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Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives

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"This superb study of early Christian interpretations of Genesis 1-3 fills a major gap in the literature. . . . Bouteneff's book is not only an introduction but contains many insights of interest to specialists."--Verna E. F. Harrison, Church History
Recently renewed debates concerning creation and evolution make contemporary Christians wonder how their forebears in the faith understood the Genesis creation narratives. Were the stories of the six days and of the garden read historically, or did they have some other function? This volume from Peter Bouteneff brings needed attention to early Christian understandings of those key biblical texts.

After introductory chapters on the narratives and their reception in early Judaism and in the New Testament (especially in Paul's letters), Bouteneff focuses on the church fathers. He considers how the narratives of Genesis 1-3 were read as foundational, authoritative texts during the formative centuries when the Greek fathers were laying the framework of Christian theology. Chapters are devoted to writers of the second century (the apologists, from Justin to Irenaeus), the third century (mainly Origen but also the Latin writer Tertullian), and the fourth century (Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, and especially the three Cappadocian fathers). Bouteneff finds that from Paul onward, the primary interest in Adam was as a prefiguration of Christ. The six days of creation bespeak God's ordered creation of the world through Christ, and early Christian readings of Genesis reflect Christ-centered understandings of providence and time.

Bouteneff's engaging and informative study makes the Greek fathers' thought accessible to biblical interpreters and theologians as well as pastors, students, and all who are interested in the early church and its use of the Bible.


"This wonderfully researched and elegantly written book provides the reader with a compelling and trustworthy portrait of how the fathers of the church read the story of Adam and Eve. As Bouteneff tells that story we see that the tale of the fall is always contextualized within a narrative that celebrates the restoration and redemption of the human race."--Gary Anderson, professor of Old Testament, University of Notre Dame

"I hope this remarkable study will be widely read and appreciated. From the start, the reader is obliged to grapple with questions about how a text is to be read when it can be demonstrated that layers of subsequent interpretation have had as much, if not more, influence than the text itself. And what more crucial text is there than Genesis 1-3, which has shaped Christian understanding of both creation and fall in ways that are now controversial, both within the churches and in the public domain? Though not always agreeing with the analyses presented here, I can guarantee that hardly anyone, whatever their starting point, will come away from this book without having found some new insight."--Frances M. Young, Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology, retired, University of Birmingham

"Beginnings takes us back to the beginning of the scriptural creation narrative and to the beginning of the Christian appropriation of this narrative. The reader is initiated into precursors of the Christian tradition (especially the Septuagint and Philo) and then guided through the early Christian thinkers (especially Origen) whose writings underpin current theological reflection on Genesis 1-3. Beginnings allows twenty-first-century readers to wrestle with issues ranging from creation and the image of God to anthropology and gender--all in the context of the community of faith that found its beginning, middle, and end in Jesus Christ. Peter Bouteneff has done the church a valuable service in this focused study by highlighting not only the diversity of interpretation that characterized the church's interpretation but also the remarkable unity in the different communities' approaches to this sacred text of Genesis."--Joel C. Elowsky, managing editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Drew University

"Peter Bouteneff's Beginnings meets a precise need in patristic studies and in the history of early Christian biblical interpretation: the need for a historically astute, theologically sympathetic, and hermeneutically sophisticated analysis of the fathers' reading of Genesis 1-3. Here at last is a work that truly sets in relief the many layers of meaning that patristic commentators saw in these rich and evocative opening chapters of the Bible. Rather than dismissing their work as premodern, prescientific groping for a valid explanation of the stories of creation and fall, Bouteneff definitively demonstrates the profound theological contextualization at work in early Christian exegesis of the Genesis cosmogony, from the New Testament writers through the Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century. This is a superb monograph."--Paul Blowers, Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History, Emmanuel School of Religion

"The question of the origin of humankind and the cosmos has perhaps never been so hotly debated as nowadays, with 'evolution' and 'creationism' presenting themselves as polar opposites. In this fine book, Peter Bouteneff presents a carefully researched and scholarly reading of early Christian readings of the creation account in Genesis. What emerges is a range of interlocking insights into God's creative purpose and the human place in the cosmos. Genesis 1-3 is seen as neither a myth nor an outdated scientific account, but a poem of creation, yielding deeper meanings upon closer ponderings. Bouteneff unveils the often surprising riches of our patristic inheritance with a rare intelligence and passion."--Andrew Louth, professor of patristic and Byzantine studies, University of Durham

The Author

  1. Peter C. Bouteneff
    © Frank Dobbs

    Peter C. Bouteneff

    Peter C. Bouteneff (DPhil, University of Oxford) is associate professor of theology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He is the author of Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth and coauthor of...

    Continue reading about Peter C. Bouteneff


"The volume is very useful for theologians, for biblical scholars interested in the Wirkungsgeschichte of these texts, and for students. . . . The author can be congratulated for this good, serious, and thorough treatment of the topic."--Korinna Zamfir, Review of Biblical Literature

"Bouteneff charts a fascinating history of a conversation that is still ongoing today. . . . Bouteneff's sensitive presentation is attuned to subtleties in the way that each author's interpretation reflects both his own theology and hermeneutical stance toward, e. g., allegorical reading. . . . Bouteneff's careful efforts are well worth reading, and in the end provide something like a hermeneutical apologia for reading contentious biblical texts in the company of our patristic forebears."--David Lincicum, Theological Book Review

"This work is welcome in a time of rancorous debate around the issues of creationism and evolution, both in the United States and in Europe. It enables a new look at certain widely held ideas. It reminds us that some literal readings are perhaps more recent than people sometimes suppose. . . . It is also interesting to note that the idea transmitted in early Christian authors that human genealogy traces back to Adam does not imply the idea that humans are born guilty of Adam's transgression. To the contrary, these authors stress free will--an interesting position in view of the protracted debates in the West on this notion of free will and original sin."--Anna Van den Kerchove, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"In this well-researched and highly readable book Orthodox theologian Peter Bouteneff examines early Christian understandings of creation. . . . This is a welcome contribution to the recent renewal of interest in the patristic writers, and one which adds greatly to the understanding of theology as an ongoing history of ideas, debates, and arguments."--Jason Wardley, Expository Times

"[Bouteneff] has done a great service to Scripture scholars and systematic theologians alike by compiling in one volume several patristic interpretations of the biblical creation narratives. . . . Bouteneff has proven himself capable of researching and discussing a wide range of issues pertinent to many fields of theology: Scripture, patristics, and creation theology. Beginnings deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in a coherent and thorough discussion of how those fields intersect."--Joseph R. Upton, First Things

"[Bouteneff] focuses his examination on several questions that continue to engage people today, namely, the relationship between God and creation; the origin of evil; death; humankind and human sexuality; and the relationship between human creation and the rest of the created world. Upon reading this book, one will discover that while believers and nonbelievers alike have grappled with these questions, each period of history has had to answer them in its own way. This should encourage the modern reader to look at these questions through a contemporary lens. The book will appeal to those interested in history."--Dianne Bergant, CSA, The Bible Today

"This superb study of early Christian interpretations of Genesis 1-3 fills a major gap in the literature. . . . One of this book's many strengths is that, while depicting a broad consensus in the contours of early Christian exegetical methodology, it highlights how each of the authors studied approached Scripture in a distinctive way. . . . The book, like the early Christian readings of Genesis that it studies, has multiple levels of meaning. With exemplary clarity, it skillfully traces and interweaves several narratives, one of which is the history of early Christian biblical interpretation. Besides this, it introduces the reader to major early Christian theologians. It also summarizes their writings on Genesis 1-3. . . . Bouteneff's book is not only an introduction but it also contains many insights of interest to specialists. . . . The descriptive material in this book is an end in itself, worth reading repeatedly and pondering."--Verna E. F. Harrison, Church History

"Bouteneff enables modern readers to see how early Christian intellectuals conceptualized their faith by confronting biblical texts of 'beginnings,' and how they built on one another's work. Alert to theological implications, Bouteneff's understanding of both the Bible and the Fathers is well-informed, and he respects modern as well as ancient scholarly approaches. The book is a superb contribution to biblical hermeneutics, patristic interpretation, and systematic theology."--Richard J. Clifford, SJ, Theological Studies

"Beginnings is not primarily about Genesis. The creation and paradise narratives are rather Peter Bouteneff's case study for an elaborate and ingenious discussion of patristic hermeneutics. . . . Beginnings is a valuable resource both for students and more casual readers. As an introduction to early Patristic exegesis it is excellent. . . . Bouteneff works with the latest scholarship, not only on patristic authors, but on Scripture and Pseudepigrapha. His argument, therefore, is much stronger for not treating Scripture as monolithic or untouchable. . . . A well-researched, thorough, and careful treatment of a complex and difficult subject."--Jonathan L. Zecher, Sobornost

"Boutenoff succeeds in allowing each author to speak for himself, on his own terms, presenting evidence that within early Christianity, the [creation narratives] found in Genesis 1-3 were not seen as myth, but as a proverbial poem, a poem that would yield ever deepening meaning(s) when studied. The overarching question posed to all of the writers encountered is, 'how literally did they take the creation narratives?' One may be surprised by the answer they find to that question in this book. I know I was . . . and am better because of it."--Bradford McCall, Reviews in Religion and Theology

"[A] carefully researched and attractively written study of the reception of a biblical text that has strongly shaped our Christian understandings of creation, sin, and death over the centuries. . . . The sections on Irenaeus, Origen, and the Cappadocians comprise a substantive part of the book and are excellent, succinct summaries of their complex thought."--Vinoth Ramachandra, Dharma Deepika

"Bouteneff offers a fresh study of early Christian readings of the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3. Of overarching interest to him is the question of how literally his chosen authors understood the text. The perhaps surprising answer is of significance not only for historical-critical and fundamentalist readers, but also for readers who fall within the intervening expanse of the spectrum. As he ponders this question, Bouteneff pursues such engaging topics as the nature of the human person; the origin of evil; and sin, death, and their relationship. His attending to the early Christian commentary on the opening narratives of the Bible includes by happy necessity the broader issue of how each commentator understood the Bible in general. Bouteneff thus provides readers a teaser, a mini-survey of the history of early Christian biblical interpretation. . . . A valuable contribution of the book is its detailed exposition of the christocentric focus of much early Christian interpretation, an emphasis that offers good balance for our modern tendency to read the two testaments independently. Bouteneff's command of his sources is impressive, as is his locating of his authors in their political and theological contexts. . . . I found Beginnings consistently informative, occasionally provocative, and always good reading."--Mary Catherine Berglund, Interpretation

"A thoroughly researched account and evaluation of the various interpretations of Genesis 1-3 by Christian writers of the first three centuries. . . . The book is worth reading for its analyses of the interpretations of [twelve] Church Fathers [of the second and third centuries]. The appendix, bibliography, and index will also prove helpful for anyone studying this period."--Stanley M. Horton, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"Beginnings is obviously the work of great erudition. Bouteneff effortlessly traverses the specialized fields of biblical studies, history, and theology and brings them into conversation with one another. He carefully examines the interpretation of the creation narratives from their composition through the fourth century, leaving his readers with plenty to think about. Perhaps most importantly, Bouteneff helps to peel back some of the layers of interpretation which have been added to the original story. . . . Bouteneff's work is likely to be extremely useful as a guide for the development of Greek theological anthropology. Whether or not it changes anyone's mind concerning the current debate over evolution, Beginnings raises a number of interesting questions about how Christians read, imagined, and understood their past."--Jeremy David Wallace, Koinonia Journal

"This important study in hermeneutics will be of value to those interested in the OT, the early church fathers, and the history of exegesis and hermeneutics. . . . Bouteneff has provided a valuable examination of early Christian exegesis of Genesis 1-3. . . . The issues the church fathers struggled with are still current, and it is important we understand how they dealt with them."--Gary H. Hall, Stone-Campbell Journal