We have received the manuscript for Margaret Barkers new book on "Creation - The Biblical Vision".
In Margaret's own words, her book is an attempt to outline what the first Christians could have known about Creation, thinking as they did within the framework of Temple Theology, and set this alongside some striking parallels in today’s environment discourse.
Here is an excerpt from the third chapter:
"The biblical view of creation is rarely questioned, not in the sense that people have never taken issue with the seven day scheme, but in the sense that the seven day scheme, as usually understood, is assumed to be the biblical view. We are asking the question: How might Jesus and the first Christians have understood the creation? and already we have seen that their understanding of Genesis was a sophisticated and far from literal reading of the text.
Material available in the time of Jesus and from the era of the early church shows that they saw creation as one intricately woven system that could be destroyed by human action. In this chapter we shall recover something of that picture; most of the evidence has been well known for a long time, but it has been read differently.
First, they knew the ‘pre-Genesis’ story about the origin of the angels and the ‘engravings’ in the invisible world. Second, Jesus himself and the first Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures as texts about more than one deity: there was El Elyon, whom the Christians were to designate ‘the First Person’; there was Yahweh, the firstborn of the sons of God, whom the Christians were to designate ‘the Second Person’; and there was the Spirit. Since Philo also read the Scripture in this way, it was not a Christian innovation or deviation. Yahweh the LORD was the Creator, ‘through whom all things were made.’
Third, they knew that the invisible unity held the visible world in an ordered state, and that without that vision, ‘the people unravelled’ (Prov 29.18, translating literally). And fourth, when they sang the Psalms, they understood that they were singing about the Second Person, and so they knew that it was the work of the LORD, whom they had known incarnate, to create the visible world by bringing the engraved patterns to the visible world and thus shaping it. Hence the LORD’s question to Job: ‘Do you know the engraved pattern of the heavens and can you set up its pattern/rule on earth?’ (Job 38.33, the gist of an obscure verse). In the time of Jesus and in the early years of the Church, Jewish temple teachers and their heirs spoke of seeing how the world was made. Rabbi Akiba, early in the second century CE, ascended to heaven in a vision and there saw the whole inhabited world . There is no detail of what he actually saw.
Rabbi Nehunyah, who lived in Emmaus at the end of the first century CE, ascended and saw ‘the mysteries and the secrets, the bonds and wonders… the weaving of the web that completes the world.’ Again, there is no detail of what he saw, but he looked out and saw that the world was woven. Literally, he would have been looking at the reverse of the temple veil, an elaborate fabric woven from four colours that represented the four elements of matter .
It is impossible to date much of the material in the collections of mystical texts, but there is a consistent pattern of images, for example: ‘Your throne is a hovering throne, since the hour when you fastened the weaver’s peg and wove the fabric upon which the completion of the world and its ladder stand.’ When the mystic had seen the great mystery of the holy of holies, his own view of the material world was changed. Rabbi Ishmael, as we have seen, looked at the world each day as though standing before the throne of glory . He was seeing as Isaiah saw: the whole world full of the glory.
This sense of seeing the world from above, seeing as God saw it and understanding differently as a result, has been repeated recently in an extraordinary way, and was linked to the pictures of the earth from space in 1968. ‘When the earth was first seen from outside, and compared as a whole planet with its lifeless neighbours, Mars and Venus, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming sense that the earth was a strange and beautiful anomaly. Its evolution could not be explained solely in terms of conventional biology or geology.’ ‘Perhaps it was the image of the Earth that led to what seems to have been a quantum leap by scientists and environmental action groups… many other science symposia and public forums have begun to think of the Earth as a whole, a dynamically functioning collection of ecosystems and biomes connected through atmosphere, oceans and sediments. … This new awareness fostered a new approach to the science of the biosphere, a holistic approach to the Earth.’ ‘…directly stimulated by the magnificent image of the living earth from space… all of us must continue to recognize the inextricable linkage among solar, atmospheric, oceanic and surface processes modulated by life.’ ‘Only in the last few years has there been a recognition of a dynamic earth, where the biota is inextricably linked to atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial processes, where ecosystems are connected to globally by the atmosphere, oceans and sediments.’
Seeing the whole earth prompted thinking in terms of connected ecosystems, a holistic approach, inextricable linkage among all aspects of creation – something not so very different from the mystics’ image of the weaving of the world. Seeing the whole earth in this way also affected thought about human society, co-operation and regulation.
T H Huxley, although an admirer of Darwin’s work, had expressed concern about evolution; goodness and virtue involve acting with self restraint, and so were totally opposed to the self assertion necessary for the evolutionary struggle . The new ways of seeing, however, mean that the dangerous ‘survival of the fittest’ is not the whole story. Something more than competition is needed for human society or for any system to succeed. To those formed by a Christian culture [I can only speak for my own], this has seemed obvious, but biologists have now reached the same conclusion: ‘The principal additional statement [i.e. additional to evolution] made within the biotic regulation concept is that increased competitiveness (and hence, increased number of progeny) is only possible when the new species that appeared in the course of evolution enhances the regulatory potential of the community. In other words, with the biotic regulation concept, competitiveness of individuals and the regulatory potential of the community to which they belong are tightly coupled.
By contrast, within the traditional paradigm, an increased competitiveness (or fitness) is considered to be sufficient condition for evolutionary changes per se.’ Evolutionary dynamics, and the idea that co-operation is essential for life to evolve to new levels, is now a recognised area for theological exploration. This idea had long been embedded in Christian teaching: ‘Things then of conflicting and opposite nature, would not have reconciled themselves, were there not One higher and LORD over them, to unite them, to whom the elements themselves yield obedience as slaves that obey a master. And instead of each having regard to its own nature, and fighting with its neighbour, they recognise the LORD who has united them, and are at concord with one another, being by nature opposed, but at amity by the will of him who guides them’ Thus Athanasius in the fourth century, but the roots of this were part Christianity’s temple heritage. The covenant of creation bound everything in one system: the material world, living beings, human society, and the invisible forces they called angels or powers."