Sunday, August 2, 2020

15 Reasons To Take Genesis As Myth

I was recently sent a video by Mark, one of my Creationist friends, who responded to a question I had about why would anyone take Genesis as history when I think it reads so much better as myth. The video was from Creation Ministries International and just happens to look a bit like the one below:




I honestly feel bad for covering so much of Creation Ministries International's material that it almost comes across as if I'm targeting them specifically. I can tell you that isn't the case, but there are two reasons why I typically respond specifically to CMI more than anyone else:

1. CMI produce so much material that anyone who wants to look up Christian arguments inevitably comes across something from them. A lot of their material comes up in Google searches on search strings that question Christian doctrines, and they have a lot of answers for a lot of things.

2. They are one of the most-published Creationist organisation in Australia, and guess who lives in Australia...

So anyway, I have always wanted to write up a response to their 15 Reasons material since I first came across the book of the same name some time back at a seminar one of their lecturers was giving, and now that my mate Mark sent it to me, I may as well write it up.

I do agree with the general point that people from ancient Semitic cultures all the way up to Victorian times overwhelmingly read Genesis as history and worked their hardest to interpret everything they saw around them to fit in to that paradigm. But to me, this is simply because they didn't know any better because they didn't have a way of knowing any better - they didn't have access to the same body of knowledge and the refined methods of inquiry, especially that driven by technology, that we do today. So we in modern times are much better positioned to confirm or refute the historicity of the Bible, and in particular Genesis.

So, here are my responses to Creation Ministries International's article, "15 Reasons To Take Genesis As History", point by point.

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1. Jesus Understood The Old Testament As History.

It's not so much that Jesus understood the OT was historical - it's more that Jesus has been reported as understanding that it was historical. The problem here is that Jesus never wrote anything personally himself so we simply don't have his direct opinion on the matter, and for all we know, the gospel writers could be putting words in Jesus' mouth.

Also, the gospels were written anonymously, which has to be taken as a mark against the gospels-as-history hypothesis - rarely is history written anonymously.

The best-case scenario is that the gospel writers (especially for the gospel attributed to Mark) were heavily employing tropes of myth and storytelling to make their points and then re-writing each other as per The Synoptic Problem (making the gospels unreliable as history because at least three of the four accounts are really just the one account re-written), or at worst, they were writing with such skewed theological and political slants as to make the four separate accounts of Jesus fairly disparate (again, making the gospels unrealiable as history).

And this is if we completely put aside the question of if Jesus existed in the first place which, offensive and grating as it may be, can't be hand-waved away.


2. Jesus Regarded Adam, Eve and Noah As Historical People.

This is just a re-hash of the previous argument which fails on the same point - everything attributed to Jesus was written in documents that employed heavy use of mythology and allegory, thus making them unreliable in terms of history.

The other problem we encounter with this point is that the weight of scholarship is actually against Adam, Eve and Noah as historical people - no-one but dyed-in-the-wool Biblical Triumphalists would try argue a case that anyone mentioned in Genesis actually existed as they are mentioned, or that anything mentioned in Genesis actually happened as it was recorded.


3. Genesis Was Written As History.

The problem? So were texts like The Book of Mormon. But no-one aside from adherents of those fringe religious movements consider texts like The Book Of Mormon or Scientology: A History Of Man to be historical or to be accurately reporting history.

CMI also seem to forget that there is an entire genre called Historical Fiction that a text can be categorised as, alongside those of history and outright mythology - it's not a black-and-white one or the other. As an example, Gone With The Wind writes with frequent nods to history as it references real people, real events and real locations, yet no-one would consider Scarlett O'Hara to have been an historical person.

Or as another example, Betty Crocker was said to have been born in 1921 and had a career where she signed letters, had a radio show,  produced cookbooks and she even has a street named after her - all things we know can and do happen to historical people - yet she never existed as a real person, only as a fictionalised corporate mascot.

Just because words are written down on a page and the words don't come with the disclaimer "any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental" doesn't automatically qualify it as history. We have to have a way of determining history from myth that is more nuanced than what gives you comfort in your salvation. 

We have to remember that ancient societies were not so much concerned with recording matter-of-fact history as they were with preserving social structure, and it is a lot easier to enforce structure if you can create an air of legitemacy about your central texts, the most effective of which is to enforce the belief that the events actually happened as recorded.


4. The Rest Of The Old Testament Takes Genesis As History.

Which is no surprise, really. Firstly, the people who wrote the latter books of the Old Testament had no way of knowing if the events documented in Genesis ever really happened as they would have been compelled to believe in Genesis as history because of tradition and religious inculcation.

And second, the people who compiled the Old Testament weren't in a position to know if the events of Genesis did or didn't happen - they just wanted to preserve tradition and enforce social norms.

Thirdly, mythosymbolic interpretations of historical fiction tend to attract the wrath of people who aren't interested in nuanced debate. What Biblical Inerrantists and Triumphalists overlook was that numerous theological battles were fought over the history-vs-allegory meanings of the texts in the backdrop of an openly pagan society, so much so that competing sects formed and rival canons produced, the battle getting so heated to the point that St. Augustine, the highly venerated father of the church, endorsed torture in his book City Of God as a way of bringing heretics in to line.

So when you have a whole bunch of people who firmly believed (or firmly wanted people to believe) in the scripture as an historic text, is it any surprise that they chose books that reflected the narrative they wanted people to believe?

But again, just because someone important believes a text is historic doesn't make it an accurate recording of history.


5. The New Testament Takes Genesis 1-11 As History.

This isn't a new argument, and again, runs in to the same problems as before - when you have a particular group of people actively filtering documents in line with a theological pre-conception, it's no surprise that the documents produced line up with the particular viewpoint they were aiming for.

Oh? You didn't know that the early church actively suppressed filtered selected the documents to weed out heretical doctrine bring their version of God's chosen message to the world? Yikes. 


6. Genesis' History Is Consistent With God's Nature.

Has anyone interviewed God to get his take on Genesis, since God himself didn't actually write it?

For all we know, Genesis could completely misrepresent God because some easily excitable theists couldn't fathom the concept that while God may indeed exist, Genesis gets his nature completely wrong.

But let's look at what happens in Genesis to see what we can tell about God's nature:

God kills every man, woman and child (Noah's flood).
God actively works against human progress and achievements (destruction of the Tower of Babel).
God inflicts diseases on a man because another man deceived him (Genesis 12:10-20).
God wipes out two towns of people because he hates homosexuality (Sodom and Gomorrah).

If Genesis is consistent with God's nature, then God indeed acts in a manner equivalent to that of a war criminal.


7. Genesis As History Explains The Origins Of Death And Suffering.

Not really. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, if we look at the mere existence of flesh-eating bacteria from a literal Creationist perspective, the only person to blame is God and God alone - no Fall needed.

And I wouldn't say that Genesis explains the origins of death and suffering any more than piecemeal detail. It's more the case that Christians latched on to a handful of disparate verses and then extrapolated those out to try blame all the evil in the world on the very people who were set up to fail by the very god who knew they would fail.

How about we take away Genesis - nay, the whole Bible - and then work back and see if the origin of death and suffering can be traced back to two people eating an apple. That would make a convincing case!


8. The Gospel Presupposes The Historical Events Of Genesis.

I agree it does. But again, it comes down to the fact that the authors and the compilers of the gospels didn't have a way of knowing any better, and that any theological deviation from a literal interpretation was met with charges of heresy, which in religiously inculcated communities, was enough to raise alarm with the theological police of the day.


9. A Consistent Christian Worldview Depends On Genesis As History.

This, I feel, is an instance of Creationists getting judgemental towards Christians of other beliefs.  Creationists seemingly have a hard time accepting Christians who deviate from strict Creationist paradigms and accept Genesis as allegory instead of absolute literal history, to the point where I've experienced Creationists accusing Genesis-as-myth Christian of not being a real Christians, but instead of being a Christian who is friends with the world, or a secular Christian.

By using this argument, CMI are hinting that a Christian who doesn't accept Genesis as literal history, despite the mountain of evidence and scholarship against that case, is not really a Christian.


10. Denying The History Of Genesis Disconnects Christianity From The Real World.

There's plenty of things to disconnect Christianity from the real world aside from discarding Gensis as history. Speaking magical words in order to affect material reality? Believing that your real life only starts when your current one ends? The fact that bad things happen, despite there being an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient God who controls everything and loves everyone? An Jewish itinerant preacher who was the most revolutinary person in history, yet left very little evidence of his existence?

But on the converse, by taking Genesis as history, you actually do disconnect yourself from the real world - The Flood never happened. There was no talking snake in the garden. The Tower of Babel was not responsible for the creation of new languages. God didn't need men to have a piece of their penis cut off for him to accept them.


11. The Early Church Leaders Accepted The Timeframe And Global Flood Of Genesis.

All this says is that some people accepted Genesis as history. Good for them. Those people had no way of verifying the facts of Genesis in order to make their acceptance of Genesis based on anything other than theological bias. It's not like their method of documenting history was anything like the Romans came up with.

Considering that these same early church leaders seemingly didn't have a problem launching persecution campaigns against heretics (i.e. anyone whose theology they didn't approve of), Papias wrote that Judas didn't commit suicide, but instead his genitals oozed pus and his body became larger than a cart - and that during the time of the early church fathers, approximately 40 non-canonical gospels were produced (including one that details Jesus' life as a child where he cursed another child), I'm not too sure I'd trust anything the early church fathers said simply because they were the early church fathers.


12. The Reformers Understood Genesis As History.

Yet again, these people weren't very big on research, but very big on ensuring people had the correct theology.

It's funny - when people are big on Biblically literal theology, they aren't big on research, and when they are big on research, they aren't big on Biblically literal theology.

It's almost like researching history through the lens of rational enquiry with an agnostic view leads you to not believe that Genesis is an accurate recording of history.


13. Atheism Requires Naturalism.

No. Atheism is simply not accepting the positive claims that any gods exist. 

But what we do find is that when people have their theological blinkers removed, they then find that the cases presented for the existence of gods falls apart under scrutiny and that naturalism presents the best and most honest explanations of reality and history.

The bigger question is - why do CMI feel the need to defend Genesis by attacking atheism? If Genesis is able to stand as history on its own two feet, you don't need to talk about atheism - the evidence will speak volumes for itself.


14. Abandoning Genesis As History Leads To Heresy And Apostasy.

Again, this plays the "sure, you may call yourself a Christian, but you're not a true Christian if you don't accept the Bible literally" card.

This, as an example, is how they attack Dr. Francis Collins when he says that evolution is certainly correct and that it presents no problem with the Christian faith - they don't question his scientific credentials or method, they question his theology.


15. Why Not Take Genesis As History?

Because, in short, taking Genesis as history requires you to invent a large number of ad hoc rationalisations to make a literal interpretation of Genesis fit with reality and history (talking snakes, anyone?). Whereas, and this comes back to the original point, Genesis reads a lot better as myth than as history.

I, in my opinion, would classify a document or story of antiquity as being myth instead of history when it meets a number (if not all) of the following criteria:

1. We don't know for certain who the author/s of the document were, or the names were attached to the document post-hoc by later authorities.

2. The document is written in a style that does not line up with how we know history is recorded.

3.  The story in question is comprised of either highly improbable events and/or of events whose historicity cannot be verified objectively or independently.

4. Precious few details are given of the main characters in the recording, or they are presented in broad brush strokes that tend to play in to known mythological tropes.

5. The names of the characters are typically, though not always, functional (i.e. are a description of their character or function in the story) instead of being neutral to the story being told.

6. The document is written in a way that transmits values, particularly cultural and social ones, instead of a neutral observation of history.

Truth be told, we simply do not know who wrote Genesis. The format and content of Genesis don't line up with any bona fide historical records. Genesis describes events that are at best improbable, or at worst impossible. Very few concrete details are given of the characters or locations involved, to the point that we don't know where critical parts of the documented events take place. A large amount of the names of the main characters coincidentally describe their role in the story - for example, Adam means 'the ground', Eve means 'living', Joseph means 'God will increase', and even though Moses isn't in Genesis, his name funnily enough means 'drawn from water'. And finally, the story of Genesis isn't to tell a dispassionate story of a fledgling nation - it is to transmit religio-cultural values to Semitic peoples as tradition to pass on to future generations.

So by these markers, the probability of Genesis being myth is a lot stronger than Genesis as history. For Genesis

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But also of note is how CMI haven't presented any serious scholarship to back up or prove an objective case for the historicity of Genesis. Their strongest arguments for Genesis as history aren't based on the research of historians or scholars, but instead on the limp arguments that the Bible is self-interpreting, that lots of other Christians accept Genesis as history, and that you're not the right kind of Christian if you don't accept Genesis as history as well.

This is not how you convince people who are agnostic of your claims that your claims are concordant with reality - this is how you keep people from straying from the approved theological line.

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Stay safe and rational!

- Damien

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