Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang? Part 1 (of 2)

Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang? Part 1 (of 2)

What role should scientific theories play in translating the Bible? That’s a complex question. However, to the extent that science is allowed to play any role at all, one would suppose that current theories would be used—not ancient concepts long since discredited by advanced research.

The vast majority of modern English translations of Genesis 1:1 use some variation of the traditional rendering “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” However, in the 1980s, different renditions of the Bible’s opening words appeared in the New Jewish Publication Society Torah (NJPS or TNK) and the New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV)—popular in Reformed Jewish Synogogues and mainline Christian churches, respectively.

Most people who read these versions of scripture may have failed to notice the new translations. Yet they ought to be concerned because both the NJPS (TNK) and NRSV change the wording in ways that have potential to impact theology in a profound way.1

  • “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen 1:1–3, NJPS).2
  • “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1–2, NRSV).3 

As one would expect, such important changes to the Bible do not occur in a vacuum. In this case they reflect a tendency among many modern negative critical scholars to rework Genesis 1:1. Based on a review of a sampling of the literature supporting this approach, it is the thesis of this paper that a principle source underlying these retranslations is not Jewish tradition or Hebrew linguistics but long discredited eleventh-century Aristotelian science. This may not be apparent to theologians—but to a physicist, it’s immediately obvious.

Traditional Translation is Consistent with Modern Science

In the Middle Ages, the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 was out of step with scientific consensus. Science held to the Aristotelian idea that the universe is eternal, but Genesis implied the universe is temporal. This made many Christians uncomfortable; some left the faith, others sought resolution in a variety of ways.

The disconnect between Genesis and cosmological theory lasted until late in the twentieth century. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 verified the big bang theory, which held that “space-time” as we know it “exploded” many years ago from virtually nothing; in other words, the universe had a beginning! At last, modern physics was brought into essential agreement with the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1. The only fundamental disagreement today is whether this big bang occurred spontaneously or was caused by God—and how long ago it happened.

One should not accept or reject the Bible because it does or doesn’t match contemporary theories of physics; scientific theories are constantly changing. Thus it is significant that the traditional rendering of Genesis 1:1 predates modern science by more than two thousand years. It reflects Jewish tradition at least as early as the third century BC, when Jewish scholars produced the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Torah. This same tradition seems reflected in the Masoretic Text written late in the first millennium. Of course, the ancient Hebrews who first wrote and read the Torah did not understand the twenty-first century scientific implications of Genesis 1:1, but there is little doubt they understood the text to mean that the universe has an absolute beginning—just as modern science has confirmed. In other words, it is intellectually satisfying that modern science now affirms the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1.

Implications of the New Translations

Why then has Genesis 1:1 been retranslated? What are the implications of the changes?

Traditional readings of Genesis 1:1 identify an important attribute of God in the first sentence of the Bible: He is omnipotent. In other words, He is able to create the universe (space, matter, time, and energy) from nothing. Twelfth century Jewish scholar Maimonides puts it this way: “the foundation of our faith is the belief that God created the Universe from nothing; that time did not exist previously, but was created.”4 Nahmanides, a thirteenth century Jewish sage, echoed this belief: “At the beginning God created the heavens from nought, and he created the earth from nought.”5

Hebrews 11:3 affirms that historic Christian belief is similar to that of Jewish theologians. The time-honored rendering of Genesis 1:1 reflects the conventional Judeo-Christian view that an omnipotent God created heaven and earth out of nothing—He did not use existing materials—and that He created time in the same instant.

By contrast, the NJPS (TNK) and NRSV seem to allow redefinition of the nature of God. Genesis 1:1 is no longer an independent sentence; it is a dependant clause describing the conditions when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). It is not clear that God is an omnipotent being who created time and space out of nothing in an instant long ago. The God described in these translations seems to use preexisting material. And nothing in the NJPS (TNK) or NRSV implies that God created that material.

In essence, these new translations fail to affirm God’s omnipotence. The NJPS (TNK) and NRSV do not make clear whether the God they describe is the all-powerful super-being of Judeo-Christian tradition or something more like a mythological Mesopotamian god; He could be either.

Reasons for Changing Genesis 1:1

Since these retranslations of Genesis 1:1 represent a fundamental change in theology, we must imagine that there are compelling reasons for doing so.

As we attempted to review the literature to understand why many negative critical scholars were seeking to rework Genesis 1:1, it became apparent that a dominant theme is the commentary of Rashi, an eleventh century Jewish scholar. Rashi has a well-deserved reputation for his familiarity with and understanding of the interpretations of his rabbinic predecessors. It’s hard to convey just how critical Rashi’s commentary is to our case, both in linguistic structure and interpretation. In the late 1800s, Robert Young cited Rashi as the primary source6 for Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), the first English retranslation of Genesis 1:1;7 Young ignored the Septuagint and the opinions of Jewish and Christian scholars two millennia earlier. And his pattern is consistently followed by many modern negative critical scholars who show a strong bias for Rashi’s interpretation and disregard earlier scholarship that may be more reliable. They seem to give Rashi more credence than he may deserve.

In addition to Rashi’s commentary, two other reasons for retranslating Genesis 1:1 often emerge from negative critical scholarship. One is reinterpretation of the Hebrew text, usually centering on the Hebrew word bereshith, traditionally translated “in the beginning.” The nature of biblical Hebrew often leaves much room for debate,8 as may be illustrated with recent translations by a consortium of British mainline churches. The 1970 New English Bible (NEB) translates Genesis 1:1 much like the NRSV and footnotes the traditional wording as a valid alternate. Yet the 1989 Revised English Version (REB) returns to the traditional wording, footnotes the NJPS (TNK) wording as a valid alternate, but does not acknowledge the 1970 NEB wording—seeming to reject the wording these mainline churches had agreed to less than twenty years earlier!9 Despite this debate, one thing is clear: virtually no translator suggests the traditional rendering of Genesis 1:1 is linguistically invalid. Footnotes in the NJPS (TNK), NRSV, and NEB even explicitly affirm the traditional translation as valid.  

Literary structure also favors the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1. Biblical Hebrew—especially in the Pentateuch—usually expresses concepts in a simple, straightforward manner, so as to be easily understood. Yet the NJPS (TNK) translates Genesis 1:1–3 as one long sentence with two dependent clauses. Beginning a narrative with such a complex sentence is not normal in the Pentateuch, and this inconsistency may be grounds to question the NJPS (TNK) translation—especially when a simpler alternative is available.10

Another reason often cited by many negative critical scholars for retranslating Genesis 1:1 is that they wish to make the Bible consistent with ancient Mesopotamian creation myths such as the Enuma Elish. This may explain why some scholars might wish Genesis 1:1 to be flexible with descriptions of God’s character. It is, however, really a matter of faith whether one believes Genesis 1 is just another ancient Mesopotamian creation myth from a common oral tradition, or the Bible is the result of special—possibly divine—inspiration and any similarity to earlier myths is polemic, designed to refute pagan religions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that only the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 is consistent with modern scientific theory. Other ancient creation accounts are filled with fanciful stories of monsters and demigods. Attempts to retranslate the Bible to make it fit with polytheistic creation myths move the Bible from truth to untruth.

Yet over all, Rashi’s commentary seems a primary justification for retranslating Genesis 1:1. Because of its preeminence, this commentary will be the subject of part two in this series. This analysis will reveal that the rationale for Rashi’s own retranslation is discredited Aristotelian physics—not the opinions of his rabbinic predecessors.

Dr. Hugh Henry, Ph.D.

Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Daniel J. Dyke, M.Div., M.Th.

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. The Catholic New American Bible (NAB) includes language similar to the NRSV—but its Old Testament translation was made in 1970, and a footnotes implies this is a pre-big bang rendering. Hence it seems inappropriate to comment on the NAB until the 4th edition is published, expected 2010.
  2. The NJPS (TNK) includes a footnote that affirms the validity of the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1.
  3. The NRSV includes a footnote that affirms the validity of both the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 and the alternate suggested by the NJPS (TNK) translation.
  4. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedländer (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 212.
  5. Nahmanides, The Commentary of Nahmanides on Genesis Chapters 1–6, Pretoria oriental series, v. 4, trans. and ed.  Jacob Newman (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1960), 36.
  6. Robert Young, Concise Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 1.
  7. “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth—the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters, and God saith, ‘Let light be;’ and light is” (Genesis 1:1–3, YLT).
  8. See Edward J. Young, Studies in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964), 1–14, for a summary of the arguments.
  9. The NEB has a footnote that the traditional translation is valid, and the REB has a footnote that both the NKPS and NRSV translations are valid.
  10. Ockham’s Razor.