Understanding Origins and the Ancient Mind

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March 17, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Pete Enns. 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.

In this video conversation, Pete Enns sheds light on the key difference between the ancient and modern mind with regard to interpretation of texts.

A literal understanding of Genesis from an ancient mind frame would not necessarily be the same as what we now think of as a literal reading—where everything corresponds to reality in a one to one fashion.

Ancients were much more accepting of the language of metaphor and in many cases, expected it. This was the way that complex ideas were often transmitted in terms that people could understand.

In contrast, modern evangelicals carry very modern assumptions about reality that can be in conflict with the ancient (and therefore metaphorical) way of telling a story. Moderns presume that good communication will be literalistic and accurate and since metaphor departs from linear history and communicates things using imagery, misunderstandings can occur.

Enns suggests that we be cognizant of our twenty-first century context in order to read Genesis the way the ancients might have. “Be self conscious and self critical into what we bring into reading the Bible,” he says, “and trust God that something good will come out of it.”

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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hmm - #7073

March 17th 2010

“A literal understanding of Genesis from an ancient mind frame would not necessarily be the same as what we now think of as a literal reading”

Of course it would not be same as the text is now understood. And I suppose that there were also many interpretations during ancient time, and not just one. There were maybe both metaphorical and literal understanings about creation story also in the history.  And both metaphorical and literal interpretations were not necessarily the same as what we now think as metaphorical and literal interpretations.


Bob R. - #7074

March 17th 2010

Dr Enns,

Did Moses really float in a basket on the Nile? Was Bathsheba really washing herself on the rooftop? Did the ancient writer(s) actually employ a 1:1 correspondence between reality and the words they used to report these events?

It is clear to me that the ancients who wrote the O.T. were quite capable of expressing themselves literally (in the modern historical reporting sense) as the occasion demanded. It is also quite clear to me that we moderns are very capable of understanding the symbolism in The Matrix, Tolkien’s stories, etc. Your suggestion that metaphor is somewhat of a stranger to us Moderns is overstated. To suggest that the differences between the ancients and moderns is a significant barrier to reading the scriptures is also a bit oversimplified.

More to the point, I believe, is the link between a literal reading of the scriptures and the concept of inerrancy held by some. Some have structured inerrancy so rigidly that it could not possibly include a symbolic reading of Gen 1. It’s not that they can’t see the metaphorical signals. It’s because they don’t want to admit to them because they think inerrancy is at stake.


dopderbeck - #7084

March 17th 2010

Good stuff.


dopderbeck - #7085

March 17th 2010

But PLEASE post the embed and link codes so that we don’t have to go to You Tube in order to re-blog these!


gfire - #7089

March 17th 2010

BobR #7074 wrote:
>>More to the point, I believe, is the link between a literal reading of the scriptures and the concept of >>inerrancy held by some. Some have structured inerrancy so rigidly that it could not possibly include >>a symbolic reading of Gen 1. It’s not that they can’t see the metaphorical signals. It’s because they >>don’t want to admit to them because they think inerrancy is at stake.

Exactly. There was a time it was impossible for me to admit that the “firmament ” really means a hard dome because it would mean the Bible was in error, and one error would invalidate the whole.

What does it really mean for the Bible to be “God Breathed”? If the account of Adam and Eve, and the Fall (or flood or whatever) are God Breathed/Inspired accounts, it would seem they binding on us theologically and hence for doctrinal application (whether the actual events occurred in spacetime exactly as accounted or not).


Dr B - #7262

March 20th 2010

Bob R.:

“It’s because they don’t want to admit to them because they think inerrancy is at stake.”

I think this hits the nail on the head.  Of course, a particular view of inerrancy may be at stake, but scriptural authority and accuracy or even inerrancy understood more broadly is not.  That is the crux of the argument that needs to be advanced in the more conservative evangelical circles.


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