Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Creation Controversy, Part Three: The Weight of Traditional Views

Also in this series:

Part One: Biblical Authority
Part Two: Authority from Tradition - the Jewish Sages and Early Church Fathers

From the end of Part Two:

As we’ve seen from the preceding excerpts, past Jewish and Christian scholars alike held differing opinions on the Genesis creation account, with nearly all affirming that the account is at least partially figurative. Various elements of YEC and OEC beliefs appear in their writings, but none of the ancients appear to have held beliefs identical to these modern, opposing creation frameworks. With regard to the Early Church Fathers specifically, YEC authors have pointed out that the fathers believed in a young earth due to the biblical genealogies, and that is certainly true; however, there are some very important things that should be noted here.

First, when we consider the writings of the ancients on these matters, I believe it’s important to recognize that, while they addressed science in their writings and sought to demonstrate that how what was understood of the world readily conformed to the scriptures, they were not involved in the sort of “Bible right/science wrong” debates that we see today. The context of the modern debate is simply not transferrable to the ancient context. The church fathers were not disputing what we are disputing in the creation debate today. They were primarily concerned with imparting tradition and principles for godly conduct, defending the teachings of the faith against various outright heresies, investigating eschatology, and developing a systematized theology (especially where the doctrine of Christ is concerned). They did not have access to hard scientific data showing that the earth is far older than a few thousand years, and even if they had had such data, I do not believe their automatic response would have been “Bible right/science wrong.” The impression I’ve gathered from their writings is that they would have gone back to the scriptures to see if perhaps they had misunderstood something. That is still sound scholarly practice today.

Second, as noted by Dr. John Millam, the early Christian writers were not schooled in ancient Hebrew and were thus “almost entirely dependent upon Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament” in conducting their studies and composing their commentaries and apologies:

A deficient knowledge of Hebrew is probably the single most important factor leading to a young-earth misunderstanding of Genesis…Greek and Latin are very similar to each other but very different from ancient Hebrew. So even a “literal” interpretation based on either of these languages will not necessarily represent a literal understanding of the original Hebrew. [1]

Third, while it is well-known that mysticism has always played a heavy role in Jewish thinking and scriptural interpretation, what is not so well known (at least outside of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, that is) is that it also played a significant role in early and medieval Christian thinking and exegesis. In his review of the early Christian writers’ beliefs about creation, Millam notes that they saw the Old Testament in terms of its being a veiled revelation of Christ, and that they often drew upon allegorical and numerological methods in order to “uncover hidden Christological meanings” in the text.[2]

The famous compiler of the Latin Vulgate, Jerome (c. AD 347 to 420), furnishes two noteworthy examples of Christological inferences drawn from the text of Genesis. The first such reference comes from Jerome’s first Homily (written in commentary on Psalm 1):

But we shall combine spiritual things with spiritual things and read of the Tree of Life that was planted in Paradise, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree of life was planted in the Garden of Eden... Likewise we read in Solomon—if one accepts that book as Solomon’s, for he speaks there of Wisdom (Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God)—so then, as I was saying, where Solomon says: ‘She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,’ he is speaking of wisdom. Now, if wisdom is the tree of life, Wisdom itself indeed is Christ. You understand now that the man who is blessed and holy is compared to this tree, that is, he is compared to Wisdom… He is, in other words, like Christ, inasmuch as He ‘raised us up together, and seated us together in heaven.’ You see, then, that we shall reign together with Christ in heaven; you see, too, that because this tree has been planted in the Garden of Eden, we shall all have been planted together there with Him.[3]

And here is another, this one from Homily 10 (written on Psalm 76):

In the beginning of Genesis, it is written, ‘And the Spirit was stirring above the waters.’ You see, then, what it says in the beginning of Genesis; now for its mystical meaning. ‘The Spirit was stirring above the waters’; already at that time baptism was being foreshadowed. It could not be true baptism, to be sure, without the Spirit.[4]

Another particularly noteworthy example of what we might call ‘Christological mysticism’ in the writings of the early Christian writers can be found in Augustine’s examination of God’s separation of light and darkness on the first day of creation. In The City of God, Augustine maintained that God’s statement, “Let there be light,” does not apply to the visible spectrum but is actually a description of the creation of angels, and that God’s subsequent separation of light from darkness was the separation of the holy from the fallen angels:

There is no question, then, that if the angels are included in the works of God during these six days, they are that light which was called “Day,” and whose unity scripture signalizes by calling that day not the “first day” but “one day.” For the second day, the third, and the rest are not other days; but the same one day is repeated to complete the number six or seven, so that there should be knowledge both of God’s works and of His rest. For when God said, “Let there be light and there was light,” if we are justified in understanding in this light the creation of the angels, then certainly they were created partakers of the eternal light which is the unchangeable Wisdom of God, by which all things were made, and whom we call the only-begotten Son of God; so that they, being illuminated by the Light that created them, might themselves become light and be called “Day”…

To me it does not seem incongruous with the working of God, if we are to understand that the angels were created when that first light was made, and that a separation was made between the holy and the unclean angels, when, as is said, “God divided the light from the darkness; and God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” For he alone could make this discrimination, who was able also before they fell, to foreknow that they would fall, and that, being deprived of the light of truth, they would abide in the darkness of pride.[5]

This is certainly a very different interpretation than what is offered by young-earth creationists today!

Fourth, the Bible makes it clear that God is dealing with humanity according to a plan that was conceived and set in motion long ago, the details of which are only fully known to him. He has chosen to make aspects of that plan known to men, but the scriptures reveal that he has done this in a progressive fashion, often in heavily veiled language, and at particular times of his choosing. As a result, quite often a word given to, or an event that takes place within, a given generation, may not be entirely understood within that generation, but may only be fully comprehended at a later time.

“There is an appointed time for everything; and there is a time for every event under heaven…He has made everything appropriate in its time…He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter.” – Proverbs 25:2a

“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” – Acts 1:7

We see an example of this sort of “veiled unveiling” in the book of Daniel, where an angel who provided Daniel with significant revelations of the future told him to “conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will be increased” (Daniel 12:4).[6] In the New Testament, the apostle Paul refers to the gentiles being included in the blessings of the New Covenant as “the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested” (Romans 16:25), “the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), and “the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but now has been manifested to His saints” (Colossians 1:26). In his first epistle, the apostle Peter is likely referring to this same mystery of Christ and the church when he writes that “the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries…It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you” (I Peter 1:10-12). In these passages, Peter and Paul make it clear that the Old Testament prophesies, in spite of being well known and often recited among the Jewish people, were not entirely understood when they were given. Witness the fact that the first-century Jewish religious leaders, they who were the most well-versed of all Jews when it came to the scriptures and their various prophecies, did not recognize the Messiah when he finally came and fulfilled those prophecies right before their eyes!

Even Christ’s own disciples who followed him and daily heard his teachings often did not understand what he was doing or what he meant by what he said until later. We see an example of this in Matthew 16:6-12, where Jesus warns his disciples to “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The disciples thought this warning came because they had forgotten to bring bread with them on their journey, but Jesus responded that they had misunderstood him:

“You men of little faith. Why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread…How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

In John 2, Jesus tells the Jews, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” When the Jews ask him how he planned to do this given that it had taken forty-six years to build the temple in the first place, John tells us that Jesus was not speaking of the physical temple, but rather, “of the temple of His body.” No one understood this at the time, but “when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22).

For a last example, consider the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet. Simon Peter was aghast at Christ taking on the role of a common servant, but Jesus emphasized that what he was doing was necessary, remarking “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter” (John 13:7b).

On at least two occasions, Jesus had to spiritually open the eyes and minds of his disciples in order for them to perceive truth:

When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. – Luke 24:30-31

Then He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. – Luke 24:44-45a

As for the crowds who followed Jesus, the gospels plainly tell us that the meaning of his teaching was deliberately hidden from them. They received truth in the form of obscuring symbolism, whereas only his disciples were allowed to know the deeper significance of his teachings:

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” – Matthew 13:10-12

In light of these and various other examples that could be provided—and at the risk of offending some of my fundamentalist friends and brethren in particular—we have abundant scriptural proof, even coming from the lips of the Lord himself, that is sometimes actually unwise to take what God tells us in what seems to be the most literal fashion. He often speaks in symbolism, even when describing real things, and he sovereignly chooses when, and to whom, to reveal deeper truths. Even the ceremonies the Hebrews observed under the Law of Moses—which certainly had literal, practical applications in their daily lives—were but “shadows of the things which were to come” (Colossians 2:16-17). It is nothing but arrogance to assume that we possess a full understanding of all of the levels of truth in scripture. As Paul famously says in 1 Corinthians 13:9 and 12a: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part…for now we see in a mirror dimly.” Note that this is being said in the era after the Holy Spirit had been given, and by an apostle who had received special revelation, written scripture, and performed unusual miracles. Even Paul did not claim to have complete knowledge of spiritual matters.

Young-earthers will likely object here that, in Genesis, we are dealing with a simple, historical account rather than with parables or complex prophecies; therefore, a simple, literal reading of the text must be what is intended. Why should we not understand Genesis in the same way that we understand the account of the woman at the well in John chapter four? In response, I point out two things:

First, the notion that the Genesis creation account is meant to be understood as a simple historical account (and nothing more) is an assumption, and only an assumption. To assert something is one thing, to prove it is another. I must reiterate biblical precedents here, especially in regard to the Jewish religious leaders, who, although they knew their scriptures, rejected and crucified the Messiah whose coming and ministry were foretold in those same scriptures. As we have seen, even Christ’s disciples did not understand how the scriptures related to him until he opened their eyes and their minds.

Second, although the Genesis creation account is not prophecy, it is quite similar to prophecy in one unique and potentially very significant way. Consider for a moment: What are three defining characteristics of biblical prophecies?

  1. They are often given in veiled language.
  2. They are usually not understood until after they are fulfilled.
  3. No one has seen the events they describe take place yet.
Just as no one has seen prophetic events fulfilled yet, no one saw the events of the Genesis creation account take place. If God routinely describes future events that men have not yet seen in terms of veiled language, it seems at the very least possible that he may have described past events that men did not see in similar language. In fact, God himself may be suggesting this to us in Isaiah 46:9-10:

Remember the former things long past, for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.”

If the beginning and the end are tied together, and we know that we have not yet understood the end, it seems at least reasonable that we may not have understood the beginning either. It may be that neither will be entirely understood until the work that God has planned to carry out through the physical creation has been accomplished. It may be that, at present, we see both the beginning and the end “in a mirror dimly.”

Indeed, there are interesting similarities between the first and last books of the Bible. In Genesis, creation is revealed in a period of seven days. In Revelation, the end of the age is revealed through the opening of seven seals. The seventh day of Genesis has no evening, while the events of the seventh seal of Revelation have no apparent end—thus both appear to inaugurate open-ended periods of time. In Genesis 2:2, we’re told “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done,” whereas, in Revelation, the opening of the seventh seal leads to silence in heaven, which appears to represent a rest following the tumultuous events of the six seals. In Genesis, the end of the sixth day is described as follows: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts” (Genesis 1:31-2:1). In Revelation, the seventh bowl judgment, which, to my understanding, is the last event of the sixth seal time period and occurs immediately before the opening of the seventh seal, is accompanied by the proclamation “It is done” (Revelation 16:17). Thus, it appears that, as the work of the six days of Genesis was completed by the seventh, so the “work” of the six seals is also completed by the opening of the seventh. As the six days of Genesis prepared the earth for man’s rule under Adam, so the six seals of Revelation appear to prepare the earth for Christ’s rule (Christ being “the last Adam” – 1 Corinthians 15:45).

What all of this does or does not prove is up for debate, but I do not believe that these similarities are coincidental. The early Christian writers were probably correct to look for Christological parallels in Genesis, and I think it would be very unwise to evaluate the text with a purely surface level approach, especially since we have instances of that approach to the Word of God drawing rebuke from the Lord himself.

Young-earthers are right to point out that the revelation in the Genesis creation account is given to enlighten our understanding of the world, but in their zeal to uphold the Word of God they have overlooked the subtle fact that our knowledge of the world also aids our understanding of the revelation concerning it. We have seen a degree of confusion in the writings of the Jewish sages and the Early Church Fathers regarding Genesis, and I would submit that some of this confusion stemmed from their primitive knowledge of the universe. They had a revelation of the physical world, but they did not have the understanding of the physical world necessary for understanding the revelation concerning it. This limitation must be kept in mind when we evaluate their views of Genesis.

I have often referred to Genesis as “the kindergarten account of creation” because it was given to a people who lacked a sophisticated knowledge of cosmology, to say nothing of the expertise we have since acquired in other scientific disciplines as well. It was still relevant to them because it revealed the truth of God as the creator and organizer of all things, the only one to whom worship and service are rightly due, and the very God of Abraham who was the founder of the Hebrew nation. This was eminently practical given the pagan, polytheistic society from which the ancient Hebrews had just emerged when Moses wrote the Torah, and it served as the foundational truth for all of Hebrew society, worship, and law and justice at the time. It is no coincidence that the first of the Ten Commandments reiterates this in saying: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:1-2). Without this commandment, there would have been no reason for Israel to obey any of the other commandments. For this reason, Genesis chapter one could be viewed as the historical background offered in support of the First Commandment.

Think for a moment: When Christ called himself “the good Shepherd” he was drawing a picture for his audience that was only relevant to them because they came from an agrarian society in which shepherding was common. Because they understood the nature and duties of a shepherd on the natural level, they were able to understand the comparison Christ was making to himself on a spiritual level. Had Christ attempted to draw the same comparison before a group of Inuit hunters, however, it would have had no relevance to them because shepherding is unknown in Inuit society.

So, in summary, while we should not dismiss the opinions of ancient and medieval scholars out of hand where the Genesis creation account is concerned, it is at least possible that they may not have correctly understood the account because the time had not come for it to be understood. Since Genesis tells us things about the earth and the universe, it may well be that man had to learn more about these things before he could understand what the scriptures were saying concerning them. It may be that the ancients understood what was sufficient for their needs at the time, while deeper truths remained to be uncovered by generations that had not yet come on the scene. Even now, though, there is still much that we have to learn about our world and the universe; consequently, we may need to further refine our understanding of the Genesis creation account. We should not assume that, even in this scientifically sophisticated age, we know everything needed to understand the scriptures completely. In fact, to assume this is to effectively place oneself in the category of persons to whom God consistently refuses to reveal his truths, such as those whom the apostle Paul tells us are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7). It is essential that we remain open to what the Lord may yet reveal.

“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6b

[1] John Millam, “Coming to Grips with the Earth Church Fathers’ Perspective on Genesis.” Millam notes that Origen, “and possibly Eusebius,” did study Hebrew but that “neither was fluent.”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marie Liguori Ewald, trans. The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1 (1-59 on the Psalms). (Washington D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 1964), p. 7.
[4] Ibid, p. 74.
[5] Augustine, The City of God. Chapters 9 and 20.
[6] Some take this to reference a general increase in human knowledge toward “the time of the end,” but given the context I believe the angel specifically meant that the prophecy he had just given Daniel would not be fully understood until a time in the distant future. To this day, we are still debating the true meanings of Daniel’s visions, just as we debate the meanings of the visions that John recorded for us in the book of Revelation. In spite of detailed prophetic paradigms of Bible teachers who believe they’ve figured everything out, it is entirely possible that we may not fully understand these prophecies until after they have been fulfilled.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Creation Controversy, Part Two: Authority from Tradition - the Jewish Sages and Early Church Fathers

Also in this series:

In addition to appeals to biblical authority, YECs often appeal to historical tradition, arguing that a young-earth understanding of Genesis was the majority view of Jewish authorities and the Christian church until modern times, after which efforts to compromise with Darwinism brought in an old-earth interpretation. As I hope to demonstrate here, however, ancient and medieval scholars held to nuanced views of creation, at least some of which would definitely not find acceptance with modern young-earth advocates.

Jewish Tradition

Jewish rabbinical literature reveals differing opinions on how creation came about and how long ago it took place. Some scholars, such as Josephus, held to strongly literal views of the Genesis account, while others took a more figurative, even mystical, view of it, particularly the authors of the Kabbalah.[1] Often, these views were intertwined in some way.

In his book On the Account of the Creation of the World as Given by Moses, the Jewish philosopher Philo (who lived c. 20 BC to AD 50) writes:

And he [Moses] says that the world was made in six days, not because the Creator stood in need of a length of time (for it is natural that God should do everything at once, not merely by uttering a command; but by even thinking of it); but because the things created required arrangement; and number is akin to arrangement; and, of all numbers, six is, by the laws of nature, the most productive…And he allotted each of the six days to one of the portions of the whole, taking out the first day, which he does not even call the first day, that it may not be numbered with the others, but entitling it one, he names it rightly, perceiving in it, and ascribing to it the nature and appellation of the limit.[2]

In his Allegorical Commentary on Genesis, Philo restates his view that the days of Genesis should not be perceived as six literal days:

It would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in time; because all time is only the space of days and nights, and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does not necessarily make…When, therefore, Moses says, ‘God completed his works on the sixth day,’ we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number.[3]

Some Jewish authorities held to a concept of successive ages—or ‘Sabbatical cycles’—of creation, of which this present universe is only a part, meaning that there were various creations prior to the creation described in Genesis. The Genesis Rabba, a midrash (interpretive teaching), which dates to c. AD 450, reflects this thinking when it states: “Other worlds were created and destroyed ere this present one was decided on as a permanent one.”[4]

This belief in Sabbatical cycles may be reflected somewhat in tractate Shabbath of the Babylonian Talmud (a compilation of Jewish commentaries on the Torah dating to the first few centuries after Christ and considered highly authoritative in Judaism), where 974 generations are mentioned as existing prior to Adam:

R. Joshua b. Levi also said: When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spake before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?’ ‘He has come to receive the Torah,’ answered He to them. Said they to Him, ‘That secret treasure which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created. Thou desirest to give to flesh and blood!’[5]

The Talmud declares that “For six thousand years the world will continue, and in the seventh it will be destroyed.”[6] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983), who held a bachelor’s degree in Physics, commented extensively on this statement, noting that it is more complex than it may at first seem. Referring to the Sefer HaTemunah, a Kabbalistic work attributed to first-century Jewish rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, Kaplan notes that “this seven-thousand year cycle is merely one Sabbatical cycle…since there are seven Sabbatical cycles in a Jubilee, the world is destined to exist for forty-nine thousand years.”[7] [8]

Kaplan goes on to discuss the implications of this view. Assuming Adam was created at the start of such a Sabbatical cycle (specifically the last 7,000-year cycle in the 49,000 year timeframe) then the universe would have been 42,000 years old at the time of his creation. Comparatively, this is not far off from the young-earth view, but Kaplan asks us to consider another possible interpretation that changes the picture dramatically:

This teaching was subject to a highly significant interpretation by Rabbi Isaac of Akko (1250-1350)…[who] writes that since the Sabbatical cycles existed before Adam, their chronology must be measured, not in human years, but in divine years. Thus, the Sefar ha-Temunah is speaking of divine years when it states that the world is forty-two thousand years old. This has some startling consequences, for according to many Midrashic sources, a divine day is 1,000 earthly years long, and a divine year, consisting of 3651/4 days, is equal to 365,250 earthly years.

Thus, according to Rabbi Isaac Akko, the universe would be 42,000 x 365,250 years old. This comes out to be 15,345,500,000 years, a highly significant figure. From calculations based on the expanding universe and other cosmological observations, modern science has concluded that the Big Bang occurred approximately 15 billion years ago. But here we see the same figure presented in a Torah source written over seven hundred years ago![9]

As startling as this is coming from a medieval source, one might well wonder where we can find any indication of its validity in the actual text of Genesis. Rabbi Kaplan suggests that a possible solution may be found by comparing Genesis 1:27, where God appears to create both man and woman at the same time, with Genesis 2:18-22, where God creates Adam first and, sometime later, creates Eve from Adam’s rib. “The Talmud raises this question,” notes Kaplan, “and then explains that God created man and woman simultaneously in thought, but created Adam first and then Eve in actual deed.”

Thus, it may be that the seven days of creation took place over 15 billion years ago, before the Big Bang. This represented the creation of the spiritual infrastructure of the universe, which the Talmud refers to as “creation in thought.” The universe then developed according to God’s plan, guided by the spiritual infrastructure He had created.[10] [11]

The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (c. 1135 to 1204) commented on the Genesis creation account in such a way as to underscore the rabbinical tradition that God actually created everything at once but later explained it to man within the context of six days. In book two, chapter twenty-nine, of his influential (and controversial even then) Guide for the Perplexed (written c. 1190), Maimonides leads into this issue with a discussion of figurative elements in the Genesis account, explaining that the Jewish sages kept the true meaning of the text to themselves:

The account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God or even to entirely abandon and reject the principles of our Faith.

It is therefore right to abstain and refrain from examining this subject superficially and unscientifically. We must blame the practice of some ignorant preachers and expounders of the Bible, who think that wisdom consists in knowing the explanation of words, and that greater perfection is obtained by employing more words and longer speech. It is, however, right that we should examine the Scriptural texts by the intellect, after having acquired a knowledge of demonstrative science, and of the true hidden meaning of prophecies. But if one has obtained some knowledge in this matter, he must not preach on it, as I stated in my Commentary on the Mishnah (Hagigah ii. 7), and our Sages said distinctly: From the beginning of the book to this place—after the account of the sixth day of the Creation—“it is the glory of God to conceal a thing” (Prov. xxv. 2).[12]

Maimonides noted the belief of some Jewish scholars that time somehow existed before creation and that “God built worlds and again destroyed them,” but he took issue with those interpretations, believing that there was a better explanation for apparent difficulties in the Genesis text:

You must know that the particle et in the phrase et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-arez (“the heavens and the earth”) signifies “together with”: our Sages have explained the word in the same sense in many instances. Accordingly they assume that God created with the heavens everything that the heavens contain, and with the earth everything the earth includes. They further say that the simultaneous Creation of the heavens and the earth is implied in the words “I call unto them, they stand up together” (Psalm xlviii.). Consequently, all things were created together, but were separated from each other successively…In Bereshit Rabba, our Sages, speaking of the light created on the first day, according to the Scriptural account, say as follows: these lights [of the luminaries mentioned in the Creation of the fourth day] are the same that were created on the first day, but were only fixed in their places on the fourth day.[13] [14]

Thus, we see that there were various nuanced views of creation (including old-earth interpretations) present in Judaism well before the time of Darwin and the modern advent of evolutionary theory. Moving on, we will see similar thinking evidenced in the works of the early Christian writers as well.

The Early Christian Fathers

Justin Martyr, who lived from AD 100 to 165, held to a view of creation that appears similar to the concept of primordial “chaos,” stating in his First Treatise that:

We have been taught that He in the beginning did, of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter…[15]

This is such a brief reference that it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what Justin meant when he referenced “unformed matter.” It might simply be that, as with some of the Jewish sages, Justin believed that God created undifferentiated matter first, and then fashioned the familiar creation from it in the days that followed.[16]

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150 – 215) notes the reference in Genesis 2:4 to “the day that the Lord God made heaven and earth” and states that “the expression ‘when they were created’ indicates an indefinite and dateless production.”[17] Clement felt that the days of creation represented a hierarchy within creation rather than an actual sequence in time:

For the creations on the different days followed in a most important succession; so that all things brought into existence might have honor from priority, created together in thought, but not being of equal worth. Nor was the creation of each signified by the voice, inasmuch as the creative work is said to have made them at once. For something must needs have been named first. Wherefore those things were announced first, from which came those that were second, all things being originated together from one essence by one power. For the will of God was one, in one identity. And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist.[18]

The prolific and vastly influential fifth-century Christian writer Augustine of Hippo favored a somewhat figurative view of the days of Genesis, although he felt that the biblical genealogies required that the creation took place only a few thousand years ago. Writing in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine outlines his views, beginning with a note of caution:

I have worked out and presented the statements of the Book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp. Where he cannot understand Holy Scripture, let him glorify God and fear for himself.[19]

Like Philo before him, Augustine believed that the creation took place all at once, and was figuratively divided into six days. In part, Augustine thought that this configuration emphasized the ‘perfection’ of the number six, but he also believed that the division was divinely ordained for the sake of the readers of scripture:

That day in the account of creation, or those days that are numbered according to its recurrence, are beyond the experience and knowledge of us mortal, earthbound men. And if we are able to make any effort towards an understanding of the meaning of those days, we ought not to rush forward with an ill-considered opinion, as if no other reasonable and plausible explanation could be offered. Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them…[20]

In this narrative of creation Holy Scripture has said of the Creator that He completed His works in six days; and elsewhere, without contradicting this, it has been written of the same Creator that He created all things together. It follows, therefore, that He, who created all things together, simultaneously created these six days, or seven, or rather the one day six or seven times repeated. Why, then, was there any need for six distinct days to be set forth in the narrative one after the other? The reason is that those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot arrive at the meaning of Scripture unless the narrative proceed slowly, step by step.[21]

In his later, monumental, and best-known work, The City of God, Augustine revisited the Genesis account, and expressed some perplexity in regard to the days of creation, a perplexity that he never resolved to his complete satisfaction:

What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say! We see, indeed, that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting, and no morning but by the rising, of the sun; but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day.[22]

As we’ve seen from the preceding excerpts, past Jewish and Christian scholars alike held differing opinions on the Genesis creation account, with nearly all affirming that the account is at least partially figurative.[23] Various elements of YEC and OEC beliefs appear in their writings, but none of the ancients appear to have held beliefs identical to these modern, opposing creation frameworks. With regard to the Early Church Fathers specifically, YEC authors have pointed out that the fathers believed in a young earth due to the biblical genealogies, and that is certainly true; however, there are some very important things that should be noted here. In part three, I will lay out four considerations that I believe must be kept in mind when determining how much weight ancient and medieval opinions regarding the Genesis creation account should carry in the modern creation debate.

[1] “Kabbalah” is a term that refers to a collection of Jewish writings having to do with “the esoteric or mystic doctrine concerning God and the universe, asserted to have come down as a revelation to elect saints from a remote past, and preserved only by a privileged few.” (
[6] (p. 302).
[7] Aryeh Kaplan, Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View (KTAV Publishing House, 1983), p. 6. Google Books.
[8] The biblical jubilee cycle involved seven periods of seven years, equaling 49 years total (7x7). After this came a jubilee year. Kaplan is saying here that at least some Jewish scholars believed that each year of the 49 years was itself a period of seven thousand years (thus 7,000 x 7 = 49,000 years). The idea that a “day” may actually correspond to a thousand years is derived from Psalm 90:4 – “For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday when it passes by…”
[9] Kaplan, Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe, p. 9.
[10] Ibid, pp. 10-11.
[11] In his book Sefer Yitzirah, Rabbi Kaplan points out another interesting connection between the interpretations of Rabbi Isaac of Akko and modern scientific discoveries. Appealing to the notion that one “divine day” equals 365,250 human years, Kaplan notes that one seven thousand year period “would consist of 2,556,750,000 earthly years. This figure of two-and-a-half billion years is very close to the scientific estimate as to the length of time that life has existed on earth.” Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yitzirah: The Book of Creation (San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.), p. 186.
[14] Maimonides also disputed the idea of an eternal creation, noting “Every religious man rejects this.” Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Volume 1, in Johannes Quasten, Walter Burghardt, and Thomas Lawler, eds. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), pp. 43-44. Google eBook.
[20] Ibid, p. 135.
[21] Ibid, p. 142.
[23] Granted, this is but a brief survey, covering only some of the highlights of historical opinion and for the purpose of demonstrating that the early Jewish and Christian writers were not uniform in their opinions of how Genesis ought to be understood.