The Search for the Historical Adam 9

I have been posting over the last several weeks on the recent book by C. John Collins entitled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Dr. Collins’s  book looks at the question of Adam and Eve from a relatively conservative perspective but with some good nuance and analysis. The questions he poses and the answers he gives provide a good touchstone for interacting with the key issues.

Chapter 5 of Dr. Collins’s book asks the question Can science help us pinpoint “Adam and Eve”? He answers the question in the positive – but in a limited sense. In his view we must take into account science, with what he considers appropriate skepticism of scientific claims, as well as the biblical narrative and Christian world view. Section 5.a deals with the topic of scientific concordism, section 5.b discusses the need to read the bible well, sections 5.c and 5.d consider the criteria for acceptable scenarios involving Adam and Eve and then critiques a few of the scenarios that have been proposed, considering both strengths and weaknesses.

I dealt with Dr. Collins’s discussion of acceptable scenarios last November in a post How Much History in Gen 1-3? focusing on his article “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters” in the theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) – this book is an expansion of the material in that article. The post generated much discussion – 102 comments. Another post on this topic will not add anything new to the discussion.

In reading this chapter, however, I was struck by another point Dr. Collins makes in his section on reading the bible well. Today I want to pose some questions based on this section of Dr. Collins book, and then wrap of the discussion of the book with a few summary statements – both Dr. Collins’s summation and my response.

Reading the bible well requires having respect for the authority of scripture which reflects the authority of God, and having respect for the form and genre of scripture. This means that we need to pay attention to the text on many levels and read it intelligently. Scot’s post yesterday Seven Days That Divide the World 2 raised the issue of concordism.  For many the truthfulness and authority of scripture rests on its accuracy in detail, and this includes scientific concordance. Dr. Lennox expects to find scientific concordance in the text of Genesis. Neither John Walton nor C. John Collins think that we should expect to find scientific concordance in the biblical description of origins.  Our reading of Genesis should take into account the viepoint of the original audience, their picture of the world. They were not asking scientific questions, and we should not expect to find scientific answers in the text.

There is another aspect of the text of Genesis 1-11, one we have not discussed before, that should also help to shape the way we read and understand Genesis. This is anachronism. An anachronism is present when a writer (or artist) describes or portrays an earlier time using forms and images familiar to his or her contemporary audience. These elements, of necessity, introduce an inaccuracy into the telling of the story.

Is anachronism consistent with inspiration? Is it consistent with inerrancy?

How should we view passages of scripture with apparent anachronisms?

One clear illustration of anachronism in the text of Genesis 1-11 is seen in the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. In Genesis 6:19-20 (NIV) we read:

You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.

In Genesis 7:2-3 we read:

Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.

The distinction between Genesis 6 and 7 provides evidence for the idea that the text of Genesis is an edited work incorporating information from a number of sources. Like the creation narratives in Genesis 1-5 we can discern the editor/author’s use of material from different sources. More than this though, the reference to clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7 is anachronistic. The text describes events, perhaps events with an element of history, perhaps cultural myths, in terms familiar to an audience from a later time and context. Dr. Collins comments on this passage:

In Genesis 1-11, we have Noah taking aboard the ark extra specimens of the “clean animals,” presumably because these were fit for sacrifice (Gen. 7:2, 8; 8:20). Now there is no hint in the creation account that the clean-unclean distinction is inherent in the nature of the animals, and in the Bible this distinction served to set Israel apart from the Gentiles (see Lev. 20:24-26); this is why the early Christians did away with these laws (see Acts 10:9-29; Mark 7:19).  The very first mention of a “clean” animal occurs right here; we do not even know what they are unless we turn to Leviticus 11. Perhaps we are to think that Noah had some idea of what kinds of animals are right for sacrifice, but we need not suppose that it was identical to the system found in the books of Moses. How could it be when Noah was not an Israelite? Perhaps the specific “burnt offering” is also anachronistic – that is, Noah made a sacrifice, but the term “burnt offering” had a very precise term in Israel that may go beyond what Noah thought. Genesis interprets Noah’s behavior in line with Israelite practice. Nothing makes this literary practice unhistorical since we are recognizing a literary device. (p. 114)

The elements of anachronism and literary form extend beyond the story of Noah. They are present in the setting of Cain and Abel as farmer and keeper of sheep, the fear that Cain has for blood revenge, the records of the various crafts in Gen 4:20-22, although not as easy to pinpoint and illustrate in these examples as in the story of Noah.

Do you think that anachronisms, like the reference to clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7, cause a problem for the reliability of scripture? Why or why not?

How do you deal with this in your view of scripture as the Word of God?

And this is a wrap – the last post on Dr. Collins’s book. Dr. Collins sums up his book with an intriguing mix of ideas. He has very good discussions of aspects of scripture and the nuance and importance of literary form in our understanding of scripture. He takes a conservative view of the authorship and date of Genesis (substantially from Moses with small tweaks and updates p. 170), but this still leaves Genesis 1-11 in the genre of primeval history pulling together the story of Israel from the mists of antiquity. An appreciation of this should impact the way we read the text – including the anachronism mentioned above.

He doesn’t think that animal death is part of the death described in Genesis 2-3 or in Romans.

To answer that question, we first recognize that, whatever the verse talks about, it is referring to humans. Therefore Genesis is not at all suggesting that no other animals had ever died before this point: the teeth and claws of a lion are not a decoration, nor have they been perverted from their “pre-fall” use. (p. 116)

Dr. Collins does believe that Genesis 1-4 contains a description – with many literary elements – of a historical fall. We need not look to Genesis 1-4 as a historical account of the fall, but he has tried to show that there must be a historical element to the story of Adam and Eve.  In summary he gives four reasons for this conclusion.

(1) The conventional telling of the story as creation, fall, redemption, restoration is the Christian story, this is what makes sense of the world.

(2) Sin is an alien invader that affects all people. Our story and world view must account for this invasion.

(3) The Christian view of humanity must include a common origin for all mankind. Paul uses Genesis to demonstrate this – and this element of historicity is not incidental to the message, it is essential.

(4) Jesus appears to have affirmed an element of historicity, and Moses,  Paul, John, and other people entrusted as God’s messengers writing what we know know as the bible, have viewed and used Genesis with a historical understanding. To eliminate this will undermine our view of biblical authority. It is not incidental. “But it seems to me that Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human family, and their fall, are not only what Jesus believed but also an irremovable part of the story.” (p. 135)

My take. I’ve enjoyed reading Dr. Collins’s book – it has provided a good interaction, and a nice forum for wrestling with some of these ideas. I agree with many of his points, but not all, and perhaps not with some of the points he considers particularly important.

(1) I don’t think we should cast the Christian story as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Rather I think the story is cast as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and this is the way we should read scripture and approach the Christian life. We are not returning to an original condition but moving on to the final state God always intended.

(2) Sin is rebellion from God – but I am not comfortable with some of the ways the view of sin as “alien invader” play out. This needs a good deal more thought and conversation.

(3) I am in total agreement with Dr. Collins on the importance of the unity of all mankind.

(4) I don’t think that scripture as the authoritative word of God requires the kind of acceptance of the view of Paul or the other writers of scripture that Dr. Collins maintains. I think there may be an element of historicity to the fall, but I also think that there are ways to read scripture without this element of historicity and without undermining the authority of scripture. Dr. Collins’s emphasis on the belief and understanding of Paul regarding Adam as an important data point in determining the historicity of Adam has been my primary objection to his argument.

What do you think?

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