Review of The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, Part Four

Noah’s Ark: Time, Chronology and the Fall

The story of the flood may at first seem irrelevant for a book that focuses on the garden of Eden. For Barr, however, the flood story is integral to the discussion for two reasons. First, the flood story, as it appears in ancient Near Eastern literature, concerns immortality, what Barr argues the story of the Garden of Eden is all about. While the story as it exists may have less to do with immortality than its mesopotamian parallels, even Christian writers will use the flood story to reflect on resurrection (1 Peter 3:18-20). Second, “the world in which we live is a world that had its beginning with Noah and his times” (75). As a second creation story, the flood is helpful in addressing questions about the nature of humanity, for all humanity descend from Noah in the biblical narrative.

While Barr spends a brief amount of space discussion the chronology of the early chapters of Genesis with particular emphasis on the (gradually declining) life spans of the antediluvian patriarchs, the emphasis of this chapter falls on neither time or chronology, but with the (various) concept(s) of the Fall. While Christian interpretation, fueled by its reading of Paul, has typically turned to Genesis 3 as the answer for questions concerning the entrance of sin and death into an otherwise good world (understood as perfect), Barr sees Genesis 6 as the text which explains how a good world (understood with potential for greater or lesser goodness) was tainted by violence that made death (a natural aspect of life in the world God created) occur untimely and under improper circumstances. Barr reflects on how the gospels reflect on this aspect of Jesus’ death much more than on any other aspect of his life. Barr is critical of those who make death in abstract the enemy of God. As Barr understands it, “a death by violence, and in particular by enormous injustice, [is] exactly the conditions under which the Old Testament did see death as something like an ‘enmity to God'” (86).

Barr concludes by this chapter by reflecting on the concept of the/a Fall. He uses the debate between Ludwig Köhler and Emil Brunner as a launching point for addressing how the text of Genesis 3 should be approached. Köhler saw the text as an aetiological myth, “its purpose was to explain a series of contemporary phenomena” (87). Brunner (and Barr) found Köhler’s aetiologies unpersuasive. Brunner, because this led to the conclusion that Paul was “no better than a novice in biblical interpretation” (88). Barr goes on to explain, however, what he understands of Paul in this regard: “Paul was not interpreting the story in and for itself; he was really interpreting Christ through the uses of images from this story.” And this is where Barr differs significantly from Brunner, as he continues:

If the Old Testament text is to count as having some sort of authority in and for itself, then it must be free and able to utter a message of its own which may, at least in principle, be substantially different from the use which Paul made of certain selected and very limited elements within it, read through the perceptions and assumptions of a later and very different culture. It is useless to talk of the ‘authority’ of the Old Testament if in fact it is not allowed to say anything different from what Paul, or any other particular later interpreter, supposed it to be saying. (89)

Barr is unpersuaded by Köhler’s aetiologies because he see’s something more significant at work in the text; namely, immortality. “Immortality was the issue, and humanity ended up being (or remaining) mortal: Wisdom, followed by Paul, and later followed by the main theological traditions, rephrased this so as to say that the humans had been immortal but had lost this immortality. As I have put it, they never had it, but they had the chance of it, and lost that chance” (91). Thus, Barr concludes that man was never perfect or immortal, but was much like we are today.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

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