This blog,like the last two, is a kind of preliminary to my new blogging project for 2015 which will involve studying Mark’s Gospel and the book in of Genesis in tandem.
Yesterday’s blog set our some of my assumptions about the nature of these two books, while today’s gives my assumptions about the scientific and historical facts with which they can be compared, namely the facts of the development of the universe and the facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Most scientists seem to be agreed that the observable universe is about 13 billion years old, and that it developed out of a “singularity” often called the Big Bang. As far as I understand it, a singularity is an event that science does not and perhaps cannot understand. The development of the universe from that point onwards involves processes called inflation and expansion, whereby the energy of the Big Bang expanded in all directions in a”lumpy” manner which meant that the distribution of energy was unequal resulting in concentrations of energy which formed gas clouds, nebulae and ultimately galaxies, with stars and planets. The energy equations of the universe do not add up properly using the energy which is detectable and so scientists conveniently have invented “dark energy” which makes the sums come out right. At the same time there are pefectly respectable scientists who suggest that our universe is only one of many overlapping universes which make up a multiverse. I note these areas of debate not to denigrate science, but to illustrate my conviction that in 500 years scientists willl look back at 21st century models of the universe in much the same way as we now look back on the models of Ptolemy or even of Genesis.
Our own solar system is 5 billion years old, while the earth is around 4.6 billion. Life on earth has been dated as follows:
In its 4.6 billion years circling the Sun, the Earth has harbored an increasing diversity of life forms:
- for the last 3.6 billion years, simple cells (prokaryotes);
- for the last 3.4 billion years, cyanobacteria performing photosynthesis;
- for the last 2 billion years, complex cells (eukaryotes);
- for the last 1.2 billion years, eukaryotes which sexually reproduce
- for the last 1 billion years, multicellular life;
- for the last 600 million years, simple animals;
- for the last 550 million years, bilaterians, water life forms with a front and a back;
- for the last 500 million years, fish and proto–amphibians;
- for the last 475 million years, land plants;
- for the last 400 million years, insects and seeds;
- for the last 360 million years, amphibians;
- for the last 300 million years, reptiles;
- for the last 200 million years, mammals;
- for the last 150 million years, birds;
- for the last 130 million years, flowers;
- for the last 60 million years, the primates,
- for the last 20 million years, the family Hominidae (great apes);
- for the last 2.5 million years, the genus Homo (including humans and their predecessors);
- for the last 200,000 years, anatomically modern humans.
Periodic extinctions have temporarily reduced diversity, eliminating:
- 2.4 billion years ago, many obligate anaerobes, in the oxygen catastrophe;
- 252 million years ago, the trilobites, in the Permian–Triassic extinction event;
- 66 million years ago, the pterosaurs and nonavian dinosaurs, in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
I love science, especially cosmology, and try to keep up to date. For people like me who believe in a creator God, science has been a never-ending source of revelation. By increasing our wonder at the universe it has increased our wonder at its creator. Of course the science available to the author of Genesis was limited, just as our present science is limited, but he/she used that science to construct an image of the creator, just as I might do now. There should be no quarrel between genuine science and genuine faith; the quarrels arise when one of the other or both are arrogant about their versions of truth.
The historically ascertainable facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth are few in number. He was probably born in Nazareth
around 4BCE, lived most of his life in obscurity, perhaps with the trade of carpenter/ builder and was probably a disciple of John the Baptist. He became a prophet/teacher in his own right continuing John’s announcement of the Kingdom of God. He was condemned to die by crucifixion by Pontius Pilatus, the Roman Governor of Judaea around 33 CE. Within a short time of his death, his followers claimed that he was alive as Son of God.
Some historians consider that much of what is given as the teaching of Jesus in the first three gospels is likely to be historical along with some personal details, for example, that he was a healer. But they suspect that many of the stories in the gospels are the product of the memory of Jesus developed in the first Christian communities. They may contain some facts but these are indissoluably welded to the meaning of Jesus for their faith.
On the other hand it is quite clear that within a few years of Jesus’ death, his disciples had spread his story not just in Judaea and the middle east but into the Roman province of Asia into Greece and even Rome itself. The dynamic growth of this faith is docmented particularly in the surviving letters of St.Paul who was active as a missionary between 40 and 60 CE. There is also an increasing volume of references to “Christians” from Roman sources. So although the available facts of Jesus’ life may be meagre, there is plenty evidence of his influence on others.
The theory that the gospels are an amalgam of facts and imaginative faith should not dismay contemorary believers, but we should be open to further archeological discoveries which could shed light on the life and death of Jesus. If for example, his bones were to be found and clearly identified, would that cause problems for our faith? It would make absolutely no difference to mine because although I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’ve always thought his earthly body was in the ground, just as I believe in my mother’s resurrection although I scattered her ashes in a highland loch.
There should be no quarrel between history and faith, except when either makes factual claims that go beyond the evidence. So for example the Christian is going beyond the evidence if he claims that Jesus’ body ascended upwards into the sky like a rocket; while the historian is going beyond the evidence if he denies the possibility of resurrection.
I hope this blog gives some idea of how I respond to the views of Richard Dawkins and others that books like Genesis and Mark’ Gospel are simply out-of-date fairy tales.