Monday, 24 September 2018

No, the Bible was not "Ahead of Science" - Debunking a tired creationist meme

Recently, a creationist meme attempting to show that the Bible has always been ahead of science by comparing "Science Then" and "Science Now" with selected statements from the Bible has been circulating around the more fundamentalist parts of the internet.

This meme is a actually a stripped-down and modified version of a meme that has been circulating for at least five years now:

It is frankly depressing that something this risible is taken seriously by a large number of Christians. Just the lack of references for any of the "Science Then" claims should be enough to destroy the credibility of this meme as there is absolutely no way to verify these references. However, despite a number of debunkings, [1-2] fundamentalists still persist in sharing the meme. That past debunkings have not been able to put this ridiculous meme out of its misery suggests that yet another one is hardly likely to be successful, but given that this meme is circulating in our community and 'in-house' debunkings are slightly more likely to be successful, there is some justification in spending time putting this meme once again to the sword.

The first problem with this meme is its entire premise that the Bible contains scientifically accurate information and was somehow 'ahead of its time'. It is however reasonable to ask why these 'scientifically accurate statements' were not realised thousands of years ago. Given that people have appealed, and continue to appeal to [3-5] the Bible to defend geocentrism and a flat Earth, it is clear that the Bible not only does not proclaim these "scientifically accurate statements" clearly and unambiguously, but if read literally would appear to support a pre-scientific worldview. In reality, these 'scientifically advanced statements' were "discovered" in the Bible only after science had already found them.

One would also expect a literal reading of the Bible to be consistent in proclaiming "facts ahead of their time". This is not the case, as one can readily see by looking at Job 26:11, which follows a few verses after the first passage in the meme, Job 26:7 which creationists allege "prove" the Bible taught the Earth 'floats' in space:
The pillars of heaven tremble,  and are astounded at his rebuke
This verse when read literally teaches that heaven is suspended on pillars, a world-view analogous to the view of 'Science Then' with the Earth supported by elephants or divine beings. It is definitely special pleading to assert that verse 11 is poetry while verse 7 is literal. After all, without modern science, why would one have read verse 7 literally and not verse 11?

There is also the fact that some of the passages which are claimed to show that the Bible is ahead of its time actually reflect a pre-modern worldview. The first quote in the larger meme - Isa 40:22 - far from teaching that the Earth was a sphere arguably lends support to a flat earth, a point ably made by Robert Schneider:
The prophet who uttered the words of 40:22 is the same prophet who proclaimed that Yahweh is the Creator who "spread out the earth" (42:5; 44:24). The Hebrew verb in both passages is raqa', which means "to stretch out, spread out or abroad, cover over" and, according to Theodore Gaster, "to flatten out."37 Among his people in the exile community in Babylon, looking out over the enormous desert expanse that reached from horizon to horizon, it is not surprising that this prophet would describe God as "flattening out" the land. These other expressions also militate against the notion that the prophet was implying a spherical earth in 40:22a, and they act as a check against focusing upon one verse and reading it outside the larger context of this prophet's other inspired oracles of creation and salvation.
If creationists had sought any support among biblical philologists, they might have found a nod given to them in the article on chûgh by Edwin Yamauchi in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. "Some have held," he states, "that Isa 40:22 implies the sphericity of the earth. It may, but it may refer only to the Lord enthroned above the earth with its obviously circular horizon." Yamauchi offers no supporting evidence for this concession to opinion, and in fact there is none that he or anyone else could give: a circle is no more a sphere in Scripture than it is in geometry. The preponderance of philological evidence and the translations of ancient scholars and modern experts alike provide overwhelming testimony that Isa 40:22a does not refer to a spherical earth. There is simply no warrant for Eastman, Sarfati, and Morris to declare, contrary to its plain sense and in violation of its semantic domain, that chûgh literally means sphericity. They have read the earth's sphericity into the text, not out of it. And this is the conclusion to which I would lead my students. [6]
Finally,  there is also the well-known fact that Genesis 1:6-8 and 14-17 clearly refers to a solid firmament [7] separating waters above from waters below, and in which were embedded the sun, moon, and stars. One would expect that the first creation narrative would be the place where, if the Bible was 'scientifically ahead of its time', we would expect to see such information, but what we actually see is the Bible accommodating [8] and reflecting the pre-scientific worldview of its original audience.  As John Walton notes:
Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity. [9]
Given the presence of passages that unambiguously reflect the pre-scientific worldview of the original audience, the cherry-picking involved in selecting verses 'ahead of their time', and the blatant misunderstanding of verses which don't teach a modern worldview but reflect an ancient one, the reality is that we do not and should not expect to see the Bible 'ahead of its time', and any verses that appear to do so are simply a case of a literal reading in the light of modern science superficially resembling modern scientific statements.

By far the most misleading part of the meme is the column labelled "Science Then", which misleadingly confuses mythology and early scientific speculation. Nothing that we would remotely call 'science' every asserted that the Earth was suspended by a Titan or four elephants. In fact, given that a heliocentric cosmology dates back to the 3rd century BCE (Aristarchus of Samos) while the concept of a spherical earth was maintained by the Greeks no later than the 4th century BCE, it is not unfair to say that on this point at least, 'modern science' was 'ahead" of the Bible.

The references to the sanitation provisions in the Law of Moses are on the surface the most compelling of the arguments, but are not as compelling when examined for a number of reasons:

  • It is ritual purity, rather than hygiene which is the driving force behind the regulations. If the primary function of the purity laws was to maintain sanitation and hygiene rather than ritual purity [10], then we would not expect to see provisions that are clearly cultic rather than scientific in origin as the 14 day / 7 day ritual impurity duration for mothers of baby girls and baby boys, respectively. [11]
  •  Hygiene and sanitation predated the Mosaic purity laws, as shown by the advanced water supply and sewerage system of the city of Mohenjo Daro in the Indus Valley, dating back to the mid-third millennium BCE. [12]
While knowledge of the microbiological cause of disease related to poor hygiene and sanitation was not discovered until fairly recently, recognition of the importance of sanitation and personal hygiene dates back quite early in human history, well before the emergence of the Israelites as a distinct ethno-religious group in fact. As Walton said, "no passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity."

Finally, the fact scientific knowledge changes [13] is not a problem. This is the great strength of the scientific method, in which nothing is fixed, immune to challenge. Creationists often deride the 'shifting sands of science'. but as the incredible advances in medicine, applied science, and engineering show, the 'shifting sands of science' are capable of generating considerable knowledge.


1. Brad Kramer "No, Modern Science is Not “Catching Up” to the Bible" BioLogos 24th Jan 2018
2. Luke Barnes "Finding Science in the Bible" Letters to Nature March 16, 2013
6.  Robert Schneider "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2001) 53:159-169
7. Peter Enns "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That's Not the Point" BioLogos January 14 2010
8. But not endorsing, a point Calvin aptly made in his commentary on Genesis, "Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here, the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned." John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 79–80.
9. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 17.
10. This is not to say that God recognised that improved sanitation and maintenance of hygiene would be a happy side-effect of the ritual purity laws, but it is a mistake to think that this was its primary purpose.
11. Lev 12:1-5
12. M. Jansen "Water supply and sewage disposal at Mohenjo-Daro" World Archaeology (1989) 21:177-192
13. I am of course differentiating between mythology and knowledge gained through a scientific or proto-scientific worldview.