(As with many of my posts, this is kind of trying things out, thinking them through in public and on the fly. It’s messy, so I welcome thoughts and substantive corrections.)
In order to keep track of my research, I’ve been making a timeline of three kinds of events relevant to our understanding of Genesis:
Second, events that lead to the recovery of ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 1, such as the discovery/decipherment of Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) and the Enuma Elish (first published in 1876 in English)
Third, discoveries in the scientific world, such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), and the discovery of the function (1952) and structure (1953) of DNA. Although scientific influences are the best known, they are, conversely, the least influential on our understanding of Genesis 1.
As I was reading and reviewing today, I had several realizations.
The first was that the LDS statements sometimes marshaled as revelatory and authoritative opposition to Darwin and evolution were largely made when precious little was known about either science or the ancient Near East. For example, I came across someone citing John Taylor’s opposition to Darwin. John Taylor died in 1887, almost 70 years before we learned about DNA! The tentativeness expressed about the teaching of Evolution at BYU by the FP in, say, 1909 was largely due to its newness, and our (collective) lack of understanding. Several high-ups realized this, and expressed their reluctance this way. Notably, there is no such tentativeness today about teaching evolution at BYU, as BYU bio prof. Steve Peck will tell you.
Second, this realization led me to an understanding of how the two sides (reductionist, perhaps) of the argument have come to be so aligned and what they represent. I further realized that a historical parallel for this split already exists in a different area of biblical studies, namely, the New Perspective on Paul. Let me explain that first, and then use it to illustrate the science/religion debate in Genesis.
From the reformation onwards, Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul has been heavily influential. I’d bet that if asked what Paul means (or at least what Protestants think Paul means), most Mormons would unknowingly parrot Luther, though we would quickly follow up with James and “faith without works is dead.”
Luther interpreted Paul and Judaism in light of his own conflict with the Catholic Church and its indulgences. He took that kind of salvific legalism, and read it back onto the Jews in Paul’s day, interpreting “works” in Paul’s letters as actions, instead of the prescribed works of the Torah. For Luther, Paul taught salvation by grace alone, no works.
In the last 40 years, however, as scholars have matured in their knowledge and understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered 1947) and other relevant Judaic material from the time, many scholars have argued that Luther got it very wrong. Sure, some Jews were legalist, but Judaism as a whole was not, nor did it predicate salvation on such. Paul’s discussion of works is about the works required by Law of Moses. Salvation comes from a covenant relationship with God in which he grants humans grace, and obedience is the maintenance policy to that relationship. That was both the Jewish and Christian view of salvation, and differed only on the roles of Torah and Jesus within that formula.
Protestants are split between the New Perspective on Paul (which has the strength of being better scholarship) and the traditional view from Luther (which has the immensely powerful force of tradition, as well as weaker scholarship, in my view. Not technically my field, but that’s how I read things.)
tl;dr- Luther got Paul very wrong because he anachronistically read Paul as if he lived in Luther’s time, as if Paul’s Jews were Luther’s Catholics. The rediscovery of non-anachronistic contemporary Jewish views helped show that such an equation was incorrect. Thus, one party defends a largely anachronistic-but-traditional view as if it were not anachronistic, while the other defends a newer view with a stronger base.
How does this apply to Genesis?
The historical conflict in the last hundred years between science and religion is largely a historical accident, the result of the fact that we lost the context of the early chapters of Genesis and replaced it with our own, reading it as if it were modern. We unknowingly substituted the pressing questions and cultural issues driving Genesis (e.g. polytheism, which deity was truly deity, etc.) with our own pressing questions and cultural issues, which are largely foreign and irrelevant to it. (If you want to read about the attraction of polytheism in Israel, go to my post here, and scroll down to “We live in a society that largely takes monotheism for granted.”)
The conflict arose as discoveries began revealing both ancient context and secondary scientific information that seemed to clash with the traditional view. That traditional view, however, had been formed in absence of any serious contextual knowledge.
Thus, this conflict over Genesis is between those who insist an interpretation made in absence of ancient context *is* both the original and correct interpretation,
and those who accept the rediscovered ancient Near Eastern context, which happens to not conflict with science much if at all.
Often, those defending the traditional view rely on, or at least muster the long tradition of the Christian Church. However, that doesn’t get us very far, because the ancient context was largely lost by the New Testament period, and the traditional view had not yet developed or become dominant by then. While the “new” view doesn’t have the force of long tradition, it does have the very strong force of both integration with the rest of human knowledge AND tighter coherence with our knowledge of the ancient world.
Like Luther, we get Genesis wrong because we read it against the wrong background,namely, our own. Reading it against the right background, one that is not anachronistic, makes much more sense of the text and happens to remove scientific conflict. That, to me, is quite convincing.
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