Great Isaiah Scroll. Photographs by Ardon Bar Hama, author of original document is unknown. (Website of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Science may have changed the way we read the opening chapters of Genesis, but we still need to respect the historical integrity of the text. This was Mark Harris’s reflection as he opened his lecture on The Bible and Human Origins  at the Faraday summer course last month. When it comes to questions of human identity and where we came from, the focus for most Christians is on the first three chapters of Genesis. Harris spent his talk looking at different interpretations of this text – especially the story of the fall – and the questions those interpretations raise for both science and faith.

Most Biblical scholars think Genesis contains two separate creation stories, which were written by two different authors or sets of authors in completely different times and cultural settings. The first story is found in chapter 1, and uses the writing style of a priest. Water is described as a chaotic force, and humans are created after the chaos has been neatly ordered and life has begun. The second story is in chapters 2 and 3, where the man is created before life has sprouted on earth, and the woman comes into the plot much later on – before humankind begins to wreak havoc in Eden.


Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first mention of people comes in verse 26 of Genesis 1: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Apparently pretty much every word of this verse is difficult to translate, but the key words here for many people are ‘image of God’.


Adam Naming the Animals – Dublin Christ Church Cathedral North Aisle Window Cartooned by John Hardman Powell (1827–1895), executed by Hardman & Co., photographed by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What does this enigmatic phrase mean? Some think it points to something about the way we are that makes us special – maybe our intellect or creativity. Biblical scholars tend to prefer a more functional interpretation. There may not be anything special about us that raises us above the animals, but we have been given a job to do: to have ‘dominion’ over the earth. This was a common idea in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, where someone in the role of monarch or priest was seen as being made in the image of a god. There are other ways of interpreting the ‘image of God’ idea but Harris prefers the functional one because it works in its historical context, it fits with what we know of evolutionary biology, and it reminds us that we should be caring for the earth.

A Christian idea of creation starts with creation from nothing, which works very well in a universe with a beginning. As Julie Andrews sang in the Sound of Music – “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”*. The creation story also gives an explanation for the effects of good and evil in the world. For Harris, this is the best evidence that theology might be onto something, because every person who has ever lived knows the reality of evil.

The story of ‘The Fall’ in chapter 3 of Genesis is often used to explain the origin of sin and death, and why we needed Jesus to save us. The idea that two people first sinned and we somehow inherit that sinfulness was made popular by early theologian Augustine of Hippo. He wanted to demonstrate how much we need God’s help – we cannot save ourselves. This interpretation may provide a seemingly simple answer to the problem of how suffering and physical death entered the world, but it has caused all sorts of problems for the acceptance of modern science. For example, there is plenty of evidence that death was occurring long before humans even came on the scene. Even if this was only about human suffering and death, there is no evidence that the human population ever narrowed down to two, or even a small group of people. These are just a couple of the scientific problems with Augustine’s view. But for Harris and many other Christian scholars, this is not the only possible – or even the best – interpretation of the text. This part of Genesis isn’t clear about how exactly sin or suffering entered the world. The Hebrew word that is interpreted “good” – and taken to mean perfect – in the account of creation can simply mean “it works”, or that it is fit for purpose. The rest of the Old Testament shows very little interest in the story of Adam and Eve, but describes the repeated cycle of disobedience and rescue by God that begins in Genesis.

Harris outlines four main ways of dealing with the fall and evolution. The first is to reject evolution, and hold onto a traditional notion of the fall as the first sin, that affected not just all human beings but disrupted all of creation, bringing in physical death and pain. Second, would be to reject this traditional idea of the Fall altogether, and hold onto evolution. Third, perhaps the Fall was a historical event and Adam and Eve were representatives in some way of humankind at a stage in history when humankind were beginning to become self-aware.


Stained glass By Handel, d. 1946[2], photo:Toby Hudson derivative work: CrazyInSane [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, and this is Harris’s own view, seeing the Adam and Eve story as only telling of a genuine historical episode – in the way that a modern author would write a historical account – might be to miss the point of the text. For example, a good creation needn’t be free of death and pain. Can we live with the ambiguity that a good God might create a world that is difficult to live in? Harris thinks so, especially in light of other parts of the Bible such as Job, the Psalms, the exile and restoration of Israel, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The question of what the Adam and Eve story means is a difficult topic for many, but it is one of the most important in the discussion of science and faith, and is worth exploring in more depth.


*Dr Harris didn’t use the Julie Andrews quote, but I’ve been dying to use it ever since I heard someone make the link between Big Bang cosmology and the lyrics of the Sound of Music…

Taking it further