When was Genesis 1 and 2?

You have an annoying habit of gross hyperbole in attempts to paraphrase. I never said anything of the sort. I can only suggest you re-read what was actually said and try to understand it.

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@John_Harshman Thanks! You stated the following about God beginning to create:

I said that commentaries (including an opinion from Nahmonides from a thousand years ago say that the verse one is referring to a separate and initial creative act (“in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”)… I brought up creation ex nihilo.

You replied:

Typically, when people ask questions regarding authors’ original intent, one refers to commentaries.

You replied:

Did you not intend to suggest that referring to the commentaries was not an adequate response because they were written long after the original text? Did I misunderstand you? How is one to explore the original meaning if the commentaries are of no value? Please explain.

By reading the texts themselves for comprehension.

By examining their ancient context, for example comparing the with other similar stories of the time. Genesis 1 may be considered a response to the Babylonian creation myth.

There may be others, but commentaries written thousands of years after the fact are of value only to the extent that they present arguments based on more direct evidence.

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I would think that the folks who write the commentaries have read the text for comprehension and are also experts in the languages, history and such. It seems strange that their reading, comprehension and resulting narrative would have less value that other non-expert contemporaries.


Was that an appeal to authority? That seems naive to me. Many people who have written commentaries have theological agendas that are capable of distorting their readings. Look at the YECs, for example. Ex nihilo creation seems to me like one a later addition. Adam wasn’t created ex nihilo, for example, but formed from dust, and Eve from a rib. In Genesis 1, there are a few cases of apparent ex nihilo creation, light being the most obvious. The rest, though, appear to emerge from prior materials.

Thanks once again. Yes, it most certainly was an appeal to those in authority. Is that not what we do when we ask you questions about evolution? When no one knew whether or not man had evolved from monkeys, they all appealed to you?

People spend inordinate amounts of time studying and learning so as to become experts in their fields. We all tend to lean on them for their opinions so that we can learn. In many cases, people here have asked questions of you, directly. Are we to assume that your answer is suspect because you have an axe to grind?

Creation ex nihilo was an example, pointing to God having created separately, prior to the actual days of creation. The universe itself, at the Big Bang event, was the creation out of nothing. The days of creation seem to be subsequent to that. I never suggested that Adam was created out of nothing. The text clearly describes the process as you do above. It (creation ex nihilo) is also not the main topic that you and I were discussing. It was whether or not “the beginning” and “the days of creation” were separated by a substantial amount of time. One aspect of this is an issue of Hebrew grammar. Does the grammar suggest that this is the case? Does it allow for this to be the case? Other passages, quoted above also seem to suggest that this creation event (the beginning) was caused by God, outside of space and time as we know them, and out of nothing.

As I stated above, and you have argued against, I still believe it reasonable to consult the commentaries to see what experts, over time, have understood this passage to say and mean.

I would hope that people believe what I say not because I’m an authority but because I present valid evidence and make valid arguments.

You are free to do so. You can certainly evaluate my answer against the evidence.

Are you asserting that the bible refers to the Big Bang?

I had no idea that’s what we were discussing. But I don’t think the gap theory is supported by the text.

It could be, but as a source of good arguments, not blind belief in experts. “An expert believed X” is not an argument for X.

That is what I mean by being an “authority”…

authority (n): the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.

One does not read a commentary or any other book and find its conclusions to be vacuous or offensive and then cite them as a source. One reads, comprehends, processes, finds a satisfying degree of agreement, and then cites a source. What you and I are saying is the same. So, commentaries can be a good source of information if they present good evidence and make valid arguments.

I am not. I am saying that the Bible refers to a beginning for everything. 3500 years later we determined that the start was what is now referred to as the Big Bang.

Why must you assume the worst about others? If one holds a position other than the one that you hold, must their belief be blind? Are topics not so complex that many intelligent people can hold varying (and even opposite) opinions? If this is not the case, we don’t need discussion boards, we only need indoctrination.

Then you are very bad at expressing yourself.

Then you are very, very bad at expressing yourself.

In that case, what you need to do is present the evidence and arguments, not just state that other (highly prestigious) people agree with you.

What is your point in saying that?

Sadly, it’s an assumption all too often validated. Still, one hopes for better.

As always, thanks for your comments. Your encouragement is greatly appreciated!


@Michael_Callen please define nothing. Presently according to Quantum Mechanics nothingness is unstable and even empty space is something rather than nothing.

I encourage you to pay more attention before posting.


It is very difficult to reach a reasonable consensus on matters of faith when the correspondent is a feisty agnostic or atheist.

That’s the conflict between science and religion that people claim doesn’t exist. It’s all a basic epistemological difference. I reject faith as evidence of anything other than the mental state of the person whose opinion is based on it. Your mileage may vary.

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Trying to ignore the flak here, I might make some general comments on Genesis 1 and creatio ex nihilo.

It is a legitimate academic and religious question that John Harshman asks, i.e., whether the original meaning of Genesis 1 (what the author consciously intended to communicate to his readers, or to his listeners if the composition was originally intended for oral transmission) is identical to the meaning that later tradition has placed upon it.

At the same time, it is not at all logically impossible that God (assuming for the sake of argument that God inspired some human author to write Genesis 1) intended later generations to see more meaning in the text than the meaning consciously intended by the original human author, or even that God intended later generations to build upon (as new inspiration came to them) and improve upon the meaning consciously intended by the original author.

Thus, the author of Genesis 1 may have had no notion of creatio ex nihilo, and may not have been trying to teach any such thing; but later generations, reflecting on Genesis 1 in the light of all the rest of the Bible, much of which was written later, might see new interpretive options in the text beyond those intended by the original author, or might dare to supplement or modify the original author’s conceptions in light of their own fuller religious understanding.

It might be the case that the original audience of Genesis simply was not yet ready, intellectually, for the notion of creation out of nothing, and so the author of Genesis writes in such a way that God seems to be pulling order out of a pre-existent chaotic matter, which implies some limitation of God’s omnipotence (since there is something he did not create). However, the trajectory of the religion of Israel might have been such as to lead inevitably to the idea of a truly omnipotent God, who would be the creator not just of order but of matter itself. In that case, later generations of Christians and Jews would read Genesis differently; they would see the original expression as a “first approximation” of what creation means (making things out of pre-existing matter), an approximation that was defective in being too anthropomorphic, and they would supplement Genesis with the later, fuller, more complete version of revealed truth.

This would not be, from the religious point of view, dishonest, any more than the half-truths of high school science (which prepare students for the more accurate statements of university science) are dishonest. One teaches according to the capacity of one’s audience. One reveals the truth by a series of approximations, each hopefully getting a little closer to the target than the previous one.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the author intended to present God as working on pre-existent matter. (That interpretation of the Hebrew text is not certain, but let’s go with it for the moment.) The God who by will and speech created the whole cosmos out of raw matter was vastly superior to any of his counterparts in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and from a religious point of view, that constituted a huge spiritual advance in the notion of God and of creation. The fuller statement of truth, in which raw matter itself was created by God, would have to wait, until the earlier statement was digested to the point where it could be taken as a basis for the next step. From the point of view of the Church or the Synagogue, such “progressive revelation” is not at all objectionable. God can reveal religious truth in whatever order he likes, in accord with his own estimation of the capacity of human beings for receiving it.

Within this broad understanding, a sharp opposition between “original intention” and “later understanding” becomes less relevant. A continuum of improving understanding may be what God planned to deliver through a series of revealed writings, over a period of a thousand years or more.

That doesn’t mean that Hebrew scholars should stop trying to discern the original meaning for the original audience. It means only that the original meaning, even if it could be surely recovered (and there is no certainty that it can be) doesn’t automatically make interpretation by later commentators worthless or without authority. Indeed, those later commentators might have been inspired by the God to write their commentaries, for all we know. So the two activities, study of the original text in its ancient context, and the study of the later interpretation of the text, are both important, and neither should be denigrated for the benefit of the other.


Quite so, Eddie. The refusal to countenance, in principle, the possibility of divine oversight of the developing Bible is not scientific, but the imposition of metaphysical naturalism on science.

I suppose that is inevitable, since many who make that move also appear to deny the very existence of metaphysical commitments, so they have no alternative but to equate their worldview with science. That leads to nonsensical consequences like, for example, attacking the scientific respectability of someone like Joshua if he steps outside naturalism, not recognising it’s not a divergence of science, but of metaphysics.

But on your substantive point, it’s not even necessary to invoke progressive revelation. If the Hebrews had a concept of God as, say, the maximally possible being, then that concept will adapt itself to what is considered possible.

In mediaeval times, to conceive God as being as great as the whole universe was to conceive a sphere the size of the Sun’s orbit, around 90 million miles. Copernicus suddenly expanded that, but even since 1900 the universe has expanded from the size of the Galaxy to include, first, “Island Universes” and now, of course, much more.

Even back in Hebrew times, though, the concept of God’s “immensity,” that is his unmeasurableness, was in place. So the concept remained the same, but how it might map to physical reality expand beyond measure - and the immeasurability itself could, in due time, incorporate the Greek concept of infinity.

Likewise, a child’s concept of “the whole world” is, in all likelihood, akin to the ANE view - that the world is the sky, the earth and a bit beyond where you’ve gone with your parents, maybe including the seaside. The concept is modified, not replaced, when someone teaches the child that the world is round and a particualr size, nor when (failing to reach the other side by digging in the garden) a later teacher tells the child the actual size.

The Hebrews, then, thinking that God organized everything that he sees in the world because God is maximally great and the sole Creator might (granted the doubts you mention about the meaning of the Hebrew) only later twig that the organising of the cosmos also involves making the stuff. Nevertheless it is inherent in the concept of God.


How does one discern what is inherent in the concept of God, and whether one’s concept of God is correct or even partially correct?

Also, is it possible that the final understanding of Genesis intended by God is entirely as a metaphorical story, none of whose details are historical?

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In this instance, I was speaking of the concept of God the Hebrews had,not generically.

But this is entirely what the study of the ancient texts (as opposed to reading off their “plain meaning”) is about. In my replies above I cited John Walton, who has been studying the ANE background to the literature for over thirty years. I also mentioned N. T. Wright, who though an NT scholar is a historian expert in the genres of texts and, because he takes a “Metanarrative” view of Scripture, takes trouble to be acquainted with the literature on the ANE too. Ken Kitchen approaches the same question from the archaeologist’s viewpoint. Personally I’ve also gained insights from assyriologists, linguists, philologists and others with expertise.

All those can be wrong (and history shows that entire disciplines can be misguided for many decades, such as notably happened when evolutionism spread from biology to become axiomatic in disciplines where it didn’t properly belong). But across disciplines the errors tends to be corrected, or at least evident - and all of them are better than treating ancient texts as if they exist in a vacuum or, worse still, are best understood through imposing modern worldviews on them.

A direct reply to your latter question is that the long and careful study of the texts in their historical context gives the clear impression of a God who is more concerned to reveal himself in history than in timeless truths (here I’m assuming your “intended by God” as a concession, for the sake of argument, that there is a God with intentions behind the text).

Lesslie Newbiggin reports a Hiindu critic of Christian missionaries who missed this fact, which was self-evident to him:

“As I read the Bible I find it a quite unique interpretation of universal history and, therefore, a unique understanding of the human person as a responsible actor in history. You Christian missionaries have talked of the Bible as if it were simply another book of religion. We have plenty of those already in India and we do not need another to add to our supply.”

Basically, after many years’ study, I agree with him.

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But given the idea that the bible’s meaning may have layers unknown to the writers, that are only exposed to those whose culture has advanced (if that’s the word) to the point that they emerge, how can we trust that impression? Maybe we’re only now able to comprehend the intended metaphorical message, and maybe divine oversight has led to that. Once you let the message change over time, how can you know where to stop?

The Postmodernists would say that messages change over time anyway, to the extent that either you can never know authorial intention, or that there is no such thing as meaning in texts, except what you insert yourself.

They do indeed have a point, in that the meaning of all texts is altered by what new or different knowledge the reader brings to them. The best example I can currently think of is what Thomas Kuhn writes about how the understanding of Isaac Newton’s work on gravity is inevitably shifted by knowledge of relativity. He explains how what is, in fact, a different theory becomes accommodated to the new by, usually unnoti ced, shifts in the meaning of terms. In other words, the common practice of calling Newtonian gravity a special case of relativity is actually a fudge - but an inevitable one, because relativity can’t be un-discovered.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t make Newton’s thought-forms completely inaccessible - it just takes greater work. And doing the work can (for example) give renewed insights on contemporary issues that Newton might have addressed differently.

Where you stop is, to use Wright the historian’s phrase, where a moderate critical realism tells you to stop. Which in the end is a matter of human judgement, perhaps supplemented by divine insight. But the effort must be made, to avoid either reading texts woodenly as having a fixed meaning which, in any case, anyone who isn’t the author will get wrong; or, on the other hand, lapsing into the total subjectivity of the Post-modernists - who at least, unlike the “plain meaning” people, they are aware is totally subjective.

It involves an appreciation of intertextuality (and intra-textuality), and a bunch of other stuff. But actually, the belief in a divine oversight of both biblical authors and readers makes the task easier. I find that I can read Aquinas, or a second temple Jew, or an eccentric like Cosmas Indicopleustes, and realise there is a commonality to what we are all seeing in the texts: I can learn from them all, yet retain my own insight.

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