Judeo-Christian Cosmology: A Comparative Perspective
October 21, 2012 9 Comments
The primary source for Judeo-Christian cosmology is can be found in the early part of the Bible, primarily in Genesis of course. The challenge Charlie had when looking at the Bible from a purely academic and historical sense however, was that he had to account for and be aware of the preconceived notions and interpretations that fall squarely into the category of what many would consider to be religious dogma.
Much like the Islamic tradition surrounding the Quran (or the Koran as it is sometimes translated) the Bible in conservative circles is considered to be a divinely inspired work to be taken literally which very much muddied the waters when trying to look at the text as a reflection of ancient Judeo-Christian culture and history rather than as a rule book and play book for modern day Christian life or the Word of God.
In his research and analysis, Charlie wanted to make sure that he looked at the Bible from the same perspective as he had looked at the ancient Egyptian, Sumer-Babylonian, and Greek cosmological texts, and stayed clear as much as possible from any discussions or debates regarding the divine nature of the text itself. After all, the literature in the Bible had its own historical context, and was a compilation of many different treatises from a variety of ancient cultures and authors and therefore was subject to the same translation and interpretive challenges as other ancient texts.
The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE is said to be one of the most lasting achievements of the Jewish civilization – without it, Christianity might not have spread as quickly and as successfully as it did.
So Charlie wanted to look at the cosmology of the Judeo-Christian faith in the same historical and socio-political context as he looked at the other ancient Mediterranean civilizations in order to try and get a more complete sense and perspective as to the common elements of their respective cosmologies, collectively forming the basis of much of modern Western thought with respect to mankind’s view of his place in the universe and how he viewed and interacted with the world around him. For it was Charlie’s belief that in studying ancient cosmology and philosophy, much light could be shed on the primary forces that formed modern day man’s perspective on reality, his place in the universe, the nature of the divine, and his perspective on the origins of the universe in toto.
From Charlie’s viewpoint, the prevalence and continued influence of the Christian faith over such a long time was more a reflection of the power and importance of the life of Jesus more than anything else, and Charlie thought it was pretty ironic that the Bible had taken on so much importance with Christians, given that Jesus had nothing to do with the authoring and writing of the Bible, this task was performed by later scholars and theologians with their own axe to grind so to speak.
The part of the Bible that had to do with the life of Jesus is referred to as the Four Gospels, and they consisted of four different accounts of the life of Jesus. Each Gospel was named after its supposed author – namely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and each was authored decades after Jesus had died, at the earliest. Furthermore, you’d have to make a fairly significant leap of faith to categorize the Gospels as firsthand accounts, and therefore they were subject to interpretation and inconsistencies as were all ancient oral traditions.
To be fair, the Gospels were authored generations after Jesus lived, rather than centuries or even millennia such as the oral traditions of Homer for example, and therefore can most certainly be looked at as a pretty fairly accurate accounts of the life of the historical Jesus rather than as a drift into mythology as were the codification of other oral traditions from much earlier ancient cultures. Having said that, there are still inconsistencies and contradictions in the Gospels as they relate to the historical account of the life and times of Jesus, and these differences should be looked at as a reflection of the creative and imaginative nature of the human mind of the authors of the Gospels as with any other oral tradition rather than examples of historical inaccuracies or contradictions in and of themselves.
The Bible of course has its Jewish heritage, i.e. the Old Testament, alongside its Christian roots starting with the New Testament and the story of the life and times of Jesus. The Old Testament was the place to look when looking for the cosmological viewpoint of the Judeo-Christian faith. What was interesting to Charlie was how literally much of the contents of the Bible were looked at even today, take the debate on Darwinism versus Creationism for example, and he postulated that such literalism and narrow interpretation was also probably present in the Ancient cultures in their interpretation of their own mythology and cosmology. But given the continued power and presence of the Christian faith and Church into modern times, much of this Christian dogma and narrow interpretation of the Bible continued to be proselytized and preached to members of the Christian faith today, and from Charlie’s viewpoint much of the power and real relevance of the Bible was lost due to such a narrow and religious interpretation of such an influential text and historically rich text.
And the place to start was of course where the belief system started, the extant Christian and Jewish literature. Given the later historical context of the extant Judeo-Christian literature, relative to the civilizations of the Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians by contrast, there was a lot of literature to glean and work from, and this plethora of extant literature, its development and organization, reflected the evolution of the advent of Christian civilization for the two millennia or so after Jesus was killed along with the parallel progress and evolution of language and writing from the Greek to the Latin to modern day European languages such as English, French and Spanish, derived from the Latin and Greek root.
After the birth of Jesus, and as the cultural borrowing of civilization increased, the cultures and societies of the day were more closely connected by trade and travel and writing and language as a form of communication and cornerstone of civilized economies and states became more ubiquitous, all contributing to a rich foundation of literature and writing that centered around the birth of Jesus and the writings of the Church that followed that were incorporated into what today forms the contents of the Bible The Jewish faith and literary tradition however, from which Jesus was born into (Jesus was a Jew), had its roots in mythology and mystical traditions that were much older, probably dating from oral traditions dating back second millennia BC.
So what was the Bible then? What were its origins and who and how was it compiled? As Charlie tried to answer what he thought was this basic question, he found that the answer was not quite so simple. Strange he thought, that everyone in modern day considered there to be just one version of the Bible, and perhaps even just one interpretation of its contents, and in fact this was anything but the case. The best overview of the Bible’s history and compilation came of course from that great modern day collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, and rather than try and paraphrase and reword its description of its complex origin and roots, Charlie thought it far easier to simply include the core explanation from the Wikipedia entry below.
The Bible (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία ta biblia “the books”) is any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the contents and the order of the individual books (Biblical canon) vary among denominations. The 24 texts of the Hebrew Bible are divided into 39 books in Christian Old Testaments, and complete Christian Bibles range from the 66 books of the Protestant canon to the 81 books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Bible. The Hebrew and Christian Bibles are also important to other Abrahamic religions, including Islam… [but Islam does not regard them] as central religious texts.
…The Christian Bible is divided into two parts. The first is called the Old Testament, containing the (minimum) 39 books of Hebrew Scripture, and the second portion is called the New Testament, containing a set of 27 books. The first four books of the New Testament form the Canonical gospels which recount the life of Jesus and are central to the Christian faith. Christian Bibles include the books of the Hebrew Bible, but arranged in a different order. Jewish Scripture ends with the people of Israel restored to Jerusalem and the temple, whereas the Christian arrangement ends with the book of the prophet Malachi. The oldest surviving Christian Bibles are Greek manuscripts from the 4th century; the oldest complete Jewish Bible is a Greek translation, also dating to the 4th century.
During the three centuries following the establishment of Christianity in the 1st century, Church Fathers compiled Gospel accounts and letters of apostles into a Christian Bible which became known as the New Testament. The Old and New Testaments together are commonly referred to as “The Holy Bible”.
Many Christians consider the text of the Bible to be divinely inspired, and cite passages in the Bible itself as support for this belief. The canonical composition of the Old Testament is under dispute between Christian groups: Protestants hold only the books of the Hebrew Bible to be canonical; Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox additionally consider the deuterocanonical books, a group of Jewish books, to be canonical. The New Testament is composed of the Gospels (“good news“), the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles (letters), and the Book of Revelation.
Not quite as simple as one might think Charlie mused. Each of the Christian schools had varying interpretation of what the contents of the Bible were. Regarding the divine inspiration of the Bible, there are clearly varying accounts and interpretations of the contents of the Bible, and even different viewpoints even as to which sections of the work were divinely inspired. This is not to take anything away from the import of the work, but to shed light on the human interpretative nature of the work and its interpretations, and the same could be said of all of the extant literature of ancient times, theological in nature or otherwise. Even more than this though, when it comes to what is today commonly referred to and thought of as the Holy Bible, historically there wasn’t altogether agreement on what should be included in the Bible to begin with. The argument for divine inspiration of the work then would be a very difficult argument to make – too many cooks in that kitchen, and too many translators even, by the time the work ends up in its modern day form.
Unfortunately in many of the modern day interpretations of the Bible, particularly in the more orthodox religious circles, its historical context and socio-political history is left out and in many respects completely ignored, leaving today’s readers and religious novices looking for answers to modern day problems in a text that is thousands of years old, and is at least two languages away from its original authors. From Charlie’s point of view, you could not look at and read the content of the Bible without understanding the cultural and political context within which it was authored and compiled over the centuries which contributed to the final state that it was in today, just as you couldn’t look at the cosmologies of the Egyptians and Sumer-Babylonian cultures without understanding the historical and political context within which the texts were authored without being left with a fundamental misunderstanding of their significance and original intent.
So even if you presumed that the original words did in fact represent the word of God, or were divinely inspired, between them and the words in the King James Bible for example, you had not only translators and compilers of material, but also a selection and filtering of the works themselves by religious authorities (the precursors to the modern day Church in all its variants you could say) as they attempted to establish unity in Christianity throughout the civilized world – the spread of which is marked most notably by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on his deathbed, arguably the most important and relevant moment in the history of Christianity outside the birth and crucifixion of Jesus himself. Arguably much less painful to those involved.
The context within which you are reading the Bible must be taken into account when looking to interpret the words and ideas therein. Reason and motive had to be taken into account when reading or interpreting the Bible, especially when reading it in English, translated from the Greek translations of the original Hebrew. Even a cursory look on its origins yields quite clearly that it had a variety of sources, represented a wide range of material across more than just one religious tradition, and was compiled and organized by a third set of hands which quite clearly had the establishment of authority and power as one of their aims.
Moreover, the teachings of Jesus, although central to all of the branches of Christianity practiced today, did not necessarily consist of the core set of religious beliefs of the Christian faith. The belief system of the Christians was based upon the Bible, which was compiled and interpolated by many scholars over many centuries, and was in turn compiled with a politico-religious intent – namely to establish the authority of the church and its dominion over the Kingdom of Heaven. Not so different than the Enuma Elis of the Sumer-Babylonian cultures and the creation mythology of the Egyptians which reinforced the power of the priesthood and authority of the Pharaohs. This point was clear and evident to Charlie and the hope is that the introductory material laid out above makes that point evidently clear to the reader.
Origins of the Great Book aside, Charlie turned to the underlying cosmology inherent in the Old Testament to glean parallels and commonality, if possible, between the cosmological views of the Judeo-Christian tradition and other ancient Mediterranean traditions such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Sumerian/Babylonian culture. And for this, he looked of course at the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament.
The basic story in Genesis, which most of are familiar with from any religious history class or time spent at Sunday school perhaps, is that God creates the world and appoints man as his benefactor, but man proves disobedient and therefore God destroys the world via the Great Flood – enter Noah and the Ark. The new post-flood world is equally corrupt, but God does not destroy it, instead calling on Abraham to be the seed of its salvation. Genesis ends with Abraham’s descendants (namely Jacob, i.e. Israel) in Egypt, ready for the coming of Moses and the Exodus.
The mythology and description of the origin of the universe outlined in the Book of Genesis is accepted by both the Jewish and Christian faith, hence its inclusion in all versions of the Bible and in the Torah, so herein lie what Charlie considered to be the modern day parallel to the Enuma Elis of the Sumerians, the various creation myths of the Egyptians, and the Theogony of the Greeks.
Given the import of the story, and its relevance in the viewpoint and perspective of the modern day person, Charlie thought it best to include the story of creation in its entirety from Genesis. It’s probably been a while since the reader read this in its entirety and its most certainly required reading from anyone who wants to have an intelligent discourse on the origin of the universe from a Judeo-Christian context, whether you’re are a physicist or a school teacher or a bus driver, the passage below is something you should be familiar with from Charlie’s perspective. This is how it all began, or so the Church would have us believe.
1: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4: And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6: And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7: And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8: And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
9: And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10: And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11: And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12: And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13: And the evening and the morning were the third day.
14: And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16: And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17: And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18: And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19: And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
20: And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21: And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22: And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23: And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
24: And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
25: And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29: And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
30: And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
31: And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
The origin of the universe, and mankind, is described as the creation of heaven and earth by God in six successive days. In the spirit of being organized, the breakdown of God’s activities in this account of the creation of the known universe is as follows:
- Light on the first day,
- firmament, or heaven, on the second,
- the earth and sea on the third,
- lights in the firmament on the fourth day (establishing the sun, seasons, calendar and stars, etc),
- living creatures in the sea and air, and then
- animate life on land, or living creatures on the sixth day, along with humanity in his own image
- day of rest
So here was a much more structured account of the creation of the universe as it were than the Egyptian or Sumer-Babylonian accounts of creation, and most certainly more thorough and organized than its Greek counterpart as expressed in the Theogony of Hesiod. You didn’t have this idea of chaos or primordial void like you had in the other ancient traditions in this account, and yet you had the same concepts or building blocks that were compiled as part of the establishment of the known universe and the world around us. But you did have this concept of order out of chaos though, Charlie noted, similar in concept to the Maat of the Egyptians and this was a key human construct that seemed to appear in all of the ancient cosmologies. This idea that some anthropomorphic hand needed to step in and create order out of the chaos so that the human race and civilization could thrive – the calendar, the seasons, the heavens, the cyclical floods and recession of waters which were core to survival, etc.
However, one marked difference of the Judeao-Christian cosmological tradition then that stood out to Charlie when you looked at the Book of Genesis from an historical and cultural perspective, was that this concept of the void, or chaos was notable in its absence, despite the fact that the concept of order was very present and core.
Furthermore, you had a different take on the anthropomorphic aspects of this creation. In the earlier traditions of the Egyptians and Sumerians, you had a non anthropomorphic principle from which all creation originated, from which all the great gods of the earth, sea and sky came forth – i.e. chaos. In the Christian and Jewish tradition however, there was just one deity, one anthropomorphic principle, God himself, from which all creation sprung and from which human civilization was born. And this creation was not deified in itself, i.e. there was no longer this concept of the god of the sea or the god of the air or ether, there was but one great and almighty God who was the source of all things. God runs the show in the Judeo-Christian world and the world of demi-gods and battles amongst the divine is entirely absent. He is the one without a second. The buck stops with him so to speak.
You could argue Charlie thought, that the earlier tradition and mythology from which the Judeo-Christian cosmology and mythology had sprung, had been adapted, or evolved, into a single anthropomorphic creator. In other words, you could argue that the single and all-encompassing construct of God as reflected in the Judeo-Christian tradition, wasn’t born with the Christian tradition, but the concept of the void or chaos was anthropomorphized, and given a different name as well as a different role in the creation of the universe than in the earlier ancient cosmologies. The anthropomorphic nature of the omniscient and all powerful God was a distinct and marked difference and divergence of the Judeo-Christian cosmology as compared to its other ancient counterparts in the Mediterranean.
But at the same time you could also see the remnants of the older mythology in the concepts of earth, the sea, and land, as well as the establishment of the underlying order of the cyclical world, as remaining core parts of the creation story. The concept of order in fact was embedded into the story of creation itself, in that the world was created in seven days (six with a day of rest) and so the calendar, the passage of time, the seasons, and all order that this system of measurement of time represented, was actually part of the creation as opposed to a byproduct of creation in the Egyptian tradition for example.
But at the same time you also had another further divergence, a marked difference in the mode of thought, the perception of its authors (Moses as it were) as to mankind’s place in the created universe. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, mankind was viewed as different and separate from the rest of the world’s creation – special. Mankind was made in the image of God in this tradition. You could almost see this principle of mankind as the analogy of the divine in the Egyptian and Sumer/Babylonian traditions, akin to the pharaohs of Egypt and kings of ancient Sumer. Mankind was now the king, and the cosmology in the Bible justified mankind’s place atop the hierarchy of all creatures.
So Charlie concluded, you could argue that just as Reason and Science had their respective births in the mind and evolution of man, the construct of an anthropomorphic God did as well. And understanding the historical context within which these great pillars of human thought – Reason, Science, God, etc. – and evolution manifested, could potentially give one a much better understanding as to their true import and impact, as measured within the context of all human branches of thought and knowledge rather than as a matter of dogmatic faith.
 The Bible is the bestselling book of all time; Businessweek on The Bible: “The Bible (2.5 billion copies sold)” (18 July 2005)
 The exception to this could be the cosmological perspective as reflected in the Gospel According to John verses 1 and 2 which read, “1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. 2: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” As translated by Leon Morris in his Gospel According to John, Revised 2nd Edition circa 1995. A full scope of the implications of these two verses and their reflection on Judeo-Christian belief on the nature of the universe and the role of Jesus in it are beyond the scope of this piece.
 Albeit given the Latin and Greek roots of much of the treatises that made up the Bible, they could be translated more readily into English than say the Babylonian or Egyptian texts for example.
 See http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/ancient-bible-fragments-reveal-a-forgotten-history/, quote from Professor Nicholas de Lange.
 The earliest complete extant accounts of the life of Jesus referred to as the “Gospels”, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are dated to the 4th century AD and the general consensus is that the original texts were written in Greek somewhere in the second or third centuries AD. The exception to this is the Gospel According to John of which a strong argument could be made that it was indeed a first-hand account of some aspects of the life of Jesus and that it was authored somewhere in the latter part of the first century AD, dated by some scholars as early as the late 60s or easy 70s AD. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John Revised 2nd Edition for a full exposition on the origins, author, and dating of the Gospel According to John.
 Homer is the author attributed to the Iliad and the Odyssey and lived around the 9th or 8th centuries BC according to most Ancient Greek historians. The stories of course center around the Trojan war, and then Odysseus’s epic journey home, stories thought to be based upon historical events to a great extent, dated back to the 12th century BC or so. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer for more information on Homer and the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
 Contrast the accounts of Jesus as represented in the Four Gospels with the written, first and second hand tradition surrounding the life of the 19th century Indian sage Ramakrishna for example, the main authoritative firsthand text being Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita authored by Mahendranath Gupta. This firsthand account of many of the incidents of the later life of Ramakrishna, along with the full biography of his life that was authored by one of his direct disciples Swami Saradananda, were not only transcribed by a direct confidantes and disciples of Ramakrishna, but they were compiled and authored with the benefit of firsthand experience and direct communication with Ramakrishna himself. In the case of his complete biography by Swami Saradananda, the text alludes and refers to much reference and research material, giving as full and complete a factual picture of the life of the great sage as possible despite its spiritual and religious content.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creation%E2%80%93evolution_controversy for material on Darwinism versus Creationism debate, too lengthy a topic to cover here.
 Members of the Christian faith in modern day is measured in the billions, and by some estimates is over 2 billion, almost one third of the total population of present day mankind.
 As compiled in the King James version of the Bible today – this version being the English translation by 47 scholars of the Church of England in the beginning of the 17th century. The Old Testament was translated from the original Hebrew and the New Testament (for the most part) from Greek. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorized_King_James_Version.
 In 313 AD, Constantine (and Licinius, the less well known contributor to the legalization of Christian worship in the Roman Empire), issued the Edict of Milan legalizing Christian worship. The edict stated “that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best”, thereby granting tolerance to all religions, including Christianity and making the empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship; it neither made the traditional religions illegal nor made Christianity the state religion, as occurred later with the Edict of Thessalonica. For more detail, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_I_and_Christianity.
 Genesis comes from the Greek word of the same spelling meaning origin or source. Although tradition credits Moses as the author of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the authors of the texts are unknown and unverifiable and look back on Moses as a figure from the distant past. Scholars date the text as a product of the middle of the first millennium BC, somewhere between the 6th and 5th centuries.
 Genesis I, King James version.
 See http://www.egyptartsite.com/maat.html.