Reviews of

Markus Bockmuehl, “Jewish and Christian Origins of Creatio ex Nihilo”

In Dan Batovici, DSS, Genesis, Markus BOCKMUEHL, SEMINAR REPORTS, St Andrews on December 19, 2010 at 10:23 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Markus Bockmuehl, Professor of Biblical and Early Christian Studies and Fellow in Theology at Keble College, Oxford, in the Theology Research Seminar at the School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, 15 December 2010.

The full list of this term’s papers in this seminar is available here.

The article coming out of this paper has now been published. See here.

The starting point of this paper is that it does not hold the idea of creation as a self-evident truth: the notion that all that exists was created by a supreme God constitutes a great intellectual device; obvious to some, but obvious nonsense for others.

As opposed to the Greek philosophy, the Jews and later the Christians were convinced that believers in the God of Israel and readers of the Scriptures do not have the luxury of evacuating the divinity or God from the creation.

As far as the creatio ex nihilo is concerned, that what is mentioned in the account of Genesis 1 is already the product of the act of creation, and creation seems more a matter of giving shape and identity to that which is shapeless. Similarly, in Genesis 2, God made man out of clay.

Yet, at some point in early Christian centuries, it became taken for granted – both in Christian and Jewish contexts – that God created all things out of nothing. By the third century, a Christian as Origen would react to the opposing view, such as that of the Epicureans: ‘nothing comes from nothing.’ The universe couldn’t exist without an architect.

Jewish authors felt less threatened by such pagan philosophical ideas, yet from the third century onward would reject them. Gerhard May and others believed that Judaism remained remarkably uninterested in the question, and, moreover, that the biblical texts of neither Testaments requires the creation ex nihilo.

In 2 Macc 7:28, things are not said to have been done out of nothing, but out of non-existing things – οὐκ ἐξ ὄντων. Similarly, Philo’s language envisages creation not out of nihilo, but rather out of shapelessness. Likewise, in Rom. 1:17, God summons the things that do not exist. See also John 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 11:3. While one might agree that such statements are compatible with creatio ex nihilo, what they actually affirm seems to be rather different.

The question then is: what pedigree, if any, the idea of God’s creation of matter itself could be shown to have in ancient Jewish sources?

In Hebrew, the first word of Genesis 1 (בראשית) can be – and was – understood not only as ‘in the beginning’ or ‘in a beginning’, but also as ‘by a chief principal;’ this allows an instrumental meaning, and was also understood as ‘with or by use of wisdom.’ Similary, amongst the Greek versions, while LXX has ἐν ἀρχῇ, Aquila has ἐν κεφαλαίῳ.

In the DSS it seems that the philosophical question of whether the created is ex nihilo is of no explicit concern; the examples are taken from The Rule of the Community (S) 1QS 3.15-16; 11.11, 17-18 (=4Q264 frg 1.4-6); The Hymns (Hodayot) 1QH 9[=1].9-10, 19-20; The War Scroll (M) 1QM 13.11 (=4Q495 frg 2 3); Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice 4Q402 frg 4.12-13; 4Q403 1.34-36 [=4Q404, 4Q405].

Although there is neither the language nor the concept of creatio ex nihilo, nevertheless, there is a supreme creator God, who is thoroughgoing and all-inclusive.

Rabbinic texts report discussion of which was created first: light or darkness, Earth or Gehenna, bun there isn’t there any doubt that all material and immaterial reality are created by God, who moreover continues to be active in creation.

The question is then: where do you find in the rabbinic literature a place where creatio ex nihilo is explicitly claimed? The standard account comes from a fifth century commentary on Genesis – Gen. Rab., 1.9 – where a pagan philosopher challenges Rabbi Gamaliel on the question of creation: ‘Your God was indeed a great artist, but surely He found good materials which assisted Him? […] Tohu, bohu, darkness, water, wind and the deep.’ The response of the rabbi is ‘May that man parish. […] The term ‘creation’ is used by Scripture in connection with all of them.’ And in arguing for a creation without materials, he offers then quotations from scriptural texts, other than the Genesis account: Isa. 45:7, Psa. 148:4.5; Amos 4.13; Prov. 8:24.

Concluding, no known ancient Jewish text affirms the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in precise terminology, and few of them do so indirectly. Nevertheless, biblical passages and their reception in rabbinic literature consistently affirm that God is the creator of all there is in heaven and earth, seen and unseen, material and spiritual. The result of this is that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo cannot be established by sola scriptura, but only in later exegesis.

Dan Batovici
University of St Andrews

  1. […] – creation out of nothing – is a very central one in the tradition. But recent scholarship, some helpfully summarised by Dan Batovici, linked by James McGrath, casts serious doubt on the doctrine. Specifically, Oxford […]

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