Presentation: The Position of Reception History in Biblical Studies

I presented this presentation and paper to the Australian group, the Fellowship of Biblical Studies, in Melbourne, 26/09/16. It concerns both the value & risks of reception history for biblical studies and consideration of the similarity and differences in practice between reception history (Wirkungsgechichte) and history of interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte), which are both studies of how biblical texts (and others, as easily) have been interpreted and had influence through time. The former is broader than the latter in a range of ways, and I found some tensions between the practice of the two. The following demonstrates these ideas mostly in diagrams with a little text and some explanatory notes, and see the following Word document also.

This is the Word document, merely in dot-point form, rather than a proper prose piece, but it may fill in some gaps:

Days of Creation Book Now Available

Received the first box of print copies this week, and I’ve checked and found that the title is available for purchase:

http://www.eisenbrauns.com/item/BRODAYSOF

Boxa Books

Here’s a better view, though I enjoyed the first one, too:

Days of Creation Book Image

Here’s the rider: it only covers up to around 1860! (Perhaps I should have put that on the cover!) Stay tuned for the sequel. I hope you’re in good health…it’s gonna take some time!

GENESIS AND THE REAL WORLD: THE BENEFIT OF LOOKING BACK

It is clear to me as I teach Old Testament each week that many present-day Christian readers of Genesis still want to know how it interfaces with the sciences.  Some will be happy simply to ignore the sciences, while others know little about them, and still others think science and the Bible speak unrelated languages and have nothing to do with one another.  But as soon as I try to skirt the tricky issues and concentrate purely on the theology of Genesis, or its literary features, I am soon reminded that the burning question for at least some students is, “How am I to regard evolution?”, or, “What do the days of Genesis mean?”

These questions are not new.  The first has been firmly on the agenda for two centuries, and the second has been asked and studied from various standpoints throughout Christian history.  I am firmly convinced that a look into the history of attempts to bring the ‘real world’ (as perceived at the time) and Genesis to terms will bring insights into present attempts to do the same.  This conviction motivated my personal research into the history of Christian interpretation of the creation week of Genesis 1:1-2:3.[1]

Days of Creation Book Image

This study has turned out to be a kind of deep-trench archaeological investigation into the history of Christian thought – rather narrow sideways, but very deep.  Most of the leading thinkers of Christian history, amongst their other output, wrote or said something about Genesis 1, and often at great length – up to 800+ pages on this single chapter of the Bible![2]

It is revealing to discover that the most popular schemes of reconciling the Genesis creation week with ‘common knowledge’ about the world’s origin have deep roots.  The Gap Theory or Ruin-Restitution Hypothesis, which posits a vast and geologically eventful period of ancient time after creation but prior to the creation week, lying concealed within the rather indefinite language of Gen. 1:2, is often traced back to a Scot called Thomas Chalmers, speaking in the early 1800s.  In fact, it was a well-recognized option on the continent after about 1750, as related to geological eras, and in a more vague form, as a lifeless early phase of earth history, has roots all the way back past the Renaissance and to the patristic period.

The Day-Age or Long Creation Day concept, too, while it had its heyday around the 1850s and remains a well-recognized method of reconciling Genesis and geology today, is quite identifiable shortly after 1750, is being mooted in more limited forms before 1700, and finds antecedents in the idealist approach to the Genesis days of the Cambridge Platonists in the mid-1600s and prior…although the often-cited precedent in Augustine is greatly overstated.  One interesting factor is that this strategy, which today represents a realist stance regarding the physical world, has its taproot in Platonist, idealist approaches to the creation week.  On the other hand, a second ancestry lies in the very early trend of interpreting the creation week as a prophecy of a 7×1000 year sacred world history.

Idealist approaches to the Genesis days, which arguably include Augustine’s final, ‘literal meaning of Genesis’, ultimately find expression today also in the Framework Hypothesis/Analogical Days stance on the creation week, sometimes with quite a Platonist flavour (as in Meredith Kline’s thought)[3] and sometimes without.  As a final example, not all Young Earth Creationists, taking the creation week literally and associating it with a biblical chronology that leads back from datable ancient events in an unbroken chain to creation itself, would realize that one of the strongest defences of this position was published in the 1850s by Philip Gosse in Omphalos,[4] yet failed to persuade the mainstream scientific world.

It’s a fascinating history, and the more it is studied, the more profoundly relevant it turns out to be.  The history of interpretation of the creation week in Genesis emerges as a crucial case study in Christian thought, the history of western thought, and even the rise of modern science, for interpretation of Genesis was the midwife that oversaw its gestation and birth, though its genetics are partly pagan and classical.

Genesis’ version of creation dominated Western thought for most of the last 2,000 years.  It’s a career that deserves to be narrated.

 

Andrew Brown

June 2014

 

References

Brown, Andrew J. The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming.  https://www.eisenbrauns.com/ECOM/_43L1FFT2V.HTM

Gosse, Philip. Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. London: John Van Voorst, 1857.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39910

Kline, Meredith G. “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2-15.

Mersenne, Marine. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione. Reprint of 1916. Edited by. ed. Vol. Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623.

 

[1] Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3 (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

[2] Specifically Mersenne, Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione (Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623).

[3] Kline, “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2–15.

[4] Gosse, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (London: John Van Voorst, 1857).

Days of Creation Book Only Days Away

More thoughts about Genesis 1 shortly, but just discovered a happy sight: the listing of my forthcoming book on the Eisenbrauns website:
The Days of Creation

The Days of Creation
A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3
History of Biblical Interpretation – HBI 4
by Andrew J. Brown
Deo Publishing, Forthcoming, spring 2014
English
Paper
ISBN: 9781905679270
Your Price: $37.95
https://www.eisenbrauns.com

I know it’s real, because I just sent the index off this afternoon, the last thing needed.  Please use it, it was a lot of work!

Some tasters to come…

There Was Morning, and There Was Evening: Wistful Reflections on the Cultural Rise and Fall of an Iconic Biblical Text, the Creation Story of Genesis 1

There is light at the end of the tunnel: I have almost completed the indexing, the last stage of preparation of my first book:

The Days of Genesis: A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

I conclude the book with three main observations from the long and complex story of the interpretation of this seminal biblical text.  I’ll spoil only one here: I find that it is the story of a trajectory, a rise and fall…meaning that Genesis 1 rises from obscurity in the consciousness of the Christian church until it, like the church itself, comes to cultural dominance in the West by about 400 CE/AD.  Then it rules the Western mind for more than 1200 years, becoming the repository for all knowledge and speculation about the world, visible and invisible.

Then as the modern era unfolds, say from 1600–1900, its dominance is steadily eroded, until the 20th century sees it largely forgotten in the West, treasured only in the special place, and at the same time (or so it feels in Australia) the cultural ghetto that is the Christian church.  I won’t try to explain the reasons for this here.  I have to leave something in the book!  But I can characterize them as a whole using a proverb spoken by Jesus:

“We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.” (Matt. 11:17)

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be metaphysics, but it didn’t quite want to be metaphysics.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be a mystical key to reality, but it didn’t really work like that.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be an all-embracing philosophy, but it didn’t aim to be philosophy.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be history, but it wasn’t really history in the normal sense.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be science, but it wasn’t really trying to express science.

The West finally reluctantly allowed that Genesis 1 could simply be poetry, but anyone who knows how Hebrew poetry works knows plainly that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry.

Genesis 1 would not dance the requested dances, and now it stands at the wall, unwanted.

An unappreciated beauty.

Creation Week as Menorah

It had its morning, its cultural high noon, and now its long sunset.

But we stand reminded that in the seventh day, when God finally gets to rest, when the world is as it should be, there is only a morning, and no evening.

Your Kingdom come.

Once More on that Noah Movie

So I didn’t bother going to see it, and in fact got pretty tired of hearing about it, but I do find gnosticism fascinating, and had begun to figure out that there was a fair bit in the movie, e.g. the term ‘the Watchers’, which I recognised from 1 Enoch.

Here’s an informative and frustrated vent from one Dr. Brian Mattson:

http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil

He’s right on the money with recognising all the gnostic signs.  You can see this kind of mysticism getting going in some of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, e.g. 1 Enoch, as well as in some additions to Genesis in the Aramaic Targums.  Then the full-blown version of this good-v-evil cosmic myth, where our Creator God is put on the evil side, is found in the Nag Hammadi literature, those addressed by church fathers like Irenaeus (see article in link) and Clement of Alexandria, as well as the Kabbala.

Mattson wonders how even church leaders missed the fact that the movie was based on this long, Gnostic tradition.

But does anyone read the gnostic documents any more?  We ought to, because it keeps coming back, always with a new face.

Am I going to see the movie.  Hmmm, still not sure I could be bothered just yet.  But the gnosticism would be interesting.  Twisted and wrong, but interesting.

Google Ngram Viewer as a Reception-Historical Tool

Discovered this tool – better late than never.  Ngram Viewer, showing how many times any word or phrase you specify shows up in the vast number of printed books that Google has digitized.  Let me offer you a sample of charts relevant to my doctoral research:

First, this to illustrate when discussion of Noah and the biblical Flood or ‘Deluge’ peaked in the English-speaking book world:

NGram Viewer Noah,Flood,Deluge 1600ff

My interpretation would be that John Woodword’s Essay Toward a Theory of the Earth in 1695 was the big impetus for discussion here, sustained by William Whiston’s 1696 New Theory of the Earth, both coming on the back of Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth and related discussion by John Ray and others.  Moderate discussion remains consistently through about 1750, then dies off, never to reach its former intensity.

Next, discussion about Moses and a couple of minor, associated terms:

NGram Viewer Moses, etc. 1600ff

Certainly, Moses’ name came up in theories of the earth that involved a flood that was biblical in both scale and source.  But both in the deist controversy leading up to 1700 and in early deist writings, esp. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, around 1650, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was the topic for debate.

Lastly, moving down to post-1800, again in the Anglophone sphere:

NGram Viewer Scriptural Geology, Geology of Scripture, Mosaic Geology 1800ff

Three terms, Mosaic geology (green), Geology of Scripture (red) and Scriptural Geology (blue) burst onto the English book scene from about 1820, thanks in part to one Granville Penn and then a number of imitators and collaborators who in time became known as the Scriptural Geologists.  Though it’s a little controversial, I think we can still roughly call these the young-earth creationists of the early nineteenth century.  It was chiefly US writers taking on this task by the 1950s, after it was pioneered by British writers, but this attempt to explain the geological column by means of the biblical flood and natural processes before and after it, all within the constraints of a quite recent creation, had largely given way to its competitors, especially the Gap Theory, by about 1860.  But then, it did make a comeback in the 20th century!

Stay tuned – my book on the history of interpretation of the creation week up to 1860 is due out within months.  Then will be the sequel!