Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.31

George H. van Kooten (ed.), The Creation of Heaven and Earth. Re-interpretations of Genesis 1 in the Context of Judaism, Ancient Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Physics. Themes in Biblical Narrative 8.   Leiden:  Brill, 2005.  Pp. xiv, 284.  ISBN 90-04-14235-5.  €109.00.  



Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (The Netherlands) (PvdHorst@theo.uu.nl)
Word count: 1145 words

The 14 contributions to this volume are the revised versions of papers read at an international conference at Groningen University in 2003. They deal with the creation of the cosmos in the Hebrew Bible and with the interpretations of this story in antiquity, both Jewish and Christian and Greco-Roman. The individual chapters will be briefly summarized.

Ed Noort deals with the creation of light in Gen. 1 and argues convincingly that "the first work of creation, light, is in a category of its own in structure, form and content. It is set apart from the creation of the luminaries" (11). Darkness is not created, it is limited by God in this world. The article by Jacques van Ruiten discusses the intertextual relationships between Genesis 1 and Jeremiah 4:23-28 and concludes that the prophet probably drew upon the creation story of Genesis for his reversed picture in which he describes the creation of chaos out of order, a debatable thesis. In an illuminating essay Eibert Tigchelaar investigates in which ways Gen. 1:14, about the lights serving as signs for festivals, was interpreted in the calendrical controversies of ancient Judaism. Florentino García Martínez discusses the absence of an abstract term for 'creation' or 'creature' in the Old Testament and traces its coming-into-being in post-biblical Jewish literature, especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls where such terms appear for the first time. Classicists without knowledge of Hebrew will find it hard to follow the arguments of these four articles due to their frequent use of untranslated and untransliterated Hebrew.

This is not the case in the second section of the book, which deals with Greek and Roman materials. Jan Bremmer discusses traditional creation myths such as Hesiod, Theog. 116-138, and their background in mythical traditions from the Ancient Near East; thereafter, he turns to Orphic cosmogonic speculations; and finally he argues that the words of Genesis 1:1 should be seen as a reaction to Darius' statements about Ahuramazda as the creator of heaven and earth (in Persian inscriptions from the end of the sixth century BCE), a very informative and lucid study. In a short but fascinating contribution, John Dillon discusses the context of Philo's interpretation of Plato's Timaeus and the book of Genesis and argues "both that there had been a good deal of discussion in the Hellenistic schools, in the wake of Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's response in De Caelo, as to the logical and ontological status of the physical world, and that Philo was pretty well acquainted with the ins and outs of this. Not only his exposition in De opificio mundi , but the (hostile) account of Plato's position, and of Academic defences of it, that he provides (in his persona as a defender of Aristotle) at the beginning of De aeternitate mundi (Sections 13-16), fully demonstrate this. He had to balance this, however, with his stance as a pillar of the Jewish faith and of Jewish culture generally, within an Alexandrian milieu, and this inevitably serves to obscure his position" (106-7). Next, in a short but fine contribution Robbert van den Berg deals with Numenius' interpretation of Genesis 1:2 ('the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters') and shows how here Moses was taken into the service of Greek philosophy by a non-Jewish Platonist since the Jewish lawgiver was regarded by him and others as an authoritative thinker from of old. Teun Tieleman writes on Galen and Genesis. He argues that Galen criticizes Moses' creation account on the following grounds: "First, [it] is defective in regard to causal theory, notably its lacking specification of a rationally acceptable material cause; secondly, it is flawed from a methodological point of view: it is a mere myth we are called upon to accept on the authority of Moses where proof is needed" (138). Tieleman also clearly demonstrates how R. Walzer's interpretation of Galen's polemic is dominated by an outdated pan-Posidonianism.

The third part of this volume deals with creation in some New Testament writings. George van Kooten argues that, in the Prologue of the fourth Gospel, John's interpretation of the creation of light in Genesis 1 involves a particular Greek philosophical understanding of light, specifically of the 'true light' which occurs in both John 1:9 and Plato's Phaedo 109E. He demonstrates how the motif of the intelligible light is applied in the rest of John's Gospel (unfortunately, Van Kooten uses the terms 'intelligible,' 'intellectual,' 'mental,' 'conceptual,' and 'noetic' without differentiation). He next underscores this interpretation by arguing that it was a distinct possibility to have knowledge of Plato and the Platonic tradition in first-century Jewish Palestine. Even though there is some overinterpretation in this essay, especially in the attempt to demonstrate the influence of Plato's cave parable in Resp. VII throughout John's Gospel, it is a thought-provoking and original study. Edward Adams discusses the curious statement about creation 'out of and through water' in 2 Peter 3:5 and argues that the author is here drawing on a characteristically Stoic view of world-formation. After a sketch of Stoic cosmogony, he concludes: "On the basis of the Stoic account of cosmic origins, it would be quite correct to say that the cosmos was formed 'out of' water, since water, though not the archetypal element, was nevertheless the immediate substance out of which the cosmos was made, the malleable, corporeal stuff which the divine craftsman shaped and adapted into an ordered world. It would be equally correct to say that the heavens and the earth were formed 'through' water, since water was not the original state of things but one of the material alterations experienced by the universe on its way to becoming a fully formed structure" (205). In 2 Peter 3:5 the author is thus attempting to integrate Genesis 1 with Stoic physics. This is a fine study. Boudewijn Dehandschutter deals with the background of the statement in 1 Timothy 4:4 that 'everything that God created is good' and concludes that the author fires a warning shot in the direction of early gnosticizing Christian teachers who regarded the material creation as evil.

Part IV, on creation in the Middle Ages and Modernity, will be summarized very briefly. Willemien Otten discusses early medieval views of Genesis and Plato's Timaeus. René van Woudenberg deals with "Design in Nature: Some Current Issues," and finally Dillon presents some brief but interesting comments on that essay from the ancient perspective.

This is a stimulating volume, with a number of very good essays. There is an index only of ancient texts, unfortunately not of subjects, and the list of abbreviations is lamentably incomplete. Who, outside The Netherlands, knows what NBV stands for? (It is the Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling [New Bible Translation] of 2004). And, finally, what is sadly lacking here is a thorough discussion of the debated question of whether or not the cosmogony in the opening section of Ovid's Metamorphoses was influenced by Genesis 1.

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