Thursday, 29 October 2015

Early Christian and Rabbinic Views on the Firmament

Given the interest on this subject elsewhere, I have elected to lightly edit two previous posts of mine into a single document for any who may be interested.
Nothing demonstrates the fact that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology and not modern science more effectively than its declaration that the firmament was solid, separating waters above from waters below. It is this one fact more than anything else that destroys both literal and strong concordist readings of the Genesis 1 that seek to read it as a scientifically accurate account of origins. It also shows that contemporary special creationists - both YEC and OEC - not only fail to interpret Genesis 1 properly on this point but are also ignorant of how early Christian and Jewish expositors interpreted Genesis 1. On this point we find that many accepted the solidity of the firmament.

Examples [1] are quite easy to find:
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it be separating between the upper waters and the lower waters.” Targ. Pseu. Jon. Gen 1:6
Then God made the firmament (its thickness three finger breadths), between the sides of the heavens and the waters of the ocean. And He separated between the waters that were below the firmament and between the waters that were above, in the canopy of the firmament. And it was so. Targ Pseu. Jon. Gen 1:7
“Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, the middle layer of water solidified,and the nether heavens and the uppermost heavens were formed. Rab said: [God's] handiwork [the heavens] was in fluid form, and on the second day it congealed; thus Let there be a firmament means ‘Let the firmament be made strong*. R. Judah b. R. Simon said: Let a lining be made for the firmament, as you read, And they did beat the gold into thin plates…R. Simon said: The fire came forth from above and burnished the face of the firmament.”  Gen. Rab. 4:2
“R. Phinehas said in R. Oshaya’s name: As there is a void between the earth and the firmament, so is there a void between the firmament and the upper waters, as it is written, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, meaning, midway between them. R. Tanhuma said: I will state the proof. If it said, And God made the firmament, and He divided between the waters . . . which are upon the firmament, I would say that the water lies directly upon the firmament itself.” Gen. Rab. 4:3
“…when they had built the tower to the height of four hundred and sixty-three cubits. And they took a gimlet, and sought to pierce the heaven, saying, Let us see (whether) the heaven is made of clay, or of brass, or of iron.” 3 Apoc. Bar. 7
“But after that he makes the firmament, that is, the corporeal heaven. For every corporeal object is, without doubt, firm and solid; and it is this which “divides the water which is above heaven from the water which is below heaven.”  Origen. Homily on Genesis
“If the nature of the elements is taken into consideration, how it is possible for the firmament to be stable between the waters? The one is liquid, the other solid; one is active, the other, passive.” Ambrose. Hexameron. Bk II Ch 2.48
“…’And he called the firmament, heaven.’ In a general way, He would seem to have said above that heaven was made in the beginning so as to take in the entire fabric of celestial creation, and that here the specific solidity of this exterior firmament is meant.”  ibid. 2.62
“This firmament cannot be broken, you see, without a noise. It also is called a firmament because it is not weak nor without resistance…the firmament is called because of its firmness or because it has been made firm by divine power..” ibid. 2.62
“They must certainly bear in mind that the term “firmament” does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given 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.”  Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Bk II Ch.10
(Bearing in mind that not everyone is familiar with Jewish pseudepigrapha, Rabbinic texts, and early Christian writings, I've linked to articles providing brief overviews of these texts, including the dates assigned to their compositions.)
If the firmament really meant 'expanse' or 'atmosphere' (and that view is flatly refuted by the fact that Genesis 1 explicitly states that sun, moon, and stars were set in the firmament) then it is curious how many different ancient expositors across both faith traditions did not seem to draw that inference.

Given their proximity to the text and traditions, it is not unreasonable to draw more on Rabbinic sources to infer how the ancient Hebrews understood the firmament. and what their cosmogeography looked like. Rabbinic cosmology as Moshe Simon-Shoshan points out was a "dynamic synthesis of biblical texts, ancient Mesopotamian traditions, classical Greek scientific theories and methods, and the rabbis' own original speculations." [2]

Recognising this is important in order to differentiate between biblical and non-biblical sources. However, there is no doubt that the Biblical contribution makes sense only when viewed against the ancient Near Eastern view of a flat world covered by a solid firmament. This cannot be stressed enough as it is the key to understanding why both YEC (literal) and OEC (strong concordist) readings of the creation narrative are untenable.

Simon-Shoshan observes that while one cannot find in the Biblical and Mesopotamian cuneiform texts comprehensive cosmological views, they are in agreement on the basics of a flat earth covered by a solid firmament:
"Neither the Bible nor the cuneiform literature in our possession contains a systematic account of the structure of the cosmos. However, cosmological information is scattered throughout both canons. In the Bible, we find this information in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3, and in numerous other brief references found mainly in the prophetic, poetic, and wisdom traditions. Our knowledge of Babylonian cosmology similarly draws on cosmogenic sources such as the so-called Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, as well as mythic accounts of heavenly journeys and astronomical and astrological texts.
There is a fundamental agreement between the various cosmological models found in the Bible and cuneiform literature. All of them seem to posit a flat, probably disk-shaped world. The heavens are made out of a solid material. They are either disk-shaped, hovering over the hearth, or dome-shaped, completely enclosing the surface of the earth, Above the heavens is the celestial ocean, which is the source of rain. Above that lies the abode of the divine power or powers. The earth rests on a second great reservoir, below which, presumably, is the underworld. [3]
Unsurprisingly, the rabbinic cosmological view is deeply indebted to both sources:
The rabbis clearly inherited their fundamental understanding of the heaven from their Ancient near Eastern predecessors. Like their biblical and Mesopotamia predecessors, the rabbis viewed the heavens as a solid object spread out over the Earth. The rabbis referred to this solid part of the sky using the biblical term raki'a, commonly transmitted as "firmament." They alternatively described the firmament as either a dome (kippah) or as a great tent pitched across the earth. [4]
Absent from the Bible is any reference to heliocentrism. Given that there is no recorded evidence of a heliocentric cosmology prior to Aristarchus of Samos (3rd c. BCE), any attempt to dismiss the geocentric cosmology in the Bible as merely phenomenal language is illegitimate. Certainly, the fact that the rabbis accepted geocentrism argues against any attempt to deny the reality of this geocentric view. Simon-Shoshan continues:
The rabbis' position, that the sun and other heavenly bodies pass under the earth at night is well attested in ancient Caananite and Babylonian mythologies as well as in classical Greek mythology. It makes sense that the ancients, on seeing the sun descend below the horizon, would have assumed that the sun continued its circular trajectory under the earth throughout the night, re-emerging on the eastern horizon in the morning. [5]
While there is evidence of a minority view among the rabbis which postulated evaporation of water from the ocean as the source of rainclouds, Simon-Shoshan notes that the majority view was that rain came from the water above the firmament. The idea that waters existed above the firmament is of course one that is Biblical in origin:
R. Joshua believes that the rain comes from the water that is suspended above the firmament. The clouds ascend to the firmament, where they received water from above. Later, they deliver this water to the earth. This would seem to be the mainstream position among the rabbis, as it is often referred to elsewhere in rabbinic literature without challenge. It is hardly surprising that this belief was widespread among the rabbis. Rainfall is consistently portrayed in a similar manner throughout the Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern literatures. [6]
Arguably, the consonance between the Biblical and Babylonian cosmologies (hardly surprising given both the shared world view of both cultures and the polemical element behind Genesis 1) goes a long way to explaining how the rabbinic cosmology was essentially Babylonian:
The Talmud consecutively relates two disputes between the Jewish and gentile scholars concerning matters of astronomy. The first is with regard to the celestial sphere which encompasses the earth, and the constellations:
The Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the scholars of the nations say that the sphere revolves [around the earth] and the constellations are fixed [within it]. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)
As we shall later demonstrate from both general history as well as the interpretations of the Geonim and Rishonim, the view of the Sages of Israel was that of ancient Babylonian cosmology. They believed that the earth is a roughly flat disc, and the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it. The stars move around the surface of this dome; hence, “the [hemi]sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it].” [7]  
The ancient Babylonian cosmology held by the Jewish sages appears in many places in the Talmud, such as in the following discussion:
It was taught in a Beraita: Rabbi Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra, and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it bends back and rises above the firmament. And Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed, and when the sun reaches the northwestern corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as it says, “traveling to the south, and circling to the north…” (Eccl. 1:6)—traveling to the  south by day, and circling to the north by night—“it continually passes around, and the wind returns again to its circuits” (ibid.)—this refers to the eastern and western sides, which the sun sometimes passes around and sometimes traverses. (Bava Batra 25a-b)
Maharsha explains that Rabbi Eliezer follows the sages of Israel and Rabbi Yehoshua follows the gentile sages. However, it appears that this is not exactly correct. Rabbi Eliezer’s view is indeed consistent with that of the sages of Israel, but R. Yehoshua is not saying that the sun passes below the earth at night, in a circular route; rather, he is of the view that the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome. This is consistent with how others present the view of the Babylonian cosmology. Severianus, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but travels through the northern parts “as if hidden by a wall.” [8]
It is important to avoid projecting the evolved rabbinical cosmology back into the Bible partly because one does not find a systematised cosmology in the Old Testament, partly because the rabbinical cosmology is syncretic. However, the ease with which the biblical data could be integrated in a cosmology in which both geocentrism and a solid firmament feature strongly is a telling argument against any special creationist assertion that such features are absent from the Bible. They are not, and their presence is lethal to any concordist reading of Genesis.


1. I am indebted to James McGrath and Robert Cargill for these examples:
2. Moshe Simon-Shoshan, “The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God – A Study in Rabbinic Cosmology.” B.D.D. (2008) 20:67-96
3. ibid, p 70
4. ibid, p 72
5. ibid, p 82
6. ibid, p 86
7. Slivkin N "The Sun's Path at Night: The Revolution in Rabbinic Perspectives on the Ptolemaic Revolution" p 4
8. ibid, p 6-7