Is Genesis History?

In early 2017 (February 23), a new documentary film came out that asks:  Is Genesis History?  (Here is the main website.)  The answer it gives is a resounding “yes!” Genesis, it says, was originally written as, and intended to be read as, history.  Not only so, (although these words are not used in the film) Genesis is God’s preamble to all science of all time and must be the basis of it.  Paleontologist Kurt Wise, in the film when speaking about scientific evidence for the Genesis flood, says it this way:

So you need to go to the Bible to find the necessary information to reconstruct [the flood].  And looking at it from the other way, if you start from the Bible, you only get the beginning of the story.  God has given us the ability to read the rocks and fill in the rest of the story.  To fully understand the flood, we start with the Bible.  But then we go to the rocks:  “Speak to the rocks and they shall tell what has happened in the past.”

To a whole lot of people, this sounds right.  It sounds like a “high view of Scripture,” a turning of the world right side up. But it simply is not any of these.  I’ll come back to this quote below.  But here is a heads-up for this review:

This movie is an approach consumed with a particular set of well-meaning agendas that co-opts an ancient collection of sacred documents for the sake of those agendas quite separate from the original purposes, designs, or goals of those early documents.

A Disclaimer:

  1. Since I’m not a scientist, I will not sit in judgment on the scientific pronouncements of this film.  Actually, I rather enjoy watching scientists wrestle with one another over what is science fact, science theory, or science fiction. If you want to see a short (apparently Christian) critique to the science in this movie, see places like A Geological Response to the Movie “Is Genesis History?”  where the movie is criticized for making “convoluted arguments and misrepresentations of the natural world.”
  2. Whatever the case with the science of the movie, and however interesting I find all of that, I’m going to come out of the closet and admit that I am by training, natural orientation, and practice  a biblical scholar and teacher, and as such I will focus my entire attention, here, on how this movie (ab)uses the Bible to promote its agendas.
  3. I don’t personally know any of the people in the movie, nor do I intend anything unkind about any of them (all of whom I take as sincere and intelligent people).  None of my comments is aimed at anyone’s character, and I have an appreciation for what they are trying to do.

A Preview:

From a technical standpoint, this movie is very high quality:  attractive, charming, appealing!  The trailer clearly shows this:

So, with all of that shown, and with all due respect paid:  This movie is all dressed up;  but with respect to the Bible, it goes to some very disappointing places.  Upon watching this movie numerous times, each time I became more thoroughly distressed than the time before with how easy it is for highly intelligent people to accept such a shallow view of the Bible as this movie does.  The movie is deeply disappointing in that respect, and the only way I want my kids to watch this movie, is if I’m with them to help point out why this is not on any level a worthy way to understand or apply the Bible.  I’m as serious about this as those who object to evolutionists teaching their kids.  The (ab)use of the Bible in this movie is consistently that bad.

The fact that some people will yawn at my objection and respond:  “Does it really make that much difference?” is exactly the problem.  Who really cares whether we handle the biblical text with integrity when so many are fighting the monstrous battle of “evolutionists in our schools”?  Well, I for one, do care.  It is way past time that Christians are held responsible for how they use or abuse that Bible to prop up their agendas.

To respond to every instance of “biblical abuse” in this movie would take a book:  so I will be quite selective.

1. The Biblical Scholars

Two biblical scholars are interviewed in this movie.

1. The second (Dr. Douglas Petrovich) is near the end and is identified as an “Archaeologist”. He spent most of his time reviewing archaeological evidence relating to the Ancient Near East and making generalized comments about how Genesis may reflect the movements of peoples at the end of the third millennium BCE. His belief that he has discovered the “Tower of Babel” would be strongly criticized and denied by the bulk of biblical scholarship. This does not, of course, prove him wrong–only that he is presenting a highly controversial hypothesis. I would like to have heard more from him.

2. The first biblical scholar interviewed was Dr. Stephen Boyd. This interview was more disappointing. (a) I did not like the way the movie introduced him;  it allows one to think that he was likely a professor at, or some kind of representative of, Hebrew Union College (a highly respected school in Jewish and biblical studies). Not till near the end of the closing credits is that clarified—like the small print retraction buried deep in the back of the newspaper.  (b) When, discussing Genesis 1, he says that the earth was created as “a water ball in space,” and he later uses the word “global.” Actually, that is an assumptive world-view foisted onto the text, since the Hebrew of Genesis makes no claim about a “ball-shape” or “globe-shape” of the earth, or for that matter that it is “in space.”  If one complains that “it is common sense!” the reply is “to whom?”  Would many hearers of a story like this 5,000 years ago (or 3,000 or 2,000 or 1,000 or even 500) have even thought of such things?  (Yes, yes, at least a few Greeks from the 6th century BCE figured out the earth was round, but they are hardly “most people.”)

(c) Narrative and History: I actually did a double-take (stopping the recording and backing it up several times) when I heard the claim that since (and I quote):

the world’s greatest Hebraists all affirm that [Genesis 1] is a narrative . . . [then] here [in the book of Genesis] we have narrative to indicate that this is historical. [my bold, gdc]

He is correct, of course, that Genesis is written in narrative form or style rather than poetic form or style. But as a highly trained biblical scholar, he knows better than to say the second half of that sentence: “we have narrative to indicate that this is historical.” Narrative form or style does not per se stand up and shout: “I am historical!” Lots of things can be in narrative form: actual or fictional events, stories of all kinds (like fables, legends, myths, etiologies, novels), sermons, speeches, Gospels, letters, treatises, and the list goes on.  Generally speaking, narrative form is simply a way of writing that is different from poetic form: but the form or style itself shows nothing about historicity. There is an entire field of study in literary and biblical studies called “narrative criticism” which focuses on how a writing is constructed with attention to plot, characterization, structure, dominant themes, point of view of the characters or speakers or narrator(s) in a text. And in fact, narrative criticism often goes out of its way to avoid questions of history or historicity because it does not use tools that evaluate such things.

The problem is, most people who are not in these fields of study don’t speak this language. Instead, in popular church culture today the questions most often boil down to (1) “did it happen or not?”–a demand made on a text that may not have been written to answer that question or demand; and to (2) a “pairing up“ of so-called bad and good categories. Just look below at the left column in contrast to the right:

poetry vs. narrative
fiction vs. fact
story vs. history
lie vs. truth

Now read down the whole left column, and down the right column: look at what gets associated. This kind of simplistic categorization for evaluating literature almost always causes problems.  These terms (and others like them) are now supercharged in current popular church conversations, so much so that it is nearly impossible to have intelligent conversation about them in some circles.

So then, “narrative” does not imply that something must be “historical”;  nor does “story” (as in “nation building story” or “tell me the story of Jesus”) necessarily imply a lie.  In fact, what we call “fiction” may be written in narrative form.  And “poetry” does not mean that it must be referring to “fiction” or that it is somehow inferior.  Many times it is just the opposite! All of these terms have technical definitions that go far beyond the shallow associations made in this movie. For example, just because other flood stories (which were written well before or during the time of Genesis) may have been written in epic poetry (as Dr. Boyd states) does not mean they were not believed as life-directing stories by the readers/hearers who received those stories or that literature. Also, Homer’s Odyssey is 5,000 lines of epic poetry;  but that does not mean that those who heard the bards sing those lines did not believe them or order their lives by them.  In fact, it was incredibly influential (very much like the Bible) for over a thousand years (and even to this day, in many ways; although, not quite the same as long ago).

The same is true of those who heard the stories of Genesis.  Genesis helped to build a nation and countless individual lives.  There is no evidence whatsoever that those who originally heard and repeatedly retold the Genesis stories sat around their campfires debating: “Now, did this happen exactly like it says?  Are these stories really historical?”  In fact, there is ample evidence that not everyone took the stories literally and that they read them for the life stories that they were intended to be. Just because we (people in churches today) have had it pounded into us that our desperate question “But, did it really happen?” is the one and only really big question of the universe–well, this only means that we have more problems as readers than we realize.

A major problem in this movie is that words like “history” and “science” are employed very loosely, mostly as they occur in popular speech, without any reference to their more studied usages.  The question that should be asked is not “does narrative prove that something is history?”, but rather,

does Genesis even claim to be either history or science
in the way we think of such things today?

Everyone reading this should be able to see how anachronistic that question is, reading our own agendas and worldviews into the past as if ancient peoples saw things like we do.  It is skirting the edges of hubris to think that our own concerns, sensitivities, and questions when reading ancient documents are the ones that really matter after all.  The whole question of the concept of “history in ancient historiography” is a huge and longstanding discussion (this is hardly new!)  And if nothing else, Christians today would do well to read even some basics on the matter. One might consult such resources as the 5 volume New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, or the somewhat more hefty 6 volume Anchor Bible Dictionary. However, be warned that these are not easy reading and are very fluent in the language of biblical scholarship.  Just look up the word “History.”

(d) Torah: And finally, what is most surprising to me is that a Hebrew scholar does not insist on describing Genesis in its own terms and context:  namely, as Torah, which means “instruction in the law,” most often embedded in collections of stories.  E.g., how the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 function in establishing (i) a divine creator in the face of a polytheistic world, (ii) the basis for the Jewish calendar year, (iii) the origins of the marriage covenant—and (iv) so very much more.  This should have been the starting place for “how do we read Genesis?”  I offer no challenge to the competency of the scholar—he knows all of this stuff!  But I do challenge the choice of presentation when asked:  “What is Genesis 1 about?  Walk us through this.”

2. The Scientists

Second, what about the scientists? When the scientists in this movie start quoting the Bible, it is obvious that they are completely out of their depth.

1. For example, going back to the quote I opened with, I call up now the last two sentences:

To fully understand the flood, we start with the Bible. But then we go to the rocks: “Speak to the rocks and they shall tell what has happened in the past.”

(a) Even granting that this very likable speaker speaks with exuberance and excitement (i.e., he is not making a legal statement), the notion that the biblical flood story cannot be “fully understood” on its own telling, within the context of Genesis, offers a strong hint about how the Bible will be used in this film: namely, as a resource book in which a few scientists can go rummaging through to find statements around which they can build theories, and then call them “God’s revelation of scientific facts.”

(b) Then we come to that last sentence: “Speak to the rocks!” What is that? It looks like it is supposed to be a quote from the Bible (which it is not, not in any English translation); or perhaps it is supposed to imply a biblical concept–maybe it is a poetic burst of his general impression of what biblical texts say. I’m not sure. But whatever it is supposed to be, in the context it is used, it functions (that is, it plays the role in the sentence) as the punch line of the whole comment, implying that this is a Bible concept that supports his notion that the Bible was written to provide keys for reconstructing the flood and other such events. The problem is, there is no such concept in the Bible. All of the poetic texts in the Bible which exhort us to observe or take in the natural world, do so for the purpose of drawing out praise to God as creator. That is their purpose.

2. Let’s go deeper down this rabbit hole:  To describe Genesis in terms of Epochs that range from 6 days long (!) to two or three thousand years long (and counting), or that Genesis was written for the express purpose to show that God actually changed how physical laws work between various Epochs–with a result that the speed of light changes, or that the dinosaurs had a wonderful purpose at creation, but that God then cursed them with big teeth, awful claws, and bad behavior, wiping them out in the flood; to say that “this is why the Bible was written, to tell us all of this” (these and similar explanations are offered multiple times)–well, I’m at a loss for how else to say this: this is all just silly, not to mention embarrassing.  Clearly, such things as this can easily be forced onto an ancient text, but Genesis itself has nothing to do with any of it.

3. And then, there is the wholly pretentious self-designation:  “The Historical Genesis Paradigm.” Throughout the movie, this title is contrasted with the “Conventional Paradigm” of modern science as though Genesis is written for the purpose of providing scientific principles that will thwart the excesses of modern conventional science. The apparent goal was to say it so often as to burn it indelibly into memory. For me it was like hearing someone scratch a blackboard over and over again, because Genesis does not present itself as a foil for anybody’s view of science. Genesis was not written to offer a historical paradigm in current-day usages of that term. It certainly does offer a God-focused preamble for the building a nation, but that is a bit different from wrestling with 21st century scientists over the speed of light. This unfortunate approach to Genesis might be science fiction, but it certainly is biblical fiction.  Claiming that Genesis itself, as an ancient document, has anything to do with any of this is absurd.

4. One of the most ghastly interpretations in the movie is of Genesis 1 by Astronomer Danny Faulkner, who appears to me to be a wonderfully delightful guy–again, very likable:  somebody I’d like to have coffee with!  That said, my hopes get dashed when he begins to describe the days of creation in terms of a time-lapsed movie (and so our movie helps out by presenting time-lapsed photography of plants growing–very nice pictures!) so that Genesis is said to show “collapsed time”, not only on day 3, but also day 4 in the creation of the stars.  I.e., even though the galaxies are light years away, the light hit the earth immediately–because Genesis says so.  So the Andromeda galaxy is pointed out and explained to be the most distant object we can see with the naked eye:  over 2,000,000 light years away.  Which means it takes light that long to reach us.  However, believing (as Faulkner does from Genesis) that the earth is only about 6,000 years old, Genesis also provides the key to understanding this dilemma. By extrapolating from the rapid growth of plants on day 3, Faulkner says:

Normal growth, abnormally fast. . . . Turning to day 4, not much information is given there, but I think God also rapidly made the stars and other astronomical bodies, and then in order for them to fulfill their function, to be seen, he had to rapidly bring forth that light just as he brought plants and matured them quickly, he had to bring that light here. I’m suggesting that when we actually look at these objects, the the Andromeda galaxy . . . we’re looking at light that actually left that object.  So I think there is a rapid maturing that took place. 

Based on this argument, which grew out of a particular kind of approach to Genesis 1 and then which cites Genesis 1 for support (a bit circular), I guess the speed of things on day 4 was a lot faster than day 3–it would have to be;  furthermore on day 4, the speed would vary, I guess, from one star to another, depending on how far away the stars are from the earth–because the light from all the stars would presumably need to reach here at the same time–or at least within a 24 hour period–so they could be seen. I guess.

OR . . . maybe we could realize that this way of reading Genesis simply does not work!  This is not why the book was written.  What if Dr. Faulkner had stopped with “not much information is given there”?  Bingo! Maybe not much information is given because Genesis is not talking about this kind of stuff at all.  Maybe the purpose of the sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 1 is to point out just what it says in v. 14.  Faulkner mentions this as a general thing, and then leaves it. But it is not a general reference; it is pointing to the basis for the Jewish calendar: “For signs and festival-seasons and for days and years” is not a scientific or generalized explanation;  day 4 rather is explaining why Jews do certain things at certain times of the year. Why they keep the Law.  This is why there is no concern over “let there be light” on day 1 without a sun or the stars, because that is not the point. To an ancient hearer or reader, not only is God (and not any other so-called god) responsible for the water, sky, earth, and vegetation–all of which surrounds us–but also for the sun, moon, and stars which are for the express purpose of regulating the Jewish Calendar year–the keeping of the Law!.

This is important. According to Genesis 1, it is not that the Jewish calendar happens to use the sun, moon, and stars to mark time; it is rather that the sun, moon, and stars were made for the express purpose of regulating the Jewish Calendar! This is NOT a scientific explanation! However, since the Jewish calendar means virtually nothing to Christians today (who are embroiled in battles over “science and the Bible”), this “stuff” I have just mentioned here is not even considered as relevant for this creation story, and so it literally gets pushed off the table. But I ask: how fortuitous is it (do we think it is accidental?) that the 4th day is the exact middle of the 7 days? Or stated more plainly: this creation story (now firmly embedded in the Pentateuch) tells Jews why they are Jews instead of somebody else, and why they keep the Torah of God. It has nothing at all to say about the speed of light or evolution or any other such thing.

As I have said before, when looking at Genesis 1 as a whole, not even all ancient Jews or Christians took this literally:   Philo argues against such a reading well before Paul wrote one word:

It is quite foolish to think that the whole world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.  

My point is not that Philo is either right or wrong, but that it is not true that all Jews understood the Genesis creation stories literally–and none of them took them “historically” or “scientifically” the way we now use these words. This is not a recent objection.  [I have written about this already.  Go here and scroll down to heading “3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity“]

5. I could go on.  Numerous times the Bible is quoted by reading texts completely out of context in the greater service of protecting ourselves from the evils of “the Conventional Paradigm.” 2Peter 3, for example, mentions creation and flood, and this is called upon by one of the scientists as chiding early readers who doubt the historicity of such things, when that is hardly the point.  The Gospels are also dragged into this by asking why we see Genesis differently than we see the Gospels, since both are history?  But actually, the same problem plagues us for reading the Gospels;  Christians are notorious for insisting that the Gospels are modern “history” or “biography”  or even “legal briefs” (forever like four witnesses on a witness stand describing a car wreck!), rather than as “Gospels” which by design and purpose tell the story of Jesus in particular ways and for particular purposes.  And there is more. But I will stop with examples from this group.

6. NOTE:  However, on the subject of scientists in this movie, it should be noted that Dr. Paul Nelson, one of the scientists quoted in the movie, wrote a piece in Evolution News and Science Today on the very day the movie came out:  “New Film Is Genesis History? Presents a False Dichotomy: I Dissent from My Role in It.”  He does not object for the reasons I am bringing up, but on philosophical grounds which he explains.  And these are not the subject of my remarks here.

3. The Pastor

The final person interviewed is Dr. George Grant, listed as “Pastor.”  And I hasten to add once again:  this is not personal.  I intend no slights on his character, no slurs of his training or his intelligence.  I do not know the man.  But I do know the position he presses.  It is the same position I was taught in good conscience by my wonderful teachers (whom I still honor) from my childhood–a position that I have either greatly modified or abandoned on different levels, and that I encourage all others to rethink, modify, or abandon for better understandings as well.  There is so much wrong with what is stated in this section that it is not possible to quote or respond to it all. Again, I will be selective.

(a) Not distinguishing the difference between faith and history.  By the time the movie reaches this spot, it assumes that its point has been proven beyond doubt.  So now, the Adam and Eve story is asserted over and over again in the strongest language as “literal, historical, actual, real,” and other such terms.  Think about this: here is a wonderful and highly significant story told in only one document with no corroborating evidence from outside this story (except later documents in the same collection which quote or allude to it hundreds of years later).  Is that how we establish history?   If so, then how about this:

In 1830, a twenty-four year old writes in narrative form (!) The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.  In that book, he tells of a vision he had on September 21, 1823 (when he was 17 years old) of an angel who told him about golden tablets buried in a hill near where he lived in what is now Wayne County, New York.  He found the golden plates, translated them from a form of ancient Egyptian, and they are now the main contents of the Book of Mormon.  The golden plates later miraculously disappeared.

That story is believed by millions of people (in 2012, there were an estimated 14.8 million members of the Latter Day Saints, many of whom take it literally).  Is that story history?  How do you know?  If you say, “Well the first is in the Bible, so it is history!” An LDS group might respond, “Yes, and the second is in the Book of Mormon!  So it too is history!” The question is “how is history established?” If all it takes is for people who believe it to proclaim it as “history,” then “Adam and Eve” and “the Golden Plates” stand on equal footing. Just maybe that is not the best way to evaluate the two stories.

[And yes, I am quite aware that “inspiration” is the final trump card used to claim that the Bible is history in the sense used by this movie.  See below under “Unstated Assumption of this Movie.”]

(b) “Double-talk” on the importance of history;   and asserting that “meaning” cannot exist without history as assumed in this video:  In his words:

You cut things off from history, and you lose sight of the meaning of all of it. . . . 

By double-talk, I don’t imply intentional deception.  Certainly, the study of history and historiography (i.e., how sources and events are evaluated and established as history) is an important field of study.  And this is why this movie fails so colossally, because it “talks up” history, and then shows no interest in establishing a valid method for deciding history–it just asserts its own agendas as proving history.  And as to meaning:  if meaning is confined only to one view of what history is, the human race is in deep trouble!  This is too much to discuss here, but the relationship he draws between history and meaning does not actually describe how people determine meaning. For example: do the parables of Jesus all have to be historical events before they have any meaning? The point is, meaning does not require something to be history in the sense this movie uses it. Clearly, the study of history is important. But it is and has always been a serious mistake for Christians to base the “validity of Christianity” on their own particular view of how history must work.

(c) Easily dismissing the motivation of “the theologians”: This is a serious problem in all kinds of debates:  turning the “other sides” into straw men and simply dismissing them.  In his words:

We are constantly exhorted to not see [Genesis as history]. . . .The culture around us;  [and] from theologians!–modern theologians who are trying to somehow in their minds fit the truths of scripture with the so-called discoveries of science, which if you know anything about the history of science, you know it is an incredibly unreliable path!  So we are constantly bombarded with this message that we have to adjust our view. . . . We’ve been sold a bill of goods [that seeing Genesis as history is not important].  When you somehow make those chapters a different category altogether, and non-historical, what are you doing to all of the rest of the Bible?

Seriously?  The history of science shows an unreliable path? And the history of religion shows us what?   Is this the pot calling the kettle black?  First of all, if one learns how to read ancient documents in the context they were written, it frees those documents up from the straitjackets of such statements as just made above.  Second, the “bill of goods” is the very statement made.  And third, I don’t speak for all theologians;  but this kind of dismissal of position based on an attributed motive (a supposed moral and ethical weakness due to the lure of cultural assimilation) comes off as a shell game maneuver.  It distracts one from the real reasons (a) why the majority of all biblical scholars and theologians have taken the paths they have taken:  because they have been led there by the evidence in front of them;  and (b) why they reject the above perspective:  because it simply won’t hold up under scrutiny.

(d) “All or Nothing:”  Not understanding the principle of “the Gospel in jars of clay.”  The very notion that the Bible is “either all or nothing” is a long-held highly conservative belief that is asserted in this movie without any defense:  (i)  The biblical documents do not advocate such a view about themselves;  (ii) people cannot live their lives by such a principle;  (iii) it undercuts the “real-life” need for integrity among believers; and (iv) it plays right into the hands of atheistic arguments.  It also overlooks directly stated principles (by Paul for example) for the spirit and against the letter (2Corinthians 3), and especially in 2Cor 4:7:

But in jars of baked clay we have this treasure, 
it is God’s and not ours, this power beyond measure.  

The perfect Gospel of God in imperfect shells:  the imperfect shells are not confined to human beings. (This is fully developed in chapter 6: “Jars of Clay and Inspiration,” in Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.)

4. Summary

So then, is Genesis history?  This movie often asserts it, but does it not establish it. History is a very important consideration for studying the Bible, but not in the way this movie does it.  This movie is not really about history, because it never lays out a cogent definition of history or a method for determining it. Instead of that, the movie advances its own view of science by using Genesis as a prop or resource book to support it. It then contrasts “The Conventional Paradigm” (i.e., current-day science which explains the world in terms of millions of years) with a simplistic view of Genesis that would be better called “An Unconventional Paradigm”, or perhaps, “A Young Earth Paradigm.”  Very unfortunately, it often comes off as “A Third Grade Reading of Genesis Paradigm.” It constantly talks about Genesis as if this way of reading it is the only way to do it. The movie never defends that assumption or explains its methodology; nor does it share with its listeners that its approach is strongly contested by the majority of highly qualified readers.  At the very least, the alternative should have been responsibly set forth. This is a huge gaff.

[On this point, it is very interesting that a group that makes so much public noise about having high school science classes offer a creationist alternative to evolution, does not itself set forward any responsible recognition that other views of reading Genesis offer serious challenge to the approach adopted in this movie.]

In the end, the movie offers only two choices.  Genesis vs. anti-Genesis.  Which should Christians choose?  How could Christians reject Genesis?

Well I don’t reject Genesis.  But I do reject this movie’s presentation of that book, and I reject that the movie’s way of reading it is in concert with that ancient book’s own agendas.  In fact, in this movie, the sacred texts themselves are badly handled in a grand confusion over the purposes of those ancient texts.

The Unstated Assumption of the Movie

Actually, what is underneath all of this type of reading is a particular view of inspiration of the Bible that thinks of itself as “the one and only biblical view of inspiration,” when actually it is just one not-very-well-thought-out-opinion about the subject.  Essentially, it demands that the Bible must be read “literally” (which means, “the way this movie reads it”), and it argues or assumes that God has encoded the Bible with correct views on every subject in the world—science, medicine, you name it—because if there is the tiniest thing discovered as incorrect in the Bible then all of it goes into the trash. This is a long-held but deeply flawed view, and I have addressed this at length elsewhere.

The end result is that (very unfortunately) this movie often comes off as if a deviant form of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) where the apes are explaining how science and the sacred scrolls fit perfectly together.  Yes, I know how offensive this could or will be taken, and that some will decide (no matter what I say) that I’m bashing or mocking otherwise good people. But that is not my point.  I simply offer this, as a warning that all people who read the Bible, with all good motives, can be just as manipulative of it as these in this clip:



No matter how sincere its speakers, the Genesis movie abuses biblical texts in the service of its agenda. Its arguments about Genesis, although passionate and single-minded, are neither cogent nor persuasive.  This movie does, unfortunately, help to show that it is a mistake to use the Bible to establish scientific presuppositions, approaches, or methods, as if biblical texts were written for that purpose.  I simply can not with integrity adopt or recommend the positions this movie assumes, models, and promotes about the Bible.

But . . . . did it happen?

And so now at the end of all of this, some will still want to know: “Did the events in Genesis really happen this way?” Well . . . whether I say “ yes” or “no”, you won’t believe me or like my answer. So let me ask you: That portrait of you on the wall with your family. Is that how you really look? You didn’t have your hair styled or put on makeup? You didn’t get a tan or buy new clothes or spruce up for the picture? Did you hold your stomach in and sit tall? Is this really the historical you?  Or are you presenting the best you, that you want others to see?

Yes, this is relevant.  Is it just possible that by judging everything through an impossible question–“Is Genesis History?”– that we set ourselves up for forced answers?  Personally, for me, the Bible is the most important collection of documents ever brought together in one volume.  Because of that, I want to respect its documents each for what they claim to be on their own terms.  This is worth defending.

I hope you have noticed that I have been much “harder” on the “Bible people” (who should know better, and with whom I consider myself a fellow) in this piece than on the scientists (with whom I am trying to be a fellow).  I am not anti-scientist.  So please allow me to ask you a serious question.  How do you feel when you see well-meaning Christians who do not have your training in science, your understanding of your field of study, your appreciation and awareness of the debates and intricacies of your field, or your experience, and they begin to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the scientific issues you know so very well, and then they proceed to misinform others about those very things?  Would you simply pat them on the back and tell them to keep talking?  Or would you try to encourage them to do some due diligence in that field before speaking out in some authoritative manner?

Whatever your answer, you know what I’m talking about.  So I urge this message: you have a lot to offer us!  Please don’t fall into the trap presented in this movie.  Zeal for the truth is terrific.  But please treat the craft of understanding ancient sacred literature with as much respect as you did when learning the craft of your science.  Anybody can quote a Bible text.  But reading the Bible responsibly and contextually, especially in any professional space, takes as much work and care as it does to learn science.  So just as you rightly want people to speak intelligently about science, please learn something about the nature of ancient peoples and texts before you begin too easily appropriating and twisting those texts for current agendas;  because all that does is pull the rug out from everybody and makes monkeys of us all.

A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:

astronomy-astrology

Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.

Gary

Creationism vs. Evolution;
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye “The Science Guy”

I just finished watching the 2.5 hour live debate between Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Kentucky) and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye.  The question for discussion was specifically this:  “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  (http://debatelive.org/)

I came to the discussion neither “for” nor “against” anyone.  I just wanted to see how each would present his case. I have great appreciation for both men for their efforts and willingness to engage, and to the Creation Museum for making this publicly available for free.  I’ll give a short review and then some reflections.

Review of the Debate

Naturally, there were deep differences on fundamental issues—like how the same evidence is interpreted, the starting point of scientific investigation, the definition of terms, the nature of the Bible as a source book of scientific knowledge, and much more.  

Bill Nye advocated a 13.7 billion year old universe as evidenced by geology, astronomy, plate tectonics, and more.  He moved freely and easily in scientific data.  He admitted freely to not knowing what came before the big bang, or how to explain the origin of “conscience,” and he stated clearly that God could neither be proved nor disproved by scientific methods.  He never acknowledged that real scientists could also be “creationists,” and he talked several times about “here’s how we on the outside do things”—by which he meant outside of Ken Ham’s little circle of friends.  Although exceptionally fair handed in most matters, in this last respect, he was at least marginally condescending (if not more so).  However, when he talked about the “Ken Ham Model of Creation” he was attempting to specifically clarify exactly how he was defining creationism, since he had noted several times that creationists are not all cut from the same cloth.

Ken Ham advocated a 6,000 year old earth;  repeatedly disputed the accuracy of dating methods;  challenged the “faith” assumptions of secularists;  freely called upon scientific data;  represented the difference between himself and Nye as not about evidence, but about how to interpret the evidence, as a tug of war between “naturalism/Darwinism” over against the Bible;  and introduced a cadre of PhD’s in the scientific community who identify themselves as “creationists,” stating that nothing in astronomy or any other field (when properly assessed) disproves a young earth.  (It is important to note that he did not present scientific evidence that led to a young earth, but rather maintained that the available evidence cannot be indisputably interpreted against a young earth.)  He argued that the existence of logic, laws of nature, and order could only come from God, and that secular scientists stand on the shoulders of creationists.  He advocated a thoroughly literal reading of Genesis 1 as both reasonable and reliable, including seven 24 hour days, that there was no eating of meat (even by animals) prior to the flood, that death (even of the animals) was the result of human sin, that the flood was worldwide, and that all the “kinds” of animals that exist on the earth were on the ark. 

I’ve been highly selective here (necessarily so), others might choose other things.  For the most part, both men represented their point of view with grace.   I liked Nye’s enthusiasm for “the scientific search,” and Ham’s request to define terms more clearly.  I absolutely agree with Ham that secularism is clearly a “faith” (although in denial).  I also appreciate Nye’s willingness to enter into this discussion, when many secular scientists say this should not be done, since it gives the impression of credence to the views.  As time wore on, Ham talked less about science and more about the Bible, occasionally resembling a preacher delivering a sermon. 

The most flabbergasting statement (for me) was made by Ken Ham after stating that the age of the earth—as either young or old—cannot be proved using scientific methods.  The statement was: “The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins. . . . when we add up those dates [of the genealogies] we get thousands of years.”   (I’ll come back to this.)

Some Reflections

1. General Assessment

Ok, now to the question:
“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” 

Well, based on this debate alone, I would have to say no.  Absolutely not.  And the problem is that “creation” ends up getting defined just as Bill Nye says, “by the Ken Ham Model of creation,” which is an insistence on reading Genesis 1 with a particular kind of literalism.  I always enjoy listening to scientists debate scientific questions, and there was plenty of that, on one level or another.  However, as much as I appreciate Ken Ham personally and his effort (and I do), I get so completely worn out by scientists who “read the Bible (supposedly) scientifically,” as though some physicist or biologist or astronomer will know something about a 2,500 year old Hebrew text that no one else can know.

I’m not going to develop a complete argument here, I’ve covered at least some aspects of this in my book Scripture, Canon, and Inspiration where I think the real crisis among current-day Christians is:  a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the biblical documents and of the meaning and implications of “canon.”  The biggest shame in all of this ongoing debate (and it goes well beyond this one) is that highly intelligent people, highly trained in other areas, are not only continually mishandling ancient Hebrew religious texts, but then implying to parents and kids alike that “if you don’t accept this, you are actually denying God, the Bible, and homemade apple pie!”  Ham was careful to state that being a Christian was based on faith, not a position about a young earth;  even so, the “secularism vs creationism” contrast was cast in stark terms:  Ham’s creationism was presented as nothing less than the clear biblical claim. To reject this was to reject the Bible.

In contrast to this approach, many other Christians will run down all kinds of rabbit trails, like “a day equals millions of years,” and all of that stuff.  Why?  Because we are trying to salvage something:  our own faith, or the Bible itself.  We allow certain people to cast the discussions about Genesis in terms of the “science and the Bible” question, and then we get stuck in those ruts.  Then we try to rescue the Genesis text from the skeptical oblivion of the secular scientific sword (although we will say it more like:  “we show how Genesis defeats the skeptical attacks.”) 

2. A Mistake

I have a message for all Christians everywhere who are inclined to this kind of approach.  And I already know that most won’t pay any attention to this, or that I might even make some of them angry.  But here’s the message:  This is a mistake.  The whole attempt to reconcile Genesis with 21st century science is a mistake.   I kid you not, all of this plays right into the hands of the truly negative secularists (not all are negative), makes Christians look ridiculous, and sets up our kids for the biggest fall since the twin towers came down.  There are lots of reasons kids leave their faith:  and this is one of them. When they feel they got lied to, they turn exceptionally and understandably bitter.

I’m not trying to be mean or arrogant, although I will surely be accused of both.  But at this point in my life, I’m just tired of this.  Genesis 1-11 is not a 20th-21st century science book.  Period.  To use the genealogies of a 2,500 year old Hebrew document (not that we actually have a copy of Genesis that old), which was compiled from mounds of oral and written tradition, all of which grew and Ugaritic-3thrived in the atmosphere of dominant languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian—–that look more like a dropped bag of golf tees than a language—–to use the resulting ancient Hebrew written texts as a way of dating the age of the earth is breathtaking (as in gasping for air).  We can’t even date or agree upon the origins and shaping of that document, let alone the earth.

To over-read the details of one specific story about God at work—–which nobody in any ancient society could have witnessed, and which at least resembled stories found in other cultures!—–reveals the real culprit lurking in the shadows:  a particular view of inspiration that insists that (1) God himself is giving this ancient story as an “historical account,” (2) that the historical account (being from God as it is) can reflect no cultural imperfections, limitations, misapprehensions, or inaccurate understandings of the time, (3) that the historical account is given as a scientifically factual account in such terms that no one until the 20th-21st century would quite fathom (showing the layers of hidden truth of ultimate knowledge), and (4) that all who don’t accept this particular view of inspiration and assessment of how that factual account came to us are in the dark and are somehow denying the Bible.

As a believer in God, and as one who also acknowledges the inspiration of the ancient scriptures of God, I simply must confess a near total disconnect with this view of Genesis and this view of inspiration.  As well intended as it is, it is even more unfortunate.  I also confess a disappointment that the “case for creation” offered was cast under this shadow.  My book will have to stand for stating my positions on such things as the nature of ancient documents, inspiration, and canon (and what that implies).  And so I now turn to some ancient realities of how this story was understood and explained.

3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity

The funny thing is, not even all ancient readers took Genesis 1 as literal.  First, there is a competing creation story told in Genesis 2, standing right there next to the other one,  showing that the compilers of Genesis (who brought all of the disparate materials together over time) had no problem with different versions of the story.

We can also see it at the very time of Jesus in the likes of his Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, who wrote an extended commentary on the creation:

[Moses] says that in six days the world was created, not that its maker required a length of time for his work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously. . . . Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was a need of order.
(Philo, On Creation 13, my emphasis)
 

In this way, Philo emphasized not the days or times, but “the principles of order and productivity which governed the making of it.”  (F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Philo, vol. 1, pp. 2-5).  Philo gets even more direct here:

It is quite foolish to think that the whole world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.  Why?  Because every period of time is a series of days and nights, and these can only be made such by the movement of the sun as it goes over and under the earth.  . . . When Moses says “He finished his work on the sixth day,” we must be understanding him to adduce not a quantity of days, but a perfect number, namely six, since it is the first to equal the sum of its own fractions.
                    (Leg Al 1.2, my emphasis)
__

Philo then spends pages talking of numbers, and fractions, and periods of time, and how the Deity is not delimited by any of this, and he concludes with:

There is an end, then, of the notion that the universe came into being in six days.
                   (Leg Al 1.20, my emphasis)
__

Philo does a great deal more than this, but this is enough to show that despite what others may have thought, here is at least one interpreter that calls attention to, what for him, are logical (reasonable) problems with the idea of literal days.  After great length, Philo rejects the idea altogether.

And what about the 3rd century Christian thinker and writer Origen, who said: 

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
(De Principiis IV, 16, my emphasis)
 

And then comes Augustine in the 5th century—–5th century, but almost as though just leaving the debate last night and writing this—–and this long quote is really worth reading:

[The six days]  What kind of days these were  it is extremely difficult to say or perhaps impossible for us to conceive.
(City of God, 11.6)It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.
(De Genesi ad litteram 1:19–20, Chapter 19, my emphasis)
__
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.
                    (De Genesi ad litteram 2:9, my emphasis)

There is much more, and even Jewish interpreters as late as the 12th century, like Maimonides, would warn against too literal an interpretation of the Genesis creation stories.  Certainly, many understood the days in a literal sense.  But the point is not “who is right?”  It is rather that “Bible readers have never been of one mind concerning the nature of the days of creation.”  (So says Jack Lewis after a thorough review of the topic in “The Days of Creation:  an Historical survey of Interpretation”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32(4):433-455 1989.  As with all of Lewis’ writings, this is packed with detailed information.)

The point is, even long before the rise of contemporary science (or the concerns of fundamentalist Christianity), there were, in addition to literalists on “the days,” both Jews and Christians of deep and abiding faith who understood that Genesis was about a whole lot more than some robotic recording of individual events.  And where they disagreed, the interpretations often stood side-by-side, along with others, without any felt need to necessarily eliminate them.

[Note:  although none of this came out in the Nye/Ham debate, there is a tendency by at least some creationists to note and then simply dismiss Philo, et al, as minor or perhaps too influenced by speculative Greek philosophy and numerology to pay any real attention to.   This completely misses the point.  The fact is, we’re not talking about Billy Bob, Jim Bob, and Thing-a-ma-Bob, here.  These are major thought leaders of the time.  It is clear that from a very early time there have always been interpreters who have seen the days of creation as problematic and non-literal.  These cannot be dismissed.]

As a kind of bottom line, here, it is unfortunate in the Ham/Nye debate that a defense of creation as a viable option for consideration in the 21st century was limited only to a particular kind of “creationism,” quite narrowly defined and insisted upon—–forced, even.  It would have been much better to represent creation as understood broadly by the historic Judeo-Christian world-view, even while acknowledging the breadth of opinion and the nature, scope, and limits of ancient literature—–not as “evidence,” but as a faith-system.  Since Ham continually represented the secularist position as a faith position, this would have been a stellar opportunity to compare the value of the two faith systems.

4. Genesis in Context

And so now, in the early years of the 21st century, an inordinate amount of emotional and theological baggage is attached to any and every discussion of book of Genesis.  In fact, the baggage gets far more attention than Genesis.  (Which is, of course, the nature of baggage.)  Certainly, many Christians are well beyond this.  Even so, too many Christians are much more into “defending the Bible” (almost like the crusades of the middle-ages) than they are in pursuing contextually responsible understandings. It would be far better to allow the ancient texts that we have to present their own case on their own terms.

As such, Genesis was an ancient, highly culturalized statement of faith and story (Torah) about the origins of the Jewish people, their laws, and their worship calendar.  It is important to remember that neither Genesis 1, nor the whole book of Genesis, stood on its own:  it was a part of Torah (i.e., God’s story, God’s instruction) and it existed in the service of Torah.   When we break off the prologue of the story and subject it to the invasive scrutiny of mere “historical fact” or “scientific tid bit,” we refocus the intent of the story and then gut it of its power.

Genesis was written for those who had already accepted and were following the law of Moses.  Now that statement is very important, far more important than a throw-away line.  Genesis allowed its law-following, sacrificing, Sabbath-keeping readers to see “who they were” as a people, and why they were doing (faithfully and ritually) what they were doing.  Despite whatever they might have thought about “the days of creation,” they would have instinctively understood that this story was not about the nature of the “days” in their own original “right” to be a “day,” but rather about something far more profound:  namely, what it implied about how they should be spending their own days—–a looking glass into their own identity.

  1. They would have seen that creation negated polytheism (the worship of many gods) and destroyed henotheism (the worship of one of many gods);
  2. They would have seen that their law was deeply rooted in and a part of  the cosmos—–the sun, moon, and stars (i.e., the Jewish calendar).  It is right there in the text of Gen 1:14:  “and let them indicate festivals, days and years” (NJB).  The concern here is not how long the day is, the concern is the function of celestial lights for setting fire to and illuminating  (and regulating) the worship and daily life!  It is all about the worship calendar!  So then every time they participated in a feast day event, each and every time they consulted the festal calendar, they were participating in the intent of God from creation.
  3. They would have seen that the significance of the 6 days was for pointing to the 7th day:  an “aha!” moment that their “keeping the Sabbath” was a God-thing, not just an expedience or an arbitrary happenstance.  (This is exactly the interpretation given to the days of Genesis 1 by the ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13:16: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.”  The days serve a functional purpose for the people reading about them.  The problem in Luke is not the understanding of the purpose of the days, but in turning such an understanding against the healing purposes Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.)

The creation story of Genesis 1 is about wedding the people of God to the law of God.

Genesis 1-11 is about YHWH God, his people, and how they started to become a nation.  And in such a context, ancient readers would have stood in bewilderment at the mention of millions of years, of competing timelines, of young-earth/old-earth, or the evaluation of scientific data.  Introducing such subjects into this sacred context would have been like wearing halloween masks at the Lord’s Supper table.  They would be foreign, intrusive, and inappropriate.

The idea that ancient texts can only be understood in so-called “factual or literal” terms, read in the context of a 20th century theo-scientism (else they are of no abiding value), is a fabrication of 20th century theological apologetics bleeding over into our current time.  Such concerns are not borne-out in ancient readings of those texts.  It very well may satisfy the agenda of some external theological positions today, about what the scriptures must be, but it does not best account for the nature of the ancient texts as we have received them. 

My Dream

Sometimes when I am sitting quietly, I am overcome by a dream (surely an hallucination), that I am certain will never come entirely true. Namely, that more scientists who are Christian and who want to explain technical aspects of biblical texts, would come to see the great benefit and even necessity of working more closely with a wide range of biblical scholars on the nature of ancient religious texts and how to handle them.  When scientists of any stripe bring their considerable knowledge to the Bible and then merely accept a pre-critical reading of the Bible into which they can infuse their scientific beliefs, damage is done—–every time.  The key, here, is a wide range of biblical scholars as opposed to just a few scholars who happen to agree.

In my dream, this would result in more careful attention to ancient texts.  A return to pre-critical readings of the Bible (as was demonstrated in this debate by Ken Ham) as a basis for dialogue with current day science is a recipe for disaster.  The point is not that biblical scholars know everything (hardly).  The point is simply that the more care given to ancient biblical texts as religious texts, not as science text books,  the better off we all are, including all of our kids.

There will certainly always be disagreement about every subject, including this one.  Not all biblical scholars will agree in their fields any more than all scientists do in theirs.  But I would rather deal with an ancient text on its own (as it lays there looking back) with concerns about contextual function and fit, for narrative flow, of plot and character, of implied author and implied readers, of forms and redaction by ancient editors or ancient sources, and most especially of the tracing of theological uses of story and text through the ages—–I would rather deal with all of that (for at least it is focusing on what is actually going on with a text) than enduring even one more barrage of intrusive comments about how Genesis 1 is explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the reading of ancient texts. 

Like I said, it’s a dream.   

Gary D. Collier

PS:  Do I accept the validity of creation?  of the Bible?  of “inspiration”?   I certainly do, if the texts are allowed to be the texts of ancient Jewish and Christian “coming-of-age and identity” they were intended to be, texts brought together in faith, by people of faith, in search of a conversation with God.  But not at all in the sense of those who would dip them in the rich, dark chocolate of 20th century theo-scientism.  Count me, in the case of such ideas, as a committed non-believer.

PPS:  I wanted to offer a more supportive review of Ken Ham’s position, as I understood it.  Surely he is a believer and one who takes action, and for both, he is to be highly commended.  I trust he will know that nothing here is intended personally.  I have great respect for what he is attempting to do, even if I cannot be a “partner in crime” with him.