After major convulsions, seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's biggest Protestant body, proclaim the Bible's "inerrancy," meaning freedom from errors about history as well as spiritual, doctrinal and moral matters.
To promote that viewpoint, the SBC's Broadman & Holman house is publishing The New American Commentary series, treating each biblical book in detail.
Genesis is the trickiest book historically and thus politically. In 1996 Broadman issued a volume covering the early chapters of Genesis and now this commentary is completed with Volume 2, on the chapters from Abraham onward.
The author is Kenneth A. Mathews, professor of Old Testament at Alabama's Beeson Divinity School and Kentucky's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's well-qualified, with a doctorate in Hebrew from the University of Michigan and as co-author of the major work on Book of Leviticus texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Mathews' Genesis commentary isn't important only for Southern Baptists. It's an up-to-date presentation of a traditional approach long shared among Protestants, Catholics and Jews.
He informs his readers that this tradition is under scholarly assault. He's well familiar with those debates and treats them with clarity while providing conservative rejoinders.
To Mathews, Genesis is a "cohesive" and "unified" work. Though the text is anonymous and authorship cannot be proven, he finds "defensible" Orthodox Judaism's belief that it's substantially Moses' writing. At minimum, he thinks, it's most likely the work of "a single inventive mind" who used "an array of ancient sources" from Moses' era. Though the early chapters use metaphorical language, he considers them historical, not mythological.
All those ideas are largely pooh-poohed in today's elite universities.
Here's how Mathews handles some issues that are sensitive among conservatives:
-Is the creation story strictly literal?
Mathews suggests it's not chronological history because vegetation appears in day three and the sun, which is necessary for life, appears in day four. Thus, the material was apparently stylized into three sets of two "days." He sees "general correspondence" between Genesis and modern ideas on origins "but the correlation of the details cannot be worked out satisfactorily."
-Did the creation "days" literally last 24 hours?
The appearance of the sun in day four indicates that "day in its customary sense may not be intended." That's not surprising because in the Bible, "day" can refer to an extended time. "Definitive answers" on what day meant and the time period involved "remain elusive."
-How long ago did humanity appear?
Those called "creationists" see a time span of only thousands of years ago due to a literal reading of the family trees plus the assumption that listings were all-inclusive.
But Mathews is convinced the name lists didn't include each generation, partly because of the special language used, partly because the New Testament genealogies for Jesus were selective. A footnote says that, even so, the Bible's time span wasn't nearly long enough to accommodate conventional theories of evolution.
-Did Noah's flood cover the entire earth?
Words including "everything" and "all people" suggest this but biblical language elsewhere shows such terms could be hyperbole or describe the scene from Noah's limited viewpoint, he explains. The biblical meaning isn't disrupted either way, Mathews thinks, but the text does favor a literal, universal flood.
-Is the Abraham story actual history?
Arguing yes, Mathews answers various liberal claims that these materials originated long after the time of Abraham, Moses or even David. Example: Liberals say Genesis was very late because it reports the biblical patriarchs used camels. Mathews says some surviving ancient literature outside the Bible indicates camels were indeed domesticated very early.
Note: Other notable conservative Protestant commentaries on Genesis are by Victor Hamilton (Eerdmans) and Gordon Wenham (Nelson), both in two volumes, and the one-volume paperback by Derek Kidner (InterVarsity) - ideal for those desiring a less technical analysis.
On the Net:
Broadman & Holman: http://www.broadmanholman.com