Book Review: Origins, by Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby
Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11, authored by Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby, was written to address the cultural and cognitive environment of the Ancient Near East (ANE) in which Genesis 1-11 was written. It represents the first eleven chapters of Genesis as distinctly literary rather than as literal history.
Origins starts by explaining the reason for focusing on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, rather than the book of Genesis as a whole. From the author’s view, if the reader understands the ANE cultural and cognitive background of the text, it dramatically changes how they see the first eleven chapters of Genesis in particular. This is because the reader will see many points of connection with the ANE pagan cultural backdrop, while also seeing the distinct differences.
Here is a quote that summarizes the purposes of the book:
“What is lost is an awareness of the radical nature of the Genesis writer’s retelling of the background narrative. Instead of reading Genesis with attentiveness to its revolutionary teachings, we can easily reduce it to a repository of principles for Christian living, quotable verses, prophecies of the end times, hidden Bible codes, or the final word on dinosaurs, aliens, or astronomy. Genesis speaks to hardly any of these matters. Such ‘insights’ must be read between the lines and forced into the text. . . . We aim to convince you that Genesis is seriously interacting with the ancient world, critiquing its polytheistic worldview while providing a credible alternative.” (A Note From the Authors, Origins)
In part one of Origins, the authors give information about the structure of Genesis, ancient sources, and the cultural backdrop.
The second section goes into the two creation accounts, the first cosmically focused and the second human-focused. Here, the authors go into detail into how they believe God accommodated his message to the cultural understanding of the time, the importance of understanding genre, and the problems with literalizing the text.
Section three goes further into the connections between the various stories of Genesis 1-11 (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the table of nations, the Nephilim, Noah, and Babel) and the pagan stories of the ANE world. I found the chapter Numbers: Literal or Symbolic especially enlightening and convincing for the literary approach.
The strengths of the book include:
- Enlightening information on points of connection and differences between the pagan ANE creation stories and Genesis 1-11. The reader is generally educated on much of the ANE literature. This is enlightening whether or not there is agreement with the conclusions of the authors.
- A devotional focus at the end of each chapter, which kept the book from becoming “overly-heady” and brought Genesis 1-11 back to a focus on our relationship with God and how these chapters should affect our hearts and lives.
- Adequately and persuasively represented a wholly literary rather than purely literal historical approach to the first eleven chapters of Genesis. This may prove a helpful apologetic to Christians or non-Christians who feel they cannot accept a literal interpretation. The book does an excellent job at many points of pointing out the problems with a totally literal approach.
- The book is charitable to those of a different point of view. For example, here is a quote from the introduction: “Our security in Christ does not depend on perfect comprehension…we may still disagree with others of equal sincerity, spiritual devotion, and intellectual depth.” The post-script (A Caution to Teachers) was especially helpful on this point. As noted in the post-script, there can be a danger in teachers using a book like this to tout their newfound beliefs on Genesis 1-11 in a disrespectful or prideful way towards those who disagree. There is a caution to be charitable and loving with those with whom we have differences of interpretation.
The weaknesses of this book include:
- No in-depth summaries or descriptions of other approaches or middle-grounds between the literal and literary approaches to Genesis 1-11, although links were given to the two authors’ articles on the subject. Other attempts of “synchronizing” the text with modern science are usually glossed over. The authors do list various approaches in chapter six (Schema: Creation Week), but they leave out the functional interpretation given more recently in The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, which has gained popularity. However, one could argue that the purpose of the book was not to represent all Christian perspectives of Genesis 1-11.
- The book presents the literary theory as the only viable option, which could be seen as a weakness if the reader thinks there are other plausible approaches. In my opinion, there could have been more room given in the book for a semi-literal perspective, where the author of Genesis could have been highly stylizing true events.
- I wasn’t totally convinced as to why Genesis 1-11 should be taken as literary while the rest of Genesis should be taken as literal history. I have heard reasons outside of this book. For example, some scholars think Genesis 1-11 was written at a separate and later date than the rest of Genesis (during the Babylonian exile). However, in my opinion Origins has no compelling reasons why Genesis 1-11 is different from the rest of Genesis in this way. This could open the reader to a literary (non-historical) interpretation of much more of the Bible.
This book was helpful for a Christian like myself who finds a totally literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 implausible. If it were not for books like this one, I feel this would be an unnecessary stumbling block to my belief in the authority and inspiration of the Bible.
This book can be a helpful apologetic and alternative view for those in the church who have only heard a literal approach to Genesis 1-11 and are looking for something different.
(For more from Jonathan, check out jonwalt.com.)