Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11

AN (copy to my blog CED - after removing personal identifying
information and other changes)

----- Original Message -----
From: AN
To: "Stephen E. Jones"
Sent: Monday, August 22, 2005 11:19 PM
Subject: Antideluvian ages, e.g. Methuselah

Thanks for your message. As was my policy on my list CED (now terminated) and is now on my blog CED that replaced it, when I receive a private message asking interesting questions on a creation (including the Bible and Christianity), evolution or design issue, I usually `kill two birds with one stone' by responding to the sender, and copying my response to my blog CED, with the sender's personal identifying details removed, and his/her name replaced by "AN".

AN>Dear Prof. Jones,

Thanks, but I am just plain "Mr. Jones."

AN>Would you be able to point me to resources that deal with the long
>antideluvian ages recorded in Genesis from a Bible/science position similar
>to your own? Most authors I've read have omitted treatment of this, as they
>focus more on the "days" and on the flood.

I have an unfinished web page project called "The ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11", to which I have now added some quotes and headings, that may be helpful.

AN>Would the original author readers have understood these as literal ages,
>or as only symbolic? Does C. John Collins address this?

I am not IIRC aware of "C. John Collins". As for whether "the original author readers have understood these as literal ages, or as only symbolic" no one knows (see quotes on that web page). Personally I think the best fit to the evidence (both Biblical and scientific) is that Genesis 1-11 is `symbolic history', i.e. real history expressed in symbolic form (analogous to the Book of Revelation):
"It is argued that the picture of God working like a potter with wet earth, anthropomorphically breathing life into man, constructing woman from a rib, with an idyllic garden, trees with theological significance, and a talking serpent, is the language of theological symbolism and not of literal prose. The theological truth is there, and this symbolism is the instrument of inspiration. We are not to think in terms of scientific and anti-scientific, but in terms of scientific and pre-scientific. The account is then pre-scientific and in theological symbolism which is the garment divine inspiration chose to reveal these truths for their more ready comprehension by the masses of untutored Christians. This is the view of James Orr who wrote: `I do not enter into the question of how we are to interpret the third chapter of Genesis-whether as history or allegory or myth, or most probably of all, as old tradition clothed in oriental allegorical dress-but the truth embodied in that narrative, viz. the fall of man from an original state of purity, I take to be vital to the Christian view.'" (Orr J., The Christian View of God and the World, 1897, p.185, in Ramm B.L., "The Christian View of Science and Scripture," [1955], Paternoster: Exeter, Devon UK, 1967, reprint, pp.223-224)
AN>My most immediate practical reason for asking this is I'm trying to
>arrive at how to talk about Genesis to my eight-year-old boy, who in
>many ways already thinks like a high schooler and asks tough questions.
>I want to weigh the matter carefully, as I'm not interested in wearing

I would imagine this issue is beyond an "eight-year-old boy", given that it is probably beyond most adults, if not most (or all) theologians! However, here are some suggested major points:

1. The Bible nowhere makes any teaching based on the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11. The only point made from the genealogies is line, not length:
"The general fact that the genealogies of Scripture were not constructed for a chronological purpose and lend themselves ill to employment as a basis for chronological calculations has been repeatedly shown very fully; but perhaps by no one more thoroughly than by Dr. William Henry Green in an illuminating article published in the Bibliotheca Sacra for April, 1890. These genealogies must be esteemed trustworthy for the purposes for which they are recorded; but they cannot safely be pressed into use for other purposes for which they were not intended, and for which they are not adapted. In particular, it is clear that the genealogical purposes for which the genealogies were given, did not require a complete record of all the generations through which the descent of the persons to whom they are assigned runs; but only an adequate indication of the particular line through which the descent in question comes. Accordingly it is found on examination that the genealogies of Scripture are freely compressed for all sorts of purposes; and that it can seldom be confidently affirmed that they contain a complete record of the whole series of generations, while it is often obvious that a very large number are omitted. There is no reason inherent in the nature of the Scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis v. and xi. is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links. The point established by the table is not that these are all the links which intervened between the beginning and the closing names, but that this is the line of descent through which one traces back to or down to the other." (Warfield B.B., "On the Antiquity and the Unity of The Human Race," in "Studies in Theology," [1932], Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1988, reprint, pp.237-238)
2. Genesis 1-11 (especially the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11) is an ancient Eastern document, the original sources of which were probably ancient by Moses' day:
"To us who live in this late day, the second millennium B.C. seems very long ago indeed. We are tempted to think of it as lying near the dawn of time, when man first struggled upward from savagery into the light of history, and are prone, therefore, to underestimate its cultural achievements. We are further prone to picture the Hebrew ancestors, tent-dwelling wanderers that they were, as the most primitive of nomads, cut off by their mode of life from contact with what culture there was, whose religion was the crudest sort of animism or polydaemonism. So, in fact, did many of the older handbooks depict them. This, however, is an erroneous notion and a symptom of want of perspective a carry-over from days when little was known at first hand of the ancient Orient. It is necessary, therefore, to throw the picture into focus. Horizons have widened amazingly in the past generation. Whatever one says of Israel's origins must be said with full awareness that these lie nowhere near the dawn of history. The earliest decipherable inscriptions both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia reach back to the early centuries of the third millennium B.C.- thus approximately a thousand years before Abraham, fifteen hundred before Moses. There history, properly speaking, begins. Moreover, in the course of the last few decades discoveries in all parts of the Bible world, and beyond it, have revealed a succession of yet earlier cultures which reach back through the fourth millennium, the fifth, and the sixth, to the seventh and, in many instances, farther still. The Hebrews were in fact late-comers on history's stage. All across the Bible lands, cultures had come to birth, assumed classical form, and run their course for hundreds and even thousands of years before Abraham was born, Difficult as it is for us to realize, it is actually farther in time from the beginnings of civilization in the Near East to the age of Israel's origins than it is from that latter age to our own!" (Bright J., "A History of Israel," [1959], SCM Press" London, Third Edition, 1988, pp.23-24)
so it is possible that their original meaning was lost even by then. As a leading evangelical theologian wrote regarding the use of historical source material in the Bible, "... the purpose of inspiration is to communicate life in Christ ... to make us wise unto salvation, and not to supply us with an infallible review of Semitic history." (Carnell E.J., "The Case for Orthodox Theology," Westminster Press: Philadelphia PA, 1959, p.109).

3. On the related matter of deriving our Christian doctrine of creation by starting at Genesis and working forward through to the New Testament, Brunner points out that for every other Christian doctrine, we start with the New Testament and work backwards through to the Old Testament:
"Unfortunately the uniqueness of this Christian doctrine of Creation and the Creator is continually being obscured by the fact that theologians are so reluctant to begin their work with the New Testament; when they want to deal with the Creation they tend to begin with the Old Testament, although they never do this when they are speaking of the Redeemer. The emphasis on the story of Creation at the beginning of the Bible has constantly led theologians to forsake the rule, which they would otherwise follow, namely, that the basis of all Christian articles of faith is the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. So when we begin to study the subject of Creation, in the Bible we ought to start with the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and some other passages of the New Testament, and, not with the first chapter of Genesis. If we can make up our minds to stick to this rule, we shall be saved from many difficulties, which will inevitably occur if we begin with the story of Creation in the Old Testament. Of course, I do not wish to deny the permanent significance of, and the absolute necessity for, the Old Testament accounts of the Creation-not only in the first two chapters of Genesis but also in the Prophets, the Psalms, and in the Book of Job. In order to expand the somewhat scanty statements of the Testament we certainly need the weighty and enriching testimony of the Old Testament; but in principle these statements are as introductory in character as the Old Testament witness is to the Messiah is to that of the New Testament." (Brunner E., "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption," Dogmatics Vol. II, Wyon O., trans, [1952], Lutterworth: London, 1955, Second Impression, pp.6-7. Emphasis in original)
The result is that we often get hung up on the problems of Genesis 1-11 (which are some of the most difficult in the Bible) and spend less time on what the New Testament says on creation. Phillip E. Johnson has made a similar point:
"The most important statement about creation in the Bible is not in Genesis; it is in the opening verses of the first chapter of John. `In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.' The direct opposite of that statement is creation by purely materialistic, undirected evolution". (Johnson P.E., "Creator or Blind Watchmaker?" First Things, January 1993, p.12);
"The most important statement in Scripture about creation is not contained in Genesis but in the opening verses of the Gospel of John: `In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.' (John 1:1-3) This statement plainly says that creation was by a force that was (and is) intelligent and personal. The essential, bedrock position of scientific naturalism is the direct opposite of John 1:1-3. Naturalistic evolutionary theory, as part of the grand metaphysical story of science, says that creation was by impersonal and unintelligent forces. The opposition between the biblical and naturalistic stories is fundamental, and neither side can compromise over it. To compromise is to surrender." (Johnson P.E., "Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1995, pp.107-108);
"H: In your opinion, what are the secondary issues in the creation-evolution debate?
J: I think that one of the secondary issues concerns the details of the chronology in Genesis. Many Christians get excited about that. But I always teach my audiences that the message of evolution isn't just that God created gradually over a long period of time so that the days of Genesis have to be understood as long historical periods. If that was all that was at stake, it would be nowhere near as important a controversy as it is. But the real message of evolution is that God had nothing to do with biological creation. So I say, in terms of biblical importance, that we should move from the Genesis chronology to the most important fact about creation, which is John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word". Evolutionary biology is emphatic that God had nothing to do with it. It says: "In the beginning were the particles." One of the big things that I have to do is to get people who want to object to evolution, to the main issue. It's important not to be side-tracked into questions of biblical detail, where you just wind up in a morass of shifting issues. In my judgment, the chronology of Genesis 1 is a secondary issue." (Hastie P., "Designer genes: Phillip E. Johnson talks to Peter Hastie," Australian Presbyterian, October 2001, pp.4-8, pp.6-7).

You are welcome. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to make comments (anonymously if you wish) to the copy of this that will be posted to my blog soon after I send this. But otherwise, I have a long-standing policy not to get involved in private discussions of creation (including the Bible and Christianity), evolution or design issues, since: 1) I don't have the time; and 2) I believe such discussions should be public.


"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," [1986], Penguin: London, 1991, reprint, p.1)
Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
Blog: CreationEvolutionDesign
Book-in-progress: "Problems of Evolution"

No comments: