Book Summary: Genesis-History, Fiction, or Neither?


The introduction to Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? is written by the editor, Charles Halton.  Dr. Halton has a Ph.D from Hebrew Union College and is a professor at Houston Baptist University[1].  He begins with a recap of the controversy between Galileo and the authorities in the Catholic Church.  To recap, Galileo believed that the Earth revolved around the sun, and this was a view that contradicted many biblical texts, and the established teaching of the church.  These biblical texts were interpreted very literally, and Galileo saw that scripture used many literary devices to communicate truth.

In 1633 Galileo was threatened with torture if he did not recant his views.  He held firm and remained under house arrest the rest of his life[2].  The Catholic church would come to see that Galileo was not wrong in his interpretation, and 350 years later John Paul II publicly spoke of the error that the theologians made.

Dr, Halton tells this story from history to drive home a very important point regarding biblical interpretation.  To interpret properly one must look at the genre that is being read.  The focus of the book is on Genesis chapters 1-11.  Our society has advanced by leaps and bounds since Genesis was penned.  Our culture has little in common with a culture that was fighting hunger and was always looking for safety[3].  The seeks to discover what genre Genesis falls into, and this is done by providing three views from three well respected biblical scholars.


View 1:  Genesis 1-11 as History and Theology

The first view is written by Dr, James Hoffmeier who earned his Ph.D from the University of Toronto.  Dr. Hoffmeier is currently a professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity International University Divinity School[4].  In this view the theology of Genesis is often overlooked, and is a story about the fall of humanity and subsequent restoration in the New Testament.  To describe this Dr. Hoffmeier references John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost to describe what happened in the beginning chapters of Genesis.

He argues that over the centuries scholars have delved into a scientific approach to Genesis.  This approach has yielded many negative opinions such as the denial of Mosaic authorship.  Dr. Hoffmeier gives an overview of Genesis 1-11 and starts to determine what genre it fits into.  A brief discussion about Genesis being legend is discussed, and quickly discarded as incorrect.  An explanation of myth is then explored.  Myth is a literary type that is accepted within scripture.  In our culture, myth is something that is fictional.  In biblical literature, it has to do with ultimate realities and not fiction[5].  Many scriptural examples are given from the books of Isaiah, Job, Psalm, and Ezekiel.

Dr. Hoffmeier suggests that Genesis is history that utilizes myth.  He explains that Genesis 1 and 2 were written for polemical reasons against similar views of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Genesis 1-11 is analogical in nature, and uses analogies to communicate thinking about history.  To further his point about historicity, Dr, Hoffmeier looks to the genealogies.  This leads to one of the central ideas in the essay which is that of the toledot. 

To do this Dr. Hoffmeier says it is critical to look at the book of Genesis as a complete work.  This term is used eleven times in the book, but is found sparsely in the rest of the Old Testament.  It is used to describe the lineages of Adam to Jacob, but also spans the history of creation and ends with Joseph in Egypt[6].  These are real people in history, and they are described in Genesis.

Another central theme in the essay is that of other creation accounts in the near east.  He looks at flood and creation accounts from Mesopotamia.  The Epic of Gilgamesh has an account of a worldwide flood very similar to that of Noah.  It was discovered in a library in Nineveh in 1872.  It has over seventy counterparts, and tablets have been unearthed about the epic that date back to the 14th century B.C.

Dr. Hoffmeier then explores the similarities between Genesis 1-11 and the Mesopotamian account of Athrahasis.  The similarities include creation, creation of mankind, narrative, alienation, flood, and a new start.  The one difference is that there is a genealogy in the Hebrew account.  The Hebrew account seems to combat the worldview of the other, and this is seen most in its explanation of deity.  The Babylonian gods are afraid, but the Hebrew God is in charge and sovereign.

There is much more to Dr. Hoffmeier’s essay, but concedes that the events in Genesis are historical.  He further says that there is enough evidence to support this that the Christian should see that it is okay to believe such a thing.


View 2 Genesis 1-11 as Protohistory

The second view in the book is written by Dr. Gordon Wenham.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of London, and is currently a tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College in Bristol, England.  He is also professor emeritus of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire[7].  Dr. Wenham begins his essay with a discussion of literary types.  Classifying the literary types in Genesis is difficult, especially when it comes to the genealogies.

He believes that curtain parts of Genesis may be classified as poetry.  He believes this be the case when God curses Adam and Eve, and also the account with the serpent in 3:14-19.  In Genesis 2:23 Adam meets Eve, and he is not sure if this is poetry although it is poetic[8].  The issue of Genre is not of the utmost concern, but that of an application to readers today is.  In Dr. Wenham’s view the opening chapters of Genesis speak of the immense character of God and his relationship with creation, specifically his relationship with man.

To see this Dr. Wenham stresses that we must have an idea of what the author’s presuppositions are.  He starts discussing this by looking at genealogies.  The genealogies in Genesis act as a bridge that help connect the generations represented.  In Genesis are the following two types of genealogies are represented:  linear and segmented.  Linear genealogies occur in the beginning of the book, such as Adam to Cain for example.  The segmented versions make a claim to territory, and the Table of Nations in chapter 10 is great example of this.  In this regard a genealogy is used as a type of proof for and ownership.  This was a common practice in the ancient near east.

He moves on to a discussion about the genre of Genesis being myth.  Dr. Wenham understands how scholars can come to this conclusion, but he thinks it is misleading.  A myth is a style of writing that uses many different methods to present truth.  A myth is also something used to help the reader understand social rituals[9].  Genesis 1-11 falls more closely into the genre of an expanded genealogy that includes stories of ancient man from creation to Abraham.

In his essay Dr, Wenham looks closely at genealogy, the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and other Near East materials to arrive at his conclusion.  He comes to the conclusion that Genesis 1-11 falls into the genre of protohistory.  It does not fit wholeheartedly into myth because there are many historical events contained therein.  It does not fall into the genre of history because there is some poetry intermingled, especially in chapters one and two.  Therefore, a designation of protohistory is best per Dr. Wenham.


View 3:  Genesis 1-11 as Fiction

The third essay is written by Dr. Kenton Sparks who received his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina.  He is currently a professor of biblical studies, and vice president of enrollment management at Eastern University.  He proposes that the book of Genesis is fiction.

At the start of his essay Dr. Sparks quotes the great early church father Augustine, and the great scholastic Thomas Aquinas.  He states that these two theological heavyweights believed that Christians should adhere to one interpretation of scripture, and they should be ready to abandon it if it proves to be false.  He states that the two prominent individuals in church history said such a thing in regards to the book of Genesis[10].

Dr. Sparks says that time has widened the gap between science and the events described in Genesis.  He is very blunt to write, “There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent who spoke, nor a worldwide flood[11].”  Dr. Sparks is quick to defend this by saying that he does believe that Genesis is the Word of God, but we must understand the narrative in a different way than Christians who came before us.

From there Dr. Sparks goes into the use and definition of genre.  He defines it in different terms than the other two individuals in this book.  In his terms, genre is a function of human interpretation by which we interpret things by comparing them to other things.  Genres are not fixed categories, but the fixed point of interpretation is what is being interpreted.  Humans have a history of conflating things after the fact[12].

Dr Sparks looks at genealogies and other near east accounts to arrive at his consensus.  One thing he does that the others do not is use quotations throughout history.  At the beginning of his essay he quotes Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as rendering warning against interpreting Genesis in a literal way.  He also references Origen who says that those who interpret Genesis literally are blind.  In his analysis, he sought to ask three question:  1.  Did the Biblical authors intend at every point to write historically reliable narratives?  2.  Did the authors believe that history stood behind their narratives?  3.  Did the authors accept as history anything which cannot in fact be historical?  In regards to the first question the answer is a firm no.  In regards to the second Dr. Sparks believe in some cases this was the case.  This was also the case with the third question.

It is because of these reasons that Genesis, in Dr, Sparks view, is fiction.


We Disagree.  What now?

The concluding chapter of the book belongs to its editor, Dr. Halton.  The three contributors disagree with another, and on some points much more than others.  Per Dr, Halton, it is this lack of consensus that can teach us much about the Christian life.  The three contributors disagree on the genre of Genesis 1-11, but they all agree it is the word of God.  When we read Genesis today we do not read it in the same fashion as the early church did.  The early church read it in a symbolic manner, and did not see it overly historical.  Though these issues were debated centuries ago there is nothing wrong with doing the same now.  We have more information at our disposal to assist us in interpretation than they had, and it makes sense that we would get more questions.

Each of the contributors had a big task in front of them, and they performed admirably.  Though they ended in disagreement the disagreements were charitable.  They dissected the argument and respectfully submitted a counterthought when appropriate.  It today’s world this is not the norm, but it gives us an example of how we should treat each other as Christians.  Disagreements will happen, but we should seek to discuss them rationally and respectfully so the we do not fracture the body of Christ.








Halton, Charles, ed. Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.



[1] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 9.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 19.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 27.

[6] Ibid, 29.

[7] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 9.

[8] Ibid, 73.

[9] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 83.

[10] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 111.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Charles Halton, ed., Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 138.


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