Is Genesis Three Legend or History?

According to the Apostle Paul, the fall of man into sin was an historical fact. There was on this earth an actual Adam who at a definite point in history disobeyed God and plunged the human race into an estate of sin and misery. “Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin.” (Romans 5:12). This language is clear enough. There was one man, namely, Adam. He lived here upon this earth, and through him sin entered into the world. He acted on behalf of all mankind, and because of what he did, sin is present with us.

This same view of the historicity of the Genesis account of the fall of man is found elsewhere in the New Testament. When our Lord (John 8:44) says; “Ye are of your father the devil, and ye wish to do the desires of your father. That one was a murderer of man from the beginning,” it is obvious that He has reference to the wicked thing that Satan did in the garden. The reader might find it profitable in this connection to consult such passages as Matthew 13:38; 23:33; 2 Corinthians 11:3; I Timothy 2:13, 14; Romans 5:12ff and I Corinthians 15:22.

Gunkel and His Legends

It goes without saying that the New Testament interpretation of the Fall, like everything else that the New Testament says, has been subjected to severe criticism and attack. In fact, the modern scholar has no hesitation in telling us that we are wrong in agreeing with the New Testament that the Fall was an actual, historical event which took place here upon this earth. One of the most subtle of these attacks upon the trustworthiness of the Scriptures is that which has been advanced by a German scholar, Professor Hermann Gunkel. Gunkel wrote quite a large commentary on the book of Genesis in which he set forth the view that the book, as we now have it, consists of a collection of sagas or legends. Uncivilized races, so we may paraphrase Gunkel’s thought, do not write history. They have no interest in leaving to posterity an authentic account of what has happened. Rather, events fade from the memory rather easily, and the stories of these events, therefore, contain both fact and fancy. Thus, unlettered tribes report the historical events with which they have been made familiar only through song and saga. Such reports are poetical, a mixture of fact and imagination; they are, in other words, legends.

Legend and history, therefore, says Gunkel, differ very much both in their origin and nature. Legend usually originates with mere oral tradition, whereas history on the other hand, is usually found originally in written form. When traditions are handed down through the years by word of mouth alone, they are bound to become corrupted. Finally the legends are written down and thus preserved for posterity.

The book of Genesis, we are told, contains many such legends. It is really a written compilation of the legends of the ancient Hebrews. “The evangelical churches,” Gunkel says, “would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends as has been done too frequently—but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis.”



Having made this declaration, Gunkel next proceeds to classify, as far as that is possible, the “legends” which he thinks he finds in Genesis. Of these one type alone need now concern us. It is the myth, by which word Gunkel means a story in which the gods are the actors. Such stories are among the most ancient, he tells us, but in the form in which they have reached us, they are in rather faded colors. It is not always possible to tell what the original purpose of these myths was. Sometimes they served the purpose of answering mankind’s universal questions. At other times, it would seem to be impossible to ascertain what was the reason for the origin of a certain “legend.”

In answer to this position of Gunkel, we would say, that it deprives the book of Genesis of any real value whatever. It is thoroughly skeptical in its method. If Genesis consists of nothing more than a collection of stories, which may have some historical elements in them, we may read Genesis for entertainment, just as we read the Thousand And One Nights,but we might as well face the fact that Genesis then has no religious value for us at all. It is not the word of God and not a trustworthy book, and we need not take it any more seriously than we take the Thousand And One Nights.

Is Genesis Three An Allegory?

Not all modern scholarship is willing to let the matter go as Gunkel has done. Many modern scholars think that they have to get some religious significance out of Genesis. Hence, the prevailing view would seem to be that Genesis three is a kind of allegory which is designed to teach spiritual truth. About the actual origin of the account, we are told, we can really know nothing. In its present form, however, we can see that it is not intended to be historical. It is simply a legend designed to explain the reason for the presence of the misery of the world or else to show us that every man must face temptation and overcome it, else dire consequences will come to him. In any case, the one thing we must be sure of is that Genesis three is not historical. To state the matter bluntly, there never was a man named Adam who lived in the Garden of Eden and ate the forbidden fruit. The events described in Genesis three are profoundly true, we are told (and whenever a modern critic uses the term “profoundly true” we need to be doubly on our guard) but they are not historical.

Essentially in line with this is the view of some modern theologians that the Fall of man belongs in Urgeschichte or in the supratemporal realm. They would claim to believe in the Fall, but this can only be understood in connection with the basic philosophical position which underlies their writings. Thus, according to Kant, the account of the Fall simply illustrates the fact that sin results from an act of absolute freedom on man’s part. But the modern theologians are at one in their agreement that the Fall was not historical. We must not be deceived by the claims of those who say that they believe in the Fall and yet show clearly that they deny its historical character.

The Nature of Genesis Three

It is now time to ask whether Gunkel and the modern theologians are correct in their interpretation of the third chapter of Genesis. First of all there is the clear teaching of the New Testament. Gunkel tosses this aside by saying that Christ and His Apostles were men of their time who shared in the ideas then prevalent. Hence, we cannot pay heed to their views of the Bible. However, if this were actually the case, we might as well face the fact that we could not trust Christ and His Apostles on any matter. If they were so in ignorance on the question of the entrance of sin into the world, how do we know that they were not in equal ignorance with respect to the question as to how sin is to be removed from the world? The answer which Gunkel gives is not scientific; it will not stand. We who believe the Bible should constantly thrust the New Testament at the modern critics. They must hear and heed its claims, else they cannot possibly arrive at the truth.

Suppose, however, that we did not have the New Testament? Suppose that it were necessary to study Genesis alone; can we, by a mere study of the account of the Fall in Genesis, determine how that account is to be accepted? The answer is that we most certainly can do this. It is perfectly possible by means of sober and careful exegesis to ascertain the true nature of the account of the Fall in Genesis.

Genesis Three Is History

For one thing the third chapter of Genesis occurs in a book which is admittedly historical. In [act we may say that it is a book whose character is strictly historical. It is perfectly true that this has been denied by Wellhausen and Gunkel and others. Archaeology, however, more and more is shedding its refreshing light upon the background of the narratives in Genesis. Genesis does not purport to be a collection of allegories, but rather a sober, straightforward account of the creation of the world and the history of mankind down to the descent into Egypt. Surely no thoughtful historian can for an instant seriously believe that Genesis is a collection of allegories.

Nor, for that matter, can we agree that it is a collection of legends or myths. For one thing, the remarkable unity of the book is such that no mere compiler of legends could have produced it. It shows that we are not dealing with mere legends. Archaeology, also, is making it more and more clear that the events described fit in well with the time to which they are said to belong. Genesis, we can safely assert, is a book of history, and to insert in this history, at one of its most crucial points, an allegory, would be strange and out of place indeed.

Not only does the account of the Fall occur in a book of history, but it also forms an integral part of that history. For one thing, the actors in the account, Adam and Eve, appear again in the fourth chapter, and the history of the human race, which sprang from them, is carried forth throughout the remainder of the book. The first chapter prepares for the events of chapters two and three, and the subsequent account is not understandable without chapters two and three.

It may further be noted that the condition of sin and misery which appears throughout the remainder of Genesis is that which was announced in the garden. In other words, the disobedience of Adam brought mankind into precisely that tragic state of death which appeared immediately and continues throughout Genesis. Without the narrative of Genesis three, the remainder of the book is simply inexplicable.

Lastly, it may with confidence be asserted that Genesis three bears none of the marks of allegory. Rather, it purports throughout to be straightforward history. This is particularly striking and noticeable with respect to the speaking of the serpent. The speaking of the serpent, after what we have just been told about the utter superiority of the man over the animals, a superiority manifested for one thing is man’s ability to speak, strikes us as utterly surprising. It is so surprising in fact that we realize immediately that something is wrong. This is not the speaking of animals, so common in a fable; it is rather the manifestation of a deep seated wickedness.

No moral is given in this chapter. We are not told that we have been presented with an example which we must follow. Rather, we are told a simple, straightforward story. The writer, therefore, believed that he was writing history. Hence, we are faced with the following alternative. We may say: The writer of Genesis three believed that he was writing history but I do not believe that the events which he narrated were actually historical. That is one position, and it is an honest position. Or we may say, the writer of Genesis three believed that he was writing history, and I believe that he actually was writing history. That is the position also of the New Testament. It is, the present writer believes, the only tenable position. There is however, one position, which we cannot accept. It is to say that the writer of Genesis three merely intended to write an allegory in order to explain the misery of the world. If we accept that position, we are bad exegetes; we are not capable of explain. ing the Scriptures. At least, let us reject the Scriptures, if we think we have to reject them, in an honest manner. Let us be done with this idea of manhandling the Bible for the sake of defending our own ideas. If we must reject the Scriptures, let us plainly say that we do not believe them.

Must we, however, reject the Scriptures? For our pan, we believe most emphatically that we must not. If this sad account of the fall is not true;—if Adam never lived;—if there was no garden of Eden;—if Adam did not disobey the command of God, then the Bible is wrong in its statement of the entrance of sin into the world. And if it be wrong on such a point, how do we not know that it is wrong when it speaks of our redemption? The Fall is a fact; it is an historical fact; it took place on this earth at a certain place and at a given point in history. Its consequences have been tragic. But our redemption is also a fact, an historical fact. The first fact occurred in the beautiful garden of Eden; the second took place outside the wall of Jerusalem. Both were historical facts, and in such a belief alone may we rest our souls.