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Kenton Sparks: Genesis 1–11 is Ancient Historiography — An Excerpt from “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?”

Categories Old Testament Book Excerpts

9780310514947What genre is Genesis 1–11? Is it history, fiction, or neither? A new book provides clarity by exploring the first eleven chapters of the Bible, which are often fraught with disagreement and confusion.

Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? offers a vigorous discussion of primeval history from three distinct perspective. One of those voices is Kenton Sparks, who argues Genesis is neither history nor fiction:

I don’t intend to suggest that the authors were avoiding history, as might be the case in full-fledged allegory. I mean instead that they were so busy doing something else that historical questions were not in the foreground of their thinking.

Read the excerpt below and engage this important resource yourself to gain deeper insights into the important discussion of the genre and nature of Genesis 1–11.

Historical questions arise naturally for readers of Genesis. Long before modern science made the gap between Eden and our world crystal clear, Christian scholars like Origen balked at the idea that Genesis was literal history, regarding as “altogether blind” those who thought otherwise.

This produced equal and opposite responses from other Christians, such as Ephrem the Syrian, who believed in the complete historicity of Genesis…Debates like this reflect an intuitive if not rational sense that the historicity of the text — or lack thereof — has some bearing on how we understand its discourse as a human voice and, ultimately, as God’s voice. Our questions do not guarantee right answers. But it is far better to ask and err than to assume naively that the text is something it isn’t.

Historical queries have often conflated several closely related issues into one. In the foregoing I have tried to tease out these issues by focusing on three different questions: (1) Did the biblical authors intend at every point to write historically reliable narratives? (2) Did the authors believe that history stood behind their narratives? (3) Did the authors accept as history anything which cannot in fact be historical? Did the authors intend at every point to write reliable history? As I see it, the answer must be no. Our comparison of the texts and sources reveals pretty clearly that the authors were so invested in shaping and reshaping their sources that they cannot have intended their work to yield similitude with actual events. The Antiquarian knew that serpents do not talk. In saying this, I don’t intend to suggest that the authors were avoiding history, as might be the case in full-fledged allegory. I mean instead that they were so busy doing something else that historical questions were not in the foreground of their thinking.

Did the authors believe that history stood behind their narratives? Surely they did, though the answer will not be the same for all parts of the narrative. While it is unlikely that the Apologist believed in a literal garden with trees, there can be little doubt that both believed in one God who created our world, that there was a primal human couple, and that humanity was creation’s crowning achievement. Both authors would have accepted as historical the basic contours of the flood story — the boat, animals, and the flood hero — but they were not so transfixed with history that this prevented them from reshaping the story to advance their theological messages.

Did the authors accept as history anything which cannot in fact be historical? In some cases they did, with the flood story being the poster child. Everyone in antiquity seems to have believed that this deluge took place because they were not privy to the insights of modern geology and evolutionary biology. On this score the biblical authors should not be faulted. We should extend to them the same grace if they believed in eponymous ancestry and the confusion of languages at Babel. We will look as confused in a thousand years as they do now. (pg 138)

Genesis: History, Fiction, Or Neither?

Edited by Charles Halton

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