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Did Ancient Jews Believe in Evolution or in the Gap Theory?
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Did Ancient Jews Believe in Evolution or in the Gap Theory?

Accordingly Moses says, That in just six days the world, and all that is therein, was made.  (Josephus Antiquities Book 1, Chapter 1)

Just how did ancient Bible commentators understood those six days to mean when they opened up to Genesis 1 and 2.  Did they see extremely long indefinite periods of time? Did they see a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2? Did they see evolution in any form?  Or did they see regular, twenty-four-hour days?   The fact is that all of the ancient Jewish/Hebrew interpreters thought that the Bible and Genesis 1 in particular should be interpreted as six literal days. They believed the age of the earth to be less than six thousand years old.

The Use of Ancient Interpreters

The point of view of ancient interpreters and commentators is very relevant to us because we know that they were in no way influenced by the teachings of Darwinian evolution, which requires billions of years to occur.  The ancient perspective has already been exploited by those seeking to establish that Scripture actually teaches that the earth and the universe are incredibly old.  Perhaps the most prominent of the Progressive Creation perspective is Dr. Hugh Ross.  While we do not wish to question his sincerity nor his belief in the God of the Bible, his interpretation of these ancient commentators is in need of serious review.  Ross states in his book The Fingerprint of God:

Many of the early Church Fathers and other biblical scholars interpret the creation days of Genesis 1 as long periods of time. The list includes the Jewish historian Josephus (1st century); Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, apologist and martyr (2nd century); Origen, who rebutted heathen attacks on Christian doctrine (3rd century); Basil (4th century); Augustine (5th century); and, later, Aquinas (13th century), to name a few. The significance of this list lies not only in the prominence of these individuals as biblical scholars, defenders of the faith, and pillars of the early church (except Josephus), but also in that their scriptural views cannot be said to have been shaped to accommodate secular opinion. Astronomical, paleontological, and geological evidences for the antiquity of the universe, of the earth, and of life did not come forth until the nineteenth century.  (Ross 1991: 141)

Ross’s list of ancient biblical scholars is at first impressive.  But when we begin to study his sources in depth, we find that, at the very least, Ross has not been diligent in his investigation.  Reality is simply not as he states it.  The claim that many of these ancient interpreters believed the creation days to be longer than 24 hours is later parroted by an advocate of Progressive Creation who states:

Dr. Hugh Ross documents in detail what first century Jewish scholars and the early Christian Church Fathers said regarding their interpretation of creation chronology (see Chapter 2, pages 16-24). Many early Church Fathers expressed no opinion on the subject of creation days, since it is a peripheral issue in Christianity. However, Jewish scholars who discussed creation chronology include Philo and Josephus, while Christian fathers include Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus (through writings of Ambrose), Clement, Origen, Lactantius, Victorinus, Methodius, Augustine, Eusebius, Basil, and Ambrose. Among this group, all but one believed that the creation days were longer than 24 hours. The evidence presented in Creation and Time is both overwhelming and well documented (all references are given). (Deem 2006a)

Again, we are not questioning whether Dr. Ross and others of the Progressive Creation position are sincere and hold the God of the Bible in high esteem.  It is their scholarship that is in question.  The truth is the ancient Jewish commentators believed the heavens and earth were created in six, literal days.

Targumim

A very important source to consider when addressing the issue of how ancient interpreters understood the Bible are the Targumim.  Targumim (Targum is singular) are the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament Scriptures.  They were for the most part written both in and outside of Israel a few centuries after the time of Jesus.  They were written either for those Jews who had lost Hebrew as their mother tongue because of living outside of Israel for so long or for those living in Israel after the time of the Second Jewish Revolt (135 AD) when Hebrew truly started to die out.[1]  Those Jews were no longer comfortable reading the Scriptures solely in Hebrew, but needed the help of a translation as they read along in the original Hebrew.  However, the Targumim were much more than merely word for word translations.  They were running commentaries on the Scriptures filled with typical Jewish interpretations.  The Hebrew text of the Bible was always considered sacred by the Jews, and therefore, it was to be approached with great care.  The text was never to be touched.  Because the Targumim were in Aramaic and not Hebrew, there was no risk that the commentaries might be mistaken for the actual words of the Bible itself.

 

Targum Onkelos

Targum Onkelos, translates Genesis 1:1 very literally: “In the first times the Lord created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was waste and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss.”  In fact, the entire chapter of Targum Onkelos of Genesis 1 shows no indication whatsoever that the translator/commentator was persuaded that the six days of Genesis were to be taken in any way but literally.  Conversely, the translator actually places a comment in chapter 3 regarding the curse put on the serpent and the promised savior.

 

And I will put enmity between thee and between the woman, and between thy son and her son.  He will remember thee, what thou didst to him (at) from the beginning, and thou shalt be observant unto him at the end. (Emphasis mine)

 

Notice that here the targumist defines when the time of this occurred – “from the beginning.”  Although this doesn’t prove that the six days in Genesis were truly literal, it does demonstrate that an ancient interpreter understood them as being literal since the time of the fall happened in the beginning, not some millions or billions of years after the initial act of creation.

 

Targumim Jonathan

Targum Jonathan[2] in translating Genesis 2:3 (which is really the end of chapter 1 and is an unfortunate and mistaken chapter break) adds a reason which goes beyond the original text by adding the words “the days of the week.”

 

And the creatures of the heavens and earth, and all the hosts of them, were completed. And the Lord had finished by the Seventh Day the work which He had wrought, […] And the Lord blessed the Seventh Day more than all the days of the week, and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His works which the Lord had created and had willed to make. (Emphasis mine)

 

The words “the days of the week” demonstrate that the Targumist also understood the first through sixth days in Genesis 1 to be

Get all facts in the book.

Get all facts in the book.

“the days of the week” and the seventh to be the final day of that week.  What did he have in mind when he added that comment that is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures?  Did his belief that the seventh was blessed more than all the other days of the week actually mean that the last age or era of time was better than the rest?  Or did he think that days of the week meant Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. (or as it would be in Hebrew First Day, Second Day, Third Day etc.)?  If we consider what God declared to Moses via the Targumim as we did in the Hebrew Bible, then the conclusion of six, literal days becomes very difficult to circumvent.

 

For in six days the Lord created the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and whatever is therein, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord hath blessed the day of Shabbatha and sanctified it. (Targum Jonathan, Exodus 20:11)

This is again reiterated in the same Targum in Exodus 31:15 and 17:

 

Six days ye shall do work; but the seventh day is Sabbath, the holy Sabbath before the Lord […] For in six days the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth; and in the seventh day He rested and refreshed.  (Emphasis mine)

 

The Targum of Onkelos confirms again that the commonly accepted time frame for the creation of the heavens and the earth was but a mere six, literal days.  There is no intimation that those days somehow really meant long, indefinite ages of perhaps billions of years.

 

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the day of Shabbatha, and sanctified it. (Targum Onkelos, Exodus 20:11 emphasis mine)

 

Six days shalt thou do work, and the seventh day is Sabbath, the Holy Sabbath before the Lord […] for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth; and in the seventh day rested and was refreshed.  (Targum Onkelos Exodus 31: 15, 17 emphasis mine)

 

These passages are some of the clearest passages in the Bible regarding the time God took to create everything and yet there isn’t even a minor hint that those time frames mean anything other than what we can take at face value.  Although the Targumim are not listed among the ancient Jewish writers cited by Dr. Ross and others, they are certainly an important source, and one of the primary sources when wanting to know about common Jewish thought just before and after the time of Christ.

To be continued…

 To read the complete work, get The First Six Days by Douglas Hamp

[1] For a detailed explanation of the language of Israel in the first century, see Hamp (2005) Discovering the Language of Jesus Calvary Publishing, Santa Ana.

[2] Also known as Pseudo Jonathan.

 

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3 comments

  1. This sounds like a great book. I hear more frequently the assertion that a literal six-day creation is a more recent fabrication of “fundamentalists,” or others say of Seventh-Day Adventists, so to have these references at the fingertips is very valuable. Regardless of what uncommon doctrines may or may not come from the various sources, they’re useful to at least establish that the critics are merely stabbing into the dark, hoping, it seems, to hoodwink the unwary soul.

  2. Hi brother Douglas!

    It’s always dangerous to stick with “the tradition of the elders”, especially since Scripture promises that it will be unsealed close to the time of the end (Dan. 12:4) and because ancient Jews did made mistakes with the interpretation of the Scripture like with true meaning of the Law and with the Messiah of course. Actually, rabbis still state, that only Messiah will make us understand the Scriptures, and we know that it’s happening with Holy Spirit.

    Nevertheless, there are a few rabbinical teachings, which in fact tell about the destruction before the (re-) creation week, thus in the reconstruction (or gap) interpretation of the creation.

    The famous Targum of Onkelos, which you also quote, states also following Gen. 1:2 regarding Aramaic phrase “w’are’ah hawath tsadh’ya”:

    “In this passage, the composite verb form (tsadh’ya) means “was destroyed,” being the Aramaic form of the verb to be (hawath) with the feminine passive participle of the verb tzadhah, which means “to cut” or “to lay waste.””

    Then comment on Gen. 2.4-6 can be exctracted from Sefer Ha’Zohar, which was written in first or early second century by Simeon ben Jochai, disciple of the famous rabbi Akiba himself:

    “These are the generations of heaven and earth…. Now wherever there is written the word ‘these’ (***) the previous words are put aside. And these are the generations of the destruction which is signified in verse 2 of chapter 1. The earth was Tohu and Bohu. These indeed are the worlds of which it is said that the blessed God created them and destroyed them, and, on that account, the earth was desolate and empty.”

    And invisible for our translations, the ancient Hebrew Scripture use ‘rebhia’ after the first verse, which indicates that there should be a pause – or gap if you like.

    Though, while this theory was not widely held nor debated, it was existing prior the first coming of the Messiah. Similarly to pre-tribulational rapture, even if it was not accepted by many, I still believe it to be the right interpretation of the Scripture. Majority has been unfortunately been many times wrong.

    PS. And speaking of the tradition, many ancient cultures tell about the destruction in the beginning of the current world like babylonian creation story in Enûma Eliš. Sometimes, like with the ancient giants, the traditional lore can have part of the truth.

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