Thursday, October 6, 2011

Conversing on Genesis Part 3

For those just joining, I'm continuing my summary of the recent Reading Genesis symposium sponsored by the Bryan Institute and held at the Chattanooga Convention Center. On the first day (Friday), each of the five speakers was allowed to give a 30 minute presentation of his position on the interpretation of Genesis 1-2. On Saturday, the presentations were thematically oriented, with panel discussions on the subjects of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) influences on Genesis, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the New Testament use of the creation account. The Friday sessions were very well attended, probably the best attended of any of the many Bryan Institute symposia. We estimated as many as 500 people in attendance, including some 150 Bryan students. Attendance on Saturday was a bit sparser but still quite good.

All of the speakers emphasized that the ANE literature and myth was really important for understanding the Old Testament, but that the relationship was not simply one of the OT borrowing or reworking ANE myths to serve monotheistic or Israelite purposes. I was really happy for that clarification. Walton in particular had a very polished presentation on Friday, wherein he repeatedly emphasized the importance of ANE literature for understanding the OT. On Saturday, I thought he was a bit more careful to clarify that the relationship of Genesis to ANE literature was not one of obvious literary dependence. In other words, the author of Genesis didn't just swipe some myths and try to sanitize their theology. I was gratified to hear that.

On the subject of the historical Adam, there was less unity. Beall, Averbeck, Collins, and Walton all came out in support of a historical Adam, while Longman remained undecided. At the very least, Longman did not support the necessity of Adam for Christian theology. This is where the discussion turned to science and especially the evidence from genomics (which I've briefly discussed here). As an expert in genomics, that discussion was difficult for me to listen to, at least as difficult as it would be for those biblical scholars to listen to scientists debating the meaning of Genesis. But I held my tongue, so good for me. And in fairness, I thought Collins's advice that we ought to withhold judgment on the new ancestral population size estimates was sound. But yeah, theologians debating science? Ouch. Stick to the text, guys.

The final discussion was on the New Testament usage of the creation passages of the Old Testament. Predictably, it sort of came back to whether the NT writers thought that Adam was a historical individual or whether they were merely making literary references (much like one might quote Hamlet without explicitly noting that he's just a fictional character). You can probably guess the positions of the different speakers. Longman suggested that there was no need to view the references as historical citations, while the others mostly disagreed with him.

I guess now is as good a time as any to start describing my reactions, since the last discussion on NT references really struck a chord with me. As the conversation drew to a close with no clear resolution (how could you possibly distinguish between a literary reference and a historical citation when you're not part of the culture in which the statement was originally made?), I got the uneasy feeling that the debate had become almost "pharasaical." I use that term with much trepidation, because I know it can be misinterpreted in very insulting ways, but what I mean by the reference is how the Pharisees were masters at debating every little "jot and tittle" while losing track of the larger picture. I certainly don't mean to imply that any of our speakers were Pharisees in any insulting way. I just thought that everyone seemed to be losing track of the larger issues.

What larger issues? When Paul references Adam as the source of human sin and death, he explicitly draws a logical connection to Christ's atoning death. Why did Jesus die? Because of Adam's sin. Jesus died to undo the damage done by Adam. That logic works great if Adam was a real person who really did mess things up for us. But if Adam was just a fictional character, then what? Paul's argument takes a turn for the bizarre if Jesus had to die because Edmund betrayed his siblings to the White Witch.

I understand that the response is that in the first century context, it was not unusual to draw such causative comparisons between fictional and real events, but I don't think we can evaluate the Bible as if it were frozen in the first century. If it's really the living Word of God, it's given to all people, not just the first century. I know that understanding the first century culture is extremely helpful to understanding the NT, but writing off Paul's heavy emphasis on the First Adam as just a literary allusion troubles me deeply. Very deeply.

Likewise with Christ's reference to Adam and Eve when discussing marriage in Matthew 19. Jesus explicitly overruled the law of Moses to a bunch of Pharisees using the creation account. That's a staggering thing, but would it have as much force (even to a Pharisee) if he was really appealing to the ideal marriage of Fred and Wilma Flintstone? I don't think so.

So I'm not buying these arguments that Adam and Eve don't really matter and can be understood as just fictional characters (no surprises there, huh?). I see no way to read the NT references to Adam and Eve other than historical citations of real individuals, because of both the logic of the references and the consequences they have on Christian theology.

I'll have a few more comments tomorrow, then I hope to wrap this series up.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.