Every Sunday, I share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Does Reading Genesis Require a PhD?
One of the topics of major interest to me is the debate within Christianity over the means and timing of creation. Recently, a friend sent me a copy of Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. I started it immediately and I’ve been working my way through the views before I go back to read the responses. One interesting quote came up in the portion from the scholar advocating a “literal” reading (Todd S. Beall):
Genesis 1 should be read… as historical narrative that is meant to be taken literally. This is the normal reading of the account… It does not require a person with a PhD to unlock the key to these chapters by appealing to A[ncient] N[ear] E[astern] literature or a special genre or some other special figurative approach. (48)
The quote is in context of Beall’s discussion of various evangelicals “coming out” as not reading the text literally for various reasons, such as ANE context, notions of genre, or the like. Basically, Beall’s point seems to be that we can (and should?) just read the text straightforwardly without having to study all kinds of topics to understand it. What do you think of this notion? What might this say about the cultural context of Genesis? Does that context matter? Should we be concerned with possibilities regarding such a context, differing genres, or the like?
Interestingly, a later author in the same work, Tremper Longman III, confronts Beall’s allegation regarding the PhD:
…isn’t the Bible equally clear to everyone, even those who have not studied the Bible and its cultural background? The simple answer to that question is no, it is not. After all, unless you have studied Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic you cannot read the Bible at all without scholarly help. (121)
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Todd S. Beall, “Reading Genesis 1-2: A Literal Approach” in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation edited J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013).
Tremper Longman III, “What Genesis 1-2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t)” in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation edited J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013).
Beall and Longman have good quotes/ pointes but Longman hammers in the nail with his statement, in my opinion, because people have to “truly” study to be sure that they are interpreting Scripture correctly. I think a PhD can think of the bad consequences that can come from a bad interpretation.
Thanks for your comment! I think the mention of “PhD” was a bit of a polemical device used by Beall to try to show that alternative positions are absurd. People who are students of the word and read material by experts (like this book!) can come to a fuller and possibly even better understanding. Reliance upon PhDs is perhaps in view; but people don’t need PhDs to come to an understanding. It seems to me Beall’s quote is intentionally worded to sound absurd and get away from the tougher issue of coming to an understanding of the text.
Interestingly, however, it seems requires PhDs on the part of the nonliteralists to screw up what Genesis so plainly teaches (in concert with other parts of the Bible): that the cosmos was created in six days of normal length. In order to disbelieve this, one has to play games with the text–and usually those who play games with the text are the so-called “scholars.”
Ironically, it seems to require a PhD to screw up what Genesis so obviously teaches (in concert with other parts of the Bible): that God created the universe within six days of normal length. To evade this obvious meaning, one has to monkey around with the text–and usually the ones who monkey around with the biblical text carry PhDs.
This does *not* mean I’m against scholarship; I’m a scholar myself, and regularly delve into the Greek and Hebrew and consult technical commentaries. But it’s also scholars who are most equipped–when they give way to sinful imagination–to do the most damage to our understanding of God’s word.
Would this argument not cut both ways? Are not scholars most equipped to also do the best beneficial work with understanding God’s Word?
I haven’t read the book you’re reviewing, so I appreciate your taking on the process of breaking it down for us.
Reading your opening post inclines me to believe that this book will be like other such discussions I have heard, whether about Gen 1-2 or about the historicity of Adam and Eve. Such discussions typically include references to genre, ANE context, and so on. That’s fine insofar as it goes, but what makes these discussions so tedious is that they dance around the elephant in the room without addressing it directly. I’m speaking, of course, of evolution. Why don’t they just address the point head on?
On a related subject, I fully accept John Walton’s point which I’m sure he makes in this book because he’s made it elsewhere to the effect that we should not consider it strange or inappropriate to re-examine our long-standing interpretations of Scriptures if scientific findings suggest we do so. However, such a point should begin a discussion about whether or not evolution can be reconciled with the Bible – not end it. More people would be induced to let go of a “literal hermeneutic” if someone were to offer them an alternative hermeneutic that was more compelling. Instead, these discussions usually end up with the non-literalists saying, in effect, “We don’t think the text has to be inpreted literally” as if they need to say nothing more than this. Fine, fellows, but tell us what you do believe, not just what you don’t believe.
I found the Walton quote in this Amazon review of this book: http://amzn.to/1eEt83m
I agree with the statement, “Genesis 1 should be read… as historical narrative that is meant to be taken literally.” But not in the sense meant. Having studied (on my own time, not as a scholar) the ANE myths, Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees, and the most common versions of Genesis (the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Masoretic Test), it seems increasingly obvious (to me anyway) that Moses wanted the Israelites to think of God exactly the way a literal reading of the scripture would suggest. One God, whose very word can bring anything to be. But that response admittedly evades the real issue. Sure, it was literally God who created in Genesis 1, but is Genesis 1 (and 2) what God literally did? Two different perspectives, whose unspoken conflation are at the heart of much of this debate.
As I have studied, and accepted the mainstream scientific interpretation of the physical evidence within ancient ruins and ANE texts, my conclusion is that God breathed additional meaning into the text that is as literal many would like, but in a way the original writers did not intend, and that no Creationist group has realized. I think science actually provides a more literal account of Genesis 1 than the standard literal interpretation does.
One example is in the initial conditions for God’s first creation day, when God “Let there be light.” Genesis 1 provides the context for what would mark that day: evening and morning. It also provides a living being to witness the evening and the morning: The Holy Spirit. It also provides a physical posture from which He observed the evening and the morning: hovering over the deep. Finally, it describes what the observer saw: the work of that day was good. The key is that on Day 1, before He “let” there be light, the deep already existed, was in complete darkness, and had waters above and below essentially joined. No literalist I know takes this literally, but a scientist can! As an interested layperson, I took it literally, and found a time when the physical conditions laid out in Day 1 existed: 3.9 Ga (billion yeas ago).
I then extrapolated from this that God must have hovered over the deep, in the light of Day 1, until some point in time and then hovered into the evening… and with the earth rotating beneath, any amount of time could have passed, and it would still be a literal evening and morning for Him. This is for me the only “literal” interpretation that holds the text together, and I can follow this logic through every Creation day. This amounts to a day-age theory, but without the overlapping days or imposed symbolism that other old earth theories require, or the neglect of ANE imagery that the typical “literalist” interpretations appear to entail. And it provides a nice context for interpreting the events as Genesis 2 it follows sequentially after Genesis 1. That is, Adam was “born” after mankind subdued the earth… having been created by God from clay or dust through abiogenesis and Evolution, and then having God breath spiritual life into him, much as He has done with every Christian who has accepted Jesus as Lord and savior.
As for the leading question, does this require a PhD? Not from any PhD program that I am aware of!
I agree. As I said in response to Jerome above, it seems to me Beall’s point is intentionally worded in such a way as to make it sound as though “surely, we don’t need to study it as much as a PhD in order to get it!” But of course that’s true. But that doesn’t mean we don’t rely on PhDs to get it or to find meaning. A simple reading the text is more likely to be simplistic.
I think these two quotes represent extremes on a spectrum. I’ve done an MA, not in theology, but I dabbled in theology as a related topic area, and now I’ve tied myself in all kinds of epistemological knots with it and unearthed questions about “the original Greek” that I wish I’d left alone, because they require more pursuing than the time, reading and experience I possess will allow. A PhD could do similar, I imagine. The simple person, who only knows to take things as he reads them, is no doubt happier and less full of those sorts of questions that serve to feed doubts and fears rather than build up faith. Such a person is not primarily concerned with placating his doubts in a feverish haste to bust his destabilizing epistemological and ontological uncertainties: he can completely avoid “quarreling about words … [which] only ruins those who listen” – the constant hunt for the ”original Hebrew” – and set himself on a quest for joy in what he has, and be built up in his faith. Nonetheless, I take Augustine of Hippo’s point about the dangers of looking no further than the literal in the early chapters of Genesis: far much more insight and edification can be gained by going beyond what’s there on the surface.