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Jesus: right on Genesis!
Thomas M. responds in response to Genesis as history: a discredited interpretation?:
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to me than the truth. Therefore some of my favorite Scriptures are:
John 8:31. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;
John 8:32. and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 14:6. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
And because there is nothing more important to me than the truth, I study the Scriptures in the languages in which God chose to give them to us, making good use of the best and most recent textual, lexical, and grammatical scholarship.
My favorite book in the Bible is Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and my favorite portion of that book is chapters 5–8. In order to aid me in my study and teaching of Romans, I have acquired 263 commentaries on all or parts of that epistle, and many hundreds of additional works on Paul and his epistles. Therefore, I am familiar with Paul’s teaching on Romans 5:12–19. However, I am also familiar with the fact that all literature reflects, to one extent or another, the languages and cultures of the men and women who penned the literature.
The Apostle Paul was raised as a Jew but in a Hellenistic culture, and his writings strongly reflect his cultural upbringing. He was raised loving the Old Testament Scriptures, which he regarded as being inspired by God, and he apparently interpreted Genesis 1–11 as being an accurate, historical narrative. Jesus, in His humanity was fully man—including his finite brain!—and therefore He was far from omniscient. Like Paul, He apparently interpreted Genesis 1–11 as being an accurate, historical narrative. His Father, of course, knew better, but the Bible does not at all suggest that His Father taught Him differently; and if He had, nothing good but only confusion would have been the result. The four gospels reflect essentially the same culture, and therefore we read, for example,Matthew 4:8. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
This is obviously not an accurate description of an historic event! Rather it reflects the cultural belief that the earth is flat—a belief that is taught in Genesis, especially in Gen. 1:6–7:
ויאמר אלהים יהי רקיע בתוך המים ויהי מבדיל בין מים למים׃
ויעשׂ אלהים את־הרקיע ויבדל בין המים אשׁר מתחת לרקיע ובין המים אשׁר מעל לרקיע ויהי־כן׃
Genesis 1:6. And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”
7. So 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. (NRSV)
To persons who are not familiar with the history of the translation of the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rā·qî·a‘), translating it using the English word “dome” rather than “firmament” or “expanse” may seem absurd. The 1395 edition of the Wycliffe Bible reads at Genesis 1:6,And God seide, The firmament be maad in the myddis of watris, and departe watris fro watris.
However, the Wycliffe Bible is translated from the Latin Vulgate which reads at Genesis 1:6,dixit quoque Deus fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum et dividat aquas ab aquis
The 1535 (and 1537) Miles Coverdale Bible reads at Genesis 1:6,And God sayde: let there be a firmament betwene the waters, and let it deuyde ye waters a sunder.
However, the Pentateuch in the Miles Coverdale Bible is from Tyndale’s translation of the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch.
The Bishop’s Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1587), the King James Version 1611), the English Revised Version (1881), the American Standard Version (1901), and the Revised Standard Version, Second Edition, (1952 edition of the O.T.; 1971 edition of the N.T.) follow suit using the word “firmament.” However, the New American Standard Bible (1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995) uses the word “expanse”; and the English Standard Version (2001, 2011) uses the word “expanse” with the alternative translation, “canopy”. The New Revised Standard Version (1989) uses the word “dome,” as do the first (1971) and second (2010) editions of the New American Bible. Additional translations that use the word “dome” include the following:
Common English Bible (2011)
Complete Jewish Bible (2011)
Contemporary English Version (1995)
Expanded Bible (2011)
Good News Translation (1992)
Lexham English Bible (2012)
New Revised Standard Version Anglicized (1989, 1995)
New Revised Standard Version Anglicized Catholic Version (1989, 1993, 1995)
Revised Standard Version Anglicized Catholic Version (1989, 1993)
But what was the firmament? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary (which in print is Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—Eleventh Edition) gives us the following definition:: the vault or arch of the sky :heavens
The Oxford University dictionaries, of which there are several, concur. The English word ‘firmament’ is a translation of the Hebrew word, רָקִיעַ. In the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, we find an excellent article (Vol. III, pp. 568–569 [two lengthy columns of fine print per page] on the word רָקִיעַ. Of special importance is the following from the article,The verb רָקַע, raká, means to expand by beating, whether by the hand, the foot, or any instrument. It is especially used, however, of beating out metals into thin plates (Exod. xxxix, 3, Numb. xvi, 39), and hence the substantive רַקֻּעַים “broad plates” of metal (Numb. 16:38). (The italics are theirs).
Furthermore, the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver, and Briggs published by Oxford University gives us the following meaning of word רָקִיעַ in Gen. 1:7, “the vault of heaven, or ‘firmament,’ regarded by Hebrews as solid, and supporting ‘waters’ above it.” (p. 956). Moreover, John Skinner, the late Principal and Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Westminster College, Cambridge, in his commentary on the Hebrew text of Genesis, writes,6-8 Second Work: The Firmament.— The second fiat calls into existence a firmament, whose function is to divide the primeval waters into an upper and lower ocean, leaving a space between as the theater of further creative developments. The “firmament” is the dome of heaven, which to the ancients was no optical illusion, but a material structure, sometimes compared to an “upper chamber” (Ps. 104:12, Am 9:6) supported by “pillars” (Jb 26:11), and resembling in its surface a “molten mirror” (Jb 37:18). Above this are the heavenly waters, from which the rain descends through “windows” or “doors” (Gn 7:11, 8:2, 2 Ki 7:2, 19) opened and shut by God at His pleasure (Ps 78:23).
For further and much more extensive proof that the word רָקִיעַ is correctly translated as “dome” rather than “expanse” as some people incorrectly claim, please see this article: Seely, P.H., The firmament and the water above. Part I: The meaning of raqiac in Gen. 1:6–8, Westminster Theological Journal 53:227–240. 1991. (Westminster Theological Seminary is ultraconservative and Reformed in it theology, and it teaches the infallibility of the Bible!)
The KJV and many other translations use the word firmament which comes from the Latin word firmamentum. Firmamentum is the Latin word for ‘support’! And indeed, that support, the dome, would have had to be immensely strong to hold up the weight of the water above it—enough water to cover even Mount Everest! (Just one gallon of water weighs approximately 8.35 lb (about 3.785 kg).
If the ‘windows’ (NRSV) or ‘floodgates’ (KJV) in the dome through which “The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:12) were real—it necessarily follows that the dome was also real. [In Gen. 1:8, God called the dome ‘heaven’ (Heb. שָׁמַיִם), and, therefore, the windows of heaven (Heb. שָׁמַיִם) in Gen. 7:11 were windows in the dome]. Believing in the flood while denying the reality of the windows in the dome, as some do, is disbelieving the historicity of Genesis 1–11. Either both are historical—or neither are historical, and the earth was not, in 2349 B.C., a flat disk covered with a dome with floodgates in it! God is not a liar, and He never said that Genesis 1-11 is an accurate account of historical events. Indeed, Genesis 1–11 is a collection of epic tales, sagas, and legends redacted and woven together by divine inspiration to teach us basic truths about ourselves and our Creator.
However, some people claim that Genesis 1–11 must be an accurate account of historic events for if not, the message of the gospel falls apart. This claim is not true for even without Genesis 1–11—and references to it in other parts of the Bible—we have the Gospel message fully intact.
Our English word “gospel’ is a translation of the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον which is found in the Greek New testament 76 times—and never in the context of Genesis 1–11. The cognate verb εὐαγγελίζω is found in the Greek New testament 54 times—and never in the context of Genesis 1-11. The bad news is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (NRSV) the good news (the gospel) is that “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (NRSV)
Young earth creationism is wholly dependent upon Genesis 1–11 being an accurate account of historic events—a premise that has been shown above to be incorrect. Moreover, that premise has been known for well over a century by our Jewish and Roman Catholic friends—and nearly all Protestant scholars of the Hebrew Old Testament teaching in our very best seminaries and universities—to be severely incorrect. Furthermore, every year, hundreds of thousands of young people are asked to choose between the Bible as they have been wrongly taught it and science that has been proven to be correct, and the vast majority of these young people wisely choose to believe the truth that God has manifested to them through science. But alas! That truth, as true as it is, is incapable of saving their souls from the eternal fires of hell! The solution is to teach our young people an accurate and academically defensible interpretation of the Bible which will lead to their salvation and maturing in Christ.“We’re not the ones bending the Bible backwards to try to make it compatible with the secular academy. As much as the secularists may call us nutters, they think those like you are shysters. Is it better to be seen as an idiot or a liar?”
Pastors and teachers of the word of God who treasure it so highly that they carefully and prayerfully invest very much of their lives studying the Scriptures in the languages in which God chose to give them to us do not deserve to be falsely accused of “bending the Bible backwards.” I have both a good secular* and a good sacred education. During my years at the university as a graduate student studying toward a Ph.D. in the biology of natural populations with a focus on evolutionary biology, I never heard anyone say, imply, or suggest that the scholars of the Hebrew Old Testament teaching in our very best seminaries and universities are “shysters.” However, I most certainly did hear young earth creationist being called such names. And in my ministry to a fellowship of atheists whom I knew over a period of a few years, I learned that the large majority of them had previously been active members of fundamentalist churches that taught young earth creationism. I also learned that none of them had been active members of churches pastored by men or women who were fluent in Greek and Hebrew and who preached and taught an academically defensible interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Furthermore, although they laughed to scorn young earth creationists, they spent many hours with me discussing the Hebrew text of the Old Testament—and freely told me that they had had no idea whatsoever that when Genesis 1–11 is studied in its cultural context, all of their objections to it were washed away.
Indeed, when the gospel is commingled with young earth creationism, the gospel becomes contaminated and unpalatable. The pure gospel, however, is the fountain of life.
*I am not using the word ‘secular’ in a pejorative manner; I am using the word ‘secular’ to express the concept of that which is not overtly religious or sacred. In young earth creationism, however, the word ‘secular’ is used pejoratively when speaking of the well over 3,000,000 scientists who have earned at least one doctorate in a science and who believe that the earth is old; whereas the word ‘secular’ is used non-pejoratively when speaking of the fewer than 50 scientists who have earned a doctorate in a science and who believe that the earth is young.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for your response. You and I have different experiences; I think that’s as far as we need to take your comments on your experiences. And obviously from your point of view our views are a blight on the church. As yours are from our point of view. All that establishes is that the debate matters. The only way to establish who is right is by the arguments—no other way. As such, I’ll focus on your main arguments.
Jesus, Paul, and Genesis
This is a huge admission:
The Apostle Paul was raised as a Jew but in a Hellenistic culture, and his writings strongly reflect his cultural upbringing. He was raised loving the Old Testament Scriptures, which he regarded as being inspired by God, and he apparently interpreted Genesis 1–11 as being an accurate, historical narrative. Jesus, in His humanity was fully man—including his finite brain!—and therefore He was far from omniscient. Like Paul, He apparently interpreted Genesis 1–11 as being an accurate, historical narrative. His Father, of course, knew better, but the Bible does not at all suggest that His Father taught Him differently; and if He had, nothing good but only confusion would have been the result.
You realize that for most Bible believing Christians admitting that Jesus and Paul agree with us would settle the matter in our favour, right?
But what of your pushbacks? First, Jesus’ lack of omniscience during His humiliation (or, more correctly, He did not access His full knowledge base) does not mean He taught outright error. It’s one thing for Jesus to not know something (such as the timing of His return) and acknowledge His lack of knowledge. It’s a completely different thing for Him to (unknowingly?) teach falsehood about the Bible during His messianic campaign.
Indeed, we cannot disassociate Jesus from the Father’s omniscience when it concerns His messianic teaching. Consider John 12:47–50:
“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
Jesus is the one the Father told the disciples to listen to (Mark 9:7). But if, as you say, Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis was wrong, then His credibility as the Messiah is deeply undermined.
Nor can we make Jesus’ views on Genesis a mere sop to the culture of his day. There were Jewish interpreters in Jesus’ day who held non-historical interpretations of at least parts of Genesis 1–11, such as Philo of Alexandria regarding the days of Genesis 1 reflecting a logical rather than chronological order of creation (De Opificio Mundi 13). Nor was Jesus averse to confusing people (Mark 4:11–12). And Jesus was willing to contradict popular expectations of what the Messiah would be (i.e. a king who conquered Israel’s geopoliticial enemies and oppressors through war) and forge a different path. He confused people so much with something as crucial to His ministry as His idea of what the Messiah was to be that even His disciples didn’t properly get it until after His Resurrection, and He is still rejected by non-Christian Judaism to this day. So, I don’t think we can write off Jesus’ understanding of Genesis as a mere sop to the culture of His day. See The Kenotic Heresy and Genesis compromise for more information.
In fact, the ‘culture of the day’ argument doesn’t even work. Consider Isaiah (Isaiah 54:9), the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 1:1–27), and of course God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:8–11). They all treat elements of Genesis 1–11 as history. So, were they too bound by the cultures of their day? That doesn’t work, though. Either some or all of these passages were authored in the same culture that Genesis 1–11 was. This is true whether you adopt a traditional approach to the authorship of these OT passages or a ‘critical’ approach.
And think about the ramifications of this ‘culture of the day’ gambit. You would also need to say that of every culture until 18th century Europe, since practically everyone until then read Genesis 1–11 as an accurate historical narrative. Indeed, if any Christians struggled to read it that way, knowing that Jesus and Paul did likely would’ve satisfied them.
And this idea that modern scholarship agrees with you that the author’s intent in Genesis 1–11 was not to give accurate history is utterly false. See this statement from Oxford Hebraist James Barr:
‘… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:
- creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
- the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
- Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.’
Barr made this statement in the 1980s. And he was no young-earther; he was neo-orthodox. While he agreed with us on what the author of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey, He just thought the author was wrong.
Strangest perhaps is how you employ an appeal to theological consequences to bolster your claim that Genesis 1–11 isn’t an accurate historical account:
God is not a liar, and He never said that Genesis 1–11 is an accurate account of historical events.
Can you not see that the very same theological rationale, i.e. that God isn’t a liar, cuts against you? Jesus (God incarnate) and Paul (God-inspired author of Scripture) not only agree with us on how to interpret Genesis 1–11, but employ that interpretation to make significant claims about the nature of marriage (Mark 10:2–8) and even salvation itself (Romans 5, 8; 1 Corinthians 15). If they did that, we should consider their interpretation of Genesis 1–11 (which is the only interpretation of Genesis 1–11 one will find in the Bible, BTW) correct. To do otherwise would be to count God a liar in His word, since He inspired Paul, and He commanded Jesus what to say (John 12:47–50) and told His disciples to listen to Him (Mark 9:7). I’m amazed that you are so blasé about the theological consequences of that.
Jesus and Paul should be enough reason by themselves to read Genesis 1–11 the way we do. To say otherwise is to make God a liar (directly, in the case of Jesus). But they’re hardly the only ones to read Genesis 1–11 as history. The history of interpretation, from the OT authors to the present day, agrees with us: Genesis 1–11 intends to convey accurate history. If you want to submit to Scripture, you have to submit to that fact.
Reject the cosmology, therefore reject the history?
What then, of your other arguments? I found it rather strange that, for all you wrote, your textual argument against the historical view of Genesis 1–11 basically boiled down to this non sequitur:
Believing in the flood while denying the reality of the windows in the dome, as some do, is disbelieving the historicity of Genesis 1–11. Either both are historical—or neither are historical, and the earth was not, in 2349 B.C., a flat disk covered with a dome with floodgates in it!
It conflates the setting with the sequencing and chronology, as if the literalness and historicity of one guarantees the literalness and historicity of the other. It doesn’t. Whatever we do with the cosmological language, it’s clear that ‘the windows of the heaven opening up’ refers to torrential rain. Can we believe it rained, even if we don’t believe the cosmological picture the author paints for the source of the rain is literally true? Of course! Maybe the ‘windows of heaven’ language is poetic language used for dramatic effect. Maybe the author believed in such a false cosmology, but God allowed enough ambiguity in the language so that His words in the text don’t rise to the level of an unambiguous affirmation of a falsehood. Or maybe the author really did intend to describe a physical cosmology he believes in. Whatever the case, it doesn’t affect the truth of claim that it rained. ANE expert Noel Weeks makes the same point (Problems in interpreting Genesis: Part 1):
“Sometimes it seems that those who claim that the Bible used the symbols of its day are merely trying to say that it used a naive as opposed to a scientific cosmology, or, to put it more popularly, it did not bother to correct the prevalent three-story cosmology. If we assume for the sake of the argument that this is the case, then it should be clearly recognized that all we have established is that scientific dogma should not be made out of Biblical cosmology. The argument has no relevance to other parts of the account like the creation of animals, man, etc. Unfortunately this argument is generally used without this careful delimitation. Generally it is argued that the fact that one element shows the use of nonscientific concepts proves that the whole uses naive ideas whose details may not be pressed.”
‘Ancient cosmology’ and raqîa‘
But what about all that stuff about raqîa‘? We’ve written on this before, even specifically in response to Paul Seely’s arguments: Is the raqîa‘ (‘firmament’) a solid dome? and Is the ’erets (earth) flat?. Indeed, they engendered several exchanges between the author and Seely himself (Is the ‘erets (earth) flat? and Is the word ‘earth’ (’eretz) equivocal?). Please search our website in the future.
On ‘ancient cosmology’ more generally, I might also recommend reading some more recent articles in WTJ from an ANE specialist who agrees with our views, Noel Weeks.1,2 There are reasons to be skeptical of Seely’s sweeping claims about the ubiquity of his ‘ancient cosmology’ in the Ancient Near East (see also Ancient cosmology and the timescale fo Genesis 1).
Historical narrative, or tapestry of tales?
In my previous response, I almost begged for a way to make the Bible compatible with deep time. Let me be clear: I was looking for a positive way to read Genesis 1–11, not an abortive attempt to undercut our view. The only overture you give to this suggestion is a single sentence:
“Indeed, Genesis 1-11 is a collection of epic tales, sagas, and legends redacted and woven together by divine inspiration to teach us basic truths about ourselves and our Creator.”
No evidence or argument for your view. And there’s no way the meaning of one word can justify this interpretation of 11 chapters of text. For more evidence (I provided plenty of ‘history of interpretation’ evidence above), please see Genesis as ancient historical narrative.
Gospel and Genesis
I agree with you that people can believe the Gospel without reference to Genesis (Do I have to believe in a historical Genesis to be saved?). The problem is that the Bible doesn’t present our sin problem as a mere existential crisis untethered to the history of humanity and the world (The good news without the bad news is no news at all!). History grounds theology; that’s not true just in the New Testament, but also in the Old, from which the New Testament got its concern for history (Redemptive history and evolution don’t mix and Remembering God’s mighty acts: The Bible calls us to read its narrative in ways that contradict ‘deep time’). The issue isn’t that Genesis is a part of the gospel; the issue is that playing fast and loose with the history of Genesis can lead people to distort or disregard the gospel. Why? The Gospel is not so easily removed from its redemptive-historical context as long-agers would like (for a book-length treatment of this, see Creation, Fall, Restoration).
To admit that Jesus and Paul agreed with us really is the death knell of your view. A lack of omniscience on Jesus’ part doesn’t mean He taught error. Indeed, the Father told Him what to say! And the ‘culture of the day’ argument doesn’t work because the culture in which Genesis was written understood it the way Jesus and Paul (and we) do. And for all your bluff and bluster about raqîa‘ (which we have addressed on the website), it didn’t even matter because your operative textual ‘argument’ that used that data was a complete non sequitur.
You said your primary concern was truth. You said you want to put Christ at the centre. Then do it—listen to Jesus. After all, He is the way, the truth, and the life. And it’s what the Father told us to do!
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- Weeks, N.K., The ambiguity of biblical “background”, WTJ 72:219–236, 2010. Return to text.
- Weeks, N.K., The Bible and the “universal” ancient world: a critique of John Walton, WTJ 78:1–28, 2016. Return to text.
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