What is historical in Genesis 1-11?

Brueghel Jan__de_Oude_en_Peter_Paul_Rubens - Adam and Eve

During the height of the biblical theology movement in the middle of the last century, it was common to make a rather sharp distinction between the primeval period of Gen. 1-11 and the Abrahamic patriarchal period of Gen. 12-50. On this view, the primeval history is heavily mythical in its construction of ancient realities, replete with numerous etiologies (e.g., the tower of Babel as the origin of diverse languages), whereas the ancestral history is the beginning of history proper, more or less, focused as it is on Israel’s lineage from Abraham. Or to put it another way, the former is universal and therefore prone to mythical media of interpretation; the latter is particular and therefore historically contingent and “real” as we think of history, though not without “embellishments.”

This view was popularized by OT scholars like John Bright, and others at Union Seminary in Richmond, and Bernhard Anderson at Drew and Princeton, both of whom wrote OT surveys that were widely used at seminaries across the country. To this, we could add the “biblical archaeology” movement of William F. Albright and George Ernest Wright. For a nice summary statement, we can quote the old Metzger-edited New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV):

The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards, while the ancestral history can be read, at least to some degree, in the context of the history of the Near East in the latter part of the second millennium (1500-1200 B.C.). The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in God’s purpose.

However, this consensus (and it did basically form a consensus in the mainline, as far as that was once possible) would eventually come under significant criticism. Evangelicals had long been critical of the divide between non-historical and historical, splitting the book of Genesis where the text gives no such indication of a shift to real history. The primeval history presents itself as just as historical as the Abrahamic history, especially indicated by the genealogies (albeit stylized in some way) in the primeval history. From the opposite vantage point, criticism came from within the mainline Protestant guild and elsewhere. The archaeological data became more contested, just as postmodern exegesis emerged to uncover the (alleged) ideologies and agendas that shaped the purported history(ies) of Israel. By the time we get to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, first published in 2003, things are rather different. Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.

As for myself, I am not clear on how to precisely answer the question of historicity in the primeval chapters of Genesis or even the rest of the Pentateuch and historical books, though obviously the stakes are higher when speaking of Israel’s history. Brueggemann is a bridge too far, to say the least, and it appears that Peter Enns (like Kenton Sparks) is following the same path. The evangelical criticism itself would have to be modified today in the light of John Walton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others’ (“progressive inerrantists”) recognition that ancient historiography may not follow the same conventions as modern historiography, which would bring them closer to the old biblical theology guys mentioned above, albeit with a sharper interest in preserving historicity where that appears to be the unambiguous affirmation of the text, not merely incidental. My inclinations are with the progressive inerrantists, as well as the biblical theology movement, though with some significant reservations with how the latter legitimates historicity.

I was inspired to write this post after browsing through Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis. Linsley is a “biblical anthropologist,” that is, an anthropologist who brings her research to the text of Scripture for illumination of the context, especially the kinship ties. I can hardly render a judgment on the quality of her work, but it is fascinating. She argues for a “meta-historical” reading of Gen. 1-3, but she sees a shift to history proper, by and large, soon thereafter — thanks to anthropology and other research into ancient ethnic groups. So, for example, you should see her posts, “Are Adam and Eve Real?” and “Adam and Eve as Archetypal Ancestors.” Also, a good overview is “Objections to the Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis.” Her most recent index is very helpful. By the way, she is a former Episcopal minister and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy revert to Anglicanism.


Image: “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. They collaborated on this work at Rubens’ studio in Antwerp, (Spanish) Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1610’s.



  1. “Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.”

    If I ever started believing that, I’d just resign my baptism and become a Quaker (liberal) or a Unitarian Universalist, or something.

    • Yeah, the theological implications are immense. I have yet to understand how to proclaim confidence in God’s agency, once you have gutted the historicity of the text. Seems like a rather pathetic God at the end of the day, mildly useful for political ideologies.

      • What’s irksome is Bruggemann’s reductionism – yes, that imagination is *very* important. Who would dispute that? But to reduce the meaning of the text to *only* being the basis for recapturing that imagination (or anything along those lines) is terribly problematic. Bruggemann is a very smart, very convincing and at times very profound author. But he’s way too captivated by ‘postmodernism’.

  2. I still can’t get around that without a historical Adam, it makes nonsense of Romans 5 Adam/Christ distinction. We’ve bandied some thoughts about before, but that covenantal headship only makes sense of Mankind within history.

    I guess an existentialist understanding is that Adam and Eve is the story of Everyman. And while that doesn’t necessarily conclude that God made a sinning humanity (or that mankind is not born in sin vis. liberalism), it certainly raises questions. I think this is Barth’s approach, but I doubt it’s validity.

    I won’t say that not accepting a historical Adam nullifies the Gospel. But it’s certainly an important issue to work through for someone who proclaims that Jesus is Lord.

    Some fellas who’ve thought together with me about these sort of things are over at the Hump of the Camel: http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/

    Worth checking out,

    • Yes, I am not convinced of an altogether a-historical Adam/Eve or Fall. As taught in Romans 5, the Fall has to be an historical event of a specific act in a particular time/place by a particular person(s), which has affected us all. Yet, a “meta-historical” archetypal (see below) Adam and Eve can still indicate a specific pair of first parents and Fall, without over-literalizing the Eden narrative (in which case, “meta-historical” is perhaps not the best term). From what I’ve read, this seems to be John Walton’s position.

      I too have questions about Barth’s account. I’ve read his small book on Romans 5, as well as the corresponding material in CD III.1. It is among his more difficult material. The “saga” category for Barth is not a-historical, but he vacillates between an existential “everyman” reading of Adam and wanting to preserve some historical particularity (not the least because Barth, obviously, does not want to attribute sinful human nature to the Creator), and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I need to re-read the material, since I have a much better grasp of the questions now than when I first read it a few years ago.

      Thanks for the link. I will be sure to check-out the website.

      • Do you know where Walton says this? I’ve read his Lost World of Genesis 1, and his point was that the narrative described functional creation, not material creation. Other parts of Scripture teach creatio ex nihilo, but not the early text of Genesis. Instead, this was God making a Cosmos out of chaos.

        This is open for who Adam was, he didn’t seem to say Adam was meta-historical.

        In my view, we might say that Adam was the first Human vs. pre-existing hominoids, including Homo sapiens devoid of God’s image.

        In thinking this through, it is key to thresh through darwinian evolution as the driver. Evolution (as it is popularly understood) is a mix of scientific experimentation, empirical/historical observations and mythology.

        I guess the more I read history, the less the so-called bombshells of philosophy and science seem to really be. Augustine and Origen tried to exegete Genesis, and realized problems with taking the text woodenly literalistically. They didn’t need a half-baked, pseudo-scientific Darwininism (ala Spencer) to overhaul anything.

        Much sound and fury, signifying nothing

      • I’m confusing things by using “meta-historical,” so let’s scratch that. Walton uses “archetype” in the sense that Adam is “everyman,” but he also believes that, as he puts its, “Adam and Eve were real people in a real past; they were individual persons who existed in history. The basis for this conclusion comes from the fact that in the Old Testament Adam becomes part of a genealogy, and in the New Testament a real event featuring real people is the clearest reading to explain the entrance of sin and death” (Four Views on the Historical Adam, p. 103). As for Gen 1-3, it is the archetypal function that the creation narratives are communicating and affirming, not the how of material origins — as you note.

      • Meta-historical does not indicate archetype. It simply means that the first created man and woman are concepts beyond history. Obviously these lived at some time. Archaic humans appeared relatively suddenly and unheralded on the surface of the earth about 4 million years ago. They lived near the great water systems of Africa. Eden is described in Genesis as a vast watery region bounded by two rivers in East Africa (Gihon and Pishon) and the Tigris and Euphrates on the east. Today we know this to be the heart of the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion.

      • Very helpful, Alice. That was confusion on my part. As for historicity, your definition of meta-historical does include a particular time and place for the first man and woman, which would seem to put you close to John Walton, except that you place them much further back in history (with a much larger gap until Cain).

        If you did a post on Walton’s views, distinguishing them from your own, that would be much appreciated!

      • Alice:

        I don’t understand the distinction between history and ‘meta-history’. I understand history as that being an event within creation, the flow of which is marked as time. I can understand the point that Adam and Eve are so primal as to have no record, in the same way there is ‘pre-history’, but that is a semantic.


        If it has to be particular people, why can’t we let Adam be Adam? This doesn’t rob the mytho-poetical aspect that declares war on the standard ANE story. I don’t want to weigh everything on Romans 5, but the covenantal linkage between Adam and Christ is strong.

        We have to ask what it means to bear Imago Dei, and how Adam, as the Head, bore it, perhaps in distinction to other humanoid creatures. When we ask who the sons of God and daughters of men are, there isn’t much one way or the other.

        We can appreciate how in Adam, we can see our own fall and appropriate the narrative for our own story. In this he could be understood as an everyman. But this can’t be primary.

        I doubt Walton would construe it that way, given his emphasis on much of the implication that creation is to be a temple of the Lord. Adam isn’t us, he is a covenant head who broke his relation with his King.

      • If it has to be particular people, why can’t we let Adam be Adam? This doesn’t rob the mytho-poetical aspect that declares war on the standard ANE story.

        As long as the polemic of the mytho-poetic is not robbed, then that is the important thing. I am not sure what “let Adam be Adam” would require. So, I take it that you are not satisfied with “Adam” and “Eve” as conceptual place-holders, so to speak, for whoever the first parents were, which seems to be Alice’s view.

  3. The Pentateuch was likely compiled from multiple sources – it seems that way at times even reading it in English without scholarly accompaniment. But I’m pretty skeptical of the confidence that some scholars show in their ability to parse out a big alphabet soup of ur-texts, each with their own date and theological perspective.

    • Yes, and most scholars today are more cautious about identifying the ur-texts, though still quite confident. At the least, the days of Claus Westermann are surely past, where JEDP were assigned with great confidence.

  4. I am actually a revert to Anglicanism from EO. Thanks for mentioning my research on Genesis. It is true that analysis of the king lists of Genesis 4 and 5 reveal historical persons with an authentic marriage and ascendancy pattern.

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