The historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis

June 24, 2010

Catholic teaching, as authoritatively set forth in the document below, is that the first three chapters of Genesis are historical: that is, they “contain narratives of things that truly occurred; that is, narratives that correspond to objective realities and historical truths.”  They do not contain “fables … purged of polytheistic errors,” or “allegories … given under the appearance of history,” or “legends, partly historical and partly fictitious.”

Adam and Eve were therefore real people who really existed, who were created in a state of innocence and utter happiness, and lost that happiness through sin, tempted by the devil under the appearance of a serpent (sub serpentis specie).  The importance of recognizing this truth is impossible to overstate.  Unless the problem of Original Sin is acknowledged, there is no need for a Redeemer, no need for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and no need for His Church.  Attempts to undermine the historicity of Genesis 1-3 are primarily attempts to abolish or moderate the need for the Christian religion and the Catholic Church.[1]

Replies and Statements of the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Matters [see here for the authority of the PBC responses]

On the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis (30 June 1909) (My translation from the Latin)

1. Whether the various exegetical systems, which, in order to exclude the literal, historical sense of the first three chapters of the book of Genesis, have been devised and put forward under the guise of science, are supported by a solid foundation?

Resp. No.

2. Whether, notwithstanding the historical character and form of the book of Genesis, the specific connections of the first three chapters among themselves and with the following chapters, the manifold witness of the Scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments, the nearly unanimous opinion of the holy Fathers, and the traditional sense, which, transmitted also by the Israeli people, the Church has always held, it is able to be taught, that the aforesaid three chapters of Genesis contain, not narratives of things that truly occurred; that is, narratives that correspond to objective realities and historical truths; but are either fables drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of primitive peoples and, purged of any polytheistic errors, accomodated to monotheistic doctrine by the sacred author; or allegories and symbols, lacking a foundation in objective reality, given under the appearance of history in order to inculcate proposed religious and philosophical truths; or finally legends, partly historical and partly fictitious, freely composed for the instruction and edification of souls?

Resp. In the negative to every part.

3. Whether in particular the literal, historical sense can possibly be called into doubt, where it is treated in the same chapters of the narrated facts that belong to the foundations of the Christian religion: as, among others, the creation of all things by God at the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman out of the first man; the unity of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in a state of justice, integrity and immortality; the command given by God to man in order to test his obedience; the transgression of the divine command, with the devil under the appearance of a serpent as counselor; the casting out of our first parents from that primæval state of innocence; and the promise of a future Redeemer?

Resp. No.

8. Whether in the naming and distinction of the six days in the first chapter of Genesis, it is possible for the word yôm (day) to be taken, either in its proper sense as a natural day, or in its improper sense as a certain space of time, and whether it be permitted to debate a question of this sort freely among exegetes?

Resp. Yes.[2]


[1] Pope St. Pius X: “And in fact, what do those who hate the faith lay as their foundations for sowing in every direction their great errors, by which the very faith of many is shaken?  Without doubt, they deny that men has falled by sin and that he has been brought down from his former rank.  Hence they add original sin to the ranks of invented stories, and condemn whatever proceeds from it: the corrupt origin of the human race, the universal vitiation of the descendants of that origin, and even the entrance of evil to mortals and the established necessity of a redeemer.  With these things posited, it leads one to understand that there is no further place for Christ, nor for His Church, nor for grace, nor for anything that goes beyond nature: in a word, the whole edifice of faith shakes on its foundations (Encyclical “Ad diem illum lætissimum,” 1904; 22.).

[2] “It seems that” the permissive response to 8. “was strongly influenced by the widespread [and erroneous] acceptance of uniformitarian geology.  Considering that the Fathers of the Church who wrote on Genesis nearly unanimously accepted the former interpretation [“sensu proprio”], the PBC would probably not have seen the latter interpretation as a viable alternative if its members knew what we know now about the inadequacy of uniformitarianism” (Warkulwiz, Doctrines of Genesis, p. 7).

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