The Old Testament and Science Findings
Few of the subjects dealt within the Old Testament, and likewise the Gospels, give rise to a confrontation with the data of modern knowledge. When an incompatibility does occur between the Biblical text and science, however, it is on extremely important points.
As we have already seen in the preceding chapter, historical errors were found in the Bible and we have quoted several of these pinpointed by Jewish and Christian experts in exegesis. The latter have naturally had a tendency to minimize the importance of such errors. They find it quite natural for a sacred author to present historical fact in accordance with theology and to write history to suit certain needs. We shall see further on, in the case of the Gospel according to Matthew, the same liberties taken with reality and the same commentaries aimed at making admissible as reality what is in contradiction to it. A logical and objective mind cannot be content with this procedure.
From a logical angle, it is possible to single out a large number of contradictions and improbabilities. The existence of different sources that might have been used in the writing of a description may be at the origin of two different presentations of the same fact. This is not all; different adaptations, later additions to the text itself, like the commentaries added a posteriori, then included in the text later on when a new copy was made-these are perfectly recognized by specialists in textual criticism and very frankly underlined by some of them. In the case of the Pentateuch alone, for example, Father de Vaux in the General Introduction preceding his translation of Genesis (pages 13 and 14), has drawn attention to numerous disagreements. We shall not quote them here since we shall be quoting several of them later on in this study. The general impression one gains is that one must not follow the text to the letter.
Here is a very typical example:
In Genesis (6, 3), God decides just before the Flood henceforth to limit man's lifespan to one hundred and twenty years, "... his days shall be a hundred and twenty years". Further on however, we note in Genesis (11, 10-32) that the ten descendants of Noah had lifespans that range from 148 to 600 years (see table in this chapter showing Noah's descendants down to Abraham). The contradiction between these two passages is quite obvious. The explanation is elementary. The first passage (Genesis 6, 3) is a Yahvist text, probably dating as we have already seen from the Tenth century B.C. The second passage in Genesis (11, 10-32) is a much more recent text (Sixth century B.C.) from the Sacerdotal version. This version is at the origin of these genealogies, which are as precise in their information on lifespans as they are improbable when taken en masse.
It is in Genesis that we find the most evident incompatibilities with modern science. These concern three essential points:
1) the Creation of the world and its stages;
As Father de Vaux points out, Genesis "starts with two juxtaposed descriptions of the Creation". When examining them from the point of view of their compatibility with modern scientific data, we must look at each one separately.
The first description occupies the first chapter and the very first verses of the second chapter. It is a masterpiece of inaccuracy from a scientific point of view. It must be examined one paragraph at a time. The text reproduced here is from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Chapter 1, verses 1 & 2:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters."
It is quite possible to admit that before the Creation of the Earth, what was to become the Universe as we know it was covered in darkness. To mention the existence of water at this period is however quite simply pure imagination. We shall see in the third part of this book how there is every indication that at the initial stage of the formation of the universe a gaseous mass existed. It is an error to place water in it.
Verses 3 to 5:
"And God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."
The light circulating in the Universe is the result of complex reactions in the stars. We shall come back to them in the third part of this work. At this stage in the Creation, however, according to the Bible, the stars were not yet formed. The "lights' of the firmament are not mentioned in Genesis until verse 14, when they were created on the Fourth day, "to separate the day from the night", "to give light upon earth"; all of which is accurate. It is illogical, however, to mention the result (light) on the first day, when the cause of this light was created three days later. The fact that the existence of evening and morning is placed on the first day is moreover, purely imaginary; the existence of evening and morning as elements of a single day is only conceivable after the creation of the earth and its rotation under the light of its own star, the Sun!
-verses 6 to 8:
The myth of the waters is continued here with their separation into two layers by a firmament that in the description of the Flood allows the waters above to pass through and flow onto the earth. This image of the division of the waters into two masses is scientifically unacceptable.
-verses 9 to 13:
The fact that continents emerged at the period in the earth's history, when it was still covered with water, is quite acceptable scientifically. What is totally untenable is that a highly organized vegetable kingdom with reproduction by seed could have appeared before the existence of the sun (in Genesis it does not appear until the fourth day), and likewise the establishment of alternating nights and days.
-verses 14 to 19:
Here the Biblical author's description is acceptable. The only criticism one could level at this passage is the position it occupies in the description as a whole. Earth and Moon emanated, as we know, from their original star, the Sun. To place the creation of the Sun and Moon after the creation of the Earth is contrary to the most firmly established ideas on the formation of the elements of the Solar System.
-verses 20 to 30:
This passage contains assertions which are
It is certain that the origins of life came from the sea, but this question will not be dealt with until the third part of this book. From the sea, the earth was colonized, as it were, by the animal kingdom. It is from animals living on the surface of the earth, and in particular from one species of reptile which lived in the Second era, that it is thought the birds originated. Numerous biological characteristics common to both species make this deduction possible. The beasts of the earth are not however mentioned until the sixth day in Genesis; after the appearance of the birds. This order of appearance, beasts of the earth after birds, is not therefore acceptable.
-verses 24 to 31:
"Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion (sic) over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth".
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
"And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day."
This is the description of the culmination of the Creation. The author lists all the living creatures not mentioned before and describes the various kinds of food for man and beast.
As we have seen, the error was to place the appearance of beasts of the earth after that of the birds. Man's appearance is however correctly situated after the other species of living things.
The description of the Creation finishes in the first three verses of Chapter 2:
"Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host (sic) of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation;
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created."
This description of the seventh day calls for some comment.
Firstly the meaning of certain words. The text is taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible mentioned above. The word 'host' signifies here, in all probability, the multitude of beings created. As for the expression 'he rested', it is a manner of translating the Hebrew word 'shabbath', from which the Jewish day for rest is derived, hence the expression in English 'sabbath'.
It is quite clear that the 'rest' that God is said to have taken after his six days' work is a legend. There is nevertheless an explanation for this. We must bear in mind that the description of the creation examined here is taken from the so-called Sacerdotal version, written by priests and scribes who were the spiritual successors of Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile to Babylon writing in the Sixth century B.C. We have already seen how the priests took the Yahvist and Elohist versions of Genesis and remodelled them after their own fashion in accordance with their own preoccupations. Father de Vaux has written that the 'legalist' character of these writings was very essential. An outline of this has already been given above.
Whereas the Yahvist text of the Creation, written several centuries before the Sacerdotal text, makes no mention of God's sabbath, taken after the fatigue of a week's labor, the authors of the Sacerdotal text bring it into their description. They divide the latter into separate days, with the very precise indication of the days of the week. They build it around the sabbatic day of rest which they have to justify to the faithful by pointing out that God was the first to respect it. Subsequent to this practical necessity, the description that follows has an apparently logical religious order, but in fact scientific data permit us to qualify the latter as being of a whimsical nature.
The idea that successive phases of the Creation, as seen by the Sacerdotal authors in their desire to incite people to religious observation, could have been compressed into the space of one week is one that cannot be defended from a scientific point of view. Today we are perfectly aware that the formation of the Universe and the Earth took place in stages that lasted for very long periods. (In the third part of the present work, we shall examine this question when we come to look at the Qur'anic data concerning the Creation). Even if the description came to a close on the evening of the sixth day, without mentioning the seventh day, the 'sabbath' when God is said to have rested, and even if, as in the Qur'anic description, we were permitted to think that they were in fact undefined periods rather than actual days, the Sacerdotal description would still not be any more acceptable. The succession of episodes it contains is an absolute contradiction with elementary scientific knowledge.
It may be seen therefore that the Sacerdotal description of the Creation stands out as an imaginative and ingenious fabrication. Its purpose was quite different from that of making the truth known.
The second description of the Creation in Genesis follows immediately upon the first without comment or transitional passage. It does not provoke the same objections.
We must remember that this description is roughly
three centuries older and is very short. It allows more
space to the creation of man and earthly paradise than to
the creation of the Earth and Heavens. It mentions this
but a flood went up from earth and watered the whole face of the ground-then Yahweh God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."
This is the Yahvist text that appears in the text of present day Bibles. The Sacerdotal text was added to it later on, but one may ask if it was originally so brief. Nobody is in a position to say whether the Yahvist text has not, in the course of time, been pared down. We do not know if the few lines we possess represent all that the oldest Biblical text of the Creation had to say.
The Yahvist description does not mention the actual formation of the Earth or the Heavens. It makes it clear that when God created man, there was no vegetation on Earth (it had not yet rained), even though the waters of the Earth had covered its surface. The sequel to the text confirms this: God planted a garden at the same time as man was created. The vegetable kingdom therefore appears on Earth at the same time as man. This is scientifically inaccurate; man did not appear on Earth until a long time after vegetation had been growing on it. We do not know how many hundreds of millions of years separate the two events.
This is the only criticism that one can level at the Yahvist text. The fact that it does not place the creation of man in time in relation to the formation of the world and the earth, unlike the Sacerdotal text, which places them in the same week, frees it from the serious objections raised against the latter.
The Jewish calendar, which follows the data contained in the Old Testament, places the dates of the above very precisely. The second half of the Christian year 1975 corresponds to the beginning of the 5, 736th year of the creation of the world. The creation of man followed several days later, so that he has the same numerical age, counted in years, as in the Jewish calendar.
There is probably a correction to be made on account of the fact that time was originally calculated in lunar years, while the calendar used in the West is based on solar years. This correction would have to be made if one wanted to be absolutely exact, but as it represents only 3%, it is of very little consequence. To simplify our calculations, it is easier to disregard it. What matters here is the order of magnitude. It is therefore of little importance if, over a thousand years, our calculations are thirty years out. We are nearer the truth in following this Hebraic estimate of the creation of the world if we say that it happened roughly thirty-seven centuries before Christ.
What does modern science tell us? It would be difficult to reply to the question concerning the formation of the Universe. All we can provide figures for is the era in time when the solar system was formed. It is possible to arrive at a reasonable approximation of this. The time between it and the present is estimated at four and a half billion years. We can therefore measure the margin separating the firmly established reality we know today and the data taken from the Old Testament. We shall expand on this in the third part of the present work. These facts emerge from a close scrutiny of the Biblical text. Genesis provides very precise information on the time that elapsed between Adam and Abraham. For the period from the time of Abraham to the beginnings of Christianity, the information provided is insufficient. It must be supported by other sources.
Genesis provides extremely precise genealogical data in Chapters 4, 5, 11, 21 and 25. They concern all of Abraham's ancestors in direct line back to Adam. They give the length of time each person lived, the father's age at the birth of the son and thus make it easily possible to ascertain the dates of birth and death of each ancestor in relation to the creation of Adam, as the table indicates.
All the data used in this table come from the Sacerdotal text of Genesis, the only Biblical text that provides information of this kind. It may be deduced, according to the Bible, that Abraham was born 1,948 years after Adam.
The Bible does not provide any numerical information on this period that might lead to such precise estimates as those found in Genesis on Abraham's ancestors. We must look to other sources to estimate the time separating Abraham from Jesus. At present, allowing for a slight margin of error, the time of Abraham is situated at roughly eighteen centuries before Jesus. Combined with information in Genesis on the interval separating Abraham and Adam, this would place Adam at roughly thirty-eight centuries before Jesus. This estimate is undeniably wrong: the origins of this inaccuracy arise from the mistakes in the Bible on the Adam-Abraham period. The Jewish tradition still founds its calendar on this. Nowadays, we can challenge the traditional defenders of Biblical truth with the incompatibility between the whimsical estimates of Jewish priests living in the Sixth century B.C. and modern data. For centuries, the events of antiquity relating to Jesus were situated in time according to information based on these estimates.
Before modern times, editions of the Bible frequently provided the reader with a preamble explaining the historical sequence of events that had come to pass between the creation of the world and the time when the books were edited. The figures vary slightly according to the time. For example, the Clementine Vulgate, 1621, gave this information, although it did place Abraham a little earlier and the Creation at roughly the 40th century B.C. Walton's polyglot Bible, produced in the 17th century, in addition to Biblical texts in several languages, gave the reader tables similar to the one shown here for Abraham's ancestors. Almost all the estimates coincide with the figures given here. With the arrival of modern times, editors were no longer able to maintain such whimsical chronologies without going against scientific discovery that placed the Creation at a much earlier date. They were content to abolish these tables and preambles, but they avoided warning the reader that the Biblical texts on which these chronologies were based had become obsolete and could no longer be considered to express the truth. They preferred to draw a modest veil over them, and invent set-phrases of cunning dialectics that would make acceptable the text as it had formerly been, without any subtractions from it.
This is why the genealogies contained in the Sacerdotal text of the Bible are still honoured, even though in the Twentieth century one cannot reasonably continue to count time on the basis of such fiction.
Modern scientific data do not allow us to establish the date of man's appearance on earth beyond a certain limit. We may be certain that man, with the capacity for action and intelligent thought that distinguishes him from beings that appear to be anatomically similar to him, existed on Earth after a certain estimable date. Nobody however can say at what exact date he appeared. What we can say today is that remains have been found of a humanity capable of human thought and action whose age may be calculated in tens of thousands of years.
This approximate dating refers to the prehistoric human species, the most recently discovered being the Cro-Magnon Man. There have of course been many other discoveries all over the world of remains that appear to be human. These relate to less highly evolved species, and their age could be somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of years. But were they genuine men?
Whatever the answer may be, scientific data are sufficiently precise concerning the prehistoric species like the Cro-Magnon Man, to be able to place them much further back than the epoch in which Genesis places the first men. There is therefore an obvious incompatibility between what we can derive from the numerical data in Genesis about the date of man's appearance on Earth and the firmly established facts of modern scientific knowledge.
Chapters 6, 7 and 8 are devoted to the description of the Flood. In actual fact, there are two descriptions; they have not been placed side by side, but are distributed all the way through. Passages are interwoven to give the appearance of a coherent succession of varying episodes. In these three chapters there are, in reality, blatant contradictions; here again the explanation lies in the existence of two quite distinct sources: the Yahvist and Sacerdotal versions.
It has been shown earlier that they formed a disparate amalgam; each original text has been broken down into paragraphs or phrases, elements of one source alternating with the other, so that in the course of the complete description, we go from one to another seventeen times in roughly one hundred lines of English text.
Taken as a whole, the story goes as follows:
Rainwater is given as the agent of the Flood in one (Yahvist) passage, but in another (Sacerdotal), the Flood is given a double cause: rainwater and the waters of the Earth.
The Earth was submerged right up to and above the mountain peaks. All life perished. After one year, when the waters had receded, Noah emerged from the Ark that had come to rest on Mount Ararat.
One might add that the Flood lasted differing lengths of time according to the source used: forty days for the Yahvist version and one hundred and fifty in the Sacerdotal text.
The Yahvist version does not tell us when the event took place in Noah's life, but the Sacerdotal text tells us that he was six hundred years old. The latter also provides information in its genealogies that situates him in relation to Adam and Abraham. If we calculate according to the information contained in Genesis, Noah was born 1,056 years after Adam (see table of Abraham's Genealogy) and the Flood therefore took place 1,656 years after the creation of Adam. In relation to Abraham, Genesis places the Flood 292 years before the birth of this Patriarch.
According to Genesis, the Flood affected the whole of the human race and all living creatures created by God on the face of the Earth were destroyed. Humanity was then reconstituted by Noah's three sons and their wives so that when Abraham was born roughly three centuries later, he found a humanity that Was already re-formed into separate communities. How could this reconstruction have taken place in such a short time? This simple observation deprives the narration of all verisimilitude.
Furthermore, historical data show its incompatibility with modern knowledge. Abraham is placed in the period 1800-1850 B.C., and if the Flood took place, as Genesis suggests in its genealogies, roughly three centuries before Abraham, we would have to place him somewhere in the Twenty-first to Twenty-second century B.C. Modern historical knowledge confirms that at this period, civilizations had sprung up in several parts of the world; for their remains have been left to posterity.
In the case of Egypt for example, the remains correspond to the period preceding the Middle Kingdom (2,100 B.C.) at roughly the date of the First Intermediate Period before the Eleventh Dynasty. In Babylonia it is the Third Dynasty at Ur. We know for certain that there was no break in these civilizations, so that there could have been no destruction affecting the whole of humanity, as it appears in the Bible.
We cannot therefore consider that these three Biblical narrations provide man with an account of facts that correspond to the truth. We are obliged to admit that, objectively speaking, the texts which have come down to us do not represent the expression of reality. We may ask ourselves whether it is possible for God to have revealed anything other than the truth. It is difficult to entertain the idea that God taught to man ideas that were not only fictitious, but contradictory. We naturally arrive therefore at the hypothesis that distortions occurred that were made by man or that arose from traditions passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth, or from the texts of these traditions once they were written down. When one knows that a work such as Genesis was adapted at least twice over a period of not less than three centuries, it is hardly surprising to find improbabilities or descriptions that are incompatible with reality. This is because the progress made in human knowledge has enabled us to know, if not everything, enough at least about certain events to be able to judge the degree of compatibility between our knowledge and the ancient descriptions of them. There is nothing more logical than to maintain this interpretation of Biblical errors which only implicates man himself. It is a great pity that the majority of commentators, both Jewish and Christian, do not hold with it. The arguments they use nevertheless deserve careful attention.