This is the third post in a three-part series featuring excerpts from the newly released book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible's Earliest Chapters, part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series in which top scholars present their perspectives on difficult topics and respond to each other’s presentations. Readers are advised to browse the previous posts in the series to give context to this final post.
The three scholars featured in this book—Hoffmeier, Wenham, and Sparks—represent vast differences in opinion about the extent to which Genesis reflects actual historical events. But the excerpts in the previous two parts of this series show a large degree of agreement about two things: First, that Genesis 1-11 is not pure fiction, and second, that these early chapters often have real events and places as their literary reference points. However, these two facts still leave the most important question unanswered: Were these “real events and places” only real in the ancient imagination? Are there parts of Genesis 1-11 which were assumed to be basically historical by the ancient Hebrew, but since have been shown false by modern science and history?
This is precisely the line that has historically separated the “conservatives” from the “modernists” in contemporary debates about the Bible’s authority. To conservatives, if the Scriptures describe an event as real, it must have actually happened more or less as it is described. For the modernists, events in the Bible should only be seen as historical if they first pass the tests of modern science, archaeology, history, and philosophy. None of the scholars in this series fit the stereotypes of either fundamentalist conservative or liberal modernist, but you will notice below how their differences of opinion show most clearly when discussing this question. Also included below is a short excerpt from the book’s conclusion, written by Dr. Charles Halton.
Hoffmeier (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology”):
Like the Psalmists of old, Christian theology is founded on God’s “glorious deeds … the wonders that he has done” (Ps 78:4) and we set our “hope in God and not forget the works of God” (Ps 78:7). If one reduces the narratives of Gen 1-11 to fictitious stories and legends, the history of salvation lacks its raison d’ ?tre. Fortunately, the Christian committed to Scripture need not commit intellectual suicide by embracing the historicity of the events described in early Genesis, for the text itself is written in such a way to reinforce this view. (p.58)
Wenham (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory”):
...I prefer to describe Gen 1–11 as protohistory. It is proto in that it describes origins, what happened first. It is also proto in that it is setting out models of God and his dealings with the human race. It is historical in that it is describing past realities and the lessons that should be drawn from them. [...] But whereas history could be described as a photograph of the past and fiction as a movie, protohistory is akin to a portrait of the past. It is a valid representation that faithfully portrays the artist’s intentions. And it is these intentions that the modern reader must focus on. He is not obliged to decide whether this detail or that is historical or imaginative interpretation. (p. 88)
Sparks (from essay titled, “Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography”):
Did the authors accept as historical anything which cannot in fact be historical? In some cases they did, with the flood story being the poster child. Everyone in antiquity seems to have believed that this deluge took place because they were not privy to the insights of modern geology and evolutionary biology. [...] Rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by these limitations, we will do far better if we honor the humble medium of Scripture and try, as best we can, to listen to what the ancient authors were trying to say through that medium. Humanity will not be saved by accurate historical recollections or scientific facts. We are saved through God’s actual intervention in our world through the person of Jesus Christ. (p. 139)
Halton (from conclusion titled, “We Disagree. What Now?”):
In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1-11 ultimately points us toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. (p. 162)
A big part of my own personal journey in thinking about the Bible has been a shift from simply defending the Bible’s authority (as I understood it) at all costs, to instead endeavoring to respect and learn from God’s chosen medium of communication without pre-supposition. The latter option has proven to be enormously fruitful in understanding the Bible in its original context, and I continue to realize how much my modern assumptions damage my ability to hear what the Scriptures say. In that respect, I resonate most with Sparks, although I find Wenham’s definition of “proto-history” to be helpful in understanding the genre of Genesis 1-11.
God chose to communicate through ordinary people in ancient times. He easily could have dropped the whole Bible from the skies on a giant scroll, or given the whole thing in one heavenly vision. Of course, God did communicate like his in some parts of the Scriptures, but his choice to speak his word through so many people in so many places and times should not be overlooked—it distinguishes Judaism and Christianity from most other religious movements in the world, who rely on a single vision or golden tablet or so on. God’s character is communicated not only through his message, but through his method. As a Christian, I serve a God who loves to work through the lowly and ordinary. To me, that’s a powerful reason to bow my knee in worship.
A final note: If you’ve been intrigued by these excerpts, I highly recommend reading through the rest of this excellent book. Each of the scholars applies their perspective to the stories of the Flood, the Nephilim, and the tower of Babel. The results are fascinating and instructive.