How much of scripture is true? That question can only be answered by respecting the difference between pre- and post-scientific understandings of truth. Thus we avoid The New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture’s stricture of “bad science and bad exegesis”. Since the Enlightenment we have sought knowledge through factual evidence, but our forefathers used stories to explain phenomena. Such stories may often have a proximate or remote origin in history, or perhaps a deduction from human observation and experience.
A prominent example is the six days of creation. Faced with the existing world, the ancients developed a story which explained it in terms of the immediate action of God. No doubt they believed it to be factual, but it went beyond observable fact, while conveying the underlying truth. The scientist, by contrast, explores the procedure of creation through observable fact, and throws light on everything except the underlying truth.
The story of the Tower of Babel may well have been based on a historical incident. Ziggurats, or great towers, were common in Babylonian cities – and we can easily imagine the quarrels between the different teams of builders (were there trade unions then?) leading to abandonment of a project. But the author is inspired to present us with the conflicts that arise when men go beyond their brief and attempt to make progress without reference to God. If you want to check the underlying truth of this warning, watch the news on television tonight.
Where Noah’s flood is concerned there is an embarras des richesses. There are 10 separate Babylonian sources for this fable – including the Gilgamesh epic, which shares the same Mesopotamian tradition and is uncannily similar to Genesis. There is no archaeological record of a flood as extensive as Noah’s, but we may assume that memories of widespread disasters were the basis. Again the writer conveys the lesson: where the other sources refer to the gods acting out of pique, we are presented in Genesis with God as saviour, and a foreshadowing of his covenant with Israel. There are several other elements significant in the history of salvation.
These stories share a common feature. Ultimately, the accuracy of the account matters less than the underlying truth being proclaimed. I do not need to see the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a literal account for my focus to be on the faith, obedience and prefiguring of the Incarnation which the account presents.
Since the dawn of our species was about 200,000 years ago, and may well have been preceded by strains which are now extinct, the Fall of Man can only be inferred as a possible historical incident because we are all related through common ancestry. So here we must reconstruct the evidence provided through the inspired writer’s experience of human nature. He would have recognised the tension between our created spiritual nature and our inherited animal nature. He knew our aspiration to the good and our failure to achieve it. It should not surprise us if he presented this graphically by a story in which our parents initially live a kind of ideal human life, governed by right reason and directed towards God. The Fall illustrates dramatically how, in rejecting God’s call, we inevitably – as if by gravity – fall back into our native sin.
In the absence of evidence we cannot exclude the literal account in Genesis, but to recognise it as a story, and not history, does not threaten the essence of the course of salvation. Original sin is built into our human nature, and so is universal. In essence, it is not personal guilt; it becomes so when we embrace it. Our aspiration to the good finds its source in the goodness of God; we call it grace. And this gift comes to us through redemption, whose effect is not bounded by time. We do not have to accept the original story as history in order to grasp its meaning.
In this context our native tendency to lapse into sin is displayed by Christ’s temptations in the desert. If he were not attracted to power, represented through Lucifer’s suggestions, it would not have been temptation – because attraction is what temptation means. But his rejection is complete. The process is more explicit in the Agony in the Garden. Here his human fear leads him momentarily to pray to be spared. But the grace from his Father enables him to accept the divine will. He is like us in all things except sin.
Nevertheless, we must always be cautious in judging between story and history. The Incarnation and the events that brought about our redemption are incidents in history, and so is the broad account of the Old Covenant. There may be argument about detail – but we must heed expert authority.