One of the themes I deal with, fairly briefly, in The Generations of Heaven and Earth is how important it is that the Genealogical Adam hypothesis grounds the Bible in history – real history.
One of my perennial beefs, in daily church life and particularly in how children are taught in Sunday School, is what I call the “Flannelgraph Bible.” This is exemplified by the way that everyone in Bible stories, from the Chalcolithic progenitors in Genesis, to the hellenized Roman Judeans of the gospels, is depicted as dressed in nineteenth century bedouin tea-towels.
This indifference to cultural context has more serious effects, for the whole Bible narrative becomes a self-contained Flannelgraph world, in which biblical characters relate to God in a way entirely divorced from our own life in the Spirit, and in which even God operates entirely differently from the “real” world of experience.
To give but a couple of examples, in Scripture God sends plagues or storms – but in our world, disease and weather are entirely due to “natural” causes that “just happen.” Likewise, in Scripture God displaces nations (see Deut 2:18-23) and indeed determines the exact times and places for people movements (Acts 17:26), as well as raising up and displacing thrones and empires (see the whole book of Daniel), whereas in our world politics is determined entirely by people, whether by democratic voters or by totalitarian dictators.
In this way, the Bible becomes divorced at every level – the personal, the hsitorical, and even the scientific – from the real world. Instead it becomes a self-contained world insulated from the rest of life. Perhaps we believe it – but we believe it in the same way that we “believe” a great novel, by suspension of disbelief.
Those more candid than others accept this fictional assessment, and translate everything in the Bible as “myth”. But as has often been pointed out, Christianity (and Hebrew religion before it) are irreducibly historical faiths: the Bible is almost entirely about what God has done, and is doing, in the world for his people.
Sadly, the most extreme instance of this “Flannelgraph” process is the young-earth version of the early chapters of Genesis, which runs up against our other experience of reality at all these levels. Personally, we do not encounter talking snakes or spiritual trees, nor demonic marriages, nor angels with flaming swords, and so on. Science gives no back-up to a material creation in seven days, and fields of historical study from archaeology and genetics to linguistics and history itself leave no room for an original human couple in an empty world a few thousand years ago.
Therefore, for those wanting to avoid merely metaphorical interpretations, biblical history has to be pitted against all other sources of historical information. Once more, as in the Flannelgraph phenomenon, the Bible becomes isolated and insulated from the rest of human experience. Indeed, much of that experience has to be rejected or, at least, entirely distrusted.
When it comes to one of my main theological interests, biblical theology, the attempt to find a unified narrative that we might loosely term “salvation history” can be really successful, as scholars like John Sailhamer or Greg Beale and even N. T. Wright have shown. But since that narrative’s root in the world of broadly accepted history is so often cut off at the Garden of Eden, biblical theology tends to leave the Bible as a self-contained story divorced from the stream of time. In other contexts we would call that a novel, or even a myth.
Yet that is not the approach the Bible itself takes to God’s interaction with the world. After the Exodus, Moses is keen to emphasise the glory that has come to Yahweh as the nations have witnessed his great salvation of Israel from Egypt. That appeal to shared history is maintained in a number of psalms that also speak of Yahweh’s reputation amongst the nations.
Conversely his severe judgement of Israel is said to make them a byword among the nations, which also see these events as God’s power at work amongst them.
In the New Testament, too, the appeal to the historical facts of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is everywhere seen. As Paul says to King Agrippa in Acts, “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.”
Now, in point of fact historical investigation, and especially archaeology, have demonstrated the Scriptural intersections with history pretty well. By its very nature, ancient history is a jigsaw with mostly missing pieces, and so there must always be the possibility of denying the biblical history where supportive evidence is lacking, especially when it covers individuals who were not inscription-carving emperors. But very many biblical characters have been attested in inscriptions, historical events match those recorded elsewhere, cultural customs and mores match those known from other sources, and even the literary conventions of the Bible’s chroniclers, prophets and hymn-writers fit known historical sources from surrounding nations.
The biggest problem, though, has remained that root in the garden of Eden. Without going into detail here (as I have elsewhere on The Hump and do in the book) all the major themes of “salvation history” (that is to say, the entire subject matter of the Bible) have their source in the garden narrative, whether we are talking about the nature of spiritual humankind, its intended relationship with God, and its Fall into the sin and death to which Christ became the solution. Not only do these later events stem from Eden, but they recapitulate it and correct it in numerous ways.
If you read any of the major writers of biblical theology, from Graeme Goldsworthy through to Greg Beale, you will see how Eden is the foundation on which the Bible history is built. Furthermore, attempts to show that the Bible writers themselves, notably Paul, did not regard the historicity of Adam to be important, have not found great support amongst exegetes. For example, Scott McKnight’s arguments against the importance of an historical reference to Adam in Romans 5 is far from compelling, except to those accepting his co-author (in Adam and the Genome) Dennis Venema’s claim that science makes such a history impossible.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why Genealogical Adam and Eve is so crucial, and so liberating to the Christian spirit. It roots the whole edifice of Scripture’s metanarrative back into the soil of history, where it belongs, and so restores the Bible to what it always was – the story of God’s saving and glorifying activity in our world, and not in some alternative reality which, to be believed, entails rejecting history. It witnesses to sinners by the strong appeal of history, rather than requiring them to reject history.
If you want to know more, read my book when it comes out </plug>