Unexpected Things said in the Bible

“Fundamentalists” versus the Bible

Gwydion M. Williams

Fundamentalist Errors

Though I am not myself religious, I see it as a great error to dignify religious extremists with the title ‘fundamentalist’. It implies that they are the most authentic modern representatives of the original religion, which is questionable. Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ leave out the flexibility and willingness to forgive that was part of the original Islam. And Christian ‘fundamentalists’ are even more out of line with their sources.

Though Christian ‘fundamentalists’ insist on the literal truth of everything in the Bible, they simply ignore the bits that don’t suit them. Things like the drastic rejection of money and commercial values in the New Testament. And these same ‘fundamentalists’ place an exaggerated importance on things for which there is little or no Biblical justification.

People often have a very false notion of what the Bible actually says. Try the following questions. According to the Bible :-

a) What was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden?

b) In what sort of building was Jesus born?

c) How many wise men visited him?

The standard answers are an apple, a stable and three wise men. But all of these answers come from later Jewish or Christian tradition, not from the text of the Bible itself. Sacred apples are common in Greek and Celtic paganism, but the Book of Genesis speaks only of the fruit of some unidentifiable tree.

[I have since learned that religious Jews believe it was a pomegranate.]

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was laid in a manger, a plausible emergency crib. But it is nowhere said that this manger was in a stable. Mutual aid was a religious duty among Jews in Jesus’s time, just as it is today. A pregnant women being left to give birth among animals is very unlikely. Such a remarkable failure of ordinary human decency would surely have been mentioned somewhere in the Gospels.

As for the Three Wise Men, the Gospel of Matthew tells of an unspecified number of wise men who bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Early Christian traditions varied their numbers, sometimes having as many as twenty, before settling on one per gift.

I give these examples to lead up to a much more important point. It is absolutely untrue to say that belief in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis would mean that the world was only a few thousand years old.

Seven Days of Creation

‘Fundamentalist’ objections to the standard scientific view are based on something that the Bible simply doesn’t say, no matter how firmly most people suppose that it does. The story of the Garden of Eden, while it can be approximately dated from the genealogy of Adam’s descendants, assumes a pre-existing world. There are also many indicators of an existing human population, people separate from and prior to Adam and Eve.

The quite separate account of creation in seven days is out of step with scientific cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology and physics. But it says nothing about the age of the earth or of humanity, because there is no indication as to when it was supposed to have happened.

The majority of devout Christians and Jews do not view the Seven Days in Genesis as a literal historical account. There is little sign that it was important to the major religious figures. It is seldom mentioned in later parts of the Bible, unlike the Fall and unlike the Exodus from Egypt.

The Book of Chronicles, probably written after the Jewish return from their Babylonian exile, gives a summery of Jewish history. It lays out the genealogies down from Adam, but with no dates or ages, and no mention of the stories of creation. Nor do Jesus or the early Christianity attach much importance to the Seven Days of Creation, though pagan Greeks and Romans would certainly not have accepted the Jewish account of the origins of the world.

Scholars have long known that Genesis is a combination of at least two texts, and very probably more. One of the original sources for Genesis, the J-text, commonly refers the deity by a Hebrew word rendered into English as JVHV or Jehovah or Jahweh or Yahweh. just writes. Another, the E-text, refers to the deity as Elohim. Translators have represented these differences in various ways. The New English Bible has Jehovah as the Lord and Elohim as God.

It was discovered in the 18th century that a simple mechanical separation of the text of Genesis according to the use of these two names removed many contradiction that had puzzled scholars over the centuries. Taken literally, Genesis is irrational on such matters as the age of Abraham’s Sarah and the number of animals taken onto the ark. Genesis 7.1 to 7.3 has the Lord commanding Noah to take seven pairs of all ritually clean beasts and birds, plus one pair of unclean beasts. Genesis 7.8 to 7.10 has them taking one pair each of beasts, birds and ‘creeping things’, as God had commanded. Separating Genesis into two separate texts yields two similar but distinct religious narratives, each with its own internal self-consistency.

The J-text begins with the story of the Garden of Eden, and carries on to tell of Adam’s descendants (Genesis 2.4 to 25). This can be tied into known history through the various genealogies, dating it back a few thousand years. But there is nothing in the J-text that says this was the beginning of the world. In fact the literal meaning of the text is decidedly against such an interpretation.

The sons of Adam and Eve find wives – are these Eve’s daughters, their own full sisters? The common interpretation of Adam and Eve as the first people rather than the original Hebrew ancestors is not a ‘fundamentalist’ reading. It is an inheritance from Christian tradition, but a very stretched interpretation of what the Bible actually says.

Likewise, Cain after he murdered Abel is marked so that he will be an wanderer. The Lord also says that if anyone dares kill him, Cain shall be avenged seven-fold (Genesis 4.10-15). This makes no sense at all if the existing humans are Adam, Eve, the mysterious wives and Cain himself.

Now look at the E-text. The Seven Days of Creation, as found in Genesis 1.1 to 2.3, are an undatable event. The normal ‘fundamentalist’ view is that the Garden of Eden retells in more detail the events of the Sixth Day of creation. But this is not what the Bible actually says. It is a questionable interpretation rather than a literal reading. It raises the problems I mentioned above. Nor is it clear that the two accounts were ever meant to be linked, except in as far as both give a view of possible origins.

Mind you, it is not only the religious who are irrational on these matters. Anti-religious writers give great attention to the cycle of Babylonian Gods, which supposedly matches the schema of the Seven Days of Creation. As I will show below, this link is not that clear-cut.

Scholars conventionally class Genesis 1.1 to 2.3 as P-text, a priestly history based on a presumed older E-text. This P-text does not use the name ‘Jahweh’ until it is revealed to Moses. It is certainly quite different from the J-text which gives the story of the Garden of Eden. And it has some points of similarity to the Babylonian creation story, even though that was mostly a Celestial Dallas with feuding and murderous deities. It is assumed that the P-text had its own history and was only later interwoven with the J-text, perhaps as a means of reconciling rival Jewish traditions after the upheavals of conquest and deportation of much of the population to Babylon.

The schema from the P-text of Genesis is as follows :-

First Day

The earth is without form and void. God moves upon the face of the waters and says ‘let there be light’. Light is separated from darkness, defining day and night. (Though some ‘fundamentalists’ try reading ‘day’ as something other than a 24-hour period, the actual text of the Bible states very plainly that this is just what is meant)

Babylonian creation story

The first generation of deities are Apsu (god of fresh water) and Tiamat (goddess of the salt-water ocean).

Modern scientific view

Though the exact causes of the Big Bang are still uncertain, it is generally agreed that the very early universe was not chaotic but astonishingly orderly. (See Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind for one view of this interesting circumstance.)

Darkness is not an entity, but simply the absence of light. The early universe was incredibly hot and dense, suffused with light and with many other types of electromagnetic radiation. The Cosmic Background Radiation or ‘afterglow of creation’ dates from maybe 700,000 years after the Big Bang, when there was a ‘decoupling of matter and radiation’. (In Search of the Big Bang, by John Gribbin.) There were no solid objects, let alone water, until long after the time of this first coherent light.

When one sees the Cosmic Background Radiation, this is in a very real sense the first formation of the universe still going on. Because the speed of light is finite, our view of distant objects is also a view of past times. And this will continue to be so, for billions of years into the future, as light from ever more distant parts of space reaches us and every other part of the expanding universe. Quasars are thought to represent an era of active galaxies that has now ended – we would definitely notice any nearby / modern Quasars, if they existed.

Second Day

The separation of some water from other water, and the creation of the firmament of Heaven.

Babylonian creation story

The second generation of deities are (maybe) gods of the silt deposited at the junction of the sea and the rivers.

Modern scientific view

The Universe and the Galaxies are at least twice as old as the Earth, and perhaps much older. Water could not have formed on the Earth until it had been cooling for some hundreds of millions of years. Water is made from hydrogen and oxygen, and there was very little oxygen in the universe when the first generation of stars formed. It was only after some of these stars had lived and died and enriched the galactic gas-clouds with heavier elements that worlds like the Earth would have become possible.

Third Day

The creation of dry land, with the waters gathered as seas. Grass and herbs and fruit-trees are brought forth from this newly formed Earth.

Babylonian creation story

The third generation of deities are (maybe) gods of the horizon, the division between sky and earth. (If the Israelites did derive their creation story from the Babylonians, they obviously made some changes and additions.)

Modern scientific view

Dry land came first. No seas existed upon Earth until the land had cooled enough. But the original rocks were lifeless, and both plants and animals had a very long period of development in the sea. The dry land was only very gradually colonised, by various separate groups of animals and by fungi and by at least two different lines of plants. Fruits are a much later sophistication. Grass is a recent arrival, in terms of geological time.

Fruit exists so that animals will eat it and transport the seeds. Grass evolved to be difficult for grazing animals, hard to chew and hard to digest. Yet according to Genesis, there are no land animals until the Sixth Day.

Fourth Day

The creation of the two great lights, the greater to govern the day and the lesser to govern the night. With them, God makes the stars.

Babylonian creation story

The fourth generation of deities are Anu the sky and Ea the earth-and-water god. Quarrels break out among the expanding crowd of deities. Ea casts a spell of sleep over Apsu, his originator and great-grandfather. Ea then kills the sleeping Apsu, the Original Father.   (This part is even less like Genesis.)

Modern scientific view

The moon is no more associated with night than with day; it just looks brighter and is more noticeable when the sun is below the horizon. The moon is a small insignificant body that looks big and bright only because it is very close to us. From careful studies of the moon-rocks brought back by the Apollo missions, it is generally accepted by scientists that the proto-moon collided with the proto-earth, with some redistribution of materials before the present earth and moon emerged from the mess. This would have happened long after the Sun had separated out from the rest of the original solar nebula.

Most of the stars we see with the naked eye are quite a bit brighter than our own sun. The creation of stars begun very early in the history of the universe, and is still going on. A star like Sirius was probably created quite recently, compared to the lifetime of the Earth. Supergiants like Canopus and Deneb must be even younger. In gas-clouds like those of Orion’s sword, we see stars that may have emerged within historic times. Certainly, the stars of the ‘Trapezium’ in the Orion nebula are only about 20,000 years old, by present estimates. However you define the birth of a star out of a gas-cloud. it is happening somewhere right now, and will continue to happen long after the Earth itself perishes.

Not all stars are young. We see our eventual fate in Arcturus, a Red Giant that may be twice as old as our own sun. They typical star in the Galaxy is a Red Dwarf, too dim to see without a telescope. But some of them are almost as old as the universe itself.

‘The Milky Way’s oldest stars date back to the Galaxy’s formation, 10 to 15 billion years ago; its youngest are younger than you or I.’ (The Alchemy of the Heavens by Ken Crosswell, Chapter One.)

Fifth Day

The creation of life in the sea, and of birds.

Babylonian creation story

The fifth generation of deities include the hero-god Marduk. He slays Tiamat, the Original Mother, who has come to destroy her unruly offspring. He reorganises the universe using her remains. (Once again, not really like Genesis.)

Modern scientific view

Life almost certainly began in the sea, though the old Deist / Rationalist notion of Panspermia has revived. People are seriously suggesting that perhaps life as we know it began on Mars, later falling to Earth on a meteorite similar to the one NASA studied.

For certain, life as we know it achieved it basic form and complexity in the sea. But some sea-dwellers such as turtles and dolphins show clear signs of an origin as land-animals. Ancient fossils of whales with legs have been found in parts of the Himalayas that were ocean before India collides with the rest of Asia. And birds also began as land animals. Such things as hens’ teeth are a throwback to their dinosaur-like ancestors.

Sixth Day

The creation of cattle and wild animals and reptiles. The creation of humans : ‘male and female he created them’. (Genesis 1.27).

Babylonian creation story

Several gods, led by Marduk of the fifth generation, create humans to perform menial tasks for the benefit of the surviving gods. Kingu, firstborn son of Tiamat, is killed so as to make this possible.

Modern scientific view

All land animals are evolved from sea-creatures. All land vertebrates including humans develop useless gill-slits during their time as embryos. These would have been essential for their fish-like ancestors, and it seems that natural selection is not thorough or logical enough to remove them again. Since bones associated with gills are the basis of our jaw bones and even some ear bones, the gill slits could not just be omitted without producing a very unfit unhappy adult.

Humans and cattle are singled out as being of particular interest to the likely audience, but no clear distinction is drawn. Verse 2.30 does note the needs of wild animals, after 2.29 has defined what people can make use of. ‘All green plants I give for food to the wild animals’. The Bible is actually better than some more recent ‘fundamentalists’, in as much as the creation of humans is lumped in with the creation of other land animals.

Seventh Day

God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Note that the seven days of creation are clearly identified as such, adding up to a week. If this aspect is not taken literally, why treat the rest as any more than an ancient moral tale?

Babylonian creation story

As mentioned above, the purpose of humans is enable the gods to have more leisure time: this is the alleged link with Genesis. The week is older and more widespread than Babylonian culture, which developed in the context of a pre-existing Mesopotamian civilisation.

Modern scientific view

The week is an arbitrary unit of time. Perhaps it originated as a four-fold division of the month, though lunar months are slightly less than 28 days, and calendar months are usually extended to reconcile them to the solar year. In our own calendar, only February retains its original 28 days, because the Romans viewed it as unlucky and wanted to keep it as short as possible. Julius Caesar when he reformed the Roman calendar used it as a convenient place to put the extra day for the leap-year – and was murdered soon afterwards.

That Was The Week, That Was

The seventh day is of course Saturday. The early Christians decided that non-Jewish converts did not have to be circumcised and were entitled to ignore most of Jewish law, including enforced idleness during a part of the week that we would now see as sunset on Friday till sunset on Saturday. Later Christians seem to have copied their pagan neighbours in having a holiday and a religious gathering on Sunday, which is properly speaking the first day of the week. They also count the new day as starting at midnight rather than sunset.

‘Fundamentalists’ assume that the Jewish law as it applies their Sabbath is absolutely binding on Christian celebrations of Sunday. This is not really what the Bible says. Nor is it much in keeping with Christian tradition, which had viewed Sunday as a holiday when fun could be combined with religious teaching.

Only a few very small eccentric Christian sects have tried keeping Jewish food laws. But the Jehovah Witnesses will die rather than accept blood transfusions, which contradict their interpretation of one part of the Law of Moses (an interpretation not shared by even the most ultra-Orthodox Jews). Some ‘fundamentalists’ discover fundamentals that other varieties of ‘fundamentalist’ take no notice of.

Sabbath laws is a widespread ‘fundamental’, tending to be strictly enforced among Christian Puritans, albeit applied to the wrong day. A few groups have made this extra step, most notably the Seventh Day Adventists. These fellows also predicted the End of the World in the mid-19th century and gave rise to the Branch Dravidians of Waco.

I draw three conclusions from the above close study of the Seven Days of Genesis.

  1. You cannot reconcile biblical myth with science by claiming that the ‘days’ are really long geological epochs. Such a schema reinterprets the Bible to the point of meaninglessness, without getting much closer to what scientists gradually worked out from rocks and fossils n the 18th and 19th centuries.
  2. The alleged link between Genesis and the Babylonian myth is unclear, certainly far weaker than the strong correspondence between the Biblical and Babylonian versions of the Flood. Since the seven-day week is older than both Jewish and Babylonian culture, they may both have been drawing on some lost common source. A religions person could also quite reasonably claim that the Babylonians had garbled their inheritance as Children of Noah, which the Jews had arguably preserved in a more authentic form.
  3. The tale of Adam and Eve is in itself just a religious myth, neither provable nor disprovable by scientific means. Taken in its literal meaning, a the tale of a small group of Hebrew ancestors who merge with the wider human population after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, there is nothing to say that it could not have happened. It is only when this tale is mixed up with the quite distinct and scientifically impossible Seven Days of Creation that problems arise.

Human Origins

There have been a few unorthodox Christian thinkers who have interpreted the two texts as relating to two different human populations. With some logic, they argued that Adam and Eve were a later creation made long after the people created on the Sixth Day. This accounts very neatly for the wives of Eve’s sons, and the people who were warned not to kill Cain.

Of course this schema has unfortunate implications for those of us who have no Jewish, Arab or other Middle-Eastern ancestry. By this alternative literalist reading of Genesis, we not in fact descended from Adam or Eve! Hence the peculiar and convoluted arguments to ‘prove’ that the English were actually descended from one of the ‘Lost Tribes’.

The notion of two separate human origins has been used by white-supremist theorists. It does of course need convoluted logic to suppose that West Europeans could be descended from Adam and Eve, while other humans including modern Jews and Arabs were not. The Scandinavian legends are quite different and do not suggest any Middle-Eastern connection, thought the ‘Asar’ may have come from somewhere in Asia.

If one were to try to reconcile the Elder Edda with modern science, one could do this better than for Genesis. The world comes into existence in a pre-existing universe, born between Ice and Fire in an enormous void. Quite similar to modern theories of the emergence of the Solar System – the Earth consists of rocks and metals that solidified in the inner solar system, whereas volatile gases and ices settled further out and became the cold gas giant planets and their icy moons. Midgard, the world of men, is one of nine worlds, and we now know that Earth is one of nine planets, three of them unknown before modern times. Of course the tale of the primeval cow licking the first man out of the ice is not so easy to reconcile with known human origins. We definitely evolved in the hot rift valleys of East Africa, perhaps with a period as lakeside ‘aquatic apes’. Still, almost any account of creation is bound to be right on one or two points.

It is not my purpose to knock religion. The serious study of the Bible over the past few centuries has convinced most theologians that Genesis can not be read either literally or as the Word of God dictated to Moses. Even an anti-Modernist thinker like C.S.Lewis was quite clear that both the Seven Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden should be read as parables, stories sent by God with a moral purpose, not intended to be treated as literal facts. (But many undoubted parables do keep confusing people – moral examples like the Good Samaritan get confused with factual reports of actual incidents like the Woman of Samaria.)

The Biblical account of creation is by far the grandest such vision that we have any record of. The idea of a single creative entity proceeding by stages is a vast advance over the Babylonian concept of a crowd of squabbling amoral super-beings. Read the better parts of the Bible as a fine artistic accomplishment, and you may be improved by it. My objection is only to those who close their minds to the grandeurs of modern science for the sake of a small-minded mediaeval vision that is only very doubtfully based on what the Bible actually says.

Published some time before the year 2000

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