Book Write-Up: Scripture and Cosmology, by Kyle Greenwood

Kyle Greenwood.  Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic.  See here to purchase the book.

In Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science, biblical scholar Kyle Greenwood explores how ancient peoples understood the structure and layout of the physical universe.  He pays particular attention to the cosmology within the Hebrew Bible and the challenges it has posed to its religious interpreters, since the cosmology within the Hebrew Bible appears to differ from subsequent cosmologies, including our own. Greenwood offers suggestions about how evangelical Christians, who regard the Bible as religiously authoritative, can accept the Bible as divinely-inspired while still acknowledging and accounting for its cosmology, which differs from the modern scientific understanding of the world.

Greenwood looks at the cosmologies of the ancient Near East, which was the milieu of the Hebrew Bible.  Greenwood acknowledges the existence of some diversity in ancient Near Eastern cosmology, but he sees evidence that many in the ancient Near East believed in a flat earth, a solid dome in the sky that held back the waters and had windows for the rain to come through, and pillars that supported the land so that it did not float on the waters (though, according to Greenwood, there was a belief among some that the land did float).  Greenwood maintains that such a cosmology is present in the Hebrew Bible, but Greenwood also mentions some differences between the Hebrew Bible’s cosmologies and those of the ancient Near East.  Greenwood also discusses ancient Greek cosmologies and how they differed from the ancient Near Eastern ones: there emerged a belief in a spherical earth and spherical heavens surrounding the earth, and there was an acknowledgment that water vapor played a role in precipitation.  Rather than believing that the moon gave forth light of its own (Greenwood is not dogmatic that the ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible believed this, but he seems to acknowledge it as a possibility), there developed the view that the moon reflected light from the sun.  Later, Greenwood narrates, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler challenged the geocentric view that was part of the Greek cosmology, maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun.  This challenged religious adherents to the Bible, who thought that the Bible presented the sun moving, not the earth.

What should a religious adherent to the Bible do, when biblical cosmology differs from later scientific understandings of the universe?  Greenwood mentions how many medieval thinkers accepted a lot of Aristotle’s views of the cosmos, while not wholly embracing Aristotle’s religious views.  Aristotle believed that the universe was eternal and was supported by an impersonal prime mover, for example, whereas many medieval religious thinkers held that a personal God created the cosmos.  Greenwood may regard this as a model for how evangelicals can interact with science: accept its findings, yet still believe in a personal God.  Greenwood, like many others whom he cites, also believes in the concept of divine accommodation: that God in God’s revelation accommodated people where they were rather than attempting to correct their flawed, inaccurate cosmologies.

There are many positives to this book.  Greenwood provides documentation from ancient sources in his discussions of ancient cosmologies.  He acknowledges diversity, debate, ambivalence, and nuance in his consideration of issues, particularly issues concerning the nature of the cosmologies that he discusses, as well as religious attempts to cope with or account for biblical cosmologies.  (John Calvin, for example, believed in divine accommodation and was open to what science had to say, yet he really struggled with aspects of the Bible’s cosmology, in areas.  There is some debate about Martin Luther’s views on Copernicus.  And there are three views on the Bible and science in The Fundamentals, a crucial document in the development of Christian fundamentalism.)  Greenwood’s work is an excellent resource of information on ancient cosmologies and religious attempts to wrestle with biblical cosmology.

Regarding Greenwood’s attempts to account theologically for the differences between biblical cosmologies and our modern scientific cosmology, parts of his discussion resonated with me, but I doubt that everyone will find what he says to be convincing.  More than one Christian scholar has mentioned divine accommodation as a way to account for these differences, but what I liked about Greenwood’s discussion was that he asked the question of what would have happened had God tried to reveal to the ancient Israelites how the cosmos actually is.  Would they have understood what God was saying?  And would that have detracted from the spiritual or religious message that God wanted to reveal to them?  Greenwood cannot be accused of chronological snobbery, for he astutely notes that there are many things about the universe that we, right now, do not understand.  Greenwood’s discussion here made divine accommodation look plausible to me.  It will probably not be convincing to atheists, however, who would say that the Bible reflects inaccurate ancient cosmologies because it is not a divinely-inspired book, but rather the product of limited human beings, living in their own times.  I make this point because Greenwood indicates in the book that his book could help evangelicals who are challenged by atheists.  Maybe his book would help evangelicals to account theologically for the Bible’s scientific inaccuracies for themselves, but I doubt that it will assist evangelicals in scoring points when debating atheists.  Another point: Greenwood states that the Bible is perspicuous about how to be saved.  I would dispute that idea, considering the different Christian and Jewish views on what one must do to be saved (i.e., enter a good afterlife).

I have more questions after reading Greenwood’s book.  Job 26:7 states that God hangs the earth on nothing, and, while Greenwood convincingly argues against the idea that this means that the earth is a sphere in outer space, he did not explain what that part of the verse did mean.  I was also curious about what ancient Near Eastern cosmology had to say about the relationship between clouds and precipitation.  Greenwood mentions I Kings 8:45, in which the clouds become dark before the rain, but he does not say whether ancient Near Eastern cosmology acknowledged a connection between the clouds and rain.  If they did, would that challenge, or be an ancient alternative to, the idea that rain came from above a solid dome and was let through the dome’s windows?  (Note: see Nicholas Petersen’s website for an alternative view on the firmament in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.  http://www.hebrewcosmology.com/)  There were times when Greenwood explained technical details about ancient cosmology that shed light on how the ancient believed the world worked: Greenwood, for example, addresses the question of how people in the ancient Near East believed that salt water and fresh water were kept separate, even though they thought that the water above the earth and the water beneath the earth were part of a common structure.  I appreciated his explanation of this technicality, but there were times when I was hoping for something similar in other discussions.

I still give this book five stars, however, because it is a repository of information.  Those who are interested in biblical cosmology will find this book to be a helpful resource.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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5 Responses to Book Write-Up: Scripture and Cosmology, by Kyle Greenwood

  1. Kyle Greenwood says:

    James, Thanks for the careful review of my book! I would like to make two small points of clarification, if you don’t mind. The first is that I never intended the book to be an apologetic resource for “evangelicals challenged by atheists.” So, you’re right that my book would not score any debate points. Rather, I say in the preface, that “this book is really about reading the Bible faithfully, which I suspect is a goal of most, if not all, of those who have chosen to read” it, and that it “is written for evangelicals who may be frustrated with interpretations of the Bible that don’t seem to coincide with their own careful reading of the text.
    The second point has to do with perspicuity, and your point is valid. However, what I have in mind, and what I say in the book, is the “doctrine of perspicuity,” which is a purely Christian doctrine. Naturally, Jewish interpreters would see things differently.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your comment and clarification, Kyle.

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  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    See here for the discussion under my blogger review of this book. Steve Hays of the conservative Christian Triablogue weighs in, and skeptic Ed Babinski talks about Job 26:7, the passage about God hanging the earth on nothing. Babinski shows that another ancient Near Eastern source had that idea. http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2015/10/book-write-up-scripture-and-cosmology.html

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  4. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – October 2015 | Reading Acts

  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    On my blogger blog, Kyle Greenwood drew to my attention that he offered an interpretation of Job 26:7 on page 80. He refers to interpretations about the earth floating on the waters. In reading that, I was unclear about how that was hanging the earth on nothing, and that was why I said that “he does not explain what that part of the verse did mean.” Greenwood said that he is writing an essay-length treatment on the subject offering the reasons for his interpretation.

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