The Bible and Human Origins

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

Ruth Bancewicz
© Ruth Bancewicz, Nigel Bovey

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University, based at the MRC Human Genetics Unit. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth then moved to The Faraday Institute to develop the Test of FAITH resources, the first of which were launched in 2009. Ruth is a trustee of Christians in Science and on the advisory council of BioLogos.

11 thoughts on “The Bible and Human Origins

  1. Michala July 28, 2016 / 11:19 am

    New scientific evidence infers all Men & Women today can be traced back to one Man & one Woman. However its a matter of interpretion how new scientific evidence may ‘fit’into the historical context of Genesis. ( see scientific or genetic Adam)

    Trying to fit a scientific Adam into the historical context of the Bible is problematic.

    Therefore, the historical Adam ( Man or Mankind) could not have been the scientific Adam.
    The historical Adam may have historically existed if you accept the existence of the bloodline from Adam to Noah & his offspring throughout the Bible.
    So if the historical Adam ( & Eve) did not exist neither did the historical characters in the Bible. ?


    • jono113 July 28, 2016 / 1:54 pm

      Right. They didn’t. The question is: does your trust in God depend on their existing?


      • Michala July 29, 2016 / 3:57 am

        Well the bible makes no historical sense then. Archeology supports the Bible , so these characters must have existed .


        • Michala August 3, 2016 / 11:42 am

          Its not a matter of faith in these circumstances, but a matter of historical fact.


        • rmwilliamsjr August 3, 2016 / 4:03 pm

          There is very little archeology that supports the Bible
          Certainly nothing earlier than the conquest of canaan


    • rmwilliamsjr August 3, 2016 / 3:26 am

      Science has shown several mothers of all living and a few fathers of all living

      But they were part of thousands of human beings alive. The other lineages have not been seen and assumed to have died out

      It has never been the case that the total number of humans has been less than 2 to 10 thousand


  2. Michala August 3, 2016 / 8:15 pm

    I would accept Adam & Eve as historical characters in the Bible, but reject creation science which attempts to base science on the biblical text.I would accept Intelligent design as a new scientific theory which accepts some elements of evolution ( speciation) but underlines the limitations of the Darwinian mechanism. Intelligent design is not based on the Bible , religion or belief but scientific method & theory. It is peer reviewed unlike creation science.
    I would reject any interpretation of the Bible- The Fall is based on Catholic Doctrine.The Bible is simply exaggerated which may or may not be based on actual events.Oral traditions exaggerated real events & the Bible reflects this.


  3. th3platform August 26, 2016 / 4:08 pm

    Great post check out my letters to sam that discuss evolution. Follow for follow. Thanks


  4. th3platform August 29, 2016 / 2:11 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve touched on evolution extensively in my letter to sam posts. Check it out and my other theological posts! Follow for follow


Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s