Saturday, 8 June 2013

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 5

Opponents of evolution appeal to a literal reading of the Bible in order to defend their position, ignoring the fact that a consistent literal reading of the Bible not only advocates a pre-Copernican view of the universe, but makes the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other. By recognising the Ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis and reading the creation narratives through ancient eyes, not only does this tension vanish, but the creation-evolution debate ceases to have any relevance for understanding the narrative. In this first article, I will look at how contemporary Biblical literalists are inconsistent in their literal reading of the Bible's references to the nature of the universe.

One hundred years ago, a bro Griffiths argued on Biblical grounds that the Earth was not a sphere, and maintained that the very inspiration of the Bible was being threatened by endorsing what he called a theory that was pagan in origin:

DEAR BROTHER WALKER.—Referring to your brief eulogium on Sir Robert Ball’s speculation as to the “dots in the heavens” (The Christadelphian, July, page 316), I shall be glad if you will condescend to reply to the following queries through the columns of The Christadelphian. 
Seeing that the veracity and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures are denied by many on the basis of the revolving globe-earth theory, even to the extent of rejecting the ascension of Jesus into the heaven of heavens as a “geometrical impossibility.” the matter surely cannot be set aside as of no importance, and beyond the province of a magazine devoted to the defence of Biblical teaching and the overthrow of pagan and papal dogmas.
The globe-earth theory is essentially pagan in its origin, and no amount of ingenuity has yet succeeded in harmonizing it with the cosmogony of the Bible.
It is supposed that the theory was first introduced into Europe by Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C., and he was a rank pagan. It was afterwards adopted by Plato, and latterly modified to its present form by Aristarchus of Samos, “who went to the length of ranking our green world as a planet revolving yearly round the sun.” Through Copernicus and Galileo the theory has acquired a distinct Romish taint.
We may blame the author of “Lead Kindly Light” for following the glimmer of Rome’s magic lantern,1 instead of bringing his mental difficulties to be solved in the light of the word of God; but what about those who allow themselves to be led by the vapourings of scientific theorists while pondering over the plainly worded inspired narrative of creation? . . .
There may not be much danger of a brother being led astray by the perusal of modern rationalistic literature, for in that case he is prepared to antagonize the fallacies of modern thought, but morsels of error, in the form of “scientific” tit-bits, daintily wrapped up within the covers of a Biblical magazine, devoted to the defence and advocacy of Scripture doctrine, may not give rise to suspicion that there is anything wrong. The wrong is there all the same, and its effects become manifest when he who has swallowed the morsel finds, as the logical outcome of an adopted bastard theory, that the Bible and modern science are at variance, and verbal inspiration a farce. . . .
The late Prof. Woodhouse, of Cambridge University, once wrote, in reference to the globe-earth theory—“We shall never arrive at a time when we shall be able to pronounce it absolutely proved to be true. The nature of the subject excludes such a possibility” (Astronomy, Vol. 1, p. 13).
The “great astronomer,” Sir Robert Ball — wherein does his greatness lie? Certainly not in his discovery or advocacy of scientific truth. He is an evolutionist of the first order, and a pronounced anti-creationist. He is just the type of unbeliever that so-called modern science is producing; the old Scripture - revering type of astronomers, such as Ferguson, Woodhouse, and Herschell, is fast dying out as the natural effect of an anti-Scriptural theory.
But here I must submit my queries:—
1.—Is it not a fact that the Bible teaches that there are but two great lights and but one sun?
2.—Is it not a pure speculation, unsupported by any natural fact, the theory that the “dots in the heavens” are great suns?
3.—Is it not a fact that the enormously extravagant distances and magnitudes of the so-called “dots” have for their bases, the unproved assumption that the earth is a revolving globe, speeding through space at 68,000 miles an hour, and with an orbit of 190 millions of miles?
4.—Is it not a fact, as Prof. Robert Main, of Greenwich, candidly affirmed, that the theories “respecting the distances of the fixed stars and other cosmical problems” are based upon the “refined speculations of modern astronomy?”
5.—Is it not the teaching of Scripture that the earth, that is, the dry land, is a stationary body, founded upon the seas, and established upon the floods, and with its foundations in the deep?
6.—Is it not the plain testimony of Moses that sun, moon, and stars, were made and set in the heavens on the fourth day of Creation week? 
Believing, as I do, with you, that it is “necessary to bring everything to the test of the Word of God,” I present these questions in all good faith for your serious consideration.
Faithfully yours, in the pursuit and defence of all divine truth,

It is easy in hindsight to dismiss bro. Griffiths, but unlike his contemporary Biblical literalists, he was utterly consistent in his adherence to a literal reading of the Bible, as it reflects the pre-scientific world-view of its day which regarded the earth as a flat disc, covered by a solid firmament in which were set the sun, moon and stars. Special creationists today are entirely inconsistent in their claim to follow Biblical teachings when they reject common descent and geology, but accept what astronomy tells us about the Earth.

One reason behind this inconsistency is a failure to appreciate that heliocentrism was first advanced no earlier than the 3rd century BCE by the Greek Astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, and only began to achieve acceptance from the 17th century onwards. The concept of a spherical Earth is found in Greek philosophical works dating back no earlier than the 6th century BCE. The upshot of this is that the OT was written by people who lived in a culture that had no concept of a spherical earth, let alone heliocentrism. In the absence of clear specific references to either view in the Bible, we are making a huge mistake in reading clear references to geocentrism such as:
Josh 10:12-13 "On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still,  and the moon stopped,  till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day."
Ecc 1:5 "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises."
Psa 19:6 "It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth" 

Any attempt to read these as merely phenomenalogic language, that is, describing things as they appear, not as they really are, is illegitimate as this is smuggling in a heliocentric worldview which as we've seen did not exist in that era. The ancient Hebrews believed that the sun orbited the Earth, and the Bible nowhere corrects that misunderstanding. If it did, then the correction was so subtle that the early church did not see it, and cited passages such as those above as proof of geocentrism.

Closely related to this is the widespread belief in the ancient world that the sky was solid, a view which is clearly seen in the Bible. Genesis 1:6-8 states that:

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

The word translated 'dome' here is the Hebrew raqia', which comes from the the root word rq', meaning to beat or stamp out, much as beats out metal to form a bowl:

Ex 39:3  "Gold leaf was hammered out and cut into threads to work into the blue, purple, and crimson yarns and into the fine twisted linen, in skilled design."

Its significance can be seen in Job 37v18, "Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?" where a comparison between a beaten-out bowl and a solid sky is made.

The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT, one of the standard lexicons notes:

" the beaten metal plate, or bow; firmament, the firm vault of heaven: Sept. στερέωμα, Vulg. firmamentum; by רָקִיעַ was understood the gigantic heavenly dome which was the source of the light that brooded over the heavenly ocean and of which the dome arched above the earthly globe"

Translating raqia' as atmosphere or expanse not only is done in defiance of its meaning, but context as a solid dome is able to separate waters above from waters below, something impossible with an expanse.

Gen 1:14-18 and 20 also reinforces the idea of a solid firmament:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.
"And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”

Any reading of raqia' as anything other than a solid dome cannot make sense of the data in Genesis 1. The raqia' cannot be the atmosphere as verses 14-18 state that the sun, moon and stars are set in it. Likewise, verse 20 rules out this view as the birds are flying across the raqia, not in it (the Hebrew is quite clear on this point). Any view which posits multiple meanings for raqia' (atmosphere and space) is ad-hoc and can be dismissed. However, when we read raqia' as a solid dome, then we can see:

  • How it separates waters above from waters below
  • How birds can fly across it
  • How the sun, moon and stars can be set in it.

Intertextual evidence provides further support for this view. Ezekiel's vision in chapter 1 refers to a solid dome above the heads of the living creatures and below the throne of Yahweh:

Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads. Under the dome their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another; and each of the creatures had two wings covering its body...And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings.
And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form.

The view of raqia' as a solid dome is clearly demonstrated from the Biblical evidence, and reflects the pre-modern view of the universe common to the Ancient Near East, one which persisted for some time. Evangelical scholar Paul Seely, in his monograph on the firmament notes:

Jews speculated as to what material the firmament was made of: clay or copper or iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7). They differentiated between the firmament  and the empty space or air between it and the earth (Gen. Rab. 4.3.a; 2 Apoc. Bar. 21.4). They tried to figure out how thick it was by employing biblical interpretation (Gen. Rab. 4.5.2). Most tellingly they even tried to calculate scientifically the thickness of the firmament (Pesab. 49a).
Christians speculated as to whether it was made of earth, air, fire, or water (the basic elements of Greek science). Origen called the firmament "without doubt firm and solid" (First Homily on Genesis, FC 71). Ambrose, commenting on Gen 1:6, said, "the specific solidity of this exterior firmament is meant" (Hexameron, FC 42.60). Augustine said the word firmament was used "to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the waters above and the waters below" (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ACW 41.1.61).  [2]

Evidence that the ancient Hebrew view of the earth differed significantly from ours is not hard to see, and that raises the question as to why literalists who cite the Bible to 'prove' that the Earth is 6000 years old and evolution is false do not follow bro. Griffiths in taking the Bible literally in a consistent manner which reflects how the early audience would have understood it.  

The other reason is the tendency to import modern science into the Bible, in order to find 'evidence' that it was 'ahead of its time', while ignoring verses which if interpreted in the same literal way would provide evidence against that viewpoint.

Job 26:7 is repeatedly cited by literalists as evidence that the Biblical authors were given the knowledge that the Earth hung in space: "He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;  he suspends the earth over nothing." The problem comes when we read on to verse 11-12:

"The pillars of the heavens quake, aghast at his rebuke. By his power he churned up the sea;  by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces."

If verse 7 is to be interpreted as a literal description of the Earth, then verse 11 likewise can be cited as proof that the heavens are suspended by pillars. Furthermore, verse 12 should also be cited as evidence that the mythological chaos monster Rahab [3-4] is in fact real. One cannot be arbitrary in choosing verses to interpret literally, simply to provide 'evidence' that the authors were given insight into astronomical facts unknown at that time, while ignoring verses which provide support for a pre-modern view of the universe.

Arguably the best-known example of a Biblical verse selectively quoted to prove that the Bible reflects a modern cosmology is Isaiah 40:22 "It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;" The word for 'circle' is the Hebrew khug, and this is claimed to mean sphere. This is false. When the word and its root is used in the OT, the reference is to a circle:

Job 26:10 He has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness. 
Prov 8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 

Tellingly, the translators responsible for the Septuagint did not translate khug as sphere, but used a word meaning circle. If the word meant sphere, it appears to have eluded the translators. The Biblical scholar Robert Schneider notes that:

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.28 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. [5]

Finally, literalists who cite Isaiah 40v22 as proof that the Bible taught that the Earth was a sphere omit the second half of the verse: "who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;" The reference to spreading out the heavens immediately brings to mind the idea of the raqia' as something beaten out. A spherical earth and a solid firmament are impossible to reconcile with a belief that the Bible teaches astronomical facts unknown at the time.


Biblical literalists appeal to the literal meaning of Genesis in order to rebut the overwhelming evidence for an ancient Earth and evolution. However, such literalism is entirely selective, as it ignores the fact that a consistent literal reading of the Bible obliges them to believe in a geocentric universe, a flat earth and a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below. Bro Griffiths may have been utterly wrong in his belief that the Bible obliged one to believe in a flat earth, but unlike his modern literalists, he was entirely consistent in his literalism. 

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here

1. Walker CC “Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?” The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346
2. Seely, P/ H "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part 1: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8"  The Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53: 227-40
3. Day, J "Rahab" Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 5 (1992, Doubleday) p 611
4. Spronk K "Rahab" Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible (Brill 1999) p 685-6
5. Schneider R.J. "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2001) 53:159-169.