Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Borrowed Cosmology

Ed Babinski wrote:

The Hebrews did not give us a spherical earth, the Greeks did....

Lastly, Augustine and Basil [who refer to a diversity of cosmological views in their day] are 4th century CE.

In The Infidel Delusion, I mentioned that the later critics date Biblical books, the more they have to take into account advances in knowledge over time when evaluating those books. If belief in a spherical earth became more popular in later centuries, then a Biblical author's belief in a spherical earth becomes more plausible the later a Biblical book is dated. But critics of Christianity often want to assign late dates to the Biblical documents. Their desire to date a book late in one context works against their argumentation in another context. Giving Genesis, Isaiah, or Daniel a late date helps the critic in one context, but hinders him in another. All of our belief systems involve such tradeoffs, but it's important to be aware of those tradeoffs and their implications.

In a post yesterday, I noted some recent comments Ed Babinski made about how distant men like Basil of Caesarea and Augustine were from the Biblical documents. Since those men refer to a diversity of cosmological views in their day, and Ed doesn't want us to think there was such diversity in Biblical times, he uses exaggerated language when referring to the distance of time between those men and the writing of the Biblical books.

I've been over that ground before, and it's not the main point of this post. What I want to emphasize here is a related issue. Skeptics often suggest that the Bible borrows much of its material from pagan sources, that some New Testament documents were written by unknown Gentile authors rather than the Jewish authors the books were commonly attributed to, that we know about such Gentile authorship because of common Gentile concepts and terminology within the documents, etc. Yet, in an area like cosmology, such Gentile influence would be favorable to the traditional Christian position rather than unfavorable. So, it's in the interest of somebody like Ed to distinguish between "the Hebrews" and "the Greeks", and to assume less of a Gentile influence on the Biblical authors and patristic Christians, as he does above.

Isn't that observation reversible, though? Don't Christians have an interest in putting more emphasis on Gentile influence in this context than they do in others? Not to the same extent. A knowledgeable Christian wouldn't deny that believers who lived during the Biblical and patristic eras were open to influence from other cultures on matters like language and cosmology. If a Greek or Roman argument for a spherical earth, for example, was convincing, what would prevent Jews or Christians from accepting it? They wouldn't accept another culture's cosmology just because that cosmology was popular in that culture or was part of that culture's religion, for example. But if there was good evidence for the cosmology, they could accept it, much as they could accept good clothing, technology, natural resources, and other products produced by other cultures. What Jews and Christians wouldn't be so likely to accept would be something inconsistent with the heart of their own culture, like the gods of other religions and their moral standards. Why would a critic of Christianity who thinks Jews and Christians were so willing to borrow from paganism on such significant issues, like the ones I just mentioned, suggest that they would have been so resistant to pagan influence on a matter like the spherical shape of the earth?

I'm not saying that any correct cosmological views the ancient Jews and Christians had would have been borrowed from other cultures. Steve and I have given many examples of how they could have arrived at correct cosmological conclusions (or have been agnostic on the issues) without borrowing. But the influence of other cultures is one factor to be taken into consideration among others. Most likely, ancient Jews and Christians combined their own observations with information they attained from other cultures. There wouldn't have been just one cosmological system, which they received entirely from other cultures or attained entirely on their own.


  1. As an illustration of one of the points I made, note that we criticize Solomon for borrowing gods (1 Kings 11:4), but not for borrowing wood (1 Kings 5:6).

  2. Steve you wrote: "Ed doesn't want us to think there was such diversity in Biblical times."

    Actually that's exactly what I want you to think concerning NT writings, all of which appear to have retained the assumption of a flat earth just as older Scriptures did. The people who wrote the NT appear to assume a flat earth even in a world in which the spherical earth belief was the majority view among educated philosophers.

    So, YES there was diversity in biblical times. But there is no evidence of such diversity in the Bible, not in the OT nor the NT which continued to reflect phrases and ideas and assumptions of a flat earth throughout.

    Second, can you cite some writings from the ancient Near East that demonsrate a spherical earth? Or that they debated the earth's shape? There was no debate back then, the earth appeared flat. They didn't have telescopes and a Babylonian map of the world agrees with Sargon's geography concerning how limited their knowledge was of the earth's geography. The horizon spread out 360 degrees around them, and they imagined that was the earth, the flat circle of the earth. Isaiah agreed. Job agreed.
    Daniel and Matthew agreed that from a "great" height you could see or be seen to the ends of the earth. That the sun traversed the sky from one end of heaven or end of the earth to the other, just as Babylonians and Egyptians pictured it doing.

    I invite bloggers to consider the evidence, not to invent evident of a "diversity of views" in the ancient Near Eastern world. What "diversity" existed back that far was more along the lines of whether or not heaven and earth originally consisted of a single mountain sawn in half, or whether primeval waters were split. Or diversity as to whether or not the earth floated on the primeval waters, was suspended by pillars, or by the direct power of a god. Those were the types of "diverse" opinions held back that far.

  3. Edward Babinski said:
    Steve you wrote: "Ed doesn't want us to think there was such diversity in Biblical times."

    I could point out how you could simply read the "posted by" line, but I wouldn't want that to get in the way of your brilliant textual criticism skills.

  4. Peter, Please consider, on a scale of trivial to severe what types of errors in your opinion are severe enough to damn everything else a person may have said or written? If I mistype the title of a book in a blog post (but not in my chapter), or if I mistakenly imagine that Steve, rather than Jason, was directing a post toward me (in lieu of the fact that Steve seems to be tossing far more of them my way than Jason as of late)? I apologize to Jason for mistaking the authorship.

    Moreover, I appreciate that Jason has acted in a friendlier fashion (though Steve could remedy that if he wants), so I doubly apologize to Jason for the name mix up.

    I am also willing to send you, Peter, a copy of my chapter.

    And let me extend an invitation to Jason to send him a copy of Thom Stark's interesting book, The Human Faces of God. It will make interesting review material for Triablogue I'm sure, negative or positive.

  5. Jason, I like your post and ponderings. And I think we agree that the crucial question is whether or not any of the ancients could have remained totally agnostic when it came to imagining the cosmos' general shape and structure. I suspect that the mind cannot truly help but envision the world around it and does try to put whatever it knows into some sort of order. They knew little back then, so the way they ordered the cosmos and spoke about it seems to have made perfect sense--flat earth sense.

    Beale in his book, The Erosion of Inerrancy, attempted to argue that not even the Egyptians and Babylonians believed in a firm sky. For instance he cites someone who argues that the Egyptian god's hands are not shown touching the sky to hold it aloft, the hands are merely "raised," and it was an "air god" so maybe, he argues, it's only saying that the sky is held up by air. But this type of argument propsed by Beale missed the fact that the sky is alread held up by her toes and fingers at opposite horizons, and the air god's head has the mountains on it which are also in direct contact with the sky (goddess') belly, suggesting as Keel says that the mountains at the far ends of the earth are holding up the sky. Pyramid scolls state the same thing. And there's passages about the sky being held up by pillars at the earth's four corners. And there's a wall-ring representation of the Egyptian sky above the earth. Beale mentions none of that to his readers. The same goes for his discusssion of Enuma Elish in which he ignores passages that say Tiamat's skin was stretched out, and she was raised aloft kind of like raising a tent, and guards were placed to keep her waters from escaping, and he neglects other passages that mention the heavens being made of stone, abodes of the gods.

    Beale even admits briefly that after speaking with various experts on ANE cosmology, "perhaps" he might be wrong to attempt to deny Hebrew enculturation of the flat earth cosmic geography that was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East. Here is Beale's admission:

    "Do certain descriptions of the cosmos reflect only language expressing the ancient mythological worldview, which was built into the substructure of the biblical writers’ thinking through acculturation...? Perhaps. I have discussed this with some ancient Near East scholars, and the best assessment they give me is that sometimes the cosmological language is purely phenomenological… sometimes it expresses the cosmic temple notion, and sometimes it reflects the socially constructed mythological geographical assumptions and understanding of the parts of the cosmos." p. 195-196

    Beale wants the Bible to be as without error as possible but he does at least admit that "perhaps" the ANE experts are right. He also admits:

    "Ancient Near Eastern concepts may have contributed to the theology of sacred space in the building of Israel’s tabernacle and temple. Examples include the eastward orientation, the placement of important cultic objects, the designation of areas of increasing holiness, and the rules for access to the Holy Place and Holy of Holies... circumcision and sacrificial offerings.

    "Another option is that biblical writers unconsciously absorbed mythical worldviews about the cosmos, reproduced them in their writings, and believed them to be reliable descriptions of the real world and events occurring in the past real world—creation account, flood narrative, etc.—because they were part of their socially constructed mythological reality. If this is the case, which [I think] is unlikely, it would be impossible not to see ancient Near Eastern myths about the cosmos as inextricably intertwined with Israel’s theology, which would be a very difficult predicament for those [like me] who believe in the inspiration of Scripture." p.216-217

  6. Ed,

    Steve, Paul, and I addressed the Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence in The Infidel Delusion, and we've discussed a lot of the relevant issues on this blog. Repeating your appeal to Job, Isaiah, Matthew, etc. doesn't interact with what we said about those passages.

    My position isn't that the Biblical authors were "totally agnostic" on these issues. In a previous response to you, I explained how even an author with a false cosmology could write without error. But people often do remain agnostic on issues they don't know much about or consider difficult to judge. You yourself are an agnostic on the issue of God's existence. On lesser issues, like the structure of the universe, the structure of a car, or the components of medicine or food we consume, we're often largely ignorant and content to remain so. Even if we lean in a particular direction on an issue, we often refrain from expressing an opinion in some contexts. I doubt that all, or even most, of the Biblical authors you've cited thought they knew so much about the structure of the universe and wanted to say so much about it.

    I haven't read Gregory Beale's book. I don't know the context of what you're quoting. And I don't see much significance in his "perhaps" comment, assuming that he said it in reference to the possibility of a position like yours. Historical judgments are about probability. Acknowledging that somebody else's position is perhaps true doesn't have much significance.