The perceived conflict between Genesis and modern science is one of the primary reasons why people reject or abandon the Christian faith. In this discussion, it is often taken for granted that the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to be read as literal history. But how did ancient readers interpret these narratives?
Philo's Interpretation of Genesis
Some of the oldest surviving commentary on the book of Genesis is from the Jewish scholar Philo. Philo was born around 10 BC and died around AD 50. He was thus a contemporary of Jesus, and his writings predate Charles Darwin by almost two thousand years.
Now if you know anything about Philo, then you won’t be surprised to learn that he interprets Genesis allegorically. Philo finds symbolic meaning in every detail of the Bible, and he is famous for his complex allegorical interpretations. Nevertheless, while Philo finds symbolic meaning everywhere, he does not deny that the biblical narrative is also historical. Philo clearly believes that characters such as Joseph and Moses, for example, were real persons who actually lived and breathed.
However, Philo does not read the early chapters of Genesis like he reads the rest of the Bible. In his discussion of these chapters, Philo explicitly rejects the notion that the story is intended to be read as literal history. Now Philo does appear to find some historical elements in the story. For example, like the apostle Paul, Philo evidently views Adam as the first human being and the progenitor of the human race (Creation 136-142). Nevertheless, Philo argues that many elements of the story cannot be understood literally. He thus concludes, "We must turn to allegory, the method dear to men with their eyes opened. Indeed the sacred oracles most evidently afford us the clues for the use of this method" (Planting 36 [LCL]). Philo points specifically to Genesis 2:9: “And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (RSV). Philo writes, "This description is, I think, intended symbolically rather than literally; for never yet have trees of life or of understanding appeared on earth, nor is it likely that they will appear hereafter" (Creation 154 [LCL]).
Consider also Philo’s interpretation of Genesis 4:17. In this verse we read, “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch” (RSV). Philo writes, "Is it not reasonable to inquire, what woman Cain knew? For since Eve, who was formed out of Adam’s side, there has been hitherto no record of the creation of any other woman." Philo considers the suggestion that Cain married a sister, but he rejects this at once as “not only unholy but untrue; for Adam’s daughters are mentioned as having been born at a later time" (Posterity 33-34). Philo concludes that Cain’s wife and son are symbols, not literal people.
After explaining the symbolic meaning of the wife and child, Philo moves on to the second half of the verse.
The next thing for us to consider is why Cain, all alone as he is, appears in the narrative as founding and building a city; for a multitude of men needs a good-sized city to dwell in, whereas for the three that then existed some foot-hill or small cave would have been a quite adequate habitation. I said “for three,” but most likely it was for one, Cain himself only: for the parents of the murdered Abel would not have brooked dwelling in the same city with his slayer. (49)
Notice that, according to Philo, there are currently only three people alive: Adam, Eve, and Cain. As stated before, Philo explicitly rejects the notion that Cain’s wife and son are real persons.
Philo continues on to ask how Cain could have built a city by himself.
Everyone can see how the building of a city by a single man runs counter not only to all our ideas but to our reason itself. How is such a thing possible? Why, he could not have built even the most insignificant part of a house without employing others to work under him. Could the same man at the same moment do a stone-mason’s work, hew timber, work iron and brass, surround the city with a great circuit of walls, construct great gateways and fortifications, temples and sacred enclosures, porticoes, arsenals, houses, and all other public and private buildings that are customary? Could he in addition to these construct drains, open up streets, provide fountains and conduits and all else that a city needs? It would seem, then, since all this is at variance with reality, that it is better to take the words figuratively, as meaning that Cain resolves to set up his own creed, just as one might set up a city. (50-51)
In summary, Philo believes that certain fantastic or incongruous elements in the narrative indicate that the story was never intended to be read as literal history.
Early Christian Interpretations of Genesis
Like Philo, the influential Christian theologian Origen (c. AD 185 – 254) insists that the literal reading of Genesis is patently absurd:
Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? And that the first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of good and evil by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? And when God is said to walk in the paradise in the cool of the day, and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events. (De Principiis 4.3.1 [Butterworth])
Augustine (AD 354 – 430) also suggests that the creation narrative was crafted with only a "semblance of history":
The account of the things that God made is broken down most conveniently as if in periods of time so that the very arrangement which weaker souls could not look upon with a firm gaze could be discerned as if by these eyes, when it is set forth through the order of such a discourse. (Literal Interpretation of Genesis 28 [Teske])
In my opinion, these ancient readers were correct to identify the early chapters of Genesis as a type of literature that differs from the historical narratives found elsewhere in Scripture. In addition to the arguments cited above, consider the following points:
In 1:20-27 birds are created before man, but in 2:18-20 birds are created after man.*
The behavior of the talking serpent is attributed not to satanic possession, but to the innate craftiness of the serpent itself (3:1).
When he is condemned to be “a fugitive and wanderer,” Cain protests, “Whoever finds me will slay me” (4:14 RSV). However, the only other humans alive at this point in the narrative are his parents. If he is afraid of his family, then why does he believe he will be safer at home?
These features of the narrative suggest that the author never intended for the story to be read as literal history.
At any rate, while the correct interpretation of Genesis remains a matter of sharp dispute among Christians, one thing at least is certain: the nonliteral reading of Genesis is not a recent innovation to rescue the Bible from modern science. It predates Darwin by almost two millennia and is among the oldest extant interpretations of the text.
*Note that the ESV and NIV translators have attempted to smooth out this discrepancy by switching to the past perfect tense in Gen 2:19.