Saturday, 22 June 2013

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 6

One strategy often used by special creationists is to assert that when the Bible is read literally, it provides scientifically accurate information about the natural world which was unknown at the time of writing. From this, they conclude that the Bible is indeed of Divine origin, and subtly imply that the creation narratives likewise are scientifically accurate.

Experimental physicist and YEC Richard Palmer utilises this argument in his 2011 talk "Bible and Science: Conflict or Consistency?" He asserts:

"Now I want to think about the scientific character of the Bible. So we're asking now whether what is written in the Bible is consistent with what we've  learned through scientific discoveries, or whether there are contradictions.
We're dealing with texts which are up to several thousand years old, when...scientific knowledge in the general human population was obviously more limited than it is today. If you are willing to consider this radical proposition that the Bible is a revelation from God then you won't struggle with the idea that if God revealed it and created the universe, then of course he would know the science, and created the science, and therefore you might expect that there are...remarkable scientific insights in the Bible that the writers  themselves couldn't possibly have had or understood at the time.
So, people say, don't they, you know in Biblical times they thought the Earth was flat. It would be interesting if we went to the Bible and found the Bible speaking about the Earth being flat, wouldn't it.  But the contrary is the case...So here for example in Isaiah chapter 40, speaks about God sitting upon the circle - the word means a circle or a sphere -  the circle of the earth. "And the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers." 
Now we'll come back to stretching out the heavens in a moment. So, the Bible describes the Earth as something which is circular when viewed from a distance, when the inhabitants get really small. So that's not a shock to us because we've seen pictures of the Earth from the moon, but it's embedded within...the Old Testament."
Job 26 says...that God stretches out the north over the empty place, and hangs the earth upon nothing. Well that's again what we see isn't it when we look at a picture of the Earth from the moon or from space; there's nothing. There's no physical, visible foundation underneath the Earth; it's hanging upon nothing. So the Bible teaches that the Earth is circular, or spherical. and hangs upon nothing, which is exactly consistent with what we've come to know and be able to come to observe. " (My transcription)
Palmer's claim that the Bible was ahead of its time is superficially appealing, but when examined falls apart. Put simply, Palmer is reading modern science into the Bible, and in order to do that, indulges in some fairly blatant cherry picking of which verses to interpret literally. Nowhere is theis more obvious than in Job 26, the chapter which he claims shows that the Biblical writers knew that the Earth was suspended in space. Four verses after this alleged prediction of an Earth suspended in space, verse 11 states that:
"the pillars of heaven tremble, and are astounded at his rebuke."
If Palmer asserts that verse 7 should be interpreted literally, then why not verse 11? The claim of advanced astronomical knowledge in the Bible loses its appeal when in the same chapter that this alleged prediction occurs, we have a reference to a decidedly primitive cosmological view of the heavens held up by pillars. In fact, if we look at the Bible, we can find clear statements which can - and have been - used to prove that the Earth is fixed, and the sun revolves around it:
Josh 10v12-13: On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. 
Psa 19v4-6: In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,  which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
Ecc 1:5 "The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises."
Isa 38v7-8: "This is the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised:  See, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined.
If the Bible really contains advanced scientific revelations, it is curious that prior to these facts being revealed by scientific methods, no Biblical reader unenlightened by science independently advanced heliocentrism or a spherical Earth. Conversely, defenders of a flat Earth or geocentrism were able to appeal to the Bible for support. Palmer to be honest is merely cherry picking verses which when read in hindsight appear to contain scientific truth, while ignoring verses which when read with a similar literal mindset teach utterly false ideas such as geocentrism or a heaven supported on pillars.

In fact, the Bible explicitly reflects the cosmological worldview of the era in which is was written, which is why we see references to a solid firmament in Gen 1:6-8. Palmer neglects to mention this, as it would invalidate his thesis completely. This lack of consistency makes it impossible to take his argument seriously.

What of the claim that Isa 40 teaches that the Earth is a sphere? Palmer is simply wrong. The Hebrew word hwg translated 'circle' does not mean sphere. Biblical scholar Robert Schneider makes this point quite clearly:
The critical line in Hebrew reads (transliterated and omitting vowels): hyshb 'l hwg h'rtz, which my colleague Dr. Robert Suder translates: "the one dwelling on the circle/horizon of the land." A survey of Hebrew lexica and theological wordbooks yields much information about the key word hwg (chûgh). According to K. Seybold, its root appears six times in biblical Hebrew, and it is clear from its usage in context that it has a specifically geometrical meaning, that is, "a circle, as drawn with compasses." In Job 26:10 and Prov. 8:27, chûgh is used with choq, meaning "to inscribe a circle." This nominal infinitive form also appears in Job 22:14, where it denotes "the circle of the heavens" (shamayim), and in Isa. 40:22a, where it denotes "the circle of the earth" (haarets). Sir. 43:1218 uses chûgh in describing the rainbow. Finally, in Isa. 44:13, mechûghah, a hapax legomena (a form used only once), means "a compass," i.e., that simple instrument people my age used to draw circles in high school geometry class.
All but one of these contexts are cosmological, and in fact four of the five uses of chûgh occur in creation hymns. Isa. 40:22a describes God as sitting/ dwelling above "the circle of the earth" which God laid out--with a compass, as Job 26:10 and Prov. 8:27 suggest, for the latter verses describe the act of inscribing the circle that fixes the boundary between the earth and the deep, the circle that also marks the boundary between light and darkness. The context also suggests that in Isa. 40:22a, the earth ('erets) which is encircled refers not to the earth as that part of the creation distinct from the heavens (Gen. 1:1)--as the creationists cited above seem to interpret it--but to other meanings of earth: as "the dry land" (Gen. 1:9-10), and at the same time, it appears, as "the ground on which people and things stand," for "its inhabitants are like grasshoppers."
Looking at these usages together, I am hard put to see how anyone could justify rendering chûgh in Isa. 40:22a as "sphericity." The earliest translations of these Scriptures bear this out. In the Septuagint (LXX), the translators render the nominal and verbal forms of chûgh in every case with the Greek gýros (noun), "circle" or "ring," which they use in Isa. 40:22a, or gyróo (verb), "to make or inscribe a circle." Gýros does not mean "sphere," and in fact nowhere in any Greek recension of the Hebrew Scriptures will one find the proper word sphaíra used in this context at all. The history of the formation of the LXX is largely lost, and we do not know if the Prophets were translated in Alexandria as the Torah was in the third century BC. But if they were and if the translators were familiar with the concept of a spherical earth taught at the Museon of Alexandria, then the center of Greek science, they give no hint of it in their translation of chûgh.
Greek gýros turns up in its transliterated form gyrus--present in Roman literature as early as Lucretius (mid-first century BC)--in the Latin versions of the Bible as well. St. Jerome (c. 340-420), the early Latin Church's master linguist and Bible translator, began his work on the Old Testament by creating a standard version from the several unreliable Old Latin recensions then in existence, using as a valuable aid Origen's fair copy of the Hexapla which he consulted in the library at Caesarea around 386 AD. The Old Latin recensions were based on the LXX and commonly rendered this same portion of Isa. 40:22a as "qui tenet gyrum terrae." Later, when he prepared a new version from the Hebrew that would become part of the Vulgate, he kept the Old Latin reading, changing only the verb tenet, "dwells," to sedet, "sits." And in his Commentary on Isaiah, Jerome, who is regarded by critics today as a competent and careful scholar, specifically rejected the notion that in this verse the prophet is referring to a spherical earth. [1]
Little more needs to be said, other than Palmer's assertion that Isa 40:22 teaches a spherical Earth betrays a profound ignorance of OT scholarship on this subject.

Finally, let's turn to the claim that Job 26:7 teaches that the Earth hangs in space. Mind you, this claim can be dismissed out of hand given that it is impossible to maintain that both verse 7 and verse 11 provide scientifically accurate information on the Earth given that the latter teaches the heavens are held up by pillars. In the absence of a reliable metric by which to determine which verses are poetry, and which ones are making fact statements about the universe independent of any verification from science, Palmer's attempt to mine Job 26 for scientifically accurate statements about the world can be dismissed immediately.

If we take the time to do more than make a bold assertion based on a simplistic, superficial reading of an English translation (as Palmer does), we find that Job 26:7 is more ambiguous than literalists such as Palmer would have us believe. Schneider is worth quoting at length again:

The ambiguity that characterizes this poetic hymn verse begins in the first line with "Zaphon," which some translators retain in English (NRSV, JPSV, Marvin Pope) while most render it as "the north" (Geneva Bible followed by KJV and NKJV; NAB, NJB); the REB reads "the canopy of the skies" and the NIV reads "the northern skies." The Hebrew sapôn is of uncertain etymology, but in the Canaanite tablets unearthed at Ugarit in 1927, Zaphon is described as the mountain of the ba'alim. It has been identified with Mt. Casius in northern Syria. Zaphon as mountain is found in other passages of the Old Testament: in the derision song of Isa. 14:4-20, Zaphon is identified with the mount of assembly of the gods in the north (v. 13); and in the praise psalm 48, Zion the mount of Yahweh is called (v. 2) "peak of Zaphon." Sapôn also came to mean "the north" as a compass point or geographical location. It was probably with this interpretation in mind that the LXX used the Greek word for "north," boréan; and both the Old Latin and the Vulgate used aquilonem, the Latin equivalent. Likewise, many English versions have used "the north." Since heaven and earth are often coupled in creation hymns, some translators have interpreted sapôn here to mean "the heaven." W. H. Schmidt opines that it is difficult to imagine a mountain being "stretched out," and there are those passages in Isaiah in which God is said to "stretch out" the heavens (40:22b; 42:5; 44:24). Still, there is little consensus among translators as to its meaning. 
In the next line, there is a remarkable image: God "hangs (or, suspends) the earth upon nothing." What does "hang" mean in this context, and what meaning of "the earth" is to be understood? The Hebrew word tâlâh here means "hang" in the sense of "hang something on something," e.g., upon a peg (cf. Isa. 44:23-24; Ezek. 15:3). The meaning of "earth" ('erets) here seems somewhat ambiguous: it may refer to the earth as the other part of a bipartite creation, but it may refer also to the earth as "the land." The combined words may remind one of Job 38:12-13, where God commands the dawn to "take hold of the skirts of the earth" (NRSV) and shake the wicked out of it. Does the poet by this metaphor suggest that the earth is to be imaged as a garment, not hanging down, perhaps, but spread out? No certain answer can be given, I think.
The crux of this remarkable couplet, however, lies in the words that end each line. In the first, God "stretches Zaphon over tohû," and in the second he "hangs the earth upon belíimâ." In the parallelism that characterizes Hebrew poetry, the same thing or concept is often repeated using a different word or phrase, so it may be that belíimâ in some way repeats or develops the notion intended by tohû. I shall review the various meanings of these terms, then examine how they have been rendered.
The first, tohû, harks back to the tohûwabohû of Gen. 1:1, where the earth, i.e., the other part of the creation besides the heavens, is described as "formless and empty." HALOT refers specifically to Job 26:7 in giving "nothingness, empty space" as meanings. A. H. Konkel, citing the same verse, reads tohû as "nothingness, void, emptiness." The word that concludes the second line is a hapax legomena composed of belíi and  functions both as an interrogative and as an indefinite pronoun, meaning "What?" "How?" or "aught." Belíi, meaning "not," is a negative used primarily in poetry; rather than negating something it conveys the sense of "without something." Kaiser renders belíimaas "not aught." But might mâ have an interrogative rather than an indefinite force here, as in Suder's translation? Is the poet asking "what?"
If we put these two together, do we have a notion resembling tohûwabohû, something that is akin to "formless and empty"? Does belíimâ reinforce and make stronger the meaning of tohû, the author expressing more intensely the sense of nothingness and emptiness over and upon which God "stretches" and "hangs"? Such an interpretation, and the parallelism evident in this couplet, might, in turn, lead the reader to take "Zaphon" literally, referring not to the northern skies but to the mountain that rests upon the earth to the geographical north and which might be understood as an earthly dwelling place of God, so that the whole couplet refers to the earthly part of the creation hung and stretched out over the mysterious "not-anything." [2]
What Schneider shows here is that when we analyse the Hebrew of this passage, considerable uncertainty as to its precise meaning emerges, which undercuts Palmer's attempt to read an English translation in a wooden, literal, motivated way to support an a prior assumption that the Bible reveals scientifically accurate material about the Earth unknown to the rest of the world at the time. One is not properly exegeting the text by reading into a superficial reading of an English translation the belief that a scientific fact unknown at that time can be found in the Bible. To do so is to ignore the real point of these passages which as Schneider ably says is to:
"...convey, in all of its majesty and mystery, is the presence and power of the One who creates and sustains, and who holds all of the creation under his gaze. The response it calls for is awe, not scientific analysis."
Palmer's attempt to read modern science into the Bible is poor exegesis, and should be abandoned as it perpetuates a fundamentalist hermeneutic which has done much to harm out community.


1. Schneider R "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2001)53:159-169
2. ibid