Did Jesus Understand Genesis 2 Literally?

Many will point to Jesus' words about divorce, in the context of which he quotes Genesis 2, as evidence that Jesus believed Adam and Eve were literal people, and will then on that basis argue against modern biology, or claim this proves that he supported the view of marriage as involving only one man and one woman.

The evidence does not support the claim that Jesus took that text literally, but in fact, suggests precisely the opposite.

Here's the passage from Mark 10:

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,”Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Note what Jesus actually says. “What God has joined together.” Not “What God has split from one to make two. The text Jesus quotes in Genesis encourages such a metaphorical or symbolic reading, when it says that the two become one flesh. In the story, the characters literally are one flesh – no becoming is required. And so it ought to be clear, if one is reading carefully and closely, that the story is symbolic of that experience of finding another person that seems like our “other half.” It is not about one person literally being split in two, but two separate people coming together and becoming one flesh.

Once again, conservatives show themselves to pay little attention to the details of what the Bible actually says, and to have little sensitivity for the appreciation of symbolism and metaphor.

Not surprisingly, Jesus turns out to have been a more faithful and careful interpreter of Scripture than many of his followers.


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  • Wesley Elsberry

    I commented on someone’s use of the same passage back in 1999 this way:

    “Jesus also taught that God’s view of divorce was different from what had been given as law before due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Actually, we’re talking about the same passage, aren’t we? So in order to support a view of scripture that indicates an inflexible and unchanging aspect, you are actually citing scripture that says that what God tells us changes over time with what man is ready to hear and accept. Those who believe in a revelatory faith can accommodate the truth of divine grace and the findings of science. Those with a hardened and inflexible view of faith will continue to insist that God conform to their interpretations.”


    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      An excellent point, and very nicely put!

  • Brant Clements

    I have encountered the same argument regarding the historicity of Jonah: Jesus mentioned Jonah. Therefore Jonah must have been a real person.

    As if Jesus, who preached in parables, were equally incapable of understanding story and metaphor as a modern biblicist.

  • Bilbo

    Wesley, I agree with James that you make an excellent point. You also, Brant. And I would suggest to James that dealing with the Biblical passages that sincere, honest YECs see as problematic to an Old Earth view is a better approach than calling them all liars or members of a cult.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Robertbobby91 Robert Gorman

    Taking this to assume Genesis isn’t literal is a but of a jump. As in an olympic generational winner’s worth of a jump.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Robertbobby91 Robert Gorman

      Also, yes you literally become one flesh. This is called sex.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Literally in the same sense that Eve was one flesh with Adam before being made into a separate person? I don’t think you are using the word “literally” literally…

        • Psalmriter

          When the sperm from the male joins with the egg from the female, and is allowed to come to term, the two have literally, biologically become “one flesh”.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            So you understand the story to be about sexual reproduction? Isn’t it better to respect the overall focus of the text, rather than change its focus because extrabiblical considerations lead you to consider finding a literal meaning for the language to be more important than interpreting the text contextually and sensitively?

      • rmwilliamsjr

        Also, yes you literally become one flesh. This is called sex

        nonsense, it is a METAPHOR. it is symbolic, it is not literal. it is not really one person, it is always 2 persons.

        the story of eve from adam’s side (probably baculum) is a literal element of oneness that has lots of symbolic levels but the basic story talks about an actual event of oneness becoming twoness. sex is a metaphor recapitulating and reversing that event.

        sex is LIKE becoming one, it is not an actual event like eve’s creation, it is fully metaphorical.

  • jwalker_cht

    Off topic, slightly, the follow up to this passage in answer to the question by His disciples.. Mark 10:10-12…

    The parallel passage in Matthew, instead of mentioning women divorcing their husbands goes into the teaching on eunuchs. But the Babylonian Talmud also discusses natural eunuchs and eunuchs “made by man” in the context of wives being able to divorce (the ceremony of chalitsa) their husbands if they are eunuchs. Are Mark 10:12 and Matthew 19:10-12 both introducing a Talmudic revision by Jesus, that women can put away their husbands if the man has chosen to live like a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Interesting idea. I’m not sure how well it fits all the details of the context in Mark or Matthew, but I’d be interested in seeing the suggestion explored further!

  • newenglandsun

    i think you also miss another point of the story. yes, god joins the two together, but there is another part where god is allowing adam to choose the right partner for him. in other words, not all of us would perceive as adam that the one he chose was the right partner. god ultimately does the joining of the two but they also seek out the suitable partner.

  • Trey Palmisano

    James, I’m wondering what to make of the rest of the narrative. Isn’t it the case that one important interpretation of the Genesis creation story is really about the overcoming of death and how reproduction by way of Eve continues to propagate the species, and this is simply an ancient answer to the age-old questions of life and death. The added language of God, sin, and punishments creates the mythological-theological underpinning, but the point is that this is an origins story that expresses the stark reality of death and life, and that this is the true intent of the author, and so Jesus’ interpretation that this has anything to do with marriage is just his way of re-contextualizing the story into the story he is sharing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The Genesis 2-3 story as a whole seems to me to be a mythical exploration of the human experience of coming of age. At some point that becomes lost in the shadows of our memories, we begin to be ashamed of nudity that did not bother us as toddlers. We begin to be expected to take responsibility for our decisions. I think Genesis 2-3 is a quite apt and insightful exploration of this aspect of human existence, when we think of the story not as about a “Fall” in the past but as about a universal part of human experience.

  • Bob

    Gen 1-11 is a theologically-rich book; the points were more important than the literal part. So, of course, Christ would still reference to the theological points in Gen. And of course, Genesis has two creation stories. The second (chapter 1) was the newest of the two, which was to teach the Jews of the sacredness of the sabbath. But to keep it short, it’s more important to see the theology that’s being taught in there than the literal part.

  • S. Unthank

    So is the phrase “at the beginning of creation God made” also symbol and metaphor?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      All the depictions of God creating use anthropomorphism. Did God really form with “hands”? Did God’s vocal cords vibrate when God “spoke”?

      I think one reason why various forms of anti-science creationism have spread in our time is that people have never really read and reflected seriously on these texts in the way they would have if they read what earlier generations of Christians wrote about them. :-(

  • Thomas Dale

    The primary error of your attempt is that you choose to act as if this is the only time in which Genesis 1-4 are referenced. The fact is that, when taking all of Jesus’ statements, Paul’s statements, and the genealogy of Luke chapter 3, you either believe the NT authors and Jesus believed in a literal Adam and Even or you might as well throw out the entire NT quite frankly. It makes no sense otherwise. They were definitely literalists. One must consider:
    Jesus’ reference to marriage here
    Jesus’ reference to murders from Abel to Zacharias (if one was real, why not the other – if Abel was real, why not Adam and Eve – it would just be ridiculous to think Jesus did not believe in a real Adam and Eve from this reference alone)
    Paul’s use of Adam (1) to proclaim what Adam (2) did – if Adam (1) was not real, it’s pretty ridiculous to even bother contrasting and comparing with Adam (2)
    Paul’s use of the fall, explicitly mentioning Adam and Eve to establish teaching roles (of course, most liberal “scholars” would just throw out such teachings anyway I suppose)
    Finally, Luke’s genealogy goes from Jesus to Adam to God. If Adam is not a historical person in Luke’s thinking, this geneaology is absolutely ridiculous – it is even more ridiculous if Adam was not the FIRST man and directly created by God
    From these testimonies, and more not mentioned, you either accept that NT writers believed in a literal Adam and Even and Serpent and garden, etc. or you throw out the NT altogether. It’s just a waste of paper in such case.

    • Philip

      Thank you, Thomas. For a minute there I thought the world lost its mind. Here are my observations about this post:
      Ok, I have looked at this argument numerous times just
      trying to understand your actual point. I am concluding your point is that you don’t
      take Genesis literally, but your arguments don’t support your argument. Let’s
      look at the evidence your presented:

      1. You presented Mark 10:2-9 as the Scripture reference.
      Thus far you were on the right track. Then it ended there.

      2. You presented the phrase, “What God had joined together,”
      and compared it with the antithesis, “What God has split from one to make two.”
      What? Are you arguing against the idea of splitting one into two? Regardless,
      this point is of no consequence to the argument, which looks like you tried to
      further develop with your next point.

      3. A metaphorical reading is encouraged when it says, “…the
      two become one flesh.” The problem is your present it by saying that it
      literally says this, meaning the two people are literally joined together. If
      this is a metaphorical statement, then they aren’t “literally” joined. Which is

      4. You reinforce this dual sided argument with the
      statement, “…no becoming is required.” Yet your presented Scriptural evidence
      specifically emphasizes that the two DO become one. There is a becoming taking
      place. You restate that they become later, so which one are you going with?

      5. Your conclusion to support your claim, then, is “…the
      story is symbolic of that experience of finding another person that seems like
      our ‘other half.’” Even in the context of Mark, you are avoiding that the discussion
      is about marriage. To use your approach, let’s look at what Jesus actually said,
      “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this
      reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.”
      Perhaps this seems metaphorical to you too?

      Let’s look at the rest of the passage that you listed, which
      I just restated. Jesus said, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them
      male and female.” Hmmm. This is pretty straight forward. THE BEGINNING OF
      CREATION…that is when Jesus said God made them. And…He made them MALE and
      FEMALE. A MAN will leave his family and be united to a WOMAN. This makes a
      marriage, the very topic of discussion in the context of Mark 10. To use
      another device of yours, let’s look at what Jesus did NOT say. He did not say
      to find your other half or life partner. In fact, if your read further on in
      Mark 10:10-12 He is very specific about gender designation, never mentioning a
      homosexual arrangement.

      Spin again…but consider this scripture and tell me if it is
      literal or figurative:

      “But there were also false prophets among the people, just
      as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce
      destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing
      swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and
      will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will
      exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging
      over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3 NIV).