I am currently reading a book by Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, entitled Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. This book explores the use of the creation narratives in Second Temple Judaism (ca. 200 BCE to 100 CE), in the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers through the first four centuries of the church. This is a fascinating book – a bit academic, but not too strenuous a read. We will devote a few posts to this book over the next several weeks.
The first chapter of this book discusses the development of the text of the Old Testament – especially the Septuagint (LXX) used by almost all of the NT and early Christian authors. Bouteneff also talks about the way that the text was used by Second Temple era Jewish authors in non-canonical writing, apocrypha and pseudopigrepha
Bouteneff makes several interesting points in this chapter.
First: The OT canon developed slowly over the centuries before ca. 200 BCE. The various authors and editors may or may not have been familiar with the text of Genesis and the creation stories therein. There are a few clear references (Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 for example), and a few potential references – but by and large the creation narrative was not integral to the development of Israelite faith and practice. There are, of course, many references to creation in general terms to establish the sovereignty of God, but these do not use details of the creation narrative of Gen 1-3. Adam, Eve, and original sin are simply not part of the picture.
Second: The interpretation of Adam in some segments of second Temple Judaism and more significantly in the early Christian church, was influenced by the translation choices made in the LXX. As Bouteneff points out: But to translate is to interpret. Many of the choices made by the translators hinged on issues of sexuality and gender. In particular adam is a ambigous term in the original Hebrew and the decision to translate “adam” as a generic term, humankind (άνθρωπος), or a proper name, or to use a phrase avoiding either, played a role in the later interpretations of the text. In addition word plays in the Hebrew which may modify the understanding of a particular passage, are lost in translation.
Third: Many Jewish texts of Second Temple Judaism reflect on the creation narrative and on Adam and Eve in particular. The way that these texts are used vary dramatically – there was no clearly agreed upon method of interpretation.
Second, the authors show themselves quite at liberty to take license with not only the purported “meaning of Genesis 1-3 but also the details of the text itself. We see especially in Jubilees, but also in other retellings of the narratives, that details are freely omitted and others added to help support the author’s agendas. This may indicate that the gradually emerging concept of “Scripture” and “canonicity” was not one that fixed a particular reading. Indeed, the authors here reviewed tacitly acknowledged multiple possibilities of meaning in the scriptural texts and dealt with them not only on the level of what might be called their “plain sense” but also on that of implied or derived meaning. (p. 25)
Fourth: Philo (ca. 20 BCE – 50 CE) is a particularly interesting source. He reflects at length on the creation narratives and the 6-day creation (which he concludes is not a literal 6 days) :
Eden was not a garden that one could have walked through: “Far be it from man’s reasoning to be victim of so great impiety as to suppose that God tills the soil and plants pleasaunces” (Leg. 1.43). Likewise in Quaest. 1.8 he states that paradise was not a garden, but, rather, symbolizes “wisdom.” (p. 31)
Philo is interesting in this discussion for two reasons – his writing influenced the early church fathers, especially in the Alexandrian school and this will become important as we discuss the interpretation of Gen 1-3 in the early church. On another, equally important level, he provides an example, largely contemporary with the development of the NT, of the variety of the ways the scriptural texts could be and were used. In fact the interpretive methods of 1st century Judaism are often not our methods. And more importantly, while the use of the Old Testament by New Testament authors seldom approaches the extremes seen in Philo, it is nonetheless the case that the interpretive methods used and the interpretive traditions they adopt are those typical of Second Temple Judaism.
This leads us to an interesting point.
Peter Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation has a chapter (#4) – a long chapter at that – on the topic of “The Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament.” The New Testament writers used and interpreted the Old Testament – the Scriptures – in the same way that there contemporaries did. They were creative in their handling of the text not because they were divinely inspired to break with tradition, but because some level of liberty and license was the norm in their day and age. Speaking of the apostles and authors of the New Testament Enns reflects:
They do not interpret the Old Testament in odd ways because they are apostles and can do what they want. They do what they do because they are first-century biblical interpreters who are heirs to a long and vibrant history of interpretation. We cannot appeal to apostolic authority to avoid the problems caused by apostolic hermeneutics. (p. 157).
It is ironic – and disheartening – we oft quote 2 Tim. 3:16-17:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
But we take this as a “proof text” for the foundational nature of scripture and then use this definition to demand an approach to scripture that differs substantially from that of Paul and his contemporaries.
What is at work here (to quote Enns again) is more an attempt to conform scripture to predetermined ways of thinking than allowing scripture to shape how we think.
In the next installment of this series we will look in more detail at Paul and the New Testament and their use of the Old Testament, especially the Creation Narratives; (See Chapter 2 in Bouteneff and Chapter 4 in Enns). But at this time I would like to consider this question:
If we allow scripture to teach us how to view scripture isn’t the obvious conclusion that much of the modern evangelical approach to the Bible is dead wrong?
Stated rather strongly I admit. But I personally feel that, among other things, this has profound implications for the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in light of the scientific and historical information available in our day and age. It seems to me that the biblical approach to scripture is much more a dialog with the text in the context of community than a submission to the literal sense of the text.
What do you think?