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Is Genesis “Mytho-History”? As a Guide to Scripture, William Lane Craig’s Book Falls Short

Casey Luskin
Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Younger
Image: Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Younger / Public domain.

Editor’s note: In a multipart series, Casey Luskin is reviewing a new book by philosopher William Lane Craig. Look here for the full review so far.

The first 200 pages of William Laine Craig’s new book, In Quest of the Historical Adam, are largely devoted to a detailed discussion of the nature of myths, mythic literature of the Ancient Near East, and how we can determine whether Genesis contains myth-like elements. This is far outside my areas of expertise, and it also represents topics that we don’t cover much here at Evolution News. But since Craig’s discussion of myth accounts for 50 percent of the entire body of his book, it should be addressed in any review. So I will devote this one part of my six-part review to the topic, even though it is far afield from the science of intelligent design. 

“Mytho-History”?

Craig’s treatment of “myth” is nuanced and he is careful to correct the common stereotype that calling something a “myth” necessarily entails its being false. He convincingly argues that some elements of Genesis, such as the genealogies, are intended to be historical. I also appreciated his rejection of Tremper Longman and John Walton’s view that Genesis 1-11 contains “hyperbole” (pp. 127-128). More than anything else in this section of his book, I applaud Craig’s conclusion that Genesis teaches that Adam and Eve were real, historical people — a conclusion he strengthens in his section looking at the New Testament. Craig summarizes his findings by arguing that Christians should “affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve” as “the fount of all humanity, the genealogical ancestors of every human being who has ever lived.” (p. 363) Craig should be commended for carefully supporting this important conclusion.

But oddly, in a book devoted to Adam and Eve, Craig goes much further in his analysis of Genesis than merely assessing what it says about the parents of humanity. He spends nearly 200 pages (again, some 50 percent of the book) investigating the literary genre of Genesis and ultimately concludes that Genesis 1-11 includes many myth-like elements, and that these chapters represent “mytho-history.” His arguments may fail to satisfy certain Biblical scholars who may feel that he redefines the meaning of “mytho-history.” John Oswalt, a prominent biblical scholar, has raised significant questions about Craig’s use of the term. As Oswalt put it in an interview, “‘mytho-history’ is an oxymoron. Myths are a-historical by nature.”

“Fantastical Elements” that Are “Palpably False”?

You’ll never find a specific sentence in Craig’s book that says, “Genesis 1-11 makes statements that are factually and historically wrong,” but a careful reading shows this is what he believes and intends to argue. Craig argues that Genesis 1-11 contains, in his words, various “inconsistencies” and “fantastical elements” that “if taken literally, are so extraordinary as to be palpably false” (pp. 104, 203). This is certainly a major part of his conclusion that parts of Genesis are “myth.” 

Because God can perform miracles, Craig is careful to justify excluding miracles from those elements that he considers mythological, “fantastical,” or “false.” But he doesn’t seem to apply this rule consistently, and many of Craig’s judgments here seem subjective. That is, they appear to be based upon his personal feelings about what a reasonable God would do, much like Stephen Jay Gould’s dubious arguments from incredulity about how a “sensible God” would never create certain features of biology. (The Panda’s Thumb, p. 20.) For example, Craig believes that God walking in the Garden in Genesis 3, the lack of an explanation for the origin of Cain’s wife in Genesis 4, or Satan speaking through the serpent, represent “inconsistencies” or “fantastical elements.” But many Christians would not see these elements as problematic in any way. It’s also difficult to see how Craig’s form of subjective analysis could prevent many other stories throughout the rest of the Bible from suffering a similar “mytho-historical” fate — for example Egyptian magicians performing miraculous signs in Exodus, or even Satan possessing certain figures in the Gospels. In an article at First Things Craig elaborates on this form of argument:

Other aspects of the narratives would be fantastic, even to the Pentateuchal author himself, if taken literally. The idea of an arboretum containing trees bearing fruit that, if eaten, would confer immortality or yield sudden knowledge of good and evil must have seemed fantastic to the author. We are not dealing, after all, with miraculous fruit, as if God would on the occasion of eating supernaturally bestow upon the eater immortality or knowledge of good and evil against his divine will.

There you have it: In Craig’s subjective judgment the fruit of knowledge is a “fantastical element,” therefore Genesis is mytho-history. God is apparently disallowed from creating a fruit that would have this effect upon human beings. Craig rightly rejects naturalism when it is imposed upon God to prevent Him from doing miracles (p. 105). But God is not the only supernatural being or element described in the Bible, and Craig seems to wrongly concede naturalism when applied to to other supernatural events or elements, perhaps caused by other supernatural beings. For many Christians who believe that Genesis represents history, not myth (and also not “mytho-history”), Craig’s arguments will likely be unconvincing, create confusion, and be frustrating. 

Myth in the Genesis Creation Accounts?

Many of Craig’s other arguments for “fantastical elements” are less subjective but depend on a surprisingly inadequate analysis. For example, he concludes that a young earth interpretation is the only possible hermeneutical reading of Genesis 1-11. Since science does not support a young earth, he concludes, the young age of the earth implied by Genesis is a “fantastical element” that is “palpably false.” That’s his argument in a nutshell, but it requires him to reject common methods developed by both young and old earthers to reconcile various interpretations of Genesis 1-11 with various scientific models. 

Getting Old Earth Creationist Thinking Wrong

As an old earther, I was dismayed by Craig’s failure to engage with common old earth interpretations of Genesis. Completely absent is any mention of a standard argument that the Hebrew word “yom,” which is commonly translated as “day” in English translations of Genesis 1, can also indicate an indefinite period of time. Nor does Craig recognize the general chronological consistency between the ordering of events in Genesis 1 and the findings of mainstream science, including (in this order): the origin of the universe, the emergence of light, the formation of land on Earth, the origin of plants, the appearance of the sun through Earth’s atmosphere, the origin of fish, origin of birds, origin of mammals, and origin of humans. Old earthers have developed detailed models for reconciling Genesis with the mainstream cosmological timescale and Craig interfaces with almost none of these arguments. 

Craig also seems to inaccurately portray certain common old earth creationist claims about the flood. He fails to recognize that many old earth creationists do not believe that other hominids (such as Neanderthals) who may have survived a local flood were not descendants of Adam. To get into specifics, the Genesis flood account is traditionally said to have wiped out all humanity — i.e., all descendants of Adam and Eve (except for Noah and his family). But Craig maintains that a model of a local flood confined to the Mesopotamian region could not have wiped out all humans because hominids were already widespread around the earth at whatever time such a Mesopotamian-specific flood might have occurred. As he puts it, the idea that “antediluvian mankind inhabited only the Persian Gulf region” is “fantastic” in light of modern paleoanthropology (p. 124). 

What Craig apparently fails to appreciate is that many old earth creationists hold that not all members of Homo are related through common ancestry. They would maintain that at some point God created Adam and Eve in the Middle East — but Adam and Eve were created separately from all hominids extant at that time, thereby excluding Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others from Adam’s line. (Please note: I am not necessarily committed to the view that Adam and Eve were unrelated to Neanderthals or Denisovans, I’m just describing a common old earth creationist position that Craig seems not to appreciate.) Under this view, Adam and Eve’s progeny spread throughout the Mesopotamian region, and were wiped out in the (local) flood. But other members of Homo that existed at that time (whether Neanderthals, Denisovans, or archaic Homo sapiens), who were not necessarily made in the image of God and were unrelated to Adam’s line, did not necessarily die out in the flood. Under this model, if these other hominids — who lived far from Mesopotamia — survived the local flood then there is no violation of the biblical account’s claim that humanity was wiped out in the flood. That is because “humanity” — i.e., the descendants of Adam and Eve — were not related to these other hominids. Craig seems not to appreciate this common method of resolving the existence of globally widespread hominids who survived a local biblical flood. 

Getting Young Earth Creationist Thinking Wrong

Additionally, I know enough about young earth creationist thinking to say that many young earthers would feel that Craig severely mischaracterizes their models. That’s true in particular of his claims that young earth creationists believe that all dinosaur diversity must evolve, and all plate tectonic movements must occur, in a 300 year period after the flood. Craig claims that young earthers hold that after the flood Noah released dinosaurs from the ark after which “they spread throughout the earth and evolved into all the known species of dinosaur,” meaning that “the entire history of dinosaur evolution and extinction must be compressed into the space of less than three hundred years” (p. 130). This does not seem to be what young earthers claim. (Again, this is not my view—I’m just articulating what young earthers say.) Most young earth creationists I’m aware of would say that the full panoply of dinosaur species that we know of perished during the flood (hence the extinction and hence the fossil record). Yes, they would hold that Noah took certain representative dinosaurs on the Ark, but they would surely not argue that after the flood dinosaurs necessarily evolved into “all the known species of dinosaur” that existed prior to the flood. Rather, they hold that a great many of those species perished during the flood, and did not re-evolve after it. 

Likewise, Craig requires young earth creationists to propose that plate tectonics “separated the primordial supercontinent into the world’s continents … within about three hundred years following the end of the flood” (p. 131). This, however, is not what young earth creationists say. Instead, most major young earth groups today propose that most plate tectonic movements took place during the flood, not after it. Craig’s descriptions of young earth creationist thinking are simply not in line with what they believe. 

Failing to Satisfy

I want to reiterate that many of the views discussed above do not represent my own views, nor do they have anything to do with intelligent design. My point is this: Craig’s conclusion that Genesis 1-11 is “mytho-history” will likely satisfy neither young nor old earth creationists. Many young earthers will likely feel that he is not engaging with their science. Meanwhile, many old earthers will likely feel that he is not engaging with their theology or hermeneutics, nor with important anthropological aspects of their model. 

Craig’s detailed investigation into the nature of myth is commendable. Ultimately, though, he fails to adequately engage with models of reconciling Genesis with science and seemingly makes a bee line straight to the conclusion that Genesis 1-11 is incompatible with science and therefore is “mytho-history.” This is going to alienate a lot of people who have worked hard — harder than he gives them credit for — to reconcile Genesis 1-11 with science. As a guide to Scripture, in other words, this book falls short. What about as a guide to science? I’ll turn to that in my next post.

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