This is the second 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 cases and respond to each other’s presentations. Readers are advised to browse the first post in the series for an introduction to the book and the subject matter.
As we saw yesterday, all three scholars thought the word “myth”—according to the common definition of an invented story disconnected from actual history—is not an appropriate category for the first eleven chapters of Genesis. But this hardly solves the question of historical accuracy. Even if the author(s) of Genesis had real events in mind as they wrote, we shouldn’t assume that their goal was to produce an exhaustively precise historical account the same way David McCullough or Ken Burns would. Here’s another spoiler: None of the three scholars think Genesis is simply a chronologically organized bundle of facts. The modern obsession with precision is exactly that—modern.
Again, I invite you to read these excerpts not as an argument between warring perspectives, but instead as a joint invitation to re-think the way we approach Genesis. Perhaps we are a bit too eager to get behind the text, and should instead learn from the text as it given to us.
Hoffmeier (from essay titlted, "Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology"):
The general tenor of the book [of Genesis], and Gen 1-11 in particular, is intended to be thought of as describing real events. A piece of ancient literature concerning past events does not have to be recorded with the kind of historiographical precision that would be expected of a modern academic historian or journalist. The geographical clues provided in Gen 1-11 suggest that these events from an ancient past occurred...in a real world, a world recognizable to the ancient reader or narrator of the narratives. (p. 58)
Wenham (from essay titled, "Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory"):
[There are] good reasons for affirming that the stories of Genesis are like history in some respects. . . . These chapters contain stories that both illustrate important social and theological principles, as myths are often alleged to do, yet they also tell of unique occurences. These may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events. (p. 85)
Sparks (from essay titlted, "Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography"):
Did the authors intend at every point to write reliable history? As I see it, the answer must be no. Our comparison of the texts and sources reveals pretty clearly that the authors were so invested in shaping and reshaping their sources that they cannot have intended their work to yield similitude with actual events. [...] In saying this, I don’t intend to suggest that the authors were avoiding history, as might be the case in full-fledged allegory. I mean instead that they were so busy doing something else that historical questions were not in the foreground of their thinking. (p. 138)
Here’s my attempt at a summary of all three views: Genesis frequently references events and places that the writers (and listeners/readers) thought of as real, but its message does not rely on its pinpoint historical accuracy. Tomorrow, we will deal with the elephant in the room of this discussion—the relationship between historical accuracy and biblical authority. Not surprisingly, this is the point at which the scholars most sharply disagree. What does it mean that the Bible is authoritative? What does it mean that Genesis is a divine revelation? How does Genesis 1-11 fit in the big picture of God’s Holy Word? These are the most important questions in this discussion, and tomorrow’s excerpts will get to the heart of the matter.