In an ambitious new book, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible uses his knowledge of Scripture and science to contend that people can believe in both religion and evolution.
“Faith & Fossils: The Bible, Creation & Evolution” by Lester L. Grabbe surveys ancient religious texts from Gilgamesh to Genesis, and more contemporary scientific research. He concludes that one can accept that God created the universe, and that life operates according to principles that include the theory of evolution.
Propounded by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, evolution has had its challenges — including the 1925 Tennessee trial of John Scopes for allegedly teaching evolution, which became the subject of the Spencer Tracy film “Inherit the Wind.”
Today, 60 percent of Americans believe in evolution, while 33% say they do not. The latter figure includes 57% of evangelical Protestants.
“It was my aim to write to evangelicals and show them that they can continue to maintain their faith stance but also accept modern science, including the demonstrated processes of evolution,” Grabbe, a professor emeritus of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at the University of Hull, England, wrote in an email interview.
The author brings a unique perspective.
“A number of books have been written on science/evolution and religion with the aim of showing that they need not be contradictory, but most of these books have been written by scientists,” Grabbe explained. “Mine is one of the few books on the subject written by a biblical specialist.”
Grabbe has accepted evolution in a reversal of his views growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the United States.
“I came to have a different perspective on the Bible than I did as a farm boy reading his Bible on a regular basis,” he reflected. “I came to accept evolution not because my views on science changed, but because I came to see the Bible in its context and its aims as a religious document.”
Now he seeks to encourage others to do the same.
In the 19th century, Darwin’s best-selling book drew quick criticism on religious grounds, as described in a 2009 Pew Research Center article, “Darwin and His Theory of Evolution.”
“Darwin’s notion that existing species, including man, had developed over time due to constant and random change seemed to be in clear opposition to the idea that all creatures had been created ‘according to their kind’ by God, as described in the first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis,” researcher David Masci wrote.
The subject of tensions between religion and science continues to appear in the news. In a November 19 article on the website The Conversation, David N. Livingstone of Queen’s University Belfast and John Hedley Brooke of Oxford examine ancient and recent moments where science and religion engage, such as the 2008 resignation of evolutionary biologist Michael Reiss as the Royal Society’s director of education. Reiss allegedly recommended that scientists see creationism as a worldview, not a misconception.
Yet the title of the Conversation article evoked hopefulness: “War between science and religion is far from inevitable.” The authors write, “The sciences may sometimes provide answers to questions once asked within the faith traditions – but they also leave space for religious enquiry and commitment.”
One might see “Faith & Fossils” as illustrative.
As a youth, Grabbe rejected evolution on a theological basis, and sought counter-evidence in science: “I accepted the view that evolution was contrary to the Bible and therefore wrong, but I was particularly interested in those writings that claimed to give a ‘scientific’ refutation of evolution,” he recalled.
Young Grabbe was interested in science in general, especially dinosaurs. He even considered becoming a scientist. Instead, he entered PhD studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University and became a respected scholar of ancient Judaism, writing books about the Second Temple period and the Babylonian Exile.
Yet as he studied the Hebrew Bible in its original languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, he began viewing it through a different lens.
While he admired the lyricism and theological concepts of passages cited by opponents of evolution, such as in Genesis, he came to see similarities between biblical accounts of creation and the flood and earlier accounts from other cultures in the Middle East, including the Babylonians.
These collectively reflected an understanding of science disputed by modern astronomy and physics. And, he noted, elements in biblical narratives, such as the age of Methuselah when he begets his son Lamesh, contrast depending on the translation used by a particular community, including Jewish, Samaritan and Christian versions.
All of this led Grabbe to read certain biblical passages cited by creationists, such as the account of Adam and Eve, as more of an allegory that nevertheless lost none of its theological message. Reading the Bible this way, he could accept evolution, with “Faith & Fossils” explaining his reasoning.
“Some of the main biblical passages drawn on by anti-evolutionists needed to be treated,” Grabbe said. “Thus there had to be chapters on creation as described in Genesis 1, the story of Adam and Eve, the flood story, and a general description on how the Bible came to us had to be included.”
Grabbe compares the flood with scientific concepts of the geological column and radiometric dating, which indicate that the fossils preserved tens of thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface have been deposited across different time periods over billions of years, not in one dramatic event such as a flood that creationists believe occurred several thousand years ago.
The biblical notion of plants or animals created by God “after its/their kind” is also addressed, as well as the term “baramin” developed by some creation scientists. Stemming from the words for “creation” and “kind” in Hebrew, baramin is used to explain flora or fauna that can never evolve.
Grabbe writes that this misinterprets the use of “kind” in the Bible, where it is employed as “a vague and indeterminate expression for sort or variety,” and examines ancient rabbis who employed the term to address the crossbreeding of plants in ways contrary to modern science.
Grabbe brings in more recent science unavailable to Darwin: genetics and DNA. “If each created form was created independently and uniquely by special creation and in a pattern that was inviolable, why do these genetic relationships prove true time and again?” he asks in the book. “One theological possibility worth considering is that God created the laws of genetics and allowed living things to unfold by the inherent potential of the DNA.”
The book mentions experts in theology and science who agree with evidence for evolution, including 20th century French Catholic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and contemporary Christian geologists Ken Wolgemuth, Gregory S. Bennett and Gregg Davidson.
“Especially important were the views of scientists on the question: it became clear that there are many scientists of faith who also accept evolution and see no conflict between their own religious beliefs and the current scientific views on how life developed,” Grabbe said.
The book treats the origin of life, including human life, in a sensitive way.
“Many people of faith recognize the validity of science about the development of living things,” Grabbe writes. “Yet, some still feel a twinge of uncertainty when it comes to human development. Are humans really the result of evolution from single-celled creatures until finally a branch of the primates developed into humans?”
This issue troubled Darwin’s opponents in the 19th century clergy. Masci, writing for Pew, noted, “Darwinian thinking also appeared to contradict the notion, central to Christianity and many other faiths, that man had a special, God-given place in the natural order. Instead, proponents of evolution pointed to signs in human anatomy — remnants of a tailbone, for instance — showing common ancestry with other mammals.”
In “Faith & Fossils,” Grabbe writes, “the development of primates from an ancestor common to humans and the other great apes can be traced without major difficulty to between eight and five million years ago.” Calling the scientific evidence “overwhelming,” he nevertheless asks, “How can this picture be reconciled with the biblical picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?”
It’s a dramatic contrast with the account in Genesis of God creating Adam and Eve, who live in the Garden of Eden until, under the serpent’s influence, they eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God discovers their misdeed and expels them from the garden to found the human race.
Grabbe suggests understandings of this account adopted by scholars who are also religious. Readers can interpret Adam and Eve, as Grabbe does, as “characters in a theological narrative,” he writes, who “did not have to exist in order to have great meaning for Christians, Jews, and other religious people.” Or they can emulate others who “have affirmed the actual existence of Adam and Eve while still accepting the scientific evidence of human origins.”
Grabbe cites the nuanced approach of British scholar Denis Alexander, who “argues that God chose a couple of Neolithic farmers in the ancient Near East to manifest himself in a more direct way. They were not the first or only humans, since people had a long history, as shown by the study of primate evolution. But these two individuals were the first humans who were ‘truly spiritually alive in fellowship with God.’ They provided the spiritual roots of the Jewish faith and formed the basis of the story of Adam and Eve.”
By depicting such ways of accommodating both religion and science, Grabbe hopes his book will benefit readers.
“My hope is that it will have a ‘pastoral’ function in helping some evangelicals to recognize that they can accept evolution as a scientific theory without compromising their religious beliefs,” Grabbe said.