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On the Genre of Genesis and a Strange Little Question

October 15, 2010 73 Comments

Fr. Robert Barron has well noted that the Bible is not a book, it is a library. Contained within its pages are works of history, poetry, prayer, prose, theology, liturgical instructions, cosmology, philosophy, parables, moral tales, genealogy and so forth. How exactly to read its pages and understand them is often a matter of understanding the genre.

The word Genre is from French, genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” It also stems from Latin: genus  and the Greek: genos, γένος). Genre is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on a set of stylistic criteria.

Now some one may ask you, “Do you read the Bible literally?.” Fr. Barron points out, that’s like someone asking you, “Do you interpret the library literally?” Of course you would say, it depends on what section I’m in. If I’m in the science or history section I may read the book there literally. But if I am in the poetry or novel section, or in the children’s storybook section, I would not likely read the books there literally. I would understand that they are using stories and images to make a point, but not like science or history does.

So we know how to exercise some sophistication when it comes to the library. But many loose this sophistication when it comes to the Bible. Often we can fail to distinguish literary forms and thus force a book or passage to be what it is not.

The Book of Genesis, especially the early chapters suffer a lot of this sort of failure to appreciate the literary forms. Many want the creation stories to be science or exact history when in fact they are more poetic and theological, than scientific. They advance the real and true point that God alone created everything there is out of nothing and did so in an intentional and systematic way in which he is involved at every stage. This is the sacred and theological truth set forth by the Genesis accounts.

But this does not mean the text proposes to be in the form of a science textbook. Take, for example, the accounting of the “days” of creation. Although light is created on the first day, the Sun and moon are not created until the fourth day. So what does it mean to speak of a “day” when the very sun by which we measure a day is not even existence for the first three “days?” Further, the notion of light apart from the Sun, is somewhat an abstract concept.

If some one asks me if I read the account of creation literally I ask them, “Which one?” This usually leads to a puzzled look. But but the fact is that Genesis sets forth two accounts of creation that are very different.

  1. In the first account (Gen 1:1-2:4) we see a period of seven days which begins with the creation of light, then the sky and the ocean, then vegetation, then the sun and the moon, then, fishes and birds, then the animals and finally Adam and Eve.
  2. The second account of creation (Gen 2:4-25) does not mention days or a time frame. It begins with the creation of Adam, then the planting of a garden, then the animals, then the creation of Eve.

Hence, we have two very distinct versions of the creation. In no way can they be harmonized yet, neither are they in absolute conflict. They both describe the same event from a different angle and with a different focus on detail. Neither account alone contains all the details. But, together they contain all God wants us to know about the creation of the cosmos. If asked to describe my recent visit to the Holy Land I could start at the beginning and give a day by day account. Or I could choose to start at the end or culmination and work backward. Or, I could just give highlights. Or I could sort out the trip along themes such as Old Testament sites and New Testament sites etc. I might also select the data for a given audience and present different aspects to different audiences. And so, the options are quite many. Now all of what I say is true, but it is selective and thematic based on the audience and my purpose.

So here again, a little sophistication is required in dealing with the accounts of creation. If we have a literalistic and wooden notion of history we can err by trying to make Genesis what it is not. It does not conform to the modern genre of historical writing which tends to be strictly chronological and comprehensive. These Genesis accounts are quite willing to speak to us poetically and selectively of creation and even to reverse the timeline. This is because their purpose is not to give us a blow by blow account of exactly how God did everything. Eaxact times and dates are not the point. God as purposeful sole and sovereign creator is the point. God who is present and active at every stage is the point. The dignity of the Human person are also the point. The first account accomplishes this by making man the culmination of the creation story. The second account makes this point by beginning with man and having every formed around him and for him.

The catechism of the Catholic Church says of these accounts:

Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation. (CCC  # 289)

This all leads to an odd little question that was asked on Fox News not long ago. Fr. Jonathan Morris was asked a question: “How did Adam and Eve’s kids have kids?” The questioner seems to imply that since only Cain and Abel are mentioned (no girls) how could there be other kids? Father Jonathan Morris usually is well prepared and gives good television interviews on a variety of subjects. In this case he does a poor job but essentially makes the point that there are just some things that Genesis doesn’t cover and hence we cannot really answer the question.

But notice the premise of the question: The questioner presumes Genesis is an exact and fully inclusive history like modern histories. Therefore, since only Cain and Abel were mentioned, then only Cain and Abel existed. But this premise is flawed since Genesis is not proposing to be a complete, seamless and chronological account. Hence, just because daughters are not mentioned, does not mean that they did not exist. Genesis 4:17 does mention the wife of Cain and other women are mentioned in the genealogy that is in Genesis 4. (Now the problem of incest is too long for here and will be the subject of another post. It is wrapped up in the question of monogenism and polygenism).

I think if Father Morris had handled the question based more on the nature of the Genesis account his answer would have made more sense. The fact is, that Genesis does not propose to give us all the details or answer all our questions. Something is left to the reader and to ordinary sophistication which recognizes that Genesis is historical but not written in the form of modern histories. Hence we cannot expect all the details and must presume the presence of other children (esp. daughters who were born to Adam and Eve).

So, in the end, how about a little sophistication in our understanding of Scripture!

Here is the video of Fr. Morris struggling fro an answer. Again, please note he is usually better prepared. I suspect it was late at night, given the title of the show: “Red Eye” which I have never seen.

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  1. Vijaya says:

    As a child I wondered that too, but when I got older, I started to take the Bible less literally and assumed that God made more people. Every culture has creation stories so I figured that that God created people everywhere and they all disobeyed because it is human nature … and so they were all expelled from their respective gardens to toil. The goal of every human is to again regain perfect union with God.

    I once wrote an article for kids about bellybuttons (even cats have bellybuttons), and now I’m wondering whether Adam did have a bellybutton 🙂

    • OK, but on the other hand we don’t want to be too far afield from the Genesis text. I intend to do an article on the questions surrounding monogenism and polygenism to demonstrate that the most likely position for a Catholic is to accept the direct creation of Adam and Eve and that every one came from them, that there were no other humans simultaneously craeted elsewhere. It all began with Adam and Eve. More on that later.

      • Reginaldus says:

        Msgr., I look forward with great delight to a post on monogenism! Have you read St. Augustine’s literal commentary on Genesis? It is really really good on these questions… If it would be helpful, I looked at some of these points in relation to St. Augustine in a three page article (discussing the “two” creation accounts, the possibility of evolution, the number of “days” for creation, etc.) …

        In any case, good luck with this future post!

      • Andrew says:

        Given Pope Pius XII’s discussion of polygenism in Humani Generis, how can Msgr. Charles Pope claim that monogenism is merely “the most likely position for a Catholic.” Pius XII very clearly says that Catholics “by no means enjoy such liberty” of discussion with regard to polygenism. Not even liberty of DISCUSSION.

        The problem with supposing multiple first men, of course, is that it decimates the ancient understanding of Original Sin, which, as Pope Pius XII explains, “proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”

        I understand that Humani Generis was not an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium and hence does not contain statements of doctrine that can be characterized as infallible. But it is certainly an exercise of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, and as an encyclical it enjoys the highest authority that a Pope can exercise short of invoking his charism of infallibility, so it certainly is owed our obedience as “children of the Church.”

        How then can Msgr. Pope characterize monogenism as merely “the most likely position for a Catholic” when polygenism seems to have been ruled out of bounds and no third position between the two can exist? Isn’t monogenism the only position allowed to us under the consistent teaching of the Church throughout history and as characterized by Pope Pius XII?

        I suppose this will all come out in your forthcoming article, which I await eagerly . . . and with some trepidation.

        Official English translation of Humani Generis available here on the Vatican website: (
        All quotes from Humani Generis used in this post taken from paragraph 37.

      • Vijaya says:

        Ooops. I look forward to reading it, Father.

      • Will says:

        Daughters were not mentioned then because a genealogy in those days was from the male side of the coin only. The sons of Adam and Eve joined with the daughters of Adam and Eve, its that simple.

        As for incest, it simply wasn’t a thing back then. We’re looking at as near to perfect human beings as possible, Adam, created from the dust of the earth, by God, was as “physically” perfect as humanly possible. Why would God create Adam as anything less? Adam was also the smartest human to ever walk the earth. A brain created by God right off the bat, to name all the beasts of the field and birds of the air. He was a human who did not have parents, was not “taught” so to speak, by anyone, so God would have made him, as knowing of everything as could possibly be.

        Going back to the “perfection” of human form, we’re talking about DNA here. The farther we go back in time, the closer we get to the perfection of the human genetic code. Less mutations, less disease. These things were simply nonexistent in the Garden. Using stories from the book of Enoch we can learn how even the “scent” of the fruit of the Tree of Life extended life.

        There simply wouldn’t have been genetic mutation between the daughters and sons of Adam and Eve. It is even easy to accept that the genetic code was still so “perfect” and “pure” a thousand years later that Noah’s grandchildren married each other in what today would be termed incest. The genetic code was simply able to hold up better.

        Then again while in Egypt, at the beginning there were 72 individuals, certainly there were grandchildren marriages.

        As the years pass, sin breaks down the body of man.

        In regards to Genesis, I believe in it, just as it is written. There are interior explosions inside of quartz crystals, inside of mountains, that can only be explained if there were a sudden and spontaneous creation/formation. The Mt St Helen’s volcanic eruptions completely obliterated the logic of carbon dating and for some bizarre reading still it’s used today. The Grand Canyon itself does away with carbon dating based on geological surveys by taking a layer by layer sampling of its interior.

  2. Vincent says:

    Great post. This is definitely something Catholics need to get a better handle on. Too many have picked up on the strong literalistic current that runs through a lot of the “Christian” (read “Evangelical Protestant”) devotional material that is available in popular culture.

    A related point that is also important to make:
    While God truly inspired the authors of scripture, that does not mean that he chose their words. As the Catechism says, these humans whom God inspired acted as true authors. They weren;t simply scribes taking dictation. Inevitably they expressed themselves in the language and concepts they had available to them and oftentimes these concepts were quite limited. We see this, for instance, in the cosmology that is presented in the first creation story where the sky is depicted as a dome that holds back all the water that is above it, and the sun, moon and stars are lights of various sizes that are set in this dome. The writers had no conception that the earth is a planet in a solar system in galaxy in an unimaginably large universe. God revealed to them that he was the maker of all that is, but they expressed that using their own conception of what the world was like.

    The really significant thing in this point is that it holds true not only for the writers’ conceptions of things like the sky and rainbows and where different languages come from, but also for their conceptions of God. The writings in the Old Testament (and even those just within the book of Genesis) come from different time periods and different points in God’s process of self revelation. Compare for instance the newer story of creation in Genesis 1 with the older story in Genesis 2. There is clearly a difference in how they depict God. In the older story they still think of God in very human terms: God walks in the Garden; it takes God several tries before He comes up with a suitable partner for Adam (which apparently He didn’t realize Adam would need until after he had already created him); God makes man out of clay and woman out pf man’s rib; God has to search for Adam and Eve and question them to discover what they have done; God is seemingly threatened by the possibility that humans would have access to both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By contrast, in the newer creation story in Genesis 1, God is much more transcendent. He creates by willing things into existence with his words (e.g. “Let there be light”) rather than making things out of objects. God is in total control. The difference between the two accounts, which were likely written several hundred years apart, shows how the Israelites grew in their understanding of God as He slowly revealed himself to them more and more fully over time.

    This point is vital to understand because we encounter many troubling stories about God in the Old Testament. At several points Moses has to talk God out of wiping out his chosen people (e.g. Numbers 14). God orders the Israelites to commit genocide (Deut 7). God kills a man for touching the ark of the covenant, even though the man’s intention was to steady it so that it would not fall (1 Chronicles 13:9-10). God heeds Elisha’s curse of some children who have teased him for his baldness and sends two bears to kill 42 of them (2 Kings 2: 23-24). And much more.

    If the Bible is read literally or every part is thought to carry equal weight, then it is an unjust, violent, and fickle god that we follow. That is why it is vital to remember as the Catechism says that there are many things that are “imperfect and provisional” in the Old Testament (CCC 122). We only come to see the fullness of God’s identity in the person of Jesus Christ. Every other depiction of God in the bible must be read through the lens of Jesus.

    • I agree with some of what you have said though I am not sure that God hadn’t thought about a suitable partner for Adam and is engaged in trial and error. Rather, I think these texts are to teach Adam (us) about the need for a suitable partner and also who that sutiable partner is. Further. I think the question of gneocide etc is a little more complicated that just a mis-conception or more primitive notion of God. We had a rather long discussion on that topic here:

      • Vincent says:

        The problem with the approach you take to the genocide question (which resembles certain forms of protestant dispensationalism), is that it creates a contradiction in Church teaching. The Church teaches us that the direct taking of innocent human life is intrinsically evil. If God ordered such killing, then either such killing is not actually INTRINSICALLY evil (and Church teaching is wrong), or God ordered us to commit intrinsic evil. Neither of these seem to be acceptable solutions. I find it much easier to believe that this is one of the parts of the Old Testament that is “imperfect” (as allowed for in the catechism passage I cited above).

        You are right to be concerned that such an approach could lead to the willy-nilly discarding of all the biblical teachings that we find inconvenient or offensive to modern sensibilities. However, I think the guard against this is just what the Church prescribes: that authentic interpretation is something that happens within the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the exercise of the magisterium, mindful of the unity of scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and the analogy of faith. (see CCC 111-114)

      • Andrew says:


        Let me start off by saying that genocide, when by the term we mean the racial equivalent of the merely personal crime of murder (i.e., if murder is the intentional taking of one innocent human life, then genocide is the intentional taking of the innocent lives of a whole race of people), then it is certainly intrinsically evil. Always has been, always will be.

        The question here, however, basically hinges on whether the incident that is alluded to in Deuteronomy 7 and then played out imperfectly through the next several books of Scripture, meets this definition or not. The answer is a resounding “No!” The people are not innocent, not any of them. The contrast is between the people of Israel, a people “holy to the LORD your God” (Dt 7:6, RSVCE) and the iniquitous residents of the Promised Land. Nevertheless, God tells them explicitly (if you keep reading on to Chapter 9) not to get cocky because it is not on account of their holiness that the people of Israel will be able to conquer the Promised Land. Check it out (Dt 9:4-5):

        “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land’; whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess the land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

        Regarding that “word which the LORD swore to your fathers,” please see Genesis 15:13-16:

        “Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.'”

        So God foretold to Abraham the whole story of the Exodus: that the people of Israel would be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, that Egypt would be severely judged (by the ten plagues), that Israel would plunder Egypt on their way out, and that then they would come back to (re-)possess the Promised Land only at a time when the “iniquity of the Amorites” was complete.

        The nation of Israel (the sovereign people of God who get all their authority from God himself, cf. Romans 13:1) is thus an instrument of God’s justice against the Amorites (and other peoples living in the Promised Land). Israel is not going to kill the Amorites because of who Israel is but because of who the Amorites are. And Israel must wait until the iniquity of the Amorites is complete, and when it is, the whole race is guilty, and the genocide thing falls away. It’s not genocide; it’s a kind of mass capital punishment (which the Church continues to teach is legitimate under the right circumstances and not intrinsically evil). Kind of like the Flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which are morally permissible because the righteous in each case were preserved. There just weren’t any righteous men left among the Amorites because by the time the nation of Israel enters the Promised Land their iniquity has become “complete.”*

        As a side note, I would also quibble with you over your claim that God commands them to do this. Really, He says that He is going to do it for them (cf. Dt 7:2), and if God Himself is the one executing these people, you can be sure that He is doing it out of His justice.

        * Nevertheless, some of the unrighteous (like Rahab) are converted and on account of their conversion they are saved.

    • Blake Helgoth says:

      The general point of your post is decent. However, you say God did not choose the words. Actually, He did, but the authors freely chose them as well. God is the primary author of Sacred Scripture and the writers are secondary authors, but true authors nonetheless. God intends every word of Sacred Scripture. What your are forgetting is that Sacred Scripture is without error in historically, morally and in regards to faith. As Pius XII put it, “But then, “when certain Catholic authors, contrary to this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, in which authority of this kind is claimed which enjoys immunity from any error whatsoever, for these books ‘whole and entire, with all their parts’-when these authors had dared to restrict the truth of Holy Scripture to matters of faith and morals … our Predecessor of Immortal memory, Leo XIII, in an encyclical, Providentissimus Deus…. rightly and properly refuted those errors….” – Divino Afflante Spiritu.
      Although, as Msgr. Pope says, the Genesis account is not a literal historical, it does records historical facts. Those facts are that God created everything out of nothing, that Adam and Eve were the first parents of all mankind (otherwise the doctrine of Original Sin goes out the window) that they committed the first sin, that they fell from grace and passed that fallen state on to their offspring. Those facts a Catholic is not free to dispute. Your post would seem to contradict this view of inspiration held by the Church.
      Also, what evidence do you have that Moses was not the author of Scripture? Sure, he may have had others do some of the work on his behalf, but he was the author. The Church has always held that he was the author. The view that parts were written several years apart by different authors is not a view that can be upheld in conformity to the Church’s teaching.
      Yes, we must interpret the Sacred Scriptures with the mind of what the author was intending (not forgetting that God is the primary author, so there may be multiple levels of meaning, like in Isaiah 7). What we cannot do is to form a view of authorship that allows for error, because if God is the primary author, and being God therefore cannot lie, there is no error.

      • Thanks Blake, I think you’ve done a good job in summarizing other concers I had with Vincents comment

      • Vincent says:

        Catholic teaching on the interpretation of scripture has developed significantly since the encyclical of Pius XII that you cite. The Catholic Church does not hold that scripture is inerrant with regard to historical matters, but only that “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” (CCC 107) If you exam the various drafts of Dei Verbum (Vatican II’s Sacred Constitution on Divine Revelation) that lead up to the final text, the council fathers very deliberately avoided saying that scripture was without error in all matters sacred and profane.

        I would also suggest reading some of the Church’s more recent documents on the use of modern methods of critical interpretation in helping us to understand scripture. (I recommend the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. It is long, but does a thorough job of addressing the complicated question of how the newer forms of critical analysis can be used by the Church while still retaining the more traditional methods of interpretation used in Catholic theology.) The Church most definitely does not insist that we believe that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, and does not resist the “4 source” theory that is widely accepted by most biblical scholars.

        As for the basic historical facts in Genesis 1-3 that you claim I dispute, I don’t deny any of them. I affirm that God made the universe ex nihilo, that he brought into being the first humans, that those humans sinned, etc.

      • Andrew says:


        Church teaching on the inspiration of Scripture has not developed, if by “developed” you mean that the Church used to teach that Scripture was “free from ALL error” (which it did, see Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII, November 18, 1893, emphasis added) and now teaches that there might be some errors in Scripture but not on anything important. Consider what Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical:

        “It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error. And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they laboured earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance – the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the “higher criticism;” for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.”

        As Papal teaching in an encyclical (which is the highest form of ordinary teaching that the Pope can exercise), this is real Church teaching that Scripture is “free from all error.” So unless you can show that Vatican II repudiated that declaration (which would be problematic for different reasons), you need to try to interpret Dei Verbum in such a way so as not to contradict Providentissimus Deus (PD). Pope Leo XIII’s discussion is very clear, so there’s really no room to claim that when he said “free from all error” he really only meant “free from some error.” Thus, the interpretive work here needs to be in terms of shifting your understanding of Dei Verbum. Which is fine enough, because all you have to do is modify your understanding of what “for the sake of our salvation” is doing in that sentence. This should be easy: it’s not a restrictive modification, but an explanatory one. Rather than reading Dei Verbum as claiming that only some parts of Scripture are truths that God wished to have recorded “for the sake of our salvation,” you read it as claiming, that ALL OF THE TRUTHS OF SCRIPTURE are truths that God wished to have recorded “for the sake of our salvation.”

        How do we know this is so? I offer you two arguments:

        (1) First there is the argument that Pope Leo XIII makes, which is basically this: All of Scripture is inspired, and this inspiration is through the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Truth because God Himself is Truth. Obviously the God who is Himself Truth could not inspire not-Truth, so therefore all of Scripture, being inspired, is True, at least in the sense that God intended it.

        (2) Look at what comes immediately after your quoted passage from Dei Verbum. Immediately following that sentence, the Council Fathers quoted 2 Tim 3:16, and they do so saying, “THEREFORE, ‘All Scripture is divinely inspired . . . .'” So I think you have interpreted the “for the sake of our salvation” passage differently than the Council Fathers intended it because they thought that the logical conclusion to be drawn from their statement was that “All Scripture is divinely inspired,” not “some parts of Scripture are divinely inspired” or “most parts of Scripture are divinely inspired” or “at least those parts of Scripture which concern faith and morals are divinely inspired, but we profess ignorance as to whether the parts that discuss history and other matters are divinely inspired.”

        So, I think you need to rethink your understanding of the extent to which the inspiration of Scripture is plenary. I suggest starting by reading Providentissimus Deus again, but reading it with an open mind and a sense of humility that starts by first acknowledging that the teaching of Providentissimus Deus is a real exercise of the ordinary Magisterium to which you owe obedience. Then go back through the various Magisterial documents since then and keep in mind that unless the Church actually claims to be overturning past understandings (like that conveyed by Pope Leo XIII), it isn’t doing so.

        By the way, I’m pretty sure that the PBC stopped being an official organ of the Magisterium prior to the publication of “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” which means that even if there was a conflict between it and the teaching of Leo XIII or Vatican II (a claim which I do not admit), it would lose out against either or both of those official exercises of the Church’s Magisterium.

        Quote from Providentissimus Deus taken from paragraph 20 in the Vatican’s English version here:

      • Andrew says:


        In defense of Vincent (for a change!), the Church actually does allow Catholics the freedom to believe that Moses may have used pre-existing sources, i.e. material written (or recorded) by others, in writing (or compiling, depending on your view) the books of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, it remains the composition by Moses that was inspired and thus Moses remains truly the author of the Pentateuch (or at least the substantial majority of it*). Consider the PBC’s Responsa “On the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch” from 1906, particularly the third question and answer:

        “III: Without prejudice to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, may it be granted that in the composition of his work Moses used sources, written documents namely or oral traditions, from which in accordance with the special aim he entertained and under the guidance of divine inspiration he borrowed material and inserted it in his work either word for word or in substance, either abbreviated or amplified?
        “Answer: In the affirmative.”

        Official Italian Text of the Responsa:
        Official Latin Text of the Responsa:
        Unofficial English Translation of the Responsa (it’s the first translation given and the one used above and below):

        * The Church also allows the faithful the freedom to believe that there were modifications made to the original Mosaic text (for example, the account of Moses’ own death at the end of Deuteronomy) by later writers, as long as the basic fact of Mosaic authorship is not compromised and subject to the judgment of the Church. See the fourth question from the same responsa:

        “IV: Subject to the Mosaic authorship and the integrity of the Pentateuch being substantially safeguarded, may it be admitted that in the protracted course of centuries certain modifications befell it, such as : additions made after the death of Moses by an inspired writer, or glosses and explanations inserted in the text, certain words and forms changed from archaic into more recent speech, finally incorrect readings due to the fault of scribes which may be the subject of inquiry and judgement according to the laws of textual criticism?
        “Answer In the affirmative, saving the judgement of the Church.”

    • Andrew says:


      My friend, you sound like you are denying that the inspiration of Scripture is verbal (in addition to being plenary, which you seem to accept), i.e., that Scripture is inspired down to the level even of the words, and, if that is in fact what you are doing, I think you’re wrong. Consider this passage from Dei Verbum:

      “For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.” (DV 11)

      To repeat, the Church holds that the books of Scripture are inspired “in their entirety, with all their parts.” And again the logic here is that this must be the case because God Himself (who is Truth with a capital ‘T’) is their author.

      Clearly, the actual words of Scripture fall under the heading of “all their parts,” and so the Council teaches us that the Church accepts even the choice of the individual words as inspired.

      This passage (DV 11) is quoted in the Catechism at paragraph 105, but consider also what the Catechism says in paragraph 107: “The inspired books teach the truth.” Full Stop. Not “the truth regarding faith and morals,” just “the truth.” So if Scripture teaches it, it’s the truth. Period. As a bonus, this is actually the Catechism’s interpretation of that other passage from Dei Verbum with the difficult phrase “for the sake of our salvation.” Clearly the writers of the Catechism (which included our present Pontiff, Cardinal Schonborn, and Cardinal Arinze, among others) did not find that clause to be restrictive in indicating that only some parts of Scripture are guaranteed (or known) to be true. They instead clearly think that whatever Scripture teaches (faith, morals, history, etc.) is “the truth.”

      I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea: the Church teaches very emphatically that the Bible is inspired through and through. Come on, guys, it’s the WORD OF GOD. It has to be true through and through, in the same way that Christ (who is also the Word of God) is true through and through.

      • Vincent says:

        Andrew, I’m afraid you are wrong in all of your responses to me. Part of the problem is that you don’t seem to be up to date on what the Church has been writing about these matters in recent decades. The Church has backed away from many of the anathemas issued by Pius IX, Pius X and their successors. (I could cite very clear examples where those popes condemned religious liberty, modern forms of biblical criticism and other things that the Church now accepts.) Quickly, on some specific points:

        1) On genocide: Are you telling me that the babies (both born and unborn) that were slaughtered by the Isrealites weren’t really innocent? And even if you were to argue absurdly that they were not, is indiscriminately slaughtering the guilty really how God teaches us to respond to sin in the world? That grossly violates Christian tradition, the analogy of faith and the unity of the bible (again, the things that are supposed to guide our interpretation).

        2) On biblical inerrancy: If scripture is free from all error and there really are no historical errors in scripture, then in fact there is a dome above us that holds back all the “water above”. The earth is nothing more than a pocket of air created by this dome in the midst of a vast expanse of water. Not only that, the earth is only 6,000 years old. This would require us to have to reject almost everything that is taught by astronomers and geologists and archeologists. Yet, the Church teaches that there is no conflict between the truths of faith and the truths of science.

        2) On correctly interpreting Vatican II: In the early drafts of Dei Verbum the stronger language about the total inerrancy of scripture was present and the council fathers deliberately removed it. That should tell you something about how to correctly interpret what the council fathers wrote in the final document.

        3) On Verbal inspiration: The Catechism does say that God is the author of scripture. It also says that the human authors worked as “true authors”. Is someone a true author if they are merely writing down verbatim what God is saying? That’s not an author; that’s a stenographer.

    • MichaelP says:


      I will just let St. Paul answer your questions regarding genocide or other events in the Old Testament that is a stumbling block for you and your kind. I don’t see St. Paul trying to genre his way out of this one. I also think that it is odd how the Church never had a problem with the Old Testament up til the modern movement. I think a lot of it has to do with the pride that plaques these past generations and their grasping at the fruit that Adam ate from.

      Romans 9:11-24
      11 For when the children were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil (that the purpose of God, according to election, might stand,) 12 Not of works, but of him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger. 13 As it is written: Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.

      14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? God forbid. 15 For he saith to Moses: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy; and I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy. 16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. 17 For the scripture saith to Pharao: To this purpose have I raised thee, that I may shew my power in thee, and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will; and whom he will, he hardeneth.

      19 Thou wilt say therefore to me: Why doth he then find fault? for who resisteth his will? 20 O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why hast thou made me thus? 21 Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? 22 What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction, 23 That he might shew the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he hath prepared unto glory? 24 Even us, whom also he hath called, nor only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles.

      • Vincent says:

        Michael P,

        It is not only in recent time that the Church has found certain Old Testament passages problematic. Jesus himself found passages to be inadequate (e.g. his reinterpretation of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and his revision of Moses’ teaching on divorce). Furthermore, the early Church fathers frequently identified Old Testament passages whose literal sense was so problematic that they put forth great effort to find allegorical and anagogical interpretations for them.

        What has astonished me in this discussion is that there seem to be a lot of people who are more comfortable accepting the notion of a capricious God who orders the slaughter of innocents than they are accepting the idea that when God inspired the authors of scripture he did not choose every one of their words and that perhaps some of their limited and flawed human understanding entered the text.

        From the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (approved by Pope John Paul II. April 23, 1993):

        “The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.

        “Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.”

      • MichaelP says:


        Was that correction for me or St. Paul? The PBC is not part of the Magisterium anymore. There declarations are about as good as yours, maybe a little better. Also, Jesus did not do away with the Old Testament verses, he fulfilled them and added more to them. Jesus even said that Moses allowed for man to put away his wife because of the Israelites’ stubbornness. He did not say they were adhering to the law improperly. You have it all wrong. It is fine to use allegories to dive deeper into a text but that does not mean you dismiss the historical nature of it. The New is hidden in the Old and the Old is revealed in the New. If you take out something from one of them, you affect the other. It is that simple.

  3. Vincent says:

    Lest anyone misunderstand me on that last point, let me emphasize that I don’t claim that the God of the Old Testament (and thus also the God of the Jews) is unjust, violent and fickle. I only claim that this is the portrait of God that emerges from a “flat” reading of the Old Testament that doesn’t take into account that revelation is a process that occurs over time and that the different parts of the Old Testament reflect various different stages in that process. The Old Testament of course also powerfully testifies to the love, mercy and fidelity of God. And I know lots of Jews who understand this better than many Christians.

  4. Peter says:

    Every Catholic should be in possession of a good Catholic study Bible. With regard to the account of Cain and Abel, the footnote in the New Jerusalem Bible reads:

    “This narrative presupposes a developed civilisation, an established form of worship, the existence of other people who might kill Cain and the existence of a clan who might rally to him. It might be that the narative originally referred not to the children of the first man but to the eponymous ancestor of the Cainites (Nb 24:21).”

    No Catholic should be stumped by such puerile questions as “how did Adam and Eve’s kids have kids?. Shame.

    • Agreed. Not sure about the footnote though. But you are right, the Genesis text seems to skip a lot of time and drops us quite quickly into a more developed future. The question is also tied up in the age of the patriarchs who are said to have lived a loooong time.

  5. Dismas says:

    As uncomfortable as this clip is, I suppose we should commend Fr. Morris for his courage in entering the revived Roman colosseum to face the lions, tigers and bears. If he’s been praying for an increase in humility, I think his prayer was answered. I just hope this doesn’t spark the Great Belly Button Debate.

    • Yes, Fr. Morris looked exhausted. He usually does better. My biggest problem with him is not a lack of confidence but the way he lets himself get dragged into political issues which I think priests should stay away from.

  6. Cathy says:

    Doesn’t the ‘Adam and Eve’ question presume that they were literal, historical people? Even their names are symbolic. We know now that humanity descended from a very small pool of hominids in Africa. We obviously don’t know their names, but among that group are indeed females who became ‘the mother of all the living” because we are all descended from those females (and males, of course.)

    Which brings us to Genesis 3. At some point, one of those newly conscious beings did something that he/she absolutely knew was forbidden, but did it anyway. And there, we have original sin. (I think it was Chesterton who said that this was the only doctrine that could be proven empirically.)

    There is multi-layered and wonderful truth in Genesis 1-11, but we don’t have to read any of it literally to find it and integrate it. In the long run, given the advances in our own lifetimes in paleontology and astrophysics, we would go a long way to make the point that it is true, but not factual. If we do keep going back to these stories and treat any of them as based on factual events, we’ll end up trivializing all of it. (When I teach teachers to teach this to children, I remind them that six year olds know more astrophysics that Newton ever di

    • Not sure about all the things you say here. Hasn’t science currently concluded we are all descended from one woman, not a “pool of hominids” ?? At any rate, I need to get started on that article on Polygenism and mongenism for this week .

    • Cody says:

      Science is fantastic and can tell us many things about the universe. However, don’t ascribe more to our modern science than it can take. Astrophysics and paleontology both fall far from the realm of pure science; there is still plenty of room for development in both subjects.

    • Andrew says:


      I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your approach to interpreting these early Chapters in Genesis is not in accordance with official teaching on the subject. I would recommend looking at the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s Responsa “On the Historical Character of the First Three Chapters of Genesis” issued with the approval of Pope St. Pius X in 1909. In particular, the PBC considered the question of whether students of Scripture might call into doubt the “literal historical” sense of certain elements of the Creation narrative, including, “the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; [and] the unity of the human race” among many other elements. The answer was in the negative. So according to the PBC, if you’re Catholic you need to believe that we really are all descended from one man and one woman (who was created from that man).

      Again, the PBC responses were not exercises of the extraordinary Magisterium, but they were certainly exercises of the ordinary Magisterium, and the early Reponsa (up through June 1914) were all personally approved by Pope St. Pius X before being published. So unless the Church herself has changed her judgment on these matters (which she has not), we as Catholics do owe her obedience on these questions. (Note: the PBC has since been moved around in the Curia and no longer operates as an arm of the teaching Magisterium of the Church.)

      Official Italian text of the Responsa on Genesis here:
      Official Latin text of the Responsa on Genesis here:
      Unofficial English text of many PBC Responses (including the one on Genesis) here:

      • Reginaldus says:

        Andrew, without trying to necessarily defend Cathy (who I think is way off), I have to point out that the PBC’s statement that the Creation narrative has a “literal historical” sense might not mean what many today could think it means.
        Metaphor has always been included in the “literal historical” sense of Scripture. St. Augustine thought that Genesis 1 was a giant metaphor about how the angels came to understand God’s works … for the Doctor of Grace, this text has nothing to do with the actual historical time-line of creation itself! So, we must be very careful before we make strong claims either way. (St. Thomas leans towards St. Augustine’s interpretation as well)

        It is true, however, that polygenism is a very dangerous theory, one which seems incompatible with our Tradition (and, in fact, with the best science of our day). I agree with you on the points about the creation of man and the creation of woman from man — Adam must be the source of the whole human race (it seems to be necessary for the doctrine of Original Sin and also the teaching on the Redemption of humanity through the New Adam).

      • MichaelP says:


        I am pretty sure St. Augustine was not a managing member of the PBC at the time of their answers to the questions about Genesis. And I don’t remember us having to submit our faith to something random that is contemplated and put down on paper, even if it was from St. Augustine. He was a very great and complex man and I believe he was looking to dive deeper into the Divine Word, but was not doing away with the simple text and want it meant. If that was the case, he would not have been going back and forth on whether a day was 24hrs or an extended period of time in the creation account. I know of PhD types that have done more damage to our faith than helped it along. Modern scholars like to make things that are hard to deal with disappear by claiming them to be myth, not history, legend or some other genre that gives them more wiggle room to fit in their ideology. This goes back to the foundational problem they usually have and that is how to reconcile a god of the Old Covenant with the God of the New Covenant, as if they are different. As Andrew has pointed out, there are more intellectual ways of solving the problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug and creating a new one at the same time.

      • MichaelP says:

        Allow me to make one correction. I am not sure if St. Augustine ever took a “longer than 24hr” period concerning the days. The other interpretation he had was to accommodate the angels by saying that “all” was created by God at one time and not over a 6 day period.

      • Reginaldus says:

        MichaelP…would you please take the time to read what St. Augustine actually said before critiquing my presentation of him? In the Literal Commentary on Genesis (his most mature work on Genesis 1) he is very clear… the “day” has nothing to do with “24hrs” or any other measure of time…”day” is not a measure of time at all, but of knowledge!
        Moreover, the real point I am making has to do with the fact that the “historical” sense of scripture is not necessarily the simple reading of the text — it includes metaphor. Thus, what might appear to be a simple text, could be an extended metaphor for something else. St. Augustine and St. Thomas both thought that this was the case with Genesis 1.

        As to the PBC…their very use of the term “literal historical” is a reference to the theology of the Scholastics…if we want to understand what the term means, we have to look at how it has been used in the Tradition.
        This is my real problem with certain quasi-fundamentalist Catholics…they read the Bible like protestants and have almost no real knowledge of how the best biblical scholars (i.e. the Fathers and Doctors of the Church) read the Sacred text. I will take Sts. Jerome, Augustine, and Thomas over any number of modern reactionaries.

        By the way, the PBC has held up St. Thomas as a model of literal exegesis…and St. Thomas followed St. Augustine…

      • MichaelP says:


        I have no problem with the Church Fathers. I think we would likely agree on almost everything if they are who you get your data from and if you don’t twist their words to fit a presupposed agenda. The Church Fathers wrote many things and some even said heretical things that had to be recanted. The problem I have here is that you think that we have to submit our conscience and will to everything they said even when they make clear that some is just an interpretation that is not held by others. It was mentioned below that most of the Church Fathers held to a 6-24 hour period for Creation. I don’t have any problem with allegories, even when dealing with history, which is what Genesis is. St. Augustine did the same thing with the Good Samaritan parable and it is absolutely beautiful. I understand that the parable was just that, and Genesis is history, but St. Augustine liked to allegorize everything. I find no problem with that as long as the future reader, us, do not strip the original intent of the author from the text. Take for example the Manna in Exudus. Today we have the Eucharist. The manna that sustained earthly life for the Israelites pointed to and represented in a real way and in a symbolic way the “Bread” we eat now that is truly our Lord and gives us spiritual life. It was a real event that happened both in the Old and in the New Covenant and the old manna visual represented what it was a type of to come. You can have it both ways. A text can have a literal historic sense and also be an allegory or a type of something further to come. God may have more to convey to us then what the authors of a text may have known at the time of their writing. It doesn’t mean that in order to accept one thing we need to do away with another. I am sure the author of Exodus did not know at the time that a greater “Manna” was to come.

  7. Reginaldus says:

    Msgr, especially as you prepare the article on monogeism, I wanted to just throw a word of caution out there …

    Many people (both on this blog post and in other places) talk of not reading Genesis “literally” or “historically”… This is very dangerous. The Church has used the “literal” sense (also known as the “historical” sense) through many many centuries. The Catechism states the the literal meaning is the foundational meaning … every text of the Bible must first be read “literally” — i.e. according to the literal sense; then other spiritual interpretation can begin (CCC 116). The literal sense is the meaning of the words themselves.

    Granted people use “literal” and “literally” to mean many strange things these days…but, as Catholics, we should use the language of the Catechism and of the Tradition. “Literal” means the meaning of the words themselves…every single interpretation of Scripture has to start with the meaning of the words, thus we always have a literal interpretation of the text.

    The problem is that many people don’t realize that metaphor and parable are part of the literal sense. So, when Christ speaks in a parable, the literal interpretation is to say it is a parable. When there is a metaphor/simile (“like a lion he crushes all my bones” or “behold the lion of Judah”) we must interpret it literally as a metaphor.

    To the point in question: St. Augustine brilliantly interpreted Genesis 1 as a metaphor … he said that the literal meaning of Genesis 1 is the way in which the angels came to understand creation. They understood it in 6 phases which were are metaphorically called “days” … the evening refers to the “evening knowledge” of the angles and the morning refers to their “morning knowledge”…
    The particulars of the interpretation are not what is important. What IS IMPORTANT is that St. Augustine is interpreting the text “literally” and “historically”; but ALSO metaphorically. We must read Genesis “literally”, and it is literally a metaphor — Genesis 1 (according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas) isn’t really about the act of creation at all, but about how the angels came to understand that action!
    This also means that (if we accept Augustine’s interpretation) there are not really two creation accounts — there is one which is a metaphorical discussion of the angels’ knowledge (not really a ‘creation account’ at all), and there is another which is a parable for the actual creation event itself.

    Here is a very short blog post on the literal sense according to St. Thomas (whose teaching on this point has been wholly adopted by the Church) …

    For what it is worth, I received an STL from the Angelicum University in Rome, focusing on the dogmatic side of biblical interpretation and inspiration. I also received a Masters in Theology, writing specifically on the question of metaphor and the literal sense of Scripture.
    I’m sorry this comment is so long…I hope that it is helpful.

    • Yes, I appreciate your comment here. Reading the text “literally” is not the same as “literalism” which the fundamentalist sometimes engage in. That is one thing I was trying to get at in my expression “crudely literal” At any rate I am grateful for your contribution here. I had thought of adding this very distinction to the article but feared that it would make the article too long. It’s a tough road to help help make the distiction between the “the literal sense” and the protestant notion of “reading the text literally” The word literal I am afraid has come to mean something rather more narrow in the modern English than the Church has used it.

      As for Augustine, I of course have highest respect for him, but don’t you suppose that he is engaging in a bit of speculative theology here. And that of course is fine. Speculative theology has an important place in the Church. However, I would wonder if Augustine himself might not caution us that he is not proposing a definitive solution to the issue of two accounts, but only speculating as to a possible reason for it.

      But any way, my main point is to thank you for adding a dimension to the article that occured to me to add but which I had hoped would come up in the comments. And so it has, quite effectively too I might add.

      • Reginaldus says:

        Msgr., this is what I love about your blog … you have a great ability to take very complex issues and put them into a language that is approachable for all — at every level of theological investigation! I think your above article is very good and I really look forward to seeing how you deal with monogenism in the upcoming post — it is a difficult/complex topic but I am sure you will put it in a way that is both theologically precise and pastorally effective!

        Regarding St. Augustine…I should say that I am not entirely convinced by his interpretation either (though I really do love it). What I meant to get at is the fact that his “literal” interpretation is far from what we usually think of as “literal”! I think you and I are in total agreement on this point — you call it the difference between “literal” and “literalistic” or “crudely literal”. The real advantage of St. Augustine’s text (as I see it) is not so much in the content of his interpretation (what he actually says), but in the method — that he reads the text as one huge (and very complex) metaphor! This is a good example of a traditional approach to Sacred Scripture which is yet not at all “fundamentalist” — a proof text against a “literalistic” reading of Genesis.

        In any case, blessings to you in your work; be sure that your blog is helping many lay people and also many priests!

  8. Alan says:

    That was an embarrasing moment for Fr. Morris. There was no need for Catholic blogs to pile on by pointing us to that video. I don’t know of a single Catholic priest who would not get stumped sometimes when called to be “johnny on the spot” on any of the diverse ranges of Catholic studies. How many priests graduated with 100’s in all their courses? None. I think the various blogs that have piled on Fr. Morris is an unfortunate thing.

    • Alan, I tried to indicate in the post that Fr. Morris is generally good and also wondered if the late night might not also be a factor. I also tried to defend what I think was his main point, that there are just some things Genesis doesn’t cover. Finally my point in posting the video was to say that I found the question illustrative of a problematic understanding of Genesis. Hence I hope you are not of the mind that I am among those piling on. I hope that I was fair to Fr. in this and I know first hand the trepidations of live TV. Not only on you on live but there is always this annoying stuff going on behind the cameras, lots of moving of stuff and hand signals that distract you etc.

  9. Andrew says:

    Msgr. Charles Pope,

    Can’t we start our discussion of how Adam and Eve’s children had children of their own by mentioning the other children that Scripture records them having?

    Abel (apparently) is murdered before producing any progeny, and Cain’s line, besides being cursed, perishes in the flood, so the question really turns into where the Noahic line comes from.

    The answer, of course, is that Noah is a descendent of Adam and Eve’s third son: Seth. After the murder of Abel and the cursing and banishment of Cain, Genesis records in Chapter 5 that Adam “became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Genesis 5:3, RSV-CE). The rest of the Chapter traces the descent from Seth to Noah, whereupon Chapter 6 takes up the account of the Flood.

    But even ignoring Seth for the moment, it is absolutely false to say that “we must presume the presence of other children (esp. daughters who were born to Adam and Eve).” We presume no such thing. Rather Scripture itself tells us that Adam “had other sons and daughters” after the birth of Seth (Genesis 5:4, RSV-CE). I believe various traditions of the Church even record how many of each there were (the exact numbers escape me at the moment).

    So a little further reading into Genesis would be very helpful here. We don’t “presume” the existence of other children because the Bible itself records their existence for us.

    As for the issue of incest, it is a thorny one, but as far as I understand it, incest is not actually intrinsically evil, so there doesn’t have to be anything suspect about early brother-sister marriages in the order of Creation. And surely, if this was in fact God’s plan for populating the world (which it sure seems to have been), He could ensure that none of the potential disastrous genetic consequences that we associate with incest needed to have come to fruition during the first whatever number of generations.

    • Hey Andrew,

      You’re really on a campaign here. Please remember, this is just a blog post, not a lengthy article in a theological journal. For example your repsonse of my use of the word presume. Lighten up a bit I did quote the geneology in Gen 4 etc so my use of the word presume is more colloquial not absolute. I am aware of what scripture says and referred to it. You also have been overly harsh with some others here. Perhaps you might moderate your tone a bit and allow this to be more of a discussion than to think you have to police everything you see as an imprecision. Not everyone here is intending to go against the magisterium. Perhpas a bit more gentle correction.

      • Bender says:

        At this point, I don’t know what further discussion can be had. We’ve been told there is NOTHING to discuss. It’s all been authoritatively decreed.

        But, because I’m a mischievious kind of guy, I’ll just throw out there that in his book “In the Beginning,” this guy named Joseph Ratzinger seemed to suggest that at least some portions of early Genesis were written, not by Moses, but in Babylon at the time of the Exile (which would seem to explain why Eden is set by the Tigris and Euphrates), long after the Exodus from Egypt, when the rest of the Torah might have been reduced to writing. Writes the future Pope, “The moment when creation became a dominant theme occured during the Babylonian Exile. It was then that the account we have just heard – based, to be sure, on very ancient traditions – assumed its present form.” (p. 10-11)

        He also seems to side more with the Vincent and Cathy side of the argument. It is all true, but that does NOT mean that it is all historically true. Rather, it is true for the purposes intended, i.e. it is theologically and ontologically true. The purpose of the Creation accounts is not to tell us how things happened, but who God is and who we are, and what we are, and why we are. The extent of the historical purpose is merely to tell us that God creating the universe and man (and all the rest of Salvation History) are things that actually happened. But if you want to know the precise “how” they happened, go read a history or science book.

        By the way, part of that theological truth that is intended to be revealed in Genesis is indeed the existence of Original Sin — that sin entered the world by the free choice of the will of mankind. But any conclusions about how Original Sin is passed to mankind as a whole necessarily requires one to go outside of what scripture actually says, whether by biological transmission or otherwise. Again, the scriptures are concerned with the what of sin, Original and personal — they do not attempt to answer the historical question of precisely “how” it is transmitted. It is enough to know that it is transmitted – the how is unimportant.

      • Ah Bender, you have really stirred the pot! 🙂

      • MichaelP says:


        If there is no real true historical Adam, then there is no need for a real true historical Jesus. You can’t have a new without an old. You have no idea what you do to the New Testament if you shred the Old. You can’t say the first Adam and his wife are mythological imaginative people. When you take a story and say someone wrote back into it their version, you take the historical nature out of it and inject a fairytale background. It becomes more of a legend than history. The PBC said this below and has never been rescinded. You have freedom to question the symbolism of the story but you can’t reduce it all to myth. It doesn’t matter what any pope put in a book to sell prior to being the pope.

        II: Notwithstanding the historical character and form of Genesis, the special connection of the first three chapters with one another and with the following chapters, the manifold testimonies of the Scriptures both of the Old and of the New Testaments, the almost unanimous opinion of the holy Fathers and the traditional view which the people of Israel also has handed on and the Church has always held, may it be taught that: the aforesaid three chapters of Genesis Contain not accounts of actual events, accounts, that is, which correspond to objective reality and historical truth, but, either fables derived from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and accommodated by the sacred writer to monotheistic doctrine after the expurgation of any polytheistic error; or allegories and symbols without any foundation in objective reality proposed under the form of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or finally legends in part historical and in part fictitious freely composed with a view to instruction and edification?
        Answer: In the negative to both parts.

      • MichaelP says:

        Also, it is no coincidence that those that seem to think it is ok to do this to the Genesis accounts also do the same to the “Infancy Narratives” concerning our Lord, Jesus.

      • Will says:

        Original Sin is passed by the act of Creation. Creation of a new life, the act of which, by the Grace of God, creates a new Soul, a soul that is stained by sin, from the mother and father, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Thus the need of Jesus of to be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

        Which would also explain the long held belief of “sins of the father” and why the Amorite babies were killed.


        Msgr. Pope, would you also do some blogs on chastisements? It is my belief that the earth groans at our sin, Jesus allows chastisements the world ’round and only through prayer, repentance, conversion and the intercession of Mary can they be abated. Obviously B16 feels this way as well or else he wouldn’t have dropped the comment about Katrina and New Orleans a few years ago.

        It can be said that certain cultural groups the world over were wiped out because of their seriously corrupt beliefs, Spanish missionaries > South American cultures (who were notorious baby killers). And yet, when God takes action to lay waste the most wicked some of the greatest fruits are born, as we see South America is one of the greatest Catholic continents today and if you believe in the revelations of the modern visionaries has a great role to play in the future.

    • MichaelP says:

      Notice the literal and historical senses are separated here. May I suggest that the “historical sense” they are referring to is actual history, meaning it was an actual event in human history. I know there are things that can be taken allegorically, e.g. God walking, breathing, but you can’t lump it all into an event that was totally imaginative and that did not really happen the way it is given to us in Scripture.

      VI: Provided that the literal and historical sense is presupposed, may certain passages in the same chapters, in the light of the example of the holy Fathers and of the Church itself, be wisely and profitably interpreted in an allegorical and prophetic sense?
      Answer: In the affirmative.

      Notice here that the PBC does not say the historical teaching can be debated because it was not the intent of the author. I know it is an argument of silence but it provides insight to the other rulings.

      VII: As it was not the mind of the sacred author in the composition of the first chapter of Genesis to give scientific teaching about the internal Constitution of visible things and the entire order of creation, but rather to communicate to his people a popular notion in accord with the current speech of the time and suited to the understanding and capacity of men, must the exactness of scientific language be always meticulously sought for in the interpretation of these matters?
      Answer: In the negative.

      These decisions still stand today regardless of how many priest, bishops, or theologians teach differently. Somehow you people think that dogma is disseminated from the bottom, up. Sounds like the same mentality our societies have been plagued with regarding our political atmosphere. You know, shred the Constitution by ignoring it and mobilizing the mob forces in the media to push your agenda. Most of what you and others have posted are interpretations that have not been endorsed by the Church. You can’t use them as if they trump something that has been endorsed and promulgated by the Magisterium. It is just wrong whether you do it knowingly or not.

      • Vincent says:


        You seem to misunderstand how the Church works. I would be stumped to come up with an example of where the Church “rescinded” something that it previously taught. The Church just doesn’t do that. I can give you lots of examples though where the Church quietly stops teaching one thing and then starts teaching something quite different that is radically in tension, if not contradictory, to what it previously taught. See for instance what the Church teaches now about religious liberty compared to what it taught in the 19th century (e.g. in the Syllabus of Errors). See also the move from teaching that slavery was compatible with scripture to JPII’s statement in Veritatis Splendor that it is an intrinsic evil. On the present topic, compare the older PBC documents you are quoting with what the PBC is saying these days about the historicity of many of the stories in the Old Testament. (For a specific example, I quoted a relevant portion of a PBC document on this point in a reply to you above. I mention it only because I know the threaded format of this discussion board makes it easy to miss comments.)

      • MichaelP says:


        Please answer this question if you don’t mind.

        Is it acceptable to say or teach that Genesis 1-3 is myth or not historical? Meaning it was an imaginative story told to relay moral truths. Or is this heretical?

        • Ronald says:

          I always enjoy his msesages, Casting Crowns are such a humble group, how many christian music artists do u know that would talk to us like this? Not only do they do music they also preach, Praise God. Thank God for you guys! Your music has helped me alot, with alot of different problems I have had in my life.

  10. Regine says:

    Msgr. Pope, thank you for this very enlightening article. When someone asks me the question “do you read the Bible literally?”, my understanding is that the person is really asking me whether I am “reading the Bible literalistically”, meaning, if I am taking each word at face value apart from its literary context. Or does reading the Bible “literally” and “literalistically” mean the same thing? I would appreciate very much your opinion on this.

  11. bt says:


    Hopefully not too off topic, but I’m curious, when you prepare your Sunday sermons, do you add in some of these interesting historical tidbits that are discussed on these pages? Maybe that is a topic for a future post, or perhaps you have discussed already how you prepare your sermons.

  12. Doctor Victoria A. Howard, Anchoress says:

    Like Genesis in the Bible, my writing also is in a different vein of literature than most, which can be quantified easily. It is most simply creative nonfiction. The quotes are universally accepted life commentary, the reflections are longer and more involved, and the dialogue moves the stories along quickly. Jesus understands Tabfa more than she does, and often muses on her. As he does to us all, he is merciful and accepting. If we do something that makes him happy, he gushes upon us with a love that knows no end, like living water. As in Genesis, one must not take things out of context in my books because it all adds up in the end. Genesis resembles many literary forms and yet is creative nonfiction as well. That I believe is the best modern description of it.

    I wonder what Enoch was like? He is in Genesis. Any clues?

  13. MichaelP says:

    I think we all need to be a little cautious to say the least when we are dealing with any interpretation modernists put forward. Our Church has come out very clearly saying that Modernism is the synthesis of all HERESIES. It would be safer to be a fundamentalist.

  14. MichaelP says:

    I do have a very simple question and it would be really great if someone can answer it for me. Is it acceptable to say or teach that Genesis 1-3 is myth or not historical? Meaning it was an imaginative story told to relay moral truths. Or is this heretical?


    • Vincent says:

      For some reason I couldn’t reply above where you put this question to me directly.

      I have the sense that this question is a setup where you are about to quote back to me a passage from an old papal encyclical anathematizing the position I am about to take, but here goes anyway…

      No, I don’t believe that position is heretical. Why? Well, I have lots of theological reasons (many of which I’ve already brought forth into this discussion), but it seems that you are more interested in answers based on Church authority. So in terms of where I get the sense that the Church does not consider this heretical: because I have seen that position stated explicitly in textbooks that have received the nihil obstat, imprimatur, and been found inconformity with the Catechism. So if that position is heretical, then apparently there are a lot of bishops and official theological reviewers who didn’t get the word. (That includes the present pope, as Bender pointed out. I find it unlikely that he has changed his position on this since becoming pope.)

      One point of clarification: I don’t believe that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 (which are two separate stories with conflicting chronologies, as Msgr. Pope pointed out) were just imaginative stories meant to relay moral truths. I imagine that the authors of those stories to some degree felt they accurately reflected how the cosmos was constructed. However, they were working with very deficient cosmologies.

      That being said, I think a fascinating question that is very much related to the question of what it means for God to have inspired the authors of scripture is the question of how God works through people’s imaginations. I think we too easily assume that if an experience is imaginary then it is not a real communication from God, and vice versa that if something is real communication from God then it doesn’t involve imagination. God is infinite and ineffable, so any experience we have of him is necessarily mediated to some degree through our imaginations. That is not to say that they are fabricated, but just to say that what we see and and hear and experience will be perceived and interpreted by our brains through the categories and images we already have in our mind (which of course are conditioned by our experiences, language, culture, etc). Thus it is possible for God to truly communicate truth to someone (“I created all that is”) and for that person to understand and render that truth in ways that are ultimately quite limited (“God made a dome to separate the waters above from the waters below”). It is my contention that this is what is going on in the passages about the ban. (God communicates: You are my chosen people, and you are to remain holy, pure and separate from the sinfulness that pervades the culture of the land into which I am bringing you. The inspired author perceives and writes: Kill all the Canaanites to the last man.)

  15. Blake Helgoth says:

    Three things –
    1) In response to Vincent – the phrase, for the sake of our salvation, is referring to God’s action – and why He did it choose to have these thing written down, not the truth that was written down. The Latin text is far less confusing.
    2) I think there is confusion about literal versus a literary interpretation. As Catholics we are looking for the literary. Whatever the Sacred writers intended as true is true. That does not mean that more than they intended cannot have been intended by God.
    3) All men must be descendants of Adam and Eve or the doctrine of Original Sin goes out the window and with it, the need for Christ Jesus! I am not saying that one is bound to this view by the teaching of the Church, but “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do” if you try to uphold more than one set of original parents!

  16. Regine says:

    Msgr. Pope, I am so sorry i was remiss about reading some of the blogs. I went through all of them today, and I got a better understanding of reading scripture “literarily” and “literalistically” in the exchange between you and Reginaldus. i have enjoyed all your blogs and look for them here in the New Advent. It is such a joy that there are learned people there who could add to our growth. On another note, I sometimes wish that you would post your insight of the Sunday readings before the actual Sunday. Thank you again.

  17. Piotr says:

    Does anybody know how the Jews explain the Ban? does a hebrew word for children really means that or is there another meaning? in another words is there something lost in translation?

    • Bender says:

      Piotr — the Ban was actually discussed in depth back in January (and February and July, too, I think). If you search for “ban” and other words like “amalekite” and “genocide” and “God’s wrath,” etc. in the search box above, a few of those posts will pop up.

      Here is the one from January 20 —
      Did God Command Genocide?

      And from the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on the Ban.

    • Peter says:

      If you are referring to the Hebrew word “ben”, a simple internet search has informed me that the primary meaning of the word is “son” and is derived from the verb “banah” which means “to build” to give the sense of “the builder” of a family name – hence children, grand-children, nation etc.

      Sorry, no mysteries, hidden meanings or things lost in translation.

  18. Francisco Neira says:

    I think that some of us who are discussing polygenism vs monogenism forget the orgin and meaning of the name “Adam”, which is clearly explained as “men”…if there was a single man or some men that originate and welcome original sin in the creation, it really doesn’t matters. Sin itself is referred by St Paul in his letters and “Mysterius Inquitatis”. (I hope my memory doesn’t threads this latin remark) so, at the end sin is really a mystery departing from the fact from free will, the conscequences of sins and it’s inception by the devil and men in the “seacula” or world. What really matters is the promise and fact of salvation in Jesus Christ and in the all the three divine persons of the Blessed Trinity and the promise of a renewal of creation. At the end, Genesis tries to depict bluntly that God Himself is the creator of all things, men the creature responsible in the managing of creation, and their failure of it because of the Devil and men’s own soberb and short spiritual sight.

  19. mfs says:

    I supposed that if God created a suitable wife for Adam, He would do the same to Cain and Abel, I suppose it need not be mentioned, since the detail is not what is most important, but rather that God is the center of all created things visible and invisible – Maybe this example one day is as of 1000 years for God and 1000 years is as one day. The day was created, just as the light and darkness out of nothing – Is this acceptable reasoning within Church boundary

  20. Gene says:

    The consenses of the Fathers was that creation took place in a literal six days. Augustine was the only Father that did not hold that view and he believed that all creation took place at once. Why go against the Fathers? The fact that light was created on the first day and the sun on the fourth doesn’t mean we must take Gensis symbolically. As Father Mitch Pacwa has stated, God simply created billions of photons (which produce light) on the first day and on the fourth day God created the sun to continued to produce those photons.
    The Fathers all held, as does Scripture, that the earth does not move. It is the center of the universe. Again, why go against Sacred Tradition?. Two books I suggest. “Galileo Was Wrong The Church Was Right” which details hundreds of scientific experiments in the last 200 years which have failed to prove that the earth goes around the sun and “The Doctrines of Genesis A Compendium and Defense of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins by Father VIctor Warkulwiz.
    I am of the opinion that to reduce Genesis to a symbolic narrative is to put science above God’s word which is without error.

    • Vincent says:

      I’m actually afraid that the attempt to make every story in the bible a historically accurate narrative is a failure to appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation. On this point, see the quote from the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” that I quoted above in my reply to MichaelP.

  21. George Wunderlick says:

    The Bible is one bound book by one principal author and about one principal subject, Jesus the Christ or so the Gospels say. It is a spiritual book and must be read spiritually and not literally.

  22. Howard says:

    I don’t buy the “two accounts” theory of Genesis; nor do I find the “multiple sources” theory of the books of Moses credible. These theories are both popular among critics of the Bible who think it is all a bunch of folklore assembled by priests in some sort of power grab, but can you name a single canonized saint, let alone Father of the Church or Doctor of the Church, who saw any evidence for this view of Bible history?

    The Church would be much better off if Her theologians, priests, and bishops would stop trying to find ways to be dismissive of the text of Scripture (for instance, by reducing the first 10 or so chapters of Genesis to about 2 lines of information: “God created everything” and “Sin and death are man’s own fault”) and would start regarding the Bible as the words of God. Our whole society — clerics included — is little more than a bunch of adolescents who think they know more than their fathers. Well, Monsignor, you can have my share of textual criticism if you want, because I know I don’t know more than the Fathers of the Church.

    • @ Howard: But are there not in fact two accounts of Creation in Gen 1 & 2? I don’t think I am being dismissive of the text of scripture by pointing out what Scripture actually reports. As for us being adolescents and “knowing more than our fathers” Here too I am puzzled because the Fathers of the Church also wrestled with this infomration and had different ways of dealing with it. There are surely theories that go beyond what Church teaching can accept but there is some latitude as well.

  23. carm says:

    It was through my daughter’s 9th grade research paper refuting the chapter on evolution in her science class that opened my eyes WIDE to the truth of evolution and Genesis. Soo many in our precious Catholic Church have not heard the convincing evidence, nor have they PRAYED in earnest asking the Holy Spirit to reveal the Truth of all this. Msgr. Pope, I pray to God you will prayerfully and diligently explore these sites for answers to your statements about two Creation accounts, and the literalness of Genesis, etc.. May you bring to completion this good work He has begun in you. I have met countless former Catholics who lost their faith in Biology 101….because they knew evolution and Genesis couldn’t both be true, and they deducted that science proved evolution and Father said Genesis was just a myth. May God forgive us and spur us on to rediscover the beauty, power, and truth of Genesis which is foundational for the rest of scripture. If Genesis is not literal, then WHEN did TIME (24/7) begin? If God created Adam from an ape, then WHY didn’t Moses record it? We have been duped. Let us take back the truth!!
    *1. (Hugh Owen, founder) former atheist, son of first secretary general of International Planned Parenthood. Excellent site with Catholic articles supporting Church teaching, current scientific findings, articles and complete books.
    *2. Creation Rediscovered: Evolution and the Importance of the Origins Debate (Gerard J.Keane) A review of this book can be found at:
    *3. Creation vs. Evolution: What Every Catholic Should know (Eric Bermingham) Imprimatur & Nihil Obstat (this entire book can be read and downloaded from at the above link
    *4. (review of) The Doctrines of Genesis 1-11: A Compendium and Defense of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins (Father Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S.)
    *5. Biology versus Evolution web site by Joseph Mastropaolo Ph.D., and Karl Priest, M.A.
    *6 (Walt Brown, PhD.) Dr. Brown’s scientific book, In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood: can be read on the internet as well as purchased in hard copy. This one is non-Catholic, but excellent.

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