The Science of the Bible

The Black Death (the plague) is a “pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people.” — Pope Clement VI, Papal Bull issued September, 1348

Excerpt from When God Speaks for Himself: The Words of God You’ll NEVER Hear in Church or Sunday School, by Mark Tier and George Forrai (Inverse Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Mark Tier.

From Chapter 4: Reason, Science and the Church

The Bible and Medicine

The Bible was also a source of medical practice. Origen (c 185-c 254 CE), one of the early church fathers, advises that: “It is demons which produce famine, unfruitfulness, corruptions of the air, and pestilences; they hover concealed in clouds in the lower atmosphere, and are attracted by the blood and incense which the heathen offer to them as gods.”

Augustine agrees: “All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guileless, new-born infants!”[1] And Father St. Bernard warned his monks that “to seek relief from disease in medicine was in harmony neither with religion nor with the honor and purity of their order.” (This strain of thinking persists to this day in the misnamed sect of Christian Science.)

It could be argued that such misguided claims were merely a result of ignorance. If so, it was willful ignorance, as church and state combined to suppress all that was known before, and persecuted all “non-official” thought as “heresy.”

“Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale… Well, it ain’t necessarily so”

From It Ain’t Necessarily So, by George Gershwin (from Porgy & Bess)

The story of Jonah and the whale is a Sunday School favorite.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh “and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” [Jonah 1:2]. Instead (the Bible doesn’t say why) Jonah jumped on a ship heading “unto Tarshish,”[2] so God sent a great wind which whipped up “a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” [Jonah 1:4].

When the sailors discovered that Jonah had aroused God’s anger by disobeying his command, they threw him overboard where he was swallowed by the whale. Jonah prayed fiercely for three days, so God relented and “spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” [Jonah 2:10].

This story brings up rather obvious questions:

1. What kind of fish, if any, could swallow a man whole? and,
2. If there is such a fish, could a man live in its stomach for three days?

Whales are potentially large enough to be candidates (and, of course, whales aren’t fish; they’re mammals).

There are two main kinds of whales: baleen whales and horned-tooth whales. Baleen whales have enormous mouths and feed on krill, but their throats are only a few inches in diameter.

Horned-toothed whales (odontocetous) have slicing teeth and throats large enough to swallow chunks of fish and gigantic squid. Most, though, are too small to swallow a man whole, except for the sperm whale and the giant beaked whale.

As the giant beaked whale lives only in polar regions, the sperm whale, found anywhere in the seven seas including the eastern Mediterranean, is the primary candidate.

A sperm whale can be 20.5 meters (67 feet) long — 11 times the height of a tall man. Its jawbone is about 25% of its length — up to five meters (16½ feet), so its mouth is large enough to snap shut around Jonah without slicing off his feet or head; its throat is also large enough for Jonah to have slid down, so long as he’s slightly built.

The sperm whales’ favorite foods are the giant squid and the colossal squid, which live up to three kilometers (1.9 miles) below the ocean surface. These creatures can be up to 13 meters (42½ feet) long, but as most of their length is tentacles, their bodies are, at best, 4 meters (13 feet) long and 1½ meters (5 feet) in diameter. So it seems a sperm whale could swallow a man whole.

Other possibilities have been suggested, like the Great White Shark — but whale, shark, or something else there’s an insuperable problem: once swallowed, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” [Jonah 2:17], which raises the obvious question: how did he survive without oxygen which isn’t to be found in any fish’s or whale’s stomach.

What’s more, for those “three days and three nights” Jonah’s only protection against stomach acids and digestive processes was “the weeds…wrapped about my head” [Jonah 2:5]. They may have “protected” him just long enough for him to die of oxygen starvation. Or, more likely, drowning from gulping stomach acids (not a nice way to go).

But “the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” [Jonah 1:17]: so it was a fish, not a mammal, especially prepared for Jonah so of no known species. A magical fish with a stomach full of oxygen and — who knows? — fresh water and a buffet banquet as well.

All in all, doesn’t it sound like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Red Riding Hood? Remember, the Big Bad Wolf swallowed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother whole, and when the kind hunter shot the wolf and sliced open its stomach, her grandmother appeared alive and well, no worse for her experience. Another miracle!

The Rediscovery of Reason: the “Handmaiden” of Faith

When Europeans invaded Muslim Spain the eleventh and early twelfth centuries — taking Toledo in 1085 — they stumbled upon a treasure trove: the “lost” writings of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Euclid, Galen, Hippocrates, and the other giants of Greek antiquity — along with the Arab and Jewish commentaries which built upon and extended the original Greek texts.

Between 1125 and 1200 CE, translations of the Greek legacy flooded into western Christendom. The new “pagan” learning was welcomed as a means of extending the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of God and the world he had created. This “invasion” was so complete “that by the sixteenth century Aristotle had taken on the appearance of a Christian saint.”[3]

In retrospect, inviting Aristotle and his fellow rationalist thinkers into the bosom of the church was like asking the fox to set up residence in the henhouse. So why were these “pagan writings” so readily welcomed by western Christendom?

One reason: there was, then, little conception of a possible conflict between faith and reason; to virtually all concerned, it was quite clear that reason was merely another tool of investigation, a “handmaiden” of faith; and that faith would always triumph.

Just as importantly, Christianity had been “primed” to accept Greek learning, perhaps most significantly by St. Paul. In his Epistles, Paul introduced a Greek concept that is not found in Judaism or the Old Testament: conscience, an internal, self-regulating moral agent that judges your thoughts and actions. Paul used the Greek word synteresis; but St. Jerome (who was commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 CE to revise Latin translations of the Old and New Testaments, which were then incorporated in the official Vulgate edition of the Bible), translated synteresis with Latin word conscientia, “a very much broader and more indefinite [notion] than its Greek equivalent, if indeed, they are equivalents.”[4]

Thus, thanks to Jerome’s mistranslation, embedded in western Christianity was the idea of man as an independent moral being, a concept which came to full flower with Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” (1517), which led to the Reformation. The Protestant creeds which split from Rome dispensed with the notion of church and priest as necessary intermediaries between man and God.

In addition, a very few Greek works had survived the collapse of the Roman Empire in Latin, the most significant being a single volume of Plato: the Timaeus, which was welcomed by theologians as early as Origen and Augustine. “What most impressed the European thinkers of the early modern period about the Timaeus was the image of nature as an orderly, integrated whole. The natural world was portrayed as a rational order of causes and effects, while man, as part of the rational order of things, was elevated by virtue of his reason.”[5]

Timaeus was but a tantalizing taste of the wealth of learning discovered in Muslim Spain; theologians across Europe eagerly studied and debated its meaning, and universities across western Christendom were established to teach “natural philosophy.” Taught in the Arts faculty, “natural philosophy” (basically the works of Aristotle) became the prerequisite for progression to the faculties of law, medicine and theology. The new scientific attitude infected every realm of thought, including the effort to make theology the “queen of the sciences,” a quest which culminated with St. Thomas Aquinas’ (c. 1225-1274) Summa Theologica, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “Christian doctrine in scientific form.”

That Aquinas is, today, considered the most important Aristotelian philosopher since Aristotle himself shows how quickly — less than two centuries — Greek thought was absorbed into western thinking and theology.

But in the process, it wasn’t long before scholars and students at the universities of Paris, Oxford, Toulouse, Bologna and elsewhere began questioning around the edges of Biblical doctrine.

Western universities had begun as clerical colleges, but by the thirteenth century, having formed into corporations (or universitas) they had gained significant independence from ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Nonetheless, their primary mission remained to train theologians, and many of the teachers were clerics.

Inevitably, scholars began to question the tenets at the heart of the scriptures. For example, William of Conches (d. 1154) wrote:

And the divine page says, “He divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.” Since such a statement is contradictory to reason let us show how it cannot be thus.[6]

His unspoken implication being: if the conclusions of reason contradict the scriptures, it must be the Bible that is wrong.

And William of Ockham (c.1280-c.1343) effectively argued that faith and reason were separate realms (the doctrine of “Double Truth”):

Creation presents itself as a gift to us. The gift, however, bears no connection to the giver — except in the tautological sense that a gift must be given. Therefore, nature as creation can be unpacked. And since we are cut off from God except in the act of faith, we might as well unpack that gift and make ourselves at home here.[7]

A reaction from the church was not long in coming. In 1210 “the provincial synod of Sens decreed that the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy and all commentaries thereon were not to be read at Paris in public or secret, on penalty of excommunication.”[8] This ban was repeated in 1215, targeted at the University of Paris (founded only in 1200!) — and was in effect for forty years; in 1231 the ban was sanctioned by Pope Gregory IX, who also ordered Aristotle’s treatises to be “purged of error” (but the commission he appointed never produced a report); in 1245 Pope Innocent IV extended the ban to the University of Toulouse.

The apogee of the reaction came when Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, issued the “Condemnation of Paris” in 1277.

The Condemnation of Paris, 1277

On March 7, 1277, Stephen Tempier, the Bishop of Paris condemned the works of Aristotle and others, saying:

“…some students of the arts in Paris are exceeding the boundaries of their own faculty and are presuming to treat and discuss, as if they were debatable in the schools, certain obvious and loathsome errors, or rather vanities and lying follies, which are contained in the roll joined to this letter….

“For they say that these things are true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there were two contrary truths and as if the truth of Sacred Scripture were contradicted by the truth in the sayings of the accursed pagans….

“We pronounce the sentence of excommunication against those who shall have taught the said scrolls, books, and leaflets, or listened to them, unless they reveal themselves to us or to the chancery of Paris within seven days.”

Attached to his proclamation was the “roll” of 219 propositions which:

“…we, having taken counsel with the doctors of Sacred Scripture and other prudent men, strictly forbid these and like things and totally condemn them. We excommunicate all those who shall have taught the said errors or any one of them, or shall have dared in any way to defend or uphold them, or even to listen to them, unless they choose to reveal themselves to us or to the chancery of Paris within seven days;”[9]

This Condemnation was not taken up by the church as a whole, so its effect was mainly confined to Paris, although milder restrictions were also imposed at the universities of Oxford and Toulouse. Certainly, the Condemnation cast a pall of suspicion at other universities; nevertheless, the study of Aristotle proceeded apace, enhanced by a debate over the Condemnation itself, and an exodus of masters and students from the university of Paris to other universities. One cause:

Propositions “Thou Shalt Not Think”

A selection of the 219 propositions condemned by Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, March 1277

1. That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.

2. That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.

4. That one should not hold anything unless it is self-evident or can be manifested from self-evident principles.

5. That man should not be content with authority to have certitude about any question.

6. That there is no rationally disputable question that the philosopher ought not to dispute and determine, because reasons are derived from things. It belongs to philosophy under one or another of its parts to consider all things.

89. That it is impossible to refute the arguments of the Philosopher [i.e., Aristotle] concerning the eternity of the world unless we say that the will of the first being embraces incompatibles.

133. That the soul is inseparable from the body, and that the soul is corrupted when the harmony of the body is corrupted.

138. That there was no first man, nor will there be a last; indeed, the generation of man from man always was and always will be.

180. That the Christian law impedes learning.

181. That there are fables and falsehoods in the Christian law just as in others.

182. That one does not know anything more by the fact that he knows theology.

183. That the teachings of the theologian are based on fables.

188. That it is not true that something comes from nothing or was made in a first creation.

Excerpted from When God Speaks for Himself by Mark Tier and George Forrai. Copyright © Mark Tier and Pronto Express, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] Hmm. It was Augustine who codified the doctrine that humans were born with Original Sin — and that babies born unbaptized went to hell. Yet, they’re “guileless”??

[2] “Tarshish is either Tarsus, a village in Lebanon 1,400 meters above sea level, or simply means “somewhere far away.” Another possibility: “ships of Tarshish” may have been a term for “trading ships” in general.

[3] David C. Lindberg, quoted in “The Effects of the Condemnation of 1277” by Jason Gooch, The Hilltop Review, Spring 2006, Volume 2, Western Michigan University, p42.

[4] Baylor, Action and Person, p24, quoted in The Rise of Early Modern Science by Toby Huff, [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993], p109.

[5] ibid, p100.

[6] Quoted in ibid, p104.

[7] Quoted in Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, [Harcourt: Orlando, 2003], p254.

[8] Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996], p70.

[9] “Selections from the Condemnation of 1277,” Philosophy of Nature, Philosophy of the Soul. Metaphysics, faculty.fordham.edu/klima/Blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf.

Mark TierMark Tier, an Australian based in Hong Kong, started writing when he was 14 – and hasn’t stopped since. His first work, Understanding Inflation, was a bestseller in his native Australia in 1974. That was followed by The Nature of Market Cycles, How To Get A Second Passport, and The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros, which has been published in 3 English (New York, London, & Hong Kong) and 11 other-language editions. Once labelled “the Eclectic Investor” for his wide range of interests, he co-edited two science fiction anthologies which won a Prometheus Award in 2005, an analysis of Christianity, When God Speaks for Himself, and a political thriller, Trust Your Enemies. His website is marktier.com.

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