Biblical Creation & Science? Part 1: creatio ex Iowa?

In the Beginning

I saw a post at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True(Oct. 11) and thought I would add my own $.02 worth about attempts to find a scientific basis for biblical creation mythology. Those 2 cents ended up spread pretty thin (as usual with me) so it will take me a few posts to get through it all. My goal is to show how the attempt to “science” the Bible is misbegotten, not from a science point of view but from that of secular biblical scholarship. In general, I think it is surrendering far too much to the creationists to even enter the discussion as to the Bible’s supposed scientific basis as it entails reading the Bible in a way that is not academically plausible. Moreover, the creationists’ own view of the Bible’s creationism is strangely similar to their handling of science: simplistic, selective, and locked into a preordained script.

And The Sciences were formless and void

Part The First begins with a perfect example of how not to engage biblical creationism in an academic setting. 


Hot linked from the University of Iowa site

A certain Dr. Ned Bowden, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Iowa is offering “Chemistry 1000: First Year Seminar, ‘What Does Science Say about the Big Bang, Evolution, and Genesis?‘” He also posted an op ed piece in the university’s paper (18 Sept) arguing that faith and science do not exclude each other claiming that he has “utter confidence” that the universe is more than 10,000 years old. Even so he is “perfectly willing to engage” with those who disagree and who claim that the young earth was created to look older, as the real age of the earth doesn’t matter.” He also claims that evolution and Genesis “tell the same stories using different words”.

Twenty five of Bowden’s colleagues in various sciences have posted a response (Sept 20) saying publication of the initial article was a disservice to the university, and you can take up Bowden’s claims concerning the limits of science yourself.  I’m more interested in how he treats the Bible and religion. 

Here are some excerpts from the official U. of Iowa’s description of Bowden’s  course.

In this course we will examine these different viewpoints [creation/nontheistic cosmology & evolution] from the perspective of science. … How similar are the events described by scientists and Genesis, chapter 1? No assumptions about what is right or wrong will be used, we will study the current scientific understanding about the Big Bang and evolution to gain an understanding about the differences and similarities between what was written in the Bible and what scientists believe.

In this course we will read a series of short articles written for a general audience to provide a basis for discussion about different topics… All faiths and creeds will be respected; we will examine the science behind the origin of life rather than the differences between faiths. 

My first reaction was “Why just Genesis 1? Hell, the story begun in Genesis 1 doesn’t end until Gen. 2:4! And there are more creation stories than that in Genesis and the rest of the Bible. But these are issues for subsequent posts. For this post, we needn’t get past the first three verses.

And darkness was hovering over the face of the cosmology…

First off, assessing the views on whether Genesis is compatible with science is NOT in the first instance, a scientific question at all. All books and all viewpoints are products of their times. It is very possible that what modern religious (or secular) readers of Genesis take the book as meaning is NOT THE SAME as what it actually meant to the people who wrote it. Indeed, there is no agreement in the modern church as to what it means. There is also tremendous uncertainty about what the ancient writers believed about creation!

Take, for example, the opening three verses of Genesis 1 and how it is rendered from the Hebrew in some modern English translations:

Revised Standard Version (RSV) 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) 1 When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness on the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Common English Bible (CEB) 1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth— 2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— 3 God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.

RSV and the NRSV differ in a few details. For instance,  “Spirit of God” becomes a “wind from God”, as it is in the NJPS. The Hebrew term ruah can mean both wind and spirit (the phrase can even be taken to mean “might wind”, i.e., “a wind by God’s standards). Most importantly, notice how the translations render the first verse and punctuate the passage differently. This has a tremendous impact on the meaning. Remember, the original Hebrew had no verse divisions, no punctuation and no vowels. The RSV gives us the “traditional” reading by offering three discrete sentences. NRSV, however, combines vv. 1 and 2, and replaces “In the beginning God created” with “In the beginning when” but still ends up in much the same place with the formless earth the result of the initial creation in v. 1.  The NJPS and the Christian CEB, however, forsake tradition in deference to new studies of ancient Hebrew and offer only one sentence in which v.2 is a subordinate clause describing the earth before creation. At stake, then, is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing. A huge theological difference hangs on the fact that the original consonantal Hebrew text of the first two words of the Bible is terribly ambiguous. The vowels the Jewish Masoretic scholars added in the Middle Ages, producing bre’shit bar’a, do not clear matters up as they themselves produce a grammatical conundrum. The first word combines the preposition b (in, at, when) with a noun, reshit, “beginning” but the vocalized rendition omits a vowel marking the direct object “the” and the noun is vocalized as if to imply “beginning of something”. The second word is the verb “create” but its exact grammatical form is also uncertain. 

Many scholars link the doctrine of creation from nothing in Christianity and Judaism to the impact of Hellenistic philosophy and to Christian polemics against gnosticism that held all material substances to be the corrupting product of a demiurge, developments that post-date the writing of Genesis 1.  Before questioning the “science” of Genesis 1, then, one has to solve the linguistic difficulties and determine which possible readings were most likely to have been within the world view of the ancient writers. This implies that one have a good level of knowledge of the text’s cultural milieux. I don’t know how Bowden would read the passage in question. In any case would be quite anachronistic of any creationist to suppose that create ex nihilo was intended because that is what the Church eventually settled on and completely circular for a creationist to claim the traditional reading is correct because it agrees with how one interprets the “Big Bang”.  

There are examples from the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean that imagines creation as involving deities separating or otherwise acting on a watery chaos. For example, the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, has two waters, Apsu and Tiamat mingling at the beginning.

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,

To my mind, Genesis 1:1-3 does not imply creation from nothing, and this opinion is probably the clear majority one in secular biblical scholarship. It is in keeping with other ANE myths that imagine a primordial watery chaos as the matrix out of which creation began. And whether our passage does or doesn’t say god created everything from nothing it is a question that needs to be answered before introducing further questions from physics, etc.  Also preliminary to these scientific questions are additional inquiries about the worldview and cultural contexts in which this story and other biblical creation myths were generated.  In the next installment, I will present what biblical scholars really think Genesis 1:1-2:4 (the Creation Week) is about, and something of the cosmology it implies. 

In later installments, I will look at the Garden of Eden myth in Genesis and some of the other references to creation in the Bible and something about mythology in general. As noted above, all of this is to argue that the Bible is not a scientific problem at all but a cultural and historical one. I think it does no good to even address pseudoscientific claims about the Bible’s cosmogony and cosmology at all, and especially not before coming to reasoned conclusions about the book as the product of a succession of religious cultures. Of course, conservative believers will reject the idea that the Bible is simply a human-made document and would assert that it is revealing some truth about God’s action that does not depend on or is limited by historical contingency and therefore the Bible can be verified by science (or at least the science verified by [their interpretation of] the Bible). To engage with them on points of science is to play their game. If one of the main points of secularism is that religion has human origins then I think secularists would do well to answer pseudo-scholarly biblical creationism with scholarly approaches the creation of the Bible. 


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