Science in the Bible?

Can you find science in the Bible? This seems a reasonable question to ask in the context of a Lent Lecture series entitled, “What has science to do with faith?” Those who would have us believe that science has nothing to do with faith would very likely point to the Bible as evidence. The Bible, they would say, is full of ‘unscientific’ things – such as miracles - and, they would probably add, the very word ‘faith’ is anti-science. To have faith, this argument goes, is to believe without evidence, and to accept without questioning.

 

But is that really what we see in the Bible? It is true that there are no examples of modern, post-enlightenment science in the Bible. Not a single biblical character puts on a lab coat and safety goggles and heads into the lab to run a series of repeatable experiments and then write them up for publication in Nature or The Lancet. It is also true that we shouldn’t expect to find our current scientific understanding of the world reflected in writings that are thousands of years old. Why would we? But that is not the same as saying that the Bible is full of unthinking, blind belief, or that the biblical authors believed in God and in miracles simply because they had no understanding of the world and how it worked. After all, how do you recognise a miracle as a miracle unless you know and understand how the world works in the normal day-to-day run of things? A miracle is a miracle precisely because it is outside the norm, it isn’t in line with the normal and the expected. People can only believe in miracles when they can tell the difference between the miraculous and the mundane.

 

So we can agree that we won’t find any modern science in the Bible. But can we find anything that we might consider to be ‘primitive science’ in the Bible? Well, yes, I think we can, and we can find it pretty early on, in the book of Genesis. (If you’re now worried that this is about to become a talk on creationism or intelligent design or something, relax. It’s not). I want us to consider the story of Noah, and the flood. I won’t go through the whole of the story, because I’m sure you all know it: the ark, the animals coming in in pairs; the rain, the flood. It’s the point at which the rain stops and things start to dry out that I want us to consider:

“Then [Noah] sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him anymore...the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying.”[1]

 

I would suggest that Noah is our first biblical scientist. He was shut up in the ark, and he clearly couldn’t risk opening the door, because he didn’t know if they’d be inundated with water. So he does an experiment to find out if it is dry and safe. Through a window, he sends out a dove, and he does this several times, until he has evidence that the flood waters have receded. That sounds pretty scientific (and also really rather clever) to me. Even if we think of the story of Noah as a fable or parable – not necessarily a record of an actual event, but a story that illustrates a great truth – it still demonstrates a way of interacting with the world that we might call ‘scientific’. And it shows that, far from being ignorant about the world, the ancients knew quite a lot. To do what Noah did, one would have to know about the behaviour and habits of birds, so as to send out the right one. Sending out an albatross, for example, would do you no good at all. But the dove is basically a ground-feeding bird, so would come back if there were no place to land and find food. There was also, clearly, an understanding of what happens after a flood, that the water doesn’t just disappear once the rain stops. Noah doesn’t send the bird out the moment it stops raining. He waits until it is reasonable to expect that there might be a bit of dry ground out there. Notice that, although the story tells us that God is in overall control, there is no miracle for Noah; no sudden drying of the land so that he can come out of the ark. Things take their natural course and there is no expectation that they should do otherwise.

 

Did the person who wrote the story of Noah set out to tell a story about a scientific experiment? No, of course not. That wasn’t his purpose. And yet we still get a story that illustrates how faith and scientific enquiry can work together. Noah’s faith is demonstrated in that he receives a revelation from God, believes it and acts upon it in the building of the ark. He also has faith that God won’t leave him and the animals with him to die in the ark. But this faith is combined with a keen sense of how the world works, and an ability to ask a question about the world and perform ‘experiments’ to find the answer to that question.

 

Science is all about understanding how the world or, in the case of cosmologists and astrophysicists, how the universe, works. For the people of first-century Palestine, at least a basic level of knowledge about how the world works was essential. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were either pastoralists, fishermen, like the disciples, or subsistence farmers. For these people, understanding natural phenomena could be a matter of life or death. Fisherman had to know about currents and wind, if they wanted to get their boats to where they needed to be, and they had to know about the life-cycles of the fish that they caught if they were to know which fish could be found where at what times of the year. For farmers, being able to make some judgements about what the weather was going to do, even if it couldn’t be predicted with the accuracy we have today, was essential. Jesus even makes reference to this weather knowledge in an exchange that he has with some Pharisees and Sadducees, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

 

 

“The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’”[2]

 

These Pharisees and Sadducees are religious ‘professionals’, if you will, and Jesus is rebuking them because, despite their religious training, they cannot interpret the signs that Jesus is doing, signs that herald the kingdom of God, even though they can interpret the signs that they see in nature, those signs that suggest what the weather is going to be like. It would seem that this 'folk science', if you will, was common. That's why Jesus can use it to suggest that, just as the Pharisees use the signs in nature to understand the world, they should also be able to read the signs that he is doing to understand God.

 

Matthew’s Gospel also gives us an account of the only people in the Bible we might think of as professional ‘scientists’ – the Wise Men. In truth, Matthew doesn’t tell us much about them, but the fact that they have, “seen his star at its rising,” is a strong indication that they are court astrologers somewhere. Their job is to watch the stars and take note of things, both routine and unusual, that happen in the sky and that ancient societies believed heralded key events in human society. Today, of course, we don’t think of astrology as a science. But ancient astrologers were good at making accurate observations and being able to predict phenomena like eclipses. Observation enabling prediction – that could just about be the definition of science.

 

We no longer attribute geopolitical significance to astronomical events, and we might want to dismiss the astrologers of the ancient world because they did exactly that (this is why the Wise Men set out on their journey, after all). That would, I think, be a mistake. Those ancient astrologers were simply reflecting the world-view of their time, which understood the earth and the heavens to be connected and so when momentous things happened on earth, these were reflected in the stars. Not that they believed that stellar events caused events on earth, but more that these were signs – indications - that something big was happening. Their job was to know what was happening in the heavens so as to understand what was happening on earth. Their desire both to understand and to be able to predict events is the very same desire that has driven nearly all of modern science. Humanity has an innate thirst for knowledge, and the ability to turn knowledge into wisdom.

 

Out of all of the Bible, the book of Job has perhaps the most beautiful passages describing the magnificence of the natural world. And while I must admit that there is nothing in Job that one could readily classify as ‘science’, the idea that knowledge of the natural world leads to wisdom and insight is certainly there. In chapter 38 of Job, the Lord speaks to Job and, basically, says, ‘Who do you think you are to question me? I know about the secrets of the world and you do not.’ God says to Job:

 

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know!...Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?...Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare if you know all this...Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? Can you number the months that they fulfil and do you know the time when they give birth, when they crouch to give birth to their offspring, and are delivered of their young?...Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.”[3]

 

Knowledge of the natural world and how it works gives wisdom akin to the wisdom of God. Certainly, for people of faith, knowledge of the natural world can be a source of knowledge about God, as well as a route to wisdom. This desire to understand God the creator is what drove the early scientists - the natural philosophers of the middle ages and many of the scientists of the Enlightenment, to explore the created world. Galileo, for example, spoke of learning about God from the two books that God gave us - the book of scripture and the book of nature. Isaac Newton said that his scientific work investigated God’s creation, and that this was his religious duty because nature reflects the creativity of its maker.

 

Finally, I want to bring us back to the assertion that some non-believers would make: that faith equates to belief without evidence, and acceptance without questioning. If anything, the Bible shows this to be a false definition of faith. Again and again, the Bible tells us that God gives evidence of his presence and his faithfulness. The book of Exodus, for example, is full of what we call miracles - the manna from heaven, water out of rock and so on - but which we might also refer to as God’s evidence for his presence with his people and his faithfulness to them. (It’s also got a bit of good, scientific enquiry in it, when Moses goes to investigate the bush that is burning and not consumed. It’s such an unusual and unlikely thing, he can’t but help go and see what is going on, to try and make sense of it). We see this provision of evidence, too, in the New Testament. Jesus’ miracles are the evidence that he is providing that the things he is saying about the kingdom being at hand are true. In John’s Gospel, he says it outright:

[Jesus said], “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe in me. But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works so that you may know and understand.”[4]

 

John’s Gospel also gives us a very moving account of one who did ask questions and demand evidence. ‘Doubting’ Thomas. I think that poor Thomas has had a bit of a bad rap down the centuries. After all, he didn’t doubt so much as just want to see the evidence first hand, as his fellow disciples had done:

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

 

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’”[5]

 

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the scientific method, but for any who might not be, it basically works like this: some question about the natural world arises, and the scientist, drawing on available knowledge and information, forms a theory to answer the question. That theory is then tested through experiment and observation. If the results are those predicted by the theory, than the theory is confirmed (though never proven). If the results are not what the theory predicted, then the theory is either discarded or revised in line with the observable results. Doubting Thomas should really be known as Scientist Thomas, because this was, more or less, the method that he followed. He had been told that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This created a question: Could the dead really be raised and, specifically, had this happened to Jesus? Thomas, it seems, forms the theory that this is untrue. He declares that he won’t believe until he sees the marks in Jesus’ hands and places his own hand in the wound in Jesus’ side. This is the observation and experimentation: He wishes to observe the phenomenon for himself, and test whether the body is really alive and really Jesus. Thomas isn’t the patron saint of scientists, but I think he should be.

 

Can we say that there is science in the Bible? I think we might answer that with a cautious ‘yes.’ To paraphrase Star Trek’s Dr McCoy, “It’s science, Jim, but not as we know it.” The Bible does certainly contain examples of people exploring the natural world and enquiring about its workings. These examples of enquiry in the Bible brought people into contact with God - Moses at the burning bush, the Wise Men who came looking for a new-born king, and good old Doubting Thomas who, when faced with the evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead, declared, “My Lord and my God.” Science and faith are not, or at least need not be, at odds with one another. As Thomas so clearly shows, scientific enquiry can be the handmaid of faith. The other side of that coin is, unsurprisingly, that faith can also be the handmaid of science, as was the case for Galileo, Newton and many others.

 

[1] Genesis 8.8-12,13b; NRSVs

[2] Matthew 16.1-3, NRSV

[3] Job 38.4-5a, 16,18 & 39.1-3 & 40.2

[4] John 10.37-38a

[5] John 20.24-27


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