In his latest HuffPo piece, Karl Giberson writes:
The story of Adam and Eve originated as a Hebrew oral tradition, which is a long ways from an English prose translation. And there are more complex filters related to culture, author intent, literary form, historical setting, anticipated audience and so on.
Application of these filters leads many readers to conclude that the biblical story of Adam and Eve was never intended to be read as literal history. The world “Adam” for example, is the generic Hebrew word for “man.” “Eve” means “living one.” The story is about a couple with the improbable names “Man and Living One,” who reside in a magical garden and take walks with God in the evening. It is far from obvious that this should be read as literal history.
Giberson’s final remark is interesting, since for most of Christian history it actually was considered obvious that it was meant literally. Certainly the fantastical nature of the story cannot be used as evidence against that understanding, since most of the interesting parts of the Bible suffer from the same flaw. Even today, denying the historicity of Adam and Eve can get you into trouble, and not just among the fundamentalists.
There are several hurdles facing non-literal interpretations of Adam and Eve. The first is that Genesis 2 and 3 read like straightforward historical accounts. The story makes perfect sense when taken literally, and the writing style is not at all like what one would expect if the intent was solely poetic or metaphorical. The second is that the story appears to have a very clear etiological function, which is to say that its intent seems to be to provide a concrete explanation for the generally decrepit state of the natural world. We are told that the ground is cursed because of a specific act taken by two actual people. The story loses all of its force if you completely remove its historical content. But the most serious problem is that the story of Adam and Eve is thoroughly intertwined with the rest of the Biblical narrative. In Romans, Paul unambiguously treats Adam as an historical person, and presents Adam’s sin specifically as the reason Christ’s sacrifice is necessary. Metaphorizing Adam and Eve entails believing that Paul was flatly wrong on this central point.
But that’s not really the main point of this post. Rather, I’d like to respond to what Giberson says next:
But how do we decide which parts of the Bible should be read literally? This question is often posed with an “Aha! I have got you” exclamation, as though the inquisitor is certain it cannot be answered. Jerry Coyne, in his endless quest to discredit all things religious, put it like this in a recent blog:
“Sophisticated” theologians who urge a non-literal reading of the Bible always put themselves in a bind. And it is this: if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor? Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.
Less triumphalist versions of this same question were posed to me by a radio listener this morning and a former student yesterday on my Facebook wall. And I think the answer is straightforward, even simple:
The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”
Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn’t do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.
The first thing to note here is that Giberson has not answered Jerry’s question. Jerry asked how you distinguish the portions of scripture that are to be taken literally from the ones that are merely metaphorical. Giberson’s reply is simply to reiterate that some parts of the Bible are literal and others are metaphorical. I fail to see how that addresses Jerry’s concern.
I would flesh out Jerry’s question by looking at other places where science prompted a reconsideration of scripture. Giberson mentions the case of Galileo. The ninety-third psalm asserts, “The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, [wherewith] he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.” (KJV) That certainly makes it sound like the earth does not orbit the Sun, and it was taken to mean precisely that for quite some time. But a modern reader could reasonably reply that nothing central to the Christian faith rides on this point, and that the Psalms represent a genre of writing in which we expect poetry and symbolism. Asserting the the Earth cannot be moved can readily be given a poetic meaning.
Similar arguments could be made with regard to the story of Joshua making the Sun stand still, or to the parable in which Jesus describes a mustard seed as the smallest on Earth. In both cases the text seems clear enough, and I can understand why a devotee of Biblical inerrancy would squirm here, but since we are ultimately dealing with trivial points it is perhaps not so difficult to ascribe non-literal meanings to the verses in question.
We might even argue in this way with regard to the age of the Earth. The early chapters of Genesis really do seem to imply pretty strongly that the Earth is very young, and, again, virtually everyone understood them to be saying precisely that until science forced a reconsideration. Even here, though, we can at least argue that the age of the Earth is not a point of central concern to Christianity.
But with Adam and Eve we have a perfect storm. We have unambiguous scripture coupled with a point of central importance to Christian theology. If even in this case we can summon forth a reason for relegating Adam and Eve to the realm of mythology, then we really do have to wonder what isn’t up for grabs.
Finally, what of Giberson’s proud declaration that the Bible is a library and not a book? The problem is something known as the unity of scripture. It is standard Christian theology that the Bible tells one continuous story throughout the entirety of its sixty-six books. Moreover, the Old Testament and the New Testament are so intertwined that it is impossible to fully understand the Old except in the context of the New. Indeed, Christian apologists often point to this unity as evidence for the Bible’s divine origin. (Here’s one example.) That the Bible is one continuous narrative, despite receiving contributions from dozens of authors separated in time by more than fifteen hundred years, can only be explained by invoking divine inspiration. So goes the argument.
It was not atheists like Jerry who decided that the Bible could be treated as a book and not as a library. If we are committed to the unity of scripture, then there really is a slippery slope linking nonliteral interpretations of one section to nonliteral interpretations of others.
That is why Giberson’s Harry Potter analogy is frankly ridiculous. No one has ever claimed that the Harry Potter books have a connection to the books about Lincoln. But people certainly do claim that Genesis is intimately related to Romans, or more generally that the Old Testament is related to the New. A better analogy would be that if we decide, in the course of reading the first Harry Potter novel, that Hermione is just a figment of Harry’s imagination (rather like Brad Pitt’s charcater in FIght Club), then that will certainly affect how we read the later books in the series.
As it happens, though, I do think a Christian has a way of evading this problem. He could conclude that the Biblical text is inspired only in the sense that its authors had genuine encounters with God that they then put down in writing as best they could. The words themselves are not inspired, they were written by fallible human beings. On this approach we simply abandon the notion of inerrancy, but that is good riddance to bad rubbish. To the Christian who worries that this leaves him without a firm basis for believing what the Bible says about Jesus I would simply ask what it was that convinced him of Jesus’ divinity in the first place. If it was really the complete historical accuracy of Genesis then we have a problem. But if it had something to do with religious experience, or if it was the result of positive changes in their life that occurred after coming to faith, then I fail to see how those reasons are diminished by taking a more moderate approach to the Bible.
Obviously, people of a more conservative temperament will find that unacceptable. But I didn’t come up with that solution myself. It is precisely the solution presented by theologians like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Langdon Gilkey, among many others. I would think that a Christian could take this position without straying too far from orthodoxy.
Of course, I personally do not think that is the correct position. In my opinion a far more sensible approach to the Bible is to treat it as a purely human production, with no divine input whatsoever. It has historical and literary value, but it provides absolutely no insight at all into any question of ultimate importance. I doubt I’ll ever understand what could possess otherwise intelligent people to devote even one second of emotional energy to worrying about whether Adam and Eve actually existed,