It should surprise no one that the church and society have often conflicted on various things: morality; art; economics; international affairs; law. One area of conflict on which I tend to write is that of science. Hollywood has cashed in greatly on that conflict: their adaptations of Carl Sagan’s Contact, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah are just a few examples of that lucrative tension in modern society.
While putting the finishing touches on my next book about the origin of the human species, I was looking for examples of scenarios in which theologians might have walked up to a group of scientists sitting at their lab benches decorated with high-tech equipment, measuring devices, boxes of artefacts and piles of data, and attempted to sweep it all on the floor using Scripture alone.
I’ve previously written about one such example, in which they confronted Galileo’s description of the cosmos. He had images from his telescope, and sketches complete with equations from the most sophisticated mathematics of the day. On their side, they had dozens of references in Scripture to a three-layered flat earth standing firmly on pillars, covered by an up-side-down bowl holding back a three-layered heaven, with the sun arcing across that immobile earth. Of course, we all know who won the day. (And if you think the story ends with the church burning Galileo at the stake, you’re quite wrong. The sentence for his crime of heresy was house arrest in his villa in Florence Italy for the rest of his life while being cared for by rich aristocrats … something that the rest of us might call a very comfortable retirement).
But back to the question of the origin of mankind.
I found many examples of church-science confrontations, two of which deal with the story of God taking Adam’s rib to make Eve. One goes quite far back in history, but the other is surprisingly recent.
And very weird.
The first goes back thousands of years, to a time in which we knew very little about the inner workings of the human body. Most of what we knew was gleaned from war, when people were sliced open, and the braver and more curious among us would look inside and start shifting internal organs around. The cutting edge science of the day (sorry, couldn’t help that play on words) on human anatomy was written by Galen, a Roman doctor who accompanied the armies and exploited the daily bonanza of mutilated corpses. His findings became the bedrock medicine for centuries throughout the lands and territories controlled by the Roman Catholic church, which dominated the expanding western world at the time.
Up until the 16th century, very little of Galen’s science conflicted with what the other authoritative textbook of science … the Holy Scriptures … said about human anatomy. But then along came Vesalius, working at the University of Padua, who made the ground-breaking discovery that men and women had the same number of ribs. This of course could not be, because the book of Genesis clearly said that Eve was created from Adam’s rib: men must therefore have one less rib than women! Vesalius’s “trial” was much less riotous than Galileo’s, in part because even the least educated person of that day could count ribs. You didn’t even need a dead body, you could use your own body and the person standing next to you. Perhaps the biggest conflict in this saga was the wrenched fingers and slapped faces of the men when the women of this highly religious society were being groped in order to confirm this theory. It may also be that some more open-minded and carefully reasoning people realized that God’s removal of Adam’s rib was nothing more than a surgical injury, much like the loss of a finger or the amputation of a foot, and everyone knew that such injuries were not passed down to the children of those unfortunate individuals. So this little tempest blew over fairly quickly and quietly.
But then it re-appeared again just a couple years ago.
And this time it took on a whole new twist that I would never have expected.
An American theologian proposed that Eve was not created from Adam’s rib, but actually from Adam’s … well … how shall I put this? … from his manly part!? This theologian had impressive credentials behind him: he’s a Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages, and a member of faculty at the American Jewish University. He did an intensive study of the Hebrew word from which we translate “rib,” and found reason to think that it didn’t refer to body parts that were horizontal (such as ribs), but rather to parts that would be vertical. He combined this with the finding that many mammalian males (now there’s an alliteration) have an os baculum, but curiously humans don’t. (For those readers with less training in anatomy or Latin, the os baculum might also be referred to as the “penis bone,” and it gives added support during the act of sexual reproduction; ask your parents if you need help with the details). This provocative idea … that Eve came from Adam’s os baculum, not from one of his ribs … could bolster the claims made by evolutionary creationists (or theistic evolutionists, if you prefer) that Adam and Eve were simply hominids that YHWH “refurbished” with the imago Dei and planted in a secluded garden in Mesopotamia.
Talk about raising a bone of contention. (again, I couldn’t resist the pun)
His idea didn’t last long, though. He retracted it fairly quickly. Not because this too would have been a surgical injury, and we in the 21st century surely know men who lose their pinky finger while chopping wood don’t father children lacking pinky fingers. Instead, he gave up because it was pointed out that Genesis says YHWH took “one of” whatever it was that he took — and animals only ever have one baculum.
I recognize fully that this idea was merely a flash-in-the-pan. A lot of sizzle but no steak. A rather ridiculous hypothesis, actually. But I wanted to profile this as a case-in-point of the kind of mistakes that can be made when theologians wade into scientific waters equipped only with Scripture. Particularly when it comes to the origin of humanity (the subject of my latest blog writings, and my latest book). Yes, Genesis gives a very clear description of how humans came to be. Many will insist that we need to stick to “a plain reading of Scripture.” But scientists have a table decked out with hard data … bones, fossils, weapons, jewelry, cave art, carbon-14, genes, chromosomes, behavior … gleaned by experts who have studied for decades in the fields of anatomy, comparative biology, anthropology, paleontology, psychology, geology, archaeology and genetics. And the story told by those experts and their data is quite different than that “plain reading of Scripture.”
We can no longer treat the Bible as a science text book and theology book rolled into one. Any scientist will tell you that all science textbooks eventually go out of date: Boards of education and universities are always updating their lists of approved textbooks every few years. I think a science textbook written in the Bronze Age might have reached its shelf life. (As a theology book, on the other hand, now that’s a different story.)
One final thought.
Many believers will say they’re quite comfortable with the idea that there was no literal Adam and Eve. That they can accept that humans never numbered less than a few thousand, and originated in Africa, not in Mesopotamia, and that the Garden story may only be metaphorical. This is great. But despite having such an “Old Earth” world-view, they may not realize that their theology is still very much “Young Earth” in nature. Without an Adam and Eve representing all of mankind during their fall in the Garden of Eden, then what do they do with the concept of original sin, and Paul’s “first Adam … last Adam” theology (Acts 17; Romans 5; 1st Corinthians 15; 1st Timothy 2), which is foundational for many? How can we continue to call ourselves “broken creatures” living in a “fallen world” if we as a species were never perfect to begin with (we just evolved up from the primordial ooze)?
As an analogy: imagine a historian trying to prove that Abraham Lincoln founded the Communist government in China in the twentieth century. As soon as it came to light that Abraham Lincoln didn’t even live during the twentieth century and never left American soil, it wouldn’t matter how much hand-waving and argumentation the historian gave, you would say the story needs to be radically adjusted.
But if you begin to chip away at the concept of original sin, do you have to start re-examining death … redemption … Christ’s death on the cross … authority, inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture?
Much to ponder. But I’m leaving that for a future blog.
As always, tell me what you think …