The 100 year old Saviour (well, not quite)

Last year Joshua Swamidass, an Evolutionary Creationist who believes in a historic Adam, set a challenge called The 100 Year Old Tree to examine the question of the implications of a specially-created Adam. This was predicated on the fact that human beings appear to have a genetic history reaching back long before the young earth time frame for an Adam who is the first progenitor of humanity. Most ECs, of course, also argue that man has genetic footprints revealing his animal ancestry.

It may be helpful to reprint Joshua’s imaginary scenario at this point:

Let us imagine that God creates a fully grown tree today, and places it in a forest. A week later, a scientist and a theologian encounter this tree. The theologian believes that God is trustworthy and has clearly communicated to him that this tree was created just a week ago. The scientist bores a hole in the tree, and counts its rings. There are 100 rings, so he concludes that the tree is 100 years old. Who is right? In some senses, both the scientist and the theologian are right. God created a one week old tree (the true age) that looks 100 years old (the scientific age). Moreover, it would be absurd for the theologian to deny the 100 rings that the scientist uncovered, or to dispute the scientific age of the tree. Likewise, the scientist cannot really presume to disprove God.

Instead, the theologian should wonder why God would not leave clear, indisputable evidence that the tree is just a week old. My question to the theologians: Why might God choose not to leave evidence that this 100-year old tree is one week old? Alternatively, why might God choose to leave evidence that the week-old tree is 100 years old?

My full response (one of only three put up on his site, as it turned out) is here. I looked in some detail at philosophical reasons why the de novo tree (which in the scenario indisputably is new but looks old) is actually only seen as old by the scientist because of an understandable, but erroneous, confusion in relation to formal causation. But the obvious trigger for such an exercise is the oft-raised question of deception on God’s part, if man or any other part of creation should have a pseudo-history, such as tree rings or ancestral genetic markers, attached to it.

Although Joshua raised this matter of theodicy in relation to Adam, I noticed its similarity to similar discussions about Young Earth creationism as a whole, which seems to imply God’s falsely creating distant astronomical objects with an existing photon stream stretching across the light years, sedimentary rocks and decaying natural isotopes appearing much older than they are and so on.

There does indeed seem to be something intuitively wrong about this “Last Tuesdayism” (We all think we’ve been alive for decades, but the world was actually created last Tuesday, including all our memories). On the other hand, for most of two millennia and more a literal six-day creation was almost universally assumed by Jews and Christians alike, with Adam being formed during the first week and placed in the mature garden of Eden with all its fruiting trees, in many opinions to sin even before his first sunset.

I don’t know how much things like the endowment of Adam and Eve with navels was seriously considered by past divines,though it seems a surprisingly common question for internet posters to discuss. But although Irenaeus, for example, considered their fall to be linked to immaturity, there was no disagreement that they were essentially created as adults, and therefore, to outside appearances, created having the false appearance of a life-history whether or not they were ennaveled(!).

The thing only appears to be a troubling question because modern scientists have become so used to the article of faith that they are studying natural reality, rather than natural phenomena (ie appearances). This is an epistemological error the mediaeval philosophers didn’t make, for they realised that what we conclude from our senses can be said to match, or not to match, reality – but cannot be demonstrated to be reality.

But I was recently discussing the Virgin Birth with someone, when it occurred to me that whether or not Adam was specially created, Bible-believing evolutionists simply have to lump the reality that God has the right to create a reality that would lead a scientist to false conclusions. Here’s why.

I remember as a teenager reading John Robinson’s Honest to God. The burden of the book was that “modern man” simply cannot accept traditional talk of miracles and so on because … science, modernism etc. I was slightly annoyed that at the tender age of sixteen I could not be “modern” because I had no trouble accepting miracles. But I was even more annoyed (as a zoology student) by his know-it-all assurance that if Jesus had been born of a virgin, he would have been a she, lacking a Y-chromosome. Ergo, modern man cannot believe in the Virgin Birth.

I am familiar enough with theistic evolutionists to know that a few atavistic positivists would indeed still find that argument a persuasive demonstration of the Bible’s erroneous worldview. But there are, thank the Lord, enough who are aware of the irrationality of scientism to say that Robinson knew “neither the scriptures, nor the power of God” in this matter. However, I suspect many more than the positivists would be troubled by the fact that any version of the Virgin Birth can be taken as evidence of God’s deceiving mankind in the Incarnation.

It is, of course, impossible to sequence the Lord Jesus’s genome, unless such could be reassembled and distinguished from those of thousands of others on a genuine Shroud of Turin or a piece of the True Cross. But that doesn’t alter the principle of the thing, that however you imagine it, Jesus would give some appearance contrary to his apparent history, whether scientifically, or simply by homespun family resemblance.

Suppose, for example (and it is the most implausible scenario of all) Jesus received all his genes from Mary, yet appeared as a male rather than an XO or XX female. That would be a supreme deception in every way, and not least because the promised King of David’s line would be a Queen. Very pleasing for gender-fluidity advocates, but in cultural context a non-starter.

But in fact the virgin birth (if one considers its theology seriously) is not built around Jesus having no human father, nor does it imply that his Father is God, as opposed to man. The emphasis is wholly on the miraculous nature of his human conception as the true, representative, man, his human nature (from Adam) being united to his divine nature as the eternal Son (from the Father). This truth would not, as far as I can tell, have been affected had Jesus been conceived biologically in the normal way, yet with the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing in addition. That’s a good reason for affirming its historicity – there was simply no compelling theological reason for the early Church to make it up.

Therefore, Jesus can be expected to have had half his genes from Mary, and half from “the human father he never had”. But who would that genetic father have been? It is, of course, an unanswerable question, for we have no good reason to be told. However, I’ve long felt the Bible may give an answer in the fact that Jesus is said to be “the son of David”. It would not surprise me were I to find out (in the age to come – I can’t conceive any possibility prior to that) that the Y-chromosome Jesus carried was that of King David, and maybe the rest of his paternal genetic complement was too. It would be simplicity itself for God to make that happen.

But whether that were so or not, it must necessarily be the case that his genome, if made “in like manner” to ours, would have a closest match in some male member of the population, who would thus be the best-fit “scientific” candidate for Jesus’s biological father even if the match were not perfect. And that conclusion, given the truth of the virgin birth, would be utterly wrong.

Even if no such actual match were found by sequencing the entire Jewish population, or the whole human race, for Jesus to be truly a man and a Jew (both essential components of his role as our representative before God) he must have had genuinely human genes that would suggest a genetic history as indicative of universal common ancestry as yours or mine. But the half of that history not coming from Mary would, in fact, be deceptive: though his humanity, created by God, would be utterly genuine.

Theologians may, and no doubt some do, huff and puff about how for Jesus not to have a genuine genetic history puts him outside the human race, and therefore unable to stand in our place. But the fact is that the same Scriptures that teach his solidarity with humanity also teach not only his divinity, but the Virgin Birth. Human reason at some point has to surrender to God’s truth.


Now, I hope you appreciate that I’m really not losing sleep meddling in imponderables like the genetic profile of Jesus – he is my Saviour and Lord, not an experimental subject. But the speculation demonstrates that it cannot be incompatible with God’s moral character to create a being whose history, according the the usual scientific assumptions, is false (but only, note, because those scientific assumptions were misapplied on a false principle that God never redirects the closed system of efficient causation in nature).

There is an application of this conclusion apart from the question of the special creation of Adam or a finished earth in 4004BC, and that applies to biological science. My last post mentioned, in passing, the disparity between the fossil record and the assumed phylogenetic history (morphological and genetic) of, in this case, snakeflies. Snakefly fossils date back only to the Jurassic – their origin “ought” to be back in the Permian. This is an all-too-common phenomenon, usually blithely attributed to the paucity of the fossil record.

But that assumption is based on no evidence, but simply on the assumption of the truth of current (gradualist) evolutionary theory. It might be true if the fossil record is deceiving us about virtually every single actual divergence in the tree bush lawn of life. Yet just suppose new taxa actually arose from some non-gradualist, non-Darwinian circumstances? For example, theologically one might consider progressive creation, in which God modifies wholesale some chosen examples of a pre-existing species. But we needn’t even assume such a supernatural process: some saltational mechanism as yet unknown would do, like those mysterious self-organising principles propounded via ideas such as that information is entropy, and so evolutionary novelty is inevitable. Or it might even be something a bit more plausible like Richard Goldschmidt’s hopeful monsters.

The point is that any conceivable saltational process known only from its results, and in ignorance of its immediate precursor, will necessarily create for the believer in gradualism the strong impression of a history that never happened. Even if the new creature and its own mother were both fossilised and dug up, they could only be regarded, on gradualism, as sister taxa with a distant common ancestor whose age would be calculated according to the number of different features through cladistics or (if the saltation occurred last Tuesday) the degree of genetic difference.

In such a case, the problem would not be that God, or nature, were being deceptive. The cause would be the more prosaic issue that the prevalent theory was flat wrong, at least in that case. To know the significance of your tree rings for sure, you have to have watched your tree grow. In the case of Jesus, even watching him grow up wouldn’t reveal his true biological history – and that must be equally so for any true act of creation.

Any discontinuity in the world, then, will inevitably generate a false history to those committed to continuity. Deception simply doesn’t come into the matter, except at the subjective level of a belief in universal continuity that is, in effect, religious – it is actually effectively deism.

The question then becomes whether such discontinuities do exist in the world, and where they are… and, of course, how one could ever distinguish them from histories of efficient causes.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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15 Responses to The 100 year old Saviour (well, not quite)

  1. Jay says:

    One wonders if God had Jesus come to Earth 2,000 years ago rather than 2 weeks ago for the very reason that we wouldn’t be able to trace his genetic ancestry. It certainly forces us into a position of faith, relying on God’s Word for truth about Jesus’ origins and so forth. Further, since it isn’t even a question brought up by the Bible, one wonders if we should even bother trying to answer it. Good article.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Jay, and welcome to the Hump.

      In writing this piece, I was aware not only of “meddling” in things not revealed, but also in the role of providence throughout the revelation of God: “Just at the right, Christ died for the ungodly.” Not all have such a high view of providence, sadly.

      The justification is, of course, that scientistic assumptions were applied by Robinson, influentially, in the 1960s, to the Incarnation, and scientistic assumptions are applied to creation, influentially, in the 2010s. Only there seemed to me some intellectual mileage in the fact that Robinson is now seen to be old hat by Evangelicals who, nevertheless, make scientistic assumptions about nature.

      Those assumptions being so often bolstered by arguments based on God’s unwillingness to deceive honest sceintists, I thought it worth exposing the inconsistency.

      On providential timing, we certainly have a different set of potential doubts about the truths of the Incarnation, but as Noah’s post below (posted before yours because you were in “moderation”!) the ancients had another set of issues.

      In the end every generation either humbles itself before God’s word (whilst seeking to interpret it rightly), or puts its own contemporary wisdom above it. The latter has a bad track record for durable conclusions.

      • Jay says:

        I further wonder, Jon, having read Noah’s comment and your reply, if the miracle of the virgin birth would not have seemed even more miraculous to the first century Jews than it does to us. If ancient Greek science held that the whole of a human person was contained within a single sperm cell and that the woman merely served as the bearer of the child provided wholly by the man, then surely the absence of a man in the conception of a child would be utterly preposterous, since he was the bearer of the child to begin with. I’m not well-read on all the theories surrounding such an idea (though I have read Michael Heiser’s blog, if that counts), but most will point to Hebrews 7, claiming that the author would have held that view and thus could say with truth that Levi was in the loins of his ancestor Abraham. The argument of the supremacy of the Melchizedekian priesthood hinges on Levi paying a tithe to Melchizedek and the whole idea of a son never being greater than his father. I’m sure you’ve heard of all of this. Thoughts?

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          That’s an interesting thought I hadn’t considered, Jay. I have this vague memory that the idea that the seed came entirely from the male side was pretty universal in them days. If so, the idea that Jesus was the son of David would have been even more difficult to get ones head round in the context of te virgin birth.

          At the same time, I seem to remember that the explanation of the Lord’s 2 Gospel genealogies in one of the Patristic sources was that one came from Mary’ and the other from Joseph’s side of the family. So I suppose at least legally inheritance could come from the mother. And at what stage did it become the case that ones Jewishness was based on ones having a Jewish mother?

          Your last comment reminds me of Jesus’s riddle about the Messiah being greater than David, though his son – that too would be mysterious in the Jewish context you mention.

        • Jay313 says:

          Like Jon, I was not familiar with this Greek idea, either. It does seem like an exceedingly odd construction, and if people took it seriously, it would not only make the miracle of the virgin birth seem “more miraculous,” it would seem to rob Jesus of his human nature entirely. In that context, it seems more likely that the church would keep the virgin birth under wraps, rather than publicizing it.

          But a little bit of digging has, I think, solved the mystery. It seems that Aristotle was the source of the “single seed” idea (although he assigned a role to female uteral blood, as well). The Greeks in general did not follow him in that conception (bad pun, I know). The most common idea in antiquity was the “double-seed theory,” with female “seed” being an ejaculate comparable to male semen. (Whoever thought we’d be discussing these things on the Hump?!) Thus, in Heb. 11:11, Sarah “received power for the laying down of seed,” in literal terms. The idea is also reflected in the language of “opening” or “closing” the womb, which refers to its ability to receive the male “seed”. Anyway, conception thus involved these two seeds mixing in the uterus.

          • Jay313 says:

            Sorry, but the link on Google books is too long to paste here. It you want to track it down, Google “double-seed theory of conception” and follow the link to “Religion and Female Body in Ancient Judaism and its Environs”

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Whoever thought we’d be discussing these things on the Hump?!

            No need to be embarrassed – I’m a doctor. The next post is worse!

            WordPress used to put useful HTML code in view so you could cut and paste it for links. A shame it does so no longer.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Jay! Eddie here. (Don’t be thrown by the alternate surname on my g-mail account; I’m the same Eddie.) Glad you made the jump across the Atlantic to visit us. It’s good to see new faces and hear from new voices here at the Hump of the Camel.

      I hope that you will enjoy interacting with the regular columnists here, as well as with the ever-increasing company of commenters (some of whom you will know from BioLogos, but some of whom are native to the Hump).

      The columnists here offer an interesting mixture of theological orientations, and of academic and professional backgrounds. On the professional side, we have doctors of both kinds (i.e., scientists/scholars, and physicians), we have teachers from various levels (including high school and university/seminary), and we have musicians and freelance writers; on the theological side, we have Mennonites and Calvinists and Christian Platonists and none-of-the-aboves. And our commenters extend that range of occupations and theological stances even more widely.

      To be sure, we are a bit short on Unitarians and Christadelphians (nyuk, nyuk!), but within the broad area covered by mainstream Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant faith we are pretty inclusive in terms of the theological possibilities aired. You should feel reasonably comfortable here in putting forth your own approach to religion/science questions.

      Jump in whenever you feel moved to do so!

  2. Noah White says:

    Interesting post, Jon!

    Allow my devil’s advocacy to roam free for a moment. Though I’m less worried about the virgin birth now, two things came to mind while reading this.

    (1) Where you point to the virgin birth’s unnecessary nature as evidence for its historicity, doesn’t the nature of ancient bios cast a little bit of shadow on that thought process? To put it another way: the gospels are historical and theological documents, and it’s difficult to tell which is which in any given case. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the genre, but from what I know, there was no expectation by the audience of 1-1 historical accuracy, but rather there was freedom for the author to invent scenarios that accurately represent the character of the subject. The question, I guess, is one of genre, not whether the gospel writers were making stuff up.

    (2) I know this next objection seems to be a pet peeve of yours, but I’m going to raise it anyway just as an exercise. If the ancients knew about genetics and chromosomes and all that, I can’t help but wonder what they would think about the virgin birth. Namely, that their, er, conception of what conception was differed from ours; thus, the virgin birth would make sense to the ancient mind. Bear in mind, I’m trying to write this without the arrogant modern tone. Obviously, the ancients knew it took two to tango. That’s not in doubt. But I can’t imagine they grasped the complexity of the process.

    The issue here, to me, stems from the way in which it fulfills the prophecy; since there are some weird historical questions around the birth narrative (not impossible questions, of course), and it seems to fulfill a prophecy in an ad hoc way, all coupled with the difficulty of who provided the other half of Jesus’ DNA, seems to mount an impressive cumulative case against the virgin birth.

    /advocate hat off

    Speaking personally, this has long been the sign/wonder in the NT that I’ve had the most trouble with. When I investigate the underlying issue, it seems odd. The resurrection I prima facie have little trouble with. Sure, there are questions of entropy, why Jesus can/should eat, what have you. The virgin birth seems like small potatoes to the God who can radically transform matter and time, so perhaps my objection is more in line with the positivists than I thought when I wrote the opening salvo of this comment. For instructional purposes, I won’t alter anything I wrote above, so any future reader can see how my thought process developed as I went along.

    Blessings, and thanks again for a provocative post!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Noah

      (1) I question whether the genre of bios allowed quite as much flexibility as you suggest here, from what I’ve read in Bauckham, Wright etc. As in histories of the time, speeches did not have to be verbatim to be considered accurate. And partisanship was fine, for it was likely to be the friends and admirers of a “life” who wrote to promote their memory.

      But of course, then as now there probably were “bios” and “bios” – belonging to a genre does guarantee truth or invention, but it depends on the purpose, and the quality and honsety of the writer. Hagiographies written generations after people died are more likely to contain exaggerated tales: you couldn’t just make them up and be counted a reliable writer – and especially you couldn’t simply say contemporary people were the offspring of deity and expect to sell copies to discerning readers!

      If flowery invention had been the cultural norm, then of course none of the early Christian writers would have run with the embellishments, whereas we can easily see they were accepted as fact.

      Genres, in any case, are not fixed forms but informal templates, even now.
      Luke-Acts has features of both bios and history, and presents itself as a determined attempt to provide a true account. The standards of history then demanded for preference personal experience, or personal interview of eyewitnesses, as Bauckham usefully explores. And it is Luke who is the major witness to the Virgin Birth.

      (2) If the virgin birth had been no big deal to the ancients, then of course it follows that there would be little point in including the story as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy. They didn’t understand the biological complexity of death, either, but the resurrection was just as impossible to them as to moderns, apart from the power of God. It’s uniqueness as a biographical claim is evidence of its impossibility in the run of things.

      Jay’s point about the “inconceivability” of the Virgin Birth and our “satiable cursiosity” about just what happened genetically is true of other events too – what was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes like? What variety and vintage of wine did the water become? How and why did the risen Jesus eat fish?

      Personally, I accept both the truthfulness and the theological credentials of the apostolic Evangelists. They wrote what had recently been witnessed, and there were incongruities as obvious to their generation as to ours. I suspect that the interface between the creative activity of God and the existing world may always, and intrinscally, look blurred to us. The problem comes when we try to restore focus by resolving the fuzziness by “natural causes.” And we only do so, or need to do so, because of the belief that God does not act creatively in the world.

  3. Jay313 says:

    Welcome, Jay. Thought provoking as always, Jon, even though I would take issue with a few things. But you knew that. 😉 Just a thought to kick around:

    whether or not Adam was specially created, Bible-believing evolutionists simply have to lump the reality that God has the right to create a reality that would lead a scientist to false conclusions.

    This is true. We even have to hold open the possibility that the YEC position is right and that God created everything with the appearance of age. Nothing is impossible with God. Does that therefore mean everything is equally possible? Should we discount every scientific theory, since God could have acted in such a way as to lead scientists to false conclusions? No, obviously not.

    So, while we keep open the possibility that God may have created such a reality, we cannot help but make judgments about the various alternatives out there. Assuming a choice between multiple interpretations that respect the inspiration and authority of Scripture, then the least likely alternative, even if technically possible, will not be my first choice. But that’s just me.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Jay313

      You’re absolutely right, of course: my main target was the general thought that “God wouldn’t do anything to deceive the scientists”, which is used against the idea of special interventions. In the light of the Virgin Birth, that particular argument seems to me to fail, because it shows that the appearance of a history is intrinsic to the assumption of continuity. If there is, in fact, a discontinuity, “deception” is just an inevitable by-product, just as nested heirarchies are a product of classification systems, whether or not there is a corresponding ontological relationship.

      The issues of any particular event must then be decided apart from those particular theological considerations of deception. It might be interesting to explore what alternative arguments there are for/against “special intervention” if one outlaws the “God would not deceive” argument.

      • Whether or not God deceives, it strikes me that the Virgin Birth cannot be an example of such deception since God tells Mary and us (Luke 1) that Jesus’ conception would be supernatural, but does not specify any detail that might, deliberately or otherwise, cause us to make incorrect assumptions about Jesus’ genetic make-up.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Hi Peter

          Your remark is, I guess, something of a restatement of Jay’s above – what we don’t know about can’t be said to deceive us.

          But I guess the same could be said of any supernatural creative act. Taken literally, for example, Scripture tells us that all the animals and mankind were created in a single day, and gives us no detail that we could fix on as deception.

          That charge comes from assuming a theory of evolution and saying the biblical data don’t fit it, ergo God would be deceiving us if the 6-day creation were true. In Jesus’ case, of course, the genetic data aren’t available to us, but I don’t think that stops some folks from saying that his continuity with the human race makes demands that trump Scripture’s lack of claims about a particular genetic makeup. That was my point.

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