Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Write-Up: Scripture and Cosmology, by Kyle Greenwood

Kyle Greenwood.  Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic.  See here to purchase the book.

In Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science, biblical scholar Kyle Greenwood explores how ancient peoples understood the structure and layout of the physical universe.  He pays particular attention to the cosmology within the Hebrew Bible and the challenges it has posed to its religious interpreters, since the cosmology within the Hebrew Bible appears to differ from subsequent cosmologies, including our own. Greenwood offers suggestions about how evangelical Christians, who regard the Bible as religiously authoritative, can accept the Bible as divinely-inspired while still acknowledging and accounting for its cosmology, which differs from the modern scientific understanding of the world.

Greenwood looks at the cosmologies of the ancient Near East, which was the milieu of the Hebrew Bible.  Greenwood acknowledges the existence of some diversity in ancient Near Eastern cosmology, but he sees evidence that many in the ancient Near East believed in a flat earth, a solid dome in the sky that held back the waters and had windows for the rain to come through, and pillars that supported the land so that it did not float on the waters (though, according to Greenwood, there was a belief among some that the land did float).  Greenwood maintains that such a cosmology is present in the Hebrew Bible, but Greenwood also mentions some differences between the Hebrew Bible’s cosmologies and those of the ancient Near East.  Greenwood also discusses ancient Greek cosmologies and how they differed from the ancient Near Eastern ones: there emerged a belief in a spherical earth and spherical heavens surrounding the earth, and there was an acknowledgment that water vapor played a role in precipitation.  Rather than believing that the moon gave forth light of its own (Greenwood is not dogmatic that the ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible believed this, but he seems to acknowledge it as a possibility), there developed the view that the moon reflected light from the sun.  Later, Greenwood narrates, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler challenged the geocentric view that was part of the Greek cosmology, maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun.  This challenged religious adherents to the Bible, who thought that the Bible presented the sun moving, not the earth.

What should a religious adherent to the Bible do, when biblical cosmology differs from later scientific understandings of the universe?  Greenwood mentions how many medieval thinkers accepted a lot of Aristotle’s views of the cosmos, while not wholly embracing Aristotle’s religious views.  Aristotle believed that the universe was eternal and was supported by an impersonal prime mover, for example, whereas many medieval religious thinkers held that a personal God created the cosmos.  Greenwood may regard this as a model for how evangelicals can interact with science: accept its findings, yet still believe in a personal God.  Greenwood, like many others whom he cites, also believes in the concept of divine accommodation: that God in God’s revelation accommodated people where they were rather than attempting to correct their flawed, inaccurate cosmologies.

There are many positives to this book.  Greenwood provides documentation from ancient sources in his discussions of ancient cosmologies.  He acknowledges diversity, debate, ambivalence, and nuance in his consideration of issues, particularly issues concerning the nature of the cosmologies that he discusses, as well as religious attempts to cope with or account for biblical cosmologies.  (John Calvin, for example, believed in divine accommodation and was open to what science had to say, yet he really struggled with aspects of the Bible’s cosmology, in areas.  There is some debate about Martin Luther’s views on Copernicus.  And there are three views on the Bible and science in The Fundamentals, a crucial document in the development of Christian fundamentalism.)  Greenwood’s work is an excellent resource of information on ancient cosmologies and religious attempts to wrestle with biblical cosmology.

Regarding Greenwood’s attempts to account theologically for the differences between biblical cosmologies and our modern scientific cosmology, parts of his discussion resonated with me, but I doubt that everyone will find what he says to be convincing.  More than one Christian scholar has mentioned divine accommodation as a way to account for these differences, but what I liked about Greenwood’s discussion was that he asked the question of what would have happened had God tried to reveal to the ancient Israelites how the cosmos actually is.  Would they have understood what God was saying?  And would that have detracted from the spiritual or religious message that God wanted to reveal to them?  Greenwood cannot be accused of chronological snobbery, for he astutely notes that there are many things about the universe that we, right now, do not understand.  Greenwood’s discussion here made divine accommodation look plausible to me.  It will probably not be convincing to atheists, however, who would say that the Bible reflects inaccurate ancient cosmologies because it is not a divinely-inspired book, but rather the product of limited human beings, living in their own times.  I make this point because Greenwood indicates in the book that his book could help evangelicals who are challenged by atheists.  Maybe his book would help evangelicals to account theologically for the Bible’s scientific inaccuracies for themselves, but I doubt that it will assist evangelicals in scoring points when debating atheists.  Another point: Greenwood states that the Bible is perspicuous about how to be saved.  I would dispute that idea, considering the different Christian and Jewish views on what one must do to be saved (i.e., enter a good afterlife).

I have more questions after reading Greenwood’s book.  Job 26:7 states that God hangs the earth on nothing, and, while Greenwood convincingly argues against the idea that this means that the earth is a sphere in outer space, he did not explain what that part of the verse did mean.  I was also curious about what ancient Near Eastern cosmology had to say about the relationship between clouds and precipitation.  Greenwood mentions I Kings 8:45, in which the clouds become dark before the rain, but he does not say whether ancient Near Eastern cosmology acknowledged a connection between the clouds and rain.  If they did, would that challenge, or be an ancient alternative to, the idea that rain came from above a solid dome and was let through the dome’s windows?  (Note: see Nicholas Petersen’s website for an alternative view on the firmament in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.  http://www.hebrewcosmology.com/)  There were times when Greenwood explained technical details about ancient cosmology that shed light on how the ancient believed the world worked: Greenwood, for example, addresses the question of how people in the ancient Near East believed that salt water and fresh water were kept separate, even though they thought that the water above the earth and the water beneath the earth were part of a common structure.  I appreciated his explanation of this technicality, but there were times when I was hoping for something similar in other discussions.

I still give this book five stars, however, because it is a repository of information.  Those who are interested in biblical cosmology will find this book to be a helpful resource.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.


  1. On my Wordpress blog, Kyle Greenwood left the following comment:

    James, Thanks for the careful review of my book! I would like to make two small points of clarification, if you don't mind. The first is that I never intended the book to be an apologetic resource for "evangelicals challenged by atheists." So, you're right that my book would not score any debate points. Rather, I say in the preface, that "this book is really about reading the Bible faithfully, which I suspect is a goal of most, if not all, of those who have chosen to read" it, and that it "is written for evangelicals who may be frustrated with interpretations of the Bible that don't seem to coincide with their own careful reading of the text.

    The second point has to do with perspicuity, and your point is valid. However, what I have in mind, and what I say in the book, is the "doctrine of perspicuity," which is a purely Christian doctrine. Naturally, Jewish interpreters would see things differently.

  2. That's typical of how many scholars engage ancient texts. I find it unconvincing because it's a very deskbound approach to the text, whereas ancient people spent a lot of time out of doors.

    For instance, did ancient people never notice that it only rains on cloudy days? Never when the sky is clear? Did they never make the connection?

    And it's more than inference. There are times when you can see rainclouds on the horizon. Above the clouds, the sky is bright and clear. You can actually see rain coming from the clouds. It's not coming from the sky through the clouds. The clouds are emitting the rain.

    Likewise, you can be outside as rainclouds approach. At first it's clear and dry overhead. When, however, the clouds are overhead, it begins to rain.

    Another example: depending on where you live, ancient people would climb the highest local hills or mountains. They found out that the sky wasn't solid. It didn't rest on the summit. They didn't bump their head against the sky when they reached the summit.

    Likewise, it may look like a mountain range is at the end of the earth. That it's holding up that corner of the sky.

    But many ancient people traveled. They went through a mountain pass to get to the other side. They knew the world didn't end at the edge of the local mountain range.

    One could give other examples.

    So this is very deskbound exegesis that fails to take into account how ancient people actually experienced the world.

    1. There are differences between Steve's rationalizations and ideas of what HE thinks the ancients must have believed, and the actual writings of the ancients.

  3. Your comment reminds me of a post you wrote a while back----I think it was about genetics, and how the ancients could have been able to draw conclusions about it from observation.

    I definitely see your point about the clouds.

  4. Hi James, To answer your question above about Job 26:7 first note that there is nothing there about the shape of the earth, about the earth’s position relative to an object in, say, outer space, or about the earth moving. It is simply "the earth hung" there by God, the emphasis being on God's power and ability to keep the earth stable as in the Psalm that says about the earth "it shall not be moved." Also compared Job 26:7 with some lines in The Samas Hymn, “You (Samas, the sun god) climb to the mountains surveying the earth. You suspend from the heavens the circle of the lands [=the earth]” [W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), ll. 21–22]. The earth is suspended by a god.

    In Job 26:7 the Hebrew word talah, which is translated “suspends” or “hangs,” appears in contexts of hanging up an object like a utensil on a peg (Isaiah 22:24), weapons on a wall (Ezekiel 27:10), or a lyre on a tree (Psalm 137:2). It does not refer to hovering in empty space, but to hanging something from some perch by some god's power. Job 26:7 simply states that the earth is not hanging from anything in the three-tier cosmos of heaven above, earth below, and the deep/Sheol under the earth. The point is that Yahweh is displaying his might by hanging the earth securely in the midst of such a three-tier cosmos above the deep.

    1. Thanks for the Samas Hymn reference, Ed. I am still trying to envision how the earth hangs in a three-tier universe----why would it need to hang, if it is supported underneath by pillars? But I still have to read your next two comments.

  5. And... taking an in-depth look at the passage, Job 26:7 (NASB), it reads:

    He stretched out the north [Hebrew saphon]
    over empty space [Hebrew, tohu],
    and hangs the earth on nothing [Hebrew beli-mah].

    It's an ancient Hebrew parallelism. The first part features the word saphon, which was originally the name of a mountain in “the north” where the Canaanites believed their gods assembled—a cosmic mountain connected with heaven or the sky. The “north/heaven” is stretched over tohu, which is the same word that appears in Genesis 1:2 and describes the “formless, pre-created stuff” that would later become the earth. In other parts of the Bible tohu is used to express “confusion, unreality, wasteland, desolation,” something a bit grittier than just “empty space.” In fact, tohu is translated as “chaos” in this verse in both The New Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible and in The Book of Job: The Cambridge Bible Commentary.

    The second part of the verse says God hangs the earth beli-mah, a compound word that appears only once in the Bible, so linguists do not know its range of use, or its meaning in different contexts. According to Smith in The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (p. 58) beli-mah means literally “without-what,” and since it appears in parallel with tohu most likely refers to a type of “emptiness” that is “quite literally a terra incognita [unknown land].” Other translations for beli-mah include “nothing,” “nothingness,” “without anything,” and “what (not).” Used as a parallel for tohu in this verse, beli-mah’s “nothingness,” “emptiness,” may be referring to the primeval, watery deep and shadowy land of death/destruction, all of which lay beneath the earth in biblical cosmology. The context of Job 26:7 agrees with such an interpretation, since Job says that God sees right down to the watery depths and the lands of death (Sheol) and destruction (Abaddon) over which (it was believed) lay the expanse of the earth: “The departed spirits tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him, and Abaddon has no covering. He stretches out the north over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing. . . . He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters at the boundary of light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble and are amazed at His rebuke. He quieted the sea with His power, and by His understanding He shattered Rahab. By His breath the heavens are cleared; His hand has pierced the fleeing serpent” Job 26:5–7, 10–13 (NASB).

    Further support for such an understanding of Job 26:7 can be found in God’s point-by-point reply to Job in chapter 38: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . Who set its measurements? . . . Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone? . . . I placed boundaries on [the sea] and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop.’ . . . Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you understood the expanse of the earth?” Job 38:4–6, 10–11, 16–18 (NASB).

    Many additional questions are replied to here: http://war-on-error.xanga.com/2010/11/09/book-review-the-christian-delusion-ch-5-the-cosmology-of-the-bible-part-5/

    1. Thanks for the contextual argument. He hangs the earth over chaos.

    2. I agree with Ed's take on Job 26:7 and make that point on p. 80 (although I didn't have the space to lay out all the reasons. So, I'm doing that now in an essay-length treatment.

    3. Yeah, I was unclear on that page about how that was the earth hanging over nothing, but,yes, you do offer that interpretation. It makes more sense to me now.

  6. The clouds are separate from the firmament in Scripture. The firmament is a term limited to only about 16 mentions in Scripture and it is created even before the earth, followed by the sun, moon, and stars, with the "waters above the firmament" also lying above the sun, moon and stars. (See Genesis, and the Psalms)

    The early rabbis, like early Christian theologians Augustine and Basil, all interpreted Genesis 1 on the basis of it being literally true. So do Henry Morris and creationists today. They each devised some way to interpret Genesis 1 that accommodated its truth to whatever knowledge of cosmology possessed by people of their day.

    The early rabbis and Christian theologians could and did claim the firmament was firm and vast waters lay above it. But scientists know more about the cosmos today.

    Morris takes up the challenge by interpreting the Hebrew term for "firmament" as meaning nothing more than "stretched out space" (Actually the Heb. root word for firmament refers to metal or earth being hammered out or solidly flattened, nothing very airy about such a term. And the Heb. word for "firmament" only appears about 16 times in Scripture compared with the Heb. word for "heaven" that appears hundreds of time. Neither are those few mentions of "a firmament" so vague but imply a type of "object" that can support a throne in Ezek. or separate vast waters in Gen.)

    Morris interprets the Heb. word for "firmament" as if it merely refers to the open "air" directly above the earth, or to open inter-stellar space, or to the eternal open heaven of God, basically he is saying there is no real difference between the words firmament and heaven, claiming they both refer to open spaces above the earth. So when God created was creating the heavens and earth, the Hebrew author could just as well have said God was creating the firmaments and the earth. But it doesn't actually say that, it says the firmament was created on day two.

    Other creationists like Humphries acknowledge that the idea of "waters above the firmament" does raise a question. As does the Psalm that says, "praise him sun, moon, and stars, and the waters above the heavens," which implies waters above the sun, moon and stars. Humphries interprets "the waters above the firmament" as lying in an icy state beyond the furthest known stars at the outermost limits of the cosmos. Well, you can't disprove that as of yet since no telescope can see that far.

    In short, early rabbis, early church fathers & conservative Christians have attempted to interpret Genesis 1 literally, ignoring its ancient Near Eastern context, and either acknowledging a firm firmament or stretching the meaning of "firmament" until it fits whatever knowledge their generation has about the cosmos. None cares to admit Genesis 1 parallels ancient cosmological ideas. Even Steve can't admit it, instead claiming that it is "stylized" truth.

    It seems from Steve's perspective he has a lot of ideology on the line. Or as Steve writes on his site, "Certainty is the yardstick of probability. And revelation supplies the yardstick. The explanatory power of God’s word is what makes explanation possible. Facts without values are literally meaningless. Only the Creator of the world is in a position to interpret the world. If there is an omniscient mind, and if that omniscient mind has revealed to us a finite, but interpreted body of knowledge about the way things are, then we know as much as we need to know."


    "If Scripture claims to be wholly true, but is only partly true, then the claim is wholly false."


    "...cosmology and prehistory is the area that Christian apologists find difficult to defend."

  7. I think that there is textual evidence that there was an ancient belief in a solid firmament. Greenwood goes into that. I do wonder, though, where the clouds fit in, in the minds of the ancients. As Steve notes, and as my friend Nicholas Petersen writes on the site, the ancients would have seen that the clouds would have grown dark before rain. Is that reconcilable with seeing rain as coming through windows in the firmament?


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