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A NEO-PATRISTIC RETURN TO THE FIRST FOUR DAYS OF CREATION
by Msgr. John F. McCarthy
PART I. RESPONSE TO A FORM-CRITICAL INTERPRETATION
Over the past century, the historicity of the text of the Bible from beginning to end has been under massive attack on the part of form-critics. Only recently has the neo-Patristic method of exegesis emerged to counter effectively this attack and to restore the values of which the text of Sacred Scripture has been systematically stripped. The neo-Patristic method is still relatively unknown, and its proponents are still few in number, but the time seems to have come for it to be placed invitingly before the eyes of thinkers capable of understanding its significance and promoting its use.
In a recent issue of Living Tradition, 1 I presented an example of the neo-Patristic approach as applied to a passage of the New Testament (John 1:45-51). In the present writing I shall attempt to apply the neo-Patristic method to a passage of the Old Testament, namely the first nineteen verses of Genesis, which present the first four days of creation. Since form-criticism was used to attack the historicity of Genesis before it was ever used upon the historicity of the Gospels, it is not unfitting that we should return to Genesis as critics of form-criticism even at this early stage of our research.
Having set forth in another recent issue of Living Tradition 2 some general features of the neo-Patristic method, I shall add here some elements of the method which will be presupposed in our examination of the first chapter of Genesis.
1. The "literal and historical" sense of the inspired text is always the first and most fundamental meaning to be sought. 3 Any additional meanings must be understood to be based upon the letter of the text as it reads, which they must not contradict, even though they may present different patterns of meaning.
EVENTS IN TIME.
In 1935 Rudolph Bandas published his Biblical Questions 5 to provide answers to questions often raised by teachers of Bible history. He was reflecting Catholic exegetical tradition as he wrote: "The historical character of Genesis is a consequence of its inspiration. For the sacred writer meant to write history, and inspiration, therefore, guarantees the historical character of what he wrote." 6 As he came to the question of "Genesis and Science," he expressed a viewpoint that was becoming more and more common among Catholic theologians and exegetes as he said: "The Mosaic account of the origin of the world is a popular narrative and not a technical, scientific textbook. The purpose of the sacred writer was not to teach the physical sciences but the truths necessary for salvation. The Bible is a book of religion, not a textbook of science. Its main purpose is, in the language of Cardinal Baronius, 'to teach us how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go.'" 7
2. The historical reflection of the neo-Patristic thinker must unfold in the awareness of his own scientific medium of thought, which has been differentiated in terms of precise concepts, rigid logic, and an integral mental framework. 4
3. Form-criticism is considered to be a pseudoscientific method, based upon false principles which lead per se to false conclusions, even though it may sometimes arrive per accidens at correct conclusions. The neo-Patristic researcher can find much useful material in form-critical writings by correctly formulating the true principles that form-criticism misuses and by straightening out its reasoning and its conclusions. This work, however, cannot be accomplished without prayer and intellectual detachment.
4. Examination of what has been traditionally known as the "literal and historical" sense of passages of the Sacred Text which offer problems of an historical or scientific nature is done in the context of a possible distinction between the naive literal sense and a more subtle literal sense which comes to light at least hypothetically through the medium of technical concepts. Inasmuch as this subtle sense appears in the medium of historical science, it may be called the "historical sense" of the text.
The creation account in the first chapter of Genesis has been the object of much discussion and debate over the past two thousand years and especially over the past one hundred years, and this discussion has unfortunately led to an increasing loss of confidence in the historical character of this account even among Catholic exegetes and theologians. Bandas points out in his book that he does not himself "mean to affirm that the purely scientific portions of Scripture have no claim to divine authority, or to deny that they are absolutely infallible." However, such a denial has now become widespread, and even Bandas, writing, not as a form-critic but as a moderately progressive Catholic exegete who had never used or seen the scientific framework of the neo-Patristic method of exegesis, was already in 1935 disposed to demand very little in the way of concessions from scientists who were questioning the inerrancy of Genesis 1. In fact, he was satisfied with the acceptance by scientists of a single "negative guiding principle":
The Mosaic narrative constitutes, not a positive, but a negative guiding principle for the scientist. All that can be justly demanded is that the scientist refrain from contradicting the following truths of faith: that God created all things out of nothing, that God created in the beginning of time, that God is the sole Creator of the universe, and that He created all things good. The scientist, then, may not defend such propositions as the following: matter is eternal, matter and energy are the sole principles of the universe, the world originated by mere chance. In all other scientific matters, he may hold such conclusions as the facts warrant. 8
Under the scrutiny of the neo-Patristic method, this "negative guiding principle" shows its insufficiency. The truths of faith which it lists are in the category of timeless truths not pertaining to the historical order as such. History has to do with "events in time"; it is constructed of "genetic relationships" set up in chronological order by succession from one state or condition of a being to another. 9 The emergence of a being from nothing through the divine act of creation is an 'event' of a special kind, and the modification of already created beings by a series of creative interventions of God as described in Genesis 1, does indeed constitute history in a special sense of the term. But the original creation from nothing of the matter of the universe does not constitute history, because it did not take place in time and because it is not in genetic relationship with any antecedent condition of itself. The original creation took place, not in time, but with time, inasmuch as time began with that act of creation. Bandas, in accepting that "the historical character of Genesis is a consequence of its inspiration" and that "the sacred writer meant to write history," needed to demand of scientists that they accept the truth of the historical events reported by the sacred writer in addition to the original act of creation itself.
A FORM-CRITICAL VIEW.
By 1956/1957 Bruce Vawter, in A Path Through Genesis, had begun to introduce large numbers of students and general readers to the Catholic form-criticism of the Book of Genesis. In this book, which immediately came to be regarded as a classic of the new biblical scholarship, he laid great stress upon the discovery that the first eleven chapters of Genesis do not narrate history "in our sense of the word," but rather represent "folk history," a genre in which "historical and legendary elements frequently and inevitably appear side by side." His conclusion was that "Genesis has used a partly legendary history to teach enduring truths." 10
Vawter presented a diagram to illustrate how the author of the first chapter of Genesis, as an ancient Semite conditioned by his primitive culture, visualized the material universe. The earth was flat "with a mountain here or there and some rather large ones at the end of the earth. The sky was a firmament, a solid bowl set over the earth. ... The rim of the firmament joined the extremities of the earth tidily and kept the land dry." The firmament served as "a resting place for the sun, moon and stars, which moved about its surface as they shed light on the earth and measured the seasons." 11
As a Catholic form-critic, Vawter maintained that to see Genesis 1 as a true historical description of how creation took place would mean to have concluded that God "must have revealed these words to Moses fairly as they stand," and to have accepted the erroneous notion that "all or much of Genesis was simply the dictation of the Almighty. ... Mechanical dictation, however," he replied, "is not the traditional Christian idea of inspiration." 12
Vawter claimed that the first three chapters of Genesis "are neither revelation nor historical tradition" but rather "what the Biblical Commission called them, a catalogue of the fundamental truths of faith which underlie the Jewish and Christian revelations, and a popular description of the origins of men, done in the simple and figurative language that is proper to primitive peoples. The author had certain truths which had been made known to his people through revelation: There is one God, Creator of the universe by the act of His will, who created man in His image and likeness, raised him to a level above his created state and endowed him with gifts which he forfeited through sin, who promised man an eventual redemption from this sin." 13
Looking back at Genesis from his vantage point as a modern scholar, Vawter observed that the author of Genesis had uncritically placed the creation of light on the first day, but did not bring in the sun, the moon, and the stars, which are the sources of light, until the fourth day. In Vawter's judgment, "Here again we have the non-scientific mind at work, of course, which did not necessarily see a causal connection between the sun and daylight, and which certainly was unaware that the light of the moon was a reflection, and that there is a difference of the same kind between the planets and the stars." 14
In 1977 Vawter published a "new reading" of the Book of Genesis. In this later interpretation he leaves intact what he had said about the first chapter of Genesis while placing more emphasis upon certain ideas. He adjusts more clearly the word "historical" as he affirms that the author of Genesis 1 did present creation "as an historical fact because it depended on the historical experience of God who had revealed himself in such ways that were readily recognizable in the creation myth." He goes on to say that the first three chapters of Genesis "deal with myths which the church has appropriated and developed independently of biblical history: in this instance, the myths of creation and the fall of man." 15
In his 1977 book, Vawter makes a more detailed comparison of Genesis 1 with the creation mythologies of the surrounding pagan cultures, especially with what he calls the "Sumero-Babylonian" creation hymn Enuma Elish. 16 Vawter maintains that "the Babylonian hymn is a theogony ... which has no counterpart in the Genesis story," but "the similarity to Genesis is nevertheless apparent ..." Vawter sees that, in describing (verse 2) the initial state of the earth as "a formless wasteland, ... the Priestly author has modeled himself so far on the prevailing mythological pattern and is in the process waging a subtle polemics against the mythological presuppositions ..." 17
The "Priestly author" of Genesis 1 tells us (verse 4) that God then "separated the light from the darkness." Vawter sees this act as partly mythological and partly an illustration of God's creative power. "Partly this is another evocation of mythological motifs, according to which the beginning of the cosmos was the result of the (sometimes violent) separation of heaven and earth, or sea and sea, or sea and land. In Enuma Elish Marduk the creator god 'split [Tiamat] like a shellfish into two parts,' of which the upper was made into the heavens, the lower into the earth and underworld." But the "theme of separation" permits the Priestly author "to show the creative power of God at work even over those parts of the universe which he did not (explicitly) make: here the darkness as well as the light, and in the following section the primordial waters." Also, for Vawter, "the creation of light makes possible the beginning of time." 18
Vawter sees mythology underlying the creation by God of "a dome in the middle of the waters" (verse 6) and God's calling this dome "the sky." In the ancient Hebrew mentality, the naming of something shows one's power over it. "That God called the dome the 'sky' (in the Hebrew 'sky' is the same word as 'the heavens' of v. 1), that he felt the need to claim it as his own even though he has already been shown to have created it thrice over, is partly explained by the fact that the totality of the sky now embraces some of the primordial waters that anteceded creation." 19
Commenting on how in Genesis God put lights in the dome of the sky to mark "the fixed times, the days and the years" (cf. verse 14), Vawter points out that "Marduk did no less in Enuma Elish after arching the upper part of the dead Tiamat into the dome of the heavens:
He constructed stations for the great gods,
fixing their actual likenesses as constellations.
He determined the year by designating the zones. ...
In her belly he established the zenith.
The moon he caused to shine. ..." 20
A NEO-PATRISTIC CRITIQUE OF A FORM-CRITICAL INTERPRETATION.
In the form-critical view of Bruce Vawter, to see in Genesis 1 a true historical description of how creation took place would mean to have accepted the notion that these words and all or much of Genesis contain "simply the dictation of the Almighty," which, he claims, "is not the traditional Christian idea of inspiration." Let us consider, then, what is the traditional Christian idea. Pope Leo XIII, in his great encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus, gives the following clear definition of the traditional Christian idea of biblical inspiration:
For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. ...
Hence, the fact that it was men whom the Holy Spirit took up as his instruments for writing does not mean that it was these inspired instruments - but not the primary author - who might have made an error. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write - He so assisted them when writing - that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers. 21
Hence, in the authentic words of the Magisterium of the Church, "all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit," and the fact that this was not precisely a "mechanical dictation," since it differed from what is commonly known as "automatic writing," is beside the point and amounts to an evasion of the historical truth as to what is the traditional Christian idea of inspiration. If Vawter reads the history of a Christian idea in this way, we can already begin to wonder about the objectivity of his reading of the history within the Book of Genesis.
Vawter claims that the first three chapters of Genesis "are neither revelation nor historical tradition," but rather "what the Biblical Commission called them, a catalogue of the fundamental truths of faith which underlie the Jewish and Christian revelations, and a popular description of the origins of men, done in the simple and figurative language that is proper to primitive peoples." He is here quoting from a response of the Biblical Commission dated 16 January 1948, which is a clarification of three official responses given by the same Commission on 23 June 1905, 27 June 1906, and 30 June 1909 respectively. The relative statement in the response of 1948 reads as follows:
2. The question of the literary forms of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is far more obscure and complex. ... To declare a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the term would easily convey the idea that they contain no history whatever, whereas they relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of a less developed people, the fundamental truths presupposed for the economy of salvation, as well as a popular description of the origin of the human race and of the Chosen People. 22
By leaving out the first part of the sentence he quotes, which is, "To declare a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the term would easily convey the idea that they contain no history whatever," Vawter is able to quote the Commission in a text and meaning opposite to what the Commission actually said and to declare on the authority of the Commission both that the first eleven chapters of Genesis do not narrate history "in our sense of the word," and that the first three chapters of Genesis "are neither revelation nor historical tradition," even though the Biblical Commission had excluded this idea in the very same sentence he quotes. This manner of interpreting a clear and simple modern source engenders little confidence in his ability to interpret ancient sources, let alone a source that the Biblical Commission calls "obscure and complex."
But Vawter has turned something else around as well. The Biblical Commission said that these eleven chapters "relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of a less developed people, the fundamental truths presupposed for the economy of salvation as well as a popular description ..." Thus, the Biblical Commission is saying that these chapters convey the historical truth in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of a less developed people. But Vawter turns the quote around to say that they "are ... a popular description of the origins of men, done in the simple and figurative language that is proper to primitive peoples." The word "adapted" in the response of the Biblical Commission implies that the author was not limited in his mind to the words he used, but Vawter, in omitting the word "adapted," interprets the statement to mean that the author was limited in his mind to the simple and figurative language that he used.
In a private-form clarification of the decrees of the Biblical Commission given in 1956 by its secretary, Athanasius Miller, it is stated:
Encyclicals like Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu show how she [the Church] exerts herself to promote in every way possible the solid and fruitful study of Scripture. These Encyclicals present with admirable clarity the basic principles of Catholic interpretation which hold for all times and effectively close the door to subjective and arbitrary expositions. Thus they point out the way to an interpretation and use of Scripture calculated to nourish the life of souls and of the Church as well as to utilize fully the gains made by modern research. 23
On 30 June 1909 the Biblical Commission replied "in the negative" to the following questions:
Whether we may, in spite of the character and historic form of the book of Genesis, of the close connection of the first three chapters with one another and with those which follow, of the manifold testimony of the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, of the almost unanimous opinion of the Fathers, and of the traditional view which - transmitted also by the Jewish people - has always been held by the Church, teach that the three aforesaid chapters do not contain the narrative of things which actually happened, a narrative which corresponds to objective reality and historic truth; and whether we may teach that these chapters contain fables derived from mythologies and cosmologies belonging to older nations, but purified of all polytheistic error and accommodated to monotheistic teaching by the sacred author or that they contain allegories and symbols destitute of any foundation in objective reality but presented under the garb of history for the purpose of inculcating religious and philosophical truth; or, finally, that they contain legends partly historical and partly fictitious, freely handled for the instruction and edification of souls. Answer: in the negative to each part. 24
Let us examine how Vawter has interpreted these teachings of the Biblical Commission:
a. Vawter claims that the first eleven chapters of Genesis do not present history "in our sense of the word." He allows that the author of the first chapter of Genesis did intend to write history in the sense that, from his own primitive and nonscientific viewpoint as an ancient Semite, he undertook to present creation "as an historical fact because it depended on the historical experience of God who had revealed himself in such ways that were readily recognizable in the creation myth." But the Biblical Commission, as quoted above, in excluding the idea that even the first three chapters of Genesis "do not contain the narrative of things which actually happened, a narrative which corresponds to objective reality and historic truth," did not allow the reducing of the historical character of the first chapter of Genesis to "the historical experience of God," which is a vague attribution that focuses upon subjective religious experience and empties its resulting imagery of all objective reality and historical truth.
b. Vawter claims that the first eleven chapters of Genesis present "folk history, not circumstantial history, which means that historical and legendary elements frequently and inevitably appear side by side." But the Biblical Commission, as quoted above, excluded the idea that even the first three chapters of Genesis "contain legends partly historical and partly fictitious, freely handled for the instruction and edification of souls."
c. Vawter claims that the first three chapters of Genesis "deal with myths that the church has appropriated and developed independently of biblical history: in this instance, the myths of creation and the fall of man." But the Biblical Commission, as quoted above, excludes the idea that the first three chapters of Genesis contain fables derived from mythologies and cosmologies belonging to older nations, but purified of all polytheistic error and accommodated to monotheistic teaching by the sacred author." Hence, Vawter has misinterpreted the teaching of the Biblical Commission on all three points: the truly historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis, the absence of a mixture of real history and fiction in these chapters, and the absence in these chapters of fables derived from the mythologies and cosmological fantasies of the neighboring pagan cultures.
While the form-critic sees in the first chapter of Genesis "the nonscientific mind at work," the neo-Patristic interpreter of this chapter asks the prior question regarding "the scientific mind at work." Science deals with reality; its specific intellectual medium is the concept of reality. Science gathers the objects of its knowledge under the concept of reality; it excludes from its field what is not recognized to be real. Unreal objects such as dreams, illusions, and fantasies are studied by science, but only under the aspect of reality. Form-critics do not work with an adequate concept of reality. A glaring deficiency of their method is its inability to distinguish with any clarity the real from the fantastic in the themes that it presents. Thus, in the case in point, Vawter sees in the first chapter of Genesis the God of the Hebrews carrying out acts drawn from pagan mythology. He does not face and resolve the question that he thus raises: Is the God the of the Hebrews real or fictitious? To substitute the God of the Hebrews for the gods of the pagans in a fictitious story does not establish the reality of God. To write the Hebrew God with a capital 'G' and the pagan gods with a small 'g' does not establish the reality of the Hebrew God or the reality of His act of creation. Pure form-critics like Rudolf Bultmann assume the Hebrew and Christian God to be a religious fantasy. When Catholic form-critics try to introduce Christian belief into a method that excludes the reality of Christian belief, the presuppositions of their form-critical method prevent them from ever being able to show convincingly that the "God" whom they, as believers, seek to save from the demythologizing process is truly existent in the real world and has really acted in the ways described in the Scriptures. Vawter can talk about a "catalogue of the fundamental truths of faith" which he discerns within "myths which the church has appropriated and developed independently of biblical history," but he is superimposing this catalogue upon the text and finding there the truths that he wants to find. Since he is writing for readers who believe these truths, he does not feel a need to defend them. His work is to peel off the outer layers of "mythology," leaving the core of belief intact. But the core of belief is in jeopardy for anyone who is led to believe that the outer layers are mythological. That is what Bultmann understood long ago.
The neo-Patristic approach may be called a scientific method for this reason that it unfolds in terms of the concept of reality which is common to all science and which is differentiated in this approach according to the following set of definitions:
Science is the knowledge of reality as such.
History is the knowledge of the past as such.
Historical science is the knowledge of past reality as such.
Theological science is the knowledge of revealed reality as such.
The science of historical theology is the knowledge of past revealed reality as such.
Our aim in this essay is to examine the text of Genesis in the light of the science of historical theology. To do this we must keep ever in mind the general concept of reality and the special concepts of past reality and of revealed reality as we endeavor to see whether and how the text of Genesis presents these forms of reality.
From the viewpoint of historical science, historical truth cannot be taught by means of a literary genre in which "historical and legendary elements frequently and inevitably appear side by side," unless the author has left some clue or criterion by which the real history can be distinguished from the legendary material. Such a mixed genre is basically fictitious, and only those elements can be considered real which are known to be real from outside sources. The first chapters of Genesis can teach historical truth only by being historically true in their entirety. As regards the author of these chapters, a writer who cannot consistently distinguish reality from fantasy is not an historian. A writer who does not eliminate all fantasy from what he narrates is not an historian. A writer who would try to communicate a set of beliefs through a genre of fiction is not an historian, and, unless he gives his readers to understand that he is teaching through parables, he is not even a teller of the truth.
Whoever narrates past reality as past reality is a true historian, however much conventional norms of historiography may differ. History narrated in popular terms and on the level of common sense does not have the precision of history narrated in technical terms, but it is, nevertheless, real history. Our aim in taking up the first chapter of Genesis is to determine as best we can whether the literal sense of the text is in the genre of real historical narration, and, if so, whether the history so narrated is on the level of mere common sense or is also on the level of technical distinction. We shall not be surprised to discover that the text holds up positively as real history on both levels of narration.
The method by which form-critics compare texts of the inspired Scriptures with parallel texts in the literatures of pagan cultures betrays a tendency to date the pagan texts as early as possible in order to make them more authentic and to date the biblical texts as late as possible in order to make them less authentic. In this manner form-critics try to make the biblical texts depend upon the pagan texts. Vawter does this in his examination of the first chapter of Genesis. He says, for instance, that "the Priestly author [of Genesis 1:2] has modeled himself so far on the prevailing mythological pattern and is in the process waging a subtle polemics against the mythological presuppositions ..." Such a conclusion manifests incomplete investigation of the sources.
Where did the story of creation in Genesis 1 come from? Vawter excludes what he calls the "erroneous notion" that God could have revealed it to Moses, or that it could as an authentic revelation have come down to Moses in an unbroken tradition from an earlier time; he opts instead for a supposed intention of the author to present "a catalogue of fundamental truths of faith." Where did this "catalogue of fundamental truths of faith" come from? Vawter explains: "The author had certain truths which had been made known to his people through revelation." On the level of logic is it not a strange contradiction that God could not have revealed the history of creation to Moses, but God had earlier revealed a catalogue of fundamental truths of faith "to his people"? The logical explanation of this contradiction is traceable to a presupposition of the method of form-criticism. What pure form-critics like Rudolf Bultmann mean by "truths of faith" are subjective beliefs of religious fantasy that do not pertain to anything verifiable in the real world and are, therefore, beyond the limits of scientific investigation. Such "truths," according to the proponents of pure form-criticism, are prelogical and prescientific beliefs that arise from the religious instinct of a people and are unquestioned by that people, because they explain in part that people's worldview. But, if this is the explanation of the contradiction, then Vawter, like other Catholic form-critics, has not faced and answered the fundamental question of the reality of the object of faith, from which all theological science proceeds.
If we do not succumb to the unscientific form-critical presumption that God does not exist in objective reality, we have no reason to exclude the possibility that Moses, in writing the first chapter of Genesis, used historical facts known from divine revelation. God could have revealed these facts directly to him or, more likely, these facts could have come down to him from a revelation made by God long before his birth and kept intact through divine providence. We know from ancient history of the common tendency within pagan cultures to take truths of religious import, including concrete historical facts, and distort them into myths and fables. Form-critics methodically overlook the possibility that a myth was composed through the conscious distortion of the truth by dreamers who were either following the impulses of an undisciplined imagination or were listening to the suggestions of demons. Yet most of the mythology of the ancient world probably arose in this manner. Moses himself tells us how the prince of demons distorted an original revelation of God given to Adam and Eve and how they allowed themselves to believe him. From this lesson in the inspired text and from the study of ancient history it is easy to suspect that the pagan myths which parallel the story of creation in Genesis 1 are nothing but corruptions and diabolical embellishments of an original divine revelation.
According to Winfrid Herbst, writing in The New Catholic Encyclopedia,"Enuma Elish is apparently not derived from earlier Sumerian literary forerunners. It is a distinctly Babylonian creation and was composed in Akkadian sometime during the 2d millennium B.C." What Vawter calls "the Sumero-Babylonian creation hymn," was not composed in Sumeria, but was first composed in Babylon around 1750 B.C. None of the fragments of the poem that have been found antedates the first millennium B.C. Nevertheless, in Herbst's opinion, "the faintly archaic language of the poem may be taken as an indication of an earlier origin." This poem, as it reads in the first millennium B.C. fragments, betrays extensive embellishment of an earlier form that somewhat resembled the story of creation in Genesis 1. W.G. Lambert "has shown evidence that Marduk ... rose to officially sanctioned preeminence only in the late 12th century under Nebuchadnezzar I." T. Jacobsen "has contended that the Babylonian epic - or at least prominent elements of its theomachy - derived from the West Semitic world; he also views Enuma Elish as essentially a cosmogony (with Enlil originally as hero) and only secondarily (after the insertion of Marduk) revised into an apologia for Marduk." Herbst notes also that, while "the original language of the poem is an artificial scribal tongue, thus hard to date precisely, ... traces of extensive later revision may be detected." Herbst thinks that the common motifs in creation stories "might be explained on the basis of a background of common Semitic folklore or on the basis of known Babylonian literary influence on 2d-millennium Palestine-Syria (or, less plausibly, the reverse)."
How, then, to evaluate these data? The copies of Enuma Elish that are extant today do not antedate the year 1000 B.C., which is long after the time of Moses. The exploits of the false god Marduk, which figure so prominently in Vawter's comparison with Genesis 1, were added to the poem in a later phase that seems to date from the twelfth century B.C., which was well after the time of Moses. What Herbst calls "a background of common Semitic folklore" could just as well have been an original revelation by the one true God that came down to Moses intact, but which was corrupted by pagan poets into their respective myths. Modern Scripture scholars are reluctant to admit the influence of Hebrew tradition upon the surrounding pagan cultures, judging almost always that the influence was in the opposite direction, but in doing this they are simply manifesting a common prejudice that comes to light in the framework of a valid scientific theology. A revelation regarding the origin of the universe, given by God to the Hebrews, or preserved intact by them, would tend to provide the point of departure for pagan myths about the origin of the world, since human fantasy is quite limited in its own originality. If we succeed in rising above every unscientific and unhistorical prejudice against possible revelations by God to men, we shall be in a better position to make an objective analysis of the inspired word of Genesis.
According to Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, a "myth" is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." In the form-critical analysis cited above, the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis becomes a story of ostensible, but not real, historical events that serves to unfold the worldview of the ancient Hebrews and, as developed by the Church, explains for Christians of today their belief about the origin of the world. On a critical level, however, we must ask ourselves what happens to the belief of Christians when part of their worldview has been shown by form-critics to have been expressed in mythical language. The answer: if they do not want their faith to be shaken they must refute the conclusions of the form-critics by finding the errors in their reasoning.
1. Living Tradition No. 42 (July 1992).
2. Living Tradition No. 41 (May 1992).
3. Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture (St. Meinrad: Abbey Press, 7th ed., 1964), p. 67.
4. Cf. J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 46-56; 97-100.
5. R. Bandas, Biblical Questions, vol. 1, The Old Testament (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1935), Preface.
6. Ibid., p.40.
7. Ibid., p. 50.
8. Ibid., p. 54.
9. Cf. McCarthy, The Science ..., No. 5.1:4 (pp. 73-74).
10. B. Vawter, A Path Through Genesis (London: Sheed and Ward, 1957), pp. 31, 34.
11. Ibid., pp. 40-41.
12. Ibid., p. 32.
13. Ibid., p. 33.
14. Ibid., p. 42.
15. B. Vawter, On Genesis: a New Reading (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977), p. 31.
16. Ibid., pp. 37-38.
17. Ibid., p. 40.
18. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
19. Ibid., p. 44.
20. Ibid., p. 47.
21. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, Denzinger-Schoenmetzer (DS), 36th ed. (1976), nos. 3292-3293. Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 24.
22. Response of the Biblical Commission, 16 January 1948 (DS no. 3864). Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, pp. 152-153.
23. A.M., "Decrees of the Biblical Commission," in the Benedictinische Monatschrift, A.D. 1956. Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, pp. 175-176.
24. Response of the Biblical Commission, 30 June 1909, "On the Historical Character of the First Three Chapters of Genesis" (DS no. 3513). Eng. trans. in Rome and the Study of Scripture, pp. 122-123.
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