There is much to like in this new book. For one thing, Bill Craig’s writing is clean as a whistle. His arguments are easy to follow and almost always illuminating. Writing this kind of monograph takes courage—most scholars prefer to hunker down in their silos, but Craig is a man on a mission, straddling multiple disciplines and armed with an astonishing arsenal of research. This book is a striking advertisement for interdisciplinary writing.
Parts of this volume are also highly entertaining. For example, his critiques of Old Testament scholarship were page turners. Those sections gave me fond memories of reading essays like Alvin Plantinga’s “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship.” I’m not saying that all of Craig’s criticisms of biblical scholars were convincing, but I found most of them insightful and conceptually clarifying. (In fact, some of his critiques were so pointed and so obviously right that they should put the fear of God in any potential critic of the book. Be very afraid, Madueme.)
In what follows, I lay out my two main reservations: the first concerns how Craig interprets the early chapters of Genesis, and the second how he interprets the apostolic testimony. I’ll ignore the last section of the book on science because the plausibility of his moves depends on what one thinks of his earlier arguments (and besides, I do have a word count here).
On Early Genesis
Craig’s thesis is that Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history. In step with most OT scholarship, Craig sees key differences in the literary styles of Genesis 1–11 and Genesis 12–50, and he thinks the first eleven chapters share the same conceptual world as ANE mythology. In his view, primeval myths were authoritative for ancient Israelites, but they did not necessarily believe them to be historical in the way that we, today, think about events as “historical.” We should not understand the primeval events literally: “Their primary purpose is to ground realities present to the pentateuchal author and important for Israelite society in the primordial past” (p. 157).
I felt some whiplash reading his justification for the claim that early Genesis is largely mythical. On the one hand, Craig’s criticisms of the comparative method are some of the most penetrating that I’ve ever read, including his critique of parallelomania and claims of direct dependence between Genesis and this or that ANE myth. He rightly exposes the many layers of difficulty in the comparative approach. On the other hand, Craig’s thesis that large parts of Genesis 1–11 are mythical in the authoritative-but-not-literal sense itself depends on the comparative method: by analyzing Genesis 1–11 in light of family resemblances among ANE myths, he prioritizes extrabiblical ANE literature over the theological claims of Scripture itself.
But this approach reflects the wrong ordering and emphasis. The theological claims of Scripture should have priority over ANE literature, which is why I am far less sanguine about the comparative method than Craig is.For an insightful critique of the comparative method, see Don Collett, “Hermeneutics in Context: Comparative Method and Contemporary Evangelical Scholarship” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.). The explanatory categories of the comparative method tend to be naturalistic: they usually appeal to human, non-spiritual, this-worldly horizons—as if the compositional history of Genesis 1–11 is obviously more similar than different from other ANE texts. I doubt that Craig endorses this kind of naturalism, but I still worry about naturalism creep (given that he accepts the basic outline of the comparative method).The mythical understanding of primeval history is an extrabiblical theory that obscures the analogy of faith. Furthermore, religious and cultural similarities between Scripture and the ANE world are difficult to unravel and usually lack a single explanation. The mythical understanding of primeval history is an extrabiblical theory that obscures the analogy of faith. Christians should give priority to interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture rather than relatively speculative theories about ANE culture and its putative relationship to the biblical authors.
Let me explain what I mean. Craig highlights ten family resemblances among myths and then argues that Genesis 1–11 displays almost all those features. He concludes that much of the primeval narrative is mythical, which means that it is authoritative but not meant literally. I think this position is wide of the mark. What I found most telling was Craig’s long discussion of the tenth feature of myths that he thinks Genesis 1–11 exemplifies. He tells us that Genesis has “fantastic elements” that are “palpably false” if taken to be literally true (pp. 101, 105). That list of fantastic elements includes things like the idea that God created the world in six days, that the first humans were vegetarian, that there was a snake that could talk, that there were rivers in Eden, that there were actual cherubim with a flaming sword, that the antediluvian patriarchs lived long ages, that Noah’s Flood was global, that the linguistic diversity can be traced back to the Tower of Babel, and that the earth is only thousands of years old. But why would Craig categorize these elements of the narrative as “fantastic”? Why does he think they are palpably false if taken literally?
Perhaps because Craig has an anti-supernatural bias? But he rejects that charge explicitly: “The fantastic elements in the narratives that we have identified have nothing to do with miracles, which we accept. Rather, they concern nonmiraculous features of the story that, if taken literally, are palpably false” (p. 131). Fair enough, the core issue seems to be epistemological authority rather than supernaturalism. Craig does not explicitly reject the Bible’s epistemic authority, but he does so implicitly when he repeatedly rejects the literal interpretation. He justifies that move by appealing to Ancient Near Eastern texts and how he thinks they were likely understood. My problem is that such extra-textual moves are often speculative and should be resisted if and when they are in tension with Scripture’s interpretation of itself. Those parts of the primeval narrative may seem implausible on a modern view of the world, but if we have solid exegetical and theological reasons to interpret these narratives literally and thus historically, then so much the worse for our modern expectations.
Almost everything Craig classifies as “fantastic” is, in my view, literal and straightforwardly historical. He gives no compelling intra-textual reasons for interpreting those elements mythically. The only reason he gives seems to be that he finds it all implausible—but that says more about William Lane Craig than about Scripture. At several points, he does suggest that the ancient biblical author (or authors) would have agreed with him that the primeval narrative has many fantastic elements that are not historically true,Almost everything Craig classifies as “fantastic” is, in my view, literal and straightforwardly historical. but that inference is unwarranted.According to Craig, the biblical author would likely have found these elements fantastic: creation in six days (p. 109); a talking snake (p. 111); a literal tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil (p. 113); four rivers in Eden (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates) (p. 115); and the antediluvians having such long lifespans (p. 120). Craig is merely assuming that the biblical authors shared his own intuitions or patterns of thinking. I suspect the truth is quite the opposite.
I also note that while Craig denies the charge of anti-supernaturalism, he is not entirely blameless here. Just to pick one example: he gently mocks the view that cherubim stood outside the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. Based on the second commandment, he argues that Israel is an “anti-iconic religion” and would never offer pictorial representations “of things in heaven” (pp. 119–20). Since Israel did offer physical depictions of the cherubim and never thought they were breaking the Decalogue, Craig takes this as proof that the cherubim were not real.
This argument isn’t persuasive. Regarding Craig’s point about anti-iconography, his discussion needs more nuance. The second commandment prohibits making any graven images that would then be worshipped as divine; the Israelites were not allowed to worship any created thing “in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exod 20:4). You could not worship any heavenly creatures (like angels), but neither could you worship any earthly creature—hence the scandal of the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32.
However, when worship is not involved, Moses permits physical representations of creatures and other natural objects. In Exodus 28:33, the Law allows priestly garments to be embroidered with pomegranates. Similarly, in 1 Kings 7—Solomon’s Temple is decorated with two hundred pomegranates; he makes a Sea of cast metal, and that Sea is erected on seven bulls. These are all physical images of parts of God’s creation. Israel’s religious traditions have no problem representing creatures so long as nothing is worshipped—and that includes heavenly creatures, such as the cherubim. The bottom line, canonically speaking, is that the cherubim are real like you and me. I’m happy to take Craig at his word that he has no anti-supernatural axe to grind, but instances like this one left me wondering.
Given the current canons of science and archaeology, I’m well aware that my views on the primeval narrative would be dismissed in mainstream academia. Having said that, I remind you of Craig’s ground rules in the preface: “The first main part [of the book] deals with the biblical data pertinent to human origins and the second with scientific evidence for the same. The order of the two parts is important. We want first and foremost as Christians to know what the Bible has to say about human origins independent of modern science. We want to know what our biblical commitments are concerning the historical Adam,I’m happy to take Craig at his word that he has no anti-supernatural axe to grind, but instances like this one left me wondering. and we can know those only insofar as our hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not shaped by modern science” (p. xii, emphasis added). To which we all said Amen. But that’s my point: he’s not practicing what he preaches. His notion of the fantastic doesn’t derive from Scripture but, I suggest, from a mind shaped by modern science.Interestingly, of the eight family resemblances that Craig identifies between ANE myths and Genesis 1–11, seven of them are consistent with a traditional, non-mythic reading of early Genesis. The only exception is the claim that mytho-history has fantastic elements, a claim about Genesis that Craig affirms and I deny. In light of my critique of applying this particular family resemblance to Genesis, Craig’s appeal to mytho-history per se strikes me as an exact reflection of whatever our current plausibility structures deem believable in the twenty-first century.
Craig’s thesis, of course, isn’t that Genesis 1–11 is fully myth. His nuanced argument for “mytho-history” incorporates a historical dimension and emphasizes that the early genealogies place the biblical characters in chronological order. He infers that early Genesis has a historical core furnished in the language of myth. Craig deserves credit for not choosing the path of many scholars who dehistoricize everything in the primeval narrative.
So, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful . . . but I still have serious misgivings with his historical argument. There is far more historical drama in these chapters than he allows. Instead he leaves us with an awkward amalgam of myth and history that the apostles (and premodern Christians) would have found bewildering. Let me put my question concretely: on what basis does Craig decide which parts of the narrative are mythic and which parts are historical? “Did a serpent speak in the garden? Was the first woman made from Adam’s rib? Was there a worldwide flood?”The quoted questions are from Kenton Sparks, “Response to James K. Hoffmeier,” in Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, ed. Charles Halton (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 64–65, cited in Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam, 201. While I disagree with Sparks’s approach to Genesis, he is right to press these questions. Craig thinks such rhetorical questions are unfair: “I see no reason to think that the viability of a genre analysis of Gen 1–11 as mytho-history should imply the ability to answer such questions. The author does not draw such clear lines of distinction for us” (p. 201). That statement is puzzling. Up to that point in the book, Craig has been telling us in great detail which parts of the narratives are mythic and which parts are not—he can’t plead ignorance now! The issue (once again) is epistemological. On what grounds do we as readers get to say which bits of the canon are historical and which are not, which parts are literal and which are not? Craig offers no robust hermeneutical criteria; by his lights, anything that triggers his own incredulity belongs in the mythical category, while the rest is historical. But that kind of reasoning saddles him with a canon within the canon.See his list of “fundamental truths taught by the primaeval history of Gen 1–11” (p. 202). I don’t disagree with any of those truths; they are well chosen and well said. My question is why those truths only? He has left out many other truths—for example, here are three picked randomly: 1) the lifespan of early humanity decreased (perhaps because of sin); 2) Adam and Eve had the real possibility for immortality had they obeyed God; 3) God judged the wickedness of the entire world by a global flood, with the exception of Noah and his family. It is telling that these truths and the like do not make the cut.
On Apostolic Hermeneutics
The core problem for Craig’s thesis is that neither Jesus nor the apostles interpreted the early chapters of Genesis mytho-historically. They interpreted Genesis 1–11 no differently from chapters 12–50. For Christians who take Scripture as divine discourse, that should be the end of the conversation. QED.
Not so fast, Craig says. Just because an apostle cites an ancient text or event doesn’t mean that God has authorized that text or event as historical. Craig asks us to consider the following questions:
– is the NT author asserting truths or is he just asserting truths-in-the-stories-of-Genesis?
– is the NT author citing a text assertorically or merely illustratively?
– when an NT author cites a text, we should distinguish what “a person citing a text believes and what that person is asserting?” (see pp. 207, 209).
Even before he considers the New Testament references to Adam, Craig surveys several apostolic citations of extrabiblical literature. For example, in his analysis of 2 Pet 2:4–10, Craig points out that Genesis never calls Noah a “herald of righteousness”; that designation comes from Jewish tradition. He concludes that the 2 Peter reference to Noah is not “the literary Noah of Genesis” but rather the “literary Noah of Jewish tradition.” Second Peter reveals nothing about the historical Noah because the reference is for illustrative purposes only. Craig gives other similar examples, including how 2 Peter refers to Lot as “righteous Lot,” a designation that reflects Lot’s portrayal in Jewish tradition rather than in Genesis 19.
I find his analysis here uncharacteristically lacking in nuance. Suppose it is true that Peter (or any other apostle) is communicating something from Jewish tradition that is not explicitly relayed in Genesis, it does not therefore follow that Peter is communicating illustratively and not assertorically.I find his analysis here uncharacteristically lacking in nuance. That depends. We should not preemptively rule out the possibility that Peter is communicating something historically true that has been preserved in Jewish tradition. I’ll return to this point momentarily.
I should also note that apostolic statements don’t need to be “assertoric” to commit readers to their historicity. In the process of communicating sacred Scripture, NT authors often make background assumptions that are not assertoric but nevertheless commit readers to the historical truth of those assumptions. Such instances of apostolic speech acts would misfire as divine discourse unless the background assumptions were true.As David Clark notes: “The nondescriptive functions of language are, in very complex ways, completely dependent on background realities. Propositions that describe these background realities speak about the metaphysical context in which the nondescriptive utterances occur. Nondescriptive utterances are parasitic on this metaphysical context. Without these background realities, described accurately by true propositions, the nondescriptive utterances lose their force.” David Clark, “Beyond Inerrancy: Speech Acts and an Evangelical View of Scripture,” in For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology, ed. James Beilby (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 124. It is strange that when it comes to apostolic hermeneutics, Craig suddenly finds it a virtue to adopt a narrowly biblicistic approach to Scripture.
However, it’s worth pausing over his intriguing analysis of Jude 14–15. In those verses, Jude quotes directly from 1 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal book dated around 400–200 BC—yet Jude attributes those words to the biblical Enoch himself. Craig writes, “This text is a reductio ad absurdum of facile arguments for OT authorship and historicity on the basis of NT citation. Jude’s quoting a pseudepigraphal figure no more commits him to the authenticity and historicity of 1 Enoch than our quoting a myth commits us to its authenticity and historicity” (p. 217). But Craig’s reading does not follow. It is far more plausible that, by means of divine ordinary (and/or special) providence, 1 Enoch preserves an older and reliable oral tradition. Craig considers this possibility but then dismisses it as “hardly” plausible (p. 218). But why is it not plausible? Other than his incredulity, we are given no real justification.
At any rate, when Jude’s remarks are read in context, Craig’s own position that the Enoch references should be read “illustratively,” not historically, is highly unlikely. Jude cites Enoch as prophesying about the men who “are blemishes at your love feasts” (v.12). Does Craig really want us to believe that a mythic-literary character was prophesying things about Jude’s contemporaries? I am not sure how that would work ontologically.Jude’s mention of prophesying in v.14 (προφητεύω) “is an introductory formula used to refer to OT prophets whose prophecies are being fulfilled in the present time.” Gene Green, Jude and 2 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 103. See also Matt 11:3, 15:7; Mark 7:6; 1 Pet 1:10. My point here is independent of longstanding debates concerning what Jude might have assumed about the canonical status of 1 Enoch—for discussion, see Douglas Moo, 2 Peter and Jude (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 272–74. Rather, Jude’s words imply that, in his mind, “Enoch” was an actual person who lived in the same space-time context as the heretics he is lambasting.
When we get to the Adam passages in the New Testament, Craig insists that merely citing an OT figure does not imply that the NT author is committed to said figure’s historicity. He introduces distinctions between “truth” vs. “truth-in-a-story” vs. “truth-in-a-text,” and he deploys them when exegeting the Adam texts (pp. 202–09). While I can affirm these distinctions at a formal level, they have no bearing on the biblical Adam. Craig spends much of Chapter 7 parsing out whether an apostolic comment about Adam refers only to the “literary” Adam or whether a stronger claim is being made about the “historical” Adam.In the world of Scripture, the literary Adam just is the historical Adam. No biblical author would have found this strained reading strategy remotely plausible—and the same goes for most believers from the first nineteen centuries of church history. Adam in the Old Testament is never merely a “literary” figure. In the world of Scripture, the literary Adam just is the historical Adam.
Craig ends up delivering a modest argument for the historicity of Adam, and his key pieces of evidence are the OT genealogies and the handful of times that Paul directly asserts Adam’s historicity. I agree with what he affirms but disagree with much of what he denies. Scripture has plenty more to say about the historical Adam, but Craig’s reading strategy prevents him from recognizing that. He concludes that some apostolic citations of Adam are illustrative-and-authoritative-but-not-historical, while other Adam citations are “assertoric” and thus historical. Craig wants us to believe that the apostles were schizophrenic readers of Genesis, sometimes assuming a mythic understanding of Adam, other times assuming a minimal historical understanding. This kind of hermeneutical hair-splitting is difficult to swallow. The traditional position is more reasonable: namely, that the apostles consistently affirmed the historicity of the Adam narratives, sometimes citing them illustratively and thereby assuming their historicity, other times citing them assertorically and thereby asserting their historicity—either way, they never questioned the historicity of Adam or of the events surrounding him.
Let me conclude. Craig’s book is essential reading and stakes out a moderate position in the historical Adam debate. In the present intellectual climate, this work deserves two cheers. Nevertheless, his thesis stands in a long line of proposals that suffer from the same predicament: under pressure from science and other plausibility structures, they find it impossible to believe the clear witness of Scripture; ergo, they must reinterpret the Bible.
I beg to differ.