The History of Early Biblical Interpretation — as a Weapon (and a Shield)

The History of Early Biblical Interpretation — as a Weapon (and a Shield) September 18, 2016

Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The past few years I’ve been pretty active in a community of predominantly progressive Christians—or progressive at least in relation to the kind of notorious fundamentalist Christianity now normally associated with Protestant evangelicals.¹ The latter, unfortunately, has all too often been a representative straw-man for Christianity in general; and as a consequence of such I think it’s been the driving force behind a lot of historical misunderstanding, on several different sides here.

However, in contrast to this contingent of fundamentalism (wherever it might be located), among the other things that many people of this progressive community affirm is the compatibility of Christian faith and evolutionary biology.

And before saying anything else, I want to reiterate that this is clearly a good thing. Regardless of whatever outstanding problems there might be in terms of whether a synthesis of evolution and normative Christian theology can really be worked out as neatly as some might suppose here—and there are indeed some significant problems in this regard²—a world in which a large number of Christians affirm evolution is certainly preferable to the alternative.

But there’s one pervasive line of argument used to support this compatibility where I think a lot of people go off-base.

The one point that’s reiterated perhaps above all others here, particularly in response to challenges to the idea of the compatibility of Christian faith and evolutionary biology, is that Christianity isn’t beholden to a woodenly literal interpretation of the Bible; specifically, that Christians aren’t beholden to a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, in which the creation of the world and humans is given in quasi-mythological guise.

And again, lest there’s any doubt, I don’t think there’s any sense in which the world isn’t better served by this non-literalism than by the converse.

But all too often, defenders of this (and they can be found among both Christians and non-Christians) go further in their arguments here: for example, suggesting that the Bible had never previously been interpreted literally in some of the ways that it has been in more recent times—not until the emergence of this aberrant strain of Protestant fundamentalism sometime around the late 19th century, that is, as it’s claimed.

To be sure, there are obviously respects in which particular pseudoscientific defenses of, say, Young Earth creationism simply could not have existed prior to the past century or so, if only because the scientific methodologies and discourses that these defenses rely on—however perversely they do so—didn’t exist before this. (Even here though, I think we have to be very cautious in how we characterize this, as we can certainly find precedent for pseudoscientific 20th century Young Earth creationism in the “flood geology” of the centuries leading up to the 20th. I have a bibliography of academic works on this and related issues here.)

Nevertheless, the much broader statement “the Bible wasn’t interpreted literally in antiquity” is exactly the form of the claim that I see quite often; or at least something quite like this. And it’s also frequently accompanied by mention of two ancient Christian interpreters in particular who are thought to have embodied this approach: the third century Alexandrian theologian Origen, and the inimitable fourth/fifth century bishop, theologian, and saint Augustine.

And it’s with this that I want to take my starting point, in addressing a constellation of historical misunderstandings that seem to have cropped up around this issue. 

For maximum ease, I’m just going to proceed in bullet-point here, making a few major points—or suggestions as to how these historical (mis)understandings might be rectified or avoided—followed by some more detailed observations/analysis on these things.

To start out here,

Of course, a look at the writings of the first century Alexandrian Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria might give the impression that there’s little in the Bible that he didn’t interpret non-literally/allegorically.

On the other hand, there are those who expressed a marked preference for the literal—as the fourth century bishop and theologian Basil of Caesarea does, strikingly, in one of his later writings: “[There are] those who do not admit the common meaning of the Scriptures . . . [But] when I hear ‘grass,’ I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand everything as it is said, a plant, a fish, a wild animal, and an ox. ‘Indeed, I am not ashamed of the gospel’” (Homiliae in Hexaemeron 9.1).³

Further—as I’ll discuss more below—in contrast to his earlier inclinations, in Augustine’s most well-known commentary on Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram), he explicitly seeks to interpret it “literally” as far as possible.

But when we really look at things closely here, we find all sorts of exceptions and have to come up with a lot of caveats. 

Perhaps above all, there are certain ambiguities as to what exactly it means to rely on the literal sense of the texts to begin with.⁴ David Dawson, in his monograph on early Hellenistic Jewish interpretation of the Bible and its Greek precedents, suggests of Philo of Alexandria that his “devotion to the literal text was every bit as serious as that of the antiallegorical Alexandrian grammarians” (Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria, 72). At the same time, though, he notes that 

Like both classical allegorists and Alexandrian philologists, Alexandrian Jews sought to refute inappropriate or unfit readings. Aristobulus is distressed by “those devoted to the letter alone” . . . whose readings reflect a “fictional and anthropomorphic [mythodes kai anthrōpinon] way of thinking about God” (Praep. evang. 8.10.2) common to those without “insight and understanding” . . . Such readings are inappropriate because they discover nothing “elevated” (megaleion— i.e., “fitting”) about God (Praep. evang. 8.10.5). Aristobulus exhorts his readers instead “to receive the interpretations according to the laws of nature . . . and to grasp the conception of God that agrees with them [hē harmozousa ennoia peri theou]” (Allegorical Readers, 77)

As suggested, similar ancient approaches are in fact taken up by proclaimed/supposed modern literalists as well. For example, addressing the Biblical texts which appear to assume a cosmology of an immobile earth supported by “pillars,” an article on the Answers in Genesis site explains that the “supposed contradiction quickly disappears when we examine the context of each passage and recognize it as figurative language.” (This was, of course, one of the main issues of contention in the Galileo affair too.)


Ancient Biblical interpreters often upheld the literal sense of the text—as, for example, furnishing us with the actual details of genuinely historical events—while at the same time also seeking to uncover a deeper teaching hidden “underneath” the superficial veneer of the plain words; or even a secondary prophetic sense here, and so on. 

As hinted at above, however, there were times when literal and figurative interpretations were thought to be antithetical to each other. This was especially the case when the literal sense of the text was thought to cast its characters in a negative light, morally speaking; and so when unethical things were ascribed to characters for whom these traits were thought to be unfitting of them—like deities—the text was thought to be in need of alternate interpretation. This approach can in fact be traced as far back as the 6th century BCE, to the Homeric interpreter Theagenes of Rhegium.

More importantly though, it’s precisely in conjunction with this that Augustine gives us one his most “systematic” treatments of his interpretive approach to the Bible:

We must first explain the way to discover whether an expression [in the Bible] is literal or figurative. Generally speaking, it is this: anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative. . . . [God’s speech in] Jeremiah’s phrase “Behold today I have established you over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and destroy, to lay waste and scatter” is, without doubt, entirely figurative, and so must be related to the aim that I mentioned above. Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether just spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative. (De Doctrina Christiana 3.33, 41-42, translation by R. P. H. Green)

Interestingly, in addition to his principle that an interpretive approach is to be determined along ethical lines, Augustine also mentions the principle of conformity with “the true faith.” This ties into a larger issue that I don’t have room to get into fully here; though it’s important to note that elsewhere for Augustine (and to a large degree for Origen too⁵), it’s the preservation of the accuracy and indeed the inerrancy of the Bible in general—not just an ethical inerrancy/impeccability, but one relating to its historical accuracy, etc., too—that largely motivates his interpretive decisions. 

  • If someone’s intention is to argue, for example, that a particular part of a particular book of the Bible doesn’t have to be interpreted literally—and if they’re going to appeal to past interpretation in support of that—then they should make sure to specify that it was a particular part of a particular book of the Bible that wasn’t taken literally. They certainly shouldn’t argue the point with the generalizing statement “the Bible wasn’t interpreted literally”; nor even more narrowly, for example, that “the book of Genesis wasn’t taken literally.”

Obviously, as part of this, when it comes to appealing to particular individuals like Origen and Augustine who are thought to have interpreted some particular Biblical thing non-literally, they should make sure that they have a good grasp on what exactly these figures had to say on this issue.

And by the same token here, even specifying that “Origen and Augustine didn’t interpret Genesis literally” is woefully inaccurate. Bearing in mind the conjunction of literal and historical discussed above (and see again my Note 4), Panayiotis Tzamalikos writes that “the proverbial ‘denial of historicity’ by Origen is a myth” (Origen: Philosophy of History & Eschatology, 370).

In fact, Origen seems to have also had a preference for the priority of the historical when it comes to the Biblical texts.⁶ And his philosophy here is no better expressed than by Origen himself (while at the same time also illustrating the principle of having to shift between the literal and the figurative when necessary):

[it] is not that we should accept only what is found in the “letter”; for occasionally the records taken in a literal sense are not true, but actually absurd and impossible; and even with the history that actually happened and the legislation that’s useful in its literal sense, there are other matters interwoven.

. . .

We must assert . . . that in regard to some things we are clearly aware that the historical fact is true; as that Abraham was buried in the double cave at Hebron, together with Isaac and Jacob and one wife of each of them; and that Shechem was given as a portion to Joseph; and that Jerusalem is the chief city of Judaea, in which a temple of God was built by Solomon; and thousands of other facts. Indeed the passages which are historically true are far more numerous than those which are composed with purely spiritual meanings. (De Principiis 4.3.4, translation Butterworth, only slightly modified for clarity)⁷ᵃ

And relevant to the compatibility of Christianity and evolution, with which this post began—particularly in terms of the issues of anthropology and the book of Genesis that are still highly disputed—both Origin and Augustine certainly assumed a literal/historical individual Adam as the progenitor of humanity.⁷ᵇ

C. P. Bammel, surveying the corpus of Origen to discern his views on Adam, writes that

Origen did regard Adam as a historical figure, as the first man and the ancestor of the human race. [For Origen] The story of the garden of Eden and the fall does include details which cannot be taken literally even on the narrative level, but it none the less really happened, while at the same time, like other Old Testament stories, pointing to hidden mysteries and containing deeper levels of meaning as well. (“Adam in Origen” in Williams, The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, 63)

Further, both Origen and Augustine defended the historicity of the Genesis flood narrative and even the feasibility of the ark of Noah being able to carry all animals, etc. (texts quoted in full quoted here). And similar to Origen’s suggestion that the number of genuinely historical events and details in the Biblical texts far outnumber figurative passages, it might also be noted here that Augustine—in his commentary aptly titled On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis—writes that

The narrative in [Genesis] is not written in a literary style proper to allegory, as in the Song of Songs, but from beginning to end in a style proper to history, as in the Books of Kings and the other works of that type (De Gen. ad litt. 8.1.2)

Moving on,

  • There are some prominent misconceptions as to how ancient interpreters approached the cosmogony of the first chapter of the book of Genesis—particularly the six days of creation.

I’ve mentioned that it’s certainly true that Origen and Augustine shifted to figurative interpretations in order to resolve various difficulties in the Biblical texts; and, again, throughout this post I’ve also mentioned the impetus to reconcile Christianity with the natural world and the facts of biological evolution, etc.

One of the most common strategies for reconciliation here has to do with an interpretation—one that’s regularly thought to have pedigree in ancient interpretation⁸—in which the six “days” of world creation in the first chapter of Genesis are understood not as actual solar days, but as longer periods of time; and it’s thought that this can be more easily harmonized with the time-scale of modern cosmology and evolution. This is known as the “day-age” interpretation, and relies on the idea that the Hebrew word normally translated as “day” actually has a broader semantic range in relation to time, and in Genesis 1 can be more accurately translated as something like “age/eon.”

Strictly speaking, however, this claim can’t be sustained on philological grounds⁹; though more importantly for my particular purposes here, this doesn’t seem to have been an interpretation that was put forth in antiquity in the first place. To be sure, there’s a somewhat related claim that was very frequently made by early interpreters, particularly in a millenarianist eschatology, relating to the six days of the Genesis creation account bearing some relationship to the sum-total of the “ages” of world time. But here, the idea that the days of Genesis 1 were normal solar days wasn’t disputed. Rather, this was a perfect example of the coexistence of literal and figurative interpretations—where these six days were thought to have also had a secondary prophetic sense in which they were also taken to represent millennia of world time subsequent to the creation days themselves. (Perhaps a single exception to this is found in the interpretation of the third century Carthaginian interpreters Cyprian, though actually it’s uncertain what exactly Cyprian was really suggesting here. I’ve discussed this in much more detail here.)

Yet despite the fact that they didn’t speak toward the day-age interpretation, Origen and Augustine—and before them, Philo of Alexandria—did have something to say about the creation days in Genesis 1, and what these might signify.

What Philo had to say on the subject is less relevant for my purposes (though a starting point for this can found here). Attested commentary by Origen on this is scanty. However, in his Commentary on Matthew (on 14.9)—presumably in reference to Exodus 20:11, a clear reference back to the six creation days of Genesis 1—Origen suggests

For even if these things seem to have been made in six days, intelligence is required to understand in what sense the words “in six days” are meant because of this saying 

From other attested comments of his, it’s been suggested that in his understanding of the creation days in Genesis 1, Origen 

[follows] the thinking of Philo, and of the Middle Platonists who said that Plato’s description of an apparently temporal creation was made for the sake of “clarity of instruction.” In the same way, Origen says that “everything was made at once . . . but for the sake of clarity a list of days and their events was given.” The story of creation, in other words, refers to one simultaneous act, but was presented in sequential form to enable us to imagine the process. (Robert Daly, Origeniana Quinta, 257)¹⁰

There are some uncertainties on this, however: see my Note 10.

Be that as that may though, Augustine certainly elaborates on the creation days in far more detail than in our attested fragments of Origen.

Following Philo and Origen closely here (and again, as a reflection of the principle of Origen and others mentioned above, that “occasionally the records taken in a literal sense are not true, but actually absurd and impossible”), Augustine concludes that because the sun isn’t created until the fourth “day” in the Genesis account—and yet because, as everyone knows, the rising and setting of the sun are precisely what determines day and night in the first place—then the “days” here could not have been meant in the sense that they’re normally meant. Similarly, when all the days are described as also having a “morning and evening”—Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31—this is also not what typically meant by these things either.

One of the things that points toward a way out of the conundrum for Augustine is the fact that the second creation account, beginning at Genesis 2:4f., starts out with a reference back to the events of the first creation account (1:1-2:3); and yet here, it appears to refer to this creation as having taken place on just a single day: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…” Since, for Augustine, this reinforces the appealing idea of the simultaneity of creation, he then tries to discern what these six (apparent) days of creation from Genesis 1 might actually signify in relation to this.

(Ironically, modern scholars now conclude that the phrase “in the day [that]” in Genesis 2:4’s “in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” is simply idiomatic for something like “at the time,” or simply “when,” and that it almost certainly isn’t to be interpreted more literally in the way Augustine that took it. And on the other side of the coin, although Augustine and others seek to avoid the contradiction here by avoiding the literal sense of “day/days,” that the original author really was thinking of 24-hour days here is precisely what modern scholars suggest.¹¹)

In any case, in a sort of Platonically tinged interpretation intended to remove/bypass the same difficulty that Philo and Origen recognized—because again, Augustine notes that we know that days “have a morning because the sun rises and an evening because the sun sets” (City of God 11.7)—for Augustine the account in Genesis 1 here isn’t really about the actual process of creation itself at all, but instead says something about the ideal contemplation of the world and its creator.

In short, Augustine proposes that the account is really about the intellectual transition from considering the world and all the things within it merely in themselves—a type of contemplation which he describes as “dim”—to contemplating them as a creation of God and his wisdom. 

Putting it all together then, he explains the presence of “evening” and “morning” in the Genesis account here in the sense that “evening twilight turns into morning as soon as knowledge turns to the praise and love of its Creator“; and so, whenever this sort of praise is done specifically in the light of knowledge of the various things in the Genesis account that were created on each of the six days, this is what a “day” and its passing was really intended to signify: for example, when this praise is given “in the knowledge of the firmament—the heavens between the waters above and the waters below—this is the second day. . . . in the knowledge of all the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, this is the fifth day,” etc.

(Things become even more complicated or convoluted in the fourth book of Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, where he seems to further combine this interpretation with the idea of the angels’ luminous nature and their knowledge.¹²)


  • Sometimes a more general claim is made that suggests that, whatever the case may be, Origen and Augustine either allow for or even presume the great antiquity of the world—of a kind that could be more compatible with modern estimates of this.

Again, without getting too far away from my descriptive mission here, I think we can probably all agree that there’s good reason to be hesitant of Augustine’s convoluted interpretation of the creation days of Genesis 1 and whether this was ever intended by the author. Of course, in my experience I don’t think people are very aware of his interpretation in the first place. Nevertheless, perhaps as part of what’s thought to be Origen and Augustine’s more general program of openness to figurative interpretation, and their openness to harmonizing Biblical texts and their interpretation with the facts of the natural world, it’s sometimes thought that these figures either implicitly or perhaps even explicitly supported (or would have supported) the age of the world.

Now, as for the matter of what Origen and Augustine would have thought about this, had they lived in the 20th or 21st century, this is obviously complicated by the ambiguities and uncertainties of any other similar hypothetical. (For example, in this hypothetical, are Origen and Augustine brought to the 20th/21st century as they were, and merely asked to opine on the issue based solely on the principles that they had delineated in their own original floruit? Or are we talking about sort of “updated” versions of Origen and Augustine, where they were not only given our updated knowledge about the natural world, but are allowed to have reformulated their philosophies along with this?)

Leaving aside hypotheticals though, as for the claim that they presumed the substantial antiquity of the world, this is true for neither Origen nor Augustine, nor any other Jew or Christian in antiquity for that matter. In fact, both Origen and Augustine explicitly challenged this idea, especially in relation to the existence of contemporary “secular” histories that conflicted with what appeared to be the solid Biblical chronology—one which was interpreted to allow for (far) less than 10,000 years from the creation of the world to their own times. 

On Origen’s denial of an old world and/or affirmation of a young world, cf. his Contra Celsum 1.19-20; Comm. Matt. 24.14f. (quoted here); and for Augustine, cf. City of God 12.11ff.; 18.40; 20.7; Epistle 199.18; and probably implicitly in De Gen. ad. Litt. 9.11.19 (quoted here). For numerous other citations of early Jews and Christians on this issue, see my post here.

We could, of course, debate the theological ramifications of all these things. But that’s not the intention of my post here. 

We should also be careful in interpreting as malice what could simply be the product of carelessness—or, as it were, ignorance. But even if the skewed historiography of early Biblical interpretation (though again, in many instances this is just a kind of popular-level or folk historiography, and not so much an academic one¹³) is inadvertent, it nonetheless contributes to a sort of whitewashing of history in favor of modern ideologies of science-faith harmony, or general criticism-faith harmony.¹⁴

And perhaps this is akin to accusations of apologetics in the historiography of the Galileo affair. (As a particular highlight in this controversy, refer to the issue of Vatican authorities tampering with the publication of Pio Paschini’s Vita e Opere di Galileo Galilei. On this see Maurice Finocchiaro’s Retrying Galileo, 1633–1992; and this is also discussed in shorter form in an appendix in Richard Blackwell’s “Could there be another Galileo case?”)

To the extent that this (mostly) folk historiography of early Biblical interpretations also sidesteps the possible negative implications of the long ecclesiastical history of what we might call uncritical interpretation—of the kind that Origen and Augustine were engaged in, in their wide-ranging acceptance of the historicity of Biblical narratives and their details, where modern scholars challenge some of these—we might also think of this as an apologetic maneuver. But this is clearly an issue that lies outside the bounds of history and historiography, and is firmly in the realm of the theological.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] And sometimes even thought to be a particularly American brand of this. Besides this issue though, there are also non-Protestant forms of this as well. See James Barr’s classic analysis in his monograph Fundamentalism.

[2] Cf., for example, some of the debates around various proposals that fall under the rubric “evolutionary debunking arguments,” especially the work of Jonathan Jong, et al. The theologian/philosopher of religion who’s devoted perhaps the most attention to this specifically in relation to Christianity is Gregory Dawes. See especially his recent monograph Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science, and in shorter form his articles “Evolution and the Bible: The Hermeneutical Question” and “Can a Darwinian be a Christian?”, etc.

[3] Translation by David DeMarco, brackets mine. The Greek text of this reads

Ἃς οἱ μὴ καταδεχόμενοι τὰς κοινὰς τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐννοίας . . . Ἐγὼ δὲ χόρτον ἀκούσας, χόρτον νοῶ, καὶ φυτόν, καὶ ἰχθὺν, καὶ θηρίον, καὶ κτῆνος, πάντα ὡς εἴρηται οὕτως ἐκδέχομαι

As for Basil’s approach here—particularly in his commentary on Genesis—DeMarco writes that

I will say in passing that I have become skeptical of attempts to explain away Basil’s later rejection of allegory by mention of the fact that his audience for the Homiliae in hexaemeron had uneducated members or by means of his earlier writings where he employs allegorical techniques. Gregory clearly felt the need to avoid allegory [in his In hexaemeron], and it seems primarily due to Basil, though I am not prepared to rule out other personalities such as Diodore of Tarsus. It is of course also possible that Basil was giving way to perceived pressures, or that he felt Genesis in particular should not be subjected to allegory, while other texts still could be. Certainty is not possible here, but his strong language in the ninth homily seems to me to point to a developed conviction against allegory, though this not the prevailing opinion at the moment. Basil’s change from a Homoiousian position to a neo-Nicene position seems to me to also entail a move away from what was characterized as Origenistic theology in some respects… (“The Presentation and Reception of Basil’s Homiliae in hexaemeron in Gregory’s In hexaemeron,” 350-51)

[4] There’s some ambiguity about what exactly it means to interpret the Bible “literally” (or non-literally) in the first place. Sometimes this was no more clear in antiquity than it is in modernity. Without getting into too much depth on this, in her After Eden: Church Fathers And Rabbis on Genesis 3:16-21 Hanneke Reuling, commenting on what an interpretation that was ad litteram, “literal,” entailed (particularly in relation to Augustine), writes

The definition of what constitutes an interpretation ad litteram may vary in different contexts, alternatively referring to the historical facts narrated, the conventional meaning of words or to the “true” meaning of a word (as in the case of the first chapter of Genesis), but it always indicates the one side in a bipolar system of interpretation, in which ‘literal’, ‘corporeal’ or ‘proper’ (proprie) interpretation is opposed to ‘prophetic’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ interpretation. (After Eden, 189)

Kenneth Howell, in his essay “Natural Knowledge And Textual Meaning In Augustine’s Interpretation Of Genesis: The Three Functions Of Natural Philosophy,” notes that in his Retractions, Augustine ‘explained that ad litteram was not “according to allegorical significations” (non secundum allegoricas significationes) but dealt with the actual events recorded (secundum rerum gestarum proprietatem)’ (126).

[5] More on Origen’s view on Biblical inspiration here.

[6] Origen’s affirmation of the historicity of the majority of Old Testament events was recognized not long after the time of Origen himself (and particularly in defense of him)—for example by the late 3rd/early 4th century presbyter Pamphilus of Caesarea. Thomas Scheck, in his monograph Erasmus’s Life of Origen, writes

in his Apology for Origen, [Pamphilus] demonstrates from indisputably authentic texts that Origen defends God’s direct creation of the first man, Adam, and of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs; he accepts the literal truth of Enoch’s translation to heaven, Noah’s flood and the Ark, the Tower of Babel, Abraham’s hospitality to angels, Abraham’s [sic: Lot’s] wife changed into a pillar of salt, the ten plagues of Egypt, the passage through the Jordan, the rock struck by Moses, Joshua’s making the sun stand still in the sky, the stories of Balaam, Gideon, and Deborah, Elijah’s assumption into heaven, the resuscitation of the son of the Shunamite woman, the backward movement of the shadow under Hezekiah, and the historicity of Daniel, Judith, and Esther. A multitude of Origenian texts confirm that in the overwhelming majority of instances, Origen believed in the historicity of the literal accounts of scripture. (Erasmus’s Life of Origen, 54-55)

[7a] The Greek text of this reads

ἐστιν οὐχὶ τὰ ὑπὸ τῆς λέξεως παριστάμενα μόνα ἐκλαμβάνειν, ἐνίοτε τούτων ὅσον ἐπὶ τῷ ῥητῷ οὐκ ἀληθῶν ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀλόγων καὶ ἀδυνάτων τυγχανόντων, καὶ ὅτι προσύφανταί τινα τῇ γενομένῃ ἱστορίᾳ καὶ τῇ κατὰ τὸ ῥητὸν χρησίμῳ νομοθεσίᾳ.

. . .

λεκτέον ὅτι σαφῶς ἡμῖν παρίσταται περί τινων τὸ τῆς ἱστορίας εἶναι ἀληθές, ὡς ὅτι Ἀβραὰμ ἐν τῷ διπλῷ σπηλαίῳ ἐτάφη ἐν Χεβρὼν καὶ Ἰσαὰκ καὶ Ἰακὼβ καὶ ἑκάστου τούτων μία γυνή, καὶ ὅτι Σίκιμα μερὶς δέδοται τῷ Ἰωσήφ, καὶ Ἰερουσαλὴμ μητρόπολίς ἐστι τῆς Ἰουδαίας, ἐν ᾗ ᾠκοδόμητο ὑπὸ Σολομῶντος ναὸς θεοῦ, καὶ ἄλλα μυρία. πολλῷ γὰρ πλείονά ἐστι τὰ κατὰ τὴν ἱστορίαν ἀληθευόμενα τῶν προσυφανθέντων γυμνῶν πνευματικῶν.

[7b] Here‘s an example of a sort of general claim to the contrary, though specifically mentioning the Fall.

[8] Here‘s an example of a typical claim along these lines, in conjunction with a more general “The ‘literal creation story’ interpretation used to be fringe between early Biblical scholars.”

[9] See my post here for more. Just to highlight one thing from this, Biblical scholar John Walton, who’s one of the leading world experts on the subject of the Genesis creation narratives in their ancient context, writes that

These are seven twenty-four-hour days. This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text. Those who have tried to alleviate the tension for the age of the earth commonly suggested that the days should be understood as long eras (the day-age view). This has has never been convincing. (The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 91)

[10] The full context of the Greek of the Origen quote here is

Καὶ συνετέλεσεν ὁ Θεὸς ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἕκτῃ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ ἂ ἐποίησεν. Ἤδη τινὲς ἄτοπον ὑπολαμβάνοντες τὸν Θεὸν δίκην οἰκοδόμου μὴ διαρ κέσαντος χωρὶς ἡμερῶν πλειόνων πληρῶσαι τὴν οἰ κοδομὴν, ἐν πλείοσιν ἡμέραις τετελεκέναι τὸν κόσμον, φασὶν ὑφ’ ἓν πάντα γεγονέναι, καὶ ἐντεῦθεν τοῦτο κατασκευάζουσιν· ἕνεκεν δὲ τάξεως οἴονται τὸν κατά λογον τῶν ἡμερῶν εἰρῆσθαι καὶ τῶν ἐν αὐταῖς γενο μένων. Πιθανῶς δ’ ἂν πρὸς τοῦτο κατασκευαζομένῳ χρήσαιντο ῥητῷ, τῷ· Αὐτὸς εἶπε, καὶ ἐγενήθησαν· αὐτὸς ἐνετείλατο, καὶ ἐκτίσθησαν. (Full Greek text herePG 12:97b-c.)

Stephen Carlson once offered a translation of this:

“And God finished on the sixth day his work that he did.” In fact, some people assume it was strange for God to have completed the building in the manner of a builder who endured just as many days. They say that all things came to be at once and therefore this is what they maintain. But they suppose that it was for the sake of order that this is stated in the form of a list of days and what happened in them. They probably might use a text that maintains this, which is: “He uttered and they came to be; he commanded and they were created [Psalm 33:9]”

(Carlson goes on to suggest, though, “I think it’s pretty clear in the quoted extract that he’s reporting some others’ opinion, and the use of ὑπολαμβάνω suggests subtly that he doesn’t agree with it.”)

[11] Again see my Note 9, and Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One for more.

[12] See here, beginning “In the exegesis of St. Augustine…”, for an attempt at a sort of synthesis of Augustine’s interpretations.

[13] Though the number of mid- or even high-tier academic publications that make oversimplified or erroneous assumptions about early Biblical interpretation (along the lines of the things I’ve highlighted here) when mentioning these things tangentially is significant. 

[14] Here I’m thinking of ideas of science-faith harmony as not so much entailing concessions to science (that is, religions giving up received truths to science), but where science is construed as something like a test that religion easily passes—if not where religion firmly asserts a kind of dominion over it. This could certainly be connected with the old view of philosophy and/or science as the “handmaidens” of theology. It’s also tempting to connect this at certain points with Dawson’s analysis of some of the motives behind non-literal interpretation in antiquity—for example his comment that it’s “unmistakably clear that for Philo allegorical interpretation is an effort to make Greek culture Jewish rather than to dissolve Jewish identity into Greek culture” (Allegorical Readers, 74).

By “criticism-faith harmony,” I mean much the same, but just broader; e.g. ideas that faith is also not challenged by disciplines outside the sciences, strictly speaking, either—like various types of historical and/or literary analysis.

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