How did the world come into being? How did life originate on Earth? Opposing theories of evolution and creationism have sparked large debates on the topic. In this article, Professor Katherine Southwood looks at Biblical evidence for theories other than creationism.
Biblical scholars engage with Biblical texts. This primary evidence exists in multiple copies and translations (from Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts to Medieval Manuscripts, in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and other languages), which have been subject to an ongoing process of editing. However, a lot of the primary evidence that Biblical scholars engage with is non-Biblical and has not made it into any of the various canons of so-called “scripture”. For example, much of the primary evidence that Biblical scholars engage with comes in the form of scrolls, papyri, inscriptions, and such like. While Biblical scholars use similar methods of analysis that one might use in other disciplines such as Classics, History, or English Literature, for example, their task is made more difficult (or more exciting, perhaps) by the fact that the Biblical text is highly controversial, susceptible to misuse, and importantly, something which has had an enduring cultural impact.
When Biblical scholars look at the theme of creation, the first thing to notice is the multiplicity of creation narratives. These include the Genesis (1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-3:24); accounts of creation in the Psalms (74:12-17, 89:9-13; 104); in Ezekiel (28:12-19) or Proverbs (8) and Job (41). The fact that two contrasting accounts of creation that sit side by side in Genesis ought to be a clue that this is not a scientific account. Similarly, in Proverbs God does not create alone, but uses the assistance of a master-craftswoman, named Wisdom. In contrast to the monotheistic and highly ordered creation accounts in Genesis, many of the accounts of creation involve drama, mythology, and chaos monsters, and perhaps even suggest a background of polytheism in the religion named Yahwism (which grew into Judaism in the Persian Period). Some of the Biblical accounts of creation are apocalyptic, referring to a new creation (Zech 2:1-5; Dan 7-12). None of this material should be interpreted literally or with certainty, as if it were self-evidently pointing towards some kind of scientific account of how the world came into being! Instead, the texts preserved point towards circumstances wherein Yahwists during the Babylonian period began, in resisting the empire, to carve out a separate identity: this eventually evolved into the emergence of Judaism.
Genesis 1 is usually thought to have derived from a political composition named Enuma Elish which celebrates the Mesopotamian god Marduk. In Enuma Elish, Marduk defeats the watery god Tiamat and this leads to the beginning of the world. This is a political composition, and is more to do with Marduk’s dominance and power than anything to do with the scientific reality of the earth’s origins. Genesis 1 resists this account of history and beginnings, and instead comes up with an entirely different, but derivative, account of creation. In this, Yahweh (not Marduk) is central and does not have to fight with other deities, because the text presupposes that none exist. This is a fairly late text (probably emerging during or after the Babylonian exile) given that it betrays the idea of monotheism, and the importance of the Sabbath (identity markers for Yahwists that are projected back into history as if it were a primordial idea ingrained in the fabric of the universe). Again, this is about power, politics, and identity, and has little to nothing to do with the beginnings of the world.
Professor Katherine Southwood, Tutorial Fellow in Theology & Religion Fellow for Women