by Black Robed Cleric
Full Disclosure: This is a preview of my thoughts and a critical approach to a book I have not read but plan to. These thoughts and questions are based on my readings of interviews with the author, reviews favorable to the book, and proponents of the book as well as one and only one set of critiques which Craig responded to. However, he also presents many of these ideas in his Defender’s Podcast, which I have read the transcripts of.
William Lane Craig, an apologist and philosopher whom I both respect and admire, has published a book, In Quest of the Historical Adam. Whenever I read about the book, his statement of palpably false comes up. He claims that elements that are “palpably false” mark a narrative in such a way that it does not need to be taken literally to teach truth. I really, really need a solid definition of “palpably false” here. The examples given of palpably false elements in Genesis 1-11 leave me wondering about his belief in the supernatural, which he claims to uphold in his personal beliefs and ministry. Because simply allowing God to act in supernatural ways—just like in other parts of Scripture—renders most if not all of these arguments moot.
When critiquing someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, one must first lay out the ground rules. The interpretation I use is grammatical-historical (you may also find it listed as historical-grammatical). I have found in my ministry and studies that this method gives the most consistent results between interpreters. It works by the interpreter seeking the meaning of a passage by the words used (grammar) and historical context of the passage (historical). This means that a poem will be read differently than a parable which will be read differently than an epistle which will be read differently than historical narrative.
Secondly, throughout this post, I will be using a hermeneutic tool called “the analogy of faith” or “the analogy of Scripture.” That means, when we dive into one portion of Scripture, if we find something within it to be unclear, our driving factor in determining the meaning comes from portions of Scripture which are clear. The clear reveals the unclear. Which means in this case, if we have a clear passage that refers to “palpably false” elements in such a way to show that the author believed them to be true, we too must believe them. We must affirm what the Bible affirms and deny what the Bible denies. For example, the Bible never affirms a geocentric universe; it mentions sunrise and sunset in ways that even now we still use.
It might be wise to speak quickly on my conclusions regarding the authorship of Genesis. The book is attributed to Moses, and I believe a good case can be made that Moses was the compiler of the primeval (Genesis 1-11) and patriarchal (Genesis 12-50) histories that were handed down from person to person through the faithful line of Seth. The documentary hypothesis, though held by a majority of Old Testament scholars, fails and has always failed on several key issues. Though that is outside the scope of this post.
From the introduction to the symposium discussing the book and in the hermeneutical critique (which Craig does not dispute in his rebuttal), palpably false elements include: creation in six days, creation within a few thousand years, a river in Eden with four heads, a talking serpent, a “magical tree,” worldwide flood, a tower to heaven, and Cain’s wife. Craig lists some of those same elements in his Defender’s class.
In the review by C. John Collins, we find a quote from the book giving Craig’s assessment of what makes something palpably false.
Moreover, when we deem a narrative fantastic, we presumably mean “fantastic for us.” The original author and his audience may not have found the story to be fantastic. But in light of our increased knowledge of the world, we now see that certain elements in the narrative, if taken literally, are palpably false (p. 106).
That cannot be our standard of truth. Craig employs, uses, and abuses the appeal to novelty, see also chronological snobbery. He appeals to our knowledge of the world as the standard by which something is true or false. In doing so, he treats the ancients as fools. More on this later.
It should be noted that in the round of critiques and rebuttal, Craig never once said that the critiques misrepresented his argument or misquoted him. He said multiple times they were confusing terms and meanings, yet never did he say that their quotes and citations of him were false. I’ll just throw out here that if your work left such capable scholars confusing topics, you aren’t the communicator you think you are. Especially when the critics are of good will.
Faithful Christians can and do disagree on the elements in this list. I have friends all over the spectrum regarding it. However, just to label all of the items as palpably false begs the question—“What does palpably false mean?” To have meaning in a philosophy debate, a term must have an objective definition. If it is simply, “I find this element non-credible,” it’s unusable.
Now, according to several online dictionaries, the definition of palpable is “obvious, intense, easily noticed.” Therefore, palpably false would be an element that is “obviously untrue.” As soon as you read it, you know it is false. A palpably false statement would be “the sun rose in the west that morning.” That sentence tells us immediately we’re dealing with a work of fiction. Not because it uses the phrase “sun rose” (an idiom of language) but because the sun rise is in the west (an obvious false-to-easily-observable-facts situation).
However, palpably false without an objective standard makes the interpreter the final arbiter of Scripture instead of God, the one who inspired Scripture.
Craig argues that one way we know the author of the Pentateuch (notice he never says Moses even though every Scriptural reference to the five books which mentions the author refers to Moses*) does not intend Genesis 1-11 to be taken literally is the anthropomorphic language around the actions of God in Genesis 2-11. That is, speaking of God with human parts or human emotions. He argues that by first portraying God’s transcendence in Genesis 1, the author would not intend us to then take Genesis 2-11 as God literally walking in the Garden or performing surgery on Adam’s side or the other so-called palpably false elements. In other words, the author of Genesis 1-11 would not wish to mix God’s transcendence and imminence.
*Saying the “books of Moses” means the “books about Moses” does not answer the question since Moses is not born until the second book of Moses. Therefore, Genesis cannot be the first book about Moses. In interpretation, consistency is king.
While this may seem like a valid line of reasoning on the surface, it is far from it. A careful look shows that Genesis 1 only uses ‘Elohim when referring to God. That name emphasizes God’s transcendence and His might. However, beginning in Genesis 2:4, the name changes to Yahweh-Elohim (translated in English as The LORD God) until the end of Genesis 3. In Genesis 4 through 11, either name will be used alone or in combination. The combination of Yahweh-Elohim is important because it shows that Moses wanted us to understand that the same eternal God who transcends all creation is also imminent and intimately involved with it.
The name Yahweh is the covenant name God uses with His people. It shows that He is as close as their breath and present through all time. It is the name which indicates His imminence. So, yes, I see no reason at all to think that Moses would have a single bit of trouble thinking that the transcendent God would also be imminent. Remember, Moses experienced both God’s transcendence and imminence in his own ministry. An example of those events might even qualify as palpably false to Craig. Shortly after meeting the transcendent God at the burning bush (Exodus 3), God blocks Moses on the way to Egypt, intending to kill him for not keeping the covenant sign of circumcision (Exodus 4). I’d call that an encounter with imminence. If imminence after transcendence is palpably false in Genesis 1-11, consistency requires the same in Exodus.
Moreover, let us remember that God breathed Genesis 1-11 into the writer just as much as God breathed Timothy or Luke. Genesis 1 shows God’s transcendence with 2-3 making sure we understand the transcendent God is also imminent and 4-11 doing both because that is how God wanted to be portrayed.
But are these elements palpably false? How obvious does something need to be, and obvious to whom? If the criteria settles on the modern world, then that’s an informal logical fallacy. Merely saying, as Craig does, that ancients like Augustine and Origen* also raised questions about the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 does not help the case when they are still more than 1,600 years removed from the traditional authorship of the Pentateuch. A healthy hermeneutic asks how would the original audience understand the text not how did people removed from the text by thousands of years, hundreds of miles, a culture, and a language understand it.
*In the most famous and far reaching part of his ministry, Origen found an allegorical element to everything in Scripture. I don’t think stating he had questions works in Craig’s favor since even historical narratives hold much allegory for Origen.
A more beneficial approach in historical theology (the study of how a text was interpreted over time) would be to examine not only other Ancient Near Eastern parallel writings but the Jewish writings on Genesis 1-11. Bereshith Rabbah (Teachings on Genesis) would be the first place to start. Though centuries after Christ, it is at least written by people of the same region, related culture, and language as Genesis 1-11.* Two other great, even older, Jewish resources would be Philo (On the Creation) and Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews). Philo would have been a very useful source for Craig as the ancient philosopher takes an allegorical approach to Genesis 2 and 3 in that work (useful but not necessarily helpful, because, like Origen, quoting an allegorist doesn’t always help). However, while Craig gives great space in the book to the ancient literature, in his rebuttal he waves off the Jewish writings of the first century and beyond as folklore and mythology (yet he had no problem at all examining Mesopotamian folklore and mythology to analyze Genesis 1-11). As stated, I have not yet read the work, so it is possible Craig does cite Josephus, Philo, and the rabbis. Yet, since no one has mentioned them, I find it likely he did not.
*Even as Aramaic spread as the language of the Land, Hebrew was still revered for religious purposes and used. The rabbinic comments on Scripture even switch from Aramaic to Hebrew and back in places.
Let’s say that Craig is correct that Genesis 1-11 is mytho-history—history told in the terms of myth. By what objective criteria do we separate the mythical parts from the historical parts when the Prophets of the Old Testament and Apostles of the New refer to all these events in the same manner? To brush off their understanding is the fallacy of appealing to modernity. We likewise can’t split hairs and say that Peter’s reference to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness” moves Peter out of the “literary Noah of Genesis” (since the Old Testament never calls him that) into the “literary Noah of Jewish tradition” (since Jewish tradition uses that title for him). The tradition understood, as I do, that Noah spent the years building the ark proclaiming God’s judgment to those outside. Was building the giant ark itself not a work of proclaiming the coming judgment to all who saw it? Surely, they would ask what he’s doing. If we believe in the verbal-plenary theory of inspiration (that God inspired all of the very words of Scripture) then, yes, Peter calling Noah a preacher of righteousness indeed means the historical Noah was a preacher of righteousness.*
*And yes, since Paul (2 Timothy 3:8) follows Jewish tradition in naming Jannes and Jambres, I believe those were the names of two of Pharaoh’s magicians. Had God not wanted people to conclude so, Paul could have called them “Pharaoh’s magicians.” Everyone would known whom he referred to, and Paul would not have inserted folklore into inspired Scripture.
We must have a standard better than “I see this as obviously false.” God had a reason when inspiring Moses to compile Genesis 1-11 the way he did. If God inspired it in such as way that the vast majority of 2,000 years worth of Christians seeking God’s face misunderstood it, then that would make God either incompetent (not all powerful) or deceptive (not all good). Craig would want neither option, yet I do not see how we can avoid the dilemma if we adopt palpably false as a criteria without an objective standard.
A possible attempt would be to say that the original audience understood the references, but those later did not. However, Scripture is two things: timely and timeless. It has meaning for those who first read it (timely) and all believers beyond (timeless). To say that such a large chunk of Scripture did not just have hidden gems that require deep dives (as many do) but was instead completely misunderstood puts us back to the original dilemma—believers faithfully seeking to learn God’s ways from His word completely missing it. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would lead those who sought into all truth.
I am curious if Craig finds any other large segment of Scripture that has been so woefully misunderstood (down to the genre) by the majority of Christians seeking God’s face for almost 2,000 years.
1 thought on “What Makes Something “Palpably False”? – Part I”
I concur with the general perspective from which “Black Robed Cleric” approaches the Scriptures when the overall subject is Higher Criticism. I too start with a presumption of authenticity and reliability within the text. This is no less objective than presuming the opposite, namely that he Scriptures must prove their own authenticity and reliability, which has been the guiding force in most scholarly journals and discussions since the Tübingen School took control of the narrative almost two centuries ago with Biblical Criticism. This, to my mind, started from a presupposition that the text of the Bible was flawed, which again demonstrates a subjectivity that is far from noble or admirable.
I’m looking forward to Part Two, Black Robed Cleric.