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The Bible and the Perils of ‘Evolution’

‘The Creation of Adam and Eve’; Flemish school, seventeenth century
Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain/Scala/Art Resource
‘The Creation of Adam and Eve’; Flemish school, seventeenth century

For a Dutch professor of biological anthropology in Zurich, Carel van Schaik, to join forces with a German journalist, Kai Michel, to offer “an evolutionary reading” of the Bible took more than courage. It required a wholesale rethinking of that immense text as nothing less than “humanity’s diary, chronicling both the problems our ancestors faced and the solutions they came up with.” It presupposed, without argument, that the Bible is “an inexhaustible and incomparable anthropological resource,” which might come as a surprise to scholars of early Judaism and Christianity.

We are asked to believe that this text, as assembled from writings that spanned the first millennium BC and first century AD, reflects the long evolution of the human species from the epoch of hunter-gatherers 13,000 years ago through the many changes that more sedentary forms of life eventually imposed. According to van Schaik and Michel, these changes included the invention of property, the oppression of women, and sexual activity with animals, none of which appears to have characterized the hunter-gatherers. Regrettably those almost mythical ancient peoples have not told us about this themselves. Although the Bible certainly demonstrates that property, women, and bestiality interested the authors of the Pentateuch, what it does not do is assure us that these concerns were alien to hunter-gatherers.

The present evolutionary interpretation of the Bible is arresting and admittedly grounded in the brilliant book by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997). As van Schaik and Michel remind us several times, Diamond maintained that the adoption of a sedentary way of life—the so-called Neolithic Revolution—was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Diamond’s work ranged over many continents and placed great stress on the influence of the environment in human social development. This was a point on which the late generalist historian William McNeill conspicuously disagreed with him because Diamond appeared to neglect the importance of cultural autonomy in determining social evolution. McNeill also pointed to the importance of cultural changes through technology, which can be influential within a similar environment.1

Van Schaik and Michel are firmly on the side of environmental, rather than cultural, causes for social evolution. They claim that a sedentary people had to establish property rights for its individuals (who had had none before), had to monitor the promiscuousness of its women (who had supposedly been shared among the hunter-gatherers), and had to ensure that the animals it was now raising after settling were not available for sexual intercourse. The story of Cain and Abel illustrates the property issue, although it hardly marks the “invention of property,” as van Schaik and Michel claim. Their emphasis on bestiality seems unwarranted, since gratification of this kind is not, and never has been, confined to farmers.

In looking at the Bible from their evolutionary perspective, van Schaik and Michel acknowledge unapologetically that they cannot read “the good book” in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek, with its modest amount of Aramaic in the Book of Daniel. They claim, a little too defensively, that they are not interested in a microscopic view of the Bible: “We are interested in the big picture, not individual verses.” In this respect their work takes a conspicuous place alongside current historical interpretations of the past. An obsession with the big picture has now become widespread in historical analysis. This has meant a salutary breakdown of both chronological and geographical boundaries. Historical inquiry can begin with the end of the Ice Age and roam freely across continents all the way down to modern times.

But the big picture is inevitably by no means uniform, not least because the anthropological or evolutionary perspective is already yielding to more scientific methods based upon genome sequencing and DNA in determining from the corpses of the past the infections that put most of them in their graves. These methods have revealed the pathogen (Yersinia pestis) of the Black Death in the fourteenth century and pointed to the likelihood that it may already have been present in the great plague under the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Climate change, as measured by tree rings, with help of data from long-frozen ice caps, is now taking pride of place in environmental explanations.2

Not so long ago historians lacked the scientific colleagues, methods, and technology that now prevail at such centers as Harvard University’s Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, led by Michael McCormick, and Jena’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, led by Johannes Krause. The work of McCormick and Krause constitutes the cutting edge of this new work on the historical past.

These are only the latest stages in looking for the big picture. What is going on today has its origins in work that the French historian Fernand Braudel launched at the end of World War II. He provided the most influential reframing of historical description in the twentieth century, and he accomplished this with historical parameters that were geographically broad but chronologically limited. In a now classic study, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in 1949, he treated as an interconnected whole what he called the Mediterranean World, in all its diversity of cultural traditions. But he confined his investigation to the reign of the Spanish King Philip II (1556–1598).

Braudel’s audacity in viewing the Mediterranean as a single comprehensive theater of historical action inaugurated a productive industry in Mediterranean studies. William Harris gave powerful support to this enterprise through his Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University and an influential conference and subsequent book, Rethinking the Mediterranean (2005). Only a few years earlier a different but no less comprehensive approach to Mediterranean studies had emerged in The Corrupting Sea (2000), written jointly by Nicholas Purcell and Peregrine Horden, who accepted the idea of a world defined by the Mediterranean but argued for breaking it down into distinct geographical regions with their own cultures and traditions, all interacting with one another and yet not the same.

Monique O’Connell and Eric Dursteler have followed the Braudelian model in their new book, The Mediterranean World. But unlike Braudel they embrace a vast period from the fall of Rome to the rise of Napoleon. The microcultures advocated by Purcell and Horden in The Corrupting Sea have all but disappeared in the overwhelming torrent of historical events. Braudel’s vision is scarcely recognizable in this new book, even though David Abulafia has kept it before our eyes in several books on the Mediterranean.

But the most important jolt to Braudel’s world has come recently from Cyprian Broodbank, who in The Making of the Middle Sea (2013) has utterly refashioned the big picture through a bold and persuasive attempt to look at the Mediterranean world from the Ice Age down to Greco-Roman antiquity. He highlights his innovation by calling his geographical frame “The Middle Sea,” thereby emphasizing its location within the changing environments and climates of the encompassing regions.

James Tissot: God’s Curse, circa 1896–1902
Jewish Museum, New York
James Tissot: God’s Curse, circa 1896–1902

With Broodbank we meet the hunter-gatherers once again, but they look very different from the simple people that van Schaik and Michel describe as living in their pre-sedentary paradise with shared women and no property. It has always been too easy to talk about hunter-gatherers as if we really knew what they actually did, apart from hunting and gathering. Surviving tribes in Australia or New Guinea are not necessarily indicators of the way people were living at the end of the Ice Age. By presuming to know how hunter-gatherers lived, van Schaik and Michel create an imagined society with which to compare the society evoked by the Bible. But this is neither anthropology nor evolutionary biology, and it is likely that their reading of Holy Scripture will survive, if it survives at all, only as a curiosity.

By contrast, here are what Broodbank describes as “cultured hunter-gatherers” after what he calls the Last Glacial Maximum (21,000–18,000 BC):

These hunter-gatherers were, for all their apparent strangeness and distance, people with families, kin, social lives and personae marked by distinctions of age, status and role as well as sex, cultural beings who inhabited landscapes assuredly invested with symbolic meaning and myth.

This is a far more sophisticated view than either of the opposing views espoused by Diamond or McNeill. What is important in Broodbank’s analysis is the concept of extratribal networking.

He acknowledges that each band of one or two dozen people shared much in common “with only a limited sense of personal ownership,” and up to this point he echoes some of the views of van Schaik and Michel. But he then offers a much more nuanced account:

Each band would have been connected to others via larger social affiliations numbering hundreds of people. These connections increased the flow of information, skills and materials, as well as the choice of mating and other partners. Furthermore, they fostered long-term stability by reducing the risks facing each individual band in adversity…. The result was the creation of the first recognizable Mediterranean networks—ones that often, due to the low densities at which these hunter-gatherers lived, delineated connections over distances rivalling those of far later times.

Broodbank goes on to offer archaeological proof of what he calls this “release from proximity.” His view of hunter-gatherers subverts van Schaik and Michel’s evolutionary interpretation of early Palestinian society as depicted in the Bible.

No biblical book is so fraught with difficulties of interpretation as the first, Genesis (Brashith in Hebrew, or “in the beginning”), with its account of the creation of the world and the first denizens of it. Van Schaik and Michel offer nothing to help with its many substantial problems, such as the naming of God with a plural noun (Elohim) governing a singular verb and the vivid account of God walking in a garden close to Adam and Eve. The possibility of more than one God in the foundation story for Judaism, a religion that is unequivocally monotheist, cannot be casually brushed aside by an offhand quotation from Robert Wright, “Apparently God himself didn’t start life as a monotheist.” The plural form has been plausibly explained as a “plural of majesty.” But the evidence for a plurality of Gods is dramatically reinforced by Psalms 82, which refers to a whole panel of Gods, not unlike the classical concilium deorum (Council of Gods) of Greek and Roman polytheism. The verses in the psalm could conceivably be taken to show that God was a kind of Zeus who presided over other lesser deities in some remote past.

But even more remarkable is Genesis’s account of God as walking in the garden during the cool of the day within earshot of Adam and Eve. This raises the question of God’s corporeality, because no one without a body, or, in the strange locution of van Schaik and Michel, no one who is “discarnate,” can easily stroll in a garden and converse with two humans who are trying to hide themselves. If God made man in His image, as Genesis says He did, it might be thought that God had a human body. It is to this complex and much-discussed topic that Christoph Markschies has devoted a long book in German (very lucid German, it must be said), and it takes an honorable place as another example of the big picture. In Gottes Körper, he explores the arguments for and against a body of God across a vast spectrum of ancient and early medieval thought. He looks at representations of God in Jewish, Christian, and pagan texts. Unlike the two authors of the evolutionary interpretation of the Bible, Markschies does not plead ignorance of the relevant languages, all of which he commands and cites with authority. But his erudition is no obstacle to a broad vision.

Markschies knows well that Jews and Christians in medieval and modern times have found ways to explain biblical references to God’s body as metaphorical and to postulate a difference between a heavenly body and an earthly one. This was the solution of the great twelfth-century scholar Maimonides, who was no more inclined to equip God with a body than Spinoza, who declared in the seventeenth century that the idea of a body for God was as senseless as saying that a circle was foursquare. What we have to realize is that this apparent absurdity was taken seriously in antiquity, and that is why Markschies’s uncommonly big picture proves to be as unsettling as it is wide-ranging. It is an effective antidote to the evolutionary imprecision of van Schaik and Michel, and their reduction of so much of the biblical narrative to a replay of human development in what they see as the post-sedentary period.

The problem of God’s body was clearly recognized already in the Ptolemaic age by the translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek as the Septuagint. When they read in Numbers 12.8 that Moses saw the image or form of God, which appears in the King James version as “the similitude of the Lord,” the translators of the Septuagint were impelled to change the meaning to “the glory of the Lord.” The translation of this verse into Aramaic for the Babylonian Bible similarly avoided the implications of the original by rendering the word for “image” as “honor.” This issue festered throughout the Roman imperial period, and both Melito of Sardis and Tertullian argued for the corporeality of God. The argument led ultimately to its espousal among the monks of Egypt, who proclaimed what became known as “anthropomorphitism,” the belief that God had a human form.

The Mediterranean world in which rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity took shape provides an almost Braudelian perspective on the idea of a body for God. This was a world in which the Greeks and the Romans had for centuries celebrated their gods, and above all their chief god Zeus (Jupiter), with statues in temples that left no doubt about their corporeality. But this was also a world in which Platonism leached imperceptibly into the thought of the monotheists, and so it was not surprising that sooner or later the appearances of a physical God in the Bible should be represented as a phantasma, a substitute for the real God, whose body could therefore be relegated to metaphor. These were complex debates in antiquity, much more lively than they were to be later after the systematic onslaughts of medieval theologians, such as Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas, on surviving arguments for divine corporeality.

In their evolutionary interpretation of the Bible, van Schaik and Michel include the Greek Testament, and this brings them to Christology, over which they do not spend much time. But readers of Markschies will be conscious that the Christian Trinity included one component, the Son, who incontestably had a body, and that fact continued to fuel discussion over Christ’s nature. This is not a topic that engages the two evolutionary anthropologists, who see in Jesus Christ “the perfect product of cumulative cultural evolution.” They undertake to show how the itinerant preacher Jesus “managed to outdo the competition,” and they accomplish this, not unreasonably, by invoking Jesus’ miracles, which for some reason they insist on calling “wonders.” Such manifestations of spiritual power are, we are told, “credibility-enhancing displays,” or CREDs, which serve to counteract “our skeptical cultural immune system.”

Equipped with the pseudoscientific acronym CRED, van Schaik and Michel explain Jesus’ success as the direct result of several CREDs: the virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. This analysis is eventually followed with a more surprising claim that the women in Jesus’ movement, Mary Magdalene above all, had a revolutionary role in what was essentially a patriarchal society. This leads to an extraordinary hypothesis that we are witnessing a return to the culture of hunter-gatherers, where women are imagined to have had greater freedom, or at any rate were free to consort with anyone they liked. This view of hunter-gatherer culture is questionable, despite some collaboration between men and women,3 but even more questionable is the aberrant suggestion that a return to it in the time of Jesus may be described “as the emancipatory inclusion of women.”

Jesus and his women are, as it happens, a much-discussed issue at present, because a papyrus scrap, first publicized by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School as a fragment of a gospel, mentioned Jesus with a wife. The sulphurous debate that followed her publication of this fragment has finally been resolved through the public identification of the man who tried to market this scrap and possibly forged it, although he denies that he did. He turns out to be a second-rate German Coptic scholar called Walter Fritz who became a pornographer, featuring his wife, before starting to peddle forged papyri.4 Fritz’s bizarre career and the inauthenticity of his papyrus are instructive reminders of how easily historians, theologians, and anthropologists can be led astray. Professor King unfortunately imported her concern for early Christian women into a vain attempt to rewrite the story of Jesus with the help of a document that most dispassionate scholars had immediately judged to be a fake.

Van Schaik and Michel fortunately did not know about this when they wrote their book, and so that still left them all the freer to speculate about a return to hunter-gatherer culture. As they wrote, they were not interested in biblical verses, but in the “big picture,” while the “evolutionary interpretation” they have put together is impressionistic at best and often implausible. It is certainly out of touch with contemporary scientific work on history, in which genomes, DNA, ice cores, and tree rings figure prominently.

No one can doubt that Braudel showed long ago, like his many followers ever since, how illuminating the big picture can be, even without science. But to be authoritative it must be a picture created with deep learning and judgment, and these are the qualities that Christoph Markschies has brought to his work on God’s body. It is not enough for a picture just to be big. Without suggesting any evolutionary interpretation, Markschies has succeeded in opening up a theme that bridges disciplines and millennia, and this puts both the Bible and the Mediterranean world into a new setting and interpretation that both deserve.

Letters

Evolution & the Bible December 22, 2016

  1. 1

    See the review of Guns, Germs, and Steel by McNeill in these pages, May 15, 1997, and the subsequent exchange of letters between him and Diamond, June 26, 1997.  

  2. 2

    On the Black Death, see Pierre Toubert, “La Peste Noire (1348), entre histoire et biologie moléculaire,” Journal des Savants (January–June 2016). On climate and tree rings, see Ulf Büntgen and others, “Cooling and Societal Change During the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 535 to Around 660 AD,” Nature Geoscience, February 8, 2016. 

  3. 3

    See Melvin Konner, Women After All (Norton, 2015), on modern hunter-gatherers in Africa  

  4. 4

    Ariel Sabar, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife,” The Atlantic, July/August 2016. Nearly all of New Testament Studies Vol. 61, No. 3 (July 2015) is devoted to the scholarly debate.