal for the book.

Eastern Old Testament professor Peter Enns is more favorable to the views of his colleague at Eastern, Professor Sparks.

From BioLogos, we find a blog series that interacts with all three positions taken in the book.

My contention is that no one, not even the most rigid conservative, takes a completely strict literalist view of Genesis. When you have to make claims that are difficult to substantiate with clear, direct statements from God’s Word in order to defend a particular view, I am cautious. I find interpretive clues within the text itself that suggest a more nuanced method at work within the Bible. The temptation to want to place Genesis 1-11 in the category of a modern work of history, like a David McCullough best seller, is understandable, but a closer look at the text indicates that it is a certain type of genre, or even multiple genres, that do not line up easily with the modern desire for technical precision.

At the same time, to rule out Genesis as simply being merely a work of fiction requires a lot of explanation that I do not find convincing either. Many have dismissed Genesis 1-11 as pure fiction largely on anti-supernaturalistic bias grounds. But it is difficult to think that such a substantial and ancient literary tradition would have held together with such a profound sense of unity for as long as it has without having some grounding in actual historical events. For example, when you compare the Bible with the great Hindu creation myths, the unity of the Genesis narrative stands in stark contrast with the vastly conflicting Hindu narratives.

Though I have only read excerpts from the book, I am familiar enough with each writer that I can say my view is somewhere between Hoffmeier and Wenham, but I am not settled yet. Either way, I think this is an important issue, not only for apologetics, but also for the church, and Zondervan has done a very good thing by producing this book.

Additional Resources:

While Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither? addresses questions related to Genesis 1-11 in general, many Christians and skeptics have their own questions specifically aimed at the first two or three chapter of the Bible, particularly as they touch on issues relevant to the “faith and science” debate. In 2013, Veracity helped to sponsor a “Facts & Faith” symposium at the Williamsburg Community Chapel that sought to address these issues directly. If you are interested in this topic, you might want to consult the listing of Veracity resources cited on night one of the Symposium, and the presentations given on nights two and three. Or simply bring up the Veracity blog page, and in the “search” box on the right side of the page, below the “Join the Conversation” area, type in “creationism” and click “go” for a collection of articles written by John Paine and myself that explore these areas in great detail. There you will find all sorts of topics ranging from how a trip to Canada can inspire you to think more about the “faith and science” debate , to that nagging question of “well, what about the cavemen?”, to the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2.

Enjoy!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither?

  • Frances Flanagan

    My opinion about Genesis 1-11 ie the creation story is that it is an allegory
    or parable. It holds a mysterious truth. It could not be literal as there was no one, other than Adam and Eve around at the time to record the details. I am not a creationist. I believe in evolution, but only up to a point. I believe humans evolved but not from species to species. We have always
    been fully human, just different.

    Like

  • Charles Halton

    Thanks for this very thoughtful review. I hope the book is beneficial to you.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Dr. Halton: It is a privilege to have a book’s editor stop by and visit Veracity! Thanks for making the effort to put together a book on such an important topic for the church to discuss.

      You have a great team of faculty there at Houston Baptist. Glad to know that you are a part of that!

      Clarke Morledge

      Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Very good review from the Themelios journal. Definitely rejects Sparks (and Halton’s approach), and seems most favorable to Hoffmeier, but unclear about Wenham, which is were I lean (though I fall more in Hoffmeier’s direction slightly from Wenham, in certain areas).

    http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/genesis-history-fiction-or-neither-three-views-bibles-earliest-chapters

    Like

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