It is necessarily
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…
“OH JONAH HE LIVED IN DEE WHALE, and he made his home in dat fish's abdomen, oh Jonah he lived in de whale”, goes a line in the famous song that I used to love to sing as a child. I gave virtually no thought at that time to the chorus of said song — “It ain't necessarily so, the things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.”
Since then I have given a lot of thought and study to the matter and now disagree earnestly with the song's mantra. (But I can't help still enjoying the song — I probably should feel guilty for doing so.) I now believe that you are not being guilty of self-deception, at best, or just plain “iggerance” at worst, if you adhere to the belief that the Bible is without error in its original manuscripts and can be trusted in all its statements, whether about history, geography, chronology, cosmology or science. Yes, even science; when the Bible speaks on scientific matters it is always necessarily so. Detailed dissection of the above passage from Timothy has invariably shown that Paul meant exactly what he appears to mean — the infallible, inerrant God inspired fallible, errant human beings to produce a document to guide us in our pursuit of truth, a document free from taint of untruth.
I mean, it's a simple question, really. Did God or did God not inspire Scripture? We will not elaborate on the meaning of “inspiration” or tease out the arguments involved in such elaboration. We'll keep our point as simple as possible — taking Timothy's statement at face value we must conclude that the New Testament writers teach infallibility. For those who accept the working of the Holy Spirit in the writing of the New Testament (and this article works from the premise of such inspiration) the case is closed — Scripture claims inerrancy for itself.
This article will specifically argue the scientific accuracy of the Bible. This article proposes that the evidence is strong enough to assert that Scripture never teaches error about scientific matters.
Genesis One will not be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that, in spite of the dogmatic insistence of some, I do not believe that Genesis One must be read as if it teaches universal creation within one week of 24-hour days. But that topic will be dealt with elsewhere.
Genre, idiom and descriptive language
An examination of case after case of alleged scientific error in Scripture will not find a single example, once one allows for genre, idiom, and descriptive language, of clear error. What is meant by the clause, “once one allows for genre, idiom, and descriptive language”?
Let's explain with some illustrations, starting with idioms. Some allege that Moses was just plain ignorant in suggesting that insects have four legs (Lev. 11:20). Come, come. Was he that stupid? You would not find a single table of contestants in a trivia contest that could not tell you insects have six legs. Let's give Moses a break.
Moses may have been slow in speech, but intellectually he was no snail. Josephus tells the story of how Moses was put in charge of the Egyptian army at a time when the Egyptians had given up all hope of ever gaining victory over their enemies, the Ethiopians. Marching on them via the shortest route, through land the Ethiopians considered impassable because of the enormous number of venomous snakes, he caught the Ethiopian army unawares. He used a brilliant strategy, taking with him a huge number of snake-eating ibises caged in baskets (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, II, X). You can guess the rest.
Would a man that smart not know that insects have six legs rather than four? The problem is simply resolved. His reference to creepy-crawlies that “go upon all fours” evidently amounted to an idiomatic way of speaking about any living thing that creeps, crawls, or slithers along the ground, regardless of leg count. An idiom is any form of expression, especially one having a non-literal significance, peculiar to a particular language. All languages, both ancient and modern, abound with idioms.
Does the use of “inaccurate” idioms mean that Scripture is inaccurate? It is here argued that, allowing for such idiomatic expressions, Scripture is perfectly accurate. If the book of Genesis was written in modern English, would you say that it was scientifically inaccurate if it said it “rained cats and dogs forty days and forty nights” in Noah's time? “Raining cats and dogs” is an English idiom which every native speaker of the language understands perfectly well. (Translate it word for word into any other language and you would be greeted with blank stares.)
Moses knew that insects have six legs, and knew that his audience knew that insects have six legs. He nevertheless described them as going “on all fours” (insects, not his audience) because that's evidently one way Israelites of that time described bilaterally symmetrical creatures, whether they had no legs, four legs or one hundred legs. (It's not the only way, as Genesis 3:14 shows. The same idea can often be expressed in a number of different ways.) Note that nowhere does Leviticus actually say “insects have four legs”.
Genre refers to different conventional literary forms. We have the obituary genre, poetic genre and genre of recipe-writing, to name just a few well-known forms today. Not all languages have exactly the same genres. One popular genre found in a number of languages in the ancient world would seem odd to us. Known by scholars as the genre of “onomastica”, it is a literary form in which cosmic acts of a divine being are enumerated (Osborne 1991, p. 198). An example can be found in Job 36:27-33:
For He draws up drops of water,
We know that God does not “cover His hands with lightning” literally; so did Job, and all his readers. Shall we call the Bible “unscientific” because of it? Behind the unfamiliar mode of expression and poetic language lie solid and remarkable scientific facts.
Osborne lists the chief biblical genres as narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic, and parable. In spite of the huge gap in time between then and now, we can often intuitively detect and take into account the genre when reading ancient works. For instance, who believes the stars literally joined the fray when they read that, “They fought from the heavens; the stars from their courses fought against Sisera” (Judg. 5:20). The author of Judges didn't think so, either, and he didn't expect a single reader would. We immediately recognize its poetic structure, and don't expect scientific accuracy and absolute precision. It's neither unscientific nor “inaccurate”. It's poetry.
Herein lies the point. To brand such literary modes unscientific is like arguing that the furthest a dog can run into a forest is halfway — once it reaches the halfway point it's no longer running into the forest, but out of it. Such arguments amount to pedantic quibbling based on definitions and modes of expression rather than on facts. We would do well to consider Bernard Ramm's reflections on this subject:
Nature as a vast, orderly, law-abiding system was deeply imbedded in Hebrew thought. Only because the Hebrews used a different vocabulary is this idea lost to so many modern readers of the Bible (1976, p. 58).
The Bible was written in the everyday, market place language of its time, spanning fifteen hundred years and a number of different cultures. This simple fact does not make it unscientific. Pre-scientific, perhaps, but not unscientific. Ramm makes this vital point:
Genuine relevant thinking cannot be accomplished in the realm of Bible-and-science until the nature of Biblical language has been deeply probed. Few books on Bible-and-science treat this point (p. 45).
Let's drive the importance of genre home with an example of a lovely quote you can find on the Internet:
The Bible demonstrates itself to be no more sophisticated than were the simple goat-herders who wrote it. In First Kings 7:23, we are told of a large vessel that was made for King Solomon: “And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other . . . and a line of thirty cubits did encompass it round about.” (I Kings 7:23) The ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is known as “pi”, and pi has a numeric value of approximately 3.15 . Thus, a circular vessel of diameter ten cubits would have measured about 31.5 cubits round, not 30 as described here (and if the vessel were not circular, the circumference would have been even larger). Either the measurements cited here are incorrect, or the Bible is claiming that the value of pi is 3.0.
Goat herders, indeed!? How do we honestly handle the objection raised above? Simply. The measurements given here are approximate only, rounded down in this case, and only intended that way. Even scientific experiments sometimes use approximations when all that is sought is a general piece of information. Rounding up and rounding down is quite common when precision is not called for. The author of 1 Kings made no effort to establish 100% accuracy in commensuration, and made no pretence of it. He was presenting an artist's conception, not a draftsman's. A freehand painting is not “unscientific” when compared with a blueprint. They simply serve different purposes. Branding the Bible as unscientific over trifles like that is like charging a TV chef with unscientific behavior for suggesting a “pinch” of some ingredient. The genre is narrative, not technical specification.
What counts is the facts. Though Bible writers used different styles than we do today to describe natural phenomena, the meaning was factually sound. We are the ignorant ones if we insist that all scientific propositions must be expressed in technically precise, but stylistically lackluster, science genre in order to be considered “scientific”.
Descriptive, or “phenomenal” language
Bible writers, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, often used descriptive, or “phenomenal” language. That is, they described things the way they appear to the human eye rather than in an absolute way. We do exactly the same thing today! To give a modern example to help show that “inaccurate” language does not imply ignorance, one need go no further than the classical example provided in modern modes of expression. We speak of the rising and setting of the sun. Is that scientifically accurate? Well, one's answer to that depends on exactly what one means. Taken at face value, the term “rising of the sun” suggests that the sun is doing the moving while the earth remains stationary.
Future generations might assert that we believe the sun revolves around the earth. But we don't believe that. We know better. We would defend ourselves by saying something like, “Hey, all we mean is that from our vantage point it appears that the sun revolves around the earth. But that's not what we meant.” Let give Scripture the same flexibility.
Believe it or not, with such Scriptures as Psalm 19:4-6 up their sleeves, medieval Catholic scholars branded the notion that the earth revolves around the sun heretical. Their error consisted precisely in not allowing for descriptive language. That the God who inspired Scripture knew better is evident from other passages which actually deal with the phenomenon in explanatory rather than perceptual terms. (Actually, the real reason Catholic scholars held so tenaciously to an earth-centered universe has not so much to do with their adherence to Scripture as with their adherence to Aristotle, who had preached an earth-centered view of the universe. His unequalled reputation for learning ensured that the geocentric view remained generally unchallenged in the West until 1543.)
Is the Bible scientific drivel?
Was Moses guilty of teaching scientific hogwash? He seems to have swallowed antique superstitions, such as the following:
And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath, and for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon (Deut. 33:13-14).
The sun's rays play a major role in the growth of plants. And the belief that the moon has a big influence on agricultural cycles has some support even among cool-headed scientists. But as for the apparent teaching here that the moon is responsible for output in some manner, well, that's absurd. If that is really what this verse is saying, we have an example of error. Keep reading.
Moses was not alone in his apparent belief that the moon enjoys significant influence over earthly affairs. (I'm speaking facetiously.) An unknown Psalmist goes much further than Moses, asserting that the moon can somehow harm those who spend too long moonbaking:
The L ord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night (Ps. 121:5-6) .
Though the moon's cycle cues activities among many animals, and maybe plants, any educated person today knows the moon has no influence on earthly affairs. Not only can it not produce fruits, it certainly can't harm anyone. At first blush, the Psalmist here seems to be saying that it can. Rev. Dr. A. Cohen confesses, “The danger from the moon was ‘lunacy', the word revealing the old belief that the moon had the power to derange human reason” (1969, p. 421).
So how do we understand the Bible's scientific accuracy in face of such apparent errors? The RSV translates the offending passage in Deuteronomy as, “with the choicest fruits of the sun, and the rich yield of the months.” The Hebrew word translated “moon” in the KJV is actually in the plural number, a fact which The KJV translation fails to indicate. The word appears only four places in the entire Old Testament in the plural form, the other three being Exodus 2:2, Job 3:6 and 39:2, and in all cases months, not the moon, are clearly intended. Different fruits and vegetables appear seasonally, and thus each month does give produce. What appears at first glance to be a factual blunder makes perfectly good science sense when you check into it.
We simply have to reserve judgment about the meaning of the verse from Psalms about the moon smiting one by night. Pushing modern superstitions about lunacy being linked to the moon thousands of years backwards must be stricken from the record. Certainly, the New Testament twice uses a Greek word, seleniazomai, that is the exact etymological equivalent of “lunatic” to describe a medical complaint. But to insist that the word shows that Greeks of the time held the moon responsible for some illnesses cannot be sustained. The word could have originated any number of ways. For all we know, the term “moon struck” was facetiously coined by some wag after observing a wild party under a full moon. Deducing past beliefs from guesswork etymology is fraught with risk.
Our problem often lies in our ignorance of the original language. What did a given phrase or saying mean to them? The term “smiting moon” may well have made reference to the bitter cold of desert areas on moonlit nights. That possibility would make great sense of the Psalm, telling us that neither the heat of a desert day, nor the cold of its night, will harm one under God's providential care. To make a case against the Bible's credibility based on our ignorance of original meaning redounds to our dishonor, not Scripture's.
Earth revolving around sun
Let's close with an example showing that, when Scripture gets away from phenomenal language and actually talks about the way things really work, it is flawless. After Job's severe trial, God asked him this question:
Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? It takes on form like clay under a seal, and stands out like a garment (Job 38:12-14).
These words cut Job to the quick, inasmuch as they confronted him with the simple truth that he, a mere man, has no influence whatsoever over the daily rhythm of dawn's arrival. God alone can take credit for the faithful alternations of day and night. The wicked, who love darkness, and go about their nefarious activities under its black cover, cease their activities as dawn arrives.
As this verse shows, its arrival also exposes the beauty of God's creation. The last clause of the passage colorfully describes the gradual lighting up of earth's intricate features as sunlight reaches them and enhances earth's many natural colors. But we are more interested in the vital middle clause, “it takes on form like clay under a seal”, which outlines the mechanism that causes the two listed effects.
The verb translated in NKJV as “takes on form” is a very common word, haphak, meaning “turn (back, over)”. It is used in Genesis 3:24 to describe the cherubim's sword turning around, and in like manner it is used in Job 37:12 to refer to swirling clouds. In Judges 7:13 it is used to depict a loaf of bread rolling over and over as it tumbled down a hillock, like rolling cheeses in the famous English festival. The Hithpael form of the verb, used in Job, gives it a reflexive meaning; in other words, the object that is turning, turns itself . The sense of the verb would be expressed well by the word “spin”.
The Hebrew, obscure that it is, could be literally rendered, “It turns itself (spins), like clay [and] seal.” What is it describing? Seals were used anciently as a mark of authenticity and authority on scrolls or clay envelopes. Two main types of seal were used — the cylinder seal and the stamp seal — of which the cylinder seal was more common. The stamp seal was usually a ring with a cameo on it that could be pressed into soft clay, leaving an impression. The cylinder seal was shaped like an engraved tube of lipstick which, when rolled on clay, likewise left an impression.
Significantly, the mechanism that brings the dawn with its magical effects is likened to a cylinder seal being rolled on flattened clay — a perfect simile for describing the earth turning on its axis! And as the rolling of a cylinder seal on clay produces features in the clay, the rotation of the earth progressively reveals its features to the sun's illuminating rays, causing them to stand out vividly, accentuated by the long shadows cast by the low-angled sun.
In more modern times, Copernicus is credited with proposing the daily east-west rotation of the earth in the mid-sixteenth century. By the time Foucault provided his spectacular demonstration of the rotation of the earth by suspending a pendulum on a long wire from the dome of the Pantheon in Paris in 1851, earth rotation had become generally accepted. The book of Job beat them by up to four thousand years! The Bible has scooped modern science many, many times.
References and notes
Cohen, A. 1969, The Psalms, The Soncino Press, London
Osborne, G. R. 1991, The Hermeneutical Spiral, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove
Ramm, B. 1976, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
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