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Biblical Scholarship and the Creationism/Evolution Debates

In 1859 Charles Darwin published the first edition of his seminal work Origin of the Species, in which he presented his theory of evolution.  According to Darwin’s hypothesis, many organisms on our planet originated from other living things that have incorporated modifications over successive generations (Evolution).  In response to Darwinian evolution, Creationists presented an alternative theory, asserting that matter, the world and all life were created by God ex nihilo (from nothing).  Creationism today breaks into two primary strains:  Biblical Creationism, which invests the six-day creation story of Genesis with historicity, and Scientific Creationism, which attributes the role of creator to God but is less concerned with a literal six days of creation.  Both schools of creation thought eschew the notion that human beings may have evolved from lower animal forms. (Creationism)

At near the same time that evolution was beginning to make headway in biology, scholars were introducing new interpretative techniques to biblical studies.  Here we will examine two of these techniques – source criticism and form criticism – and the contributions that they might offer to the ongoing discussion of the Creationism/Evolution debates.

For Biblical Creationists, Genesis 1-3 presents one literal, continuous story.  However, on close examination several apparent contradictions appear in the text.  Genesis 1 lays out creation in the following order:

  • Day 1    day and night
  • Day 2    the dome of the sky
  • Day 3    dry land, seas, and vegetation
  • Day 4    the sun, moon, and stars
  • Day 5    fish, birds, sea serpents
  • Day 6    animals, creeping things, humankind (male and female)
  • Day 7    rest (the Sabbath)

In contrast, Genesis 2 [Instructor’s Comment:  or, actually, 2:4b-] appears to retell the same events in a different order without mention just how long any of the steps took:

  • Earth and skies
  • The first human
  • The Garden (vegetation)
  • Animals and birds
  • The Woman, divided from the Man

The book of Genesis itself does not acknowledge these apparent contradictions.  However, one explanation is readily provided by source criticism.  Using this method, scholars attempt to identify various original texts (sources) which were merged into the unified text found in the Bible today.  Source criticism contends that the creation account in Genesis can be divided into two distinct stories – Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-3:24, identified respectively as the P (Priestly) and J (Yahwist) accounts of creation.

The J account is generally considered to be the older of the two stories, originating some time during the Divided Monarchy in the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Friedman 3).  Material from the J source often presents God as an anthropomorphic being who interacts directly with humankind (Frick 96).  Examples in the creation text would include the description of God fashioning the first human from dust and breathing life into its form (Genesis 2:7), walking in the garden (3:8), speaking directly with humans (3:9-19), and clothing them in animal skins after they had discovered they were naked (3:21).  These texts also contain fairytale-like moments, such as when the snake speaks to Eve in Genesis 3:1.  Finally, in the J source the narrator begins to refer to God by the proper name Yahweh[1] in Genesis 2:4b and the name is known to human beings as early as Eve in Genesis 4:1.

By contrast, the Priestly source indicates that humans knew God as Yahweh only when the name was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3 and 6:2-3.  In the P creation story, the Deity is referred to as elohim, commonly rendered in the text as "God."  Elohim is portrayed as a transcendent deity who works in an orderly fashion on a cosmic level to create heavenly bodies, the earth and its inhabitants.  There are no supernatural accounts of talking animals in the P source and God does not speak directly to human beings.  Instead, there is no direct interaction with humankind at all until God decides to call out human mediators (priests) who will serve as God’s representatives to humankind.  While there is disagreement about when the P source was written, it is generally considered to have been later than the J source.  Though not apparent from the English translation, experts in ancient Hebrew view the language used in the Priestly texts as coming from a later stage of linguistic development (Friedman 7).  [Instructor’s Comment:  Not all scholars agree on this one.]

Source criticism suggests that the separate P and J accounts were combined at some point to produce the narrative found in Genesis 1-3.  If this is the case, then source criticism’s contribution to the Creationism debate is a question that Biblical Creationists must answer:  which creation story is the literal truth?  If we accept the idea that two separate and somewhat contradictory stories are presented and also the idea that the authors intended to present a factual account of creation, then only one of the stories can be true.

The second tool that we can bring to bear on the text is form criticism.  This technique is used in evaluating the various genres that are presented in the biblical text.  Most readers of the Bible will agree that not all passages are the same.  Some texts are narrative history, while others are poetry.  Other sections present genealogies while still others provide instructions for various sacrificial offerings or the dimensions of sacred structures.  Some sections look very much like the contractual agreements of suzerain-vassal covenants of the Ancient Near East.  In addition to these various literary forms, biblical scholars also recognize the presence of myth in the first 11 chapters of Genesis (Frick 108).

The word "myth" as commonly used in our culture carries a connotation of a story that is not true.  However, scholars use this word in a much more precise manner.  As a literary genre, a myth is an account that illustrates a truth or explains a condition; however, the story itself is not necessarily factual.  Not every account qualifies as a myth.  Scholars generally agree on four criteria that characterize this form:

  1. It must be a story.
  2. It must be traditional, passed down (generally by word of mouth) in a community over time.
  3. It has characters that are more than ordinary humans (deities).
  4. It deals with events of an ancient past (Frick 108).

Instead of presenting literal facts, myths often contain contextual clues that should alert the reader to their figurative nature.  In the Genesis creation accounts, these clues are especially clear when God is described in anthropomorphic terms.  Another clear indicator is the walking, talking snake that shares the Garden with the first human couple.  Our experience tells us that God does not walk around among us in a physical form and that snakes are incapable of human speech.  These facts should point out the mythical nature of the story.

There are many known creation myths that attempt to explain the origins of the world and humankind.  Biblical scholars are confident that the ancient Israelites would have been familiar with at least the Babylonian Enuma Elish in which the god Marduk kills Tiamat, the primordial sea goddess, and fashions her body into the heavens and the earth (Frick 121).  A similar version of this myth was used in Assyria with the local god Assur substituted for Marduk (Leik 18).  In like manner, the Hebrew Torah begins with a book whose title and first word is Bereshith. In English we refer to the book by its Greek name, Genesis (creation).  However, bereshith literally translates as "in the beginning," providing us with the first clue that we are about to read a story of great antiquity, passed down through many generations.  [Instructor’s Comment:  The antiquity alone not proof – but is one of Frick’s criteria.]  The subject of the first sentence is elohim, whose creative powers prove far greater than those of any ordinary human.  Using the criteria presented above, we can now appropriately refer to the story that follows as a myth.  Likewise, Genesis 2:4b refers to the first day when Yahweh elohim created the earth and the heavens – cues that this story should also be read as a myth.

By identifying a specific genre of myth and linking the creation accounts of Genesis to the creation myths told by Israel’s neighbors, source criticism suggests that the authors of the six-day creation tale and the following Yahwist account did not intend that their stories be taken literally.  Thus, questions about how light and dark existed over the primeval earth before the creation of the sun, moon and stars or the possibility of vegetation that survives without a sun to warm and feed it become moot.  Logical scientific reasoning is not a prerequisite to good storytelling.  A snake may lack a voice box and a mouth to articulate words, but these are not required in myth to explain the fall of humanity.  If source criticism is correct, then the creation account is more concerned with providing answers to questions asked at some point by many of us:  Who made everything?  Why is the sky blue?  How did we get the animals?  Where do people come from?

But what do these contributions from source and form criticism truly add to the ongoing debate between the proponents of creationism and evolution?  Scientific creationists can most likely continue their work, unaffected by these claims.  The presence of two mythical creation stories does not change anything in their hypothesis.  It is the biblical creationists who might pause to consider new data.  For as previously mentioned, if there are two creation stories with differing descriptions, the question must be answered:  which story is the literal, factually correct one?  But rather than attempting to answer that question, perhaps a reevaluation of the historicity of the creation narratives based on the understanding of myth might lead to a solution in which neither account is held to a strictly factual standard.  The only question then remaining would be what we would call biblical creationists who no longer believe in a literal six-day creation account.
[Instructor’s Comment:  Would the information also correct scientists who view the Bible as science – but bad science?]

[1] Many modern English translations introduce the convention of substituting the words LORD and GOD in small capital letters to indicate to the reader that the proper name Yahweh appears in the Hebrew text.


Works Cited

"Creationism."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2006.  Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD  18 Oct. 2006.

"Evolution."  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2006.  Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD  17 Oct. 2006.

Frick, Frank S.  A Journey through the Hebrew Scriptures.  2nd Ed.  Belmont: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2003.

Friedman, Richard Elliott.  The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses.  San Francisco:  Harper, 2003.

Leik, Gwendolyn. "Ancient Near East."  The Encyclopedia of World Mythology.  Ed. Arthur Cotterell.  Bath, Eng.: Parragon, 2001.


Instructor’s Comments

Good paper.  Could have drawn more conclusions and unpacked the ones you’ve given, but very good in discussing the methods and their meaning.

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