Historic Age Debate: Dependence on Translations, Part 1 (of 5)

Historic Age Debate: Dependence on Translations, Part 1 (of 5)

These days there’s a bewildering array of Bible translations to choose from. How do we know which one to choose? What difference does it make anyway? For most purposes, any translation will do. However, in the debate over the age of the Earth, selecting the right translation makes a big difference.

Since 2007, I’ve been addressing different aspects of the historic age debate on Today’s New Reason to Believe with the purpose of yielding insights into the modern dispute over the age of the earth by studying what theologians and scholars have written on this issue over the last 2,000 years. So far, I’ve provided an overview, examined the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and discussed a beginning of time. Before jumping into a detailed discussion of Genesis 1, one more issue must be addressed: the impact of relying on translations of the Bible.

This issue is among the most important—yet most overlooked—factors influencing the age debate. Though, we are fortunate to have good English translations available to us today, they can never perfectly communicate the original text. Additionally, wide gaps in time and culture separate us from the Old Testament’s (OT) initial audience. In this five-part series, I will discuss how a dependence on translations of the OT’s ancient Hebrew language affects interpretations of Genesis 1–11 throughout history.

The Early Church Fathers

Following the deaths of the apostles, church leadership was passed on to various theologians and scholars collectively known as the early church fathers. Due to the times in which they lived (90–476 AD) it is natural to assume that these post-apostolic men were closer in language and culture to the writers of the Bible than we are today.

This assumption proves largely true for the New Testament, but the OT is another matter. Prior to Jerome and Theodore of Mopsuestia at the end of the fourth century, none of the early church fathers were fluent in Hebrew.1 Before that only Origen (third century) is known to have made an effort to learn Hebrew, although he probably never reached fluency. So, for the first 350 years after the apostles, the debate over the days of creation within the church relied almost entirely on Greek and Latin translations of the OT. In this way, a Greek/Latin-based view of Genesis 1 became entrenched prior to any church fathers attaining fluency in Hebrew.

The lack of Hebrew scholarship in the early church comes as a surprise considering that Christianity was birthed within the matrix of Judaism. Jesus, the apostles, and the New Testament writers (not including Luke) were all faithful Jews. They would’ve known Hebrew (or at least Aramaic) and had access to Jewish ideas about Genesis—yet they remain silent on the age of the earth and the days of creation.2 During much of the apostolic period (c. 30–90 AD), the church was predominantly Jewish in composition, centered in Jerusalem, and operated as a part of the Jewish community. The destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD marked the beginning of a rapid decline in the number of Jewish believers. These events, combined with the substantial influx of Gentile converts, meant that by the mid-second century, the post-apostolic church was heavily dominated by non-Jews. These converts spoken Greek or Latin, but not Hebrew, and had little connection to Jewish culture and tradition.

All of the early church fathers included in this study came from non-Jewish backgrounds. They carried a Greco-Roman perspective into the church. Thus, Greek culture and language, rather than Hebrew, was a driving force in the early church’s understanding of Genesis.

Later Theologians

Dependence on OT translations continued throughout the Middle Ages (sixth to fifteenth centuries). During that time the Latin Vulgate was the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. A resurgence of interest in studying the Bible in its original languages didn’t occur until the Reformation (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries). It should be kept in mind, however, that for nearly fifteen centuries prior to the rise of Protestantism, interpretations based on Greek and Latin had set the model for interpreting Genesis.

This time also saw an explosive growth of common language translations, which was an essential element of the Reformation. While these translations greatly increased laypeople’s access to Scripture, it still meant that many remained unfamiliar with the original version of the Bible.

Early Jewish Writers

Since Christianity emerged out of Judaism, it is important that we also consider the works of early Jewish writers. They were linguistically and culturally closer to the original Hebrew, which gives their opinions of the Genesis creation account significant value. Their predecessors, the authors of the OT, simply believed that the seven “days” in Genesis formed the basis of the Sabbath pattern.3

A concern over the age of the earth and related issues didn’t emerge in Jewish thinking until the introduction of Greek philosophy and language. Hellenization—the process of spreading Greek ideas to other cultures—began in earnest after Alexander the Great’s conquests (fourth century BC). Over the next few centuries, Jews living outside of Israel became progressively Hellenized and, therefore, spoke and read Greek (those living in Israel largely retained Hebrew).

Our primary source of information on the Jewish reaction to the encroachment of Hellenism is the Apocrypha and other intertestamental works. These are a collection of mostly anonymous Jewish writings spanning the time between the close of the OT and the destruction of the Jewish temple in the first century. This era saw the development of a clear declaration of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which rejected the popular Greek notion of eternal matter. Beyond that, these writings tell us little about how the Jews of this period understood creation or the age of the earth beyond what Genesis 1 directly teaches.

The one exception to that rule is the Book of Jubilees (140–100 BC), which does assume that the days of creation are simple solar days and that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 can be used to construct a chronology up to Abraham. However, Jubilees should be used with caution because it contains many legendary embellishments to the OT accounts, which was done to encourage Jews to keep the law and to avoid Hellenization.4

The two most important Jewish writers to emerge in the first century were Philo and Josephus. Their writings influenced the thinking of the early church fathers. Philo provided the most extensive early Jewish commentary on Genesis. He flatly rejected a calendar-day interpretation; however, his work shows influence of Greek thinking and therefore doesn’t represent a pure Hebrew perspective. Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of Philo, also discussed Genesis 1 but remained ambiguous as to the nature of the creation days.


Given that most believers over the history of the church didn’t study the OT directly in Hebrew, it is important to examine what implications this has for the age debate. In my study, one can identify at least three distinct ways this reliance on translations influenced people’s interpretations of Genesis 1–11:

  • linguistic factors (to be discussed in part 2);
  • cultural factors (part 3);
  • issues associated with specific translations (part 4).

I will conclude in part 5 with a look at what this means for us today.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to [email protected].

Dr. John Millam

Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
  1. Robert I. Bradshaw, “Creationism and the Early Church,” Creationism and the Early Church, updated January 25, 1999. https://www.robibrad.demon.co.uk/Contents.htm (accessed May 18, 2009). See Table 1.1 for a detailed listing.
  2. Some have claimed that Jesus and several of the Apostles were young-earth creationists but there is no basis for the claim. Clearly, they believed that Genesis was real and historical but that idea is equally compatible with old-earth creationism.
  3. The Sabbath pattern is “to work six and rest one” independently of the actual unit of time involved. When this pattern is applied to the human work week (Exod. 20:8–11; 23:12), the interval is one solar day (24 hours), but when applied to the land (Exod. 23:10–11; Lev. 25:1–7), the interval is one calendar year. The Sabbath principle is even general enough to allow a Sabbath of Sabbaths (Lev. 25:8–55). (This special year was called the year of Jubilee and followed seven seven-year land Sabbaths.) If Moses had intended the concept of a period of rest to be defined strictly as “to rest on the seventh (24-hour) day,” then these other uses of the Sabbath in Scripture would not make sense.
  4. Joseph B. Lumpkin, The Book of Jubilees (Blountsville, AL: Fifth Estate, 2006), 6–15.  I plan to discuss Jubilees in more detail in the future; hence I’ve passed over it quickly here.
  5. Further reading:
    Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, (San Jose, CA: R. Whitefield Publisher, 2003).