Someone once told me that the bible was the greatest work of science ever written. This is mildly insane, as anyone who’s read the bible knows there is more scientific knowledge presented in any grade school or even children’s science book. (And, given thousands of extra years of research, it’s probably more accurate.) The purpose of the bible, secularists and believers can surely agree, was not to acknowledge or pass down scientific principles. Finding incredible scientific truths in the text typically requires very loose interpretations. But as religious folk sometimes point to science in the bible as proof of its divine nature, it seems necessary to critically examine these claims.
In making the case that “every claim [the bible] makes about science is not only true but crucial for filling in the blanks of our understanding about the origin of the universe, the earth, fossils, life, and human beings,” Answers in Genesis points to verses that vary in ambiguity. Meaning some are more believable than others as to whether they could present valid scientific information.
Take Job 26:7, in which it is said God “spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.” One may wonder what it means to spread skies over empty space. Perhaps it’s referencing the expanding universe, as others think verses like Job 9:8 reference (“He alone spreads out the heavens”). But the second part matches well what we know today, that the globe isn’t sitting on the back of a turtle or something. Why this and other verses may not be as incredible as supposed is discussed below.
(It’s often asserted also that the Big Bang proves the bible right in its writing of a “beginning,” but we simply do not know for certain that no existence “existed” before the Big Bang.)
Answers in Genesis also believes the bible describes the water cycle. “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again,” reads Ecclesiastes 1:7. It also provides Isaiah 55:10: “The rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…” Some translations (such as NLT, ESV, and King James) are missing “without,” instead saying the rains “come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,” which sounds more like a repudiation of the water cycle. But no matter; other verses, such as Psalm 135:7 in some translations or Job 36:27, speak of vapors ascending from the earth or God drawing up water.
From there things begin to fall apart (the Answers in Genesis list is not long).
The group presents Isaiah 40:22 and Psalm 103:12 as the bible claiming the world is spherical rather than flat (“He who sits above the circle of the earth”; “as far as the east is from the west”). But neither of these verses explicitly makes that case. A flat earth has east and west edges, and a circle is not three dimensional. “Circle,” in the original Hebrew, was חוּג (chug), a word variously used for circle, horizon, vault, circuit, and compass. A “circle of the earth,” the Christian Resource Center insists, refers simply to the horizon, which from high up on a mountain is curved. If biblical writers had wanted to explicitly call the earth spherical they could have described it like a דּוּר (ball), as in Isaiah 22:18: “He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you.” This is not to say for certain that the ancient Hebrews did not think the world was a sphere, it is only to say the bible does not make that claim in a clear and unambiguous manner.
The remaining “evidences” are really nothing to write home about. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11) is supposed to show an understanding of blood circulation; “the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:8) is supposed to represent knowledge of sea currents; “the fixed order of the moon and the stars” (Jeremiah 31:35) is allegedly a commentary on the predictable paths of celestial bodies in space (rather than, say, their “fixed,” unchanging positions in space, another interpretation). But none of these actually suggest any deeper understanding than what can be easily observed: if you are cut open and lose enough blood you die, bodies of water flow in specific ways, and the moon and stars aren’t blasting off into space in random directions but rather maintain consistent movement through the skies from our earthly perspective. Again, maybe there were actually deeper understandings of how these things worked, but they were not presented in the bible.
The Jehovah’s Witness website has a go at this topic as well, using most of the same verses (bizarrely, it adds two to the discussion on the water cycle, two that merely say rain comes from the heavens).
The site uses Jeremiah 33:25-26 (“If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth…”) and Jeremiah 38:33 (“Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”) to argue that the bible makes the case for the natural laws of science. Perhaps, but again, this doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge beyond what can be observed and, due to consistency, called a law by ancient peoples. So maybe it’s one of God’s laws that the sun rises each day. It’s a law that water will evaporate when the temperature gets too high. And so forth. These verses are acknowledgements that observable things function a certain way and that God made it so. There’s no verse that explains an actual scientific principle, such as force being equal to a constant mass times acceleration, or light being a product of magnetism and electricity.
True, it’s sometimes said the bible imparts the knowledge of pi (3.1415926…) and the equation for the circumference of a circle, but this is a bit misleading. There are a couple places where a circle “measuring ten cubits” is mentioned, with it requiring “a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chronicles 4:2). Pi is implicitly three here. The equation (rough or exact) and pi (rough or exact) were possibly known, as they were elsewhere in the ancient world, as they’re not too difficult to figure out after understanding basic division/multiplication and taking some measurements (once you measure a few circles, build a few round structures, you’d likely notice a circumference is always a little more than 3 times longer than the diameter), but that is not an absolute certainty based on this text. Regardless, neither the equation nor the value of pi are explicitly offered. (Why not? Because this is not a science book.) If these verses were meant, by God or man, to acknowledge or pass on scientific knowledge then they either didn’t have much figured out or were not feeling particularly helpful. “Figure out the equation and a more precise value of pi yourself.”
The Jehovah’s Witness site further believes it’s significant the ancient Hebrews had sanitary practices, like covering up feces (Deuteronomy 23:13), keeping people with leprosy isolated (Leviticus 13:1-5), and washing your clothes after handling a carcass (Leviticus 11:28). However, if you read Deuteronomy 23:14, you see that feces must be covered up so God “will not see among you anything indecent” when he visits. It wasn’t to protect community health — or at least that went unmentioned. Noticing that leprosy can spread and deciding to quarantine people who have it is not advanced science. The guidelines for cleanliness after touching dead animals start off reasonable, then go off the road. Even after washing your clothes you were for some reason still “unclean till evening,” just like any person or object that touched a woman on her period! (If this was just a spiritual uncleanliness, why were objects unclean? They don’t have souls.) The woman, of course, was unclean for seven days after her “discharge of blood.” How scientific.
Finally, this list mentions Psalm 104:6 (“You covered [earth] with the watery depths as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains”) to posit that the biblical writers knew there was an era, before earth’s plate tectonics began to collide and form mountains, when the earth was mostly water — there is actual scientific evidence for this idea. The verse may be referencing the Great Flood story; verse 9 says of the waters, “never again will they cover the earth,” which sounds a lot like what God promised after wiping out humanity: “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). But if it does in fact reference the beginning of the world, it could be a verse a believer might use to make his or her case that the bible contains scientific truths, alongside Genesis 1:1-10, which also posits the earth was covered in water in the beginning.
There are of course many more alleged scientific truths, most more vague or requiring truly desperate interpretation. For instance, the “Behemoth” in Job 40 is sometimes said to describe a dinosaur, but it in no way has to be one. Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” That can refer to nothing other than atoms — not any nonphysical possibility like, say, love and the breath of God. Others think a sentence like “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30) hints at the future invention of the television! TV is apparently the only way everyone could see an event at the same time — miracles be damned. Still others suggest that when Genesis 2:1 says the heavens and earth “were finished” that this describes the First Law of Thermodynamics (constant energy, none created nor destroyed, in closed systems)! When Christ returns like a thief in the night, “the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10) — that’s apparently a verse about nuclear fission. One begins to suspect people are reading too much into things.
We should conclude with four thoughts.
This can be done with any text. One can take any ancient document, read between the lines, and discover scientific truths. Take a line from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylonia: “The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning.” Clearly, the Babylonians knew the phases of the moon, how the moon waxes (enlarges) until it becomes full as it positions itself on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, allowing sunlight to envelope the side we can see. They knew how the moon then wanes (shrinks) as it positions itself between the earth and sun, falling into darkness (a new moon) because the sun only illuminates its backside, which we humans cannot see. This line must be in the text to acknowledge and impart scientific knowledge and prove the truth of the Babylonian faith, likely arranged by the moon god mentioned, Sin, or by his wife, Ningal.
This argument is no different than what we’ve seen above, and could be replicated countless times using other ancient books. Perhaps the Babylonians in fact did have a keen understanding of the moon and how it functions. But that does not mean a sentence like that in a story is meant to pass on or even indicate possession of such knowledge. Nor does it mean the gods placed it there, that the gods exist, or that the Epic is divinely inspired. Its presence in a text written between 2150 B.C. and 1400 B.C., even if surprising, simply does not make the book divine. It could be the first text in history that mentions the waxing and waning of the moon; that would not make its gods true.
(By contrast, archaeological and ethnographic research points to the Israelites as offshoots of Canaanites and other peoples around 1200-1000 B.C., with their first writings [not the Old Testament] appearing around the latter date. Though believers want to believe the Hebrews are the oldest people in human history, the evidence does not support this. I write this to stress that, like Old Testament stories taken from older cultures, the Hebrews may have learned of the water cycle and such from others.)
A society’s scientific knowledge may mix with its religion, but that does not make its religion true. Even if the Hebrews were the first group of modern humans, with the first writings, the first people to acquire and pass along scientific knowledge, that would not automatically make the supernatural elements of their writings true. As elaborated elsewhere, ancient religious texts surely have real people, places, and events mixed in with total fiction. If some science is included that’s nice, but it doesn’t prove all the gods are real. The Hebrews knowing about the water cycle or pi simply does not prove Yahweh or the rest of the bible true, any more than what’s scientifically accurate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran, the Vedas, or any other ancient text proves any of its gods or stories true. That goes for the more shocking truths as well, simply because…
Coincidence is not outside the realm of the possible. As difficult as it may be to hear, it is possible that verses that reference a watery early earth or an earth suspended in space are successful guesses, nothing miraculous required. If one can look up and see the moon resting on nothing, is it so hard to imagine a human being wondering if the earth experiences the same? Could the idea that the earth was first covered in water not be a lucky postulation? Look at things through the lens of a faith that isn’t your own. Some Muslims believe the Koran speaks of XX and XY chromosome pairs (“He creates pairs, male and female, from semen emitted”), the universe ending in a Big Crunch (“We will fold the heaven, like the folder compacts the books”), wormholes (“Allah [who owns] wormholes”), pain receptors of the skin (“We will replace their skins with other new skins so that they may taste the torture”), and more. (Like nearly all faiths, it posits a beginning of the universe too.) How could they possibly know such things? Must Allah be real, the Koran divinely inspired, Islam the religion to follow? Or could these just be total coincidences, lucky guesses mixed with liberal interpretations of vague verses? Supposed references to atoms or mentions of planetary details in the bible could easily be the same. If you throw out enough ideas about the world, you’ll probably be right at times. Could the Hebrews, like Muslims, have simply made a host of guesses, some right and others wrong? After all…
There are many entirely unscientific statements in the bible. Does the ant truly have “no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8), or were the Hebrews just not advanced enough in entomology to know about the ant queen? Are women really unclean in some way for a full week after menstruating, with every person or thing they touch unclean as well? Or was just this male hysteria over menstruation, so common throughout history? If the sun “hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5), does this suggest the Hebrews thought the sun was moving around the earth? Or was it just a figure of speech? One could likewise interpret Psalm 96:10 (“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”) to mean the earth does not rotate on its axis or orbit the sun. If one can interpret verses to make people seem smart, one can do the same to make them look ignorant. Do hares actually chew their cud (Leviticus 11:4), or did the Hebrews just not know about caecotrophy? Did Jesus not know a mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds” (Matthew 13:32)? Likewise, seeds that “die” don’t “produce many seeds” (John 12:24); seeds that are dormant will later germinate, but not dead ones. Some translations of Job 37:18 describe the sky “as hard as a mirror that’s made out of bronze” (NIRV, KJV, etc.). One could also go through the scientific evidence of today that contradicts biblical stories like the order of creation. As I wrote elsewhere, the evidence “does not support the Judeo-Christian creation story (in which birds appear on the same ‘day,’ Day 5, as creatures that live in water, before land animals, which appear on Day 6; the fossil record shows amphibians, reptiles, and mammals appearing long before birds — and modern whales, being descendants of land mammals, don’t appear until later still, until after birds, just 33 million years ago).” Or one could note that the overwhelming evidence for evolution blows up the stories of a first man from dirt and a first woman from rib (if one believes in evolution, it seems one must accept Genesis contains falsehoods, written by ordinary people or spoken by God). Christians historically counted up the generations mentioned in the bible and put the age of the planet and our species at about 6,000 years, miserably, embarrassingly inaccurate according to all the findings of science. Or look at the biblical translations that mention unicorns, dragons, and satyrs, or just argue that supernatural claims of miracles, angels, devils, and gods are unscientific in general because they can’t be proven. But the point is made: the bible takes stabs at the natural world that aren’t accurate or imply erroneous things.
In conclusion, the science in the bible is about what one would expect from Middle Eastern tribes thousands of years ago. There are some basic observations about the world that are accurate, others inaccurate. There are some statements about the universe that turned out to be true, just like in the Koran, but that doesn’t necessarily require supernatural explanations.