Tag Archives: ex nihilo

All Evolutionists are Atheists!? The Polemical Battle Underlying the Creation-Evolution Debate

It has virtually become a truism: religious practitioners believe that God created the world ex nihilo, while atheists put their money on the Big Bang – and subsequently evolution – for their own cosmogonic picture. This division, though, is no longer limited to the worlds of theology and physics alone. Today, the media, political parties, the Supreme Court and even public schools have joined the debate by also bifurcating into one of two camps: the God-fearing or the Godless. Consequently, as time passes and the propaganda multiplies, the chasm separating the two yawns farther apart making reconciliation less and less likely an option for two so myopic stances.

This insurmountable divide is all the more surprising when one notes how little the majority of both groups actually grasp of the pertinent arguments. Unfortunately, Isaac Asimov’s estimation that “[t]ens of millions of Americans, who neither know nor understand the actual arguments for – or even against – evolution, march in the army of the night with their Bibles held high,”[1] can be equally applied to hordes of evolutionists brandishing their favorite personal argument from evil. There can be no doubt that most atheists who fall before evolution’s supremacy cannot even enumerate Darwin’s most pivotal contributions to evolutionary biology or the humanities – let alone the five historical epochs the evolutionary theory rests upon. Similarly, as Asimov posits, their religious equivalents would be just as hard pressed to explicate a medieval exegete’s or a Church Father’s approach to a particular topic of the creation narrative. With few exceptions, most people simply recognize that their own position is true without troubling themselves with all the fine points or the facts of the issue.

The two sides, however, rest upon unequal grounds. Creationists – who for the most part garner their approach from the Bible – possess a plethora of available approaches in which to construe the Bible’s cosmological account when faced with practical difficulties.[2] Atheists, on the other hand, are to a great extent trapped by their own beliefs. What is the alternative to some form of evolutionism? – to believe the world is the product of a purposeful Creator – that is the exact notion they seek to exclude. By default, as the evolutionary theory is the only viable alternative to creationism and God, atheists side with the less God-infused approach.

Notwithstanding the transparent agendas present on both sides of the picket lines, we need not take for granted the necessity for such polarized factions and concise schisms. Today, we possess the proper philosophical and historiographic tools to question the necessity of the aforementioned truism. Is it truly necessary that atheists gravitate towards evolution instead of its alternative cosmological picture: creatio ex nihilo, or that creationist and evolutionist camps be consistently represented by theists and atheists respectively? Is it a historical accident that this correspondence became the case, or was there no other way for history to play itself out? While the apparent impetus that leads creationists and evolutionists to gravitate towards a respective cosmological camp is clear, the actual root of the argument lies much deeper than the issue of theism alone: many times, cosmology is just the face for much more serious concerns. Accordingly, we will scrutinize the philosophical and theo-political assumptions underlying the various methodologies employed by several religion traditions in their interpretation of the opening lines of the Genesis narrative. By doing so, a more-clear and accurate picture of the various camps’ motivations will materialize. Subsequently, we will show why evolution need not be equated with atheism.

 

I

 

Even though the Talmudic Sages may have already proffered an interpretation of a biblical verse, the medieval biblical exegetes (Rishonim) boasted a certain leeway in rendering a verse according to the p’shat (simple read) over its Talmudic treatment. This does not mean that some exegetes were not extremely reliant on the Talmud’s and Midrash’s exegesis, but, nonetheless, a Rishon could still accept, reject, or amend the Talmudic treatment of a verse to better fit with his own exegetical and philosophical underpinnings. Accordingly, along with the power to elucidate the Divine text, the traditional commentator bears the daunting task of wielding God’s stamp of truth with every penned word. Historically, this license has seen the Bible pass through the hands of Gnostics, neo-Platonists, mystics, rationalists and fundamentalists, without ever arriving at a clear consensus of who, if any, should be the true torch bearer.

With this in mind, we will analyze the staples of medieval biblical exegesis not to see what they said, but by reading between the lines, to see why they commented as they did. Generally, it is exceedingly difficult to uncover a commentator’s motives or underlying assumptions; to some, it is heresy to even intimate that the biblical exegete has any agenda. Accordingly, we will limit our examination of each exegete to his commentary on the Bible’s initial verses. By analyzing commentary on the same verses, the variance and disagreements between the exegetes itself will be telling of the specific methodology employed. And we shouldn’t let the simplicity of the King James translation induce us into thinking the first verses are noncomplex or monolithic; the array of following commentaries will make it evident that the Bible’s initial words are anything but obvious.

To start, we will first look at the most renowned of the medieval biblical commentators: R. Shlomo Yizhaqi (1040-1105). He suggests that the first two verses of the Bible are an introductory sentence for the rest of the Genesis narrative. He is forced to explain as such as the first word ‘בראשית’ – usually translated as ‘In the beginning’ – is actually a noun in the construct state. Hence, a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of.’ Because another noun does not follow ‘בראשית’ – as one would expect in the case of a noun in the construct state – R. Yizhaqi takes it for granted that the Bible has an implied word following the first word.[3] He, first and foremost, feels compelled to uphold the grammatical integrity of the verses, and thus interprets them as follows:

In the beginning of [creation], God created the Heavens and the earth when the earth was tohu and vohu and there was darkness…[4]

 

In this reconstruction of the opening verses, he inserts a noun into the narrative in order for the verse to read properly. Accordingly, the Bible does not inform the reader of the actual order of creation in its first two verses; they are simply prefatory to the rest of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi further buttresses his claim by pointing out that the Bible only later specifies that the Heavens were formed on the second day (so they could not have been created on the first day) and that the spirit of God seems to hover over the surface of the waters (even before they were ever officially created on the third day). R. Yizhaqi’s insistence on interpreting the Bible’s first word in line with the verse’s true grammatical structure forced him to: (1) assume the implied word ‘creation’ in the initial verse, (2) interpret the verse as an introductory sentence, and thereby keep a literal translation of the latter half of the verse (as actually referring to the Heavens and the earth) as well, (3) render the prefix vav (and) that precedes the second verse as a conjunction meaning ‘when,’ instead of its more common rendering as the connective ‘and,’ and last (4) accept the Talmud’s[5] assertion that the Heavens were constructed from fire and water. Accordingly, R. Yizhaqi is not swayed by any political or philosophical motives; what he believes to be the best read, the p’shat, is the final litmus test for him (in this case); his philosophy is formed and molded by the best read of the text.[6]

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who is renowned for his outstanding grammatical expertise, focuses instead on the diction of the verses at hand. Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, R. Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted understanding of ‘בראשית’ as referring to creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. He cites verses 21 and 27 as defeaters for the thesis that ברא refers to creation ex nihilo, for those verses use the term ברא in a context that clearly indicates that the entity was not created ex nihilo. Bearing this in mind, R. Ibn Ezra concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Bible (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the ‘cutting’ or ‘setting boundaries’ of something that had already existed. Accordingly, he is able to justify the Neo-Platonists’ contention that an original matter existed for which God ‘cut’ or ‘set boundaries.’ Hence, the Bible itself lends support for R. Ibn Ezra’s neo-platonic understanding of the world’s beginnings.

Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) has a different agenda altogether. From the very start of his commentary on the Bible, he highlights that those who reject creatio ex nihilo reject the Torah of Moses.[7]

For there is a great need to begin the Torah with ‘In the beginning God created,’ for that is the basis of our faith, and someone who does not believe in it, but thinks that the world has existed eternally, he is a heretic in a fundamental, and has no connection to Torah at all.

 

All grammatical and lexicographical issues are secondary to the ultimate aim of the verse. To him, the opening verses can refer to nothing but creation ex nihilo. Only after this not-so-subtle proviso, he goes on to explain the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. He continues by differentiating between the verb (ברא) and two other similar meaning words: ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). He explains that the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), while the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material – they never denote creatio ex nihilo[8] – even though, as R. Ibn Ezra observes, ברא is employed occasionally to mean ‘not creation ex nihilo.’

In line with his focus on creation ex nihilo, Nahmanides is forced to interpret the first verse in its colloquial non-literal sense ‘In the beginning,’ instead of R. Yizhaqi’s more precise translation of ‘In the beginning of.’ Owing to this understanding, Nachmanides explains the other two key terms of the verse “the Heavens and the earth” (השמים and הארץ) non-literally as well, given that the Bible proclaims the Heavens were created on the second day. Nahmanides understands that the usage of the two terms in the first verse designate the potential for all future stages of physical reality. In other words, God executed one act of creation; an infinitely small substance was first created and then it went through a kind of non-Darwinian evolution (a form of super evolution) with the hand of God directing the world’s formation and development. He explains the phrase “the Heavens and the earth” in light of his contemporary Greek knowledge. They correspond, first to the hyle matter, and subsequently, to the four primary elements. Far beyond the two explanations of the aforementioned medieval exegetes, Nahmanides is willing to completely undermine the literal sense[9] of the first verse in order to buttress his philosophical and scientific framework.

While we could end our Jewish exegetical section here, it seems only appropriate to conclude our study on the first verses of Genesis by looking towards the halakhic-philosophic giant of the medieval era: Maimonides (1138-1204). Though he never wrote a systematic commentary on the Bible, one can cull his opinion on many verses by reading his other works. He devotes much of the second book of the Guide for the Perplexed to the issue of creationism, so it would be impossible to put forth even a truncated analysis of his viewpoint. Instead, we will simply take note of the methodology he implemented when his contemporary science or Aristotelian logic contradicted the literal gist of a biblical text. In the Treatise on Resurrection,[10] published near the end of his life, he says that:

I believe every possible happening that is supported by a prophetic statement and do not strip it of its plain meaning. I fall back on interpreting a statement only when its literal sense is impossible, like the corporeality of God; the possible however remains as stated.

 

Unlike other medieval commentators, Maimonides always refrained from betting the farm on any specific interpretation. He would exclude the literal meaning of a text when it could be demonstrated logically to be false; obviously, the Divine text could not impart fallacious information. Consequently, by the story of creation, he says without hesitation:

All these assertions (about creation) are needed if the text of Scripture is taken in its external (literal) sense, even though it must not be taken as shall be explained[11] when we shall speak of it at length. You ought to memorize this notion. For it is a great wall that I have built around the Law: a wall that surrounds it warding off the stones of all those who project these missiles against it. (italics mine)[12]

 

While Nahmanides deems one heretical for rejecting the creatio ex nihilo position, Maimonides asserts that if someone could offer him a sound demonstration for the eternity of the world, he would have no problem fitting it into the words of the Bible, and would accept it without hesitation.[13] Maimonides emphatically proclaims Themistius’ rule that “That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.”[14] In a similar vein, even R. Yehuda ha-Levi, the author of the Kuzari, who is more sympathetic to the viewpoint of Nahmanides, says:

If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch…[15]

 

Obviously, R. ha-Levi understood that a person must follow his own perception of truth. Similarly, Maimonides did not feel obliged to follow the literal sense of the Bible where it led him towards philosophically or scientifically inadmissible conclusions.

So, we have seen that the four aforementioned exegetes each present widely differing criteria (and methodologies) for interpreting the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi focuses on the grammatical integrity of the verse, R. Ibn Ezra upon the diction, Nahmanides highlights his own philosophical and scientific underpinnings, and Maimonides accepts the literal understanding of the verse until it is contradicted by some demonstrated truth.

 

II

 

This bias in the exegetes’ interpretation of the Genesis narrative, especially prevalent in Nahmonides’ approach to the opening verses of Genesis, is equally evident in the Christian approach to creation. The Christian right of America, generally identified with the Evangelical or conservative Protestant movements, has promoted a take on creationism that is based on a hyper-literal reading of the Genesis account.[16] They have aligned themselves with the scientific creationist movement (or young-earth creationists) who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old.

Much to the surprise of many, scientific creationists refrain from claiming that all of their insights into the creation and subsequent development of the world are explicitly stated in the Bible; rather, they piece together a cosmological picture based on the logical implications of a holistic read of the Bible, embracing modern science when it buttresses their argument. To be able to piece together such an integrated cosmological picture is obviously an exceedingly tough task, but to construct one that fits accurately with the suppositions of both archaeology and science is daunting. The much heralded former engineering professor-turned-anti-evolutionist, Henry M. Morris, has assembled such a picture, and has so effectively promoted its validity, that approximately forty percent of the American population regard Morris’ picture of creationism as correct. Of course, the fact that he has founded a journal, an institute for creation research, a college (Christian Heritage College) and has written over fifty books including his three-volume boxed set The Modern Creation Trilogy, may have helped a bit.

His basic assumption, identifiable with conservative Christians, is that the creation account in Genesis provides a:

“marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primal history of the universe,” that goes “far beyond those that science can determine,” while offering “an intellectually satisfying framework within which to interpret the facts that science can determine.”[17]

 

In other words, if one wants true scientific ratiocinations without all the fuss of the scientific method, one need look no farther than the Bible. Evolutionary theory, along with all other scientific notions that contradict the literal sense of the Bible should be disregarded, for who knows science better than God – the founder of the rules of science.

Within the ranks of scientific creationists, there are no secular thinkers or apologists for the “Word of God” in the Bible. The Bible is the most vital and central book that guides their lives and it contains nothing but truth. They are taught from the earliest days of their youth the Biblical stories and the centricity of Jesus Christ. But, one has to wonder why the Christian right has put so much effort into promoting their cosmological approach. Besides journals, a seemingly endless array of creationist books, and a college, they have even built a twenty-six million dollar Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – a 60,000 square foot museum built on five acres of flatland and designed by an ex-Universal Studios exhibit director that presents an alternative theory to that of evolution – and they plan on making several more in other American cities.

With this kind of high-tech hype, overwhelming media attention on the internet, and in the news, as well as the seemingly endless public school debates – the Scopes trial was over eighty years ago![18] – it would seem that this is the key issue that Protestants fight for in America. What Christian issue is given more prominence in the news than creationism? Ironically, as of late, the world is exposed to less “Jesus talk” and more creationism. However, we should wonder: is this issue truly the key issue between the conservatives and the rest of the world that Christians willing go into battle over – and if it is, then why? One would imagine that the notions of Jesus’ Messiahship, the notion of salvation or the Afterlife would be higher on the laundry list than promoting Old Testament creationism.

In order to understand the pivotal role that creationism must play in Christian theology, we will look towards the roots of the Protestant Reformation. Before the sixteenth century, many other groups splintered from the Church before Martin Luther (1483-1546) – an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg – triggered the bifurcation of the Church. These revolutionary groups sought to reform the Church and its teachings, though never intended to disunite Christendom. Nonetheless, until the pope officially recognized certain splinter groups, they hung in limbo on the narrow stretch between orthodoxy and heresy.[19] Like the Waldenses of the 11th century,[20] the English cleric John Wycliffe (1328-84) and the Bohemian priest Jan Hus (1373-1415), these dissenters knew that there was something awry in the Church and its teachings, and aspired to repair it.

The hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, like the Karaites before them, was the importance placed on the primacy of Scripture – individualistic, subjective reading of the Bible, that recently has led to a hyper literalistic approach to reading the Old Testament. The root cause of Luther’s protestations was his own Church experiences in the 16th century. While the Church decided early on to reject the obligation to uphold most of the Biblical commandments and ritual cult, Luther pined over the fact that the modern incarnation of the Church simply replaced the old commandments with a litany of new commandments, sacraments and indulgences, none of which were clearly indicated in the New Testament. They rejected one set of laws, only to impose a whole other set – a set completely determined extra-biblically. Luther felt that the Catholic Church had missed the boat and was prescribing exactly that which Pauline Christianity came to wipe out.[21]

As Luther’s Protestant views came into focus, next to sola fide and sola gratia, stood sola scriptoria, the Scripture principle. With the primacy of Scripture as the fundamental principle upon which all Protestantism rests, it is clear why Christian conservatives put so much weight on the actual words of the creation narrative. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, which was content to interpret the Bible allegorically or spiritually, Luther insisted on the literal sense of Scripture. Accordingly, if the Protestant movement abstained from upholding the literal truth of any aspect of the Bible, then their whole argument against the Catholic Church would be completely undermined.[22] Hence it follows that in and of itself, the creation narrative may be relatively unimportant from a Christian perspective, for Jesus’ message would be true independent of which creation process God chose to implement. Nonetheless, the opening verses of the creation narrative must remain literally interpreted as it rides upon the coattails of other more significant Protestant theology that also must be interpreted literally.[23] For if one can challenge or undermine the Bible’s message or intent in one area, there is nothing to stop people from doing so in other areas. For once we allow even the points that are less important and non-crucial to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, metaphorically, etc., then we open the Pandora’s Box that ends with the vindication of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, indulgences and its overwhelming authority.[24]

 

III

 

Unlike Conservative Christians, Catholics are in no way bound to the literal reading of the Old or New Testament. To the contrary, commentators within the Catholic world have produced countless interpretations of the Genesis narrative, from significantly different vantage points, and will continue construing the text based on the archeological, scientific and philosophical findings that arise in each generation.[25] The Church has not institutionalized an official way to read the Genesis narrative, and unless the Church actually deems some way to be heretical or to be officially binding, all may carry on producing their own stances on most of the Genesis account.

Far removed from this approach has been the Church’s stance on Darwinism as reflected in the positions of the various popes since the nineteenth century. The first pope to respond to Darwin’s theory propounded in Descent of Man was Pope Pious IX. He writes that Darwinism is:

a system which is so repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself, [it] would seem to need no refutation. Did not alienation from God and the leaning toward materialism, due to depravity, eagerly seek a support in all this tissue of fables.[26]

 

More recently, the official stance of the Catholic Church on the creation-evolution debate has been propounded by Pope John Paul II.[27] He begins his article Evolution and the Living God by acknowledging that “revelation, [the Holy writings] for its part, contains teachings concerning the nature and origins of humanity,” and continues, “We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.” Accordingly, one would assume that the past pope plans on giving revelation its fair shake against the conclusions of science; but, he never does. Instead, he quotes his predecessor, Pope Pius XII’s opinion found in Encyclical Humani generic “that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about humanity and human vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable facts.”[28]  Pope John Paul II claims that:

New knowledge leads us to the realization that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.[29]

 

Besides recounting that man is created in the image and likeness of God, Pope John Paul II does not deal with any other details of the Genesis narrative in this essay. For his purposes here, they are completely worthless. The importance of the Genesis narrative lies in the details involving man’s relationship to God; the rest – the vast majority of the narrative – need not worry the theologian or the scientist.

However, Pope John Paul II insists that theistic evolution[30] is acceptable only as long as it coincides with revelation. He says that

theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomena of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about humanity.[31]

 

Thus, Pope John Paul II accepts the conclusions of scientists, but only as long as they do not contradict “revelation.” But what does Pope John Paul II mean by “revelation?” For those of the Jewish or Islamic faiths, revelation would denote either the Divine words recorded in the Tanakh or the Qur’an respectively. So we might be suckered into thinking that the Pope means to imply the messages found in the Old or New Testament by his usage of the word “revelation;” but really this is not the case. In truth, Pope John Paul II is unconcerned with the doctrines or dogmas put forth by the Holy writings.[32] Even his treatment of the man’s image and likeness of God stands upon the interpretation put forth by the conciliar Constitution Gaudium et spes that human beings are “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” Definitely an interesting and promising interpretation, but by no far stretch the only possible one. But from Pope John Paul II’s perspective, that is the main drive of Genesis narrative – the centricity of mankind before the Lord.

Not by a long shot was he, or his predecessor, the first Catholics to take the Genesis account, in part or in full, non-literally. This precedent was set as early on as the Early Church Fathers. Some of them thought that the opening verses of Genesis had important information about the physical world, as well as the spiritual world, but many of them subordinated the literal meaning of the text before their own philosophical outlook. For example, one would be hard pressed to find Origen’s (185-254) Platonic ideology including an apophatic God whose external self-manifestation is first revealed in the Logos[33] within a literal reading of the Bible. Similarly, though St. Augustine’s (354-430) famously exclaims “nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since that authority is greater than all the powers of the human mind,” his approach to Biblical exegesis in his The Literal Interpretation of Genesis can hardly be deemed literalistic. He says:

With the Scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the Scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.[34]

 

Also, the Church Fathers Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons and many others put forth non-literal interpretations to several verses or even the whole of the Genesis account. It is as much part of the Church’s tradition to deal with verses as it sees fit as any of its other catecheses.

In order to understand this leeway of interpretation, we must first understand the foundation of the Church itself. The Church’s catechesis summarizes the primary details of Catholic belief including orthodox trinitarian Christianity, as well as the belief that Jesus set up the Church around the twelve apostles on earth before he died. They cite the Gospel According to Matthew as the source for Jesus’s appointments of the Church; the verse states: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” While the present Pope is viewed as Peter’s (head of the Early Church) contemporaneous successor, bishops are the modern day successors to the apostles. This organization of the Church is kept from doctrinal error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Magisterium infallibly teaches and interprets the truth of faith.[35] Accordingly, Catholics consider their philosophical viewpoints as produced by the Holy Spirit and the Church, for the most part, as infallible.

This fact is easy to see within the world of doctrinal beliefs, but it also holds true for Biblical exegesis. A surprising corroboration for this method of interpretation can be found very early on in the Gospel According to Matthew (subsequently referred to GAM) 2:23 which (possibly) quotes the verse from Isaiah 11:1 to prove that Jesus returned to Nazareth to fulfill the alleged prophecy from Isaiah: “He will be called a Nazorean.” First of all, this prophetic fulfillment is anything but: if the quotation’s source is Isaiah (11:1), the verse calls the Messiah a branch (נצר), while the verse from the GAM clearly is referring to the city Nazareth, which would have an altogether different Hebrew root (נזר).

Possibly, this prophetic fulfillment could be accounted for by transliterating the Hebrew letter zadi (צ) as a Greek zeta (ς).[36] Still, even in a transliterated text could account for the Matthean usage, it is hard to believe that this prophetic fulfillment would convince any of Jesus’ followers.[37] First, the city of Nazareth is not mentioned once in Tanakh, so there can be no prophetic fulfillments involving the famed city. Next, the GAM assumes that it was God who directed Joseph to Nazareth, yet this is not the case; the angel merely told Joseph to enter the land of Israel.[38] There is no evidence that Jesus’ family were directed or even intended to reach Nazareth. Last, and most importantly, no where in the prophetic writings, or any writing besides the GAM, does any one claim regarding the Messiah that “He will be called a Nazorean;” the Evangelist simply made it up. So what was the author of the GAM trying to accomplish by misrepresenting the Isaian prophecy?

This issue would present a crushing blow to the exegetical integrity of the New Testament if not for, as Goodwin[39] puts it, the “hermeneutic presupposition” (Divine Hermeneutic license) underlying New Testament exegesis.  By this, he means that the Church has the ability to construe a verse away from its original, intended or literal meaning in order to better fit with the Church’s theology or propaganda. Ellis explains:

In the use of the OT in the New, implicit Midrash appears in double entendre, in interpretive alterations of OT citations and in more elaborate forms. The first type involves a play on words. Thus Matthew 2:23 cites Jesus’ residence in Nazareth as a “fulfillment” of prophecies identifying the Messiah as Nazirite or a netzer.[40]

From this example, it is evident that already in the period of the writing of the New Testament, Evangelists assumed that they enjoyed the authority to construe the Old Testament to buttress their own theology, very much as the rabbis exploited a similar methodology through the use of Midrashic exegesis. With the exception of the early second century movement Marcionism – which rejected that the vengeful god of the Old Testament was identical with the loving god of the New Testament – the Old Testament was always a ripe source for the Evangelists to procure prophetic fulfillments, messianic ideology and pseudo-Jesus references. Just as these Old Testament construals were deemed by the Early Christian to be accurate and true in God’s eyes, analogously, the Catholic Church also feels that they may construe the Testaments however they see fit. The existence of the Church’s Divine right to authoritatively interpret the Bible might explain why it took so many centuries for the Church to encourage Bible study,[41] for the literal sense of the text does not convey Divine truth; rather, Divine truth rests solely within the authoritative interpretation of the Church. Therefore, some verses will be construed away from their obvious meaning, while others may be (seemingly) totally disregarded: accordingly, grace is not a free gift of God; it is gift to those who accept and follow the whim of the Church.

Now it is clear why the Catholic Church has accepted a version of evolution as their official cosmological picture. Above all, the Catholic Church stands for their own unflinching authority. Salvation is not attained through metaphysical speculation or individualistic spiritual development, but solely through accepting the Church’s pathway to heaven. This position parallels the stance taken by the Buddha, and since characterized by Theravada Buddhism in Southern Asia, towards metaphysical speculation. Malunkyaputta, a monk and student of the Buddha, was drawn towards abstruse cosmogonic speculation and decided to seek the truth from his master. The Buddha responded:

Well, Malunkyaputta, anyone who demands the elucidation of such futile questions which do not in any way tend to real spiritual progress and edification is like one who has been shot by an arrow and refuses to let the doctor pull it out and attend to the wound. If the weakened man were to say, “So long as I do not know who the man is who shot me… until then I will not allow the arrow to be pulled out or the wound to be attended to.” – that man, Malunkyaputta, will die without ever knowing all these details. A holy life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal and so forth. Whether or not these things obtain, there still remain the problems of birth, old age, death, sorrow… all the grim facts of life – and for their extinction in the present life I am prescribing this Dhamma. Accordingly, bear it in mind that these questions which I have not elucidated… I have not elucidated purposely because these profit not, nor have they anything to do with the fundamentals of a holy life nor do they tend toward Supreme Wisdom, the Bliss of Nirvana.[42]

 

Just as the Buddha’s parable shows that Malunkyaputta may squander his life away by focusing on matters that do not lead one towards achieving the purpose of life or nirvana, so too, a good Catholic practitioner may miss the boat by speculating about metaphysical issues without the assistance of the Church’s authoritative positions. Really, the Church, like Buddha, places no emphasis on metaphysical notions that do not lead a person to observe the proper holy life as defined by their own respective dogmas. Whether the earth was created ex nihilo, or is eternal, or is the product of some five and a half billion years of evolution is religiously worthless; as long as one’s stance does not undermine the Church’s message and authority, any of the possibilities could be made to jive with the diction of the Bible; the Church’s Divine hermeneutic license ensures as much.

In the end, Pope John Paul II, as well as his predecessor, both accepted evolution simply because the science of the day supported it; the Bible does not really have any say in the debate. The Bible’s literal stance is no longer a viable option for interpreting the universe’s beginnings. Ernst Mayr explains that creationists believe that:

Everything in the world today is still as it was created. This was an entirely logical conclusion based on the known facts at the time the Bible was written. Some theologians, on the basis of the biblical genealogy, calculated that the world was quite recent, having been created in 4004 B.C., that is, about 6,000 years ago.[43]

 

But today, when creationism is not the logical choice, the Catholic Church feels no obligation to fall before the literal sense of the Bible. Evolution is accepted, not because it is the best read, but because Catholics are not truly interested in the best read. Indeed, there is no intended interpretation that we should discern on our own; there is only the canonical interpretation which the Church alone may define. Today, science is as accurate, if not a better source of the natural sciences as the Bible. In Catholicism, what matters is the hierarchal structure; knowledge of how the Bible said that God created the world is insignificant apart from the Church’s interpretation.

 

IV

 

Before evolution was associated with atheistic schools of thought, Jewish commentators and world leaders had no fear or problems with the idea that the world is much older than six thousand years; to the contrary, many kabbalists and then contemporaneous rabbis thought the scientific findings of evolutionists supported the literal understanding of countless Midrashim and Aggadot. R. Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (1782-1860), who wrote one of the standard commentaries on the Mishnah entitled Tiferet Yisrael, says in a sermon he delivered in the spring of 1842:

And now my beloved brothers, see on what a sound basis our Torah stands. For this secret [of the world’s destruction and recreation] handed to us from our ancestors, revealed to us hundreds of years ago, can be found in nature in our own time in the clearest manner. The restless spirit of man, the desire to discover all mysteries, has [brought him to] dig and search the belly of the earth like a mole, as well as the highest of mountains, the Pyrenees  and Carpathian, and in the Cordilla mountains in [South] America, as well as the Himalayas, digging and searching until they found an awesome order of fossils, one on top of another at a hair’s distance, where one can assume that a word of catastrophe was caused through the His Divine hand, which sends fury through the land and causes it to tremble…They found in 1807 of their calendar, in Siberia, in the north of the earth under the permanent layer of ice, a mammoth elephant… Also the remains of fossilized sea creatures have been found within the highest mountains. From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many years about the repeated destruction and renewal of the earth has found clear confirmation in our time.[44]

 

In a similar vein, R. Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900) – who was a traditional Rabbi, philosopher and exegete of Italy – also makes use of evolution, but in a most surprising way. He asserts in Il Mio Credo (1877) that:

I believe, as science teaches, that animal forms appeared on the earth and evolved into more perfect beings… More and more perfect species have developed, one after the other, over the course of millions of years on the face of the earth. The most perfect form is Man. But will nature stop here? This would indeed be strange. Present humankind, as Renan says, will evolve into another, more prefect human being… All this is stated by Judaism, and is called the Resurrection.[45]

 

One can only speculate about how R. Lipschutz and R. Benamozegh would further integrate today’s evolutionary theories and concepts into their own Kabbalistic and philosophical outlooks. Nonetheless, we can see that, at least initially, the evolutionary theory was not looked on as a frightening idea sure to shake the core of Jewish beliefs.

However, one could make the case that this acceptance of modern science was only welcomed because it did not uproot any of their fundamentals of faith; had the scientists proffered conclusive evidence that for the validity of polytheism or that Zeus truly created the world, we could be sure that R. Lipschutz, R. Benamozegh and other Jewish theologians would surely censure such evidence and question the validity of the scientists’ findings. This is exactly how the late Lubavitcher scion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1903-1994) acted,[46] along with most ultra-orthodox rabbis of the last fifty years in the face of evidence that the world is more than six thousand years old.

So, we must conclude, theologians are stuck upholding their tradition sometimes even against the pangs of science, but are atheists stuck upholding the evolutionary theory? We will observe that atheists are not actually stuck in the same corner as the theologian. Really, the evolutionist’s corner was self-made, and that corner, actually, is just an accident of history. To illustrate this point, we will turn to the infamous Dan Brown and his other novel, Angels and Demons.

The book’s beginning chapters describe how the Catholic priest physicist, Leonardo Vetra used the world’s largest particle accelerator to create anti-matter; in other words, he was able to simulate the Big Bang. He reasoned that his machine would render viable proof to the fact that God exists in that his machine works in the same way in which God originally acted in creating the universe. While the premise of this argument might seem tenuous at best, really, it is not one to be scoffed at. The medieval exegete-philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) accepts a Platonic account of the universe’s origins based solely on the fact that it is a logical contradiction for new matter to be created. Hence, for him, not even God could create ex nihilo.

Let us take Brown’s fiction into the realm of reality. Let us imagine that scientists were able to create such a machine: so, within the normal rules of the physical world, it is the case that sometimes things are created ex nihilo as Vetra’s machine could. Because this machine works without the direct assistance of a deity, the scientific world would have produced an alternative to the first step of the evolutionary theory, i.e. the Big Bang; as of today, there is no alternative cosmological picture for atheists.[47] This being the case, Vetra’s machine would offer the atheistic community the alternative to evolution that they never had.

Given the possibility of a scientific alternative to theistic creationism before the theory of evolution was ever hypothesized, the world’s atheists would have happily joined the “creatio ex nihilo machine” bandwagon. That machine would offer the atheists an alternative approach – a scientific approach – to explain the world’s beginnings.[48] Therefore, creation ex nihilo would be an equally viable option for the atheistic scientific world (even though evolution would still be an option). Really, it is an historical accident that the evolutionary theory became the foundation of the atheist movement. The atheists’ stance is not a case of fact (evolution) flowing from the theology, but theology following fact. There is nothing whatsoever within atheistic dogma that forces one to side with evolution. Really, had the world played out differently, creation ex nihilo could have been associated with the God deniers, while evolution would be, at best, a competing theory.

 

V

 

As we have seen, the primary driving force behind Genesis exegesis, and possibly sectarian biblical commentaries in whole, is not so much what the verse says, as what the commentator thinks before ever penning a word. This point is highlighted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1991) in The Emergence of Ethical Man. He says:

I have always felt that due to some erroneous conception, we have actually misunderstood the Judaic anthropology and read into the Biblical text ideas which stem from alien sources. This feeling becomes more pronounced when we try to read the Bible not as an isolated literary text but as a manifestation of a grand tradition rooted in the very essence of our God-consciousness that transcends the bounds of the standardized and fixed text and fans out into every aspect of our existential experience.[49]

 

Nonetheless, R. Soloveitchik’s assertion should not be surprising, nor alarming. Most of the scholars who take the time to put forth integrated, well-thought out commentaries on the Bible, are those who are invested in its message and live according to its guidelines, as they interpret them. Therefore, of course they will interpret the Biblical narrative in line with the mores and values of their society. No matter what one’s religious orientation, and regardless of one’s acceptance of theism, we have seen that people will do what it takes to ensure that their own beliefs are manifest, not only in the physical world, but also in the Divinely inspired texts.

 

[1] Isaac Asimov from Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 175.

[2] For example, creatio ex nihilo, neo-Platonism, and allegorical positions (including apologist, accommodationalist, and scientific) are some of the valid approaches available to biblical exegetes.

[3] It is not uncommon for R. Yizhaqi to allow for implied words in the Bible. He proffers four other examples: Job 3:10; Isaiah 8:4, 46:10 and Amos 10:12.

[4] Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[5] BT Hagigah 12a.

[6] And, based on the grammatical nuances of the verse, he will accept the Midrash that best fits the exegetical issue he is addressing.

[7] Nachmonides commentary on Genesis 1:1; see also his commentary on Exodus 13:16 (D”H Ve’Atah Omer) and Leviticus 25:2 (D”H VeHene Ha-Yamim).

[8] He apologetically explains Ibn Ezra’s issue by claiming that the cognate (ברא) is employed by sea monsters to illustrate their immense size, not that they were actually created ex nihilo. He does not even try to explain the usage by mankind (probably because the intrinsic difference between man and the rest of creation is self evident.)

[9] According to Nachmanides, the whole verse is lav davqa – each word is not to be taken in its precise meaning.

[10] Treatise on Resurrection, from Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, trans. Abraham S. Halkin. and D. Hartman (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 228.

[11] See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (trans. Shlomo Pines, Uni. of Chicago Press, 1963), II, 30.

[12] Ibid., II, 17, p. 298

[13] See Ibid., I, 71, p. 179

[14] Ibid., I, 71, p.179

[15] Cuzari I 67

[16]  Some Evangelical Protestants take the “catastrophic approach” to creation. This approach (which parallels the modern Ultra-Orthodox understanding of creation first proposed by Kabbalists who interpolate the literal sense of the creation account with several Midrashim and Aggadot) hypothesizes that several worlds were created and destroyed on earth before the present epoch came into being. This approach, though, is exceedingly less common than the simple literal read of the Genesis account among Evangelicals. Furthermore, Protestants submit other approaches to creationism including the “gap theory” adopted rather early by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) and the “day-age” theory, still agued today by Hugh Ross in his Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator, 2nd ed. (Orange, California: Promise Publishing, 1991), and several other concordist approaches.

[17] Morris and Morris, Modern Creation Trilogy, 1:13/14.

[18] In 1925, the Tennessean high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of violating the law against teaching evolution in the class room.

[19] This was the case regarding the Franciscan Order in 1210 and the Dominican Order in 1216.

[20] They were started by the European layman preacher Peter Waldo (d.1218) petitioning for a more literal reading of the New Testament

[21] Luther relied on the teachings of Paul that grace is a free gift of God and that faith alone justified a sinner to effectively call into question the Church’s whole ritualization of Jesus’ message. We do not intend to enter the debate whether Luther is begging the question by basing his interpretation of Christianity and critique of Roman Catholicism almost exclusively on Paul’s interpretation of Christianity.

[22] According to Luther, the super-structure of the medieval Catholic Church arose by departing from the literal sense of Scripture. He understood that the Bible itself is to provide the checks and balances; in fact, Luther and Calvin insisted on Scripture providing the foundations of a prophetic critique paralleling the prophetic rejection of the super-structure of pre-exilic Israel.

[23] For example, with no literal Fall or transmission of Adam’s curse to the rest of humankind, there is no necessity for Jesus’ death.

[24] Ironically, the hallmark of the Protestant movement, as well as the reason that there are more than ten thousand branches of Protestantism in America alone, is the freedom to interpret the Old and New Testament as one sees fit. Yet, when it comes to creationism, even though grammatically, philologically, and exegetically, there are other, of not better ways to read the text, many Protestants hold fast in their alleged literal reading of the text.

[25] In this way, the Catholic Church’s approach to exegesis closely parallels the method employed by the Jewish medieval exegetes, while the modern Protestant approach to exegesis exactly corresponds to contemporary right-wing Jewish commentaries in their censorship of non-literalism.

[26] Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 24, from Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1896; reprint ed., New York: Dover 1960).

[27] Evolution and the Living God, Pope John Paul II chapter 9, Peter’s Science and theology, pp. 149-152.

[28] Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950), pp. 575-6.

[29] The present pope, Pope Benedict XVI endorsed a similar statement when, in his pre-pope days as president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2004, said: “it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.”

[30] The Church believes in some form of theistic teleological evolution.

[31] Pope John Paul II also wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven (Pope John Paul II, October 3, 1981 to the Pontifical Academy of Science, “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics”).

[32] Obviously this is a statement that Paul would deny; nevertheless, in practive, what drives the Church is not the literal sense of the text. The Church always finds a way to interpret the Bible consistent with their beliefs.

[33] Origen says that “we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when we found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world” (Against Celus 6:60).

[34] See St. Augustine 2:9; also see 1:19–20, Chap. 19.

[35] The Magisterium is headed by the Pope who serves as the primus inter pares (first among equals) over the rest of the bishops.

[36] Similarly, when a ‘צ’ is transliterated into English, many times, an author will simply write a ‘Z’ with a dot under it. See BT Shabbat 117a where the word ‘בי נצרפי’ appears referring to the annex of a church.

[37] Charlesworth (Charlesworth, James H., & Weaver, Walter P. The Old and New Testaments. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) says “to many Christian readers, to say nothing of the Jewish reader, the NT’s interpretation of the Old appears to be exceedingly arbitrary,” (p. 209), and that’s putting it lightly.

[38] See GAM 2:20

[39] Goodwin, Mark J. (April 2005). Hosea and the “Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16:16.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 67 No. 2, pp. 265-283.

[40] p. 202, E. Earle Ellis in “How the New Testament Uses the Old” in New Testament Interpretation. Edited by I. H. Marshall. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

[41] At Vatican II, the council concluded that both clergy and laity were to continue making Bible study a central part of their lives. This only reinforced Pope Pius XII’s encouragement of scholars to study the Ancient Biblical languages for a better grasp of the original meaning of the text, in his 1943 encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu.

[42] Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1966. Cited in Kenneth Morgan, ed., The Path of the Budda (New York, 1956), p. 18.

[43] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2001, Basic Books, p. 4.

[44] Lipschutz, Rabbi Yisrael. Derush Ohr ha-Hayim in Teferet Yisrael, Danzig (1845) quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (pp. 15-48), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005). In many ways, the renowned R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) put forth a similar approach to that of R. Lipschutz in regards to evolution.

[45] Benamozegh, R. Elijah. “Il Mio Credo” found in Teologia-Dogmatica E Apologetica, Liverno (1877) Vol. 1, pp. 276-77 quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (p. 29), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005).

[46] Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Mind Over Matter, pp. 32-3, Jerusalem: Shamir, 2003, from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Torah.

[47] Though, Bertrand Russell pointed out that, philosophically speaking, it is possible that the world was created but a moment ago, and hence there was no real historical beginning to the universe; nonetheless, atheists, for obvious reasons, would not quickly consent to that alternative.

[48] One might wonder how it is that that machine was able to work given that there was no physical existence, but this technical question would not faze the atheist. Just as s/he does not ask who initiated the Big Bang, so too, s/he would not be interested in who turned on the creation machine; the atheists could argue that sometimes stuff like that just happens, and if it did not, we would not be here to question it.

[49] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Emergence of Ethical Man (New York: Toras HaRav/Ktav 2005), p. 6, quoted from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Creation.

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The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter II: Genesis and Its Commentators

בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ

                   

In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth

(Genesis 1:1)

It’s only seven words in Hebrew, but it has caused a world of literature to spring up around it and triggered a seemingly endless debate. Of course this verse is not the only contentious point between the many camps, but surely it is the most important. So, to start this chapter, we will point to some of the ambiguity latent in this verse and in the genesis story as a whole.

A)    The first word בראשית, usually translated as ‘In the beginning,’ is really a noun in the construct state (ie it is modified by another noun, usually the next word); so a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of ...’ But that is problematic as then the phrase presupposes that there is something like a temporal order already in place before creation.

B)    The word ברא, usually translated as ‘created’ is ambiguous. The various Rishonim disagree about its actual meaning. What does it mean ‘to create’? Moreover, it is not even used consistently throughout the Genesis narrative.

C)    Why would this name of God (אלקים) be employed in Genesis? At other places in the Torah, this name of God is used to describe false gods as well as Jewish leaders. Would not the four letter name of God (the Tetragrammaton), the name that signifies God’s essence and will, be more apt for such a momentous occasion as creation?

D)    What does השמים and  הארץ mean? They may refer to the sky and the land (or earth). They may refer to the metaphysical world and the physical world. They may refer to this world and the next: we just don’t know.

E)     It is possible that this verse is simply introducing the rest of the chapter, and should not be overly analyzed with such an attention to details.

F)     In Genesis, it seems that there are two creation stories (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-2:9), along with two stories of Adam’s and Eve’s inception. Furthermore, in Isaiah (44:24), creation, again, is described differently.

Once we are made aware of all these issues, it should be no surprise to discover that there is no clear consensus on what actually happened in the beginnings of the universe or how to interpret the Torah’s message. Not only is the matter not a simple “open and shut” case, but it seems from time immemorial that the only thing that the Sages could agree on was to disagree. Presumably, the main hurdle in settling this age-old question is interpreting the first verse from the Torah correctly, yet for every commentary you turn to, another understanding of the beginnings of the universe is presented. Furthermore, most Jewish commentators confront the hurdles of interpretation while responding to the scientific and philosophical conclusions of the age: by in large rejecting a division between Divine science and natural science. Commentators have always felt a need to reconcile the contemporaneous scientific data with revealed truth, science with Aggadata.

Without hesitation, most people would assert that Judaism is a strict creationist (creatio ex nihilo) religion. So, the question of evolution never arises; there is no need for it. This position generally follows from a literal reading of the first line of the Torah, quickly followed with a pious disclaimer asserting that you really do not understand the deeper levels of the text. Yet, when we turn to Midrashim, we encounter a wholly different picture. Here are six examples of Rabbinic accounts that would question a strictly literal interpretation of the Torah.

  1. Seven worlds were created before this one… (Nedarim 39B)
  2. Six things came before the creation of the world… (Genesis Rabbah 1:4)
  3. He answered them that he has come to receive the Torah. They said to him that the secret treasure, which has been hidden by You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created. (Shabbos 88B)
  4. It is taught: Rabbi Shim’on the Pious said: These are the nine hundred and seventy four generations who pressed themselves forward to be created before the world was created, but were not created. (Chagigah 14A)
  5. How did the Holy One, blesses be He, create His  world? He took two balls, one of fire and one of snow, and intermingled  them, and the world was created from them. (Genesis Rabbah 10:2)
  6. Where-from were the heavens created? From the light of His garment. He took some of it stretched it like a cloth, and thus they  were extended continually, as it is said: Who covers Thyself with light as a garment. Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain. Where-from was the  earth created? From the snow under the throne of His glory. He took some of it and threw it, as it is said: For He said to the snow, But you are earth. (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer III)

Independent of the philosophical implications latent within the Midrashic writers’ hands, we can see that the Rabbis spoke without reluctance about matters taking place before the actual creation of this world and even described creation in a way different from the Torah. Some have even tried to explain the existence of Tohu, Vohu, and Chosheich (emptiness, void and darkness) at the first moments of creation by offering explanations found in these Midrashim. Clearly one cannot outright say that traditional Judaism accepts a strict creatio ex nihilo stance unless these Midrashim are all meant to be taken metaphorically to teach some lesson about life, psychology or God, but not about the physical world. These Midrashim point to the obvious reality – that even early on in Judaic commentaries, this matter was always ambiguous.

Before we turn to the Rishonim, first we must take in the three cosmological traditions that one would expect them to fit into considering the science and philosophy of the Middle Ages. Even though the Rishonim will slightly amend the doctrine they ascribe to, these three positions are the templates for any understanding of the Rishonim’s stances.

1)      Creation Ex Nihilo – (יש מעין) Creation Out of Nothing; God brought the world into existence after absolute non-existence

2)      The Platonic Theory – Creation from Eternal (Primordial) Matter. This theory is found in Plato’s Timaeus.

3)      The Aristotelian Theory – identified sometimes with emanationism. The world has always existed as it is today along side God. There never was a point of creation.

But why would three traditions exist within traditional Judaism when Judaism so obviously supports creation ex nihilo? Simply, it is not the case that Judaism unconditionally supports the creation ex nihilo model. For that reason, we should not be surprised that the Rishonic (medieval) interpretations also take the form of one of these three traditions. In the following, we will see the diversity that exists throughout the Jewish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis. But, we will not delve into how each Rishon understood how the world itself evolved. Most of the classical commentators take, at some level, the development of the world as described by the Torah quite literally. So, for example, they will combine the two stories of Adam and Eve’s creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-2:24)

Biblical Commentators

 

R. Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) (1040-1105)

 (1:1)אם באת לפרשו כפשוטו כך פרשהו בראשית בריאת שמים וארץ והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך ויאמר אלהים יהי אור. ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה לומר שאלו קדמו, שאם בא להורות כך, היה לו לכתוב בראשונה ברא את השמים וגו’… אם כן תמה על עצמך, שהרי המים קדמו, שהרי כתיב ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים, ועדיין לא גלה המקרא בריית המים מתי היתה, הא למדת שקדמו המים לארץ. ועוד שהשמים מאש ומים נבראו, על כרחך לא לימד המקרא סדר המוקדמים והמאוחרים כלום:

• Rashi understands the opening verse of the Torah as an introductory sentence to the story of creation. He would read the Torah as follows: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth, when the earth was tohu ve’vohu (astonishingly empty).

• According to Rashi’s read, the heavens and the earth were not the first things created. He maintains that the heavens were made from water and fire.

• Rashi is most concerned with the grammatical structure of the verse, and therefore interprets that here is an assumed word in the first verse and that the prefix vav that starts the second verse, usually rendered ‘and,’ in this context means ‘when.’

R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167)

 

(1:1) רובי המפרשים אמרו שהבריאה להוציא יש מאין, וכן אם בריאה יברא ד’ (במד’ טז:ל). והנה שכחו ויברא אלהים את התנינים (ברא’ א כא). ושלש בפסוק אחד: ויברא אלהים את האדם (ברא’ א:כז), ובורא חושך (ישעי’ מה:ז), שהוא הפוך האור שהוא יש. וזה דקדוק המלה ברא לשני טעמים. זה האחד. והשני לא ברה אתם לחם (ש”ב יב: ז), וזה השני אל”ף תחת ה”א, כי כמוהו ויבוא כל העם להברות את דוד (ש”ב ג: לה), כי הוא מהבנין הכבד הנוסף. ואם היה באל”ף, היה כמו להבריאכם מראשית כל מנחת ישראל (ש”א ב:  כט). ומצאנו מהבנין הכבד, ובראת לך שם (יהושע יז:טו), ואיננו כמו ברו לכם איש (ש”א י”ז:ח) , רק כמו וברא אותהן (יחז’ כג, מז), וטעמו לגזור, ולשום גבול נגזר, והמשכיל יבין.

 

1)      Philosophical Approach – Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted notion of creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. Verses 21 and 27 are defeaters for the thesis that ברא refers to creation ex nihilo for those verses use the term ברא in a context that clearly indicates that the thing was not created ex nihilo. Therefore he concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Torah (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the “cutting” or “setting boundaries” of something that already pre-existed. It would make sense to assume that Ibn Ezra is referring to the Platonic matter that co-existed with God and was cut (or molded) at the time of creation.

2)      Mystical Approach – It is not known exactly what aspects of the mysticism that we have today were known to Ibn Ezra, but he interprets the second word of the Torah to mean that God set boundaries upon something. Mystics will claim that Ibn Ezra is not referring to Plato’s eternal matter, but to Himself (צמצום). God created the world by limiting His own being. Accordingly, the act of creation has two steps:

A) God (אין סוף) accepts limits upon Himself through an unprompted act of will. (This thought is labeled חכמה in Zoharic Kabbalah.)

B) He further limits Himself by taking on matter to ultimately produce the universe. Accordingly, the only thing cut (ברא) on the first day of creation was the supernal light.

The two verses offered by Ibn Ezra to prove his contention that the cognate Bara (ברא) does not actually refer to a creation ex nihilo are:

  1. And God created the great sea-monsters and every living animal that creeps, in which the waters teemed after their kinds, and all wings birds according to their kind; and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:21).
  1. And God created the man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

R. Moshe ben Nachmon (Ramban or Nachmonides) (1194-1270)

Before Nachmonides explains the story of genesis, he says: “The account of creation is a deep mystery, which cannot be understood by [merely] reading the verses, and cannot be known with clarity except through the tradition that goes back to our teacher Moses, from the mouth of the Almighty, and [furthermore] those who do know [the tradition] are obligated to conceal it…” The Talmud proscribes divulging the secrets of creation unrestrictedly. Accordingly, we should not expect to find every detail of creation explicitly formulated in his commentary. Nonetheless, Nachmonides goes on to construct a historical narrative of the creation form start to finish. That narrative, though, is founded on one key point: creation ex nihilo.

Nachmonides, at the outset, distinguished the words ‘created’ (ברא) from ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). While the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material; they never denote creatio ex nihilo. Accordingly, there is no room for ambiguity in the Nachmonides’ stance; he rejects the Aristotelian and the Platonic accounts of creation, But Nachmonides does not present the classical picture one would expect from a creationist. In the following, we will present a summary of Nachmonides’ physical/mechanical account of creation that he expressed in the straightforward scientific language of his day:

God created all that was created from complete nothingness… God brought into being from complete nothingness an exceedingly tiny element that has no physical substance; yet it contains the potential to bring other things into existence, ready to receive form and to emerge from its state of potentiality into actualization: this is the primary substance that the Greeks call ‘hyle.’ And after [the formation of] hyle, God did not create anything [else]; rather, he [merely] crafted and executed [from previous substance], for from it (hyle), everything comes into existence, is endowed with form and perfected.

In other words:

1)      Originally God alone existed.

2)      God created ex nihilo an infinitely small element lacking any describable attributes.

3)      This element contained the potential to generate hyle from which everything else is ultimately formed.

4)      At his stage, the earth was ‘Tohu’ (matter without substance) which eventually became ‘Bohu when God clothed it with form.

5)      God ensured that the potential be actualized in certain definitive ways.

6)      God never created anything ever again.

This account sounds remarkably similar to how an astrophysicist would describe the Big Bang event. Nachmonides even explains that the phrase ‘heaven and earth,’ as referenced in the first verse of Genesis, does not denote the actual heavens and earth; rather, it designates the potential for all the future stages of physical reality. He maintains that ‘heaven’ refers to the potential for the heavenly bodies and ‘earth’ refers to the potential for the four elements that the physical world is made up of: fire, wind, water, and dust. Furthermore, Nachmonides describes some form of evolutionary theory after the original act of creation. While his evolutionary theory does not match Darwinian evolution for the most part, still we can extrapolate from his comments that he believes that the Biblical narrative must be tempered with the philosophical assertions of his day to be true; we may not simply say that God created things every day. Also, Nachmonides’ understanding of evolution is teleological; he adds at the end of his commentary that “God endowed all things with form and perfected them.” He is clearly insinuating that no aspect of the process was left to chance or randomness.

 

R. Gershon ben Levi (Ralbag or Gersonides) (1288-1344)

Following R. Ibn Ezra’s approach, Ralbag explains in Book 6, part 1, of his Milchamot Hashem, that the world was created from eternal formless matter; so when the Torah speaks of creation, it is referring to the point in which the world we live in right now started. He actually maintains that creation ex nihilo is impossible: not even God can make something out of nothing. For Ralbag, that is logical impossibility. For Ralbag, God creating the world ex nihilo would be the equivalent of God making a square circle. (Maimonides explains and rejects this position in the Guide 2:13 as he argues that creation is not a type of generation, so the Platonic principle should not apply to creation.)

Philosophical Commentators

 

R. Sa’adya ben Yosef HaGeon (Sa’id al-Fayyumi) (892-942)

Many times referred to as the father of medieval Jewish philosophy, Sa’adya Geon produced four arguments in favor of creation ex nihilo in his famous “Book of Doctrines and Belief.” Before he presents his philosophical arguments, he asserts that a simple translation of the opening verse of the Torah and a similar verse in Isaiah would lead one to conclude that Judaism preaches the creation ex nihilo approach. He says:

From these introductory remarks, I go on to affirm that our Lord has informed us that all things were created in time, and that He created them ex nihilo, as it is said, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and as it further said, “I am the Lord that makes all things, that stretched forth the heavens alone, that spread abroad the earth by myself” (Isaiah 44:24).

 

After this assertion, Sa’adya Geon goes on to offer proofs that the world cannot be eternal; there must be a point in which it started, he reasons. Instead of analyzing all of these arguments, we will instead break down the first argument for the sake of simplicity. His first argument exploits Xeno’s paradox to produce a modus ab absurdum argument to show that the world has a finite character; it goes as follows:

1)      one must assume an infinite regress for an eternal universe to exist

2)      an infinite regress could never be traversed

3)      therefore, we could never arrive at the point in which we presently exist

4)      therefore, we do not exist

5)      since we know we do exist, the universe is not eternal, and must be created

 

R. Joseph Albo (ca. 1380-1444)

 

In his book “Ikkarim,” R. Albo posits that one should believe in creation ex nihilo, but that premise is not based on the verse of Genesis. Furthermore, he allows for one to believe in that the world is eternal, but unlike Aristotle’s version of an eternal world.

He says: “Creation ex nihilo is a dogma which every one who professes a divine law is obliged to believe… The story of creation at the beginning of the Torah is not intended to teach that creation ex nihilo is a fundamental principle of the Torah, as many authorities have it…”

“It follows therefore that though a person who believes in the eternity of the world as Aristotle conceives the doctrine, is a denier of the Torah and its miracles, one who conceives of eternity in the manner mentioned before, does not deny the Torah or its miracles, for belief in the Torah and its miracles does not imply belief in creation ex nihilo. This is why we said in the preceding chapter that the purpose of the first section of Genesis is merely to teach the existence of a Maker, which is the first essential principle of the existence of a divine law, without which it cannot be conceived…”

 

R. Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides) (1138-1204)

Unlike other Biblical exegetes, Maimonides never wrote a systematic commentary of the Torah; rather we must piece together his opinion from his various treatments of the topic scattered throughout his writings. This may sound easy, but in truth, to extrapolate Maimonides ‘s true opinion from his writings is a task which many people have spent their whole lives trying to do. While Maimonides’ Magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah is known for its clarity and precision, his Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) is known for its ambiguity and cunning. He warns his readers in its introduction that he plans to hide the truth from those who are not ready for it. He accomplishes this by misleading the reader through cleverly placed contradictions that only the erudite reader will be able to resolve. To this day, many of Maimonides’ true stances are left up to scholarly debate. The issue of creation is one of those topics that just could not stay out of storm’s way. It seems that more literature has been devoted to Maimonides’ views on creation than any other theme in his philosophy. Therefore, it would be audacious as well as foolish to attempt to present Maimonides’ true stance in regards to creationism, so in the following I will present the three possibilities proposed by the shrewd readers of Maimonides over the centuries.

In order to understand the extent of the confusion inherent in this undertaking, we will present the prophetology-cosmology debate as Maimonides does: this discussion lies at the heart of the matter. For some reason, Maimonides suggests a thematic correspondence between three opinions on prophecy and the three opinions on creation mentioned above. He says: “The opinions of the people concerning prophetology are like their opinions concerning the eternity of the world or its creation in time.”

                       Prophetology                                                      Cosmology

1. God chooses who He wishes (Pagans)     1. Creation ex nihilo (Jews)

2. Perfected peoples become                          2. Eternal Matter (Platonists)

prophets (philosophers)

3. God can withhold prophecy from             3. Emanation Theory (Aristotelians)

even a perfected person (Jews)

Maimonides’ true belief concerning the correspondence between the three possibilities of prophecy and the three possibilities of creation has been debated ever since Maimonides first proposed such a correspondence.

Creation Ex Nihilo       

  1. “Those who follow the Law of Moses, our Teacher, hold that the whole universe has been brought into existence out of non-existence. In the beginning God alone existed, and nothing else, neither the angels, nor spheres, nor the things that are contained within the spheres existed. He then produced from nothing all existing things such as they are by His will and desire” (Moreh Nevukhim II:13).
  2. He outright rejects the Platonic, Aristotelian (emanationist), and Epicurean version of the world’s earliest days throughout the Guide.
  3. Rambam wrote two editions to his Commentary on the Mishnay. In the latter version of the 4th article of faith, he says: “Know that the great principle of the Torah of our teacher Moses is that the world is a new creation. It was formed and created out of absolute non-being” (Sanhedrin, chapter chelek).
  4. The fact that Maimonides spent so many chapters in the Guide for the Perplexed arguing for creation would be completely unnecessary and worthless had he not actually believed in creation ex nihilo himself. Had he believed in another possibility,      he would not have devoted so much time and effort to the topic.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The theory of creatio ex nihilo fits as well into the Biblical account as does others, so unless we have ample (whether philosophical or scientific) reason to side with another approach, one should accept its literal truth.

2)      Maimonides believed in creationism, but he held it at the expense of forsaking some of his more philosophically astute conclusions.

3)      Maimonides equates the Platonic and Aristotelian viewpoint (2:13), and as the Aristotelian position undermines the Torah, creationism was the only real possibility.

Platonic

 

  1. “If one could demonstrate its truth, one could accept the Platonic theory. It does not destroy the Law and one could interpret      figuratively the texts that contradict its opinion” (328, Pines version of the Guide).
  2. “If the Platonic viewpoint were true, the Jews would be able to justify their religion to the philosophers” (330).
  3. “Plato’s opinion does not undermine the Law, while Aristotle’s does” (2:25).
  4. The famous Maimonidean scholar Davidson accepts this as Maimonides’ position.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      Maimonides felt that this approach offered the most philosophically accurate picture.

Aristotelian (1:1, 2:2, 3:3)

  1. The very existence of ambiguities in Maimonides’ position on creation itself testifies to the fact that he must have held some secret belief. It is possible that Maimonides deemed that most Jews could  not handle the truth.
  2. All of Maimonides’ proofs for the existence, unity and incorporeality of God presuppose the “eternity of the world” (as he      says in the beginning of book two of the Guide); so, “our knowledge of God” is based on the Aristotelian premise of eternity.
  3. The position of Aristotle is generally equated with the position of Divine necessity which Maimonides, many times, advocates.
    1. “The works of the Deity… are of necessity permanently established as they are, for there is no possibility of something calling for a change in them” (2:28).
    2. “God never undergoes any changes, nor does his relationship to anything other than Himself because He has no       relationship with that that is other than Himself” (1:11, 37-38).
    3. “For [Aristotle’s] opinion [concerning eternity] is  nearer to correctness than the opinions of those who disagree with him       insofar as inferences are made from the nature of what exists.” (2:15)
  4. Maimonides hints to the fact that R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, R. Yehuda ben Shim’on, and R. Abbahu all held the Aristotelian      position (2:30).
  5. Maimonides never even claimed to offer a  demonstrative proof of creation.
  6. The first translator of the Moreh Nevuchim, Samuel ibn Tibbon, whom Maimonides himself praises, assumes eternal creation as a  given in his work “Let the Waters be Gathered.”
  7. Maimonides says that if someone could offer him a sound demonstration for the eternity of the world, he would have no      problem fitting it into the words of the Torah, and would accept it      without hesitation even though he says elsewhere that the belief in the  eternity of world undermines the Torah.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The only reasoning given by Maimonides (and Albo) for his rejection of the Aristotelian approach is that it uproots the Law, for the possibility of miracles is thereby negated by his approach. However, one not need conclude that Aristotle’s approach destroys the Law; really the Law and Aristotle might be presenting an identical picture of reality

2)      Maimonides agreed with the Aristotelian approach to creation, but for political reasons, he was forced to remain silent on the matter. Though, he did hint to his shrewd readers throughout the Moreh Nevuchim that he held this stance.

3)      Maimonides felt that this approach offered the most philosophically accurate picture.

Abstention

 

Many recent studies have concluded that Maimonides remained agnostic in regards to the creation debate. Given the heated debate shown in the three above cases, one may conclude that Maimonides himself never found any decisive evidence to determine his own view, and therefore he hinted at arguments for all three positions even though he himself was agnostic about the matter. Julius Guttman (and Isaac Husik) has even gone so far as to conclude that though Maimonides believed in creationism, he held is at the expense of forsaking some of his more philosophically astute conclusions.

Some (Klein-Braslavy) have shown that Maimonides offers many different interpretations of the term BARA. He even admits that if there were a logical proof or a demonstration that Aristotle’s position on the beginnings of the world, he would have no problem in reconciling this view with the verses from Genesis. Clearly, Maimonides held that the language of the Torah is inherently ambiguous and there is no truly accepted, universal Jewish position on the matter.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The account of creation is ambiguous enough to uphold all three theories.

2)      Practically, it makes no difference which approach is true, for there is room in the Jewish tradition for all three positions.

3)      Maimonides was not sure, so he presented all three theories so that every person could feel justified in his own understanding.

Conclusion

 

We have seen that Sa’adya Geon upholds the “alleged” traditional standpoint that God created the world ex nihilo, while many of the other Rishonim do not. Rashi maintains that water preceded the world’s creation in Genesis, Ibn Ezra upholds some form of the Platonic theory, Nachmonides advocates a non-Darwinian, God-directed evolution, while no one is really sure what Maimonides holds. If we should learn anything from these Rishonim’s approaches to the creation narrative, it is that they did not feel justified in simply translating the text. They do not base their positions solely on the philological conclusion that one would draw from the verse; they equally include their knowledge of philosophy and science to analyze the verse. They felt that all pertinent pieces of information must be utilized in order to interpret the Torah correctly. Maimonides himself declares that he would accept any position that is accompanied by a valid logical proof. Obviously, he is not working with any concrete, unbendable assumptions.

Similarly, the author of the Kuzari, R. Judah Halevi (1075-1141), who himself supports the position of creatio ex nihilo, recognizes that the Platonic theory of creation is an acceptable Jewish belief just as Maimonides, Albo and Ibn Ezra did. He says: “If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch…” (Kuzari I 67). Nothing compels the Kuzari to offer this allowance to potential heretics save the sincere belief that people must, in the end, follow truth, even if it is not the best read of the Torah.

The only limitation Rishonim imposed upon the advancement of scientific and philosophic matters is when the topic undermined a Jewish dogma. If one looks close at why Maimonides and Albo rejects the Aristotelian cosmological picture, it is not because they objected to the notion –they simply rejected the logical implications of such a doctrine. It was assumed that the Aristotelian stance obviated the possibility of miracles. Because Judaism accepts the possibility of miracles, as well as that miracles once happened historically, the Aristotelian position was excluded for philosophical reasons.

From time immemorial, Jews have debated this topic, and we should not be surprised that this debate continues to be fought in our own generation. Based on these Rishonim – who are and define the traditional perspective – it seems that the only blasphemous statement one could really voice about creation is that the official Jewish stance is of one opinion: for once that is heralded, some of our holy Tanna’im, Amora’im and Rishonim (different kind of Rabbis) are thrown to the wind. In the end, we must admit that Jewish tradition does not speak with a single voice or with a single story on the subject of creation. With every new commentary, with every new scientific discovery, a new twist on the creation narrative and the Torah as a whole is further revealed. The traditional stance of Judaism is to ensure that our interpretation of the Torah completely fits with truth, not the other way around; our job is not to impress our will, or opinion upon what the accepted truth is; rather, it is our job to take into account every pertinent piece of information and mold our interpretation accordingly.

In view of the multiple interpretations presented above, it is reasonable to assume that the Torah was not even attempting to present a scientific doctrine of how the world came into existence. The Torah was not putting forth an esoteric doctrine of which most of the Jews spanning the history of the world never could understand. Rather than explain God’s prowess in astrophysics, the opening verses of the Torah presents one unassailable fact: God is the one and only master of the world. This is analogous to what Albo said above: “The purpose of the first section of Genesis is merely to teach the existence of a Maker, which is the first essential principle of the existence of a divine law.” Other facts that can reliably cull from the creation account include: (1) He is outside the realm of nature of which is subservient to Him, (2) There is no need for a myth to explain His origins, (3) there is a relationship between man and God; the story of creation teaches these statements of faith. The fact remains that the Torah’s story of creation is more noteworthy for what it leaves out than for what it includes. We find no mention of angels, forces, instruments, competing forces, magic or the like. The Jewish religion is non-mythological; accordingly, Genesis begins with an account of the acts of the pre-existent God, without any theo-biography.

Furthermore, we would be remiss if we did not stress the relative unimportance that the story of creation is given in comparison to the rest of the Torah. Rashi asks why the Torah does not start with the prescription of sanctifying the new moon (the first commandment). In order to justify that question, we must assert that Rashi understood that the Torah to be, first and foremost, a book of commandments, not of narratives. We should wonder why the creation story is even found in the Torah. As opposed to other pagan religions, the creation story presents neither a political picture nor a practical obligation: neither the land of Israel, nor the Holy Temple, nor the nation of Israel are referenced or even mentioned in the whole account. Its sole goal is to teach us about God’s relationship to the world and mankind.

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