What if Adam was just a character in an Ancient Creation Story?


(Jon Garvey) #21

I’d say it’s what we know about US OT criticism today - Enns himself complains about English scholarship not following suit. And I’m English, Reformed and in the Catholic tradition!

Late Patristic figures like Origen and Gregory are indeed ancient authorities, but the historical understanding predates their allegorical one - for example, Josephus is happy to recount the death of the firstborn (and the existence of Adam) as straightforward history in Antiquities.

But I’d say we know far more about history than him, or Gregory, or the nineteenth-century critical scholars. On the one hand, we understand more about the literary genres, the use of hyperbole in military accounts and so on, which casts some light on the Exodus account.

On the other, whereas Gregory had only the Bible itself to rely on, we can say that, for example, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile consistently foretold by the prophets as divine judgement actually occurred in exactly the way Scripture describes. Likewise the subsequent destruction prophesied by Jesus in vindication of his ministry also occurred (not least because described as history by Josephus), and has historical ramifications affecting the world down to the present.

This interweaving of God’s actions in history makes it pointless to lean on “fictional typology” - Jesus’s kingdom is presented by him as the restoration of the remnant of Israel after a very real historical, as well as spiritual, exile for covenant-disloyalty. That major emphasis alone would be sufficient to make the more distant typology of Adam less than crucial, much as it’s really no use getting steamed up about the moral impossibility of the destruction of the firstborn when the actuality of Jerusalem’s two destructions is staring you in the historical face.

So if the exile-judgement prefigured in the “Old Testament of the Old Testament”, ie the exile of Judah which became typological for the kingdom of Christ, was historical, the question of whether the type itself is literal or figurative is a matter of evidence, not principle.

Enns says that the Fall narrative was a response to the Babylonian Exile: Tom Wright says that no exilic Israelite could have read the Fall narrative without identifying Israel with it. Which way round is it?

Apart from the positive evidence of the re-use of Genesis themes and language in the pre-exilic prophets, I just don’t see what function the Eden narrative would serve as a new-made tale told to exiles. The main thrust of the prophetic agenda had been, for centuries, unfaithfulness to the covenant and the law especially in idolatry, and the prediction of nasty foreigners to finish off the covenant… mitigated around the actual time of the exile by the hope of an entirely new kind of covenant.

If you’ve been led away to Babylon, that point has been more than amply made to you: you’re writing and reading Lamentations. Or if you pick up on the latestr prophetic word, you begin to pray for a distant deliverance, or at least the hope of return after 70 years.

The returned exiles live in the day of small things and, to most, continued spiritual exile, and begin to focus their hopes on Messianic and related eschatological expections.

So somebody makes up a human origins account in which the first humans mess up as throughly as the chosen people appear to have done. If I were a Jew, I’d say, “So what? That doesn’t ease my pain, or give a way back to God.” In fact, given that I already knew the story of Adam (as suggested by Hosea and Ezekiel, at least, not to mention all the other literary allusions to Gen1-11 - even the source critics attribute Gen 2-3 to J), I’d be mighty suspicious about the validity of a new version that made my unprecendented suffering merely the story of Everyman.

That’s even more so, it seems to me, if one follows the Orthodox Tradition that says the Eden narrative explains death, not sin. How does your exilic Jew relate to that typology in his hour of greatest need?

(Steve Schaffner) #22

Since I think Adam was a character in an ancient creation story, it wouldn’t affect my life at all.

(Steve Schaffner) #23

I’d need some convincing to agree with that. Good allegories abound without historical cores: The Faerie Queene, The Romance of the Rose, Pilgram’s Progress, Piers Plowman. The Divine Comedy has a literal level of interpretation, but the story itself is wholly fictional.

(Jon Garvey) #24

The elephant in the room is the absence of a genre of extended allegory in the ANE, particularly of the Pilgrim’s Progress “Everyman” type, which is the commonest way to see Adam allegorically.

Piers Plowman is somewhere near the top of that European tradition, in which only England and its King is (somewhat) real, and everyone else is a “quality.”

Divine Comedy has more in common with, at least, 2nd temple apocalyptic, in that Dante’s cosmology is basically an elaboration in detail of what was believed: in that respect it’s like, say, 1 Enoch. Dante might have been flying a kite respecting the exact spiritual situation of Virgil, but he expected to see him one day either in a purgatory or hell much like that he describes.

I should add (in the context of Mark’s championing of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture) that I’m not aware of an ANE genre of writing up origins myths, such as the Exodus in historical form, with reference to cities, battles, minor characters, grumbling soldiery etc. That would make the Hebrew Bible very different from the literarily similar documents from surrounding cultures (with their own hymns, prophecies, battle-accounts, etc), and so the Bible would have to be inspired in a unique way, in the sense of inventing new genres.

In other words, it’s not only the evnts in the Bible that have to be seen in a historical setting - the writings themselves do. To me, that’s the biggest failure of critical scholarship in the last 200 years - it invented hypothetical source documents and their authors, and then placed them in a historical setting invented for the purpose according to the realities of nineteenth century Europe.

(Steve Schaffner) #25

One good reason that I don’t think Adam was intended as an allegory. Figures with mythic significance, on the other hand, do occur in ANE literature.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #26

@glipsnort, can you expand. You don’t think Adam was intended as an allegory, but he is an allegory? How do we make sense of that?

(Steve Schaffner) #27

I don’t think he’s an allegory at all. An allegorical figure exists to portray some specific abstract meaning, and I don’t see Adam playing that role, nor does it seem to be a literary device familiar to ANE audiences. A mythic figure is not allegory; carries meaning but not in any simple way. Quoting Tolkien: myth is “largely significant as a whole, accepted unanalysed. The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography. . . Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.” Mythic figures can be historical or ahistorical, but their historicity is not relevant to their significance.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #28

@glipsnort, do you believe the Adam is referent to a real person in a real past?

(Steve Schaffner) #29

No. [filler]

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #30

Okay, so you are making a distinction between allegory and myth, but do not think that either have real referents. That makes sense. By saying “not an allegory” I though meant something else. How do you respond to Keller, when he writes:

The prominent Egyptologist and evangelical Christian, when responding to the charge that the flood narrative (Gen 9) should be read as “myth” or “proto-history” like the other flood-narratives from other cultures, answered:

The ancient Near East did not historicize myth (i.e. read it as imaginary “history”). In fact, exactly the reverse is true—there was, rather, a trend to “mythologize” history, to celebrate actual historical events and people in mythological terms. [3]

In other words, the evidence is that Near Eastern “myths” did not evolve over time into historical accounts, but rather historical events tended to evolve over time into more mythological stories. Kitchen’s argument is that, if you read Genesis 2-11 in light of how ancient Near Eastern literature worked, you would conclude, if anything, that Genesis 2-11were “high” accounts, with much compression and figurative language, of events that actually happened. In summary, it looks like a responsible way of reading the text is to interpret Genesis 2-3 as the account of an historical event that really happened.

[3] K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003) p.425

I’m curious your response to this too @Mark.

(Steve Schaffner) #31

ANE literature is not my field, so I’d what to know what evidence this conclusion is based on. Is there evidence that Gilgamesh was a historical figure, for example? And in what sense? I’m quite skeptical that we are in a position to draw a sweeping conclusion like that about a culture from which we have such limited surviving information. More broadly, how attenuated does the connection to the historical referent have to become before we can ignore it? The passage I quoted from Tolkien was about Beowulf, which is set in historically-inspired circumstances but the action of which has no meaningful historical referent, for example. European literature is full of fantastic stories with very tenuous (and often irrelevant) historical roots.

In any case, the Flood narrative is in a different category than the creation story. Stories of the first humans abound in cultures all over the world, and extending some hypothesized cultural trend of mythologizing historical events so that it includes creation stories isn’t going plausible.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #32

That is a fair question. I wonder if @jongarvey and @deuteroKJ could help us out.

Yes, but the point would be that these are all referring to real people, or so he is arguing.

(Curtis Henderson) #33

Sorry, Jon, I completely missed this response from months ago. Over the last year or so, I have been leaning closer to a historical Adam and Eve. Yet, there is so much in Genesis 1-3 that suggests more of an allegorical account. For example, I believe the “animal queue” for naming and mate selection, the tempting serpent, and the supernatural fruit, are all better read as allegorical, rather than historical.

(Jon Garvey) #34

Gilgamesh appears in the Sumerian king lists, the fifth ruler of Uruk. The lists have exaggeratedly long reigns, but there seems no reason to suppose they don’t have a basis in fact. Gilgamesh reigns for a paltry 126 years, but interestingly his successors until the kingship passes to Ur are between 6 and 40 years. His reign would be around 2,600 BC.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is certainly legendary AND mythical in the sense of teaching the fruitlessness of the quest for immortality, gives some historical orientation to the reader by naming his contemporary as Aga, last king of Kish.

(Jon Garvey) #35

I suspect that “allegorical” may not be the best understanding here, but certainly there is much we should not take a journalistic reportage. Brian Brock, in the chapter I> reviewed at PS from Christ and the Created Order, suggests:

Given the peculiarity of the real events, it is clear that Genesis should not be understood to offer a newspaper account… since the conventions of modern positivist historiography assume the stability of the universal causal laws of our contemporary experience as the framing condition of what could conceivably be counted as a true story about the past.

My own instinct is that the story was told in that way because the events were genuinely formational, and that kind of story needed that kind of genre (just as heroic Greek tales needed epic poems rather than matter-of-fact prose). So in that sense, I tend to use the word “mythic” for the genre - but not for the historicity.

We have to remember that there was no genre of history at any time the story could have originated, from 3rd millennium ANE to Babylonian exile. And likewise the distinctions between the spiritual and the physical were very different then from now.

Given that we can’t recover much of the subtlety of those genre considerations, I think we need a degree of flexibility in interpretation. For example, it takes minimall imagination to see that the re-use of the “tree” motif in the OT (eg Ezekiel) and the NT (eg Rev 22) both have to do with dwelling in the presence of God. And since Adam and Eve were, in the story, in the direct presence of God, we won’t be far off if we make the connection.

Likewise the serpent is interpreted in the NT as Satan. But in what “literal” form? Internal temptation? A bad guy? Mike Heiser draws philological parallels to ANE serpent deities to suggest that the serpent was a member of the divine council, legitimately accompanying God in the garden. Now, that gives some interesting grounds for reflection, because it would provide a theological basis for the existence of evil powers based on the narrative itself, rather than some Miltonian concept of a pre-creation angelic Fall.

In other words, the non-literal readings are fine, and even essential, as long as we take their theological meaning seriously.

(Curtis Henderson) #36

Thanks, Jon, I agree completely. I appreciate the explanation. I’m not fond of the term “allegorical” because it does tend to allude to works like Pilgrim’s Progress. Unfortunately, I don’t have a better term to use. “Mythical” is also problematic since it implies fiction, without the necessary core of theological truth.

(Ashwin S) #37

How could anyone know this for certain?

As a purely imaginary scenario, it would do the following IMO.

  1. Dimnish the authority of the bible and make it less authoritative than some other source-(because I would have to take it on the authority of some source other than the bible that Adam was just a character in some story and does not exist. The bible treats him as a historical figure. Atleast some of the biblical authors did).
  2. Challenge the truth of claims in the bible - We would have to conclude that Paul referred to a historical Adam in his writings out of ignorance… and his error was not corrected. Meaning that many other factual errors are possible on theological arguments based on the ignorance of the authors.
  3. There would be no basis for the fall… and no basis for the image of God in humanity. We would have to assume Adam’s Story somehow conveys to us how the image of God is distorted by Sin in human beings even though Adam never existed and the events never happened.

In short, it would mess a lot of things up. Would it change how I treat people? I wouldn’t expect it to.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #38

“Mythologized history” might be what you are looking for? In contrast with “mythologized fiction”.

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #39

It sure would mess things up if it was just a ancient creation story with no basis in fact. :sunglasses:

(Ashwin S) #40

Yes Patrick, it would… But not many Christians will believe it has nothing to do with fact. Have you every wondered why Christians ascribe such authority to the bible?
The books power is founded on the work of the Holy Spirit and the effect it has on lives. Its relevance rests on the fact that it actually reveals Jesus to its readers in a very real and powerful way.