Designed to Mislead Its Own Believers: The Creationist Bible

David Rives posted this wonderful meme on Twitter with the offer to illustrate Isaiah 40:22.

The God of the Bible, so the message, had already told us that we were living on a globe, the globe which all our cosmonauts and astronauts have seen from space …the beginning of a short but instructive dialogue:

Could I ask for more now that I had finally received a clearer note of my educational deficits? I switched to my personal account; Dave could see that it was still me…

When did Isaiah live? In the 8th century BC? The book was probably concluded around 500 BC, if we trust those who studied the texts. Were the Israelites of this era already aware of the fact that they were living on a globe? What indications do we have that Isaiah was actually speaking of that globe and not just of a landmass on a round plate? If they knew more about the planet, why was their knowledge not more contagious? Where is the ancient three dimensional globe used by their scholars? Where a first plan to circumnavigate the globe? The “majority” of the people believed that it was a globe – how will this be proven?

The theological problem

The Bible on my table is a Jerusalem Bible, Popular Edition (with reduced footnoting) the 1966 text. I like this translation. It’s readable and (unlike the New Jerusalem Bible) not yet affected by all the anxieties gender politics. The text has its own rhythm (maybe because J. R. Tolkien was involved). The editors take a modern theological stance. This is their first page of the Book of Genesis:

Jerusalem Bible, Popular Edition , (1966) p.5 Genesis 1
Jerusalem Bible, Popular Edition , (1966) p.5 Genesis 1

The footnotes are straight. This is how the ancient Semites saw their cosmos: God separated the waters; he erected a dome to keep these waters in check. Man is living on a plate underneath that dome. A separate footnote focusses on the inherent polemics: The stars are just lights, not Gods. This religion had a tendency to demystify and to rationalise the cosmos at the expense of the polytheist neighbours.

The first footnotes are carefully crafted. The editors do not explicitly state that we are reading a human composition. They tell us that this is what the ancient Semites believed. The reader can be an atheist and he will be able to accept that people believed what they were reading here.

Newton’s Bible

Newton read a King James Version of 1611 with pretty much the same perspective on the text and he venerated this text. How could the astronomer determine the age of the solar system? We had just this one historical document with the apparent privilege of God’s authorship. Romans and Greeks had accepted a dark past of contradicting accounts and had not done much to get a straight record. Those who lived in Rome counted the years ab urbe condita from the city’s alleged founding date in 753 BC. The deeper past was shrouded in myths. The Bible was and is different. It cuts away the mythical eons. Newton did not hesitate to accept the biblical account. As a scientist he realised that we had no data preceding the biblical flood in 2300 BC – a suggestive fact that supported the accuracy of the entire account. The mathematician opted, however, for logical arguments. Usual commercial calendars would present 3950 BC as the year of the creation. The biblical text allowed more than that single computation. God, so the astronomer, was likely to calculate in even time spans. 4004 BC was in this case the best date – the odd 4 years were caused by our mistake to determine Christ’s birth year correctly. The Saviour was born in 4 BC, so the astronomer with a look at the constellations.

Bible Moralisée de Tolède. Dieu Pantocrator (God the Geometer) 1240
Can we prove that this is not the far more appropriate illustration of Isaiah 40:22? Toledo Bible of 1240

Newton’s theological problem was the account of Genesis 1 (and in that case just as well the account of Isaiah 40:22). The firmament was literally a “firmament”, a firm dome keeping waters in check. No one could tell Newton that we were living under such a dome and that the sun, the moon, and the stars were just lights fixed on that celestial sphere.

Why didn’t God give the astronomer’s account with all the required clarity: We are living on planet three of the solar system, spinning around our own axis, circling on an elliptic course around the Sun. Would – so Newton in an attempt to understand God’s decision – the immediate audience have accepted the true account? God had to manipulate the facts, so Newton to Bishop Thomas Burnet in a letter written in January 1680/1:

As to Moses […] where he speaks of two great lights I suppose he means their apparent, not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed those lights in ye firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent not of their real place, […] to adapt a description of ye creation as handsomly as he could to ye sense & capacity of ye vulgar […]

For Moses, accommodating his words to ye gross conceptions of ye vulgar, describes things much after ye manner as one of ye vulgar would have been inclined to do had he lived & seen ye whole series of wt Moses describes […]

Now for ye number & length of ye six days: by what is said above you may make ye first day as long as you please, & ye second day too if there was no diurnal motion till there was a terraqueous globe, that is till towards ye end of that days work.

Newton’s answer is theologically problematic. If Genesis 1 was written by the biblical Moses then God was writing for an audience that had already accepted rivalling heathen views. God might, so Newton (but who is he to justify God?), have felt needs to omit the uncanny details which Newton could provide.

As clever as this is, it is problematic. Could Newton be sure that he himself was not misled by the same text, and in that case by God? What if Darwin and Hawking were more privileged to see God’s truth and to grasp the real age of the world? Shall we assume that God entrusts atheists to reveal the more uncanny details of the cosmos? And why should we trust the Bible after all these misleading revelations?

Newton’s choice and the choice of the editors of the Jerusalem Bible can be placed in a system of five fundamental options – it is number 4 in this scheme, the Jerusalem Bible is on number 5. Both, 4 and 5, accept that we are reading a text which modern scientists cannot possibly accept as the scientific truth:

How to deal with the holy script. The further left you go, the less you will see of the actual text (and the more you will get of a text you can use for your own purposes)

The central third option is the classical scholastic proposal of the multi-layered text that wants to be defended on one or more of the four basic levels of interpretation, the “quatuor sensus scripturae”. Biblical texts can at least have a literal meaning, a dogmatic typological interpretation, a tropological reading of moral implications, and an anagogical reading with a perspective on God’s plan of salvation. All these levels can involve allegorical modes of composition. The third branch of theological decisions is to the advantage of a unified Church that will control the entire dissemination of meaning on all the levels of interpretation. Interpretations under number 5 are rather secular since thy invite historians and archeologists to offer more of the “original” contexts.

To be ahead of science comes at a price

Creationists travel between the first two lines of interpretation on the left side of the spectrum. The Bible is God’s word, spoken to anyone who wants to hear it. History is irrelevant, God speaks to Moses, the tribes in the African jungle, and to US-Americans simultaneously and his word is always the scientific truth.

Two arrangements can achieve this. The first comes in full support of modern science. Whatever science has found out, look into the Bible (or, more fashionably, the Quran) and you will find it is already stated there. The big bang, Darwin’s evolution, quantum mechanics and hip transplants made of titanium… God knew it would be found, and that’s why he said it.

The theological problem is fundamental: If it has all been in the text from the beginning, why did we need a Newton, a Darwin, or an Einstein to get it – authors who would not take their insight from the holy scriptures? What exactly does the holy text to withhold its wisdom for generations? Can it be that the holy text delays the emission of the scientific truth until science enforces the revelation?

Creationists play the game of this first branch with a twist: The Bible is indeed science but that does not mean that secular scientists are immediately ready to accept the messages. The present memes offer that twist with knowledge that has allegedly been in the Bible for thousands of years. Scientists rejected this knowledge until they finally had to concede that they were wrong and that the Bible was right. If you understand this, you will understand the rest: Science is lying to us, they conceal the truth. The big bang, a universe of billions of years, the evolution – are blatant lies. “Creation science” will bring us back onto the path of the truth – but before that it requires a fierce opposition to science in its present form.

2015 GenesisMovieCom1

2015 GenesisMovieCom2

The result is an uncanny infusion: We are living on a globe just as the Bible had said we do. Dinosaurs existed, just as the Bible has told us ever since we first read of Leviathan and Behemoth. Listen now to Creation science: These animals were initially vegetarians. They were on Noah’s ark. They rediscovered the world after the flood in 2300 BC. St George, the medieval saint, did not kill a fire-spitting dragon but a dinosaur, not that long ago, in the Middle Ages, and so on and so on without any further Biblical evidence in a pure rambling of astounding pictures this would give.

Pseudoscience is not a big issue in the sciences; I have never seen it entering a university class. The target is the family with children – a family to be steered into a bunker mentality wherever it is confronted with the “secular” educational system. They can only hope to find like-minded associates in the religious circles that hold to the new scientific truth.

The creationist Bible has basically the same text as my Jerusalem Bible and as Newton’s King James Version yet it is streamlined. It tells us what the sciences should be telling us. The passages remain poor: Look, there are dinosaurs in the Bible! and almost nothing is said about them. The continental drift has already been described in the Bibles, and nothing is said about it. The deficits are immediately repaired with infusions of images from modern sources. Visit the pages of creationists and they are filled with Jurassic Park imagery under the pretense of an educational impact: your family values will erode if you expose your children to a science that does not integrate them into our Bible on our new terms of Bible based science.

Jan Brueghel the elder, Landscape of Paradise and the Loading of the Animals in Noah’s Ark (1596)
Jan Brueghel the elder, Landscape of Paradise and the Loading of the Animals in Noah’s Ark (1596)
Web page of the Creation Museum 2015
Web page of the Creation Museum 2015

The streamlining with its focus on passages that can do the job of jumping into science and the infusion of pseudoscience on the way back into the Bible become apparent in all the attempts to compensate the lack of biblical information with a visual input from “science” sources. The new creationist Bible will use an American Standard Version but merchandise comes in adaptations from the Smithsonian Museum, from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and from idyllic visions the Watchtower Society would love to spread. The original text is muted. The Jerusalem Bible might aim at a close reading of the original text – the creationist Bible is a medley of inspiring and jaw dropping passages that are taken out of context and presented as a fast proof that God had always been telling us more about nature than scientists will ever do.

Pseudo literalism, the first boomerang of creationist problems

Religious schools of the first two branches advertise their own readings as purest literalism. One cannot claim that the Bible or the Quran are undiluted science and add that all the scientific information is hidden in allegories. The creationist reading will claim to be a straight reading – it might look obscure in its original context, but if you remove that context and if you close your eyes and add the images of modern science than the selected passage will be science at its best.

The literalism of creationists is otherwise a theological light weight. Historians – not interested in any literal truth – are, paradoxically, the true literalists these days. They will study passages with an interest to understand what they meant back in the days when they were written. They will contextualize these passages, they will read neighbouring sources in order to give the Biblical text an impartial reading; they will take a look at contemporary artefacts that depicted biblical knowledge. The result of the historical reading is a Bible of its own right, a text that does not dance to the tune of any modern movement. The result of the creationist reading is an ensemble of isolated passages that unfold their “true” meaning with heavy support from (pseudo-)scientific modern illustrations.

The question is then: How do you make sure that you are not reading modern (pseudo-)information into the text? What can creationists do with the tough literal readings of historians – what do they do with pages like that first of my Jerusalem Bible. The idea that the Bible told us we were living on a globe is intriguing. How does the modern biblical literalist prove, that the ancient Jews had our own view of that globe thanks to the Bible? What indications have we actually got that “the majority” of the Israelites of Isaiah’s day held the modern view? Why and when was it lost and why could the Bible persuade the next generations of the contrary? Why could anyone use the Bible to tell us that we were not living on a planet swirling around its own axis? Why could the biblical text mislead believers in the past?

We will be happy to publish the answers of a Creationist theologian right here on our page.

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