Genesis: myth or mythdirection?

The recent visit of the director of the Kolbe Centre in the United States, Hugh Owen, raises again the question of how a Catholic is to read the Book of Genesis? The first important guideline in recent times was laid down by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 ency

Kieran Fenn fms

The recent visit of the director of the Kolbe Centre in the United States, Hugh Owen, raises again the question of how a Catholic is to read the Book of Genesis? The first important guideline in recent times was laid down by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (#35):

You must go back, as it were, in spirit, to those remote centuries of the East. With the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and the other sciences, you must determine accurately what modes of writing the ancient writers would likely use, and in fact did use.

This principle applies to every book in the Bible, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The absorbing purpose is clearly to discover what the inspired author meant to say. It must be surely evident that any author from the times of the two creation stories, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and 2:4b-25, would have had no concept of either creationism or evolution. These are issues that belong to our times and the field of science. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. It is a theology textbook. Its interest is not in how the world was created, but in who created the world.

In his Lenten sermons of 1981, Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, gave his non-literalist interpretation of the six-day account of Genesis. Archbishop Ratzinger’s approach should be a guide for contemporary Catholic understanding.

In his first homily, entitled God the Creator, Archbishop Ratzinger discusses the principles that govern his reading of Genesis. He begins by recalling the opening words of the sacred scriptures that highlight the creative action of God ‘in the beginning’. However, he goes on to ask the question that lies at the heart of the creationist debate: are these words true? Do they count for anything?

First, he proposes that the exegete ‘must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed’, by keeping in mind that the Bible is, first and foremost, a religious book and not a natural science textbook.

Thus, Archbishop Ratzinger concludes that Genesis does not and cannot provide a scientific explanation of how the world arose. Rather, it is a book that seeks to describe things in such a way that the reader is able to grasp profound religious realities.

It uses images to communicate religious truth, images that were chosen from what was understandable at the time the text was written, ‘images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities’. In other words, the Catholic interpretation is called to respect the text as it is. We are called to read Genesis as its human author wished it to be read, not as a scientific treatise, but as a religious narrative that communicates profound truths about the Creator.

How do we know that the human author of the six-day creation account did not mean to write a literal historical narrative or a scientific treatise? In response, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes a second criterion for sound Catholic thought – we should interpret a text from within the context of the whole of the Bible. Applying this criterion to the interpretation of the six-day creation account, we discover that the creation accounts in the Old Testament – the six-day account of Gen 1:1-2:4a is only one of several found in Genesis and in Psalms √¢ÀÜ≈°√¢‚Ä∞¬• are clearly ‘movement[s] to clarify the faith’ and are not scientific or historical narratives. For instance, Cardinal Ratzinger notes that a study of the origins of the creation texts in the Wisdom literature especially reveal that they were written to respond to the Greek civilisation confronted by the Israelites.

It is not surprising that the human authors of these accounts did not use the image of the six days to assert their faith in the one Creator God. This image would not have been appropriate for their time and would not have been understood by their Greek contemporaries. In contrast, a study of the origins of the six-day account of creation, found in the first chapter of Genesis reveals that it was written to respond to the seemingly victorious Babylonian civilisation confronted by the Israelites several centuries before their encounter with the Greeks.

Archbishop Ratzinger points out that it is not surprising that nearly every word of the first creation account addresses a particular confusion of the Babylonian age. The author wanted to dismantle a pagan myth that was commonplace in Babylon and assert the supremacy of the one Creator God.

Archbishop Ratzinger concludes: Thus, we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of God’s creating act. In sum, a comparative study of the different creation accounts scattered throughout the sacred scriptures reveal that they were not and are not historical or scientific narratives. They were theological arguments that used different images to communicate the same truth – the truth about the Creator and his Creation.

The content of Archbishop Ratzinger’s Lenten Genesis lectures are available on the internet: