Over a hundred years ago, German-and-therefore-evil-and-easily-dismissible-Old-Testament-scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), the dapper gentleman pictured to the left, wrote the following about Genesis:
A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are “not true.” But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends—as has been done too frequently—but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis. This knowledge is already too widely diffused among those trained in historical study ever again to be suppressed. It will surely spread among the masses of our people, for the process is irresistible. Shall not we Evangelicals take care that it be presented to them in the right spirit? The Legends Of Genesis, pp. 11-12.
I was kidding about all that evil and dismissible business above. Gunkel was one of these biblical scholars that don’t come along any more. He profoundly changed how people thought about two huge areas of the Old Testament: Psalms and Genesis.
To make a long story short, before Gunkel, Old Testament scholars on Genesis focused largely on an internal analysis of the Hebrew text—things like the literary style, usage of certain words and phrases, and what all of this tells us about when Genesis (and the other books of the Pentateuch, Torah) were written—which is what we in the field call source criticism (we like our code words).
Gunkel came along a little bit later, after archaeologists brought to light the similarities between Genesis and the mythic stories from some of Israel’s ancient neighbors—namely the creation story and Noah’s flood.
Gunkel called these stories “legends” and, along with pretty much every Old Testament scholar since, said, “Yeah, these stories and the Bible are similar enough to say they are connected somehow. We need to think about how this information helps us understand what Genesis means and what we can expect from it.”
In the quote above, Gunkel makes 3 basic points:
1. The cat’s out of the bag: Genesis contains “legends,”
2. Children may be thrown by this, but adults shouldn’t be, and . . .
3. Rather than denying what is so widely known, church leaders have a sacred obligation to help their people process this information rather than letting others do that who might put their faith at risk.
Don’t let the word “evangelical” throw you in the quote. That means “Lutheran,” which along with Roman Catholicism made up (and still makes up) the state churches of German.
In my experience, though, America evangelicalism has essentially rejected Gunkel’s pastoral advice in #3 above.
The results have not been pretty. Because of a pastoral failure to help everyday Joe and Jane pew-sitters process the kinds of data Gunkel is talking about, a lot of Christians over the last century or so have struggled in needless and unhealthy ways with their faith.
Too often the issue is posed as “you can either believe that Genesis contains legends” OR “you can be faithful to the Bible.” To remain a faithful Christian means to remain a child and “suppress” (as Gunkel puts it) information that is “widely diffused.” To engage the Bible with our adult faculties means putting your faith at risk.
That’s not much of a choice.
The church, Christians colleges, and seminaries would be the best place to have a faith crisis, provided their leaders embrace the call to help their people through it rather than hiding the crisis out of fear, under a cloak of piety.
But, instead of helping people process the information, the evangelical tradition has a strong track record of minimizing the deep impact of historical study on how Scripture is understood, or providing answers that strain and groan to maintain the old ways despite the evidence.
I really, really, really wish that hadn’t happened. I really do.
I would like to see church leaders do a better of job of training adult readers of the Bible. I don’t mean dumping complex and potentially threatening information on the unsuspecting, but engaging with them—in all wisdom and pastoral maturity, from the perspective of faith—in ways of thinking about the Bible that have been convincing to scholars, many of whom are people of deep personal faith themselves.
Or at least helping them to see that biblical scholarship is worth taking seriously, and not the devil’s playground to run from and dismiss.
I’ve put the question like this numerous times: “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” That question has been before us for a long time. How is the Bible “historical?” Where do myth and legend end and history begin? How can we know and what difference does it make?
With cable TV and the internet, the kinds of things biblical scholars routinely discuss are not hidden, but, as Gunkel saw already over 100 years ago, have “surely spread to the masses, for the process is irresistible.”
It is a holy, wise, and pastoral duty to raise adult readers of the Bible, rather than living in fear and legitimizing childish readings.
***The original version of this post appeared in September 2012. I talk more about the nature of the Bible and Genesis in particular in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015) and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012). I also discuss the fear of letting go of theological certainty in The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).