Science in the Bible?
One oft repeated claim brought up by Creationists and Bible believers is the claim that the Bible contains specific scientific foreknowledge that could not be present if it was written without divine help. The Bible, they argue, must be inspired by God because otherwise how could its authors have possibly guessed at these scientific truths that wouldn't be discovered for thousands of years?
If the authors of the Bible were indeed in contact with a supernatural being that was feeding them correct information what would we expect the Bible to say? What level of understanding would we expect these authors to demonstrate? This hub is about what the Bible actually says about the natural world and why the interpretation of people thousands of years later can actually taint the original meaning.
An example of what believers claim to see:
What Might We Expect to See?
The first thing we should establish is a baseline on what sort of information we might want to see contained in the Bible if it authors were indeed receiving advanced knowledge from an actual God. Obviously whatever information it contained would have to be fairly basic knowledge, we wouldn't expect to see quantum mechanical equations or equations on how to get a rocket to the moon.
At the very least though we would expect the Bible to give us insight into basic grade school or middle school level science. We might see an early form of the periodic table or atomic theory in general being outlined. We might see diagrams or descriptions of how God used gravity and the remnants of a dead star to form the Earth. We could also expect to see some basic maths at least as advanced as the stuff the ancient Greeks came up with but perhaps even more so.
We might also expect God to give the Hebrews some practical knowledge to make them more advanced than their counterparts. Medical knowledge making them far ahead of their peers at surgery or knowledge of anti-biotics, vaccines or even the germ theory of disease. Perhaps they'd have a good grasp of human anatomy and how the body works. Or maybe they'd be great at astronomy or predicting the weather.
Bare minimum the knowledge contained would need to add up to the Biblical authors being far more advanced in their understanding than the average civilization around them.
In the Beginning
In our examination of what the Bible says about the natural world we'll start with the creation of account in Genesis. Now many adherents of the Bible will be quick to point out that not everything in Genesis (or the Bible in general) is meant to be taken literally. There's allegory, symbolism and mythology in the Bible (Really? You don't say!) and so we shouldn't always take it at face value. Many Creationists and Biblical literalists do believe the story of Genesis is literally true and if the authors supposedly had access to the truth about the natural world we might expect them to work those truths into the account and just change the allegories accordingly.
If the Bible has any value in telling us about science and the natural world surely the Genesis creation story will match up with discoveries that have been made in science that explain how the Earth formed and how life got started and began to evolve.
Genesis opens with God verbally commanding there to be light which Creationists insist is evidence that the Bible predicted the Big Bang. This seems to be to be quite a powerful stretch of the imagination. I'm unsure how the Universe coming into existence via magic words, that is a verbal command demanding that things spring into existence, is at all analogous to a rapid expansion of space and time.
After this the Bible plays its Cosmological hand by explaining that God separated out the waters below from the waters above and set into the sky a firmament to divide them. The firmament is a dome that was placed over the Earth. As we will see later during the Flood the commonly held ancient belief is that the sky was full of water and the water was above the dome, this was how they explained rain coming from the heavens. God then designs two light sources, the sun to rule over the day and the moon to rule over the night. The stars, like the sun and moon, are placed upon the firmament.
There is a minor problem, however, because the Creation of the sun is on the fourth day. God has already created plant life... before the sun. Of course we can't expect the ancient people who wrote the Bible to have had all that great a grasp on photosynthesis and their Creation story is not meant to be entirely literal anyway. In no way am I trying to denigrate the ancient people who wrote the Bible by retroactively pointing and laughing, I'm merely trying to explain why the Bible is not a science textbook and why people who make the claim that it contains accurate science are full of shit.
Naturally after this point the inaccuracies begin to compound on each other. The Earth is not surrounded by a solid dome nor is there water floating in space. The moon, which Genesis says is a smaller secondary light to rule the night, actually has no light of its own but merely reflects the light of the sun.
I think it goes without saying that there was never a time in human history when there were only two individuals, such a thing would lead to a devastating genetic collapse from all the inbreeding that would result. I also feel it goes without saying that women were not magically created from a rib and I feel like many believers, hell even many Creationists, would agree to me that that part isn't literal. The thing about Christianity is that it involves so much misinterpretation, re-interpretation and cherry-picking of the ancient Jewish scripture that no two Christians hold the same view on which parts are literally true and which are allegory or blatant myth-making.
And the Sky was Opened
In Genesis 7:11 when the Flood begins God opens up the “windows” of heaven. Most modern Christians glance over this as mere imagery designed to paint a picture in the mind. What they don't realize is that ancient people didn't understand weather patterns or meteorology in general. While many farming cultures understood the basics of growing seasons, rainy seasons, etc people did not know why it rained or where all that water was coming from. Christians take this for granted not realizing that when the Bible says the heavens had floodgates or windows it actually means it.
And the word for heaven here is the same Hebrew word used to describe the heavens or the sky in numerous places in the Bible. Most Christians differentiate between the heavens and God's dwelling in Heaven, when I was a Christian I thought of Heaven as a spiritual realm, almost another dimension layered over our own that was just outside of space and time. Needless to say the Bible doesn't have any of that sci-fi sounding BS. The Hebrew Bible does not make a distinction between the heavens and God's dwelling place.
If you are a Christian you may have just assumed that them referring to the sky as the heavens above was symbolic or poetic - but it wasn't. That same word, used for sky, is used for God's dwelling because they literally believed God lived in the heavens - above the firmament.
And the Sky was Opened continued
This is why God is always descending from Heaven or ascending back up into it rather than coming from the ground below or somewhere else. God lived in the sky. Even in the New Testament this belief is intact with Jesus rising up into the sky and the Apostle Paul talking about spiritual rulers and principalities of the air.
Christians today do not think this way and often decry atheists for depicting their God as just a “bearded man in the sky with magic powers” but reading the Old Testament it is easy to get just that idea. God is often depicted on a throne. Sometimes he descends with fire and thunder or brings about plague or famine on those who disobey him. To an educated person outside the cult of Christianity it certainly sounds like just some superstitious mythology. And the thing is it can't all just be assumed to be symbolic, because if it is than what sort of nebulous God do Christians really believe in?
If God being UP IN HEAVEN is just imagery meant to convey the idea that God is above mankind in an authority sense than how do the stories even make sense anymore? God descending on Mount Sinai to deliver the tablets to Moses would have an entirely different meaning and force us to picture something entirely different to what the text actually says. We might, instead, picture Moses atop a volcanic mountain, or atop a mountain during a storm, or perhaps imagine that Moses never really even existed (as many Biblical scholars agree he didn't).
Please note that I am not arguing the Bible stories must be taken literally, many of them teach lessons or contain obvious metaphors. But the part which is not obvious at all, and which the Bible is quite clear about, is that God is a King who dwells up in the heavens, somewhere skyward.
A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes?
Have you ever felt your heart flutter at the sight of a beautiful person? Or had butterflies in your stomach when you were on a first date? Have you ever decided to go with your gut feeling or perhaps to follow your heart? Chances are you've used these phrases time and time again over the course of your life or at the very least encountered them somewhere along the line. We understand today that the heart pumps blood and when we use these phrases all of us, or at least most of us, inherently understand that we're not being literal. We know that the heart doesn't think, the brain does. But did the authors of the Bible know this?
In all sixty-six books of the Bible the brain isn't mentioned once and while researching this I couldn't even find an ancient Hebrew word that means brain. The ancient authors of the Bible had no idea that the brain was where feelings, thoughts and sense perception took place.
Some Christians will no doubt argue that the Bible was being figurative when it said things like, “trust in the Lord with all your heart” since, to many Christians, the heart is a euphemism for the soul or the deepest part of the human being. That notion, of the heart as the place where essence and thought and feeling were, however, was not always figurative. For thousands of years ancient people believed that the heart was literally the source of thought and emotion and that the abdomen housed the soul or vital spirit, the so-called “fire in the belly”.
The Biblical authors most certainly believed this, the King James version contains over eight hundred references to the human heart but not a single damned one to the brain. To anyone out there who doesn't think that the Bible authors, at least some of them, held a literal belief that the heart was the center of thinking and emotion I challenge you to read through all 800+ mentions and come away with the same attitude.
800+ Metaphoric uses of the word Heart?
A Dream is a Wish Your Kidneys Make?
In his excellent series Idioms of Ignorance youtuber TruthSurge takes a look not just at the claim that the heart was involved but also that the kidneys were involved. Get this, there was an ancient belief that the kidneys also had a part to play in thinking and emotions and the Bible actually has verses which use the Hebrew word for kidney in conjunction with the mention of the heart. It may be easy for some believers to see the mention of the heart as mere poetry or metaphor that doesn't reflect the literal beliefs of ancient people but this is something else.
TruthSurge's Series 1 of 4
Of course the Bible also mentions that the world is circular, something that Christians trying to prove science is in the Bible leap at because they don't know the Earth is an oblate sphere. Of course the world was thought to be a circular, but mostly flat, disc shape with the firmament placed over top of it. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the verses unwitting Creationists trot out which they claim prove the Bible predicted the “expanding Universe” that Edwin Hubble discovered.
The Hebrew word that is translated as firmament in the King James version is often re-translated as EXPANSE in other versions of the Bible but is meant to refer to a surface that is laid out, not the expansion of the Universe.
The Bible also claims the Earth has four winds and has pillars or foundations. For example Daniel chapter 7 mentions the seas being stirred up by the four winds of heaven. Now again I'm not saying all of this must be literal, obviously there are instances in the Bible where metaphor and figurative language are used but in many of these cases the language reflects the actual beliefs of the authors at the time.
It's not that the authors were stupid either, please don't think I am insulting the authors of the Bible, they were merely limited in the information they had available scientifically speaking.
And the last thing I'll mention is, of course, the Biblical authors didn't understand biology or evolution all that well either. The story of Noah is particularly problematic as the man would have had to fit at least 16 million species on his boat (that's a conservative estimate of how many species there are) and make sure that all the kangaroos and penguins made it back to their native homes without leaving a single fossil or any evidence along the way.
In the end the writers and editors of the Bible understood very little when it came to the knowledge we have of the natural world today. They did their best to codify what they believed making religion responsible for everything from their understanding of the natural, to moral understanding, to what is legal, to religious rites and fables with moral lessons. Had they truly been in contact with a God who wanted to give them advanced scientific knowledge the world of today would be vastly different. Yet what we see from the Bible is completely consistent with the idea that the Biblical God doesn't exist at all and is just another form in the myriad of forms that human superstition has taken on over the millenia.
There is nothing particularly impressive about the Bible as far as the knowledge it contains especially when we compare it to the works of ancient Greek thinkers and scientists. Of course there is plenty of literary meaning and solid mythology for those interested in such things and for many believers there is wisdom and a spiritual or theological significance to the text. There isn't any trace of advanced modern science far beyond what human beings could have known at the time.
The Bible isn't a science book and I expect that despite our differences most Christians would agree with me on that point.
More by this Author
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A brief journey into the bizarre branch of New Age woo called Spirit Science. Can you tell real Spirit Science from stuff I just made up—take the quiz!