This is the second in a six-part series based on Brian Godawa’s scholarly paper “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible”, which can be read in its entirety here. In part one (see sidebar), Brian expressed how studying ancient Hebrew culture challenged his views of a “plain reading” of scripture. Today, he discusses how the Galileo affair also impacted this view.
Something else had always haunted me like a nagging pebble in the shoe of my mind, and that was the Galileo affair. There was a time (the 17th century) when brilliant godly Christian theologians and scientists that I greatly respect considered the new heliocentric theory as being against the plain teaching of the Bible. They believed the Bible could not be wrong about the way the cosmos operated without jeopardizing its authority as the Word of God. They asserted that the Bible plainly says in clear and unambiguous language that the earth does not move (Psa. 93:1; 104:5)1 and that the sun goes around the earth (Josh. 10:13; Ecc. 1:5). These were brilliant men and not the ignorant anti-scientific bigots that they are still portrayed to be by critics with an axe to grind. They eventually accepted the theory as the evidence came in to back it up. But the point was that they learned a principle that has far reaching implications in Bible interpretation (hermeneutics): Sometimes science can correct our interpretation of the Bible.
There it is, I said it, a statement that draws the ire of some Evangelicals who will no doubt jerk their knees and accuse me of being a “liberal” and of not believing the Bible. But the fact of history is that science has corrected that very same Evangelical tradition of interpreting of the Bible. I really hated to admit this too, because I believe that the Bible is my ultimate authority on the truth of God, so if science could correct the Bible, then would that not make science a higher authority than the Bible? Only if you assume that your interpretation of the Bible is exactly what God is trying to communicate to you. But our interpretation of God’s intent and meaning is not always the same thing as God’s actual intent and meaning. So revising our understanding of the meaning of God’s Word does not make God’s Word wrong, but rather it makes our interpretation of God’s Word wrong by showing us that we are expecting of the Scriptures something that the Scriptures are not offering us.
The implications of this principle forced me to re-evaluate my own understanding of just what the Bible is saying when it comes to science and cosmography. Because of my modern western scientific bias, I could easily misinterpret something as literal that was intended to be figurative, such as stars falling from the sky and the sun and moon losing their light (Isa. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7; Matt. 24:29).2 But I also realized something just as important: My modern western scientific bias could also guide me to misinterpret something as figurative that the Bible intended to be literal! If I read about the “floodgates of heaven” for rain (Gen. 7:11), or the earth set upon a foundation of pillars (Psa. 75:3) or of Sheol being below the earth (Num. 13:32-33), I automatically think of these as poetic metaphors because modern science has revealed that none of these things are “literally” or physically there. But the ancient Israelite did not know these scientific facts that I know now, so what did these images mean to them?
As I pursued an intense Bible study on this issue, I started to learn more about the literary cultural context of Israel and her neighbors. What I discovered was that the Bible uses cosmic geographical language in common with other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures that shared its situated time and location. Believers in today’s world use the language of Relativity when we write, even in our non-scientific discourse, because Einstein has affected the way they see the universe. Believers before the 17th century used Ptolemaic language because they too were children of their time. It should be no surprise to anyone that believers in ancient Israel would use the language of ANE cosmography because it was the mental construct within which they lived and thought.3
With regard to these Biblical and ancient Near Eastern literary parallels, critical scholarship tends to stress the similarities, downplay the differences and construct a secularized evolutionary theory of the transformation of Israel’s religion from polytheism into monotheism through plagiarism.4 In other words, critical scholarship is anthropocentric, or human-centered. Confessional scholarship tends to stress the differences, downplay the similarities and interpret the evidence as indicative of the radical otherness of Israelite religion.5 In other words, confessional scholarship is theocentric, or God-centered. In this way, both critical and confessional hermeneutics err on opposite extremes.
The orthodox doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture is God-breathed human-written words (2Tim. 3:16). Human men wrote from God, moved mysteriously by the Holy Spirit (2Pet. 1:20-21). Even Evangelical inerrantists agree that human authorship involves literary and cultural conventions of their time period. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) summarized their view this way: “We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu” (emphasis added).
By studying the Bible within its cultural milieu and human genre conventions, I could no longer avoid the fact that it contains a different cosmography than our modern western post-Enlightenment cosmography. The evidence became so overwhelming that I had to change my theological view to fit the Bible rather than reinterpret the Bible to fit my theological system. That ancient cosmography was workable for its time, but is no longer so, (as no doubt, will ours also be eventually). What they accepted as literal reality we now accept only metaphorically. I do not believe that this jeopardizes the doctrine that the Bible is the Word of God, or that it reduces that Word to merely human authorship, but I do believe that it jeopardizes our man-made traditions and interpretations about what the Word of God is intended to communicate to us. Be that as it may, in my next post we will look at what I have discovered.
1. In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5-6 he affirms the Ptolemaic notion in Scripture. See “Calvin and the Astronomical Revolution” Matthew F. Dowd, University of Notre Dame.
2. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), p. 320-367. For more biblical examples of this collapsing universe and earth shattering hyperbole used of the fall of worldly powers see Jeremiah 4:23-30; Amos 8:9; Isaiah 24:1-23; 40:3-5; Nahum 1:4-6. For an excellent book about the nature of this apocalyptic imagery and symbolism in the Bible, a must-buy book is Last Days Madness, by Gary DeMar, Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999.
3. The book that opened my mind to the Mesopotamian cosmography in the Bible was Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution by Denis O. Lamoureux, Eugene; OR, Wipf & Stock, 2008. I owe much of the material in this article to Mr. Lamoureux’s meticulous research on the ancient science in the Bible.
4. A significant author of this view is Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts; Oxford: Oxford University, 2003.
5. A significant author of this view is Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Chicago, Il: Moody Press, 2007.