2022-10-02

Genesis = Science + Myth + Theology — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3a]

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is the thesis that Russell Gmirkin [RG] is buttressing in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts:

Plato’s writings, including Plato’s Laws, envisioned theologically trained educated elites ruling the nation and creating a national literature to shape the beliefs and character of the ordinary citizenry, both youths and adults (Gmirkin 2017: 255-61). The creation of the cosmogony of Genesis 1 should be understood as part of just such a national literary enterprise under the direction of the ruling class elites. (p. 75)
With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for sending me a review copy.

The thesis has been the subject of earlier books that have been discussed in detail on this blog. In support of that interpretation RG analyses the Genesis creation chapter to demonstrate its relationship to Greek “philosophical” ideas and in particular, Plato’s Timaeus.

Anyone familiar with Timaeus will be immediately thinking, But Timaeus contains a very lengthy explanation of the origins of our cosmos and Genesis 1 is, well, extremely short. Yes, but Plato also said something else that is most pertinent to this discussion that is alluded to in the above quotation.  Hear out RG. I will do my best to present his analysis and comparisons fairly and accurately.

The ancient Greek science context of Genesis

Ancient Greek science was a process of inferring how and why the observable world came about and worked the way it did but the idea of carrying out experiments to test ideas had to wait for a future time.

We have clear demarcations between the study of the origins of the universe and the study of the origins of societies. Not so ancient Greek thinkers. For them, the “history of nature” bracketed all in one course the question of the origins of the universe, of life, of humankind, of social institutions, of technologies, of political systems.

The questions they asked were:

  • What was the nature and origin of the “stuff” from which the cosmos came about?
  • What were the forces (e.g. floating and sinking, separation of matter by winnowing), and the origins of those forces, that acted on that “stuff” to cause it to behave the way it did?
  • How did those forces cause the cosmos to come into existence?

The thinkers were not called “scientists”. Aristotle called them “students of nature” or “writers on nature” (see the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Physics). Later authors called them “philosophers” and that’s the common label attached to them today. RG addresses the problematic state of the evidence for our knowledge of what these natural philosophers theorized but we do have some general ideas, however provisional, and he provides an interesting set of entries for them to enable us to get some idea of the intellectual context RG is arguing for Genesis 1. (The links are my own, of course, and not RG’s)

Thales of Miletus: the fundamental element of all things was water; motion was evidence of a divine soul permeating the universe. Thales was the first philosopher on record to present a rational account — myth free — of the cosmos.  https://iep.utm.edu/thales/

Anaximander of Miletus: A “Boundless/Infinite/Unlimited” entity (apeiron) began to break apart into pairs of opposites (cold-hot; light-heavy etc) which further became sea and earth, etc; life emerged spontaneously from oceans; created the first world map and sought to explain origins of nations and how they migrated to their current locations.  https://iep.utm.edu/anaximander/

Anaximines of Miletus: Air was the basic element of the cosmos and was also divine. Heavenly bodies emerged from evaporations from earth producing rarefied heavenly bodies.  https://iep.utm.edu/anaximenes/

Xenophanes of Colophon: There was a single omnipresent God who controlled the universe through his thoughts. See the link for another discussion of his “demythologizing the heavenly bodies”. All things emerged from earth and water, including humans. Also interested in the origin of human knowledge and the arts.  https://iep.utm.edu/xenoph/

Heraclitus of Ephesus: His book On Nature contained three sections: on the universe, on politics and on theology. Fire was the primary element from which all things arose, including the soul. Water and earth were condensations of fire and life emerged from earth and water. Logos was manifest as fire and governed the universe. The universe was subject to periodic conflagrations and renewal.  https://iep.utm.edu/heraclit/

Parmenides of Elea: Nothing can be generated from nonexistence. (Creation ex nihilo is impossible.) There were two primary powers: light (including fire) that filled the skies; and dense dark associated with the earth. Earth was a sphere. Also wrote about origins of animals and humans.  https://iep.utm.edu/parmenid/

Empedocles of Akragas: Four primordial elements: earth, air, fire, water. These were originally uniformly mixed but two forces, named Love and Strife, gradually separated and divided them. Sun reflected light from another source as the moon reflected the light of the sun. The moon was frozen air, stars frozen fire, earth a sphere at the centre of the universe. Rotation forced water to emerge through the earth. Life spontaneously arose from earth.  https://iep.utm.edu/empedocles/

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae: The first to explain the eclipse. There were two types of basic entities: an unlimited number of ingredients (boundless, infinite apeiron) of that made up the universe and Nous (Mind, Intelligence). Cosmos came about by a series of separations of the various ingredients. Nous was present in all living things. Nous was the source of motion, including the original separations of elements. Rotation caused the light elements to rise to the top (sky, clouds, heavenly bodies). Life arose from seeds scattered throughout the universe and later reproduced through sex. A superior portion of Nous in humans gave them the ability to rule animals. Anaxagoras was convicted of atheism and had to flee into exile.  https://iep.utm.edu/anaxagoras/

Archelaus of Athens: Nous was not distinct from other forms of matter but mixed with them. The universe began with the separation of hot and cold. Life began not from seeds but from spontaneous generation from moist earth. Sexual reproduction came later. The superior amount of Nous in humans enabled them to create cities, political systems, technology.  https://www.worldhistory.org/Archelaus_(Philosopher)/

Diogenes of Apollonia: Air was the fundamental element and was itself intelligent and divine, possessing Nous. Rotation caused air to rarefy or condense producing the other phenomena (lighter forming the sun and stars above, heavier the earth below). Air was the essence of all life. Nous sustains the cosmos.  https://iep.utm.edu/diogenes-of-apollonia/

Democritus of Abdera: Everything was made from atoms, particles of different sizes, shapes and weights that combined (like to like) to form the universe. Humans and animals spontaneously generated from earth and water and grouped together on the same like-to-like principle. To protect themselves from wild animals humans banded together and developed speech, learned to use fire, cook, make clothes and build houses.  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/

Plato of Athens: Among the Greek philosophers Plato was unique …

… for developing a cosmogony that synthesized science, theology and mythology into a narrative that chronicled the origin of the kosmos, the gods, mortal life and the first political institutions of the mythological past. (p. 57)

The universe began in chaos but order and beauty were imposed by a deity he called the Demiurge or Craftsman who created it all, the heavens and the earth, in his own image. The Demiurge also produced sons and daughters to whom he gave the responsibility of creating mortal plant, animal and human life.

With the creation of mortal life in [a] second stage of creation, Plato introduces an explicit element of mythology into his cosmogony. The mythic and story elements found here, paradoxically, were a product of Plato’s careful theological and philosophical reasoning. Plato found it inconceivable that mortal life could have been fashioned by the eternal cosmic god of Creation …. Nor could that supremely good deity have created humans, with their capacity for both goodness and wickedness. (p. 59)

Hence Plato could reconcile a perfect creator with flawed human beings.

The Demiurge … was already cast as a mythic character possessing conscious purpose, who engaged in creative action …,  rejoiced over his creation …, and entered into dialogue with his sons and daughters …. The cosmic creator was cast as the father of the traditional anthropomorphic Greek gods, including Ouranos and Ge, Heaven and Earth, who were not only the physical creations of the Demiurge, but also his offspring …. (p. 59)

The lesser gods ruled over the different peoples on earth, married mortals and produced semi-divine rulers, and over time as the divine element was diluted violence and warfare ensued (the kingdom of Atlantis against the Mediterraneans led by Athens) until divine judgement destroyed much of the world in earthquake and flood.

Plato was unique among Greek philosophers in integrating a scientific and theological account of the creation of the kosmos with a mythical account of the earliest gods and humans. (p. 60)

I have highlighted aspects that RG notes as having clear parallels in Genesis 1:1-2:3.

Aristotle of Stagira: Denied the possibility of an origin to motion, time, and matter, and therefore denied the need for a cosmogony. A fifth element (in addition to earth, air, fire, water) made up the perfectly rotating stars in the outer heavenly circle.  https://iep.utm.edu/aristotle/

Philippus of Opus: Student of Plato, posited a World Soul as the supreme deity and intelligence that had the attribute of self-motion and was responsible for all other things.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_of_Opus

Epicurus of Samos: Founder of the Epicurean school. Rejected any divine role in the origin of the cosmos. All was purely mechanical and physical. Our universe is a temporary agglomeration of random atoms and will pass away as other universes come into being and pass away.  https://iep.utm.edu/epicur/

Polemo of Athens: The third successor of Plato’s school, the Academy. The World Soul was the supreme deity, dwelling among the stars, pervading the universe, “and was the dynamic principle that acted on passive matter to form the kosmos“.

Zeno of Citium: Founder of the school of Stoicism. Fire was the primary element and was intelligent and divine, also understood as the logos. This Stoic god created the universe. The universe was destined to undergo regular conflagrations and renewals.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno_of_Citium

Some of the above wrote their theories of origins in poetic verse. All lived before and up to the time RG assigns for the authorship of the first biblical books, ca. 270 BCE.

Some of the above are scientific without any place for myths or theology; others are scientific with recourse to a layer of myth and/or theology to explain certain causes.

RG draws our attention to what they had in common:

  • the universe began in some type of chaos (except for Aristotle who said that it had always existed) — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • all sought to identify the cause or beginning of the ordered universe — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • all sought to identify the source of motion that acted on the primordial chaos (which primordially consisted of water or fire or air or fire+earth+air+water or atoms or unlimited apeiron) . . . — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • . . . to “separate, stratify and organize the original matter into the present kosmos.” — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • all “addressed the question of an original divine intelligence and the extent of its involvement as the initiator of motion in the primordial chaos and as the active steering principle that guided the organisation of the kosmos” — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • all explained how geometry and motion arranged the elements in the universe — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • all explained how earth, sky, heavenly bodies, seas, land, came about — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • how life originated — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • why humans had intelligence — [as does Genesis 1:1-2:3]
  • some further explained the origins of language, cities, laws, technology, racial groups, etc. — [as does Genesis 1-11]

Scientific and scientific-theological-mythical cosmogonies

Some allowed no role or a very limited role for a deity. (See the above link on Epicurus who was accused of atheism because it was believed his claim that the gods were far off somewhere without any interest in humans was a disguised expression of atheism.)

But Plato was different and exceedingly popular in antiquity:

Plato׳s scientific-theological-mythical cosmogony took a different approach to investigation and argumentation. Theological axioms regarding the active, purposeful role of a benevolent creator who fashioned the world supplemented scientific theory, combined with philosophical arguments based on such axioms. Such theological reasoning was considered equal or superior to scientific arguments based on observation. Whereas Greek science required rational argumentation for every proposed stage of the origin and development of the kosmos, Plato substituted it with theological and philosophical argumentation. . . . Another prominent difference was Plato’s use of myth, accommodating Greek stories about the gods and telling tales of primordial times. (pp. 62f)

The comparison with the early chapters of Genesis is clear:

Like Plato’s cosmogony in Timaeus, the creation account in Genesis 1 and its sequel in Genesis 2-3 combine elements of science, theology and myth. (p. 63)

The above taken from RG’s discussion challenges us to read Genesis in a new light. But RG goes beyond that context and examines the way the story is told in Genesis. That will be in the next post.


Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.


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Neil Godfrey

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