Monday, June 22, 2009

Powerful proof that the creation account in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is historical narrative, not poetry

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ..."
Historical narrative? Statistically certain.
Poetry? Statistically indefensible.

Just a followup today to my earlier post:

I pointed out that Professor Karplus' claim that the text of Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 may be taken as poetic rather than as historical narrative was contrary to recent text analysis. The issue seems important enough that I now provide brief detail about that text analysis.


Among other references, you may find one very thorough text analysis in:

Boyd, Steven. W., "Evidence for an Historical Reading of Genesis 1:1 - 2:3", pp. 631-734 in Vardiman et al, Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth - II, Results of a Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative. Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA, 2005. 618 pp.

Here is Boyd's Figure 10 (p. 674):

The abscissa value represents the ratio of preterite verbs to total finite verbs in selected Hebrew Bible texts while the ordinate represents the probability of a text being a narrative as opposed to a poetic text. The preterite verb form for the most part is a sequential past tense (Boyd, p. 651). The sample to "calibrate" this classification analysis consisted of fourteen clearly narrative Hebrew Bible texts and fourteen clearly poetic Hebrew Bible texts (Boyd, p. 652). The Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 text had a ratio 0.655 preterite to total finite verbs. The classification analyis gives a probability between 0.999942 and 0.999987 at a 95.5% confidence level that the Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 text is historical narrative. I have highlighted the Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 text on the plot (the blue triangle) by pointing to it with the BIG RED ARROW.


First, why all the numbers stuff? Because too many folks want to read allegorical or symbolic language into the Genesis creation account. They wave their hands and dismiss it as "poetic" despite what what the text on the face of it would convey. So the Boyd analysis is kind of numbers-in-your-face if you really want to insist that an apparently historical narrative is poetic/allegorical.

Now how to understand it. The statistical tools Boyd uses are in the general category of "classification." This is a common application of statistics in science. For example, a hospital diagnosis protocol for a person exhibiting certain symptoms may quantify a suite of symptoms and use a classification analysis (or discriminant analysis) to determine the probability that a person has "disease A" requiring extended hospital isolation and $20,000 for medications, as opposed to "disease B" which would require a few aspirin and a couple of days rest. This would be precisely analogous to the Bible text question.

For the case at hand, we only have to decide between two "classes": historical narrative or poetry. The very small overlap in the samples (almost all of the poetic texts have the preterite/total ratio less than 0.2, while almost all of the historical narratives have a preterite/total ratio greater than o.25) kind of jumps out at you suggesting that the "common sense" reading of the text as historical is backed up by the classification analysis.

Consider an analogy. Suppose at the Beijing Olympics the shoes from the American men's basketball team have been accidentally mixed in with the shoes from the Chinese women's table tennis team, and I have a job simply to look at the shoe size for each pair and toss the shoes into a bin for USA-Men-Basketball or into a bin for PRC-Women-TableTennis. The classification task might be similar to that shown in Boyd's Figure 10 above. There might be a few pair that could conceivably go into either bin and I might make a wrong decision or two. But generally the spread is so great that I am going to get the right answer almost all of the time.

So may I say it? For the folks who wish to insist that the Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 text is poetic, it might not be as bad as tossing Shaqille O'Neil's size 22 shoes in the women's shoe bin, but more like throwing LaBron James' 15.5 shoes to the ladies. Do you seriously want to do that?


"The logistic regression model calculates the probability that a text is narrative. For Genesis 1:1 - 2:3, this probability is between 0.999942 and 0.999987 at a 95.5% confidence level. Thus we conclude with statistical certainty that this text is narrative, not poetry. It is therefore statistically indefensible to argue that this text is poetry."

Respectfully submitted,



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