Vying with Velikovsky—what does CMI think?
Rory C. from the UK wrote into CMI with a series of perceptive questions critical of the late Jewish-Russian psychiatrist, atheist, and author Immanuel Velikovsky (1895–1979). Rory asks 70 years on, what does CMI think? Gavin Cox responds.
Dear Creation Ministries
I first came across Velikovsky’s writings in the late 1950’s and was more than startled by his thesis of the supposed ‘capture’ of Jupiter and Venus. I was intrigued by his explanation of the manna and the crossing of the Jordan miracles (and others) in the OT. I remember something of the furore in the scientific fraternity his writing created and the pretty widespread rejection of his arguments.
We are now some 70 years on since this debacle and in the light of the prevailing tsunami of astronomical discoveries I write to ask if you could give an up date on current scientific opinion of Mr Velikovsky’s writings. You might even be able to publish an article re this matter in your excellent Creation mag.?
I read Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (1950), and Earth in Upheaval (1950) back in 2008 because I had heard of him and wanted to know what he wrote about catastrophism and the Flood. He became hugely influential during his time, and reached a very wide lay-audience. That including many Christians with his somewhat maverick and unorthodox ideas, which at a superficial level also seemed to support biblical history, but as we shall see, in reality, undermined it. Indeed, followers of Velikovsky’s theories and methods are themselves referred to as “Velikovskians”.
The two books I read of Velikovsky freely mixed pagan sources with the Bible and treated both in equal measure. This, for me, was highly problematic—regarding pagan myth uncritically and picking and choosing passages from the Bible to support his ideas. On the surface, Velikovsky appears to support biblical history which seems attractive to some. But, in reality, he does much to undermine it, particularly in his grasp for unsubstantiated naturalistic explanations of biblical miracles. These are sovereign works of God and therefore not dependent on, or restricted to natural explanations. I am surprised that creationists, of all people, would support his ideas. Although he was a catastrophist, he still openly advocated millions and billions of years of earth history in deference to his atheism and evolutionary beliefs. I would describe Velikovsky’s overall approach as confirmation bias (cherry picking), meaning that some data is selected ad hoc to bolster a preferred theory, which in Velikovsy’s case was his theory of earth history.
Regarding Velikovsky and his ideas of planetary motion and gravity, Jonathan Sarfati in his article Nothing new under the Cosmos states the following about the late-great atheistic cosmologist Carl Sagan which references Sagan’s rebuttal of Velikovsky’s planetary theory (see also further below):
Sagan also accurately and fairly refuted certain faulty science, such as the claim that Venus flew past Earth from Jupiter, as claimed by psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky (1895–1979) in his attempt to explain the biblical miracles naturalistically. Sagan also rebuked those who attempted to suppress Velikovsky.
You mention Velikovsky’s theory of the production of manna, this was dependant on his idea of a near earth fly-by of Venus, which he believed had been ejected from Jupiter. These planetary ideas were soundly debunked by astronomers like Carl Sagan (mentioned above and see below). Velikovsky states: “manna or ambrosia really fell from the sky, from the clouds of Venus.”1 Velikovsky referred to manna as “ambrosia” (food of the gods) from his reading of Buddhism—an example of his unfettered fusion of pagan and biblical sources to support his theory. He freely speculated that manna formed from hydrocarbons produced within the atmosphere of Venus, which according to him, fell across the entire world and was recorded, supposedly, in various mythical, pagan sources, as well as the Bible—just in time for the wandering Jews to be fed for forty years. It sounds incredible and kind of made up. And not surprisingly, where there was no evidence to support his ideas, it appears that’s what he did.
Regarding the crossing of the Jordan, Velikovsky states:
“The Jordan could be blocked by a slice of its bank falling into the bed of the river. Jericho’s walls—not by the blast of trumpets, but by an incidental earthquake—could have been breached.”2
Such naturalistic and contrived thinking denies the miraculous intervention of God. Velikovsky recognized Joshua 3:16 seems to describe a bank collapse that caused the Jordan to be blocked temporarily, but the point being, it was just exactly when the Israelites needed it, so in other words, a divinely ordained event. But he insists such an event, and the collapse of Jericho’s walls, was produced not by the sovereign, miraculous work of God, but by planet Earth being knocked out of orbit by Venus, a physically impossible event.
You are right to state:
“I remember something of the furore in the scientific fraternity his writing created and the pretty widespread rejection of his arguments.”
Yes, indeed. There is a memorable quote from the late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould which sums up the prevailing feeling of academia towards Velikovsky’s ideas, particularly his theories of gravity and planetary movements:
“Velikovsky is well aware that the laws of Newton’s universe, where forces of gravitation rule the motion of large objects, will not allow planets to wander. Thus, he proposes a fundamentally new physics of electromagnetic forces for large bodies. In short, Velikovsky would rebuild the science of celestial mechanics to save the literal accuracy of ancient legends.”3
The establishment takes on Velikovsky
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was organized in 1974, specifically to tackle Velikovsky’s ideas—which had gained great support at a popular level—spearheaded by astronomer Carl Sagan. A book was written about the conference featuring Velikovsky and a number of scientists including Carl Sagan, titled Scientists Confront Velikovsky.4 In the report, the scientists analyzed and rebutted the major points of Worlds in Collision. In chapter 4, Carl Sagan demolished Velikovsky’s errant astronomy and also commented on his use of mythical sources and linguistics to support his theories—with a humorous quote:
“I can vividly remember discussing Worlds in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semitics at a leading university. He said something like ‘The Assyriology, Egyptology, Biblical scholarship and all of that Talmudic and midrashic pilpul [intense textual analysis] is of course nonsense; but I was impressed by the astronomy.’”
Sagan summarised and dismissed Velikovsky’s comical cosmology in Worlds thus:
“The planet Jupiter disgorged a large comet [Venus], which made a grazing collision with the Earth around 1500 BC. The various plagues and Pharaonic tribulations of the Book of Exodus all derive directly or indirectly from this cometary encounter … ”
The report’s overall conclusion was stark:
“It is difficult for anyone with training in the physical sciences to understand how Velikovsky’s ideas, after such a consistent record of failures, can continue to attract wide public interest and generate ardent defenders. From an astronomical perspective, the past quarter-century of planetary exploration has repeatedly contradicted Velikovsky’s catastrophic theories.”5
You ask that:
in the light of the prevailing tsunami of astronomical discoveries I write to ask if you could give an up date on current scientific opinion of Mr Velikovsky’s writings.
I am unaware of any recent astronomical discovery that would corroborate Velikovsky’s ideas. I think Carl Sagan put that to rest back in 1974.
Velikovsky: what CMI has said previously
Creation Ministries International is a presuppositional ministry, which means we start with God’s Word as the only dependable, inerrant source that gives us accurate information about world history. The Bible provides us with the only reliable guide for viewing things like rocks, fossils, human artefacts, and chronology through the lens of Scripture. When it comes to chronology and history, Velikovsy was adept at jumping on any evidence, secular or biblical, that supported his ideas.
Many Christians are understandably drawn to the concept of revising Egyptian history and its timeline to fit in with the biblical dates. This is another area that Velikovsky sought to revise and resultingly it held particular sway in Christian circles. If you type in Velikovsky into the creation.com search bar you will notice a number of articles referencing him. You will also notice the older articles tend to be more in favour of Velikovsky’s chronological revision, but the newer articles are not so. I would take the more recent articles as a reliable guide. A number of creation researchers were unfortunately side-tracked by Velikovsky’s ideas, which have been held up as almost infallible by many well-meaning, evangelical thinkers enthusiastic about his supposed Bible supporting ideas.
For instance, an excellent article on creation.com titled Egyptian chronology confusion mentions Velikovsky and creationist Egyptologist, David Down (who is now deceased) who was very sympathetic to Velikovsky’s Egyptian chronology revisions. Gary Bates says:
“ … Down also subscribes to some of the chronological connections proposed by Jewish atheist Immanuel Velikovsky which are simply not sustainable. For example, Down and Velikovsky believe that Hatshepsut and the Queen of Sheba are one and the same. Hatshepsut was a pharaoh of the first half of the 18th dynasty. There is a lot of archaeological evidence that was left behind from Hatshepsut’s reign, but nothing indicates or fits the description of biblical Sheba. David Down is very insightful and knowledgeable about Egyptian culture but, unfortunately, we cannot accept his chronological revisions of Egypt.”
In The Queen of Sheba and the Ethiopian problem by Patrick Clarke, published in CMI’s Journal, 2013, Clarke takes Velikovsky to task. He states:
“When I read Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos I was surprised by the manner in which he took other people’s statements out of their original context, and blended them into novel arguments for chronological revision of the ANE [Ancient Near East]” (p. 55).
I agree with Clarke’s assessment, I found from my own reading of Velikovsy that he engaged freely in unsubstantiated speculation and used an uncritical pick-and-mix approach in his application of ancient mythical sources and Scripture to establish his ideas.
Also by Patrick Clarke is the Journal article Why Pharaoh Hatshepsut is not to be equated to the Queen of Sheba (2010). Clarke is blunt when it comes to his views of Velikovsky, he states:
“Velikovsky’s ‘revised chronology’ has been rejected by nearly all mainstream historians and Egyptologists. As this article has sought to show, this cannot be lightly brushed aside as simply due to establishment bias or anti-biblical agendas …
… a conference of scholars was held in Glasgow, Scotland, under the auspices of the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies, to review the whole matter of the ANE chronology in the light of the controversy surrounding Velikovsky’s ideas. … The final conclusion on Velikovsky’s work: that his revised chronology was simply untenable” (p. 67).
CMI is in favour of cautiously adjusting Egyptian chronology, but specifically at the oldest periods, where the flimsiest of foundations for Egyptian chronology are maintained. Revising this over-extended timeline upwards, inline with the Bible’s chronology, is preferable and reasonable. This is especially prescient when it comes to Egyptian chronology supposedly preceding the Flood and Babel as historic events.
Even secular Egyptologists engaged in radical revisions of Egyptian chronology thought Velikovsky went too far. Peter James in his Centuries of Darkness (a book I have read) states the following:
“His model for a ‘revised chronology’, based on a new series of links between Egyptian and Israelite history, proved to be disastrously extreme. Involving a reduction of Egyptian dates by a full eight centuries at one point, it produced a rash of new problems far more severe than those it hoped to solve. … Velikovsky understood little of archaeology and nothing of stratigraphy.”6
Harsh words indeed, especially from a revisionist.
History or fantasy?
An apt definition of Velikovsky’s methodology appears on creation.com, Fantasia which is neither history nor science—involving freely reworking history with myth, to make an entirely new product. The following quote describes this new Velikovskian genre well:
“In this book, [Science and Common Sense, Conant, J., 1951] Conant set out to show how science works, and he did this by referring to various ‘case histories’ to illustrate his points (his method as stated in the Preface). In chapter 10 on the study of the past, in the context of historical geology and paleontology (“the sciences dealing with the past”), he used Emmanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision as an example of how wild speculation can take over. That is, he used Velikovsky to make a more general point about how “the sciences dealing with the past” can generate fantasias.”
Should CMI publish an article on Velikovsky?
You might even be able to publish an article re this matter in your excellent Creation mag.?
In the light of the fact that Velikovsky wrote as early as 1950, (died 1979) his published works are now quite outdated, in which case there would be little interest for Creation magazine (which is an evangelistic family magazine) to have an article published about his ideas. Thank you for your glowing endorsement of Creation magazine, we think it’s excellent also. However, I think there is enough published within the pages of CMI’s Journal and online in creation.com to demonstrate why Velikovsky’s ideas are very suspect and not to be relied upon. I hope my article updates the conversation, and maybe draws a line under it.
References and notes
- Velikovsky, I., Worlds in Collision, Dell Publishing, New York, 1950, p. 381. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, Velikovsky, p. 39. Return to text.
- Gould, S.J., Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, Norton, New York, 2007, p. 154. Return to text.
- Goldsmith, D. (ed.), Scientists Confront Velikovsky, Norton, New York, 1979. Return to text.
- Ref. 4, Goldsmith, pp. 172–173. Return to text.
- James, P., Centuries of Darkness, Pimlico, London, xxi, 1992. Return to text.