Craig’s book is essential reading and stakes out a moderate position in the historical Adam debate. In the present intellectual climate, this work deserves two cheers. Nevertheless, his thesis stands in a long line of proposals that suffer from the same predicament: under pressure from science and other plausibility structures, they find it impossible to believe the clear witness of Scripture; therefore, they must reinterpret the Bible.
William Lane Craig is a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the author of multiple books covering apologetics, philosophy, theology, and related fields. He is widely respected as one of the leading Christian philosophers writing today. In his most recent book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, Craig has decided to take on the many-tentacled debate surrounding the historical Adam.
There’s much to like in his argument. For one thing, Craig’s writing is clean as a whistle. His arguments are easy to follow and almost always illuminating. Writing this kind of monograph takes courage—most scholars prefer to hunker down in their silos, but Craig is a man on a mission, straddling multiple disciplines and armed with an astonishing arsenal of research. This book is a striking advertisement for interdisciplinary writing.
Parts of this volume are also highly entertaining. For example, his critiques of Old Testament scholarship were page turners. Those sections gave me fond memories of reading essays like Alvin Plantinga’s “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship.” I’m not saying all of Craig’s criticisms of biblical scholars were convincing, but I found most of them insightful and conceptually clarifying. (In fact, some of his critiques were so pointed and so obviously right that they should put the fear of God in any potential critic of the book. Be very afraid, Madueme.)
William Lane Craig
Was Adam a real historical person? And if so, who was he and when did he live? William Lane Craig sets out to answer these questions through a biblical and scientific investigation. He begins with an inquiry into the genre of Genesis 1–11, determining that it can most plausibly be classified as mytho-history—a narrative with both literary and historical value. He then moves into the New Testament, where he examines references to Adam in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul, ultimately concluding that the entire Bible considers Adam the historical progenitor of the human race—a position that must therefore be accepted as a premise for Christians who take seriously the inspired truth of Scripture.
In what follows, I lay out my two main reservations: the first concerns how Craig interprets the early chapters of Genesis, and the second how he interprets the apostolic testimony. I’ll ignore the last section of the book on science because the plausibility of his moves depends on what one thinks of his earlier arguments (and besides, I do have a word count here).
On Early Genesis
Craig’s thesis is that Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history. In step with most Old Testament scholarship, Craig sees key differences in the literary styles of Genesis 1–11 and Genesis 12–50, and he thinks the first 11 chapters share the same conceptual world as ancient Near East (ANE) mythology. In his view, primeval myths were authoritative for ancient Israelites, but they didn’t necessarily believe them to be historical in the way that we, today, think about events as “historical.” We should not understand the primeval events literally: “Their primary purpose is to ground realities present to the pentateuchal author and important for Israelite society in the primordial past” (157).
I felt some whiplash reading his justification for the claim that early Genesis is largely mythical. On the one hand, Craig’s criticisms of the comparative method are some of the most penetrating that I’ve ever read, including his critique of parallelomania and claims of direct dependence between Genesis and this or that ANE myth. He rightly exposes the many layers of difficulty in the comparative approach. On the other hand, Craig’s thesis that large parts of Genesis 1–11 are mythical in the authoritative-but-not-literal sense itself depends on the comparative method: by analyzing Genesis 1–11 in light of family resemblances among ANE myths, he prioritizes extrabiblical ANE literature over the theological claims of Scripture itself.
But this approach reflects the wrong ordering and emphasis. The theological claims of Scripture should have priority over ANE literature, which is why I’m far less sanguine about the comparative method than Craig is. The explanatory categories of the comparative method tend to be naturalistic: they usually appeal to human, non-spiritual, this-worldly horizons—as if the compositional history of Genesis 1–11 is obviously more similar than different from other ANE texts. I doubt Craig endorses this kind of naturalism, but I still worry about naturalism creep (given that he accepts the basic outline of the comparative method).
Furthermore, religious and cultural similarities between Scripture and the ANE world are difficult to unravel and usually lack a single explanation. The mythical understanding of primeval history is an extrabiblical theory that obscures the analogy of faith. Christians should give priority to interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture rather than relatively speculative theories about ANE culture and its putative relationship to the biblical authors.
Let me explain what I mean. Craig highlights 10 family resemblances among myths and then argues that Genesis 1–11 displays almost all those features. He concludes that much of the primeval narrative is mythical, which means that it’s authoritative but not meant literally. I think this position is wide of the mark. What I found most telling was Craig’s long discussion of the 10th feature of myths that he thinks Genesis 1–11 exemplifies. He tells us that Genesis has “fantastic elements” that are “palpably false” if taken to be literally true (101, 105), including the ideas that God created the world in six days, the first humans were vegetarian, there was a snake that could talk, there were rivers in Eden, there were actual cherubim with a flaming sword, the antediluvian patriarchs lived long ages, Noah’s flood was global, linguistic diversity can be traced back to the Tower of Babel, and the earth is only thousands of years old. But why would Craig categorize these elements of the narrative as “fantastic”? Why does he think they are palpably false if taken literally?
Perhaps because Craig has an anti-supernatural bias? But he rejects that charge explicitly: “The fantastic elements in the narratives that we have identified have nothing to do with miracles, which we accept. Rather, they concern non-miraculous features of the story that, if taken literally, are palpably false” (131)
Fair enough, the core issue seems to be epistemological authority rather than supernaturalism. Craig doesn’t explicitly reject the Bible’s epistemic authority, but he does so implicitly when he repeatedly rejects the literal interpretation. He justifies that move by appealing to ANE texts and how he thinks they were likely understood.
My problem is that such extra-textual moves are often speculative and should be resisted if and when they’re in tension with Scripture’s interpretation of itself. Those parts of the primeval narrative may seem implausible in a modern view of the world, but if we have solid exegetical and theological reasons to interpret these narratives literally and thus historically, then so much the worse for our modern expectations.
Almost everything Craig classifies as “fantastic” is, in my view, literal and straightforwardly historical. He gives no compelling intra-textual reasons for interpreting those elements mythically. The only reason he gives seems to be that he finds it all implausible—but that says more about Craig than about Scripture.