How Science Began

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by Neil Godfrey

I initially titled this post “Revealed Science”. In our world “revealed science” is an oxymoron. Science is a matter of active investigation, not passively receiving a revelation.

The Book of Enoch is an apocalypse (the word means “a revelation”) which contains a section describing the hero being taken up into the heavens by an angel to be shown the secrets of the universe. Bizarre as it first sounds, it is arguable that here we have a fascinating development in the history of science. But before we explain, let’s address what we mean by science. This post continues discussing From Adapa to Enoch by Seth Sanders, and on pages 136-37 he writes:

The new types of knowledge that emerged in Hellenistic Jewish culture . . . included

astronomical calculations of the movements of the heavenly bodies and length of the days,

sexagesimal (base-60) mathematics,

and physiognomic interpretation of the body.


On the one hand, all of these modes of knowledge have at some point in modern European history been understood as natural science: astronomy and mathematics are of course still understood this way. But as late as the mid-nineteenth-century a form of physiognomy known as “phrenology” was still taken seriously by scholars across Europe. It seems intuitively correct to us to define mathematics and astronomy as exact science, but is it science to observe someone’s hair to predict their character and destiny, as the Qumran physiognomic text 4Q186 does? What is surprising is how clear the verdict of the history and philosophy of science is on this point: there is no objective, ahistorical way to define something as science or not.

The problem is not that no useful criteria for science are possible, but that historically, there have been so many of them. These criteria concern something immensely important to the people who proposed them — the nature of reliable knowledge of the world. . . . Rather than trying to place our texts into an anachronistic modem category, we must first find out how biblical and early Jewish writers themselves depicted systematic knowledge of this world. “Science,” then, will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world. This will let us investigate what counted as reliable knowledge of the physical world for the ancient Jewish writers of Enoch.

In Genesis it is written that God made the continents and the oceans, plant and animal life, and the sabbath day. He made them all the exact same way: by the power of his speech.

For the Jewish people immersed in such literature the weekly sabbath day was therefore as much a fact of the created universe as the sun and moon above and the grass and soil below. There was no fundamental distinction between the world of nature and the world of ritual. Similarly, there were two types of animals, clean and unclean, from creation, as was clear from the story of Noah. The distinction was not cultural; animals were created according to two kinds by “nature”; they were as innately, by creation, clean and unclean as plants were either healthy or poisonous, edible or inedible.

What caused it all to come into existence was the voice of God.

In such a world there could be no distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

The Rochberg reference is online but the Lloyd one is not; however, an earlier article by Lloyd on the same topic is available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649942

As in Mesopotamia, [in China] cosmos and state were intimately, even indissolubly, linked. Indeed in China, as Sivin has shown, state, cosmos and body all exhibit the same interacting processes. What we might take to be microcosm-macrocosm analogies were no mere analogies: heaven and earth, the state and the human body all exhibit the same reciprocal processes and form part of a single whole, where the ruler has a crucial role as responsible for mediating between heaven and earth and ensuring the harmony between them.

(Lloyd, 2008, p.84)

And if it is divine command that set an undivided ritual-material world in order, then “supernatural” may not be a coherent category for describing God in Priestly literature either. The notion of the physical world implied here is orderly yet without a discrete realm of nature separate from either culture or from the supernatural. This concept has been shown to exist in several ancient scientific cultures, from Mesopotamia (Rochberg 2014) to China (Lloyd 2012).

 When I originally titled this post “Revealed Science” I also subtitled it “When Enoch Introduced Babylonian Astronomy to Moses)”. That post will be next.