When was Genesis Written and Why Does it Matter?

The question of when Genesis was written is not a new one. It has been a focus of modern biblical scholarship since the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, this scholarly development is often looked on as largely negative, as if it is simply unsettling the undisturbed consensus of thousands of years of Jewish and Christian opinion. Modern biblical scholarship is hardly above criticism, and some dramatic shifts have happened that were unprecedented in the pre-modern period. But it is wrong to suggest that a universal and undisturbed consensus was suddenly under attack by academics. Modern scholarship on the Pentateuch did not come out of nowhere; the authorship of the Pentateuch as a whole had posed challenges to readers centuries before the modern period.

Having some insight into when the Pentateuch was written has helped readers today understand something of why it was written. That why question is important when the discussion turns to the relationship between Genesis and modern science—be it cosmology, geology, or biology. The more we understand what Genesis was designed to do by its author, the better position we will be in to assess how Genesis is or is not compatible with modern science. Making false assumptions about what to expect from Genesis is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to a fruitful discussion between science, especially evolution, and Christianity.

This essay is limited in scope. It is mainly a descriptive historical survey of some issues surrounding the question of when the Pentateuch was written and how that question was answered. There will always be some differences of opinion on how that question is answered specifically, but there is a strong, general consensus today among biblical scholars that is important to grapple with in trying to understand Genesis: the Pentateuch as we know it is the end product of a complex literary process—written, oral, or both—that did not come to a close until the exile (586-539 BC) and postexilic period. The Pentateuch as we know it is a response to the crisis of exile, and much of the Old Testament as a whole seems to be explained in a similar way. Understanding something of why we have a Bible at all will help Christian readers today think more theologically about how best to engage Genesis as God’s Word when the topic turns to the compatibility of Genesis and evolution.

Before You Read ...

Dear reader,

A new poll shows that for young adults in particular, belief in God is plummeting. From research, we know a primary driver behind a loss of faith among young people is the church’s rejection of science. To put it bluntly: Young people aren’t leaving the faith because of science, they’re leaving because they’ve been told to choose between science and God. That’s why BioLogos exists—to show that science and faith can work hand-in-hand. And although the challenge is clearly daunting, our work is having an impact!

As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of grassroots donors like you to reach those who are being told, “It’s God or evolution!” or “It’s God or vaccines!” or “It’s God or science!” In this urgent moment, we need your help to continue to produce resources such as this.

Give Now

Pete Enns
About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs.