17
Jan
10

Pre-Adamites

So I have been perusuing Reading Genesis After Darwin, edited by Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson (New York: Oxford, 2009).  Let me confess, right from the start, that I don’t know either of these gentlemen, nor do I recognize the names of the contributors except for Francis Watson.  (Yeah, that Francis Watson.)  My impression right now is that most, if not all, are either scientists, theologians, or exegetes, and would describe their affiliation with Christianity as either conservative or evangelical.  I’ll test my hypothesis as I continue to read, but let that be the temporary basis for some contextualization.

Although the authors seem to come from more conservative Christian traditions, so far in my reading none has tried mount a defense of a literal reading of Genesis, or to harmonize it with biology, geology, or cosmogony.  In fact, to this point they have all rejected that sort of an approach.  In general, that coheres well with my approach to Genesis.  So at the moment I find it pretty interesting, and over the next few days I’ll share a couple of tidbits.

Tonight’s tidbit comes from the first essay, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” by Walter Moberly.   Moberly is a professor at Durham, in the UK, and his bio is here.   His essay opens likes this:

The question of how best to read the early chapters of Genesis seems to be something of a hardy perennial.  In one form or another, the question is rather regularly applied put to me in my capacity as a Christian scholar whose academic specialty is the Old Testament, with the expectation that I should be able to answer in just a few words.

Unfortunately, my answers tend not to be as succinct as my questioners hope for.  On the one hand, I feel the need to say something about the genre of the material.  You cannot put good questions and expect fruitful answers from a text apart from a grasp of the kind of material it is in the first place; misjudge the genre, and you may skew many of the things you try to do with the text.  However, all of the common classificatory terms, most famously, “myth,” are used in a wide variety of ways, with something of a chasm between scholarly understandings and popular pejorative usages.

Amen.  And in my experience that “hardy perennial” must be some kind of a weed!  You would not believe how much confusion about biblical readings can be cleared up just by working through the issues of genre

Anyway, Moberly concludes that Darwin’s biological contributions make little difference in reading Genesis 1-3 because the evidence for its genre and its status as a constructed text were there long before Darwin published The Descent of Man.  To him, what is key is the reader’s willingness to allow that God can work through a text that shows all the signs of “literary conventions and historical processes.”  This is another way of pointing out that what we get from a text has a great deal to do with the expectations we bring to it.

Now to my point: pre-Adamites. I had heard of pre-Adamites, most famously through Hugh Nibley’s advocacy of the same.  Until I read this essay, however, I had not known where the idea originated.  And since you have probably been holding your breath in anticipation since you started to read this essay, I will get right on it.

What Moberly calls the “constructed nature” of the Genesis narrative arises from the evidence that the pericopes it contains were once part of a different story. In this original story the family of Adam and Eve are not the first humans.  This means that things like the identity of Cain’s wife and need to leave the city to murder one’s brother presented no particular challenge to readers who encountered Cain and Abel in their original literary context because Adam’s family was not the first family of the human race.  In the current context, however, these details have prompted a great deal of what we might call excreted imagination

One of those who tried to deal with this challenge was the 17th century author Isaac La Peyrere.     La Peyrere followed Augustine’s lead in suggesting that the Genesis text was selective, that is, that details implied but not included were the result of a rigorous editing process that stripped out unneeded information.   According to La Peyrere, Genesis records the ancestry of the Jews, not of all of humanity.  What readers find in the Cain / Abel story is evidence that biblical authors knew of a wider story that they declined to tell.  Those who existed before Adam were called pre-Adamites.

La Peyrere took it tough, both for his thoughts on pre-Adamites and for his views that the Messiah would soon appear and take his place in Jerusalem, with the King of France as his regent.  Others have used La Peyrere’s theory for their own purposes and I will let you follow the link above if you would like to read more about them.  For my part, I agree with Moberly that the idea does justice to neither the Bible nor to the other knowledge we have about the origin of humanity.  It is far more likely that Moberly is right, that is, that the larger Genesis narrative was constructed from smaller stories since removed from their original literary context and placed into their present context to serve the theological purposed of the final redactor.

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2 Responses to “Pre-Adamites”


  1. January 17, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Assuming that the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story is based on real history may be your first mistake. Misjudging the genre is at the heart of the problem, as you seem to recognize. But you move forward as though you understand the origin–the same mistake Nibley made. The origin of the characters and motifs of the Creation story are the common archetypes of antiquity, couched in Hebrew tradition. Those motifs and characters hearken back to the cosmological events in Earth’s ancient skies, the astral manifestations that were the subject of all creation narratives, no matter the culture.

    Trying to sort out who preceded Adam and Eve is a failed enterprise, based on taking the story at face value. It is an exercise based on a failed assumption. Only when seen in terms of mythical archetypes engendered in cosmological events, unacknowledged by mainstream science and culture, do the stories begin to make sense. (For more see: http://www.mormonprophecy.blogspot.com.

  2. January 18, 2010 at 6:59 am

    Actually, I’m with Moberly, that is, these stories are myths, not history. Sorry to have confused you.


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