Re: Summary: Something from Nothing (longish)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Feb 21 1996 - 08:48:55 EST

On 2/20/96, David Moore wrote:

> On Tue, 20 Feb 1996, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
> > On 2/20/96, David Moore wrote:
> >
> > > What we would really need to get at the biblical view on this
> > > matter is a good exegesis of Gen. 1:1. Maybe someone can get that going
> > > on b-hebrew.
> >
> > I'm not sure this would really settle matters, as there are sufficient
> > grounds for understanding the text of Genesis 1:1 in terms of a
> > pre-existent chaos or "matter" (TOHU W'BOHU) shaped by the creator into a
> > cosmos. The question Will raises is really (I think?) WHEN the doctrine of
> > CREATIO EX NIHILO really emerges and whether it is in fact implicit in NT
> > texts.
> It looks as though one would practically have to torture the
> Hebrew to get it to say anything very far from, "In the beginning God
> created the heavens and the earth." I suspect that the interpretation,
> "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth..." would
> depend more on the interpreter's presuppositions than on the Hebrew. The
> waw at the beginning of v. 2 pretty much rules out v. 1's being a general
> title of the section, and it (the waw) falls very unnaturally between the
> temporal prepositional phrase and the rest of the sentence if we are to
> understand, "In the beginning of God's creating...."

NRSV: "In the beginning when God created [alt.: 'when God began to create'
or 'In the beginning God created'] the heavens and the earth, (2) the earth
was a formless void ..."

The note in the Oxford Study Bible accompanying this NRSV version (slightly
abridged) reads: "Out of original chaos God created an orderly world,
assigning a preeminent place to human beings. 1: The traditional
translation as an independent sentence, following the Greek Bible
(Septuagint) of the 3rd cent. B.C., is defensible, in which case 1.1 is a
thematic sentence, corresponding to the climactic summary of 2.1. Many,
however, favor 'When God began to create ...,' taking the verse to be
introductory to v. 2 or possibly to the first act of creation in v. 3. ..."

Even the older RSV had a footnote to its primary version of Genesis 1:1:
"In the Beginning God created (a) the heavens and the earth."--(a) or "When
God began to create ..."

> > Another reason is that it may not be a matter of how the Hebrew text was
> > understood but rather of how the LXX of Genesis 1 was understood. For that
> > we have ready to hand Philo's treatise De Opificio Mundi, to which I've
> > made reference before. Even any antecedents of the Logos doctrine are
> > likely to be found in those very Wisdom texts most (even if not all) of
> > which come from Alexandria and Hellenistic Judaism.
> The LXX supports taking the first verse of Genesis as a sentence
> unto itself. And most of the other textual and exegetical evidence seems
> to point in that direction, so why look for any other *emergence* of the
> idea of CREATIO EX NIHILO? If Gen. 1:1 is taken in the most
> straightforward manner, what we should be asking is why other ways of
> interpreting this passage emerged that drew on the Greek philosophical
> idea of preexisting material. See, for instance, Josephus's explanation
> of the creation at the beginning of Antiquities (Ant. I:27) in which he
> (like Aquila in the 2nd Century) supplies EKTISEN in place of the LXX's

It is true that "the LXX supports taking the first verse of Genesis as a
sentence unto itself." In fact, the Oxford note (by Bernhard Anderson)
indicates that the traditional punctuation derives from the LXX rather than
from the Masoretic text. I have just checked the text of Philo's De
Opificio Mundi, and he too reads (citing, of course, the LXX!) the first
verse as a sentence. This does not deter him, however, from proceeding to
interpret Genesis 1 in terms of the Timaeus of Plato: God creates first an
ASWMATON KOSMON--i.e., an Idea of the Cosmos, and then, as DHMIOURGOS he
reproduces the idea in somatic form. Philo says nothing about the source of
the "matter" out of which the material or somatic cosmos is shaped; he
seems to take it for granted that there is a substrate that is shaped into
a Cosmos and to understand that until there is a FORMED Cosmos, we cannot
talk about existence.

Finally, I had a brief discussion on this question yesterday with my
colleague Patout Burns, a patristic and Augustine scholar; he said that the
doctrine of CREATIO EX NIHILO did not emerge before the patristic period
and that it originated not out of the theological question of monotheism
but out of the need to solve the problem of evil without postulating a
cause external to God. I'm not familiar with that literature, but perhaps
this question can be put to other lists as well: Elenchus and Ioudaios-L,
for instance.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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