Some somber reflections on Kenton L. Sparks’ “Ancient Historiography” in Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on The Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan , 2015.
“From where we stand now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in a time when we’ve sequenced the Neanderthal genome and traced out in the DNA our shared genetic heritage with primates and other mammals, it is no longer possible for informed readers to interpret the book of Genesis as straightforward history. There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God. Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certainly do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity. If Genesis is the word of God, as I and other Christians believe, then we must try to understand how God speaks through a narrative that is no longer the literal history that our Christian forebears often assumed it to be.”
Where does one begin with such a raw assertion of disbelief in the scripture which claims to come from the perspective that Gen 1-11 is the “word of God”? Remarkably, Sparks then follows in asserting:
“Christians on all sides certainly agree that Gen 1 – 11 is the introduction to and sets many theological agendas for the larger canon from Genesis to Revelation.”
What then if Gen 1-11 never even really happened? For this is what he is saying by writing that there is one thing the first chapters of Genesis do not offer and that is a “literal account of events that actually happened.”
Rather, he supposes a radical borrowing from ANE mythological forms and stories, and that the author(s) did not believe it was “historical in the strict sense of the word.” Sparks simply conveys a recycled, classic source-critical view on the various origins of the biblical text, while imposing his post-modern historical assumptions on the biblical narrative as entirely inferior to the genre of history, and that it consists of mythic tales borrowed from Babylonians and Egyptians. While all the while claiming this as the foundation and source of our theology, he drives a hard-and-fast chasm between the historical and the theological, and thus perpetuates the Neo-orthodox myth that we can have sound and true theology based on false history that is full of errors and pagan notions about origins, meaning, and life.
In his proposal, he also assumes that anyone who does not agree with his revision of the biblical narrative in Gen 1-11 is unscientific, and even supposes the wildly unsustainable view that since we have traced our DNA to primates and mammals that we can no longer believe that Gen 1-11 is actual (“literal”) history as our Christian forbears did. In light of that thought, it is peculiar that he believes Christians have always believed the authors of biblical history were writing history, yet he states that those same authors believed they were writing mythology (as he defines it), not history “in the strict sense of the word” (whatever that means?). I am not sure why he employs this latter phrase, since it implies that there must also then be history that is “in the strict sense of the word,” but it cannot really be known from ancient authors. Therefore, his conclusions only raise impossible questions like, what exactly is “history” that is also mythology? And, so it would appear, the biblical “authors” reworked ancient pagan myths to fashion a palatable theology on the foundation of “history” that is actually mythology, in the strict sense of the word.
For example, Sparks calls the OT narratives in Genesis “traditional stories” that simply reflect ancient attempts to make sense of life. These stories are mostly just “tales” that he calls “short fictional narratives” (such as creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the curse on Canaan, the Tower of Babel) that reflect the issues and questions that confronted these ancient people of God. These stories are designed to convey important theological messages, in turn by rewriting ancient myths and tales to that exalted end. The Pentateuch is thus just an ethnic anthology of diverse ancient genres (legend, etiology, folktales, fables, etc.) re-worked from a monotheistic persuasion. 
In truth, his speculations are mostly just the creative reworking of contemporary legends and mythologies about the ancient world and the origination of the biblical text that have been imagined by the intelligent, historical-critical scholars he has studied under and read. The same problem faces us when interpreting his own words from his perspective: why is there any reason whatsoever to believe that his proposed tales, legends, myths, and fables actually convey any truth at all in regards to origins, history, the cosmos, or especially theology? How does the “reshaping” of ancient legends that were not intended to communicate actual events about actual people supposed to give us certain, actual theological truths? Indeed, one could be positively distrustful of any tale that would seem to be by design given to mislead its recipients into believing it was actual history, but is not, and that we should all-the-same believe the “moral of the story.” This is not only the worst form of spiritualizing and exemplorizing of the text, it is outright advocation of the virtue of deceit, even though the deceits may have not been always intentional since some of the Pentateuchal legends actually came to be thought of as historical by their authors. In any of these scenarios, about all that we can do is strive to strain some theological concepts and moral lessons out them: they were monotheistic and believed that humans had messed up their lives by sinning against God and consequently have lived in exile and disharmony. Thus, these ancient mythologists communicated these “truths” by revising ancient pagan fables in order to craft “a completely new myth.”
I am left defeated and out of breath in trying to “suspend disbelief” in this fantastical and marvelously inventive post-modern mythologizing about how the biblical narrative originated, and what they might mean for us today. Also, I am puzzled (and troubled) by Spark’s assumptions that the authors of the Bible could somehow rationalize the use and revision of pagan mythologies and legends, that themselves are not “strictly speaking” historical, when in fact the very narratives he says originated in this fashion are those same narratives that would refute such a proposal, since they are at least in part polemical refutations of paganism and pagan myths and legends, whether we are considering creation, the Fall, or the Flood. Certainly, Sparks, in the least, fails to consider the radically polemical nature of the scripture against all paganism and its mythologies, as well as the Old and New Testament scriptures that forbid accommodations with them:
Deut 18:9–14 (NASB95) “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. 10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 “For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. 13 “You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 “For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so.
2 Pet 1:16 (NASB95) For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
1 Tim 4:7 (NASB95) But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness;
Most clearly, the Scripture draws social, spiritual, moral, legal, theological, religious lines between the realms of the pagans and that of Israel. This is especially so in the area of the “abominable practices” of the pagans surrounding Israel (Deut 18:9-14). It would follow that the brutal, bloody, fantastical world of diabolical deities and forces of the Babylonian and Egyptian mythologies would be poor source material, if the biblical authors were seeking compliance with God’s laws and character in teaching a holy people to be set apart altogether from the idolatrous pagans. Indeed, Israel’s entire mission was formed around God creating such a people who represented him to the pagan, idolatrous nations. Their consistent failure in that mission is the very reason the Lord carried them off into exile, and destroyed Jerusalem, by the very pagans they were guilty of imitating and emulating.
Most seriously, Sparks gives us an example of the problem at hand, that so many scholars propose alternative readings of the Bible, and sometimes radically so, without reckoning with the irresolvable theological contradictions they create for our reading of the rest of biblical history. This is especially so in regards to the vital and inseparable relationship between creation and redemption, between Creator and Redeemer. This is not the only serious concern raised by such (de)mythologizing of scripture, but it is my focus here.
The creation and fall story, instead of falling, as Sparks suggests “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world,” it rather falls entirely outside the mythic tradition of the ancient world. For example, the biblical creation story, in radical divergence from those mythic traditions, uniquely presents creation as follows (and this is a short-list):
- The beginning of the creation of finite matter and time (temporal not eternal) on a linear continuum of six actual, solar days.
- The creation of the heavens, the earth, and humankind ended on the sixth day with God declaring the seventh day holy and one of rest. Eventually, one of the signs of the covenant of redemption is the Sabbath which denotes that God is Lord of all creation signifying “creation rest,” that work is a gift and calling, and that worship of God is preeminent.
- A creation out of nothing.
- Creation by the spoken command/word of God.
- Creation entirely at God’s independent initiative and without the help of any intermediary forces or substances.
- A space-time creation that is entirely distinct from the Creator (and thus the Creator has absolutely no dependence on creation).
- The creation is always in the immanent presence of the Creator who is yet always transcendently present (no animism, pantheism, panentheism, deism).
- The space-time creation has both unity and distinction reflecting the very (triune) nature of the Creator (no “chaos” or pagan gods involved).
- All animated and unanimated creation have unity/coherence as well as distinction.
- No inanimate creation is animated by spiritual forces or persons of any kind (no animism, pantheism, panentheism, deism).
- All of creation has a coherence and predictability as designed by a coherent God who is not capricious nor arbitrary, but acts always in accordance with his perfect and holy, loving character.
- All of creation is very good by God’s declaration (no evil components or malevolent demiurge).
- All creation is crowned by the exalted creation of man/woman in God’s own image, and as male and female. The image of God privileged humanity over creation-cosmos: dominion. Dominion (subduing and multiplying) reflected sinless subjection to God.
- Adam was created by God from the dust and God created Eve from Adam’s side, and placed them together in Eden to work and care for the Garden
- Adam and Eve were to have a complimentary, loving, monogamous relationship toward common tasks and labor and procreation (family) in the Garden. This procreational dimension of a truly theocratic community was to be expanded into to all the earth. Adam is considered the federal head of all humanity. There was patriarchal authority in family and creation.
- Adam and Even were given the vocational dimension of cultivating, subduing, stewardship, cultural and pro-creational artistry. The master gardener reflects the Master Gardener as “world shaper” and “architect of space.” Practically-speaking, Adam had taxonomic (naming), cultivating, and protecting the Garden roles (guarding Eden against evil). Theologically-speaking, being thus guardians of the sanctuary of Eden they had priestly-witness functions regarding the unveiled (unmediated) Presence of God, as well as prophetic roles of interpreting unmediated revelation from God in and through creation, as well as kingly roles of dominion in governance. These roles included knowing and learning the central principles of God’s laws in a creation-ethic (typifying later Mosaic laws for holiness) that included unconditional, spiritual eternal blessings with a potential for eternal life (Tree of Life) and everlasting shalom. Important in this regard, was the reality of the internal and external law of God by the indwelling of God’s Spirit. The probationary (testing/tempting) aspects of their commission and mandate to obey included a conditional covenant (Eden-land/Presence/Life) and the temporal blessings/cursings: prosperity, progeny, and God’s presence.
- In contrast to all ANE mythologies, the Edenic relationship with God was based entirely on God’s initiative, it was bilateral, probationary, and preservative.
I propose that all of these biblical distinctives are uniquely polemical revelations from God that do not borrow from ancient pagan conceptions, traditions, motifs, legends, or myths. In contrast, wherever Sparks believes there is some similarity between biblical stories and mythic legends and fables, he presupposes that parallels prove borrowing and revisions. Despite the fact that none of his proposals are confirmed borrowings, as such, more important is the fact that his methodology is faulty in presuming (and most uncritically) that formal similarities prove origins, borrowing, and redactive revisions. It should also be noted that Israel eventually lost the land, the temple, and their homes when they accommodated themselves to the mythologies of the Canaanites and pagan idolaters.
The question is, does Sparks acknowledge anything in the biblical accounts that departs from their mythic and legendary pagan sources? In regards to this question, Sparks remarkably contradicts himself on his creation/fall myth assertions. After stating that the biblical legend falls “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world,” he then says that “the biblical paradise/fall story is especially unique when compared with other ancient exemplars” (sic). If the biblical creation/fall story is both “squarely within” the “standard repertoire of mythic beliefs,” and yet is “especially unique” (sic) and “a completely new myth,” then he has repudiated his own assertions within the space of two pages. In further undermining his first assertion, he correctly acknowledges that some of the unique features of the biblical accounts diverge from the A.N.E. mythologies (such as monotheism, humankind’s propensity to break God’s law, a “literal” week, the image of God in humans, and the Sabbath). Nevertheless, I suggest that this sufficiently subverts his previous claims that the biblical accounts are just mythical revisions that fall “squarely within the mythic tradition of the ancient world” by having “exploited the standard repertoire of mythic motifs.” In fact, I would restate that the short-list I presented above is sufficient evidence that the biblical creation account is not a revision of ancient, pagan Mesopotamian or Egyptian legends, but is in the least a radical polemic against them.
Having said all this, does it really matter whether our theology is based on actual historical facts and events, since scholars like Sparks assume not? For starters, I propose that it would be very concerning if we are to fashion a theology on supposed, and reconstructed (only possible), pagan mythologies and legends that might have some “historical” (but not “in the strict sense of the word”) ideas behind them, and that were but revisionary imitations of pagan mythologies and cosmogonies.
If we agree with Sparks’ assertion noted already that “Christians on all sides certainly agree that Gen 1 – 11 is the introduction to, and sets many theological agendas for, the larger canon from Genesis to Revelation,” then we should seriously take pause at his proposals. Indeed, it is arguable that even Gen 1-3 can be said to set the entire theological trajectory for all of the rest of the Bible, and of course 4-11 continue and expand on this. If this is so, the kind of approach Sparks proposes requires us to relinquish the long-held view that our faith, and all of its theology, depends upon the veracity of its historical origins and contexts.
Indeed, in these modern “historical” approaches, there is an underlying assumption that the modern historian is an objective, scientific reader of ancient history who stands in stark contrast to the ancient mythologists who could only by nature regularly confuse/conflate history with legend and fantasy with fact, and who had no moral quibble in doing so. If this be so, then the entire subsequent history of redemption in the Old and New Testaments stands or falls on the thin ice of our modern, evolved interpreters who have no quibble with basing our entire faith on ancient deceptions, confusion, paganism, fantastical mythologies and their re-workings by ignorant, pre-scientific revisionists who happened to be sometimes monotheists. And all of this, he proposes, is to point us to Christ!
In relation to this problem of the ancient biblical authors, he further writes that the authors of Scripture are like a room full of elders who do not all agree, and each have “a unique voice in relation to God,” and are broken and sinful (suggesting their words are also?), but he concludes that “It is through this communal reading experience that God points us to his one and only solution for our broken condition: Jesus Christ.” Of course, we can earnestly agree that all of Scripture points us to Christ, but we must as zealously defer from such post-modernist revisions of biblical revelation that depend upon both pagan origins and a total absence of any actual historical veracity.
Sparks calls his approach “reading Scripture responsibly” by “careful readers.” Yet, just as the ancient writers who were so confused that they believed that serpents could talk and that the confusion of languages occurred at Babel, he says “we will look as confused in a thousand years as they do now.” Rather, I submit that he is the one presently confused by his “careful” reading, while the ancient and divinely inspired authors never were in their carefully recorded texts of history and theology.
Though he does not carry over this reading strategy to the New Testament (in the essay that I am discussing), I am left wondering what is to hinder us (who now know the Flood never happened, since we now know how to write “dependable history” with the “insights of modern geology and evolutionary biology,” what he calls “modern science”), from imagining the same kind of mythological reconstructions for Christ and his life that he does for the entire Old Testament text? Will it take a thousand years before we blithely chuckle that the New Testament authors believed that serpents and devils could talk, and that people could speak miraculously in foreign languages (Pentecost), and that a man could raise people from death by his word alone, and feed thousands upon a few fish and loaves?
In conclusion, “From where we stand now,” what good reason do we have to believe in the confusion Sparks proposes to resolve his failure to believe the record of revelation? Are we to believe in, or about, something (as important as the entire history of revelation of God’s works) that never really “happened” except in the imagination of ancient mythologists and idolators who were trying to “make sense” of their world, and who often contradicted one another in their redacted efforts to do so? Or, are we to believe in the musings of a modern historian who himself hopes to entirely revise those pre-scientific mythological redactions? Either option appears to me as nihilistic for biblical faith and the gospel, for in both cases they may be but “cleverly devised tales.”
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 110.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 115.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 126
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p.130.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 137.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 126.
 See also Gen 6:9, 17:1, Ex 22:18, Lev 18:24, 19:26, 31, 20:6, Deut 9:5, 12:31, 2 Ki 21:6, Jer 27:9–10, Mal 3:5, Mt 5:48.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 125.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 126.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 126.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p.115.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 51.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,”p. 112, 132.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 139.
 Sparks, “Ancient Historiography,” p. 139.