Who wrote Genesis?

My college education was long and chaotic. Some might call it eclectic but it would more accurately called undirected. For a good part of the time I was an anthropology major at Wayne State University studying under Dr. John Cole, a student of the famous social anthropologist Leslie White. One of the foundational principles in studying other cultures is never to bring your cultural biases into your field work. Most of the field work of the nineteenth century was terribly flawed in this regard. “Civilized” anthropologists went out to study “primitive” cultures, imposing their values on what they observed. 

One of the most common errors was to treat oral traditions as “myths” in the sense of being fables or legends. They assumed that the indigenous people “believed” literally the stories they told. This was a bias made by members of a literate culture observing a non-literate (not illiterate) culture. The meaning of the concept of “belief” they held was much more concrete than the understanding of the speakers. 

The role of story-telling in preliterate cultures has a distinct evolutionary advantage. Stories are the means by which the deepest truths of the culture are preserved intact even after many generations because stories contain a relatively small number of details which must be preserved if the story is to make sense. Let me illustrate

Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone describe an event at which you were also present? Did you notice that the other person always got it “wrong” by leaving out facts, adding new ones or distorting some? Personal memory is a very unreliable way to store information, so if we are to transmit cultural wisdom we have to have some way to ensure that information is preserved intact through countless generations.

If you have children or grandchildren you must have told them some classic bedtime stories which are pretty much known throughout our culture. And did you notice that when someone else told them the details were pretty much exactly intact? Why? Because unlike the memory of actual events, they are not dependent on personal recollection but rather on the fictional details, repeated time after time.

So in preliterate societies, the story tellers were responsible for passing on the culture And we call these stories”myths.” Myths are not untrue in a modern Western sense, but rather they contain essential truth wrapped in a fictional structure that protects that truth from distortion. As a culture begins to develop writing, these myths start to be written down, not so much as a historical record as a modern person would define it, but as a memory aid to ensure even more the accuracy of the story. When we approach these texts as modern Westerners, we tend to bring our understanding of textual criticism with us. And many people approach early texts incorrectly with that bias.

Creation myths are cultural universals, that is they appear without exception in all cultures. I happen to believe that the creation myths of the Jews were in fact inspired by the Holy Spirit and provide infallible information about God and our relationship to Him. I don’t think one needs to read them in a literal, Western sense to understand the truth contained within. For instance, I do not need to believe in a literal Garden of Eden with a literal serpent in order to accept as true the fact of Man’s fallen nature. I also believe that God is revealed to us in two manners: via the direct evidence of His magnificent creation, and by direct revelation through the Holy Spirit. They are each true in their own way and cannot disagree. When science seems to conflict with Scripture, I think it is reasonable to assume that our reading is where the problem lay. Bear in mind that God can only reveal Himself in the language and the mental constructs of the men (and women) he inspires. The fantastic vision that Ezekiel saw, of wheels within wheels, would have been described entirely differently by a native of of a mesoamerican culture that did not yet have the technology of wheels. God’s revelation is so immense and so entirely beyond our ability to express it in words that anything we say is in one sense “mythic,” not that it speaks of the untrue but rather of the unknowable.

So to answer my question, it would be entirely correct to say that God “wrote” genesis since He was the only one around at the time. But I also believe it was the earliest writers of the Pentateuch who received the revelation of God and passed it faithfully to us. For me, the most important thing is that God the Holy Spirit can speak directly to us via the Scripture in order to know Him and, in so doing, begin to know ourselves. 

3 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Christianity

3 Responses to Who wrote Genesis?

  1. Anonymous

    "Bear in mind that God can only reveal Himself in the language and the mental constructs of the men (and women) he inspires."

    I couldn't agree more. My thought is that Bible interpretation is based on the culture, time, and social norms present at the time of that interpretation. The words don't change but the meaning certainly do. God has revealed wisdom as the people receiving it are capable of understanding it. Imagine God explaining future technologyor atomic structure to ancient people it just wouldn't make sense to them

  2. You are spot on.

    In order to be a literalist you have to presume that you can replicate the cultural mindset of the writers. Fundamentalists unconsciously presume that the writers were born-again American fundamentalists.

  3. Allow me to make one more observation. You stated "The words don't change but the meaning certainly do." This is actually contrary to my point. The underlying meaning is true and the myth protects its integrity. How a particular culture understands that truth is of course subjective. But no interpretation may contradict the essential nature of the truth. Here is where Tradition and careful exegesis are needed. One of my reasons for becoming Catholic was the fact that their Biblical exegesis was based in centuries of careful consideration. or me, the Magisterium is what protects the truth of God from the mere winds of cultural flux.

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