The first chapter in Pete Enns’ book Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins focuses on the evidence and approaches that emerged in the 19th century, which forced Christians to reconsider their assumptions about Genesis. On the one hand, new textual discoveries revealed accounts of creation from Israel’s neighbors, stories which were older than the Bible and which clearly had some relationship to the Bible’s contents. On the other hand, careful analysis of the contents of Genesis in an attempt to make sense of them resulted in the realization that it was not the product of a single author (Moses) but incorporated multiple sources and could not have been put in its final form until much later. (The evidence for this includes, among other things, the fact that it makes reference to kings in Israel, and to Canaanites as no longer being in the land, as well as its referring to the land beyond Jordan sometimes as though it is genuinely Moses looking ahead to Canaan beyond the Jordan, but at other times reflecting the perspective of people already in the land.)
This information is important because it highlights that challenges to certain ideas about the nature and character of Genesis and of Adam result from study of the Bible, and from discovery of ancient texts, quite apart from any considerations raised by the natural sciences. Enns emphasizes that, while conservatives will sometimes propose solutions to these problems for their position, such as positing that Joshua completed the Pentateuch, even in those instances when the proposal is not inherently implausible, that doesn’t mean it is correct simply because it is compatible with a desired conclusion. “The real issue is what is convincing and persuasive” (p.15).
In surveying the history of Pentateuchal criticism, Enns notes a similarity between how ideas and theories develop in Biblical studies and in the natural sciences. In the cases of both Julius Wellhausen and Charles Darwin, many of the details of their proposals have been challenged or overturned since they first proposed them, and yet both are looked back to as having set the course for the future of their fields in important ways, having had a much-deserved lasting impact that continues down to the present.
A key idea Enns emphasizes in this section is “genre discernment” – the need to not simply assume from the outset that one knows what sort of literature Genesis is, what it is appropriate to expect from it, and perhaps most importantly, what God would or would not have done in relation to the production of its contents. The approach to the Bible which is adopted by those who claim that there must have been a historical Adam, and therefore evolution must be rejected, is found to be theologically problematic. As Enns puts it on p.42:
Keeping God at arm’s length from a biblical text’s ancient context does not ‘protect’ him. Instead, it gives us a God that neither the Jewish nor the Christian Bible can support – a God who will do neither sacred book much good. Isolating Israel from its environment like this violates a foundational principle of interpretation, one ironically championed by conservatives as much as any: a text’s meaning is rooted in its historical and literary context. With Genesis and the nineteenth-century discoveries, that principle started becoming uncomfortable, but that does not mean it should be abandoned. Rather, it may be signaling to us that we have to adjust our expectations of what the Bible can or cannot do; that is, we need to calibrate our genre expectations of Genesis in view of newer historical information.
And as he puts it again slightly later, “To insist that these stories must be read in isolation from what we know of the ancient world is, ironically, an argument for a noncontextual reading of Genesis, which is something that few would tolerate when interpreting other portions of the Bible” (p.58). Enns sees this as evidence of divine condescension, reaching out to people where they are, in their own language, and more generally in ways they can understand.
This first part of the book also discusses the Eden story as being modeled on the story of Israel, retrojected into primordial time, as well as the cosmological significance of the Tabernacle and many other details.
Tomorrow I’ll blog about part 2, which focuses on Adam in Paul’s writings.
Just a reminder, this post is part of the blog tour about Pete Enns’ book, The Evolution of Adam. Click through to the Brazos Press blog to read more about the blog tour, and a post from Enns himself about why he wrote the book.