How did the Pre-Darwin world read Genesis 1?

Warning to greenie readers: This is one of my rare Christian posts! Please don’t read further if Christian discussion offends you.

Craig Schwarze has an interesting post about how some of our best modern Hebrew scholars are saying about the original intent of the Genesis creation narratives. One of the claims I found interesting is that for the first 1500 years of Christian history they did not really read the Hebrew text, but were making opinions about it via the Latin or Greek interpretations of the original Hebrew! It’s an interesting post and is well worth reading.

Another paper that thoroughly analyses the history of how the genre of Genesis has been read over the ages is by historian and theologian Dr John Dickson.  I loved his presentation of the historical debate before the rise of old earth geology and  Darwinian evolution caused such a paranoid and quite hysterical backlash in the Young Earth Creationist crowd. I’ll let John explain from here on in. (The PDF linked to above has extra footnoting and discussion).


1. Interpretation of Genesis 1 in the pre­scientific era

Before I give an account of what contemporary scholars are saying about the genre and purpose of Genesis, I want to establish for readers that a non­literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is by no means a recent phenomenon. Sceptical friends have often put it to me that my interpretation of Genesis 1 is really just an act of acquiescence to the troubling conclusions of modern science: ‘It is now clear that life emerged over a period of billions of years’, they say, ‘so now you are trying to appear respectable by picking and choosing how you read the Bible.’ Richard Dawkins has echoed this criticism with great flair recently (Dawkins 2006 pp. 237–238). Interestingly, six­day creationists say the same thing. They insist that the non­literalistic reading of Genesis 1 is the result of biblical scholars losing their nerve or being taken captive to the Zeitgeist.

It is never wise to second­guess the motives of scholars on such questions but, more significantly, it is important to realize that the precedents for a non­literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can be found in the very distant past. What follows is not intended as a proof or validation of my interpretation; it is simply a counter­argument to the above suggestion. Genesis 1 was being interpreted in a non­literalistic fashion long before modern science became a ‘problem’ for some Christians.

The Jewish scholar Philo

The prolific Jewish scholar, Philo, who lived and worked in Alexandria in the first century (10 BC – AD 50), wrote a treatise titled On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses. In this work, Philo says that God probably created everything simultaneously and that the reference to ‘six days’ in Genesis indicates not temporal sequence but divine orderliness (Philo 13, 28). In the introduction to the Loeb Classical Library edition of this work the translators, FH Colson and GH Whitaker summarize Philo’s rather complex and subtle view of things:

By ‘six days’ Moses does not indicate a space of time in which the world was made, but the principles of order and productivity which governed its making [original emphasis]. Philo p. 2

It is perhaps important to note that Philo was not marginal. He was the leading intellectual of the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine.2 How widespread his views were we do not know, but his discussion of the topic reveals no hint of controversy.

The Greek ‘Fathers’

Philo is followed in this interpretation by the second century Christian theologian and evangelist, Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215), for whom the six days are symbolic (Stromata VI, 16). A generation later, Origen (185­254), the most influential theologian of the third century—again, an Alexandrian—understood Days 2–6 of the Genesis account as days in time. However, he regarded Day 1 as a non­temporal day. He reasoned that without matter, which was created on the second day, there could be no time; hence, no true ‘day’.3 What is interesting here is that a leading Christian scholar of antiquity was comfortable mixing concrete and metaphorical approaches to Genesis 1 (Origen in Heine 1982).

The Latin Fathers and beyond

Moving to Latin­speaking scholars, the fourth century Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (AD 339–397), taught a fully symbolic understanding of Genesis 1.4 Moreover, his greatest convert, and perhaps history’s most influential theologian, Saint Augustine, famously championed a quite sophisticated, non­literalistic reading of the text. Augustine understood the ‘days’ in Genesis 1 as successive epochs in which the substance of matter, which God had created in an instant in the distant past, was fashioned into the various forms we now recognise (Augustine 2002). Augustine’s view was endorsed by some of the biggest names in the medieval church, including the Venerable Bede in the 8th century (Hexaemeron 1, 1), St Albert the Great (Commentary on the Sentence 12, B, I) and the incomparable Thomas Aquinas (II Sentences 12, 3, I) in the 13th century.5

It must be said that such views were not the majority position during this period. The literalistic reading appears to have been the dominant one from the 5th­century through to today. In her review of the interpretations of Genesis 1­2 offered by the ancient Fathers, Elizabeth Clark argues that this concrete approach to the text developed in the 5th­century partly as a response to the ascetic, anti­creation heresies of the period. Only a literalistic understanding of the Bible’s creation account, it was thought, could preserve a truly biblical doctrine of the goodness of creation (Clark 1988 pp. 99­133).

Be that as it may, the larger point I wish to make is that a non­literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is not necessarily a nervous, modern reaction to the rise of contemporary science. It is a viewpoint (even if a minority one) with a long and venerable history in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

Having said this, there are aspects of the modern interpretation of Genesis 1 that only became possible in the 16th–19th centuries, at precisely the time of the scientific revolution. This is no coincidence. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods precipitated a literary revolution in parallel with the scientific one. This was a time of increasing sophistication in the historical­critical analysis of ancient texts in their original languages. Out of such analyses have come particular conclusions about the genre and purpose of Genesis chapter 1.

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