We have been examining the claims of William Lane Craig regarding the historicity of Genesis 1-11. Craig argued that there is similarity between the creation account in Genesis and creation myths of the ancient Near East (ANE). But we found that this is not the case, in that ANE creation myths are always polytheistic, and generally involve a chaos monster that is defeated in order to produce the good earth we have today. However, Genesis is the opposite in starting with one all-powerful God who created a very good earth, and in which humans introduced chaos/death by rebelling against that God.
Craig had attempted to argue for similarity in that both Genesis and ANE origin stories involve the topics of the creation of the universe and of man. But if they didn’t, then they wouldn’t be origins stories. In fact, the modern big bang story and neo-Darwinian evolution also deal with these themes. Does that make them remarkably similar to ANE creation myths? Does it place them in the literary genre of myth? The literary style of Genesis determines how its text should be interpreted – not the subject matter.
One genuine similarity in many myths/legends (not just from ANE literature but from around the world) involves the global flood. But that is to be expected since the global flood was a real event. How else would so many cultures come up with so many of the same details (e.g. righteous people and two of each land animal saved on an enormous boat)? Far from supporting Craig’s conjecture that Genesis is mythical, flood legends from around the world confirm that Genesis is real history. We now continue analyzing Craig’s reasoning.
Craig: By contrast, beginning in Genesis 12, the text’s focus narrows sharply to Israel. From here on, no such similarity exists between Genesis and the myths of the ancient Near East.
Lisle: We have already seen that claims of similarity (except for the flood) are not supportable. Apparently, Craig wants to believe God begins telling the truth about history in Genesis 12, with the first eleven chapters being fictional/mythical. He makes this distinction due to the change in the scope of the content. But how does a change in scope even remotely suggest a change in literary form?
A history book might give a brief summary of the history of the world before then focusing on American history. Indeed, this is necessary to properly understand the origin of the United States. But does that mean that the previous parts of the history book are merely myth because they deal with worldwide issues? Is only the rest of the book historical because “the text’s focus narrows sharply to the United States?”
An astronomy textbook might give an overview of the entire known universe before then focusing on the solar system. It is helpful to understand that our solar system is one small part of a much larger galaxy, which is a small part of a larger universe. But does a change in scope from the entire universe as the text’s focus narrows sharply to the solar system imply that the previous information on the universe was non-literal? Of course not. So how does Craig’s reasoning make any sense at all?
In order to understand the author’s intention, we must use the style and form of the text to understand what type of literature we are reading. So, does the literary style of Genesis change at chapter 12? Not at all. Both Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50 use the same literary style: historical narrative. This style is marked by (1) lack of substantial poetic parallelism, (2) details non-essential to the point of the narrative (such as ages in chronologies), and (3) frequent use of the waw-consecutive, a Hebrew grammatical construction denoting real history. Let’s briefly examine each of these.
(1) Poetic sections of the Bible such as the Psalms and Proverbs are characterized by parallelism, in that the text is carefully structured such that multiple statements function in concert to convey a common theme. Synonymous parallelism, as one example, makes a claim followed by a similar claim using different words. For example, Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Notice that the second part of the verse conveys the same basic idea as the first but uses different words. The words or phrases in the second sentence parallel those in the first. Namely, “their expanse” parallels “the heavens”, and “are telling” parallels “is declaring.” The Psalms and Proverbs are saturated with these kinds of structures, but Genesis is not.
(2) When we consider those sections of Scripture that are non-literal such as the poetry in the Psalms and Proverbs, or sections otherwise not intending to convey historical events such as Christ’s parables, we see a common characteristic. Such literature does not waste time or space reporting details that are unnecessary to the main point. But historical narrative passages often do. For example, Genesis 25:12-18 records the details of Ishmael’s descendants, including specific names and where they settled. This text even records the age of Ishmael at the time of his death in verse 17. Those details would be utterly irrelevant if this passage were merely a fictional parable intended to explain some spiritual truth. Indeed, Christ’s parables never included such information. So, these details mark Genesis 25 as historical narrative that records details of real people and real events. But this is also true of Genesis 5, which records the descendants of Adam through Noah, including such details as the age of the patriarch at the time of the birth of one of his children, and the total years of his life. This is a distinctive characteristic of biblical historical narrative.
(3) Hebrew scholar Dr. Steven Boyd has shown that historical narratives are marked by long sequences of the waw-consecutive, a Hebrew grammatical construction which is often rendered in English as a sequence of events each connected by the word “and.” The waw-consecutive is formed by the Hebrew letter waw (which denotes “and”) followed by a verb (in the original Hebrew word order which is not necessarily the same as an English translation). Passages like Genesis 1:3, “And said God, ‘let there be light.’” Genesis 1:4, “And saw God the light…”, Genesis 1:5, “And called God the light…” and the rest of Genesis 1 make use of this construction. This denotes that Genesis 1 is portraying historical events in a straightforward, literal way. Conversely, poetic sections of Scripture may have an individual waw-consecutive from place to place, but they never contain a long sequence of waw-consecutives as Genesis does. The waw-consecutive construction is ubiquitous in Genesis 1-11 just as it is in Genesis 12-50. Thus, they are the same type of literature: historical narrative. Craig’s attempt to argue that Genesis 1-11 is a different style or genre than Genesis 12-50 is utterly baseless and is refuted by the text itself.
Craig: Should the primaeval narratives of Genesis 1–11 be understood, then, as a compilation of Israelite myths?
Lisle: Since the style of Genesis 1-11 is historical narrative, the answer is no.
Craig: In raising this question, we are using the definition of “myth” employed by folklorists and classicists: A myth is a traditional, sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form. A myth seeks to explain present realities by anchoring them in the prehistoric past and so to validate a culture’s contemporary institutions and values.
Lisle: Is Genesis a myth using Craig’s definition of ‘myth?’ It fits the first sentence in that Genesis “is a traditional, sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form.” However, it does not fit the qualification of the second sentence due to the word prehistoric. In the biblical worldview, nothing is prehistoric because the beginning of the universe is recorded in the history of Genesis 1:1. There is no “before the beginning” or the beginning would not be the beginning. And since the beginning is part of recorded history, there can be no prehistory in the biblical worldview.
Conversely, secular origins stories like the big bang and neo-Darwinian evolution are prehistoric because such events supposedly occurred billions of years before anyone began writing down what happened. And they attempt to explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Therefore, they probably should be considered myth according to Craig’s criteria. But God Himself witnessed the true beginning of the universe, the creation events that took place over six days, and recorded these events by His Holy Spirit in Genesis 1. Genesis 1-11 is recorded history, not prehistory. And this disqualifies Genesis 1-11 as myth by Craig’s own definition.
Craig may be attempting (either consciously or subconsciously) to convince people that Genesis is not literally true by equivocating on the term ‘myth.’ The word has multiple definitions. For example, the Merriam Webster dictionary lists the first definition of myth as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” If we remove the word “ostensibly” (indicating plausible but not provable), then Genesis does seem to fit that definition. Namely, it records historical events that explain things like the practice of marriage (Genesis 2:22-24), our belief in God (Genesis 1:1), and natural phenomena such as stars (Genesis 1:16), plants (Genesis 1:11-12), animals (Genesis 1:20-25), human beings (Genesis 1:26-27), and death (Genesis 2:17, 3:6, 19).
Under such a definition of myth, Genesis can still be literal history and factually accurate. However, there are other definitions of myth that exclude historical accuracy. The Merriam Webster definition 2b of myth is “an unfounded or false notion.” And definition 3 of myth is “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.” Genesis 1-11 does not fit either of those definitions! It seems that Craig may be attempting to persuade people that Genesis is not literally true by switching definitions of the word ‘myth’ in his enthymeme. His as-yet-unstated argument seems to be the following:
“Genesis 1-11 is myth (definition 1a). Myths (definition 2b) are not literally true. Therefore, Genesis 1-11 is not literally true.”
But in order to reach that conclusion, he would have to switch the meaning of “myth” in the middle of the argument – an equivocation fallacy (or fallacy of four terms). Thus, his argument is invalid. To be valid, he would have to use the same definition of myth in the first and second premise. But if he uses the 1a definition of myth, then the second premise is false. On the other hand, if he uses the 2b or 3 definition of myth, then Genesis doesn’t qualify and therefore the first premise is false. Either way, the argument is unsound.
Craig: In contrast to other forms of folklore, such as folktales and legends, myths are authoritative for the culture that embraces them. They are sacred narratives, and as such their main characters are not usually human beings alone but deities or quasi-divine heroes, whose activities are set in an earlier age or another realm. Stories of the origin of the world and of mankind are just two of the most prominent examples of myth.
Lisle: Again, Craig is attempting to argue literary style on the basis of content. This is a category error. If I wrote a poem about stellar nucleosynthesis, it would still be a poem even though the content is technical. Content and style are two very different things. Literary style deals with the form in which information is communicated. Content is the information itself. The big bang and neo-Darwinian evolution are “stories of the origin of the world and of mankind.” But does that make them myth because their content is similar to that of ANE origins stories?
Craig: The lines between myth, folktale, and legend are apt to be blurry, but we can identify certain “family resemblances” that unite most myths:
Lisle: Craig is attempting to argue that Genesis 1-11 is myth and not literal history by listing what he believes are common characteristics of myth. But even if all these criteria applied to Genesis 1-11, that would not in any way establish that Genesis 1-11 is not literally, historically accurate. Furthermore, how many of these criteria also fit the rest of the Bible or the big bang and neo-Darwinian evolution – things that Craig would accept as literally true?
Craig: Myths are narratives, whether oral or literary.
Lisle: If by ‘narrative,’ Craig means that myths are a spoken or written sequence of events, then that would be true of many sections of the Bible, including the Gospels. History books are also narratives by that criterion, and yet they are also literally true. If by ‘narrative,’ Craig means “written in the historical narrative style” with emphasis on details that are not germane to the main point, then his claim is false. Most ancient myths are written in a poetic style, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, and do not contain detailed genealogies that weigh down the story.
Craig: Myths are traditional stories handed down from generation to generation.
Lisle: All of the Bible was handed down from generation to generation. Does that make it myth?
Craig: Myths are sacred for the society that embraces them.
Lisle: All of the Bible is sacred for Christians. Furthermore, the big bang and neo-Darwinian evolution are held with sacred, religious fervor by many of their advocates. Are all of these to be classified as myths?
Craig: Myths are objects of belief for members of the society that embraces them.
Lisle: That would apply to all the Bible for consistent Christians. The big bang and evolution are believed by members of society that embrace them. Does that make them myth?
Craig: Myths are set in a primaeval age or another realm.
Lisle: That certainly applies to the big bang, which postulates a time in which the entire universe was once smaller than an orange and contained only high-energy subatomic particles. Does that make the big bang a myth?
Craig: Myths are stories in which deities are important characters.
Lisle: Again, that would be true of the entire Bible, not just Genesis. Does that make the entire Bible a myth?
Craig: Myths seek to anchor present realities such as the world, mankind, natural phenomena, cultural practices, and the prevailing cult in a primordial time.
Lisle: Genesis certainly does this, but only if it is literal history. For example, the present reality of the cultural practice of marriage is rooted in the history recorded in Genesis 1:26-27, 2:22-24. Eve was created from Adam’s rib by the Lord; thus, the two are one flesh. For this reason, we have marriage today. But that only explains marriage if it really happened! If someone merely told a fictional story in which woman was made from man’s side when in reality that never happened, then marriage does not have any objective, historical foundation.
Furthermore, the big bang attempts to explain present realities, such as the abundance of the elements, in a primordial time. Supposedly the lightest elements were formed by the densities and temperatures of the big bang. But that would only actually explain the present abundance of elements if it actually happened! Neo-Darwinian evolution attempts to explain the present reality of the variety of organisms on earth by appealing to a primordial time of evolution. But would anyone argue that evolution explains the observed variety in animals even if evolution never literally happened? Granted, creation also explains such things, but only if it really happened in the way Genesis teaches.
Craig: Anchoring present realities in the primordial past is the heart of myth. The primaeval history of Genesis 1–11, including the stories of Adam and Eve, functions as Israel’s foundational myth, laying the basis of Israel’s worldview.
Lisle: If the events of Genesis 1-11 are not literal history, then they cannot serve as a foundation for Israel’s worldview. Reality cannot be grounded in fiction! The biblical worldview is indeed grounded in the historical events recorded in Genesis 1-11. Therefore, if Genesis 1-11 is fiction, then so is the biblical worldview. Truth cannot be based on fiction.
Craig: The claim here is not that the narratives of Genesis 1–11 are derived from the myths of the ancient Near East. Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) and the pan-Babylonian school that followed him made such an assertion, but few scholars defend the “dependence thesis” today.
Lisle: Since the Genesis account of creation is very different both in style and in content from ANE origins myths, it should be obvious that it is not derived from them.
Craig: Rather, the claim is that the primaeval narratives belong to the genre of myth principally on the basis of their sharing common mythic themes and their effort to anchor present realities in the deep past.
Lisle: Present realities can only be anchored in past events if those events actually happened. Reality cannot be anchored in fiction. Would it make sense for Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper if Jesus never literally existed, but was merely a fictional character in a mythical story? Would it make sense for Old Testament believers to celebrate Passover if the original event never really happened?
The Apostle Peter recognized the importance of the fact that our faith is rooted in real history, not a made-up tale. He states, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Likewise, the Apostle Paul explained, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The present reality of our salvation in Christ is rooted in the historical fact that Jesus died and rose again. If the death and resurrection of Jesus were fiction or myth, then our faith would be in vain.
We must be cautious to avoid mere verbal disputes, where the disagreement is over definitions of words rather than substance (1 Timothy 6:4). Whether we classify Genesis as myth depends on the selected definition of ‘myth’ but is utterly irrelevant to the larger question. Namely, is Genesis literally, historically accurate? Was there a real Adam and Eve who disobeyed God and introduced death into a previously very good world?
The literary style of Genesis is historical narrative, the same as the rest of Genesis and the other books of history. The author clearly meant for us to understand the events recorded in Genesis as real events. And there is nothing in the content or style of Genesis that would suggest otherwise. Every other biblical book in both the Old and New Testaments that references Genesis does so as historical fact. Thus, all of Craig’s discussion about myths is ultimately irrelevant to the fact that Genesis is meant to be understood as literal, historical events.
It is true that present realities (such as God as Creator, original sin, marriage, clothing, death as the penalty for sin, and animal sacrifice) are rooted in the events of Genesis 1-11. But that is only rational if those events really happened. Reality cannot be epistemologically grounded in a fairy tale. Thus, far from supporting Craig’s claim that Genesis is not literal history, it actually demonstrates the opposite. More to come.