Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Setting the Stage: How the Ancients Viewed the Cosmos

The above image is taken from Michael Palmer's web page in the
syllabus for his Religion 103 class,
The History and Literature of the Bible."

Imagine if you had never been told that Earth is a globe that rotates and revolves around the sun. You would likely never figure that out. In fact, Copernicus, just over 500 years ago, through observations, showed the Sun as the center of the solar system, not Earth. Copernicus shattered what seemed to be common sense.

Just going by your common sense observations, what would you see? You would see Earth that is flat. You look up and see a big blue dome that stretches to the horizon. By day, a ball of fire moves across the dome. How does that happen? At night another lesser light moves through the dome. And what are all of those white dots at night? You can see them through the dome. They move in patterns. Who moves them? What are they?

What holds up this dome? Probably the mountains at the edge. What holds up Earth? Perhaps pillars underneath. From where does the rain come? It appears like outside the dome is water and below Earth is water. On occasion, the spouts are opened and water flows down from the dome and up from Earth. What if it never stopped raining? The space between Earth and Dome would fill up with water. That would be scary. Everything would drown.

What if you could build a tower tall enough to reach the dome? That would be awesome! You could reach the dome and talk to the gods.

The ancients with variations saw their world--earth and heaven (sky-firmament-dome) in that way. Genesis 1 now makes sense:
6And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
The "waters" are the whole of existence itself. Elohim makes a living space holding back the waters above the dome from below Earth. In the earlier Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, Marduk does the same thing Elohim does. Except in the Babylonian myth, it is even more "mythological" in that virtually everything is personified. Marduk defeats Tiamat (a personification of the watery chaos) and splits her carcass in two. Half of Tiamat's carcass becomes the dome and the other half Earth.

The Babylonians and the Hebrews saw the same physical universe (the dome above and the earth below holding back waters) but they had a different mythology to explain its origins.

Obviously, Genesis 1 has nothing to say to us about the physical creation of the universe as we see it today. However, it can inform us theologically. For example, what is the difference between a god who violently creates Earth and Sky by defeating a chaotic monster versus a god who speaks and it is done and "it is good?"

Later in the Enuma Elish, Marduk creates humans. He creates them from the blood and bone of his enemy, Kingu. These humans are created to be slaves to the gods. What is the difference theologically between and understanding of humanity this a creation of violence enslaved to the forces of the universe and between an understanding of humanity that is the creation of a god who creates humanity in the image of god, and declares humanity good?

For more detail about this, here are some websites:

Hebrew Astronomy, Biblical Cosmology, and Council for Secular Humanism.

From the Biblical Cosmology website here are some wonderful quotes from Martin Luther who struggled with the Bible and the new cosmology of Copernicus who he calls "an upstart astrologer". I will close with these:

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) began the protestant reformations with his sincere attempts to interpret the exact meanings of Biblical scripture. Likewise, he made sincere attempts to grasp a Biblical understanding of astronomy.

  • "Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters... It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night... We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding." --Martin Luther.
  • "...the whole firmament moves swiftly around, every moment thousands of leagues, which, doubtless, is done by some angel. `Tis wonderful so great a vault should go about in so short a time." --Martin Luther.
  • "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." --Martin Luther.


Mystical Seeker said...

This is really interesting stuff. Thanks for posting this information.

It is clear that those who believed in biblical inerrancy were very much threatened by the challenge to the biblical cosmology that Galileo and Copernicus proposed. This is the same sense of being threatened that we see today with respect to evolution, and that we see with any attempt at de-literalizing bibilical myths.

Chris said...

This is solid work.

I hope that you'll be equally thorough in showing that it was the Catholic Church's accomodation to Aristotelianism and Ptolemaic Cosmology that created resistance to the heliocentric model - not their reliance on Scripture. Such was the basis of Martin Luther, who was thoroughly steeped in Aristotelianism. Those who believed in the inerrancy of human wisdom (Aristotle and other then-current scientific models) were the source of contention.

Accomodation to the flickering candles of the philosophy of this age, instead of absolute reliance on the beacon of Holy Writ, will always lead the Church into a bad place.

Chris "six-short-days" L

John Shuck said...

Hi Seeker,

I agree. Thanks for your encouragement!

Thanks Chris,

I appreciate your affirmation!

Not sure I would simply blame the RC church. Many if not most protestants have a difficulty with the modern conception of the universe.

Just curious. What do you mean by "six short days"?


Mystical Seeker said...

I agree that I wouldn't exclusively blame the Roman Catholic church. It isn't only aristotelianism or ptolemaic cosmology or any other such viewpoint, but also the original cosmology of the biblical authors of Genesis that the Copernican paradigm shift was clearly incompatible with, as you point out in this blog entry, that illustrates the original biblical cosmology.

Chris said...

Well, I'm nothing if I'm not affirming! (Or so I've been told.)

And I don't blame the Catholic Church. I just think that anytime we place ultimate authority in anything but the Word of God we fall into error.

Six short days = six 24 hour periods within which God created the universe. However, we only have a detailed record of his creative activity on Earth.

I used to be an evolutionist. Then I became an old earth creationist. Overcome by the rational problems and incredulity of the estimates of earth's age based on uniformitarian processes, I decided that I could no longer justify disagreement with the plain sense of the Scriptures. Therefore, I am compelled by intellectual honesty to hold to a young earth hypothesis. I've found plenty of scientific (that is observational and reproducable) evidence that supports that hypothesis as well.

I thought that the context would have made my statement clear, but I guess it was a bit cryptic in retrospect.

Slainte Mhath,


John Shuck said...


A "young earth hypothesis", hmmm.

Does that mean 6,000 years ago?


Chris said...

Could be 6,000. But I've seen evidence that suggests as far back as 10,000 years. I used to give as much as 25,000 because of carbon 14 dating. However, when I found out that lumps of coal have C-14 in them (C-14 is supposed to be gone within 50,000 years), I had to rethink that hypothesis based on the data in front of me. Unsurprisingly, the flood explains a lot of these sorts of anomalies.

Of course, that's just the biological material. The inadequacy of the "billions & billions of years" evolutionary hypothesis fell apart with observable data in the geological record. For instance, rock formed from andesite lava flows in New Zealand during 1949, 1954, and 1975 gave radiometric dates (by K-Ar) between 3.5 million years and 270,000 years. This is well within the suggested date range of 100,000 to 4 billion years for K-Ar viability. And yet geologists had observed the stuff coming out of the earth just a little while before! If it's that inaccurate in observable, reproducable experiments, who knows how reliable it is for dating rocks we didn't see formed?

Of course, I make no claim to being a scientist. But as a theologian, when the Scriptures say something and the science that is used to contravene the plain sense of Scripture is so self-contradictory, I'm forced to repent and follow the Word. To me, that's just fundamental to being as honest as I can be with the data before me.

If honesty to the biblical text and to an evolutionary view of the universe is your concern, let me recommend In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science by Nathan Aviezer (ISBN 0881253286), a distinguished professor of physics who takes an interesting view that Genesis 1 describes what the Big Bang would look like if it were revealed in "fast forward" to a human. It's a fun read - thoroughly enjoyable and reverent, from a Jewish perspective. I think he's wrong, but it's a great start if the plain sense of the text is irreconcilable with your current understanding of science.

Nevertheless, all of this gets far afield of the point of your post, which is to reflect on the very real theological differences in the justaposition of the Scriptural account of creation and the myths of the ANE context.


John Shuck said...


You have just blown me away.

You wrote:
"But as a theologian, when the Scriptures say something and the science that is used to contravene the plain sense of Scripture is so self-contradictory, I'm forced to repent and follow the Word."

The very fact that there are all of these books about "Biblical Creation and Science" and you throw out all of this stuff about lava flows in New Zealand, and Noah's flood story helping to explain Carbon 14 deposits or whatever, I realize something.

I don't mean to offend, but I think you represent a growing number of people.

The world is uncertain. We are small. All of our assurances are disintegrating. What to do?

Let's go back to the Bible and revere it is an infallible, inerrant record of everything. We can explain the whole world from it. So we build up a house of cards. Since everything in it must be scientific, historical, accurate, etc. then whatever contradicts it must be false, including modern science and history.

After all, the bible is God's Word, and God can't be wrong.


We are at opposite ends of the spectrum. No wonder we are talking past each other.

Many Blessings,

Mystical Seeker said...

There is a pertinent article in the current issue of The Fourth R has an article by Donald M. Braxton, titled "Certainty and Self-Deception in Fundamentalists".

Chris said...

Okay, let me get this straight.

I can't be certain about Jesus being the risen Son of God and that the Bible is the faithful witness non pareil to God's saving action.

However, statements such as Genesis has "nothing to tell us about the physical creation of the universe" and that the universe is billions and billions of years old are rock-solid statements with which only self-deceived fools would disagree?

Help me out here... I really need to know. What is certain enough to allow those kinds of claims?

More importantly, what is certain enough to serve as a basis for the proclamation of God's love toward us in Jesus Christ?


John Shuck said...


I am stumped. I concede. You win. There is nothing more I can say. You have the Bible. You believe that it is the infallible word of God over against science, other spiritual texts, anything. There is nothing I can say to that except, "Peace be on your house."


Chris said...


Please don't shut down the conversation. I'm not here to win, but to see Jesus lifted up so that he would draw humanity to himself (John 12:32).

If I have misunderstood something so basic as who Jesus said he was and who the Bible said he was, I want to know. If I am so benighted as to be lost in senseless babble, I hope you will love me enough to tell me so and point me in the right direction. But if I am teaching the doctrines of devils, then don't speak peace to me. 2 John 11 says that if we feign amity with deceivers, we share in their wicked work. The pastoral epistles say that we should rebuke (in gentleness) those who twist the word. If I have done so, don't you think that part of your job as a pastor is to rebuke me? It's the loving, Christ-like thing to do (Mark 16:14; Luke 17:3).

I'm praying for you, John. I hope you'll pray for me, too. But please, no prayers to Krishna on my behalf.