Evangelicals are debating the historicity of Adam, but they are too timid. It is time to reject fundamentalist distortions of the Abrahamic narrative just as decisively as we have abandoned literalistic readings of Genesis 1–3.
Clinging to discredited biblical accounts of Abraham as if these events actually happened makes us look like Neanderthals, undermines the plausibility of our witness, and ultimately overturns the Gospel. To defend the Gospel and uphold the authority of the Bible, we need to reckon with the myth of Abraham.
The historical evidence is overwhelming and need not be rehearsed here. It is sufficient to point the curious reader to Hans Georg Unglauber’s definitive study, popularly known as Die Suche nach dem historischen Abraham but originally published as Abraham: Historie oder Pferd-Geschichte? Unglauber shows that there is not a shred of independent evidence for the existence of Abraham, much less for any of the events recorded in Genesis.
But our faith does not stand or fall on the uncertain deliverances of historical scholarship. Scripture is our rule. The biblical writers deployed the full arsenal of ancient literary conventions, and their texts are full of sly authorial signals that they are not supposed to be taken literally. We can summarize briefly:
*The story of Abraham’s exodus (Gen. 12:10–20) is obviously modeled on Israel’s Egyptian sojourn and exodus (which most likely never happened either). By shaping this narrative to mimic later myths, the author indicates that the episode is not to be taken seriously as history. Genesis 12, like the exodus narrative, teaches that God delivers. It does not matter whether or not God has ever actually delivered anyone. The moral stands: God is our deliverer.
*When Yahweh cuts covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:17–21), he appears as a “smoking oven and a flaming torch” (v. 17) passing through split pieces of animals. The writer knows that God is infinitely more unlike a torch than he is like one. He deliberately strains the metaphor to the point of absurdity. The very assertion that God appeared as an oven is proof enough that he did not.
*Genesis 18 is mythological on its face. Yahweh strolls to Mamre, chats with Abraham, and eats a meal of curds, milk, and veal. Abraham negotiates the fate of an entire city with a malleable divine Judge. The author does not even provide a definitive name for the “God” character. Sometimes he is “Yahweh,” sometimes there are three who are described as “men.” This is not confusion or a sign of multiple sources. It is literary subtlety on the order of genius.
*Fundamentalists believe Isaac’s birth is miraculous. Liberals mock the narrative as evidence of the pre-scientific naivete of archaic peoples. Both are mistaken. The ancient author knows that ninety-year-old women cannot bear children. Under the guise of the well-established miracle-birth type-scene, the author exhibits a timeless truth: Even if God has never actually cut or kept covenant with any actual person, he is the God of covenant faithfulness.
The chronological snobbery of classical criticism cannot be sustained. The authors of the biblical texts were just as sophisticated as we. The latest scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that biblical writers were brilliant performers with the generic conventions of “history-like myth.” As ancient writers, they had no concern with what we call “facts,” and they would be aghast at how fundamentalists like Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin have twisted their texts. Should we ignore the authors’ own infallible indicators of their intention and impose our own literalist readings on the text? We must defend the Bible from those who obsess over the literal meaning of its text.
Hidebound evangelicals worry that giving up the historical Abraham undermines Christian doctrine. Convictions about covenant, promise, and justification by faith are rooted in Paul’s use of Genesis. As we have seen, such fears are unfounded. Justification is by faith even if there was never an Abraham to have faith; God keeps his covenant promises whether or not he ever gave and kept promises to Abraham.
As Johann G. Nosticher has shown in his monograph, Die mythologischen Grundlagen der paulinischen Theologie, Paul himself did not regard Genesis as an historical document. In Galatians 4, he describes the account of Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael, and Isaac as an “allegory.” If Paul can theologize with an allegorical Abraham, can’t we?
After we dispose of Adam and Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are next. And why stop there? Like Genesis, the Gospels are ancient literature. The Evangelists were no more concerned about facts than the authors of the Pentateuch, and for those enlightened enough to see, the Gospels are replete with hints that they are mythic symbolizations of profound, enduring truth.
Only when it is stripped of the mythology of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus will the Bible be firmly established as our inerrant rule of faith. We must die to our modern demand to know “what happened” and recognize that Scripture is infallible only when it is thoroughly de-historicized. Then we will arrive finally at the fullness of Christian faith, the Church of Christ Without Jesus.