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Are There Contradictions in Genesis 1 and 2?

OBJECTOR: I find the Catholic and generally Christian belief in the reliability of the Creation stories in Genesis to be incredible. All this stuff sounds like a fairy tale to me. No rational, thinking person today could take this stuff seriously. Look at all the contradictions between the first and second chapters of Genesis.

CATHOLIC: What contradictions? Can you be more specific?

OBJECTOR: The first two chapters obviously present creation in entirely different ways. Now, I understand that most Bible scholars believe that this difference is because the first chapter (including 2:1–3) comes from the P (Priestly) source, while the second chapter (from 2:4 on) derives from the J (Yahwist) source. Apparently, the final editor did not try to iron out the differences. He just placed the stories side by side.

CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s a common belief today. Even many Catholic scholars believe that there are two creation stories. But let’s look closely to see if there is any solid evidence for this hypothesis. Did you know that there are no manuscripts of Genesis that identify chapters 1 and 2 as coming from distinct sources? This hypothesis is based solely on literary differences between the two chapters that scholars think they have seen. They have concluded that these differences must come from different sources. But of course it is quite possible that the same author simply changed his perspective and use of language to tell the story of the creation again.

OBJECTOR: So are you saying that the Catholic Church opposes the majority of biblical scholars today on this issue?

CATHOLIC: Actually, the Church makes no official pronouncements on these matters at all, so it’s possible for a Catholic to believe the theory that the first two chapters of Genesis derive from different sources. The only thing is that a Catholic may not hold that there are any true contradictions in these two chapters.

OBJECTOR: So why are you opposing this analysis of sources?

CATHOLIC: In principle, I’m not opposed to source analysis. I’m simply pointing out that it is a hypothesis and not obvious fact. I don’t think anyone should accept this hypothesis without objective evidence. If there were manuscripts that explicitly identified two sources for these chapters, then that would be strong evidence. Even then, one would have to investigate the accuracy of the manuscripts, but at least that would make the question more objective. Arguments based on literary differences can be very subjective. I suggest that we take the chapters as they appear and ask if there are any true contradictions.

OBJECTOR: Okay. There is a different chronology of events in chapter 1 from those in chapter 2. In chapter 1, it says that the animals were made before human beings (cf. 1:20–28) but in chapter 2 it says that man (male) existed before the animals were created (cf. 2:15–20). How do you explain that?

CATHOLIC: I would say that we have to ask if this is a true contradiction or if it is just a difference of perspectives taken by the writer. Consider an analogy. Two people go to a football game and sit on opposite sides of the field. Then, after the game, if these two people write short accounts of what happened during the game, you might and probably would get very different accounts. This would be especially true if one of them wrote with an emphasis on the sequence of events while the other didn’t think the sequence was particularly important. If we read their accounts, we might say that they contradicted one another, but in fact, both accounts can be accurate taken in and of themselves. They are just written from different perspectives.

OBJECTOR: That sounds like a clever way to get out of the contradiction.

CATHOLIC: Not really. A contradiction is two statements that are opposite when both are said in reference to the same thing applying at the same time. The writer of Genesis wished to tell of Creation in chapter 1 by emphasizing the sequence of events. There is an orderliness to the description that is lacking in the second chapter. In chapter 2, the writer is not concerned to tell you about the timing of the events because he has already told you that information in chapter 1. Now, he wants to focus on what is most important, namely, the origin of man and woman. Notice how much there is about the male-female relationship in chapter 2 that is completely missing from chapter 1? You see, they don’t contradict one another because they are treating different.aspects of the whole creation from different perspectives.

OBJECTOR: Well, I would consider that a contradiction when a writer says that two events happened in a certain sequence and then turns around and says that those events happened in the opposite sequence.

CATHOLIC: To know whether a contradiction has occurred, we have to know what the writer intended. If he intended to give a sequence of events in the second chapter, then it would be a contradiction. But, if he suspended his interest in the sequence of events in chapter 2, then he could not be accused of a contradiction. That, I believe, is what happened. The writer established the sequence of events in chapter 1. In chapter 2 he suspended his interest in proper sequence and focused attention on the people involved in the creation story.

OBJECTOR: But how can we know whether he intended to keep or suspend his interest in sequence in chapter 2?

CATHOLIC: We must infer this from the use of language. We can easily misjudge a writer’s intention, but the overwhelming weight of the second chapter suggests to me that his focus was different than in chapter 1. If we attribute to the writer an interest in chronology in chapter 2, then we end up with a contradiction. But to do that is to attribute something bad to the writer when we don’t really have any justification for doing so. I suggest that we not attribute contradictions to a writer—any writer—unless we have compelling evidence to do so.

OBJECTOR: I don’t know if you’re right, but I’ll think about it. But I do know that there is an undeniable contradiction within the first chapter itself.

CATHOLIC: Really? What’s that?

OBJECTOR: You said that sequence is important in chapter 1 of Genesis. Well, Genesis 1 says that light was created on the first day of creation in verses 3–5. It says that God separated light from darkness and called the light day while the darkness he called night. Then in verses 14–19 it says that he made “the sun, the moon, and the stars” on the fourth day. Was light created on the first day or the fourth day? Genesis 1 says both. If that is not a contradiction, I don’t know what is.

CATHOLIC: This difficulty was noticed long ago. Commentators of the past have offered many solutions that don’t involve a contradiction, so we ought to at least listen to what they had to say before we rush to the conclusion that there is a true contradiction.

OBJECTOR: We know that light comes from stars, including our sun. Where then did the light of the first day come from if there were no stars until the fourth day? Light was either created on the first day or the fourth, but it could not have been both, as Genesis asserts.

CATHOLIC: Let’s look at the language used very carefully. In verses 14–19 it doesn’t actually say that light was created on the fourth day, but only that the light bearers (e.g., sun, moon, stars) were created. So, it could have been that light was created on the first day and then gathered into the light bearers on the fourth day. In this solution, light may have been carried in some undifferentiated mass before the fourth day. Or it may simply be that light existed in some form that we can’t recognize today.

OBJECTOR: That sounds to me like just some clever way to get out of the problem. There’s no way to verify this undifferentiated mass you speak of. And if light existed in the first three days in some form we can’t verify, how do we know that your hypothesis is true?

CATHOLIC: The Church does not insist that the events described in Genesis 1 be verified by the procedures of science. Clearly, the events of the early universe are not subject to direct verification. All we can do is infer what might have been.

OBJECTOR: So are you saying that there’s no way to know whether Genesis is true?

CATHOLIC: No. I am just saying that the methods of empirical science might not be the proper ones to know what happened. There might be another solution as well.

OBJECTOR: So are you saying that it is possible to interpret Genesis as referring to something other than the physical universe?

CATHOLIC: I’m saying that there are many ways to interpret these chapters that don’t involve contradictions. I am also claiming that some parts of Genesis may refer to the physical universe and others to the immaterial parts. Clearly, when Genesis says that human beings have souls, that is something immaterial. So not all the language of these chapters necessarily refers to physical entities.

OBJECTOR: That sounds like an allegorical interpretation to me, not something that a rational person would want to engage in.

CATHOLIC: Allegorical interpretations have been offered in the history of Genesis interpretation, and the Catholic Church has never said that such things are bad. For example, some ancient commentators said that the light of the first day was “an intellectual light” (i.e., non-physical light). The Church has never ruled on the legitimacy of these interpretations. But just because something is allegorical, that doesn’t mean that it is irrational.

OBJECTOR: So how does the Catholic Church interpret Genesis 1 and 2?

CATHOLIC: There is no one way of interpretation that the Church approves. There are many ways. All the Church insists on is that we don’t see contradictions in the text of Genesis. This is a specific instance of a more general rule that scriptural texts do not contradict one another. The examples you cite are not true contradictions. There are completely rational interpretations of Genesis that don’t involve contradictions.

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