BioLogos Guided Tours #1: Ancient Cosmology and the Bible
The best of the BioLogos library on Ancient Cosmology and the Bible, curated by our staff.
Before You Read
We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.
Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.
In honor of the new year, we’re starting a new series called BioLogos Guided Tours. Since 2009, BioLogos has published almost 2,000 articles on a huge number of topics related to science and faith. We’ve highlighted many of the best articles in our archive in our Resource pages, as well as on the sidebars of every blog post we publish and every Common Questions article. And we have a resource finder where anyone can sort through our archive by category, topic, and difficulty. But we’re aware that, even with these tools, much of our best material sits on the shelves. So this series will be another way to connect you with best of our material on a wide range of important subjects related to origins.
Here’s how it works: We (BioLogos staff) will comb through our archive and select our favorite articles and videos on a certain topic. Then we’ll organize them into basics, going deeper, and advanced (these difficulty levels correspond with the tools on our resource finder). Then you decide how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go! Our goal is that, on every origins topic, you will have a solid base of knowledge by the time you complete the tour. And even if you just browse the “basics”, you will still be informed enough to read further without getting lost (as well as sound extra smart at parties).
Without further adieu, let’s get going on tour #1: Ancient cosmology and the Bible. “Cosmology” refers to the way we understand the shape of our universe. Without the aids of modern science, ancient people thought of the universe much differently than we do. The Bible was written by individuals who were very much a part of the ancient world, so this “cosmology” shows up everywhere in the pages of the Bible. At BioLogos, we don’t think it’s wise to explain away the Bible’s ancient context, or pretend it doesn’t matter. In fact, a wise engagement with the Scriptures—particularly as it pertains to origins—must involve a solid understanding of how it portrays the universe. Below are the best resources in our library on this topic:
What factors should be considered in determining how to approach a passage of Scripture? (Common Questions article)
This first selection is from our “Common Questions” pages, which contain short, readable answers to the biggest questions that people have about evolution and faith. This article lays the groundwork for a healthy approach to interpreting the Scriptures in reference to modern science. As the article explains, the Bible is God’s communication through everyday people in real human cultures, meaning that we should expect a certain amount of cultural distance between ourselves and the original audiences. This means that we should employ all the tools available to us—including historical research—to understand the Biblical text and prevent us from unconsciously imposing our modern ideas on the text.
Genesis is an Ancient Book, and that’s OK by David Buller (blog post)
This post by David Buller is the first in a series connected to our past “book club” featuring The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton. The Lost World has been the gateway for a huge number of people (including myself and others in the BioLogos staff) when it comes to understanding the ancient context of Genesis. Buller is one of these people, and he explains how Walton’s book helped deepen his understanding of the Bible and reveal the unhelpful biases that he brought to the text.
The Ancient Science in the Bible by Denis Lamoureux (blog post)
Denis Lamoureux is the author of I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution, a great book for those investigating evolutionary creationism for the first time (in fact, he’s one of the first to use the term). In this article, published just several months after BioLogos began, Lamoureux introduces the concept of the “three-tier universe”, and how this ancient mindset is found all over the Bible. But he argues that this is no reason to lose faith in the Bible’s message:
In the same way that the Lord personally meets each of us wherever we happen to be, the Holy Spirit came down to the level of the ancient biblical writers and employed their understanding of the physical world in order to communicate as effectively as possible life-changing spiritual truths. By using an ancient science in the Bible, God revealed the inerrant Message of Faith that He created the world, not how He created it.
Pete Enns is the former BioLogos fellow of biblical studies. We’re privileged to have a large number of articles and videos by Enns in our archive, and several more of the entries in this list are by him. This short video makes the point that a lot of our “plain, literal” readings of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) are actually loading with modern assumptions that wouldn’t have been shared by the original authors or recipients of Scriptures. Enns explains why it’s so important to understand this cultural distance when we try to apply the Bible to modern scientific questions.
Speaking of Pete Enns, this next article is a perennial favorite, garnering thousands of pageviews since it was first published in 2011:
The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point by Pete Enns (blog post)
Genesis 1 says that, on the second day of creation, God put some sort of barrier in the sky to keep the waters up. Some translations call this the “firmament”, and others use “expanse”. Modern Christians have often tried to find ways to interpret this as a reference to the sky (as we understand it), but Enns shows why the “firmament” only makes sense in an ancient, pre-modern cosmology. And he demonstrates why the efforts to explain away ancient cosmology in the Bible are “missing the point”.
Origins Today: Genesis Through Ancient Eyes by John Walton (video)
In 2013, we helped fund a video project with the above title based on Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. At 2 hours, it’s on the longer side for one of our videos, but if you want a deeper understanding of this topic, it’s a must-watch.
The three articles below take the principles we’ve learned so far and apply them to some tough passages in the Bible, showing how ancient cosmology helps us better read the Scriptures.
Jesus and the Sea by Pete Enns (blog post)
Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle by Pete Enns (blog post)
Biblical Credibility and Joshua 10: What Does the Text Really Claim? by John Walton (blog post)
The Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context by Joseph Lam (scholarly essay)
Joseph Lam is an expert on the ancient Hebrew culture and language, as well as the cultures and languages that surrounded and informed them. This essay focuses particularly on Genesis 1 and demonstrates the hard work that must be done to translate the scriptural wisdom to our modern times. But in the process, Lam shows how the Bible’s message resonates clearly beyond its original context into ours.
The “Cosmogonic” Form of Genesis 1 by Conrad Hyers (blog series)
The late Conrad Hyers is the author of The Meaning of Creation, a little-known book on Genesis and modern science that, in my opinion, is one of the best books on the subject in print today. This series is based on an abridged version of his book. Hyers delves deeply into the ancient world of Genesis, explaining the connections (and differences) between it and other ancient origins stories. As a bonus, “cosmogonic” is a fantastic word to use in your next Scrabble game (17 points by itself, I checked).
“Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones by John Walton (blog post)
This final article falls at the intersection of the topics of “biblical cultures” and “divine action”. John Walton shows how our modern division of events into “natural” and “supernatural” is exactly that—modern. Ancient people, including the Israelites, saw God pervading everything that happened, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Walton makes some provocative suggestions about how this affects the origins debate.
Recommended Books on this subject:
In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context by Johnny Miller and John Soden
Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science by Kyle Greenwood
Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology by John Walton
The Biblical Cosmos by Robin Parry
Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography by Wayne Horowitz
The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science by Conrad Hyers
I want to emphasize that this is only a small sampling of our resources on this subject. For much more, click on the “biblical cultures” tag at the top of the article and use our resource finder. Please bookmark this article and send it to your friends—we hope it will be a great “portal” for information on this subject. We’ll also edit it with new additions as they are published.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical