Reading Genesis: Let’s be Adult about this, Shall We.

Over a hundred years ago, German-and-therefore-easily-dismissible-Old-Testament-scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), the dapper gentleman pictured to the left, wrote the following about Genesis:

A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are “not true.” But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends–as has been done too frequently–but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis. This knowledge is already too widely diffused among those trained in historical study ever again to be suppressed. It will surely spread among the masses of our people, for the process is irresistible. Shall not we Evangelicals take care that it be presented to them in the right spirit? The Legends Of Genesis, pp. 11-12.

I was kidding about all that dismissible business above. Gunkel was one of these biblical scholars that don’t come along any more. He profoundly changed how people thought about two huge areas of the Old Testament: Psalmsand Genesis.

To make a long story short, before Gunkel, Old Testament scholars on Genesis focused largely on what we might call an internal analysis of the Hebrew text–things like the literary style, usage of certain words and phrases, and what all of this tells us about when Genesis (and the other books of the Pentateuch, Torah) were written–which is what we in the field call source criticism (we like our code words).

Gunkel came along a little bit later, after archaeologists brought to light mythic stories from some other of Israel’s ancient neighbors, the Mesopotamians, that were clearly very similar to Genesis 1-11, especially the creation story and Noah’s flood.

Gunkel called these stories “legends” and, along with pretty much every Old Testament scholar since, said, “Yeah, these stories and the Bible are similar enough to say they are connected somehow. We need to think about how this information helps us understand what Genesis means and what we can expect from it.”

In the quote above, Gunkel makes 3 basic points:

1. The cat’s out of the bag: Genesis contains “legends,”

2. Children may be thrown by this, but adults shouldn’t be,

and,

3. Rather than denying what is so widely known, evangelical leaders have a sacred obligation to help their people process this information rather than letting others do that who might put their faith at risk.

Evangelicalism in America (which is not the same thing as evangelicals in turn of the century Germany) has essentially rejected Gunkel’s advice.

The results have not been pretty. Because of a failure in leadership to help their people process the kinds of data Gunkel is talking about, a lot of Christians over the last century or so have struggled in needless and unhealthy ways with their faith.

Too often the issue is posed as “Genesis contains legends” OR “be faithful to the Bible.” When presented such a choice, you are asking of people to make a choice between remaining a childish reader of Genesis in order to stay Christian, or to become an adult reader and an unbeliever. 

The church, Christians colleges, and seminaries would be the best place to have a faith crisis, provided their leaders embrace the call to help their people through it rather than hiding the crisis out of fear, under a cloak of piety.

But, instead of helping people process the information, the evangelical tradition has a strong track record of minimizing the deep impact of historical study on how Scripture is understood, or providing answers that strain and groan to maintain the old ways despite the evidence–in other words, of working hard to legitimize a childish reading of Genesis.

I really, really, really wish that hadn’t happened. I really do.

I would like to see evangelical leaders do a better of job of training adult readers of the Bible. But, I also know that is asking a lot. Structures are in place, with deep cement footers and reinforced steel, that prevent this sort of rethinking.

"Patterns of Evidence" and patterns of culture-war rhetoric: (2)
Reading John: An Interview with Christopher Skinner
Did the Exodus Happen? How "Historical Evidence" Might or Might Not Help
historical criticism and Christian truth are not--and cannot be--enemies
  • alastairblake

    woudln’t similar stories actually just jive with the idea that people all came from the same first people and that the legends / stories got passed further out along the branches?


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