| | | | | | |

Interpreting the Bible IV – Scientific Statements

In my daily reading I encounter many different types of literature, each of which relates to the science I know in a different way. For example, I might read a newspaper, in which case the question is just what is an article about. Is it about art? I will look at it through one set of glasses. A report on a scientific discovery? My expectations change substantially. I might read a book of fantasy, in which case I expect very little relationship to real science. If I read a science text, however, I am going to judge it very critically on how well it conveys scientific information.

In each of these cases, what constitutes a “mistake” is going to differ greatly. “The sun sets in the west” is very proper in popular speech, in art, or in poetry. It’s questionable in a story about science, and in general would only be used as an example of how inaccurate popular speech can be in a science text.

If one criticized a poem for its scientific inaccuracy for such a statement, one would be viewed as odd. Viewing the Bible that way is pretty standard. Now I’m not denying here that the Bible has different types of literature in which scientific statements might be seen differently. What I will say, however, is that the Bible has nothing in it that qualifies even as a popular news story about a scientific discovery. It certainly has in it nothing close to a textbook on a scientific topic.

Yet many people expect a specifically scientific type of accuracy when they read the Bible. I believe this comes to some extent from the modern view of scientific knowledge as the best type of knowledge available. We want scientific proof that God exists or that miracles happen, because we believe that’s the best category of evidence available. We think the Bible should talk about science in some way, because science (in the modern science, not the older “general knowledge”) is the best type of knowledge there is.

Of course, God may have a different idea. Personally I would argue that God does talk about science, and he does so in the fabric of the universe. We hear that message through scientific study. I don’t want to get into the details of such a view here; suffice it to say it exists.

But we still must be careful in saying that the Bible does not make scientific statements. I’ve gotten into trouble on this before, because people often hear that as “The Bible doesn’t say anything correct about the physical world.” That’s not the case and it’s not my point. What I mean is that the Bible doesn’t make statements either with scientific precision, i.e. intended as testable hypotheses properly qualified, nor does it attempt to advance specifically scientific knowledge.

Now there’s a lot of room for disagreement there. Just how precisely must the Biblical statements agree with a modern scientific view? Laying aside the question of whether the modern scientific understanding of any topic is correct (what will people think of our current knowledge in another 200 years, not to mention 2,000 or 4,000?), one can at least divide that between those who believe that the Bible need not agree with scientific knowledge in any particular way (though it may) or those who believe that where the Bible makes a statement that impinges on science in any way, it must be accurate.

Let’s take a quick example, which I already mentioned previously. We know that the Bible is not a mathematics text, yet it almost accidentally mentions the ratio that is PI, though not providing us with a number calculated to any decimal places in 1 Kings 7:23:

Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely. (NRSV)

I know of some Biblical critics who are embarrassed that people bring this up as an objection to the Bible, and well they should be, because it really causes nobody any actual problems. On the other hand, it illustrates what I am talking about quite nicely.

There are several things that one might think about this statement:

  1. The writer is using approximations in his numbers
  2. The brazen sea isn’t precisely round, but perhaps oval, another type of approximation
  3. These are not builder’s plans, and thus the precise number is unnecessary
  4. There is no particular reason for the writer to provide us with the value of PI

All of which are quite possibly true. Some others have brought up issues such as measuring from the outside or the inside of the rim. I would note that Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have an easy means of expressing decimal places, and fractions are a mite wordy. So what is the difference here? PI is 3.1416, which is itself rounded from 3.14159, which is rounded from… Why do I choose a particular precision? I do so according to my need, in this case my need to show how we approximate numbers on a regular basis.

One could quite reasonably read the passage as “The sea was round, about 10 cubits across and about 30 cubits around the rim.”

My point? The precision of our statements of such topics depends on the need. I heard a similar example yesterday in a store. One of the clerks was giving directions. He said, “You turn right and then go 2 or 3 miles, and you’ll find Walmart on the left.” Is he giving lousy directions if Walmart is 3.3 miles? 2.7? 1.9? Actually, if he follows the directions he’ll find where he’s going.

Now compare this to directions I got about a year ago to find someone’s house. I was told to turn right and then check my odometer, because I needed to go precisely 1.1 miles and turn right on a road that didn’t have a clear road sign. I did so, and at 1.1 miles I turned right onto the specified road, and only saw the sign with the road name on it after I made the turn. The clerk’s directions were good for his circumstances, but would have failed for mine. On the other hand, giving a precise number to the tenth for finding Walmart would simply be distracting.

To get back to Genesis 1, if one assumes it is intended as a scientific treatise, one should be concerned with things like how days would be calculated before the fourth day when the sun was created. (Though I would note that one does not have to conclude from the text that the sun was actually created on the fourth day; it might be a case of revelation.) One might also be concerned with what “day” was before the fourth day. After all, the sun is created to “rule the day” suggesting that “day” already existed before the sun was there. But now I’m descending into silliness.

If, on the other hand, Genesis 1 is liturgy, there is no reason to expect a logical and scientific progression in the events. But between these views we have any number of senses in which Genesis might be heard as a form of narrative history, in which case, while it need not make scientifically precise statements, it could well make statements that would impact scientific data. For example, if the story says, “the sun set,” even if we allow the non-scientific nature of the way of indicating the end of the day, if there is no sun, the statement would be false–no sun, no setting.

In each case one must look at the particular genre and the nature of what the author is trying to communicate within that genre (witness my two instances, both of giving directions, but with different requirements), in order to determine what type of statements to expect, and the precision one must expect of them. A man describing the temple has no need to communicate the precise value of PI, while someone celebrating God’s creation of the world has no need to describe orbits or solar fusion.

Now I personally believe that not only does the Bible not make scientific statements as I have described, but that it speaks its message into a context of the knowledge of the audience. In other words, as God wishes to communicate things about his order, his control of creation, and his plan for humanity, he doesn’t distract them by saying that they don’t understand yet that the world is a sphere (though they did think it was round like a dinner plate), that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse, or that stars were light years away.

Those points, as interesting as they would be to us today, would be a distraction. In fact, I would suggest that they would completely take over the more important message that the Bible has to deliver.

We think scientific knowledge is the most important; God doesn’t agree, and he communicated according to his priorities, not ours.

Similar Posts

6 Comments

  1. Martin LaBar says:

    That’s a splendid treatment of the pi question, and a great last paragraph.

    Thanks!

  2. Larry B says:

    Your last sentence is brilliant! (May I borrow it for my daily conversations?)

  3. Lifewish says:

    If one criticized a poem for its scientific inaccuracy for such a statement, one would be viewed as odd.

    I hope not. I’m a big fan of various fantasy-genre TV shows, for example Dr Who. Every so often I’ll be watching it with some friends who studied biology, and the Doctor will come out with a complete howler that has us all yelling at the telly.

    For example, in the recent episode The Lazarus Experiment, some bloke (called Lazarus) is trying to make himself immortal and inadvertently turns himself into a monster (as you do). The Doctor made some comment about the monster being an accidentally-unlocked evolutionary dead-end lying dormant in human genes.

    I was in the college common room when I watched that, with a bunch of natural scientists who’d spent the last month desperately cramming their evolutionary biology notes. I think the scream of horror may actually have caused some permanent damage to my eardrums.

    OK, so maybe this response is a little odd. But I think it’s justifiable. Even accepting Genesis as metaphor/poetry/whatever, any story giving the impression that the world was made in a week is going to get a wince from me.

    Maybe beautiful and evocative is more important than accurate. But wouldn’t we ideally have both?

    1. Part of your point is well-taken, though I think criticizing scientific errors in fantasy-scifi is different from criticizing them in poetry, and there are different types of scientific “errors.” “The sun sets in the west” is an expression; we all know that’s not how it ‘really’ works, but it’s a workable way of expressing things in the proper context.

      In fantasy or science fiction, I guess I would qualify as odd. I want the science in my science fiction to be correct as far as it goes. You can have a future in which an FTL drive has been invented, and you don’t even have to explain how it works. Some future invention of an unknown nature made it possible. On the other hand, if you violate scientific laws without any explanation or potential for one, I get annoyed. So I’d be odd. I’m similar in fantasy. If magic works, fine, but if you don’t somehow indicate that the laws of nature are different in some way, don’t violate them other than through the magic.

      Maybe beautiful and evocative is more important than accurate. But wouldn’t we ideally have both?

      I think my concern for each element would vary according to the nature of the writing/speech. To use an example from my own field, I would like a description of the decoration of ancient and medieval manuscripts for popular consumption to be beautiful and evocative, and accurate within the constraints of popular description. I’d like a discussion of the text critical use of those manuscripts to be accurate to the greatest extent possible.

  4. Errancy says:

    First of all, thanks for another excellent post; I’ve just discovered your website and am finding it fascinating.

    I’m particularly interested in how you deal with 1 Kings 7:23 and the value of pi. There are two stages to deciding whether this is an error: first we judge what the Bible actually claims, then we judge whether its claim is true.

    One response here is that those who claim error are being excessively pedantic at the second stage. ‘Yes, the Bible claims that pi is 3, when actually it’s 3.14…, but given the purposes of the text and the limitations of the language that’s close enough to count as true.’ This approach focuses on refining our concept of truth, learning to apply it more charitably under certain circustances.

    Another response focuses on refining our reading of the text, suggesting that those who claim error are being excessively pedantic at the first stage. ‘No, given the way that language works the Bible doesn’t claim that pi is precisely 3, it only claims that it’s roughly 3, which is true.’

    Sometimes I think that you’re more interested in the first approach, other times I think that you’re more interested in the latter, but am I right in thinking that you see both of these as valid?

    1. Yes, I would certainly see both approaches as valid, depending on the particular point at issue.

      For example, in 2 Chronicles 36:9, the claim that Jehoiachin was 8 years old is wrong via both approaches, on the assumption that 2 Kings 24:8 provides the correct age of 18, which is a good enough assumption for purposes of this example. The author intends to tell us the age of accession. Based on all other examples in the text, accuracy to the year is intended, and the value of 8 is linguistically clear and inaccurate–an error under both approaches.

      Of course here we have the “transmission error” explanation, but that’s another topic.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.