Did a historical Adam and Eve exist? If so, how does human evolution factor in? How do the teachings of science compare with the teachings of Genesis regarding the origins of mankind? Such questions are not at all new but are ever important and interesting. These questions are of interest to Catholics in particular because of the Catholic Church’s strong teaching that faith and reason, or more specifically faith and science, are not opposed. This teaching has for centuries been challenged by famous scientists, philosophers, and others. While the Church has defended herself ably over the years, it is always welcome when non-Catholics join the fight in defending the compatibility of faith and science.
One such thinker who often does great work demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason is the Protestant William Lane Craig. Craig, a philosopher and theologian, is also perhaps the most prominent Christian apologist of the last half century. Recently, he published a book exploring the biblical and scientific teachings regarding the historical Adam and Eve.
His book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, exemplifies two important teachings of Pope Pius XII: (1) the importance of genre in interpretation of Scripture and (2) the truth of monogenism—that is, the teaching that humanity descended from one pair of human ancestors. I will briefly explore what these teachings of Pius XII are and how Craig’s work serves to support them.
The Importance of Genre
In his encyclical on Sacred Scripture, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII teaches the importance of understanding the genre of biblical texts for interpreting those texts.
For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. (DAS 35)
To illustrate this point, regardless of how thoroughly a person were to examine the text of Luke 10:30-36—the story of the good Samaritan—if one did not understand the genre of the story as a parable then one would not properly understand the story. One might instead come to believe that the point of Jesus’ words was to teach that there was in fact, in history, a man who was beaten, passed by, and then finally rescued by a Samaritan in the way Jesus described. This would be to misunderstand the parable. Thus, an understanding of the genre of a given biblical passage is important for understanding what the passage is teaching. Is the passage making a claim about an historical event? Is it merely teaching a moral lesson? Is it doing both? By assessing the genre of biblical texts, we can answer these questions.
William Lane Craig does this thoroughly in his book and spends nearly two-thirds of the work examining the genre of Genesis 1-11 in light of its ancient Near Eastern context. By examining ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian stories as well as the nature of myth itself, Craig shows how these stories were likely understood by the ancients and how they relate to the biblical texts. Craig thus takes up—perhaps without realizing it—Pius XII’s exhortation to “go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East . . . [to] accurately determine what modes of writing . . . the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use.”
From this study, Craig argues that Genesis 1-11 is best understood as part of the genre of what the Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen calls “mytho-history.” Mytho-history’s purpose is to recount important events from the distant past in a mythical way. The events and people described are real, but the details of the stories themselves are quite often fantastical and not meant to be understood literally. Craig summarizes the genre of this way:
Their primary purpose is to ground realities present to the pentateuchal author and important for Israelite society in the primordial past. At the same time, the interstitching of the primaeval narratives with genealogies terminating in real people evinces a historical interest on the author’s part in persons who once lived and wrought. Even these genealogies, however, are carefully constructed so as to share in the character of the myths they order, contributing to the overall etiological purpose of primaeval history. (In Quest for the Historical Adam, 157)
If Craig is correct, then it would be wrong to interpret Genesis in a strict literalistic fashion, as many young earth creationists are wont to do. They mistake the genre and miss its mythical elements. Similarly, it would be incorrect to completely allegorize the story and hold that Genesis 1-11 has no historical purpose whatsoever. Note that the “myth” part of “mytho-history” can be somewhat misleading. When Craig or Jacobsen use that term, they do not mean it in the colloquial sense as something that is false or contrived. Rather, they mean it in the more technical sense as (among other things) a story set in a primeval age about previous divine action in the world that helps to explain the current world’s state of affairs.
Craig’s position is therefore similar to that cited in Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, where he writes,
The first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes. (HG 38)
Like William Lane Craig, Pope Pius XII acknowledges that Genesis 1-11 are not in the same genre as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War or Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet they do “pertain to history in a true sense.” The genre then falls somewhere between the extremes of a purely mythological tale about fictitious events and a more direct history like the two just mentioned.
Once the genre of Genesis 1-11 is properly understood, it is easier to discern what claims Genesis 1-11 makes about history. Craig is interested in particular in the person of Adam. Craig argues that given both the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 as well as various New Testament references to Adam, that the Bible does teach the existence of a “progenitor of the entire human race through whose disobedience moral evil entered the world.” The teaching that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all of humanity has been called monogenism. This is to distinguish it from polygenism, which teaches that there was no such ancestral pair but that the population of humans, since they have existed, has never dropped below a few thousand or at least some number much greater than two.
In light of a popular understanding of evolution and population genetics, many people believe that science contradicts monogenism. Craig quotes one scientist, Dennis Venema, as saying that the idea that all humans descended from a single pair is akin to holding that geocentrism is true. Yet despite certain scientists’ confidence, the Church has taught monogenism. In fact, polygenism is condemned by Pius XII in Humani Generis.
For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. (HG 37)
Despite the Pope’s teaching, even some Catholic thinkers have argued against monogenism in light of their perception of the scientific evidence. For example, Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a Dominican molecular biologist, argues in the book Thomistic Evolution that Church teaching can and should be reconciled with polygenism.
Craig argues that such a concession is unnecessary. Using the work of Joshua Swamidass, a computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Craig shows that Venema and Austriaco’s conclusion does not follow from the scientific data. On the contrary, current computational biology is consistent with the human race’s population having been merely two people several hundred thousand years ago. The scientific evidence does not demonstrate that the population was two, but it does not contradict it either. Craig quotes the biologist Richard Buggs, who states,
We conclude that the current genetic diversity data does not rule out a bottleneck of two individuals in the human lineage between approximately 400,000 and 7,000,000 years ago, but neither do they show that such a bottleneck happened. . . . More research is needed in this area. (In Quest of the Historical Adam, 354)
In light of this recent evidence, even Venema has been forced to concede the possibility of all modern humans descending from a single ancestral pair. Craig shows that it is a danger to too quickly give up on biblical and Church teaching in the face of inconclusive scientific data. Such discoveries are always subject to further inquiry and revision.
While it is at times difficult to see, faith and science are fundamentally in harmony. William Lane Craig, a prominent Protestant thinker, has shown in his book on the historical Adam that this Catholic claim about faith and science is quite reasonable. Taking up Pius XII’s teachings on the importance of genre and the importance of the doctrine of monogenism, Craig ably defends the fact that Genesis does teach “true history,” albeit in a mythical way, and that the existence of Adam, the primordial man in Genesis, is consistent with modern science. Undoubtedly much more research will go into both Genesis and the story of evolution. We can pray that people with minds like Craig’s can come to see the harmony between study in both areas and allow their findings about the original Adam to lead them to the New Adam.