Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to read Genesis

I recently read/skimmed Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and the Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Zondervan 2018) by John Collins. 

1. It's a seasoned and erudite exegetical defense of old-earth creationism. Collins has a sophisticated hermeneutic that he applies to Genesis. 

The book fights on two fronts. On the one hand, it takes aim at the hermeneutics of young-earth creation. 

On the other hand, it takes aim at scholars like Peter Enns, Dennis Lamoureux, Robin Perry, Paul Seely, Kenton Sparks, and John Walton–who think the Bible suffers from a hopelessly obsolete, prescientific outlook. (Kyle Greenwood is another example, but he doesn't figure in the discussion.) That target looms larger in his treatment than young-earth creationism. 

Collins does a nice job of showing that the way Enns, Walton et al. read the Bible is naive. Does a nice job of showing that ancient Near Easterners were more observant than Enns, Walton et al. give them credit for. 

That's not just his conservative opinion. Take this quote: 

People in the ancient Near East did not conceive of the earth as a disk floating on water with the firmament inverted over it like a bell jar, with the stars hanging from it…The textbook images that keep being reprinted of "the ancient Near Eastern world picture" are based on typical modern misunderstandings that fail to take into account the religious components of ancient Near Eastern conceptions and representations. O. Keel & S. Schroer, Creation: Biblical theologies in the Context of the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns 2015), 259-60n34.

So his monograph defends the inerrancy of Scripture against an influential academic fad that's eroding evangelicalism. In that regard it's useful for young-earth and old-earth creationists alike. 

2. I disagree with some of exegetical decisions. And there's a disappointingly thin discussion of the flood account. But in general this is an exceptional treatment. 

3. I'd like to focus on one particular issue, and that's his provocative endorsement of anachronism in Scripture (6.C). 

i) Normally, anachronism is a telltale sign of fiction, forgery, or the limitations of an author who's out-of-touch with the period he's writing about. However, Collins argues that anachronism can be a technique to make the past come alive for a later audience. If successful, his argument pulls the rug out from under a stock objection to the historicity of some biblical accounts. 

ii) One concern his whether his argument proves too much. Anachronisms are a way in which we distinguish apocryphal Gospels from 1C Gospels. Or take the Donation of Constantine. Likewise, what if a Mormon apologist redeployed this argument to salvage the Book of Mormon? Admittedly, Mormonism has many defeaters. 

iii) At least from my reading, it isn't clear to me if by anachronism, he means a Biblical narrator sometimes updates the treatment, or if he's staking out the more radical position that there's nothing in the past which underlies the narrative. Consider two possible illustrations:

a) Long-range prophecy depicts the future in terms of the past. It uses imagery familiar to the original audience. The oracle reflects the kind of world they knew. 

b) The Warriors (1979) is a cinematic adaption of a novel by Sol Yurick, which is, in turn, a modern adaptation of a true story by Xenophon. In the original, the Greeks are trapped deep behind enemy lines and must fight their way back to the homeland. In the modern adaptation, this is recast in terms of New York street gangs. That preserves some correspondence between the original setting and the modernization, but with great artistic license. 

I don't know if that's the sort of thing Collins has in mind. One issue is whether that's too loose a view of historicity. I find some of his examples more plausible than others. 


  1. Just got my copy today. I will read every page.

  2. Updating names, etc. Sure. Things like "they didn't have camels and it says Abraham has camels"... no, I'm not on board with that.

    1. Yes, I have reservations about that section of his book.

    2. And if a modern translation said Abraham rode motorcycles rather than camels? :-)

    3. That seems like a self-inflicted wound. I think Kitchen addressed the camel issue in his book. Also, the current issue of Biblical Archeology Review takes up the issue:

      So if camels existed in Mesopotamia (where Abraham hailed from), Arabia, and Egypt, are we really that shocked that Abraham could have encountered camels in Canaan, even if they were not widely domesticated in that land? Am I missing something?

    4. It was also discussed on Bock's podcast: