I’m sure we’re all familiar with the debate between scientists who believe in evolution as the mechanism by which human life appeared on our planet, and Biblical creationists who believe that humanity came into being by a direct creative act of God. While scientists overwhelmingly accept the idea that evidence supports the belief that life gradually developed from very simple forms to more complex forms, ‘Bible believing Christians’ tend to insist that this theory is ‘plainly’ a misinterpretation of the facts because it is contrary to ‘the Word of God’ – and surely God knows better than puny men how He brought life (and humans in particular) into being! ‘Modern’ scholarship can gleefully point out internal contradictions and absurdities in the Biblical accounts, as well as how known facts of history and science contradict the Biblical statements; but ‘Bible believers’ have learned to perform gymnastics (figuratively speaking) in order to make the facts consistent with the Biblical statements while still affirming direct creation as opposed to evolution.
Which is right? Are the Bible and evolution actually in conflict, or can it be shown that they are actually consistent with each other? Some (both Christians and non-Christian scientists) will say: “Well duh! It’s so obvious that they are in conflict that the question is absurd!” But I maintain that the answer is not so simple; it’s really a matter of how one approaches the Bible. Is it to be understood literally? When the Bible appears to be giving a historical narrative, did the writers really intend the accounts to be a literal historical narrative, or were they giving metaphorical stories intended to teach moral, theological, and religious truths – without regard to the historical accuracy of the narrative? Were they concerned with giving scientific facts, or religious ‘truths’?
What is perhaps not so well known to Evangelical Christians today is that from the very earliest periods of Christian history, Christian teachers denied the historicity of much of the Bible. Some even plainly stated that many ‘falsehoods’ had been added to the scriptures, and one must be like a good ‘money changer’ in respect to them. (A money changer would be expected to be able to discern true gold and silver coins from the counterfeit). There was a disciple of Peter named Clement (perhaps the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3) who became a ‘bishop’ in Rome. Roman Catholics consider him to be a ‘successor’ of Peter as ‘Pope’ in Rome (perhaps the very first ‘successor’ to Peter). There exist a couple of narratives (called ‘Homilies’ and ‘Recognitions’) purported to be written by this Clement of Rome, telling how he came to be a disciple of Peter, and giving Peter’s teachings. Whether or not they were actually writings of Clement is disputed – some say ‘yes’ (or at least that they were 1st century writings) and some say ‘no’. Regardless, they are very early Christian writings, and show the attitude of many early Christians toward scripture. Consider, then, these statements of ‘Peter’ from the Homilies of Clement:
“For the Scriptures have had joined to them many falsehoods against God on this account. The prophet Moses having by the order of God delivered the law, with the explanations, to certain chosen men, some seventy in number, in order that they also might instruct such of the people as chose, after a little the written law had added to it certain falsehoods contrary to the law of God,who made the heaven and the earth, and all things in them; the wicked one having dared to work this for some righteous purpose”(Chapter, or ’book’ 2, section 38).
“Then Peter said: “If, therefore, some of the Scriptures are true and some false, with good reason said our Master, ‘Be ye good money-changers, inasmuch as in the Scriptures there are some true sayings and some spurious. And to those who err by reason of the false scriptures He fitly showed the cause of their error, saying, ‘Ye do therefore err, not knowing the true things of the Scriptures; for this reason ye are ignorant also of the power of God’” (Chapter 2, section 51).
According to the ‘Peter’ of the Clementine Homilies, how should the lover of God respond to the ‘falsehoods’ of scripture? “And this took place in reason and judgment, that those might be convicted who should dare to listen to the things written against God, and those who, through love towards Him, should not only disbelieve the things spoken against Him, but should not even endure to hear them at all, even if they should happen to be true, judging it much safer to incur danger with respect to religious faith, than to live with an evil conscience on account of blasphemous words” (Chapter 2, section 38).
Other Christian leaders, though, while acknowledging the falsehoods and absurdities of scripture, said that one who would derive spiritual benefit from the scriptures should look beyond the literal words of the text to find the underlying spiritual truth. The words were like ‘clothing’ in which the ‘naked truth’ was dressed. The ‘clothing’ of the literal narrative can and should be discarded in order to see God’s truth. Origen was a Christian leader of the late 2nd and early 3rd century, who is generally recognized to be one of the most outstanding Christian scholars of all Christian history. Consider what he had to say:
“What man of sense will agree with the statement that the first, second and third days in which the evening is named and the morning, were without sun, moon and stars, and the first day without a heaven. What man is found such an idiot as to suppose that God planted trees in paradise in Eden, like a husbandman, and planted therein the tree of life, perceptible to the eyes and senses, which gave life to the eater thereof; and another tree which gave to the eater thereof a knowledge of good and evil? I believe that every man must hold these things for images, under which the hidden sense lies concealed” (Origen – Huet., Prigeniana, 167 Franck, p. 142).
Notice that even back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Origen recognized that the Genesis account of Creation was absurd if understood literally! Yet he did not discard the Genesis account as worthless, but realized that there was valuable moral and religious truth underlying the colorful allegory. Many Jewish scholars also have interpreted their scriptures in this manner. Consider this statement from one of their outstanding scholars and interpreters, Moses Maimonedes:
“Every time that you find in our books a tale the reality of which seems impossible, a story which is repugnant to both reason and common sense, then be sure that the tale contains a profound allegory veiling a deeply mysterious truth; and the greater the absurdity of the letter, the deeper the wisdom of the spirit”.
The Jewish “Zohar” puts it this way: “The narratives of the doctrine are its cloak. The simple look only on the garment, that is upon the narrative of the doctrine; more they know not. The instructed, however, see not merely the cloak, but what the cloak covers”.
The apostle Paul, in Galatians 4:21-31, gives an example of this type of Biblical interpretation. He referred to Abraham’s 2 sons by 2 different women – one by his wife Sarah (Isaac) and the other by his servant Hagar (Ishmael), and said that this story was an allegory. Ishmael represented the ‘earthly’ Jerusalem “which now is”, which was said to be “in bondage”; while Isaac represented the Jerusalem “which is above”, which was said to be “free”. Paul wasn’t concerned about the historicity of the story, but with its symbolical meaning.
As Thomas Paine clearly shows in his Age of Reason, the ‘historical’ narratives usually considered as the writings of Moses were clearly not written by him, but were written several centuries later as shown by the internal evidence of the writings themselves. And as this article shows, archeology casts great doubt on the historicity of the Biblical accounts. It seems very likely, then, that the editors who put together the ‘Old Testament histories’ drew upon existing stories, legends, and myths (both from their own culture and other cultures) to put together a book of religious teachings which would teach their people to love and depend on God, and the sort of life God would want them to live. They did not intend for the stories to be taken literally, and they put it together in such a way that any thinking person would simply not be able to ‘believe’ it literally. The contradictions and absurdities of a literal, historical interpretation should, from their perspective, absolutely forbid such an interpretation. The stories would be interesting enough to make them memorable, but absurd enough in many instances to cause anyone to realize they must be intended to have a deeper meaning than the obvious.
Looking at the Bible stories from this perspective, then, a ‘believer’ should have no problem with accepting whatever science discovers about human origins, and the mechanisms of how everything material came to be. He will know that the intent of the creation story is to show that whatever the mechanisms may have been, God is the source of everything – whether in ‘the heavens above’ or in ‘the earth beneath’. Having come from God, everything is “very good”. The story of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was written to warn men against adopting a ‘dualistic’ philosophy that denies that everything is “very good”, and affirms rather that some of creation is “evil”. Humanity did not heed the warning, and “ate the fruit of the tree”, resulting in the belief that the material is ‘evil’, and the ‘spirit’ is good. This was portrayed by the statement that the humans were suddenly ashamed of their nakedness. The ‘flesh’ came to be thought of as shameful and embarrassing, and as a result mankind was cast out of ‘paradise’. This philosophy of the ‘evil’ of the material continues to haunt us, as almost all religions focus on sexuality when speaking of ‘immorality’. Yes, we recognize lying, cheating, and stealing as ‘evil’, but I bet the first thing you think of when someone speaks of ‘immoral behavior’ is sex! In this light, the statement in verse 37 of the Gospel of Thomas is very interesting: “His disciples said, ‘When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?’ Jesus said, ‘When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.’” One doesn’t have to believe in a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal Garden of Eden with the tree of Life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to be able to draw from the story religious and moral truth! (And one doesn’t need to believe it is necessary to literally run around naked to “see the Son of the Living One”!)