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Can the Bible be read as a scientific textbook?
David H. Bailey
Updated 5 January 2018 (c) 2018
The Bible is accepted as scripture -- the inspired chronicle of mankind's search for existence, meaning and moral guidance -- by virtually all western religions, including Judaism (who read the Old Testament). Even many highly secular, non-God-believing scholars have expressed great respect for the Bible. The Book of Job's remarkable search for meaning in suffering has few peers in world literature [Norwegian2011]. The Book of Ecclesiastes was termed "sublime" by a scholar who otherwise was highly critical of modern religion [Dawkins2006, pg. 383].
For the majority of Judeo-Christian readers of the Bible, particularly those of larger, mainstream denominations, modern science poses no fundamental challenge to religion in general or the Bible in particular, because these two worlds are, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, "nonoverlapping magisteria" [Gould1999, pg. 1-10]. Such readers are able to view the Bible as the inspired word of God and yet retain sufficient flexibility to accommodate modern science. At the least, they are willing to accept that the Bible was not intended to be read primarily as a scientific textbook, and that eventually both perspectives will be seen to be part of a unifying truth.
But others in the Judeo-Christian world see significant issues in this arena. They insist on viewing the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word, with inerrancy extending even to scientific matters (see
Bible-inerrant). This literal-inerrant approach is taken by numerous creationists and intelligent design writers, and is the root of their perceived "war" between science and religion. Here are some examples:
Ironically, the notion that the Bible should be viewed as a technically precise scientific treatise is shared by some prominent atheists on the other end of the intellectual spectrum, who assert that modern science proves that religion is wholly false [Armstrong2009, pg. 302-307; Haught1995, pg. 57] (see also
- The Creation Research Society [CRS2010]: "The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in the original autographs. To the student of nature this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths."
Henry Morris (creationist writer) [Morris2000, pg. 203]: "[T]he creation chapters of Genesis are marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primeval history of the universe. They give data and information far beyond those that science can determine."
- Georgia Purdom and Jason Lisle (creationists) [Purdom2009]: "Evolutionists and creationists have a different ultimate standard by which they evaluate and interpret physical evidence such as stars, fossils, and DNA. The biblical creationist takes the Bible as the ultimate standard."
- William Dembski (intelligent design writer) [Allen2010]: "As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality. ... I accept that the events described in Genesis 1-11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch."
Difficulties with biblical inerrancy
In any event, the consensus of the vast majority of knowledgeable biblical scholars, representing a broad range of denominations and philosophies, is that the literal-inerrant approach to the Bible is simply not defensible -- the Bible as we read it today is a product of both human and divine elements. Much of the evidence for this consensus view can be seen by a careful study of the Bible itself, without any recourse to "higher criticism." Issues include translation errors, text inserted or changed by copyists, missing books and passages, questionable inclusions, literary passages, passages assuming the ancient cosmology, accounts written after the fact, genealogical discrepancies, numerical discrepancies, and discrepancies on matters such as violence, treatment of women and whether children are to be punished for the sins of parents or ancestors. A detailed discussion of these issues is presented in
Science in the Bible
To answer the question of whether the Bible can rightly be considered a scientific work, even in part, we need to carefully analyze what the Bible says on scientific matters:
- Mathematics. The ancient Hebrews, as well as the early Christians, evidently used the decimal system of enumeration. But there is no suggestion that they understood the full system of arithmetic using positional notation with zero (this was first discovered in India prior to 500 CE) [Ifrah2000, pg. 346-347]. There is also no indication that they understood the Pythagorean theorem (the formula relating the lengths of sides in a right triangle) or other principles of elementary geometry, even though these were known in the ancient world by roughly 500 BCE. Likewise, there is no suggestion of more advanced mathematics, such as the rudiments of integral calculus discovered by Archimedes roughly 250 BCE.
Along this line, it is amusing to note that the biblical passages 1 Kings 7:23 and 2 Chron. 4:2 indicate that pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is 3.0, whereas we now know that pi = 3.14159.... In spite of the fact that the context of these verses clearly suggests an informal approximation, not a precise statement of mathematical fact, an 18th-century German Bible commentary attempted to explain away this discrepancy by using the imaginative (if pathetic) suggestion that the circular pool in Solomon's temple (clearly described in 2 Chron. 4:2 as "round in compass") was instead hexagonal in shape. Even in the 21st century, some are still unwilling to accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is simply mistaken on this minor point. See, for example, [Jackson2002]. Certainly a better approach is that recommended by the medieval Jewish theologian Maimonides: "You ought to know that the ratio of the diameter of the circle to its circumference is unknown, nor will it ever be possible to express it precisely." [Maimonides1168]. In other words, pi cannot be given exactly as the ratio of any pair of integers, a fact that was later proven in 1768.
- Astronomy. There are a surprising number of verses mentioning various stars and constellations in the Bible. Job 38:31-33 (KJV), for instance, declares, "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth [meaning unknown] in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus [Ursa major] with his sons [cubs]? Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?" On the other hand, nowhere in the Bible is there any detailed information on these astronomical objects, or any suggestion that they should be studied in a scientific manner. For example, nowhere do we read in the Bible any suggestion that the sun is just another star.
- Creation. The Genesis account of the creation describes, in general terms, the formation of the earth (some say the entire universe) and the rise of various classes of living organisms. With regards to the time scale, if one accepts that the word "day" in Genesis be read in a more general sense as a period of time (as is the case even in modern English), then the "conflict" between the biblical account and the scientific largely disappears. One quibble here is that while plants such as ferns preceded most animals species, scientists have concluded that flowering plants were a more recent development in geologic history. At the very least, it is clear that the ancient biblical prophets and scribes recognized the hierarchical organization of the biological kingdom. Beyond the rudiments mentioned here, there is essentially no technical, quantitative information in these passages that could pass as scientific in our modern sense, one way or the other. For additional discussion, see
- Cosmology. Numerous biblical passages state or at least presume the ancient geocentric cosmology -- the earth is flat, is encompassed by a circle (like a coin), is set on a foundation of pillars and is immovable, with the sun and other heavenly bodies moving on transparent spheres of crystalline material a few thousand feet above the earth. The following is a very brief sample:
- 1 Sam. 2:8: "... for the pillars of the earth [are] the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them."
- 1 Chron. 16:30: "... the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved."
- Psa. 93:1: "... the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved."
- Psa. 104:5: "[Who] laid the foundations of the earth, [that] it should not be removed for ever."
- Eccl. 1:5: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose."
- Isa. 40:22: "[It is] he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof [are] as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.
Nowadays virtually everyone concedes that such passages were intended only as literary figures of speech, not as assertions of scientific fact. These conclusions are agreed to by virtually all modern biblical readers. But why then should Gen. 1-2, which also describes the physical creation, be singled out for a very literal interpretation?
- Physics. There is absolutely no hint whatsoever that biblical peoples understood anything in the arena of what we now know to be modern physics. To state the obvious: the equations of quantum mechanics and relativity, the two cornerstones of the field, are not to be found in the Bible! Even the much more basic laws of motion that Galileo and Newton discovered are completely absent from the Bible, even in rough, intuitive form.
- Chemistry. There is no hint of modern chemistry in the Bible.
- Geology and paleontology. There is no mention of fossils or the nature of rock formations in the Bible.
- Biology. Except for the brief outline of the creation in Gen. 1-2, the only references to biology in the Bible are a few fleeting references on the nature of plants and animals. As one amusing example, Lev. 11:6 instructs that rabbits are to be considered "unclean" in Jewish law because they "chew their cud" (they don't).
- Quantitative analysis. One clear characteristic of modern science is its reliance on highly precise, quantitative measurements (often made using advanced technology) and the analysis of such measurements using statistical methods. None of this is to be found anywhere in the Bible.
The items above are certainly not listed here to heap ridicule on the Bible. To the contrary, they shout the obvious fact: nowhere in the Bible is there any material akin to the precise, quantitative style of modern scientific works, nor is there any hint that the prophets and scribes who wrote and transcribed the Bible even cared much about such highly technical matters. These writers were focused on grander themes, including the relation of man to God, sin and forgiveness, obligations to the unfortunate, and the moral laws that should govern society.
Some reject the notion that God could have worked indirectly in the creation, via natural processes such as evolution, since, according to them, the Bible nowhere suggests that God works indirectly, or that creative descriptions could be anything but literal. But this is not true. There are numerous instances in the biblical text of descriptions of creative processes (e.g., the formation of a fetus in the womb) that are entirely similar to the description of creation in Genesis -- see Bible-creation.
Along this line, it is widely recognized that a distinguishing feature of religion, as opposed to science, is a reliance on faith. However, numerous passages in the Bible stress that pure faith, especially blind faith, is not sufficient. Note, for instance, 1 Thes. 5:1 (KJV): "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." This passage is much more along the lines of the scientific method! In a similar way, note that works and the fruits of religion are frequently emphasized in the New Testament as a balance to faith, as noted in Matt. 7:20 (KJV): "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." and in James 2:17-18 (KJV): "Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works."
So why do some in the modern era get so exercised about perceived "discrepancies" between, say, the account in Genesis of the creation and the scientific description? Pope John Paul II said the following on this topic [Pope1986, pg. 161-164]:
The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.
The Bible is not a scientific textbook, nor was it ever intended to be read in this way. The Bible describes humankind's grand and sublime search for God, the meaning of life, morality and salvation. Technical questions such as the age of the earth and the history of biological species are much better studied with the tools of modern science, tools which many believe to have been granted to mankind for the express purpose of better understanding the physical world around us.
For additional discussion, see