Ken Mathews recognizes that Genesis has been interpreted in different ways by scholars over the centuries, so when he sat down to write his commentary on the first book of the Bible, he wanted to move beyond modern critical observations.
"There is a sense that proper interpretation began after the Reformation, which feeds a great prejudice against anything that antedates modern critical studies," said Mathews, author of Genesis, 1-11, the latest release from Broadman & Holman's New American Commentary (NAC) series. "I wanted to show how the critical methodology, in terms of the whole span of the history of interpreting Genesis, takes a different tack altogether. Not everyone has assumed critical presuppositions or put the critical method into practice."
This larger context had Mathews researching the interpretation of Genesis from its first mention in Deuteronomy 4, where Moses uses the book to preach concerning idolatry, through the apostolic traditions that appealed to Genesis when teaching on such matters as divorce, through the rich Jewish and Christian scholarship that paved the path for modern interpretations.
"I also wanted to bring in the remarkable epigraphic finds we have recovered over the last century and a half from the Ancient Near East, especially those things that pertain to early Genesis — the Mesopotamian and Egyptian records of origins and how they were understood," said Mathews. "I tried to deal with how we can learn from these materials without becoming slaves to comparative methodology. Against the backdrop of antiquity, we can see the uniqueness of the biblical revelation, how, in fact, it had to be revelation because it was so distinctive."
Some of the distinctives Mathews found by comparing Genesis to Ancient Near Eastern literature: God doesn't have a consort, yet throughout the Ancient Near East the gods had goddesses for sexual relations; monotheism is foundational to the biblical account, yet polytheism reigned in the Near East; Creation is the result of the authoritative word of God and not the consequence of a battle among the deities, a common Mesopotamian myth.
Mathews said the commentary describes the "ideological furniture of the day and how the distinctiveness of Genesis means it must be attributed, not to human genius, but rather to the revelation of God."
Duane Garrett, author of Rethinking Genesis and a consulting editor for the NAC series, said the commentary is one of the best researched volumes on Genesis 1-11 to be found. "Ken has looked into every area and every issue and in great detail examines pertinent problems that are raised from parallel literature," said Garrett.
This exhaustive research was necessary, said New American Commentary General Editor Ray Clendenen, to demonstrate the credibility of the commentary's conservative approach to the text. "We're kind of like Avis, we have to try harder," said Clendenen, referring to some critics who suggest it is impossible to write a commentary series that upholds the authority of the Scriptures while still engaging in good research and good scholarship.
"Ken wanted readers to know that he is aware of the various issues, yet his commitment to the truthfulness of the text leads him to see it differently than others would," said Clendenen. "It's one of the best volumes we've done, and it's being called one of the best evangelical commentaries on Genesis in the 20th century."
One of the core problems that Mathews had to address was whether the opening chapters of Genesis were historical or mythological. Most liberal scholars are skeptical as to whether Adam, Eve, Noah and the patriarchs represent actual people.
"So you will find in the commentary that I continually address this issue," said Mathews. "Some scholars propose that the garden narrative is a patchwork of diverse mythological materials, and I deal with that as a possible understanding, but I ask, 'Is it the most compelling understanding based on the evidence?'"
"I concluded that, while there are similarities to ancient myths, there is unquestionably in Genesis a commitment to historicity," said Mathews. "For instance, the whole book of Genesis is put together by the recurring rubric, 'These are the generations of ….' That is a genealogical formula used to indicate a lineal descent rooted in history."
Mathews said this "clear, overt, explicit network of tying together" the Genesis material through genealogical formula is imposed, not only on the early chapters, but also in the later ones. "To be fair to the compositional strategy of Genesis, you'd have to say the author believed Adam and Abraham had the same claim to historicity."
While the people in Genesis represent historical individuals, they can also have the dual function of representing mankind, said Mathews. For example, Adam, based on the meaning of his name, can represent humanity, but passages of Genesis also emphasize Adam as an individual.
This dual approach is also found in the New Testament, said Mathews, when Adam serves as a representative head of mankind and Jesus is head of the new humanity. "Clearly, Paul understood that Adam was an individual just like Christ was an individual," said Mathews. Elsewhere, in Luke's genealogy, the ancestry of Jesus is traced all the way back to Adam, treating him as a historical figure.
Genesis 1-11 and other volumes of the New American Commentary are available through Broadman & Holman at 1-800-233-1123.
The Genesis Battle Among Baptists
The comparisons are inevitable, but Ken Mathews would prefer his commentary not be compared to the controversial Genesis volumes of Ralph Elliott or G. Henton Davies. "I didn't say to myself, 'Now how am I going to answer them?'" said Mathews. "If that had been my goal, I would have written a different book and entitled it, 'The Genesis Controversy and the SBC.'"
Elliott, in 1961, and Davies, in 1969, wrote Genesis commentaries for Broadman Press that were eventually pulled from circulation because they taught portions of Genesis, such as the account of Adam and Eve, were mythological rather than historical.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis have been a fierce battleground in the fight for Scriptural authority. They establish the issue of sin and the need for man's redemption by God, detailed in the rest of the Bible. If they were proved an unreliable source, repercussions would reverberate through to the book of Revelation and into every believer's life.
Southern Baptists have engaged the battle of Genesis on several occasions:
C.H. Toy, a professor at Southern, began teaching Genesis was not a literary unit, that Genesis contained some mythological elements, and that Adam was not a historical individual. Confronted by Southern's president, James P. Boyce, Toy resigned to teach at Harvard, eventually becoming a Unitarian.
Under the leadership of Southern President E.Y. Mullins, Southern Baptists adopted the original Baptist Faith and Message as a direct response to evolutionary teachings. The document included a special section affirming the unique creation of mankind in accordance with the historical reading of Genesis.
Ralph Elliott's Message of Genesis caused such controversy in the SBC that he was asked to resign as a professor at Midwestern Seminary, and the book was withdrawn by Broadman Press. Elliott taught that Genesis was theologically "purified" and that the biblical stories were mythology rather than history.
The Baptist Faith and Message was revised under the leadership of Herschel H. Hobbs. It added the statement that the Bible was God's Word and that it had "truth without any mixture of error for its matter," which Hobbs explained was a statement of its inerrancy.
The Broadman Bible Commentary's Genesis volume, written by G. Henton Davies, suggested Abraham misunderstood and that God did not give the command to sacrifice Isaac. The following year the SBC called upon the Sunday School Board to remove the commentary from circulation. Clyde Francisco wrote a new volume.
Broadman-Holman publishes a new Genesis commentary which affirms the historicity and reality of the Bible, yet has a rich scholarly base.
This information is based on an article by L. Russ Bush, III titled "The Interpretation of Genesis in SBC History," published in NAC News, January 1996.