Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The sun, moon, and stars

It's common for liberals or outright unbelievers to claim that the Bible adopts or accommodates antiquated ANE beliefs. In addition to denying the inspiration of Scripture, this makes assumptions about what ancient Near Easterners believed. I'm going to state, then comment on three claims:

1. Ancient Near Easterners were geocentrists because it looks and feels like the earth is stationary while the sun, moon, and stars move around the earth.

2. Ancient Near Easterners thought the celestial luminaries were embedded in the firmament:

The terminology of KAR 307 33 suggests that the stars and constellations were thought to be etched directly onto the jasper surface of the Lower Heavens…A tradition that the fixed-stars were inscribed onto the surface of the heavens implies that this surface rotated every 24 hours, since inscribed stars could not move independently. This tradition is reasonable since stars and constellations maintained fixed positions relative to one another as if inscribed on a rotating sphere. The Sun, Moon, and planets do not maintain fixed positions in relation to the stars, leading later Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic astronomers to speculate that these heavenly bodies were located on different levels or spheres from the fixed stars. 

No text explains in detail how the stars, Sun, Moon, and planets move through the sky. In KAR 307, the stars are said to be inscribed upon the lower jasper heavens. As noted on p15, stars inscribed onto the stone floor of heaven would to have been able to move independently. Thus, the author of KAR 307 may have explained that stars appear to move in the night sky because the entire sky rotated. Such a cosmographic belief could not explain the independent motion of the Sun, Moon, planets, comets, or shooting stars, nor could it explain why circumpolar stars remained above the horizon throughout the year while other stars rose and set. 

W. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Eisenbrauns 1998), 14-15,258.

3. Ancient Near Easterners believed the celestial luminaries were deities:

In ancient Mesopotamia both the sun and the moon were male deities. In Sumerian, the moon god was called Suen or Nanna (Nannar), and sometimes he was called by both names together, Nanna-Suen. In Akkadian, Suen was later pronounced Sin. 

Utu was the Sumerian sun God, whose Akkadian name was Shamash. 
Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (U. of Texas 1997), 135,182.

Now let's evaluate these claims:

1. Geocentrism

i) It's quite possible that most ancient Near Easterners were geocentrists. From the standpoint of an earthbound observer, the celestial motion appears to be geocentric. 

ii) However, even if we assume most ancient Near Easterners were geocentrists, that doesn't mean most of them believed the sky was a solid dome, through which precipitation was emitted. Unlike the phenomenology of geocentrism, a solid dome is not an observational datum. Moreover, the postulate of a solid dome goes against observational data or inferences thereof (see below).

iii) We must also make allowance for the possibility that some ancient Near Easterners were not geocentrists. If you see celestial bodies circling around you, it's possible to analogize relative motion. All you need is a good head for mental geometry. Certainly Near Easterners were acquainted with relative motion. They would see one ox cart passing another, one boat passing another. 

Scientific breakthroughs often involve analogical thought-experiments, viz. Newton's cannonball or Einstein's train. So we shouldn't underestimate ancient Near Easterners. Some were undoubtedly brilliant and observant. 

2. Solid dome

As Horowitz himself points out, believing the sky is a solid dome is prima facie inconsistent with the apparent motion of the celestial luminaries. Horowitz conjectures a partial harmonization by suggesting that ancient Near Easterners through the sky itself rotated. However, that's just his speculation. He doesn't quote an ancient primary source that says that or shows that. Moreover, he admits that this expedient fails to reconcile the apparent motion of all celestial bodies. At most, it only works for the fixed stars. So it's quite possible that ancient Near Easterners never took the solid dome representation literally. It may just be architectural symbolism. 

3. Celestial deities

Another problem is the interrelation between (2) and (3). Did ancient Near Easterners think gods were etched onto the surface of the solid dome? That's difficult to visualize or comprehend. Even if they thought celestial luminaries were like gemstones embedded in metal castings, that's an odd way to think of gods. On the face of it, (2) and (3) are incompatible representations. 

In principle, there are different way of harmonizing the divergent representations: One or both representations might be figurative. Or these might reflect different conflicting traditions. If the former, there's nothing for Scripture to accommodate. If the latter, there's no common ANE tradition for Scripture to adopt. 


  1. Seventeenth century Christians could allude or even accommodate the theory of humorism in their theological writings to make spiritual points without actually making a stand on the truth or error of the theory. I've also always wondered what's so wrong if the human writers of Scripture believed errors so long as they didn't actually teach it in Scripture as true.

    There are various models of Christology that are consistent with the definition of Chalcedon. One of them includes a view where Christ had two consciousnesses (or possibly two minds). The greater being the divine consciousness and the lesser the human consciousness. The distinctions help in explaining how at times Jesus was ignorant of certain facts on earth (e.g. who touched Him). Given this view, it seems to me that it's possible for Jesus, in His human consciousness, to have believed errors in cosmology or the physical universe (e.g. the sun revolves around the earth) so long as He didn't teach them as scientifically true.

    The Bible can describe things phenomenologically and experientially without assuming it's speaking scientifically (or intending to do so). For example, when the Bible talks about "green grass" (Mark 6:39) it's not denying that the green part of the light spectrum is actually being reflected back off the grass. So, even if the Bible uses the word "firmament" as if it were a solid boundary that functionally divides the waters above and below it, it doesn't mean it actually was or that the human authors were teaching it was (much less the Holy Spirit in inspiring the passage). The Bible can use phenomenological language without making a scientific or metaphysical stance.

    If the world as created by God was meant to be emblematic of spiritual realities, then beliefs like sheol/hades (the abode of the dead) being underground, while scientifically false, was nevertheless literally true (in the most important sense) metaphysically in that it's "below" or lesser in importance than Heaven the abode of God. Why then may not Scripture or the Biblical peoples think in those terms in light of the following? 1. they didn't claim to know fully the nature of the physical universe in distinction from spiritual realities, 2. thinking in those terms is actually truer to the massively more fundamental reality (viz. spiritual reality), 3. it's not scientifically provable that scientific realism is true, and therefore it's philosophically, logically and theologically permissible to hold to scientific anti-realism.

    It seems to me the heart of the problem is that so much of modern interpreting of the Bible assumes the attitude that God inspired and wrote it in order to prove He exists and to overcome the proper default presumption of the non-existence of God unless and until it's proven otherwise (similar to the principle of "guilty until proven innocent" in some countries). The problem is not in the Bible but in our modern approach to it. We anachronistically superimpose our limited epistemological priorities onto the Bible as if the scientific approach were the primary or even only avenue of knowledge. When in fact it's doesn't even get close to approaching or acquiring the deeper truths and realities that are more important and lasting. As the Lord Jesus said, "heaven and earth will pass away, but my Words will by no means pass away" (cf. 1 John 2:17).

    1. (much less the Holy Spirit in inspiring the passage) = (much less the Holy Spirit inspiring that [false] teaching)