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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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Martin Rizley - #3012

January 19th 2010

It seem to me that Dr. Wright wants to have his cake and eat it, too, in this sense:  he admits that something like a “first human pair that got it wrong” took place in the historic past, yet he wants to categorize the first three chapters of Genesis as “myth.”  My question to him is, if Genesis is truly a myth, why does there need to be a “first human pair” at all?  It seems to me that he is wanting in some sense to affirm a historic “fall of man” into sin from an original state of sinless perfection, because he understands as a theologian, that without the doctrine of original sin and racial depravity, the whole system of Christian truth simply falls apart.  Once you begin speaking of a “first human pair that got it wrong,” however, the question immediately arise—where did you get that idea from?  Certainly not from books on evolutionary science.  Clearly, he has gotten this idea from the Genesis narrative itself.  So he is virutally admitting an underlying historical basis to the event recorded in Genesis 1-3— a view that is clearly at odds with the more radical views that are commonly expressed on this website, which deny any historical basis to Genesis at all.


Knockgoats - #3025

January 20th 2010

I completely agree with Martin Rizley - let the record show!


Martin Rizley - #3028

January 20th 2010

Knockgoats,
The record does in fact show that Dr. Wright got it right—despite his labelling of Genesis as “myth”— when he spoke of a “first human pair that got it wrong.”  I am speaking, of course, of the testimonial record of the inspired Scriptures, which is the most reliable record of all.


Sabio Lantz - #3160

January 22nd 2010

I get how one can look at the “thrust” of the Myth—as Wright says.  In fact, I just posted about a Hindu myth in the Mahabharata.

Wright seems to want it both ways.  He wants us not to judge his myth so that he can have it claiming “truths” that he wants it to say.  He is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is.

He tells us that he believes that Genesis tells us the truth when it says that something like “a primal pair getting it wrong did happen.”  And that Genesis makes a true claim when it says this world was made to be God’s dwelling and he shared it with humans.

Wright wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true. 

If we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. Unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection.  Instead they want to use it as a sacred tribal flag.


Martin Rizley - #3163

January 22nd 2010

Sabio,
I couldn’t agree with you more!  To speak of the Bible as “a divine revelation which errs much of what it affirms” is indeed a slippery-slide game by people who want to cling to certain select affirmations they find “comforting,” while rejecting those other affirmations that offend one’s autonomous reason, because I am unwilling to bring one’s reason in submission to the supreme, infallible authority of Scripture.  If the Bible is only true in some of what it affirms, it is not the Word of God.  It may “contain” God’s Word, as neorthodox theologians affirm, but it is not itself the Word of God—and it is intellectually dishonest and disingenuous for people to say that they believe the Bible is the Word of God, while picking and choosing which parts of it they believe to be true; for if the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot err, since God cannot err.


Martin Rizley - #3165

January 22nd 2010

Sabio,
Please excuse the grammatical errors in the post above, I didn’t check it before sending it!


WoundedEgo - #3665

January 30th 2010

I guess what he is saying is that Brits, for cultural reasons, take the story seriously, as a religious literature full of deep meaning, but that it is fiction, while Americans mistakenly take it as fact, and thus at odds with a scientific view of the universe. Fine, but he fails to show any reason for adopting a British viewpoint. Why take it as fiction?

Personally, I’ve come to regard the whole “Bible” as fiction, largely because the whole of the scriptures presume the Cosmogeny and Cosmology of Moses, which is patently false. For example, God is *always* presumed to be “up.” How can that be so on a spinning ball? And what of the sky ceiling, with its rain hatches?:

Revelation 4:1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door [hatch] was opened in heaven [the sky ceiling]: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.


Corby - #3699

January 31st 2010

Ethnographers see myths as important in understanding the culture they are studying.  The myths find their meaning and purpose and thus their validity in a certain culture’s context.  If Genesis 1-3 is an ancient near eastern creation myth of a Semitic tribe of people, then there is ultimately no good reason to apply it to other cultural contexts.  Divorced from its context it would have lose its power and relevance.

However, for the Christian it still has power and meaning and it cuts across contexts.  Why?  Because it is myth?  The apostle Paul understood its power not because he was keen on myth, but because the word of God conveys a truth though time and culture that a myth could never do.

For example, is your life impacted as a Christian, by the creation myth of the Yanamamo or the Navajo?  Can these myths be appreciated and shed light on the cultures from which they sprang?  Yes.  But they are not going to be used as examples, as Paul did with Adam, to argue the reason why Jesus Christ had to die on the cross.

I don’t think the word “myth” is the way to go.  NTW is a smart man; perhaps he should use or even coin a new word or phrase.


Wayne MacKirdy - #3845

February 2nd 2010

Question(s): If Genesis 1 and 2 are mythical, is Genesis 3 mythical also? How do we know one way or the other? If Genesis 3 is mythical, is Genesis 4? How about 5? How about 6-9? How about 10 and 11? How do we know when the mythical ceases and the historical begins? What criteria do we use to establish which is which? What hermeneutical principles are applied to the text to determine which is which?


Pete Enns - #3866

February 3rd 2010

Wayne,

I understand the logic of your questions, but this is not a helpful way forward. The questions you ask about the various episodes in Genesis are not new, but have been scoured over countless times for generations, and various answers to these questions have been and continue to be discussed and debated. But, the fact that a “mythical” reading of Genesis 1-2 could lead to a mythical reading of Gen 3 does not mean that we are on the proverbial slippery slope. We are, rather, on a path to understanding what these stories in Genesis are saying and how they are to be understood today.


Jerry Wragg - #3906

February 3rd 2010

I so wish I’d been born in the U.K., where they don’t have to be saddled with subjectivity and childish muddling of the religious with cultural and political ideals.  I can’t imagine how briliant and free I’d be if America could only quit bothering with such trivialities as whether Genesis is actual truth, and get on with the objective kind of thinking inherent with being British.

You’ve got to be kidding me!


Philip Donald - #4079

February 8th 2010

I agree that the word Myth is not always useful. I think ‘analogy’ may be more useful, but as someone mentioned before, coining a new phrase may be best. Myth, also as mentioned before, does not mean fantasy, in the way that NTW uses it. Something can be a myth and be true if we take the original meaning of the word myth. But nowadays, myth is too much saddled with the meaning ‘fantasy’ for it to be useful for this debate. There is something to be commended for living in the tension between myth and historical exactness. We’re often too caught up in reaching an ideal certitude which does not exist this side of the resurrection, if ever.


woodenheadedliteralist - #4603

February 16th 2010

Oh, now I see, I am finally on the path to understanding.  I don’t have to be saddled with this clunky historical account.  I can be set free to embrace the major thematic thrusts of this ancient book.  Before I thought the events presented in the books of the Bible actually happened in history and that major thematic themes were taking place congruently, what a fool I have been.  Now I don’t have to marvel at how an all powerful all wise God could create the universe in six 24 hr days because the truth is that He didn’t do it and I refuse to accept that He could.  Doing so might flatten out the real thrust.


Jerry Wragg - #4725

February 17th 2010

Philip -

You said: “We’re too often caught up in reaching an ideal certitude which does not exist this side of the resurrection, if ever.”

So, let me get this straight: You say that being “caught up” in the search for certitude is, in fact, certainly futile because no such objective certainty is, in fact, certainly or definitively reachable in this life.

So much for your attempt at remaining uncertain!


Russ - #5294

February 25th 2010

I think there is some historical significance to Adam and Eve. Not in the sense that Genesis 2 and 3 literally happened in that way, but that Adam and Eve are used in the story because of theological significance, in fact, an almost prophetic significance. Luke’s genealogy takes Jesus all the way back to Adam. The historical couple are thus used in the myth as examples of mankind’s relationship with God and what caused mankind to fall away from God. This particular couple is highlighted to show that Jesus is going to redeem their (mankind’s) mistake. My only reason for asserting that there probably was a couple who’s names were Adam and Eve is because of their historical appearance within the text (Adam is given an age and he and Eve beget children). As far as I am concerned, once chapter four starts, myth ends and history begins.


#John1453 - #5329

February 25th 2010

woodenheadedliteralist is, though sarcastic, on the path to understanding. First, understand that myths can be historically true, or false. The legend of Troy was though to be fictional, but found to be true (though that legend is not a myth in the sense of a overacrhing story that has cultural significance and defines one’s understanding of oneself and the world).

Second, use your own 21st century culture and needs to make demands of the text that it has no interest in addressing. Being part of a culture that sees “history” as only being of one kind and that is still fighting a culture war narrows too much one’s reading of Genesis.

Third, God is sovereign and can have the Bible written anyway he wants to; he does not have to conform to any of our ideas about how the Bible must be written in order to be a valid revelation of himself and his relationship to humans. We need to investigate and understand how the Bible understands itself and defines itself and how God used people of a particular time, place and culture to communicate himself to both them and the wider world.

regards,
#John


William Smith - #5719

March 3rd 2010

How does N. T. Wright get taken seriously.  His lack of education is stunning.  One glaring example: In his book SIMPLY CHRISTIAN (the worst non-fiction book I have ever finished) has compared Old Testament (i.e. Hebrew) history to a “Wagnerian leitmotif.” As any educated person knows, Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite who wrote a book about what he regarded as the malevolent Jewish influence in German culture.  His views helped pave the way for Hitler. 

More than this, in an age when a focus on social justice and communal worship (rather than on love for your individual neighbor and each individual’s loving obedience of God’s commandments) has just about destroyed the church, Wright entitles his first chapter “justice” and says (repeatedly and clumsily) that Jesus came to “put the world to rights.” 

Forget N. T. Wright and go back (I guess) to reading a truly great mind from a greater era in the church: C. S. Lewis. His “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” is especially good medicine for the all-community, no-individual warping of the church.


Drane Reynolds - #6016

March 7th 2010

I have no problem with the idea that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are essentially mythological, though with some vague historical connections. (Real history only begins with Abraham, though there are some mythological elements here and later in scripture as well) . For instance, there appears to be some evidence of a great flood in the Ancient Near East, though the story of Noah’s ark is unlikely at best. The meaning of those stories, however carry important theological and human truth. I think Wright, whom I greatly respect as a New Testament scholar, is too conservative here. Evolution has carried the day in science and Christians must be able to reconcile that view with their view of God as creator.


Brian - #8996

April 7th 2010

I’m a little confused with N.T Wright and his stance on Adam and Eve as historical characters. He does say it is important that “Something like” 2 humans got it wrong happened. But that “Something Like” is very vague.  it could refer to a rebellion of two humans in a garden but it could also refer to the rebellion of humans generally


Dr. James Willingham - #9569

April 12th 2010

Once an atheist,  willing to exterminate religion prior to conversion, I remember my pychology professor introducing the pabulum of mythology and evolution in Genesis 1-11.  It implied that the atheistic,  approach was right. After that,  I studied the issue. I discovered modern science is flawed,  hung up in analysis. The difficulty is synthesis, when the null hypothesis is true.  There is the problem of Social Darwinism and Eugenics adopted by the Nazis..  I look at the Bible in light of intellect, inspired by Omniscience.  It reflects wisdom commensurate with the fact.  Intellectualism is my interest. I am impressed by biblical simplicity,depth,clarity and profoundity.  N.T. Wright is a NT Scholar.  I read his writings with profit, but he is over his head in Genesis.  Strange mythology in a literature concerned with truth. Peter said, “We have not followed cunningly devised myths.”  He spoke of the Mount of Transfiguration;  he preferred the Book to experience. Seeing the book conquer vicious desires, I give it the benefit of doubt.  Since people lie for a cause and scientists pull stunts, too, I am not impressed with evolution as in my atheistic days..


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