Monday, November 09, 2009


The first chapter of Genesis wasn't, as some of the Good Book's more credulous and literalist readers appear to believe, the first part of that work committed to parchment. It is commonly supposed to have been composed by a priest (or a set of priests) known to scholars as P, some time after after the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 and the commencement of the Israelites' enforced sojourn in Babylon.

People at that time were much less likely to assume an unrealistic certainty on matters ineffable, but found that story-telling was a most effective way of extracting meaning from the mysteries around them. In her fascinating biography of the Bible, Karen Armstrong writes that:

"In the ancient world cosmogony was a therapeutic rather than a factual genre. People recited creation myths at a sickbed, at the start of a new project or at the beginning of a new year - whenever they felt the need for an infusion of divine potency that had, somehow, brought all things into being."

P belonged to a Jewish culture which had flirted with the notion of an eternal cosmos similar to that espoused by the Greeks (and crucially, had not been fully monotheistic before the calamity of exile), but in these particular historical circumstances Yahweh had an obvious competitor in the form of the Babylonian deity Marduk who was said to re-create the world every year. In P's alternative version of creation, there was no great battle, no need for renewal, just an effective, non-violent little project carried out in the space of six days. It gave the Jews a clearly differentiated primordial myth in this period of lost political autonomy.

Armstrong goes on to say that 'few' people before the nineteenth century would have imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of creation that could compete with knowledge acquired empirically....but really, how are we to quantify 'few' here?

Asking if people believed this tale literally at any stage in its history is a bit like asking if medieval people believed the world to be flat. Most learned people probably didn't, but then they were part of an educated elite, a group which will always have a more sophisticated (or sophistic) position on where to draw the line between the effable and the ineffable.

My own line is that scholars at the time of P would most probably not have even understood what we mean by literal interpretation, given that scripture was not read in the same way that we moderns are taught to read, but instead used as a means to the real end, a state of religious understanding or ekstasis, achieved through formal recitation of the text.

Of course today we have to put up with hooey like the Creation Museum in Kentucky. But science and creationism are not two sides of a Yin Yang opposition, they are instead part of the same modern drive for factual certainty which has rather overshadowed its true alternative, the more abstract, intuited understandings that come from our exposure to metaphor.

But the apparent challenge of squaring Genesis with Darwin diverts some religious people into a pig-headed rejection of fact and others into an equally inane discourse on the wonderfulness of a God who came up with the idea of creating a process of self-creation.

The authors of the Old Testament — Jews — have generally maintained an approach to this problem that sounds more practical than your typical Christian bluff, and the Muslims — with their Abrahamic Tradition V3.0 — cleverly covered themselves early on by qualifying the creation story in the Koran with the statement that one day in Genesis is equivalent to “a thousand years of your reckoning.” Tellingly though, Muslim creationism has started to take hold in the most secular of Islamic societies: Turkey.

At the Intelligence Squared Debate Anne Widdecombe's managed to be duplicitous as well as abusive to the questioner when she tossed aside the issue of why women are barred from the priesthood: a woman can no more stand in persona cristi at the point of consecration than a man can represent the Virgin Mary, she snorted.

Only an utter dupe would see that as anything other than a casuistic post-rationalisation emerging from an organisation which developed within a culture where women were not even allowed to own property, one of the main perks of the priesthood back in the Middle Ages.

What this debate revealed is that religion does itself few favours by engaging in a fact-slinging contest,. Yet in the modern world, a return to a more mystic tradition (a la Kabbalah) could only really be viewed by the rest of a largely secular society as a conscious act of isolationism. A dilemma indeed.

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