Science and Religion, pt. 2: History I- Premodern

February 19, 2018.

This is part 2 of my science and religion series. Read part 1 here. For a PDF version, click here.

Before we get into the specifics of the evidence from sciences, I think there is an important aspect that should be considered. In the past year or more I have been coming to the realization of how much of my thinking and mindset has been shaped by history and culture- history and culture that I didn’t know about. I have become convinced that we cannot truly be fully free thinking beings until we understand our historical context for why we think the way we do. This is not to say that our thinking is necessarily incorrect, just that it has been biased (shocking, I know) in various ways, often in ways in which we are not even conscious. To get a better grasp on truth and meaning, we must first see where we fit in historical/cultural thought in order to evaluate our positions from a more objective basis. I do not believe that we can ever be completely objective (and this is important- I do not believe anyone on earth can be completely objective/unbiased), but I also do not believe that this is necessary in search for truth. What is necessary is an understanding of history. We will get to our own history in the next post.

However, understanding historical thought is important not just from our own position, but also from the position of others. Here well will deal with (somewhat superficially, because I am not an expert in this field, see further reading resources for more information) the historical and cultural context of those who produced the bible. Too often have we placed modern interpretations and stipulations on the biblical documents and thereby completely missed what they are trying to say. It is not fair to hold an ancient document up to the standards that we think are best today (which could certainly change as time progresses), when those standards simply didn’t exist. When we read the bible through modern eyes, we often create problems that were never a problem to begin with, and we ask scripture to do things that it never agreed to do in the first place. Further, many will condemn these documents for not holding to modern standards, which is completely unfair to the ancient people and what they were trying to communicate. Regardless of your philosophical dispositions from the onset (whether theistic, agnostic or atheistic), expecting the bible to answer modern questions and standards is futile and leads to further misunderstandings. This is my opinion at least, though I am amongst many.[1]

So what should we do? With the influx of recent manuscript and textual finds of the Ancient Near East (ANE, the culture in which the Israelites were a part of) as well as the textual influx from the time of the II Temple Period (the context in which the New Testament documents were produced), we have been able to get a much better grasp on how these people thought and what was important to them. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that they thought very, very differently than we do today. Because of this, it is prudent that we study the meaning and interpretation of scripture in light of their own cultural background. This post will attempt to give a brief sketch of what I think are some important aspects of ANE thought, but it is in no way comprehensive. I suggest further reading, such as that given in footnote one, for a better understanding of this worldview.

An Example
At the onset, I’d like to give an example that I think can demonstrate what I’m trying to say. It probably isn’t the best example, but I think it is one that is easier than most to explain. Consider one aspect of the New Heaven and New Earth that John describes in revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.”
(Revelation 21:1)

A lot could be said about the new heavens and new earth idea alone as an example of cultural thought (that we seem to have discarded in modern Christian interpretation, though I think this has been a mistake[2]), but I want to focus on what John says about the sea. A “simple” or “plain” reading from a modern standpoint might suggest that in “heaven”, no sea will exist. This doesn’t really make much sense to us, but hey- the bible says it so it must just be true. Maybe we make the convenient excuse that “Revelation is just all figurative language” and disregard most of it (except for the parts that seem to jive with certain theologies we hold). But when we understand a little more about the culture that John was a part of, this reference to the sea makes a lot of sense- and even takes us back to the creation story.

The sea was a symbol of non-order which was home to several chaos creatures in the ancient world.[3] This is understandable, especially in the context of a people who were not known for sea-faring and did not have the technology that we have today to travel on the sea safely.[4] The sea would hold much mystery and many people were likely claimed by the sea. We get a hint of this respect/fear of the sea when Jesus calms the storm, and his disciples say “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41, cf Mt. 8:27). Thus, when John writes about the new heavens and earth, “there was no more sea,” his audience would have known what he was saying- in the new heavens and new earth, chaos will have been eliminated and all of creation will finally be in its properly ordered state (they probably wouldn’t word it exactly like that, but you get the point). This brings our minds back to the opening of Genesis, where the Spirit of God is hovering over the primordial waters. Creation is in a state of non-order, and the Genesis account is about God separating the waters and bringing function to the non-ordered creation (more on this later). So, what John says in Revelation, drawing heavily from Old Testament language and imagery, is not literal in its description. But I would contend it also isn’t just figurative, at least not in the way we often think about figurative language today. John’s words have meaning- meaning that would have likely been readily apparent to those hearing his words, and that meaning can only really be understood if we get into the mindset of John and his audience.

Perhaps some examples from our present culture can drive home the point here. We actually speak and write like this all the time, but we usually do so unconsciously.[5] If we hear someone referred to as an “honest Abe”, or “Einstein” or even “Hitler”, immediately images and ideas surrounding these people and what the phrases mean pop up in our heads. But this is only because they are part of the fabric of our culture. In 500 years, they might not make any sense (though these could be poor examples, as the legacies of these people will likely live on for many years). If I write a poem that refers passingly to one of “the only two certainties in life”, my audience will likely know that I’m either talking about death or taxes without me spelling it out. However, if this poem was read in Japan, I’m sure a lot of confusion would ensue. Going further, the Japanese might fill in other things that they thought I might mean in light of their own culture.[6]

The concept of speaking within our own culture to communicate effectively is often beautifully displayed in our literature and poetry. But I think one of the most striking examples of completely speaking within a certain culture is displayed in the emergence of the meme culture of the younger generation. We can make references and talk in such shorthand that people who are not inside the meme culture have a very difficult time understanding what we are even saying. If I say “I got rickrolled”, those in the meme culture know exactly what I’m talking about. If someone says “I can’t hug every cat…”, even if the subject matter isn’t about cats, I know what they are saying. Saying “do it for the lolz” (pronounced lawls) has a certain connotation and nuance that I don’t even think I could adequately describe if I wanted to try. “Look! Look with your special eyes,” might denote someone being overly dramatic. Imagine if we wrote a poem or even letter to someone else within this culture and used some of this language; now imagine someone 3,000 years from now finding a copy of the letter (because let’s be real, they probably found it in our DM[7]) and are trying to interpret it. Perhaps they would understand some things, but I doubt they would really be able to understand all the nuances without being trained in our culture (and even then they might not be able to, because a lot of nuance is specific to certain groups or friends even within a culture or subculture). There are words and phrases that people younger than me are using that I don’t even understand (yes, I’m aware I’m getting old- I found that out when I was informed that Facebook is for old people now).

The point that I’m trying to make is this- all cultures share a matrix of concepts and ideas that are often in the culture’s subconscious and comes out in their ideas, speech and writing. Different cultures assign different values and meanings to different aspects of life, and if a culture thinks differently than our own, it can be extremely hard to understand what they actually mean in their communication (even when it seems “straightforward”). I say all this as an introduction to a brief overview of the pre-modern worldview because it is important that we take their worldview into consideration when we are interpreting the scriptures that they produce. Else, we are liable to attach meanings to their words that are actually very foreign to what they are trying to say.

The Premodern World

When we think of those living in ancient times, we often have a low view of them and their intelligence. This is probably because we don’t understand how they thought, and things that seem foreign to us often seem inferior. However, just because they thought in different categories does not in any way make them lesser; it does mean, however, that we must understand their worldview in order not to force our modern worldview on their writings, which leads to misunderstanding and even condemnation of their ideas outright because we think they are trying to communicate things that they are not. Here we will look at a few of the important (in my opinion at least) differences in thought in the premodern world versus our modern world today.

  1. “Natural” and “Supernatural” categories did not exist.

When we hear the term “supernatural”, we know exactly what is meant. Something that happens outside, or contrary too, the natural laws that govern our universe. However, in the premodern world, there was no such distinction, and anyone trying to make such a distinction would probably not be understood in any meaningful way. That God or gods existed was taken for granted, as was their activity in the world.[8] This is reflected in several biblical passages. Probably my favorite of these passages comes in Acts 17, where Paul is addressing the men of Athens on the Areopagus:

“…Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
(Acts 17:27c-28)

“In him we live and move and have our being”. Paul and his audience shared a view not of “natural” and “supernatural”, but an overlapping of God’s space and our space, however mysteriously that might work (there is much more to say about the overlapping of heaven and earth, but here is not the place[9]). I think we see this further evidenced in Paul’s writings when he is listing “spiritual gifts”:

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
(Romans 12:6-8)

We see here that Paul lists in the same breath prophecy and leadership, both being gifts that have been given according to grace. The blending of the supernatural and natural is seen throughout scripture, such as the pillar of cloud and fire that led the children of Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 13:17-22), in the prophets of destruction (e.g. Joel 2 and Zech. 14), the forming of a baby in the womb (Ps. 139:13) and John’s description of the events “soon to take place” (see Revelation 12-29 in particular). This point will become very important when we consider our own view of the world and how God interacts with us today (as well as how he has interacted in the past).

  1. Ancient Near Eastern people were more concerned about function than material.

Perhaps one of the defining ideas that truly encapsulates our modern way of thinking (at least in the west) is materialism. We focus on how things are physically made, what things are physically made of and often define our status in life by the things that we have. Much of this is due to the scientific revolution that has guided and shaped our worldview. However, as John Walton makes clear[10], the ancient world (specifically the context of the Israelites) was not focused on the material. They cared more about function. They asked different questions than we did about the world, because their values and concerns were different. We might ask how God created the world expecting to hear about inflation, bosons, atoms and gravity. The ANE didn’t seem to care much about the physical. They would ask, how did God bring the world into order, or how did he relate functions to the elements of the physical world that they saw around them. This is seen in the practice of “naming” in ANE cultures; to name something was to create it, not because it was physically constructed at that time, but rather because it was given a function/purpose.[11] This will be very important when we take a closer look at the creation accounts in Genesis.

  1. The premodern world was a world without modern science.

This assertion may be painfully obvious, but it needs to be said and understood. So often we judge the pages of scripture by standards that only exist in our modern mindset. The authors of scripture were not “doing science” when they wrote and compiled. They did not interpret earlier scriptures according to our modern historical-grammatical interpretation style. They did not write history as objective, strictly factual observers recording everything literally happening in the way that they wrote.[12] The bible is not a science textbook, nor does it contain “hidden science” that we are just now finding out. God spoke to a particular people in a particular time and context, and to do so effectively, he had to do so in a way that they would understand him.

It is very hard for us to imagine a world in which science and the scientific method simply didn’t exist. It is hard for us to understand what the ancients were trying to convey with they wrote in certain genres such as apocalyptic or wisdom. It is hard for us to understand why the functional would be more important than the material. But this is what we must do when we approach scripture because these are the categories that the biblical writers thought in. We are not being fair to the writers when we try to impose our science on them. We are disrespecting God’s choice of communication when we try to turn it into something it was never meant to be. And many conflicts and misunderstandings have arisen because that is precisely what we have done over the years.

There is much more than could be said (and has been said by people much more qualified than me) about the differences in thought of the pre-modern world. We could also talk about the differences in our Western mindset opposed to the mindset of the near east, such as honor/shame vs. right/wrong or collectivism vs. individualism. Both modern and western lenses have often caused us to misunderstand and even misuse the bible. My goal is simply to raise awareness of the cultural context of scripture and the importance not to impose modern questions and standards on the text that was not produced under these standards. The ancients thought very, very differently than we think today. This does not make what they have to say any less important, or what we have to say any better. We simply have to recognize the difference and interpret accordingly. We will return to this idea later and look at some of these differences seen in scripture in more detail.

We will pick up with History II on Wednesday.



[1] See, for example, N.T. Wright, “Surprised by Scripture”; John Walton “The Lost World of Genesis One”, “The Lost world of Adam and Eve,” “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament”; Peter Enns “Inspiration and Incarnation,” “The Bible Tells Me So”, “The Evolution of Adam”; Michael Heiser “The Unseen Realm”, “Supernatural”; Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight, “Adam and the Genome”. Also, see article by Joseph Lam, “The Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context”.

[2] See Wright, NT. Surprised by hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. (2008) for a full comprehensive look at the eschatology presented in the New Testament.

[3] See Walton, J. H. The lost world of Genesis one: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate. (2010). p. 65 and Walton, JH. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (2015). p.149-152

[4] This is not to say that all ancient peoples couldn’t travel the seas, or even that Israelites and their neighbors never did. I am just saying that the Israelites and the peoples closest to them were generally not known to be sea farers.

[5] It’s important to note here that the biblical writers were also likely unconscious of all the things they were doing in their writing as well. It’s just part of being in a certain time and culture; we all participate in this phenomenon.

[6] This is precisely what we do at times when we read the bible through a modern lens. Sometimes we assume we know what a writer is referring to because it is what we would be referring to if we had written the phrase. But we must remember that ancient people thought very differently than we do.

[7] Okay, I don’t actually use the term DM, but at least I know what it means when someone says it… also, it was a good instance to throw in a cultural reference.

[8] This is for most peoples at least. Though the Greeks still held this philosophy, there were certain sects that distanced God from the creation, such as the Epicureans. We will return to them in a subsequent post.

[9] See Wright, NT. Surprised by hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. (2008).

[10] See Walton, J.H. The lost world of Genesis one: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate. (2010) and Walton, J.H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (2015).

[11] See Walton, J.H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (2015). p. 33, 35.

[12] This is not to say that what they were writing was false or untrue, but rather to say they wrote history differently than we would write it today. Further, even today there are no unbiased, objective history recorders. All historians write with a particular slant, bias, shaping or cultural context.

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