This post is the first of a four-part series by theologian, historian and Christian apologist Dr. John P. Dickson, dealing with the history and interpretation of Genesis 1. The series is based on Dickson's paper, "The Genesis of Everything: An historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter," which first appeared in 2009 at Christians in Science and Technology (ISCAST), an Australian organization dedicated to exploring the interface between science and the Christian faith. As its title suggests, the paper urges us to treat the early chapters of Genesis as a literary and historical statement, and listen carefully to it on those terms. In Part 1, below, Dickson frames the contemporary debate and surveys how Genesis was interpreted in a non-literalistic fashion long before the rise of modern science.
Introduction: a heated debate
It is obvious to anyone with even a cursory interest in the topic of ‘origins’ that the Bible’s opening creation account (Gen. 1:1–2:3)1 has been the subject of a very heated debate in recent years between so-called ‘six-day creationists’ and those branded ‘scientific materialists’. These labels are frequently used in a pejorative sense, so let me flag that my use of these epithets is one of convenience not criticism.
The six-day creationists insist, largely on the basis of Genesis 1, that the universe was created in just one week about 6000 years ago and that no other interpretation of the biblical material is possible for those seeking to be faithful to Scripture as divinely inspired. The scientific materialists retort, largely on the basis of the scientific data, that such a view is patently false and that the universe is close to 14 billion years old. Therefore, the Judeo-Christian account of our origins, they say, must be dismissed as irrelevant for our day. There are, of course, innumerable ‘middle-positions’ that are less relevant to the argument of this paper.
In what follows, I hope to demonstrate that both sides of the debate—as they typically present themselves—make a similar mistake. They form their conclusions about the biblical account of creation in isolation from the conclusions of many mainstream contemporary biblical historians. And it is as a historian that I wish to address this theme.
Six-day creationists and scientific materialists approach the opening chapter of the Bible in a ‘literalistic’ fashion. I use the word ‘literalistic’ deliberately, as I want to distinguish between literalistic and literal. A literalistic reading takes the words of a text at face value, interpreting them with minimal attention to literary genre and historical context. A literal reading such as my own, on the other hand, gives serious consideration to both the literary style and the historical setting of a text. It tries to understand not only what is said but what is meant—i.e. what the original author intended to convey. Sometimes in literature what is meant and what is said do not have a one to one correspondence. In metaphor, for example, what is meant is greater than what is said (‘The Lord is my shepherd’, Ps. 23:1). In hyperbole what is meant is less than what is said (‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away’, Mt. 5:30). One can read such literary devices literally—trying to discern what the literature intends to convey—without reading them literalistically.
Both six-day creationists and scientific materialists approach Genesis 1 as if the original author had intended to narrate the mechanics of creation in historical prose. I believe this is a mistaken, literalistic reading. For over a century now, a great many biblical historians have detected in the Bible’s opening words a style other than simple prose and a purpose other than to explain how the universe was made. These two issues, genre and purpose, are critical for understanding this foundational portion of the Jewish and Christian Bible. In what follows, then, I want to unpack what many modern scholars are saying about these issues and demonstrate that, properly understood, Genesis 1 teaches nothing scientifically problematic for the modern enquirer. I emphasize the adverb ‘scientifically’, since there is plenty in Genesis 1 that is theologically and existentially confronting. That is the aim of the text, as I understand it.
But, first, an important clarification: I must emphasize that this paper assumes no particular view of human origins. The questions explored are literary and historical, not scientific. My rejection of the literalistic reading of Genesis 1 offers no direct support for old-earth, progressive creationism (or ‘theistic evolution’, as it is sometimes called), nor is it intended to do so. In fact, the case made below is consistent with virtually any scientific account of origins. To put it starkly but no less accurately, even if science ended up proving that the universe was created in six days around 6000 years ago, this happy correspondence between the scientific data and the surface structure of Genesis 1 would not affect my interpretation of the text at all. I would still insist that the opening chapter of the Bible does not aim to teach a particular cosmic chronology and that to suggest otherwise misconstrues the author’s original intention.
An analogy may help. Suppose that some clear historical evidence were discovered that around AD 29 a certain fellow from Samaria was travelling along the Jerusalem-Jericho road and came upon a Jewish man stripped of his clothes and beaten half to death. The Samaritan promptly tended to his wounds and paid two denarii for his care at a nearby guesthouse. Would this chance discovery—perhaps in some passing report by Josephus or Philo—have any bearing on the actual point being made in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37) where precisely such details are narrated? The answer is ‘No’. It would certainly be a happy coincidence if one of Jesus’ didactic illustrations turned out also to be a true story, but it would not alter the fact that the ‘parable’ itself—a well-known literary device of Jewish antiquity—was never intended to be heard as a historical narrative. Parables are narrative constructs with a moral or spiritual message. Whether they correspond to events in time is of no consequence.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, therefore, is (in theory) consistent with any view of the historicity of the story because factuality is not relevant to the genre. A person reading the text may, of course, believe that Jesus was telling a factual story—it may well be—but he or she could not argue that the story puts itself forward as such; it is obviously a parable (even though, interestingly, the story is not introduced as a parable in Luke’s Gospel). The point here is not that Genesis 1 is also a parable. Not at all. I am simply emphasizing that some parts of Scripture, rightly interpreted, commit us to no particular view of the factuality of what is described. I do not believe that Genesis 1 teaches a six-day creation but this is neither an endorsement of theistic evolution nor a denial of six-day creationism. It is simply a literary and historical statement. I am happy to leave the science to the scientists.
Interpretation of Genesis 1 in the pre-scientific era
Before I give an account of what contemporary scholars are saying about the genre and purpose of Genesis, I want to establish for readers that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is by no means a recent phenomenon. Sceptical friends have often put it to me that my interpretation of Genesis 1 is really just an act of acquiescence to the troubling conclusions of modern science: ‘It is now clear that life emerged over a period of billions of years’, they say, ‘so now you are trying to appear respectable by picking and choosing how you read the Bible.’ Richard Dawkins has echoed this criticism with great flair recently (Dawkins 2006 pp. 237–238). Interestingly, six-day creationists say the same thing. They insist that the non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 is the result of biblical scholars losing their nerve or being taken captive to the Zeitgeist.
It is never wise to second-guess the motives of scholars on such questions but, more significantly, it is important to realize that the precedents for a non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can be found in the very distant past. What follows is not intended as a proof or validation of my interpretation; it is simply a counter-argument to the above suggestion. Genesis 1 was being interpreted in a non-literalistic fashion long before modern science became a ‘problem’ for some Christians.
The Jewish scholar Philo
The prolific Jewish scholar, Philo, who lived and worked in Alexandria in the first century (10 BC – AD 50), wrote a treatise titled On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses. In this work, Philo says that God probably created everything simultaneously and that the reference to ‘six days’ in Genesis indicates not temporal sequence but divine orderliness (Philo 13, 28). In the introduction to the Loeb Classical Library edition of this work the translators, FH Colson and GH Whitaker summarize Philo’s rather complex and subtle view of things:
By ‘six days’ Moses does not indicate a space of time in which the world was made, but the principles of order and productivity which governed its making [original emphasis].
It is perhaps important to note that Philo was not marginal. He was the leading intellectual of the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine.2 How widespread his views were we do not know, but his discussion of the topic reveals no hint of controversy.
The Greek ‘Fathers’
Philo is followed in this interpretation by the second century Christian theologian and evangelist, Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215), for whom the six days are symbolic (Stromata VI, 16). A generation later, Origen (185-254), the most influential theologian of the third century—again, an Alexandrian—understood Days 2–6 of the Genesis account as days in time. However, he regarded Day 1 as a non-temporal day. He reasoned that without matter, which was created on the second day, there could be no time; hence, no true ‘day’.3 What is interesting here is that a leading Christian scholar of antiquity was comfortable mixing concrete and metaphorical approaches to Genesis 1 (Origen in Heine 1982).
The Latin Fathers and beyond
Moving to Latin-speaking scholars, the fourth century Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (AD 339–397), taught a fully symbolic understanding of Genesis 1.4 Moreover, his greatest convert, and perhaps history’s most influential theologian, Saint Augustine, famously championed a quite sophisticated, non-literalistic reading of the text. Augustine understood the ‘days’ in Genesis 1 as successive epochs in which the substance of matter, which God had created in an instant in the distant past, was fashioned into the various forms we now recognise (Augustine 2002). Augustine’s view was endorsed by some of the biggest names in the medieval church, including the Venerable Bede in the 8th century (Hexaemeron 1, 1), St Albert the Great (Commentary on the Sentence 12, B, I) and the incomparable Thomas Aquinas (II Sentences 12, 3, I) in the 13th century.5
It must be said that such views were not the majority position during this period. The literalistic reading appears to have been the dominant one from the 5th century through to today. In her review of the interpretations of Genesis 1-2 offered by the ancient Fathers, Elizabeth Clark argues that this concrete approach to the text developed in the 5th century partly as a response to the ascetic, anti-creation heresies of the period. Only a literalistic understanding of the Bible’s creation account, it was thought, could preserve a truly biblical doctrine of the goodness of creation (Clark 1988 pp. 99-133).
Be that as it may, the larger point I wish to make is that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is not necessarily a nervous, modern reaction to the rise of contemporary science. It is a viewpoint (even if a minority one) with a long and venerable history in both Jewish and Christian traditions.
Having said this, there are aspects of the modern interpretation of Genesis 1 that only became possible in the 16th–19th centuries, at precisely the time of the scientific revolution. This is no coincidence. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods precipitated a literary revolution in parallel with the scientific one. This was a time of increasing sophistication in the historical-critical analysis of ancient texts in their original languages. Out of such analyses have come particular conclusions about the genre and purpose of Genesis chapter 1.