I wrote a piece at ReligionandPolitics today about how Ben Carson’s SDA beliefs put him close to the source of creationism. Please give it a read. Ronald Numbers, eminent historian of science, creationism, and Seventh-day Adventism offered useful critique of an earlier draft, my thanks to him.
There were a few questions I wanted to address beyond what I wrote, that get more into the history of interpretation.
What was the genesis (sorry) of the seven-day structure of Genesis 1? Wasn’t young-earth creationism the only understanding of Genesis until Darwin and evolution force a reevaluation of it? Below, some quick and dirty historical responses to these questions. I find this stuff fascinating, and it will be partially covered in my book.
Genesis includes two originally separate accounts of creation, Genesis 1-2:4, and Genesis 2:4 onwards. They overlap and repeat somewhat (were man and woman created simulaneously after all the animals per Genesis 1:26-27 or was man created first, then animals, then woman, per Genesis 2:15-22?). But they are also different. Like many other creation accounts from the ancient Near East, Genesis 2:4ff isn’t concerned about the creation of everything (no mention of sun, moon or stars) nor its timing (no first day, second day, etc.) other than a brief mention that it takes place in one day.
This second account, canonically speaking, is actually the older account, and the first account is the newer, younger account. As I write in the piece, Genesis 1 is attributed to Israelite priests exiled to Babylon, after Israel had been destroyed. There, they innovated, reshaping Israelite tradition (including, some think, Genesis 2:4ff and/or Psalm 104) in ways that were respectable to Babylonians, to justify them to their cultural overlords. At the same time, they encountered a lot of ideas while living in Babylon that were simply unacceptable, like polytheism and the low nature of humanity, and shaped Genesis 1 to argue against those ideas.
Of particular interest is the priestly innovation of a 7-day creation structure (not found in the earlier account of Genesis 2:4ff or elsewhere), which grew out of two things. First, priests conceptualized creation as the construction and dedication of God’s universal temple. We know now that not only in the Bible, but temples in the ancient Near East were often built or dedicated in patterns of 7; 7 days, 7 years, etc. Second, while Israel’s sacred space -the Jerusalem temple- had been destroyed by the Babylonians, Israelites in Babylon could still respect sacred time, namely, the seventh day or Sabbath. Creation was thus expressed and schematized in a priestly and practical way, that emphasized those aspects of Israelite religion that could be kept in Babylon. The seven-day structure thus had little to do with modern scientific ideas about the age of the earth, and was not trying to make such a statement. It’s easy for moderns to misread it that way, context free.
With the passage of time, Babylonian culture, history, and language was lost. Much ink was spilled interpreting and understanding Genesis 1 without the benefit of that contextual knowledge. Although many different views were held about Genesis by prominent Christian and Jewish interpreters through the ages, in the absence of anything to suggest it, no one conceived of an earth millions of years old. But no one really seemed to care how old the earth was. What, after all, was the relevance?
While Darwin and his Beagle are often thought to be the beginning of scientific disruption of a supposedly unified interpretive tradition, such conflict goes back much further. Augustine, for example, expressed scientific anxiety about what Genesis said in the 4th century CE. Conflict grew widespread in the middle ages, as explorers, astronomers, and “natural philosophers” all began realizing that Genesis simply didn’t match up with the world around them in a variety of ways. Indeed, “by 1800, geologists had shown that the earth must be far older than this estimate [of 4004 BCE], and, by the time Darwin published his book, all educated persons accepted that the biblical timescale was untenable.” (Bowler, below.)
With the dawning of the Enlightenment, distinctions arose about different kinds of knowledge, with “scientific” knowledge prioritized. As a result, an assumption took hold that as inspired scripture, Genesis should match up completely with burgeoning scientific knowledge. At first, this meant the age of the earth. Two primary methods arose to interpret Genesis as an “old earth,” such as reading in a “gap” of untold geological length between the first three verses of Genesis and reading the seven “days” as geological ages. Both solutions had serious problems. Gap theory has been largely rejected, though still sometimes promoted by televangelists and Pentecostals. The “day-age” theory is a poor reading of the text, which, with its regular morning and evening, years, and seasons, seems quite clearly to indicate regular workaday days, as do other passages in the Hebrew Bible like Exodus 20:9-11. Both theories became popular in the 19th century; the relevant Babylonian texts would not be discovered, translated, or published until the late 19th century, and understanding their actual relevance for Genesis still later.
Today, many people read their Bible in English, with no idea how translation and loss of cultural/historical context deforms their understanding of what it meant and how it was used. We read and assume it is inherently scientific, since that is what “truth” means today. However, when we read, we must be able to distinguish between those parts of the model that correspond to reality and those that don’t (to paraphrase Hummel, below.) That means, for example, with a London transit map, knowing that it shows routes, not geography. You can’t navigate above ground with such a map, because that’s not how it corresponds to reality. Or, for another example, if we made a model of the solar system using a basketball for the sun, and much smaller sphere for planets, set at equivalent distances, we would be focusing on the wrong parts of the model to conclude that it claimed the sun to be bouncy and made by Spalding. Such is not the case. But that is how we (mis)read Genesis and other ancient scripture.
- John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009)
- A technical version was published as Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, 2011).
- The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, with a contribution from N.T. Wright (IVP Academic, 2015)
- Walton is an Evangelical, with a PhD from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
- Mark S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Fortress Press, 2009)
- Smith is a Yale-trained Hebrew Bible scholar at NYU, who happens to be Catholic, not a Catholic theologian speaking on behalf of Catholicism. A more formal Catholic view is provided by former Cardinal Ratzinger, as co-author of In the Beginning…: A Catholic Understanding of the Creation and the Fall (Eerdmans, 1995.)
- Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (Shocken Books, 1970)
- A Rabbi with a PhD in Semitics, Sarna provides one well-informed Jewish perspective.
- Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Brazos Press, 2012)
- Like Walton, Enns is also an Evangelical, with a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Harvard. He blogs at http://www.peteenns.com
- Karl W. Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (Harper One, 2008)
- An excellent overview by a scientist.
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (expanded ed.; Harvard Press, 2006)
- Numbers, self-described as coming from “a fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventist family of ministers,” no longer holds to creationism, and has become a pre-eminent scholar on the history of science, evolution, and creationism at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- Stephen Barton and David Wilkinson, eds. Reading Genesis after Darwin (Oxford Press, 2009)
- “There is a widespread assumption that before Darwin, all Christians believed that the world was created some 6,000 years ago over a period of 6 days. After Darwin, the first chapters of Genesis were either rejected totally by skeptics or defended vehemently in scientific creationism. This book tells a very different story. Bringing together contributions from biblical scholars, historians and contemporary theologians, it is demonstrated that both Jewish and Christian scholars read Genesis in a non-literal way long before Darwin. Even during the nineteenth century, there was a wide range of responses from religious believers towards evolution, many of them very positive.”
- Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos- A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible
- A PhD from the University of Gloucestershire, Parry introduces readers to the ancient views of culture and cosmology found in the Bible. In Genesis 1, that means a flat earth upon pillars in water, covered by a solid dome which restrains the celestial waters above the earth.
- Hummel, The Galileo Connection- Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible
- Covers both scientific and interpretive history.
- Bowler, Peter. Evolution: the History of an Idea.
- Traces the history of evolutionary ideas.