Did Jesus Understand Genesis 2 Literally?

Did Jesus Understand Genesis 2 Literally? August 4, 2012

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.”


  • 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.

  • Robert G

    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.

    • Robert G

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

      • 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”.

          • 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.

        in fact if you look at the extended metaphor of marriage as being one, sex is not 2 becoming one then separating back into 2, but rather marriage is presented as a metaphor of 2 becoming 1 and staying 1. so the act of sex is not the primary basis for this metaphor but rather the beginning of the metaphor. but in no way is there an actual change in number of persons, there remains 2.

  • 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?

    • 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.

    • 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?

    • 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. 🙁

  • I’m all for allegorical interpretation but … “made them male and female. For this reason…” a man should leave his family and unite with a woman. Jesus didn’t say anything about the act of splitting. Just that he made the two to be one – in marriage.

    • Are you suggesting that Jesus ignored or was unaware of what Genesis says about the two originally having been one?

      • It wasn’t part of the argument. “For this cause…” What cause? He made them male and female. IOW, he didn’t make a man to dwell alone or just with other men. None of that necessitates an allegorical reading. To me the best argument for an allegorical reading by Jesus is the fact preachers use allegory all the time and the audience knows it because they are familiar with the material, like when a preacher uses something from Star Wars. Jesus or any other preacher using something to teach in and of itself does not necessitate a literal understanding, as Evangelicals like to think. I explain this in my blog post: http://kirbyhopper.com/jesus-used-fiction-teach-truth/

        • Why are you bringing allegorical interpretation into this?

          • Your post above: “The evidence does not support the claim that Jesus took that text literally, but in fact, suggests precisely the opposite.”

          • So you were assuming that if something is not literalistic, it must be allegorical? I would be interested to hear more about why you assumed that, if you have some tradition or background that you drew that assumption from. I’ve not encountered that dichotomy before.

          • I wasn’t assuming anything, just using “allegorical” as a catch-phrase for all things non-literal. For me the important thing to establish is how we know the story was taken as non-literal by Jesus or by 1st Century Jews in general. That said, for me it’s enough to say it just doesn’t read like it was meant to be a scientific explanation of origins delivered from the Creator, but that isn’t very convincing for those who seem to think non-literal is a challenge to their whole belief system.

          • Jason Baker

            If the passages are not to be taken literally, how should we take them?

          • Why not take them as Jesus did? Why not take them as the internal clues to their genre suggest that they should be taken?

          • Jason Baker

            How exactly did Jesus take them?

          • As I indicated in the blog post above. If you think some part of it requires further clarification, kindly be specific and I will see what I can do to address whatever you are currently confused about.