The greatness of the Bible becomes more manifest when studied within the framework of universal history.
Megiddo is a quiet, pastoral strip of land, separated by some forty miles from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem. My wife and I were half way through our ten day tour of Israel when our guide shared that this was to be the site of the famous biblical battle of Armageddon. As we looked out over the valley with its cloud-covered mountains and serene farming community, it hit us that a battle of any size would certainly end the world as they knew it.
In the bigger picture, Palestine was part of what was known as the Fertile Crescent. This strip of rare green land extended from the Nile Valley in Egypt to the Persian Gulf in ancient Mesopotamia, curving in a moon-like shape around the desert. That embattled part of the world was the birthplace of the words that developed into the Bible, and the stories that evolved into its canon. This book is the story about how the Bible was born and how it grew to what it is today. Because of my background in geology and theology, it is a merger of science and scripture. When reading the Bible, everyone uses some sort of interpretive lens. This book will use a natural history model to follow the development of biblical words and the evolution of canonical stories as seen through the lens of evolutionary developmental biology.
That brings us to the field of ‘Evo-Devo,’ or the evolution of development. Over the past two decades, embryologists and paleontologists have come to understand that evolution occurs over time through incremental changes in biological development.2 Using insights from evolutionary biology we will follow the evolution of canonical stories brought on by incremental changes in the development of biblical words. It will chronicle the beginning and on-going evolution of the Bible by following the changing stages of biological development: from prenatal, to infant, to adolescent, and finally to adult.
Part One begins with the development of biblical storytellers, which compares to the prenatal stage of biological development. It traces ancient tribal storytellers in the womb of the Fertile Crescent. The development of storytellers caused the evolution of an oral canon of stories. Chapter 1 covers a “di-mester” set of stories that evolved during the gestational time of oral history.
In Part Two, the development of writers compares to the infant stage of biological development. Delivered from the womb of orality, the infant stage records the development of writers. This change in the development of biblical words saw the evolution of two varieties of writers: historians and prophets. The development of writers first caused the evolution of a written canon of stories then caused the evolution of a prophetic canon of stories. Chapter 2 explains the socio-historical setting and purpose of the first five writings identified in the Bible. Chapter 3 goes from the oral stage of prophecy to the written.
Recording the development of editors, Part Three compares to the adolescent stage of biological development. Chapter 4 shows how the priests edited the first three writings together, ultimately weaving a complete story from creation to exile. This story of the faith of the Hebrew people was then adopted as sacred, going a long way in guaranteeing survival of the evolving canon. Chapter 5 considers the natural consequence of variation, which produced the Greek language Septuagint in Egypt and the Aramaic-language Targumim in Babylon. This happened en route to the canonization of the prophetic writings prior to the fall of Palestine to the Romans. Chapter 6 introduces adaptation, the localized result of a changing environment. Massive unrest at the time of Jesus was bound to create an adaptation of Law. The creative force of evolution was ready to produce change, and the resulting story was Gospel. Perhaps as a reaction to the Christian documents, the Writings part of the Hebrew Bible was canonized and the Hebrew canon was closed.
The first three stages of this book show the evolution of the canon of the Bible through developmental changes in its words. Part Four, the adult stage, considers the evolutionary processes occurring above (macroevolution) and below (microevolution) the story level. While Politicians worked to standardize the big picture of the biblical canon, publishers attempted to standardize the variations within the text. Chapter 7 shows how politicians became the agents of selection that led to the canonization of the Christian sequel. Chapter 8 explains how publishers continue to pursue a standardization of the text.
The idea for this book came from a series of lectures I gave on the formation of the biblical canon. When the series was over, something kept troubling me. I had just finished describing the creation of the Bible by many authors and editors over a long period of time, but the finality of the story didn’t feel right. Finally it hit me. The Bible was not created in the sense that it is a done deal. It has evolved to what it is today, and it is still developing changes in the words as new archaeological and textual critical discoveries are made. Viewing the Bible through the lens of evolutionary biology is meant to give a new perspective on what the Bible is, which is basic to understanding the Bible.
As a pastor for twenty-seven years, I have found many people disillusioned and confused by poorly explained biblical criticism and media-hyped archaeological discoveries. I intend to present a different view of the Bible, a divinely inspired yet very human product, to hopefully foster a new or renewed love for our amazing Bible. As Harold Bloom says “read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”3 The graphic at the beginning of each of the four parts and eight chapters is the natural history model, highlighting the topic at hand. The top line is about the development of biblical words, and the bottom line is about the corresponding evolution of canonical stories.
Praise for A Natural History of Scripture
“Many people have the idea that the Bible dropped out of heaven, and it’s very helpful to read through a book like yours to look at the processes involved. In fact, I think understanding those process enhances one’s understanding of the role of the Spirit.”
—Bishop Michael J. Coyner, Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church
About the Author
Keith H. Adkins was born in Columbus, Indiana and is a retired United Methodist pastor, having served the Indiana Conference for 37 years from 1982-2019. His first three books comprised an in-depth Bible Study trilogy. His next six books dealt with ministry, spirituality, and pilgrimages. He then wrote a Christian fiction trilogy, reimagining the New Testament set in North American in the late 1800’s. He also wrote The Secret of the Diamond: A Lenten Devotional, and The Jim Caldwell Trilogy.