In analyzing William Lane Craig’s comments on Genesis in his recent article in First Things, we have seen that when New Testament authors quote or allude to Old Testament passages (including Genesis 1-11), they do so as if these events really occurred and often with consequences for our present world.  This would seem to be further evidence that Genesis 1-11 is historical narrative, as the text itself indicates along with its context.  But Craig has suggested that some of these references are merely illustrative and are not necessarily endorsing the literal history of such passages.  Perhaps they merely refer to a literary character rather than an historic character.  After all, we can use a fictional narrative to illustrate a true point.  Parables are exactly that.

However, historical narratives can also illustrate a point.  So, merely using an illustration to make a point does not automatically make that illustration fiction.  It could either be an example from history, or from fiction.  In this section, Craig will attempt to cite examples of New Testament authors referring to mythology to illustrate a point.  And although there would be nothing wrong with that in principle, none of the examples he provides are clearly references to non-historical events.

Craig: Intriguingly, some of these passages involve the citation of pseudepigraphal and mythological texts to whose truth we should not wish to be committed.

Lisle: This is very doubtful as we will see below.  If Craig had wanted to show that the Bible sometimes uses a story that is not necessarily historically true to illustrate a point, he should have pointed to parables.  Indeed, when Jesus used parables to illustrate a kingdom principle, He was not necessarily asserting that the story literally happened in history. 

What are the characteristics of those stories that are not necessarily historical, but are used to illustrate a point?  First, they usually lack specific names.  In the parable of the landowner in Matthew 21:33-41, what is the name of the landowner?  What were the names of the vine-growers or the slaves the landowner sent to receive the produce?  What was the name of the landowner’s son?  None of that information is provided.  Indeed, such information is not germane to the point, and so there is no need to bog down the story with such details.  Second, such stories lack dates or ages.  When did the landowner leave?  How old was he when his son was born?  How long did he live?  No such details are provided because they are unnecessary to the illustration.

Third, they usually involve common, everyday experiences.  First century Jews were familiar with landowners (Matthew 21:33), wedding feasts (Matthew 22:2), kings and slaves (Matthew 18:23), fishing (Matthew 13:47), merchants (Matthew 13:45), treasure and commerce (Matthew 13:44), seeds (Matthew 13:3-4, 31), leaven (Matthew 13:33), and wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-25).  Fourth, each of the elements in the story clearly represents something else.  For example, in one parable, wheat represents believers, and tares represent unbelievers (Matthew 13:38). 

Context is how we understand that the text is using a non-historical story to illustrate a point – not what we consider to be “plausible.”  And Genesis contains none of the characteristics of a fictional/mythical story that is merely intended to convey some spiritual truth.  Rather, it bears all the characteristics of literal history.  Therefore, if we are to read the Scriptures exegetically, we must take Genesis as written.  All the references to Genesis 1-11 made by Paul, Christ, or any New Testament author make perfect sense when taken as literal history, and Craig has not provided any textual evidence to the contrary.

Craig: For example, in condemning the false teachers of his day, Jude contrasts them negatively to the archangel Michael in his dispute with the devil over ­Moses’s body (Jude 9–10). According to Origen, the story is to be found in the apocryphal book The Assumption of Moses. Unfortunately, the extant version of this treatise, known only from an incomplete sixth-­century manuscript, does not include the story. Richard Bauckham discerns two ­different versions of the story in Christian tradition. Noting that ancient lists of apocryphal books mention both a Testament of Moses and The Assumption of Moses, Bauckham hypothesizes that the earlier, Palestinian Testament of Moses was subsequently rewritten and entitled The Assumption of Moses. However we reconstruct the story and its evolution within the Christian tradition, what is clear is that Jude is citing extra-biblical legends about the burial of Moses. We thus apparently have here a reference to the literary Moses of The Testament of Moses or The Assumption of Moses, not to the literary Moses of the Pentateuch.

Lisle: Craig has made several dubious assumptions here regarding Jude 9-10.  In this passage, Jude uses an example of a dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil regarding the body of Moses.  The interesting thing about this dispute is that it is not recorded in the Old Testament.[1]  Yet, Jude presents it in a very matter-of-fact fashion and without much comment or explanation as if he expected his readers to know about this event.  Indeed, the casual nature of the reference seems to suggest that it was common knowledge at the time.  So, how did Jude (and possibly others) know about this?  Of course, Jude was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; so, God could have revealed it to Jude directly.  But again, it seems like he expected his readers to know it as well.  It is entirely possible that the event really did happen in history, and was passed down orally, or perhaps written in a book that is now lost but was available in Jude’s day. 

In any case, Craig assumes that Jude is (1) quoting a from the apocryphal book The Assumption of Moses, and (2) that the event is a legend that did not necessarily historically happen.  But neither of those suppositions is supported by evidence.  Craig is correct that Origen claimed that a story regarding a dispute between Michael and the devil regarding the body of Moses is found in the book the Assumption of Moses.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jude is quoting from this book.  Furthermore, extant copies of the Assumption of Moses (which may or may not be the same as the book Origen referred to) are incomplete and do not contain this story.  

There really is no evidence that the dispute Jude refers to is not a literal, historical event.   What are some of the possibilities?  Even if Origen is correct about the story being contained in the original text of the Assumption of Moses, Jude may have been quoting a more ancient book.  The Assumption of Moses is thought to have been written in the first century, so it may or may not have existed at the time Jude wrote his epistle.  Jude may have obtained the information from a more reliable historical document, now lost.

Not all history is recorded in Scripture.  And the biblical authors would undoubtedly have had access to historical documents in their day that are lost today.  The Bible itself refers to history books that are now lost, such as the Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18).  Biblical authors are free to use true historical examples found outside Scripture.  Perhaps a story in the Assumption of Moses embellished this real, historical event. 

Alternatively, Jude may have indeed obtained the information from the Assumption of Moses, yet without endorsing the book as a whole.  Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jude could have discerned which sections of a non-biblical book are historically reliable and which are not.  This doesn’t commit us to the truth of the rest of the non-biblical book, as Craig seems to suggest.[2]  Regardless of how Jude obtained the information, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the event being referred to was not literal history. 

To be clear, it would be perfectly appropriate for Jude to use a fictional story to illustrate a point.  Of course, he can also use an actual historical example to illustrate a point.  And contrary to Craig’s supposition, the casual and matter-of-fact way in which Jude describes this dispute strongly suggests that it was a real, historical event. 

As Barnes states in his commentary regarding the position assumed by Craig, “The objection to this is, that the apostle does in fact seem to refer to the contest between Michael and the devil as true. He speaks of it in the same way in which he would have done if he had spoken of the death of Moses, or of his smiting the rock, or of his leading the children of Israel across the Red Sea, or of any other fact in history. If he regarded it as a mere fable, though it would have been honest and consistent with all proper views of inspiration for him to have said to those against whom he argued, that on their own principles such and such things were true, yet it would not be honest to speak of it as a fact which he admitted to be true. Besides, it should be remembered that he is not arguing with them, in which case it might be admissible to reason in this way, but was making statements to others about them, and showing that they manifested a spirit entirely different from that which the angels evinced even when contending in a just cause against the prince of all evil.”

Generally, if the New Testament references an event involving a person recorded in the Old Testament, the natural assumption is that the example is from real history.  It would be strange and confusing to use a fictional event involving a real, historical figure to illustrate a point without clarification.  Suppose I made a comparison involving a historical person like, “Just as George Washington rode his horse into battle …” the natural assumption would be that I am referring to a literal historical event since George Washington is a real historical person.  On the other hand, if I refer to a fictional character, the natural expectation is that the illustration is not to be understood as having actually happened.  For example, “Just as Indiana Jones recovered the lost Ark…” implies an illustration from fiction rather than history.  Since Moses is a real, historical person, the natural reading of Jude 9-10 is that the event described actually happened in history.  In any case, Craig has provided absolutely no evidence to the contrary.

Craig: After providing further examples to illustrate the danger of false teachers, Jude proceeds to quote 1 Enoch 1:9, a pseudepigraphal book from 400–200 b.c., as though the author were identical to the Enoch of the antediluvian primaeval history (­Jude 7:14–15). This text is the reductio ad absurdum of facile arguments for Old Testament historicity on the basis of New Testament citation. The idea that an oral tradition emanating from the antediluvian Enoch had been preserved over thousands of years to reach the ears of the author of 1 Enoch can hardly be called plausible.

Lisle: Again, Craig appeals to his own intuition as to what is plausible, rather than God’s Word when he arbitrarily dismisses the possibility that a prophecy was passed down orally for many centuries before it was put in writing.  Many conservative Bible scholars would disagree with him on that point.[3]  Moreover, he doesn’t even consider the possibility that Enoch’s original prophecy was written down and copied and thus preserved for thousands of years in documents that are lost to us but were still extant in the first century.  Or Jude could have known of the event from immediate revelation as he penned his epistle.

Instead, Craig asserts without evidence that Jude is quoting from the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch which contains a very similar, though not identical, quotation.  But if Jude is quoting a more ancient and reliable historical document, isn’t it possible the so-called Book of Enoch quotes from this same source perhaps to give itself an air of authenticity?  Some scholars have supposed that the pseudepigraphal book of Enoch is actually getting the quote from Jude rather than the reverse (since we really don’t know exactly when the book of Enoch was written, and different parts may have been written at different times).[4]  And again, we have the possibility that Jude discerningly quotes from a historically accurate section of 1 Enoch, without endorsing the rest of the book.  After all, the Holy Spirit knows what actually took place in history and is guiding Jude’s pen. 

There are many possibilities.  But none suggest that Jude meant for us to understand this as an illustration from fiction rather than history.  There would be nothing wrong with using a fictional, non-historical story to illustrate a point.  But that doesn’t seem to be what Jude is doing.  Rather, Jude presents the event straightforwardly, as though it really happened. 

Most importantly, context suggests that this is an illustration taken from literal history, rather than a mythical/fictional narrative.  In this short book, Jude makes numerous references to other events that we know are historical because they are recorded as history in the Old Testament (in sections that Craig would agree are literal history).  These include the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and the destruction of the unbelievers (Jude 5), the wickedness of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the cities of the plains along with their judgment (Jude 7), the sin of Balaam, and Korah (Jude 11).[5]  Context indicates that Jude is using actual, historical events to illustrate his points.  Although there is nothing wrong with using a work of fiction to illustrate a point, context shows that this is not what Jude was doing.  

Craig: One other example is Paul’s allusion in 1 Corinthians 10:4 to the rock that accompanied the ancient Israelites through their wilderness wanderings. Commentators commonly see a reference here to a Jewish legend based on the book of Numbers concerning a miraculous well, shaped like a rock, which continually supplied Israel with water in the desert. This legend, which flourished in later rabbinic Judaism, is documented as early as the first-century Biblical Antiquities of pseudo-Philo (10:7; 11:15). The tradition in some form doubtless goes back to the pre-Christian era. Paul cites this extra-canonical tradition in order to identify the rock in the story as Christ, who sustained Israel throughout its sojourn in the wilderness.

Lisle: Is there any evidence that Paul cited a non-historical Jewish legend when he penned 1 Corinthians 10:4?  Is Paul here referring to a non-historical story about a physical rock that traveled along with the Israelites that acted like a well?  Or is Paul referring to a real historical event (God providing for the Israelites in the wilderness) and using objects like “rock” and “drink” in a spiritual sense?

What evidence does Craig produce that Paul has in mind this non-historical story?  There is none that I can see.  Paul states that the Israelites drank spiritual drink from the same spiritual rock, and specifies that this rock was Christ.  The text doesn’t mention or even hint at a physical rock from a fictional narrative that supposedly moved along with the Israelites.  Indeed, in the previous verse, Paul states that the Israelites all ate the same spiritual food.  Is that also a reference to a non-historical fable?

Or is Paul using food and drink in a spiritual sense (as he specifically states using the word “spiritual”)?  The Lord often uses physical objects to represent spiritual realities.  And indeed rocks, water, and food are commonly used that way in Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Isaiah 55:1-2, 28:16; Deuteronomy 32:4, 15; 1 Samuel 2:2; Psalm 18:31, 42:1-2; Romans 9:33; John 4:13-14, 7:37; Revelation 21:6, 22:1,17).  Moreover, on at least two occasions, God brought literal water from a literal rock to provide for the Israelites (Exodus 17:6, Numbers 20:8-12).  Might Paul have been thinking of these literal, historical events when he chose to discuss God’s spiritual providence in terms of “spiritual water” from the “spiritual Rock” that is Christ?

Craig: On the basis of such examples, we can see how naive it is to argue that merely because some New Testament author refers to a literary figure, whether found in the Old Testament or outside it, that figure is asserted to be a historical person.

Lisle: That’s not the claim.  Rather, the claim is that when a historical person is used as an example in a non-poetic narrative, it is natural and contextual to take the example as historical unless there is clear textual evidence to the contrary.  But there is no clear evidence to the contrary in any of the examples of biblical authors quoting or alluding to Genesis.  In all cases, the authors treat the events in Genesis 1-11 as if those events literally and historically happened.  Often, those events are stated to explain something in the world today, which would not be possible if such events did not literally happen in history.

To be clear, I agree in principle with Craig that not all illustrations need to be drawn from an actual historical event.  However, when a text refers to some events surrounding a real historical person, it should be clear that the author is asserting the reality of such events unless clear evidence is given to the contrary.  Suppose I said, “If you kill that child, then you will be just as guilty as the governor of California when he murdered those six people last week.”  Wouldn’t people naturally assume that I am asserting that the governor really did that?  Only if I added, “in a novel I am reading” would the statement then be taken to be truth-in-story rather than truth-in-reality. 

Since the governor of California is a real person, a statement about his actions naturally implies a statement of real events unless there is a clear qualifier to the contrary.  Conversely, suppose I said, “If you discover the site of Noah’s Ark, that would be even more amazing than when Indiana Jones found the lost Ark of the Covenant!”  Since the reference is to a fictional character, the illustration does not imply that the character’s actions happened in history – only in fiction. 

But the point here is that the New Testament references to Old Testament people are references to real people that lived in history.  So, there is no rational basis to suppose that such references are merely to literature instead of history.  A natural reading of Scripture reveals that all biblical authors who cite Genesis do so as if they understood the events therein as having actually happened.  There is no evidence in Scripture that any biblical author, prophet, Apostle, or Christ Himself took Genesis 1-11 as “mytho-history” rather than straightforward history.  And none of the examples Craig has cited give evidence to the contrary.

What would be the implications if references to Genesis 1-11 were merely illustrative and not referring to literal historical events?  We will examine this question in the next article.


[1] One possible reference to this event is found in Zechariah 3:2 under the supposition that Michael is one of the names of God the Son.  (The name “Michael” means “Who is like unto God”).  However, nothing in this passage refers to the body of Moses.  So, Jude is getting at least some of his information elsewhere.  Peter also refers to this type of event in 2 Peter 2:11.  However, again, no details regarding the body of Moses are mentioned.

[2] Paul also quotes in an affirming way some Greek poets in Acts 17:28 to show that they do know the Living God despite their worship of false gods.  Yet Paul certainly would not endorse everything written by those same poets.

[3] John Gill’s and Matthew Henry’s commentaries both suggest that the prophecy was known from tradition.  Barnes also acknowledges this possibility. 

[4] Barnes suggests this as one possibility in his commentary on Jude 14.  This is also suggested in the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary on Jude 14.

[5] Note also that Jude refers to Cain in the same sentence as Balaam and Korah (Jude 11) as three examples of sin.  The events of Cain’s life are within the first eleven chapter of Genesis – the portion that Craig thinks is not straightforward history.  The events surrounding Balaam and Korah are in later sections that Craig thinks are historical.  Yet, Jude mentions all three as example of sin.  Does it make sense that Jude would pick one example that never really happened along with two others that did in the same sentence?