William Lane Craig is a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the author of multiple books covering apologetics, philosophy, theology, and related fields. He is widely respected as one of the leading Christian philosophers writing today. In his most recent book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, Craig has decided to take on the many-tentacled debate surrounding the historical Adam.
There’s much to like in his argument. For one thing, Craig’s writing is clean as a whistle. His arguments are easy to follow and almost always illuminating. Writing this kind of monograph takes courage—most scholars prefer to hunker down in their silos, but Craig is a man on a mission, straddling multiple disciplines and armed with an astonishing arsenal of research. This book is a striking advertisement for interdisciplinary writing.
Parts of this volume are also highly entertaining. For example, his critiques of Old Testament scholarship were page turners. Those sections gave me fond memories of reading essays like Alvin Plantinga’s “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship.” I’m not saying all of Craig’s criticisms of biblical scholars were convincing, but I found most of them insightful and conceptually clarifying. (In fact, some of his critiques were so pointed and so obviously right that they should put the fear of God in any potential critic of the book. Be very afraid, Madueme.)
In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration
William Lane Craig
In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration
William Lane Craig
Was Adam a real historical person? And if so, who was he and when did he live? William Lane Craig sets out to answer these questions through a biblical and scientific investigation. He begins with an inquiry into the genre of Genesis 1–11, determining that it can most plausibly be classified as mytho-history—a narrative with both literary and historical value. He then moves into the New Testament, where he examines references to Adam in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul, ultimately concluding that the entire Bible considers Adam the historical progenitor of the human race—a position that must therefore be accepted as a premise for Christians who take seriously the inspired truth of Scripture.
In what follows, I lay out my two main reservations: the first concerns how Craig interprets the early chapters of Genesis, and the second how he interprets the apostolic testimony. I’ll ignore the last section of the book on science because the plausibility of his moves depends on what one thinks of his earlier arguments (and besides, I do have a word count here).
On Early Genesis
Craig’s thesis is that Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history. In step with most Old Testament scholarship, Craig sees key differences in the literary styles of Genesis 1–11 and Genesis 12–50, and he thinks the first 11 chapters share the same conceptual world as ancient Near East (ANE) mythology. In his view, primeval myths were authoritative for ancient Israelites, but they didn’t necessarily believe them to be historical in the way that we, today, think about events as “historical.” We should not understand the primeval events literally: “Their primary purpose is to ground realities present to the pentateuchal author and important for Israelite society in the primordial past” (157).
I felt some whiplash reading his justification for the claim that early Genesis is largely mythical. On the one hand, Craig’s criticisms of the comparative method are some of the most penetrating that I’ve ever read, including his critique of parallelomania and claims of direct dependence between Genesis and this or that ANE myth. He rightly exposes the many layers of difficulty in the comparative approach. On the other hand, Craig’s thesis that large parts of Genesis 1–11 are mythical in the authoritative-but-not-literal sense itself depends on the comparative method: by analyzing Genesis 1–11 in light of family resemblances among ANE myths, he prioritizes extrabiblical ANE literature over the theological claims of Scripture itself.
But this approach reflects the wrong ordering and emphasis. The theological claims of Scripture should have priority over ANE literature, which is why I’m far less sanguine about the comparative method than Craig is. The explanatory categories of the comparative method tend to be naturalistic: they usually appeal to human, non-spiritual, this-worldly horizons—as if the compositional history of Genesis 1–11 is obviously more similar than different from other ANE texts. I doubt Craig endorses this kind of naturalism, but I still worry about naturalism creep (given that he accepts the basic outline of the comparative method).
Furthermore, religious and cultural similarities between Scripture and the ANE world are difficult to unravel and usually lack a single explanation. The mythical understanding of primeval history is an extrabiblical theory that obscures the analogy of faith. Christians should give priority to interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture rather than relatively speculative theories about ANE culture and its putative relationship to the biblical authors.
Christians should give priority to interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture rather than relatively speculative theories about ancient Near Eastern culture.
Let me explain what I mean. Craig highlights 10 family resemblances among myths and then argues that Genesis 1–11 displays almost all those features. He concludes that much of the primeval narrative is mythical, which means that it’s authoritative but not meant literally. I think this position is wide of the mark. What I found most telling was Craig’s long discussion of the 10th feature of myths that he thinks Genesis 1–11 exemplifies. He tells us that Genesis has “fantastic elements” that are “palpably false” if taken to be literally true (101, 105), including the ideas that God created the world in six days, the first humans were vegetarian, there was a snake that could talk, there were rivers in Eden, there were actual cherubim with a flaming sword, the antediluvian patriarchs lived long ages, Noah’s flood was global, linguistic diversity can be traced back to the Tower of Babel, and the earth is only thousands of years old. But why would Craig categorize these elements of the narrative as “fantastic”? Why does he think they are palpably false if taken literally?
Perhaps because Craig has an anti-supernatural bias? But he rejects that charge explicitly: “The fantastic elements in the narratives that we have identified have nothing to do with miracles, which we accept. Rather, they concern non-miraculous features of the story that, if taken literally, are palpably false” (131)
Fair enough, the core issue seems to be epistemological authority rather than supernaturalism. Craig doesn’t explicitly reject the Bible’s epistemic authority, but he does so implicitly when he repeatedly rejects the literal interpretation. He justifies that move by appealing to ANE texts and how he thinks they were likely understood.
My problem is that such extra-textual moves are often speculative and should be resisted if and when they’re in tension with Scripture’s interpretation of itself. Those parts of the primeval narrative may seem implausible in a modern view of the world, but if we have solid exegetical and theological reasons to interpret these narratives literally and thus historically, then so much the worse for our modern expectations.
Almost everything Craig classifies as “fantastic” is, in my view, literal and straightforwardly historical. He gives no compelling intra-textual reasons for interpreting those elements mythically. The only reason he gives seems to be that he finds it all implausible—but that says more about Craig than about Scripture. At several points, he does suggest that the ancient biblical author (or authors) would have agreed with him that the primeval narrative has many fantastic elements that aren’t historically true, but that inference is unwarranted. Craig is merely assuming that the biblical authors shared his own intuitions or patterns of thinking. I suspect the truth is quite the opposite.
While Craig denies the charge of anti-supernaturalism, he’s not entirely blameless here. Just to pick one example: he gently mocks the view that cherubim stood outside the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. Based on the second commandment, he argues that Israel is an “anti-iconic religion” and would never offer pictorial representations “of things in heaven” (119, 120). Since Israel did offer physical depictions of the cherubim and never thought they were breaking the Decalogue, Craig takes this as proof that the cherubim were not real.
This argument isn’t persuasive. Regarding Craig’s point about anti-iconography, his discussion needs more nuance. The second commandment prohibits making any graven images that would then be worshiped as divine; the Israelites were not allowed to worship any created thing “in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex. 20:4). You couldn’t worship any heavenly creatures (like angels), but neither could you worship any earthly creature—hence the scandal of the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32.
However, when worship isn’t involved, Moses permits physical representations of creatures and other natural objects. In Exodus 28:33, the Law allows priestly garments to be embroidered with pomegranates. Similarly, in 1 Kings 7, Solomon’s Temple is decorated with 200 pomegranates; he makes a Sea of cast metal, and that Sea is erected on seven bulls. These are all physical images of parts of God’s creation. Israel’s religious traditions have no problem representing creatures so long as nothing is worshipped—and that includes heavenly creatures such as the cherubim. The bottom line, canonically speaking, is that the cherubim are real like you and me. I’m happy to take Craig at his word that he has no anti-supernatural axe to grind, but instances like this one left me wondering.
Given the current canons of science and archaeology, I’m well aware my views on the primeval narrative would be dismissed in mainstream academia. Having said that, consider Craig’s ground rules in the preface:
The first main part [of the book] deals with the biblical data pertinent to human origins and the second with scientific evidence for the same. The order of the two parts is important. We want first and foremost as Christians to know what the Bible has to say about human origins independent of modern science. We want to know what our biblical commitments are concerning the historical Adam, and we can know those only insofar as our hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not shaped by modern science. (xii)
To which we all said Amen. But that’s my point: he’s not practicing what he preaches. His notion of the fantastic doesn’t derive from Scripture but, I suggest, from a mind shaped by modern science.
I’m happy to take Craig at his word that he has no anti-supernatural axe to grind, but instances like this one left me wondering.
Craig’s thesis, of course, isn’t that Genesis 1–11 is fully myth. His nuanced argument for “mytho-history” incorporates a historical dimension and emphasizes that the early genealogies place the biblical characters in chronological order. He infers that early Genesis has a historical core furnished in the language of myth. Craig deserves credit for not choosing the path of many scholars who dehistoricize everything in the primeval narrative.
So, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I still have serious misgivings with his historical argument. There’s far more historical drama in these chapters than he allows. Instead he leaves us with an awkward amalgam of myth and history that the apostles (and premodern Christians) would’ve found bewildering. Let me put my question concretely: on what basis does Craig decide which parts of the narrative are mythic and which parts are historical? “Did a serpent speak in the garden? Was the first woman made from Adam’s rib? Was there a worldwide flood?” Craig thinks such rhetorical questions are unfair: “I see no reason to think that the viability of a genre analysis of Gen 1–11 as mytho-history should imply the ability to answer such questions. The author does not draw such clear lines of distinction for us” (201).
That statement is puzzling. Up to that point in the book, Craig has been telling us in great detail which parts of the narratives are mythic and which parts are not—he can’t plead ignorance now! The issue (once again) is epistemological. On what grounds do we as readers get to say which bits of the canon are historical and which are not, which parts are literal and which are not? Craig offers no robust hermeneutical criteria; by his lights, anything that triggers his own incredulity belongs in the mythical category, while the rest is historical. But that kind of reasoning saddles him with a canon within the canon.
On Apostolic Hermeneutics
The core problem for Craig’s thesis is that neither Jesus nor the apostles interpreted the early chapters of Genesis mytho-historically. They interpreted Genesis 1–11 no differently from chapters 12–50. For Christians who take Scripture as divine discourse, that should be the end of the conversation.
Not so fast, Craig says. Just because an apostle cites an ancient text or event doesn’t mean God has authorized that text or event as historical. Craig asks us to consider the following questions:
- Is the New Testament author asserting truths or is he just asserting truths-in-the-stories-of-Genesis?
- Is the New Testament author citing a text assertorically or merely illustratively?
- When a New Testament author cites a text, we should distinguish what “a person citing a text believes and what that person is asserting.” (207, 209)
Even before he considers the New Testament references to Adam, Craig surveys several apostolic citations of extrabiblical literature. For example, in his analysis of 2 Peter 2:4–10, Craig points out that Genesis never calls Noah a “herald of righteousness”; that designation comes from Jewish tradition. He concludes that the 2 Peter reference to Noah is not “the literary Noah of Genesis” but rather the “literary Noah of Jewish tradition.” Second Peter reveals nothing about the historical Noah because the reference is for illustrative purposes only. Craig gives other similar examples, including how 2 Peter refers to Lot as “righteous Lot,” a designation that reflects Lot’s portrayal in Jewish tradition rather than in Genesis 19.
The core problem for Craig’s thesis is that neither Jesus nor the apostles interpreted the early chapters of Genesis mytho-historically.
I find his analysis here uncharacteristically lacking in nuance. Suppose it is true that Peter (or any other apostle) is communicating something from Jewish tradition that’s not explicitly relayed in Genesis. It doesn’t therefore follow that Peter is communicating illustratively and not assertorically. That depends. We shouldn’t preemptively rule out the possibility that Peter is communicating something historically true that has been preserved in Jewish tradition. I’ll return to this point momentarily.
I should also note that apostolic statements don’t need to be “assertoric” to commit readers to their historicity. In the process of communicating sacred Scripture, New Testament authors often make background assumptions that aren’t assertoric but that nevertheless commit readers to the historical truth of those assumptions. Such instances of apostolic speech acts would misfire as divine discourse unless the background assumptions were true. It’s strange that when it comes to apostolic hermeneutics, Craig suddenly finds it a virtue to adopt a narrowly biblicistic approach to Scripture.
However, it’s worth pausing over his intriguing analysis of Jude 14–15. In those verses, Jude quotes directly from 1 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal book dated around 400–200 BC—yet Jude attributes those words to the biblical Enoch himself. Craig writes, “This text is a reductio ad absurdum of facile arguments for OT authorship and historicity on the basis of NT citation. Jude’s quoting a pseudepigraphal figure no more commits him to the authenticity and historicity of 1 Enoch than our quoting a myth commits us to its authenticity and historicity” (217). But Craig’s reading does not follow. It’s far more plausible that, by means of divine ordinary (and/or special) providence, 1 Enoch preserves an older and reliable oral tradition. Craig considers this possibility but then dismisses it as “hardly” plausible (218). But why is it not plausible? Other than his incredulity, we’re given no real justification.
At any rate, when Jude’s remarks are read in context, Craig’s own position that the Enoch references should be read “illustratively,” not historically, is highly unlikely. Jude cites Enoch as prophesying about the men who “are blemishes at your love feasts” (v. 12). Does Craig really want us to believe that a mythic-literary character was prophesying things about Jude’s contemporaries? I’m not sure how that would work ontologically. Rather, Jude’s words imply that, in his mind, “Enoch” was an actual person who lived in the same space-time context as the heretics he’s lambasting.
When we get to the Adam passages in the New Testament, Craig insists that merely citing an Old Testament figure doesn’t imply that the New Testament author is committed to said figure’s historicity. He introduces distinctions between “truth” versus “truth-in-a-story” (207) versus “truth-in-a-text” (202, 209), and he deploys them when exegeting the Adam texts. While I can affirm these distinctions at a formal level, they have no bearing on the biblical Adam. Craig spends much of chapter 7 parsing out whether an apostolic comment about Adam refers only to the “literary” Adam or whether a stronger claim is being made about the “historical” Adam. No biblical author would have found this strained reading strategy remotely plausible—and the same goes for most believers from the first 19 centuries of church history. Adam in the Old Testament is never merely a “literary” figure. In the world of Scripture, the literary Adam just is the historical Adam.
Adam in the Old Testament is never merely a ‘literary’ figure. In the world of Scripture, the literary Adam just is the historical Adam.
Craig ends up delivering a modest argument for the historicity of Adam, and his key pieces of evidence are the Old Testament genealogies and the handful of times that Paul directly asserts Adam’s historicity. I agree with what he affirms but disagree with much of what he denies. Scripture has plenty more to say about the historical Adam, but Craig’s reading strategy prevents him from recognizing that. He concludes that some apostolic citations of Adam are illustrative and authoritative but not historical, while other Adam citations are “assertoric” and thus historical.
Craig wants us to believe that the apostles were schizophrenic readers of Genesis, sometimes assuming a mythic understanding of Adam, other times assuming a minimal historical understanding. This kind of hermeneutical hairsplitting is difficult to swallow. The traditional position is more reasonable: namely, that the apostles consistently affirmed the historicity of the Adam narratives, sometimes citing them illustratively and thereby assuming their historicity, other times citing them assertorically and thereby asserting their historicity—either way, they never questioned the historicity of Adam or of the events surrounding him.
Craig’s book is essential reading and stakes out a moderate position in the historical Adam debate. In the present intellectual climate, this work deserves two cheers. Nevertheless, his thesis stands in a long line of proposals that suffer from the same predicament: under pressure from science and other plausibility structures, they find it impossible to believe the clear witness of Scripture; therefore, they must reinterpret the Bible.
I beg to differ.
For a full version of this review, see “Literality, Incredulity, and Hermeneutical Schizophrenia,” published by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding.