The big original sin debate goes on. Ross Douthat has weighed in, as has Andrew Sullivan in this post. Both gentleman go after Jerry Coyne. Jerry has already stolen some of my thunder by replying himself (here and here.) He’s a much more efficient blogger than I am. Still, I’ll throw in my two cents.
Shea touched off the dust-up by arguing that there’s nothing particularly radical, at least from the perspective of the Catholic tradition, about interpreting the first books of Genesis as a “figurative” account of a primeval event, rather than as literal historiography that requires that two and only two human creatures were on the scene when mankind exchanged our original innocence for disobedience and shame.
The problem, though, is that people like Shea do not treat the early books of Genesis as purely figurative. Instead they tell us that parts of the stories are historical (Adam and Eve were actual people, whose actual sin had major repercussions for humanity) while other parts are merely metaphorical (contrary to the seemingly clear statements of the Biblical text, Adam and Eve were not the first two humans and their sin did not consist of eating a forbidden fruit.) Those of us on the skeptical side are merely asking how we can distinguish the historical bits from the figurative bits.
More generally, I can understand taking the story literally as the fundamentalists do. I can also understand the atheist approach of treating the story as an ancient myth that never had any claim to authority, and whose major assertions have now been refuted by science. I can even understand the approach, favored by writers like Karl Giberson and Marcus Borg, that says the Adam and Eve story is purely fictional, but nonetheless has important spiritual truths to impart.
What I cannot understand is the approach defended by people like Douthat, in which we arbitrarily declare certain parts to be historically accurate and certain other parts to be merely metaphorical.
The Bible describes the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:4-7:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Saying there “was no one to till the ground” prior to Adam’s creation certainly does not sound like figurative language. It sounds instead like a straightforward statement of historical fact. Is it really something the Biblical scribe would have written were he imagining that Adam was selected form among a large population of Neolithic farmers? I’m more likely to believe the statement, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,” is meant figuratively, but even here it seems clear that the intent of this verse is to explain the creation of Adam’s physical body. Thus, the creation of Adam was not simply a matter of adding something to a body that was already there.
That, in a nutshell, is the basic issue. Endlessly repeating, “It’s meant figuratively!” does not solve the exegetical problem. It’s hard to fathom the model of Biblical inspiration that allows the scribes to get it right about the creation of Adam and his subsequent fall from grace, but get it wrong about whether there were other people around when Adam was created. Moreover, I think we are entitled to ask why figurative language would be used at this point in the story. It is, after all, partly describing an actual historical event: the creation of a real man called Adam. Even if you think later parts of the story, about the serpent and the fruit perhaps, are metaphorical, it still does not make sense that the scribe didn’t think to mention this prior population of hominids.
It was a peculiar spectacle, to put it mildly: An atheist attacking a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally. On the merits, Coyne is of course quite correct that some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict what science and archaeology suggest about human origins. (For instance, the claim that Adam and Eve were formed from the dust of the ground and a human rib, respectively, not from millennia upon millennia of evolution, the suggestion that they lived in a garden near the Tigris and the Euphrates, not a hunter-gatherer community in Africa, and … well, you get the idea.) But then again some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict one another as well, in ways that should inspire even a reader who knows nothing about the controversies surrounding evolution to suspect that what he’s reading isn’t intended as a literal and complete natural history of the human race.
But Coyne’s point had nothing to do with chiding a traditionalist believer for not reading Genesis literally. Coyne’s point was that the traditionalist believer was reading Genesis in a way that did not make sense given the plain statements of the text. Summoning forth a large population of hominids from which Adam was drawn, for example, is not a matter of interpreting some portion of the story figuratively. It is instead a matter of inserting something into the text which flatly isn’t there. Indeed, it is something that seems flatly contradicted by what is there.
Let us also note that the Bible does not “suggest” that Adam and Eve lived in a garden near the Tigris and Euphrates (as opposed to the view supported by paleoanthropology). The Bible is actually quite specific about the location of the garden:
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Once again, there sure doesn’t seem to be anything figurative about any of this. It’s hard to imagine the point of this detail if it wasn’t to persuade us that the garden was a real place, situated among landmarks that would have been familiar to the people of the time.
Douthat now provides a standard list of Biblical contradictions:
In Genesis 1-2, for instance, we have not one but two creation accounts, which differ from one another in important ways. In Genesis 1 God seems to create “man” as male and female simultaneously, on the sixth day before he rests from his labors. But then in Genesis 2 he creates Adam alone, lets him name all the animals and roam Eden long enough to get lonely, and only then creates Eve from Adam’s rib. Or again, in Genesis 1 we have God saying “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth” several days before he creates humankind. And yet in Genesis 2 we’re told that at the time God forged Adam from the dust of the earth, “no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up.” And so on.
The same pattern extends to the books that follow. As Coyne says, taken on its own the account of Eden and the Fall implies that Adam and Eve are the only human beings in the world, and the story of Cain and Abel makes no reference to further creations happening in the next county over. And yet then we have this:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
But where are these wives and cities coming from, if Genesis is supposed to be a just-the-facts account of the creation of the world? For that matter, who are all these people (not one or two, but plainly lots and lots of them) Cain is so worried will find him and kill him for his crimes? Coyne’s claim that the Bible offers “no evidence that Adam and Eve were anything but the ancestors of all humanity” only holds true if you engage in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 and then stop reading there. If you continue to Genesis 4 (which is just a few pages later!), the text strongly suggests that other human beings were somehow contemporaneous with the first family, and that the human race probably didn’t just descend from Adam and Eve alone.
There is much to criticize here. First, Douthat is being pretty casual about discarding monogenism, but that particular tenet is central to traditional Catholic teaching about original sin. Indeed, this argument got started when people like Edward Feser and Kenneth Kemp (as we discussed in this post) tried to defend monogenism even in the face of modern science. (Their defense was based on the idea that there were plenty of hominids prior to Adam, but that they were not human beings because they lacked souls.)
But the more serious problem is that Douthat is trying to transport people from Genesis 4 back to Genesis 2. Perhaps if he had read to Genesis 5 he would have noticed this:
When Adam had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.
Those other sons and daughters are never named in the text, but they certainly resolve the question of Cain’s wife. We merely assume that Cain married one of his sisters. And considering the long life spans described in Genesis there was ample time for all of these sons and daughters to create a sizable civilization before Cain killed Abel. That, at any rate, is how the fundamentalists resolve the sorts of conflicts Douthat thinks are so significant.
You might protest that the text gives no indication of a long time span between the birth of Cain and Abel and Cain’s subsequent crime. But it also gives no indication of other people being around when Adam was created, so that hardly seems like much of an objection.
Douthat now presents his dramatic conclusion:
Now one can draw two possible conclusions from these difficulties. One possibility is that the authors and compilers of Genesis weren’t just liars; they were really stupid liars, who didn’t bother doing the basic work required to make their fabrication remotely plausible or coherent. The other possibility is that Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race’s first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements — like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation — to make a theological and moral point.
But this is just bizarre. If Genesis 4 assumes the existence of people never previously mentioned, it is not reasonable to conclude that those people were actually there all along, even back in Genesis 2. The far more plausible conclusion is that the story in Genesis 4 was never meant to be part of a continuous narrative with what came before. The author of Genesis 4 plainly expected us to be familiar with Cain’s wife and he assumed a large population. Genesis 2 seems equally clear that Adam was the first human. This apparent conflict does not at all suggest that figurative language is being used to make a moral point. It suggests instead that we have different stories form different Jewish tribes being edited together in an attempt to unify separate traditions.
This has nothing to do with suggestions that the compilers of the Bible were lying or whatever. Quite the opposite, actually. It suggests that these stories were so important to the tribes that possessed them that the editors had to sacrifice perfect literary coherence in order to preserve them all. The attitude, one suspects, was that all of these stories revealed important aspects of the truth and needed to be preserved.
But for all of that we are still left with the problem of separating the historical from the figurative. Continuity issues in Genesis 4 do not help resolve the scientific conflicts in Genesis 2.
Andrew Sullivan’s post is mostly about heaping derision on Jerry. The post is notable solely for this jaw-dropping statement:
There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the f*cking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable.
Sullivan is joking, surely. The parts of the story we are arguing about; the reality of Adam and Eve, their status as the first people, their actual sin and its consequences for humanity, and the transmission of that sin by descent; have been taken literally by Christian authorities for centuries. For heaven’s sake, most of the religious opposition to Darwin, especially from the Catholic Church, was based on Genesis 2 and not on Genesis 1. That Darwin’s vision of natural history conflicted with the Biblical account of Adam and Eve was considered a grave problem.
Here is historian David Livingstone, from his book Adam’s Ancestors, which details the history of the idea of pre-Adamites:
Regardless of how differently the Garden of Eden may have been conceived from ancient times through the medieval period to more recent days, and no matter the differences in computations of the creation date of the earth, the idea that every member of the human race is descended from the Biblical Adam has been a standard doctrine in Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought. In this respect, if in no other, the catechisms of the seventeenth century Westminster divines that “all mankind” descended from Adam “by ordinary generation.” People’s sense of themselves, their understanding of their place in he divinely ordered scheme of things, their very identity as human beings created in the image of God, thus rested on a conception of human origins that assumed the literal truth of the biblical narrative and traced the varieties of the human race proximately to the three sons of Noah and ultimately to Adam and Eve.
That seems clear enough. That’s an awful lot of people who didn’t think the text screamed parable. None of them had brains, according to Sullivan. Livingstone goes on to write:
And yet, for all these hints at alternative European readings of human origins, they remain largely just that: mere hints, fleeting glimpses, prevenient traces of a monumental heresy still to find full voice. The idea that Adam might not be the progenitor of the entire human race and that there might be non-adamic peoples in existence found expression in print by only a handful of writers. Because of the dangers associated with such speculations, open advocacy was exceptional.
A monumental heresy. Sullivan, it seems, is trying to whitewash the history of Christian thought.
I’m sure by now I am trying readers’ patience by constantly returning to this issue. I apologize for that, but the tremendous arrogance of people like Douthat and Sullivan is highly irritating. Their arguments do not represent any improvement at all over what the fundamentalists offer. Indeed, in some ways they are a step backwards. The issue is not literal versus figurative or fundamentalist versus moderate. It is whether your reading of Genesis is true to the text. Figurative interpretations must still make sense in light of what the text says. Douthat and Sullivan are not providing a plausible figurative interpretation of the Biblical story. They are simply discarding the uncomfortable bits, and replacing them with what they wish were there.