The Bible's Ancient "Science" and Three Interpretative Options

There are diverse approaches to the interpretation of Genesis chapter 1. Here we will restrict our focus to the ancient "science" assumed by the original author and audience, and leave other issues to the side. Science as a modern disciple didn't arrive on the scene until thousands of years after the Bible was composed. Technically, then, it is anachronistic to speak of the ancient cosmological and biological assumptions as ancient "science." However, for convenience sake I will use this shorthand throughout the pages that follow.
This page will introduce the "ancient science" of the Bible. Following this, we will look at three ways that the "ancient science" can be handled. We can submit to it, or try to integrate it with modern science, or respect it as an effective communicative tool for an ancient audience. Various biblical scholars explore both of these topics on the next page

The Science of the Bible: The Ancient Near Eastern “World” View

The ancients held a universal, long-standing perspective of the “heavens” and the “earth,” of species and human origins. It was conventional wisdom in antiquity that the earth was a relatively flat plane, either disc-shaped or rectangular. The global shape of “planet Earth” didn’t become common knowledge, in Greece at least, until the classical era, beginning from the days of Pythagoras in the sixth century BC and maturing significantly with the measurements of Eratosthenes in 240 BC.

The sky, translated in Genesis as “the heavens,” was viewed in the days of Moses like we would view the roof of a planetarium, hard (that is, firm, hence “the firmament”) and concavely curved, like an upside-down cereal bowl. Fixed in this firmament were all the lights in the sky, sun, moon, and stars. It was as though the ancients were sitting in the seats of the planetarium, looking up—with all the lights in the ceiling the same distance from the (flat) floor. And what moved in the ancient Near East, was it the Frisbee-shaped disc called “the earth” or was it the roof of the planetarium? Until the insights of Copernicus, published in 1543, virtually all of humanity presumed that the earth was stable, “immovable” as the Bible claimed, and that the lights in the sky circled around the earth every 24 hours.

How did the Earth sit in the sky? Was it held in place by the gravitational pull of the sun? We’d have to wait until the work of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) for that concept. Those in the ancient Near East believed the earth’s land sat on “the waters below” and was supported by pillars. And the rain? It was released from “the waters above,” which were held up by the solid firmament, and fell through portals, “windows,” in the roof.

And what of plants and animals; how did each of these species arise? Much of their science was phenomenological, that is, things were simply as they appeared to be. The earth looked flat—so it must be. The earth was stable, immobile, and immovable—so it couldn’t be otherwise. How absurd to suggest that the earth was spinning or whirling through space. The blue sky appears like the sea, and since rain falls from the sky, why then, they reasoned, there must be water beyond the firmament. Applying the same principle of “things are as they seem” to living things, they concluded that fig seeds give rise to figs, doves give rise to doves, camels give rise to camels, and humans give rise to humans. You’d be loony to suggest that fig seeds produce doves, or that camels give birth humans. It would be centuries before a worldview was in place in which evolution as Darwin explained it (that is, common descent with modification) could even make sense.
Three Interpretative Options

How might we in the twenty-first century handle the "science" of ancient times reflected in Genesis chapter 1? There is a variety of interpretive approaches. We will present here a simple scientific-based taxonomy (categorization) of interpretations of Genesis 1.

Option 1: Submit to it.
The ancients believed it. So must we. Period.
Very few contemporaries work this through consistently.
Option 2: Integrate it with modern science.
The ancients believed it. But we disagree with some of their more quirky notions, so let’s integrate pieces of our modern science with portions of their "ancient science." Updating and re-interpreting the "ancient science" is thought to give more credibility to the ancient text, though our “mix and match” revision would be quite confusing to the original audience. Imagine the response of an Israelite during the Babylonian captivity, circa 550 BC. “Ahhh, so the earth is spherical? Hmmm. And the firmament is not firm, you say, but is really a gaseous atmosphere? Huh. And we’re all spinning around at about 1,000 miles/hour and whirling around the sun at 67,000 miles/hour. That’s fascinating. Thanks for the information. (Now with tongue in cheek) That sure makes the theology of Genesis chapter 1 so much clearer for me.” 
This "mix and match" approach is a very popular today among both "young earth" and "old earth" creationists.
Option 3: Respect it as the best communicative tool for an ancient audience.
The ancients believed it. We don’t have to. But we respect the "science-of-their-day" as the most appropriate vehicle that God used to communicate far more important truths of a theological, anthropological, and ecological nature.
This seems to me, and many others, the more sensible approach of the three.
Option 1
Let the Bible Dictate Our Scientific Beliefs
Here's the heart of this interpretive approach.
The ancients believed the conventional "science-of-the-day." So must we. So must everyone in every culture in every country for all time, regardless of whatever foolishness the arrogant (and atheistic) scientific community might outlandishly propose. Period.

The Approach Explained

The truest “literal” approach would be to take the text as it stands and, because it is the sacred word of God, simply let its "science" become our science, and become everyone’s science This would be fully faithful to the maxim: “Scripture says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Whenever there is a contradiction between “biblical science” and modern science, the Bible wins—hands  down.

Are there galaxies beyond the Milky Way? No way. Is the universe 13.7 years old? By no means. Everything was made within the past 10,000 years or so, fully formed, just as it appears today. There cannot have been any development of stars with their hydrogen fusion factories, nor any supernovae explosions, or any gathering of astral dust in the slow formation of planets. Those are false claims of atheistic scientists who propose their tom-foolery in order to undermine the authority of the Bible and dethrone God from his rightful place.

Is the earth a sun-rotating, spherical orb with a 4.55 billion-year history of development? Nonsense. The earth, as the Bible claims, is young, and except for a singular world-wide flood, stands just as it was when first miraculously “poofed” into existence. And because the Bible says the earth is immobile, there can be no rotation about its axis and no revolution about the “greater light,” the sun. Likewise, every animal alive today must have been present on Noah’s ark. There cannot have been any change from one species to another and certainly no extinctions. Those who assert such things impugn the very wisdom and perfection of God’s good creation.

What must these literalists think of the many scientific advances over the past 1,500 years in the disciplines of astrology, geology, and biology, even genomics?

If these supposed “advancements” contradict the plain teaching of the inerrant Bible, they must necessarily be false, even deceptive lies, perhaps inspired by the devil, the father of lies. Because modern science seeks only to exclude God from any role in the formation of stars, planets, and life, it is a bold, frontal attack on the Bible’s authority and the Bible’s divine Author. Beware of modern science!

If one really wants to be faithful to the word of God and believe, embrace, and defend everything the Bible states, then this view—that the Bible’s "science" must determine our scientific beliefs—is the best option, the only option. It has the advantage of being thoroughly consistent—if the Bible says it, why then, that settles it. No questions. End of discussion. It’s all one big package deal. There is no need here to sort through the passages in order to retain some (like the exclusion of evolution) and discard others (like the sun’s rotation around  the flat earth), as we’ll see in Option 2. Just take it all. There is no need to figure out how to integrate our science with theirs. With Option 1, the "ancient science" stands alone and stands in judgment over every contradictory “vain opinion” of man.

An Illustration: When 'Wacky' Modern Scientific Idea Contradicts the Clear Teaching of Scripture

The following Christian scholars who objected on biblical grounds to the “alleged” movement of the earth are not full-blooded advocates of Option 1. However, their objection to the then-novel Copernican theory captures beautifully the rational, Scripture-based objections of Option 1 to what appeared to them to be counter-biblical nonsense.

The "ancient science" of the Bible on this point is unmistakably clear. The earth is fixed and immobile. It is the sun that moves. (This is a perfect example of a phenomenological science: what we see must be what it is.)

· "The LORD set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved" (Ps 104:5; cf. Isaiah 45:18).

· "The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved" (1 Chronicles 16:30; cf. Ps 93:1; 96:10).

· "And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” (Ecclesiastes 1:5).

When Copernicus (1473-1543) published his radical proposal in the year of his death for a mobile earth that circulates around a stationary sun, he was thought to be directly challenging the assertions of the Bible as well as the long-established traditions of the church. It is not surprising that his novel, heretical heliocentric theory encountered fierce resistance both from his Catholic church and from the Reformers.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) called Copernicus an “upstart astrologer” and a “fool [who] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth” (Joshua 10:13-14).

Melanchthon (1497-1560), one of Luther’s associates, added, “The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the [stars] nor the sun revolves...Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.”

John Calvin (1509-1564) agrees: “The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion—no disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wandering, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God's hand? (Job 26:7) By what means could it [the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?"

Calvin again: “Those who assert that 'the earth moves and turns'...[are] motivated by 'a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;' possessed by the devil, they aimed 'to pervert the order of nature.’”

The Protestants added Copernicus to their objects of protest. His motives are evil, pernicious; nay, he is possessed by the devil. His mental faculties are faulty—what a fool! He lacks honesty and decency.  He is frankly opposing God and church and all of astronomy. A good man, with a good mind, would simply “accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.” The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.

Here was one controversy where the Roman Catholic Church sided with the Protestant Reformers. In 1616, in connection with Galileo’s support of the sun-centered theory, the Catholic church accused the theory for being "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture" and suspended the publication and distribution of Copernicus’ book on the topic. In 1633 Galileo Galilei was convicted of grave suspicion of heresy for "following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture," and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
"It is easy to see why the Reformers and others took this hard-line position against Copernicus. First, the Ptolemaic [earth-centered] view was matched step for step by the long-standing traditions of the church. Second, the Ptolemaic view corresponded rather precisely to the usual experience of human life--that the sun is moving and we are not. And third, as we have just seen, the geocentric view had Scripture on its side. Tradition, common sense and the voice of Scripture joined together to create a coherent understanding of the world against which the Copernican viewpoint seemed senseless, even heretical. Ultimately, however, the Copernican viewpoint would win the day. The reason, of course, was that the scientific evidence finally coalesced into a consensus against which tradition, Scripture and common sense could no longer prevail."
Kenton L. Sparks, "The Sun Also Rises: Accommodation in Inscripturation and Interpretation," in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, eds. Bacote, Miguelez, and Okholm (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 115-116.
Though many interpreters today share the antipathies of Option 1 for those aspects of modern science they detest (evolution here the chief enemy), the number of fully consistent advocates of Option 1 are relatively few. More choose some variation of Option 2 below.
 
Option 2
Mix and Match: Ancient Plus Modern
This interpretive model doesn’t believe ALL the "scientific" assumptions and assertions of the Bible as did the ancient Israelites. No, this approach retains as "binding" some of the less objectional and more adaptable elements of ancient science. Perhaps this is done in order to to integrate the best of both worlds without having to totally reject either side. One cannot imagine unabashedly rejecting the claims of the Bible, nor disavowing altogether the discoveries of modern science. The first rejection could be charged with heresy, the second with absurdity.
How then can one believe biblical "science" (or at least most of it) while still embracing much of modern science when the two at many points are contradictory? The secret here is a matter of integration—modify some of the "ancient science" and blend it with the modern. But this requires both adopting and rejecting different elements from "ancient science" as well as adopting and rejecting different elements from modern science. You can’t respect both ancient and modern science in full measure, unless you allow the ancients to have theirs and the moderns to have theirs, as in Option 3 (below). The “mix and match” method of Option 2 can involve some complicated maneuvering. And because there are many ways of accomplishing this merging of the ages, this second interpretive model can be found in multiple shapes and colors.

The table below enumerates several biblical assumptions. Option 1, discussed above, where the Bible’s "science" dictates our views of science, treats all these ancient assumptions as divine assertions—matters that require “acquiescence,” as the Reformers emphatically demanded. Option 1 advocates would agree to all of the ancient Near Eastern perspectives, in which case a “Yes” would be enthusiastically placed in the second column all the way down and a definitive “No” for every modern scientific assertion that differs with the truths of the Bible. The “mix and match” approach, however, is not that simple, nor cut and dried.

What seems to unite this diverse group of “integrationists” are two tenets:
(1) A disagreement with the way the biblical authors structured their universe. This is highlighted by the bold red No's in the upper half of the ancient Near Eastern column. 
(2) An agreement with ancient science's understanding of the special creation of separate "kinds" of plants and animals. This is highlighted by the bold green YES near the bottom of the ancient Near Eastern column. 
Though two things unite the diverse members who subscribe to Option 2, many things divide them. Note below the numerous biblical assumptions and assertions where “opinions vary”. 
 
Preferences of the Mix and Matchers
Biblical Assumptions
Ancient Near Eastern
21st Century Science
Flat earth
No
The earth is a global sphere
Foundations support the earth
No
The planet is supported by forces of gravity
Solid firmament above
No
There is no dome, though some mistranslate this as “the atmosphere”
Water beyond the dome
No
There is no water above the dome
Windows in the dome
No
Meteorological science better explains rain
Equidistance of moon/stars
No
Astronomical distances from the earth are not the same for the moon and the stars
Sun rotates around earth
No
Astronomy tells us it doesn’t
Small universe
Opinions vary
Some agree with huge universe
Young, unchanged universe
Opinions vary
Some agree with old, developing universe
Young, unchanged earth
Opinions vary
Some agree with old, geologically changing earth
Creation in six 24-hour days
Opinions vary
Some reinterpret 'days' to allow for the claims of modern geology
Sequence of creation
Opinions vary
Some think the sequence is only poetic, thus letting the fossil record prevail
Each species created individually (without natural relatedness)
Yes
Evolution (or common descent) is nearly unanimously rejected by the “mix and matchers”
Worldwide mountain-burying flood
Opinions vary
Some agree with geology here by limiting the scope of the Genesis flood
 
Option two represents a heterogenous group. Some “mix and matchers” espouse a young earth, less than 10,000 years in age. Others accept all that contemporary astronomy has to teach, by simply seeing astronomy as the explanation for how God created and sustains his universe. Some follow the Bible’s assumption of a six 24-hour-day creation, whereas others, accepting the geological evidence for the age of the earth, have figured out ways to stretch the days to create harmonious "concord” between ancient and modern science. To reconcile the new geological orthodoxy of the early nineteenth century (namely, an old, changing earth) with the biblical account, Christian interpreters in that era devised two new ways of looking at the days in Genesis chapter 1. Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish natural theologian, proposed that a gap existed in the Genesis narrative between verse 1 and verse 2. This “gap theory” allowed for a prolonged epoch of geological change to fall between “the beginning” and the later creation of species. This view was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. Hugh Miller, a Scottish geologist, proposed rather that the days symbolized long geological epochs. This proposal came to be known as the “day-age” theory and is a common view among old-earth creationists.
Among the “mix and matchers” are to be found most of young-earth creationists (who won’t go so far as to affirm a flat earth covered by a firm, window-studded dome). Likewise, the old-earth creationist or progressive creationists are also mix-and-matchers, as are most of the Intelligent Design advocates. (For more on these three Creation Science perspectives, refer to the other pages on this website.)
I wonder what the criteria are that allow each of these different anti-evolutionary groups to determine which elements of the ancient Near Eastern "science" should be discarded and which should be retained. Why toss the firmament and yet cling tenaciously to the fixity of species. If the claim is made that "the Bible says so," then we should adopt the entirety of "ancient science" at face value. Shouldn't we?
 
Option 3
Take at face value the "science-of-their-day," but see it as a vehicle for effectively communicating more important truths to the people of that time. But ancient science does not trump contemporary science. It is the latter that now becomes our tool today for communicating with our world truths theological, anthropological, and ecological.
Advocates of Option 1 see the "scientific" assumptions of the ancient world as required for our day. Those many groups who embrace Options 2 try to integrate modern and ancient beliefs to establish agreement between them. This third option interprets Genesis 1 in the way that the ancient audience would have understood it. Rather than mixing and matching the old and the new, the "ancient science" is respected as it stands, as altogether the best medium for effectively communicating more significant truths with ancient Near Eastern people. Though Option 3 supporters respect the scientific assumptions of the Bible, they don’t feel these are theological assertions, and so this Option is comfortable leaving the ancient science where it originated…in the ancient world.
Two Illustrations
1. Science at the Second Continental Congress
For illustrative purposes let’s imagine that I, an early twenty-first century American citizen, was transported back in time to New England in the 1770s during America’s Revolutionary war. My intent was to communicate intelligibly to my fellow colonists the comprehensive nature of God’s mighty and marvelous creation. To that audience, in that day, I might say something like this:
God created everything—no part of matter came into being without his involvement, from the largest of entities, our Milky Way galaxy, to the smallest, the atom. God made them all!
In 1775, it was unknown that particles smaller than the atom existed. Electrons, for example, were not discovered until 1897, and the recognition of quarks was decades further into the future. Likewise, colonists in the days of Thomas Jefferson were unaware that the many telescopically observed nebulae in the heavens were located far beyond the bounds of our little galaxy. That discovery awaited the 1920s.
In my sentence about the comprehensive scope of divine creation, I was employing the conventional understanding of astronomy and physics that was prevalent at the time in order to articulate theological truths. Is the theology mistaken or falsified because it was packaged in the best science of the day? I don’t think so. What other package was available? Would I have communicated more clearly if I had stood before the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and made the identical theological point, but presented it in the science of the early twenty-first century? Would not the puzzling scientific terminology make the theological truth more opaque and difficult to understand?  I suspect that the following sentence, “more accurate” though it may be, is far less effective at magnifying God’s creative power.
God created everything—no part of matter came into being without his involvement, from the largest of entities, the universe, from its tiny inception in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago to today’s billions of galaxies, now expanded to 93 million light years across, to the smallest, the six flavors of strongly interactive quarks and the several leptons, the electron, the muon, the tauon, and the neutrino. God made them all!
Which should I choose? Should I speak using the science of their day, however incomplete or inaccurate it may be, or should I reach far into the future, grab science of a later day, anachronistically bring it back in time just so I could speak more “truthfully”? I think the illustration makes the point. To improve or “correct” their science would serve only to confound my 1775 audience. Isn’t the point of communication, after all, to communicate and not to confuse?
2. Science at Mt. Sinai
Now, suppose I was time-transported over 3,000 years into the past and stood before a gathering of recently delivered Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai. My goal was to communicate that YHWH, Israel’s God, and not the god of another nation, had effortlessly made the world, the “very good” world, and that this one God climaxed his creation with the formation of his beloved image-bearers, called to walk with him and work with him in community in looking after his creation.
Would I be successful in delivering my theological message if I packaged it in the science that would not arrive on the scene for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the future? What is my intent: to “correct” their ancient cosmology, geology, and biology or to employ the conventional "science-of-the-day" in order to effectively, intelligibly communicate things of far greater import and value?
 
These two examples, from the American Revolution and the Israelite exodus, demonstrate why we think Option 3 makes good sense. In communicating truths about God, humanity, and the world to his people in the Old Testament, YHWH accommodated himself to their understanding of astrology, geology, and biology. The conventional "science" was simply the most appropriate vehicle God had at hand to get across realities of greater significance. The real science would get sorted out in due time, over the centuries. But that wasn’t what mattered then to the people of God.
Think of a wise and caring parent wanting to explain to their 7-year-old where babies come from. Can’t you get the point across without having to be technically accurate about sexual relations, gamete formation, placental development and embryogenesis? I imagine you would accommodate your explanation in a way that was suitable at that moment with your child. This interpretive approach sees God doing much the same with humanity.
Our next page will cite a number of biblical scholars who can help explain the ancient science and unpack the interpretive method of Option 3. This is sometimes called the “non-concordist” view, which means that the ancient science of the Bible does not have to be concordant with modern science. And that’s just how we should expect it to be.
 
For a user-friendly explanation of this non-concordist perspective, see Gordon Glover's three-part lecture series, “Does Science Contradict the Bible?” in Creation through Evolutionary Means: Online Resources

 
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