It is no secret at this point that I’m a fan of multi-view books. Scroll through my review page and you can see several titles from IVP’s Spectrum Multi-view series as well as Zondervan’s Counterpoints. Most recently I worked through Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on The Bible’s Earliest Chapters. The title is perhaps a bit misleading since the actual views are as follows:
- James K. Hoffmeier – Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology
- Gordon J. Wenham – Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory
- Kenton Sparks – Genesis 1-11 as Ancient Historiography
If you follow the above links to each author you can read an excerpt from the book with some context to give a feel for their positions. The reason I say it is a bit misleading because no one fully argues the “Neither” position, although Wenham comes close. His idea of “Protohistory” could still be plotted along a continuum with Hoffmeier’s “History and Theology” position. Arguably, it is not a useful descriptor, something the other contributors lament. Essentially, Wenham sees the chapters as historical in their core, but using language, imagery, and symbols usually connected with mythology. I thought his position was probably the best argued, but I’m not sure I fully agree with him. Also interesting to his position, Wenham believes that all the contributors agree on the theological message of the chapters, and to a certain extent he is right. But, that leaves the question of genre up for debate, which is what the rest of the book tackles.
Sparks on the other hand essentially argues that the chapters are mythological and goes to great lengths to validate a fanciful version of the JEDP theory couched in different language. Clearly, he fits the “Fiction” category in the subtitle and Peter Enns would be proud of his colleague’s work. On the plus side, Sparks’ responses to the other two contributors were the most well thought out. He attempted to capture each argument in a number of theses and respond to each individually with his thoughts. His thoroughness was refreshing, but one might wish he applied the same thorough critical eye to the lack of evidence for anything approaching a viable JEDP theory of authorship for the Pentatuech.
Hoffmeier ruled the day with his familiarity of ancient Near East mythology. While Wenham had the most convincing exegetical arguments, Hoffmeier’s expertise as an Egyptologist shouldn’t be overlooked. While he argues for a more or less straightforward historical reading of Genesis 1-11, Hoffmeier isn’t a young earth creationist. Given that, he still sees no compelling exegetical or cultural reason to not consider the earliest chapters of Genesis aimed at telling history from a theological point of view.
On either end of the contributors essays is an introduction and conclusion from editor Charles Halton (watch a video of him here). There, he first explains how the book provides an interesting case study in genre categorization. In the conclusion he attempts to put together the pieces after it is clear there is strong disagreement on the genre of Genesis 1-11 (strong, yet cordial throughout). He essentially argues that the interpretation of these chapters shouldn’t be a dividing line among Christians, something John Walton also echoed in his recent book.
At the end of the day, I think the value of a book like this is that it offers one the building blocks for putting together their own understanding. Hoffmeier primarily gives important cultural background considerations, and at the same time shows that they do not undermine historicity. Wenham offers a slightly different take on the historicity, but grounded in primarily exegetical arguments (which isn’t to say Hoffmeier doesn’t exegete, but Wenham does more). Sparks offers a creative, yet more or less mainline critical take on the chapters. To the extent that you find either his arguments or data compelling, you’d need to integrate it into how you interpret Genesis 1-11. Wenham may be right that most people agree on the message of Genesis 1-11. But, it is hard to not think it significant whether one sees that message coming from the pages of history (Hoffmeier) or mythology (Sparks) or some blending of both (Wenham). That, I think is the real question, and this book moves in the right direction toward helping readers answer it.
Charles Halton, ed., Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on The Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, May 2015. 176 pp. Paperback, $16.99.
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Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!