Question from Antonia:
I was debating some days ago with some (Orthodox) Christians and at some point of the conversation I was asked something rather puzzling and I wasn’t sure how to answer: We have evidence that the Book of Genesis was written at about 500-450 BC or at least before 150 BC (since the oldest manuscripts of the book of Genesis are the 24 fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and they are dating between 150 BC – 70 AD). The book talks about the creation of the world describing the events in the exact same order as scientists have confirmed in very recent discoveries; I am talking about the order in which water, land, the first animals and human appeared on earth. How can that happen? How can a book so old describe these events since the technology and science of that time was not as advanced as it is today? Of course they can only explain it as a word of God but I’m wondering if there’s some other explanation…
Firstly, I have no problem with that rough estimate of when the Book of Genesis was first written. The point of the emphasis on that is to establish simply that it was written before the emergence proper of astronomy, geology, biology and paleontology. That’s pretty obvious.
The reason such an early document can describe the events – not in that much detail, really, but at least in roughly the right order – is that in many cases they seem as if they couldn’t have happened any other way. Humans eat meat and plants, and animals eat plants, so animals must have come after plants and humans after that. There had to be earth (the Earth, which incidentally they thought was flat and had “corners”) for water to settle on, and the water had to be moved aside for land to appear. For the purposes of the authors when Genesis was written, it merely had to sound right, so it does.
Between picking the obvious stuff, Genesis makes glaring mistakes. The main one is saying that day and night, and plants, let alone the Earth itself, were created before the sun (one of the two “great lights”) was. The scientific view is that the Earth formed around the sun 500 million years into its lifespan, that plants came well after that and that the sun causes day and night. Besides this, in Genesis animals emerged in just two short bursts over two days: sea creatures and birds together, then land animals. (That places most dinosaurs after birds, instead of the reverse.) A creationist (probably an old-earth creationist, if the issue has gotten this detailed) might then argue that science has these things wrong, but by doing so would completely abandon the argument that Genesis reflects modern science.
Then, of course, there’s also no sense of timescales in Genesis except the passage of the six days. Even if you apply “day-age creationism”, where each Biblical day represents huge amounts of time, the different days have to stand for different intervals ranging from a few million years to several billion, and there’s no sign of which days are the longest.
In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as getting some things right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses – except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millennia later in terms of what we now know. See my piece on prophecies; the apparently accurate parts of Genesis are candidates for #1. High Probability of Success and #4. Shoehorned.
“In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses, except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millenia later in terms of what we now know.”
Question from Antonia: