Adam and Eve, History or Myth?

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January 13, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin

Today's video features N.T. Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for evangelical Christians who are resistant to the idea of evolution is a literalist reading of scripture –– in particular, the text of Genesis 1-3, which details the creation of the earth and its inhabitants.

While most biblical scholars would likely advocate a literary reading of Genesis, as opposed to a literal one, the characterization of Genesis 1-3 as a “mythic” text can make some people uneasy. This is largely due to the fact that in our American culture, “myth” has become synonymous with “not true”. From its Greek origin, however, myth is simply defined as a story or legend that has cultural significance in explaining the hows and whys of human existence, using metaphorical language to express ideas beyond the realm of our five senses.

But to suggest that Genesis is both a mythic text as well as the “inerrant Word of God” may require a leap of faith for some.

British author, pastor, and theologian Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright suggests that the mythological part has been misunderstood and discarded by many evangelicals in favor of a reading based entirely on questions of historicity.

He argues that “to flatten that [the text of Genesis] out is to almost perversely avoid the real thrust of the narrative … we have to read Genesis for all its worth and to say either history or myth is a way of saying 'I’m not going to read this text for all its worth, I am just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask'.”

Many might wonder—but isn’t this pursuit of contemporary context a good thing? Not so, Wright replies, “I think that’s actually a form of being unfaithful to the text itself.”

In this video clip, Wright suggests that questions concerning the historicity of Genesis and the historicity of Adam and Eve get caught up in contemporary cultural issues and miss the larger story.

For more conversations about science and religion, be sure to visit our new "Conversations" section, accessible through our Audio/Video page or on our YouTube channel.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.

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beaglelady - #2574

January 13th 2010

This was an excellent talk. It’s enlightening (sometimes embarrassing)  to sometimes look at ourselves as others see us. (Most but certainly not all of us here are Americans.)

N. T. Wright has always been a favorite of mine.  He is a voice for orthodoxy in the challenging world-wide Anglican Communion.  I also love his books, and we have studied some of them in our theology class at my church.  I recommend them to one and all.


Jonathan Gauntlett - #2580

January 13th 2010

This is an excellent post, as expected from someone of Wrights calibre.  As Christianity is an historical religion, rooted ultimately in the historicity of Christ, it can be difficult for Christians to regard Genesis 1-3, or perhaps more correctly 1-11, as a mythic text.  But we must remember that our modern tendency to find value in a text only in its literal of scientific accuracy should be placed aside when we consider that Gen 1-11 was given to an Ancient Near Eastern Culture that understood itself, its world, and its relationship to both God and other cultures in a mythological context.  I think Wright is absolutely correct to say that we do gross injustice to Genesis and greatly undervalue the depth of meaning in the text if we read it at only a literal level.  However, I think the conversation needs to be broadened to include a discussion regarding why NT authors such as Paul and Christ, for example Matt 19:4, also refer to Adam and Eve as literal historical characters.  This is because regarding Gen 1-11 as non-literal and non-historical has implications for an evangelical understanding of the NT.


Mere_Christian - #2591

January 13th 2010

Without a real Seth, there is little for real life to be represented in the rest of the Bible. Seth had a real mother and real father.


Brian - #2593

January 13th 2010

Genesis, perhaps rightly, gets the lions’ share of the attention, but this is not the only relevant biblical text. 

I’m wondering how the Biologos folks interpret Rom 1, for example, which reads in part, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. “

Seems pretty clear that Paul believes that a first century man with few tools at his disposal other than the naked eye is accountable to the god who made him.  And on what basis?  That the character of God—at least at a high level—can be “clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” 

I’m particularly interested in the opinions of the Biologos folks:  do the tools of modern science not add *any* value or insight whatsoever in terms of reasoning from creation back to creator?


Steve - #2594

January 13th 2010

Quick!  Is there any way to embed this video on Facebook?


Mike Gene - #2602

January 14th 2010

There are three core truths that not only emerge clearly from Genesis 1-3, but also transcend literalism. 

1.  What is sin?  Sin is rebellion against the will of God.

2. What is the consequence of sin?  Evil, pain, suffering – existence outside the will of God.

3. What do humans do when confronted with their own sin?  Deny it and direct the blame elsewhere.  In essence, when confronted with their own sin, they sin again.

People sometime say to me, “Mike, but if there is no literal Adam and Eve, why did Jesus have to die?”  To which I respond, “Are you saying you are without sin?”


Pete Enns - #2603

January 14th 2010

Jonathan,

Just briefly, I think you are certainly correct. As I have said in other venues, the problem for a lot of Xians is not “science and faith” and not even “evolution and Genesis.” It is “Darwin and Paul” (referring to Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15; I also realize “Darwin” is just a convenient cipher—a lot has happened since Darwin).  The issue for Xians is a dual hermeneutical issue: how do we understand Genesis in a way that is in honest conversation with what we know today scientifically and in terms of ancient Near Eastern religious texts that parallel Genesis AND how do we handle Paul’s understanding of Genesis when he was not aware of the very factors that force our own reconsideration of Genesis. In my opinion, American Evangelicalism is not well equipped to address this issue because of its polemical history, some of which NTW alludes to.


Stephen Barkley - #2620

January 14th 2010

Thanks for the excellent video.

I wholeheartedly agree that we must allow the text to speak for itself rather than lay our 21st century North American framework on it—I just wonder whether that ideal’s possible. Could our very desire to challenge classic teaching be birthed out of the cultural shift out of modernism? Just a thought.

Thank you for this resource.

Steve.


Gregory Arago - #2622

January 14th 2010

Great video! Thanks 4 posting this!

On ‘myth’ by McLuhan:

“Myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, & the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension of ordinary industrial & social action today.” (1964: 38)

“[M]yth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of complex group causes & effects. In an age of fragmented, lineal awareness, such as produced & was in turn greatly exaggerated by Gutenberg technology, mythological vision remains quite opaque.” (1962: 266)

“Henceforth, literature will be at war with itself & with the social mechanics of conscious goals and motivations. For the matter of literary vision will be collective & mythic, while the forms of literary expression & communication will individualistic, segmental, & mechanical. The vision will be tribal & collective, the expression private & marketable. This dilemma continues to the present to rend the individual Western consciousness. Western man knows that his values & modalities are the product of literacy. Yet the means of extending those values, technologically, seem to deny & reverse them.” (1962: 269)

Fully agreed with Wright @ this. - Gr.


Charlie - #2626

January 14th 2010

I think the main problem many Christians have with the Bible conflicting with science is that if they are to interpret parts of the Bible differently at the individual level, there is no way to determine if that interpretation is correct.  It is difficult to have an organized religion with multiple, personal religions.  Also, how does one exclude God as a symbol for something like the big bang instead of being a higher being, while still seeing other aspects of the Bible as symbolic?  If the Bible is taken on personal interpretation, it is impossible for Christians to know or learn what aspects of the Bible are actually fact (I’m guessing all Christians agree that Jesus existed) from something the Biblical writers were uneducated about (raqia) from myth (Adam and Eve) from something divine (believing God is a higher being).


Jonathan Gauntlett - #2637

January 14th 2010

Dr Enns,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.  I think that perhaps Genesis is the easy issue to tackle, but any alert evangelical will immediately notice the implications of a non-literal Genesis for a slew of other doctrines.  As you point out, Darwin and Paul is perhaps one of the most significant.  However, I think that the evolutionary creationist, or Biologos, position has the keys to constructively discuss these issues.  From reading your excellent and provocative book it is clear that the historical situation of the author influences scripture.  If we consider the following points made by yourself and Dr O. Lamoureux: 1.  The historical/cultural setting to which revelation was given.  2.  The ability of the Holy Spirit to accommodate His revelation to within the setting and 3.  The message/incidence principle, that we can in many instances still clearly discern the theological message within the vehicle in which it was given, then can we not begin to understand something of what Paul was saying and why it was said given the background from which He was coming?  It’s just that although discussion regarding Genesis is excellent and necessary, I would love to see here a scholarly post on evolution and the New Testament.


Russell Ash - #2646

January 14th 2010

I believe Adam represents the first man and eve represents the first woman. I have a theistic evolutionary stance, but one opposition to this video if I may. It seems as if N.T. Wright near the end of this video was saying that Heaven will be on earth. Now there is where I differ. I do not believe that this world will be redeemed, but that there will be a new Heaven and new Earth completely separate from this universe. Theistic evolutionists believe in an afterlife right?


Pete Enns - #2648

January 14th 2010

Jonathan,

I will consider a post like that. It is needed. Actually I am writing a book (don’t hold your breath) that is aimed at addressing the hermeneutical issues concerning evolution, with an entire section on Paul and the NT. If you “get” my book, you’ll see where I am going with that. Thanks for your comments.

Russell, yes we do believe in an afterlife. As for the New Heaven/Earth, I think NTW would say (and I would agree) that there is continuity and discontinuity with the old—much like the resurrection body. Final redemption concerns the entire cosmos. The old will be made new. NTW is trying to guard against a “heaven is sitting on clouds and playing harps” idea, which is grotesque from the point of view of biblical eschatology. Thanks too for your comments.


Matt - #2673

January 15th 2010

Dr. Enns,

I was wondering if you could comment on NTW’s (almost passing) comment about a belief in an original pair, even if one accepts that Gen 2-3 describes this in mythical language. (i.e., not a literal “Adam” and “Eve”, but an a literal pair.)

Thanks,

Matt


Pete Enns - #2685

January 15th 2010

I’m not sure, Matt. I think NTW may be thinking in terms of an original pair that was a result of evolution but then “created” in the image of God and so became a “first pair.” That is how I hear a lot of people coming to terms with evolution while also maintaining a first pair in some sense. I think that is an issue that could be explored in great depth, both for its strengths and weaknesses, and I can’t begin to do it justice here.


Matthew Walsh - #2692

January 15th 2010

Thanks for the response, Dr. Enns.  I lean (hope) toward that understanding, but I also recognize that it is not “air tight.”  I do think that it is an issue to be explored.  If evangelicals are comfortable with evolution, they gravitate toward that kind of understanding, as opposed to, for example, an interpretation like Denis Lemoureux’s.  That being said, I think Lemoureux et al understandings have a lot to commend to them.  An original pair takes some of the sting out of wrestling with Pauline interpretation (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15).  Thanks for your work.  As I mentioned previously (via fb), I&I has been helpful to me.

Living in the tension,

Matt


Gregory Arago - #2709

January 15th 2010

“an original pair that was a result of evolution but then “created” in the image of God and so became a “first pair”.” - Dr. Enns

Yes, this sounds like a fair ‘accommodation.’ That’s meant in a supportive sense!

I also like M. Gene’s answer to the ‘reality of Adam and Eve.’ : )

One problem here is when geneticists claim that there was not a ‘first pair’ but rather a ‘first group.’

As an Adamic thinker/believer, along with all Jews, Christians and Muslims, I am offended by natural scientists who claim “there was no *real* Adam and/or Eve”.

How can this seeming contradiction of positions be remedied?

As a non-geneticist, I cannot tell a geneticist they are ‘wrong.’ But I can say that the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ have more than simply a ‘genetic’ meaning.

Is this a place where ‘scientism’ is exposed?


Knockgoats - #2710

January 15th 2010

“As an Adamic thinker/believer, along with all Jews, Christians and Muslims, I am offended by natural scientists who claim “there was no *real* Adam and/or Eve”.” - Gregory Arago

Since there wasn’t - the genetic evidence is absolutely clear - you’re offended by people telling the truth. I guess telling the truth is what you mean by “scientism”.


Pete Enns - #2735

January 15th 2010

Mere_Christian.

Xian is a common, accepted abbreviation. You may not know Greek, but “X” is not the English letter but the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter in the word Christ and Christian. In this context, it saves character space since we are limited.


Edward T. Babinski - #2819

January 17th 2010

Why is the whole Bible framed by two myths? It stars with Genesis 1 and the ends with the descent of the “New Jerusalem” in Rev. What other myths not lie between those two?


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