Adam and Eve with N.T. Wright
Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers his thoughts on how we should read the first two chapters of Genesis, and why myth does not mean the same thing as “not true”.
I think the difficulty we have is that questions about the historicity of Genesis and questions about the history of Adam and Eve get caught up in contemporary, particularly American culture. As a Brit looking across the Atlantic, I see this rather more clearly because these are not questions which you regularly find asked in Britain at all. Occasionally on the side, but they’re not big buzzy issues. They are certainly not umbilically linked to political issues which is clearly the case here in America.
That then causes all sorts of problems. People line up for political issues. You’ve got culture wars going on with the Left and the Right. You’ve got big political issues. I know a lot of Americans, just like a lot of English people, don’t understand French politics. A lot of Americans don’t understand that the rest of the world really doesn’t do it like that. We don’t bundle up the issues that way, whether it’s gun laws or abortion or whatever. We just don’t make those connections.
The question of Genesis, history or myth, these words are hooked in to whole great lists of other things. People are afraid that if you start wobbling about there, then oh, my goodness, you’re going to be denying this, you’re going to be affirming that.
We need to lighten up. We need to uncouple those issues. And we need to say, okay, Genesis is one of those books like a Shakespeare play, or like a Beethoven symphony, where you can describe what it sort of literally says. Here’s a Beethoven symphony, here are the notes. Da, da, da, dum. And you think, “Well, that doesn’t actually catch what’s going on in this.”
You want to use bigger language about the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, or say this is an amazing statement about the power of empire and the faith of man, and goodness knows what.
You’ve still got to play the notes, and in the same way I want to say Genesis 1, 2, and 3 are some of the most explosive Chapters. When anthropologists talk about myth, what they mean is not an untrue story. What they mean is a story which is full of power for how we understand ourselves individually, for how we understand ourselves as a community, for how we understand what the human project is all about, and some of its paradoxes and tragedies and so on.
The mythological element, however, has gotten misunderstood to be that if it’s myth, therefore it isn’t history, and vice versa. That’s just for starters.
We need to lighten up about these words and maybe find some other words because I do think it matters that something like a primal pair getting it wrong did happen. But that doesn’t mean that I’m saying that Genesis is kind of positivist, literal, clunky [sounds like] history over against myth.
Far from it. I think, for instance, that the six days of Genesis, and I’m with John Walton from Wheaten College on this, would be interpreted in terms of this describing how people make a temple or a tabernacle. This is a way of saying that when the good creator God made the world, He made heaven and earth as the space in which He, Himself, was going to dwell. And He shared the earth bit with human creatures.
To flatten that out into this is simply telling us that the world was made in six days is almost perversely to avoid the real thrust of the narrative. When I then find is that people who say, “Oh, it must have been made in six days,” etcetera, also have a very dualistic view about how one day God is going to throw the present space/time universe in the trash can and leave us all sitting on a cloud playing a harp.
I say, “Clearly you just haven’t been reading the same Bible. The meaning of Genesis is that this world was made to be God’s abode, God’s home, God’s dwelling. He shared it with us and He now wants to rescue it and redeem it.” We have to read Genesis for all it’s worth. To say either history or myth is a way of saying, “I’m not going to study this text for all it’s worth. I’m just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask.” I think that’s actually a form of being unfaithful to the text itself.