To label Bible as science or history is to do it a disservice

November 20, 2005|By MARC ZVI BRETTLER

You might imagine that, as a biblical scholar, I would support the recent decision made in Kansas concerning the teaching of intelligent design and other proposals that support creationism, allowing my Bible, which I love and teach, to trump scientific theories. In fact, just the opposite is true - I do not believe the Bible bolsters either of these theories.

As a biblical scholar, I believe that we must ask of every biblical passage: What type of passage is this, and what is its purpose? Genre determines how we understand any literary work.

For example, newspapers include news stories, advertisements and comics. Each of these has a different purpose: We expect the news to contain unbiased information, the advertisements to be highly biased and comics to entertain. The genre and purpose of these texts are not explicitly marked, just as most newspaper advertisements are not introduced with the word "ad" and a disclaimer: "This is meant to persuade and may (slightly) exaggerate."

Unfortunately, the Bible does not typically contain genre labels. For example, Genesis 1 does not begin: "This is a scientific account of the creation of the world, which is meant to tell you literally how the world was created." Thus, we must ask about this and all other biblical texts: What genre is it, and what is it trying to tell us?

We should not depict the beginning of Genesis as science or natural history.

Just as we use clues to determine what is a news story as compared to an advertisement, we must discover pointers to understand what biblical accounts are trying to convey. This is precisely what biblical scholars do. By immersing ourselves in the Bible in its original languages and in the literature and culture of the surrounding cultures, we can determine the likely purposes of different biblical texts.

And most biblical scholars would call the initial chapters of Genesis a myth - not in the negative sense of a false story or bad science, but as a story that is not meant to be taken literally. And one that has as its primary function structuring the world in a metaphysical, rather than a physical, sense. Myths in this sense may be more important, rather than less important, than science or history.

In addition, proponents of creationism and intelligent design who base their arguments on the Bible neglect to mention that Genesis 1-3 offers two conflicting accounts of how the world was created.

For example, whereas in Genesis 1 man and woman are created together, after the land animals, in Genesis 2:18-23, man (Adam) is created first, then the land animals, then woman (Eve). Which one is it? This contradictory picture is a most unscientific way of depicting the world, further suggesting that Genesis 1-3 should not be read as science.

There are other considerable differences as well. For example, in Genesis 1, everything, including humanity, is created by the divine word of a majestic God, while in chapters 2-3 a much more anthropomorphic God creates in a highly physical fashion. In Genesis 1, humanity is created in the divine image, while in Chapter 2, man is formed "from the dust of the earth" with the Lord God blowing "into his nostrils the breath of life."

I believe that ancients reading these two juxtaposed creation stories would have seen these differences and contradictions and would not have read the first chapters of Genesis as science. Unfortunately, because ancient Israelites did not affix genre labels (such as science, enlightening tale, parable, legend, myth) to their works, we can never be certain how they should be read. Despite this absence, there is nothing about the way these stories present themselves to suggest that science and history, rather than myth, are the best labels to use.

It might sound as if I am knocking the Bible and taking away its authority. I believe just the opposite. I am trying to understand it as it was understood in the ancient period, within its proper genres. Just as it is wrong to read the comics as news, it is wrong to read the creation stories in Genesis as science. Doing so is a disservice to our religious institutions, our schools and society at large.

Marc Zvi Brettler, Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of How to Read the Bible. His e-mail is

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