Tim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part I

June 12, 2011

Tim Keller has joined the discussion on Adam-historicity with an article titled, Sinned in a Literal Adam, Raised in a Literal Christ, posted on the Gospel Coalition website. Keller accepts that life has an evolutionary history, but has concerns about treating Adam & Eve as mythological characters.

In response to the observation that the various Genesis narratives share remarkable similarities with other Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, Keller calls upon evangelical scholar Kenneth Kitchen. Keller writes:

The prominent Egyptologist and evangelical Christian, when responding to the charge that the flood narrative (Gen 9) should be read as “myth” or “proto-history” like the other flood-narratives from other cultures, answered:

The ancient Near East did not historicize myth (i.e. read it as imaginary “history”). In fact, exactly the reverse is true—there was, rather, a trend to “mythologize” history, to celebrate actual historical events and people in mythological terms.

In other words, the evidence is that Near Eastern “myths” did not evolve over time into historical accounts, but rather historical events tended to evolve over time into more mythological stories. Kitchen’s argument is that, if you read Genesis 2-11 in light of how ancient Near Eastern literature worked, you would conclude, if anything, that Genesis 2-11 were “high” accounts, with much compression and figurative language, of events that actually happened. In summary, it looks like a responsible way of reading the text is to interpret Genesis 2-3 as the account of an historical event that really happened.

Keller’s argument seems to be this: There was a tendency in the ANE for the memories of historical events and characters to accrue mythological elements over time. Therefore, seemingly mythological narratives may have historical persons and events at their core.

As a general proposition, I take no issue with the above. It was once assumed that the events and places in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were fictitious. When excavations in the late 1800s turned up the actual city of Troy, it became apparent that there might be some (minimal) historical truth behind the epic poems.

But there are serious limitations to this observation. While some mythologies have a historical referent, it is by no means the case that all mythologies do. Should we assume that the Babylonian tale of Marduk slaying the sea monster Tiamat to create the heavens and earth from her split carcass is an actual historical event that has become mythologized? Probably not.

So yes, it is possible to “mythologize history”, but it is also possible for mythologies to be invented out of whole cloth.

Moreover, even if we suppose that the Genesis narratives are mythologized accounts of two actual historical people named Adam and Eve, that’s not enough. To do the theological heavy-lifting that Keller wants them to do, Adam & Eve need to be more than mere historical figures. They need to be in some sort of special relationship with God and some sort of federal headship over mankind. They need to violate God’s command. They and their progeny need to be cursed by God as a result. In other words, the broad brushstrokes of the Genesis narrative need to be historical as well. So even if a comparative study of ANE mythologies leads us to conclude that there may be a historical Adam & Eve somewhere beneath the mythological trappings of the Genesis story, this does little to establish the Fall narrative as historical. The story of the Fall may simply be part of the legend that has developed around the historical characters.

How might we determine whether the Fall narrative is part of a possible “historical core” or part of later mythological accretion? Examine the text.

When we examine the text we find that the Fall story is rife with mythological elements:

  • a paradisaical garden
  • forbidden fruit
  • a talking snake (which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to surprise any of the characters)
  • an immortality-granting tree guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword!!

We also find that the story appears to serve an etiological function, explaining the origin of things that must certainly have predated any historical Adam and Eve:

  • pain in childbirth
  • weeds & agrarian toil
  • crawling snakes

In other words, the content of the narrative would lead any unbiased observer to recognize the Fall story as belonging to the category of myth, regardless of whether the characters in the story might have existed. To salvage the Fall as a historical event, Keller needs more than two neolithic farmers named Adam and Eve. He needs to contend that a story that bears all the hallmarks of mythology is actually part of the historical core and not subsequent mythologizing. That is not, as he suggests, “a responsible way of reading the text.” It is special pleading.

The putative Mask of Agamemnon

Agamemnon may have existed. If he did, he may or may not have laid siege to Troy. But it he did exist and he did lay siege to Troy, we can be pretty darn sure that it wasn’t because Paris stole Helen after adjudicating among the goddesses as to who should receive a golden apple from the gods.

Why are we so adept at recognizing mythology in the literature of other cultures but so willfully blind to it in our own?



  1. Because OUR myths are TRUE dammit!!

    I have a loft idea of writing a book about the creation myths, and maybe some of the other Genesis myths.

    Wouldn’t you say that the literature in the Bible slowly, over time, takes on less and less mythical character? Less of the fantastic, common-sense-challenging, make-believe fairy-dust stuff?

    • Yes, there’s definitely a progression. Once you get to Abraham, it starts to sound a little more down to earth. And by the time you get to the late kingship period things start to track pretty well with independently verifiable history. That said, the miraculous never disappears.

  2. “And, lest we sneer too readily at this mixture of history and mythology, remember that we are always better at separating such mixtures in other lives, in different societies, and in alien cultures. Our own mixture we too seldom see at all.” – Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan

  3. […] here for another response to […]

  4. Great post. I read Keller’s Reason for God which left me with more questions than answers. I think Keller is trying to salvage theology by arguing for a literal Adam and Eve, b/c he is already on the fringe of PCA beliefs that are against evolution (for example Westminster fired Enns and recently held a conference promoting Intellegent Design). Honestly, of all the views, Keller’s has the most flaws for me and requires even more cognitive discopants 😉 than even 7day creationism. I don’t understand Biologos’ support of Keller.

    • Hi LAC, I got about halfway through Reason for God a few months ago and then put it aside. I felt that he had little new to offer, apart from repeating the standard evangelical answers to the big questions. Maybe I’ll pick it up and finish it at some point. But I never got the sense that Keller was truly wrestling with the full weight of the questions. As for Biologos, my sense is that they are looking to extend olive branches wherever possible. Keller has openly endorsed evolutionary creationism (of some sort, at least) and that’s a step in the right direction as far as they’re concerned. I can understand it. When you’re trying to effect a sea change in evangelical thinking, you take your allies wherever you find them.

  5. […] @ New Ways ForwardEvolution and the difference a decade makes.Chris Massey @ Cognitive DiscopantsTim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part IMike Beidler @ The Creation of an EvolutionistA Response to Tim Keller’s “Killer […]

  6. And just because the movement was sometimes from history to myth doesn’t mean it was ALWAYS that direction. In the Hebrew scriptures the movement was often in the other direction. For example, the very Marduk/Tiamat (or Lotan-Leviathan) myth you mention appears in the OT in mildly (Is 27:1), medium (Gen 1) and fully (Moses parting the sea) historicized versions.

  7. Im curious how you separate this responsible historical reading of the genesis narrative from a historically responsible reading of the new testament. More specifically though, how do you approach theological claims about Jesus made by later followers? If we recognize that origin myths can be generated to give meaning to later cultural elements, can we also recognize that theological motifs can be generated to give meaning to contemporary events in the lives of NT authors?

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