Science in Christian Perspective






From: JASA 17 (September 1965): 68-73.

This paper traces the stages of cultural development in ancient Mesopotamia from prehistoric through to "civilization," sketching the characteristics of each phase. Comparison with the early chapters of Genesis shows that the earliest phase of human life represented in the Old Testament is "civilization." The problems -raised for the conservative Christian are considered. Emphasis is placed on the area where the "food-producing revolution" occurred, its recency, and producing revolution?' occurred, its recency, and the importance of religion and other non-economic factors.


Ancient Mesopotamia has always exerted a peculiar fascination for the student of the Bible. The reason for this is that the earliest chapters of the Bible have explicit connections with that area. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are named in connection with the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:14); Mt. Ararat may be identified with ancient Urartu, in eastern Asia Minor; well-known Mesopotamian cities are mentioned (Babel, Erech, Nineveh, and others, Genesis 10: 10-12); the land of Shinar, where the tower of Babel was built, is probably the same as ancient Sumer; and, of course, Abraham was originally a citizen of the Sumerian city of Ur.1

People do not usually realize how long civilization has been flourishing in the world of the Bible. Talking recently with the family of a faculty colleague which was preparing for a year's residence in Syria, I said, "Well, a year from now you'll be speaking Arabic."

"I suppose so," the wife said, adding, "Tell me, has Arabic remained rather pure compared with that spoken by Abraham?"

I explained that, compared with Abraham, Arabic was a relatively recent linguistic development in the near east, with its flourishing period in the first millennium of our era. Abraham, on the other hand is dated early in the second millennium BC, and probably spoke Akkadian, and perhaps a north Semitic dialect as well.

This all makes Abraham seem very old indeed: he lived two and a half millennia before the flowering age of Arabic literature. Since he appears so early in the Bible, we must surely be well back toward the beginning of things with him!

But when we get to the city of Ur, we find that in Abraham's day civilization had already been in existence for a long time. Writing, which originated in Sumer, had been in use fifteen-hundred years, and people had been living in well-organized communities for at least the same length of time. Law codes, some with striking similarities to Hebrew legislation, antedated Abraham by several centuries and Moses by a millennium.

Therefore, interest in the Bible and in the question of human origins seems to make a survey of life in ancient Mesopotamia relevant.

It is possible to distinguish three successive stages of human culture there, which may be denoted as foodgathering, food-producing, and civilization. The purpose of this paper is to present and characterize these three stages, and then discuss the relationship between them and the early chapters of the Old Testament.

*Stanley D. Walters is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Greenville College, Greenville, IL. Paper presented by invitation at the 19th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, August 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.


The names of three scholars will come up often in the course of the paper, and it is well to identify them at the outset.

Probably the leading archaeologist specializing in prehistory is Robert Braidwood, Research Associate in Old World Prehistory at the University of Chicago. Braidwood has written and researched this area of interest more thoroughly than any other person, and maintains a continuing program of research and excavation in the middle east.

A second name is that of Henri Frankfort, for many years Research Professor of Oriental Archaeology at Chicago, and, at the time of his death in 1954, Professor of the History of Pre-classical Antiquity at the University of London. Finally, I should mention V. Gordon Childe, a classics scholar whom interest in human origins took to the near east, where he excavated at various sites for fifteen years. For many years he was Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Edinburgh University.

The geographical designation "Sumer" should also be explained. It denotes the southern portion of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and the civilization which flourished there before about 2000 BC.


Where Did Man Originate?

With the question of human origins as such, I shall deal only in passing. It is widely accepted today that man in a real, human sense, has been in existence at least since the Pleistocene glacial period, that is, something less than a million years. The upper limit is far from being fixed yet, especially since the discovery of Zinjanthropus, with an alleged potassium-argon date of closer to two million years. The lower level, however, is fixed rather well by finds of stone tools in datable geological sequences, which seem to be as old as 500,000 years. The oldest of these are the "pebble tools" of Africa, and it is there that most anthropologists today would tentatively locate the "cradle" of the human race.1a

As far as the near east is concerned, scattered Pleistocene finds show that, while man may ]lot have originated there, he has probably been there for something like 500,000 years. In Palestine itself, for example, a number of skeletons were found in caves on Mt. Carmel, which are dated 75,000 or 100,000 years ago. In northern Iraq stone tools of the Acheulean assemblage have been found. By 10,000 years ago, there were "completely modern Mediterranean-like men who were reasonably successful hunters and foodcollectors, but who still lived a saVage's life in small mobile bands."2

What Was Stone Age Man Like?

Of greater interest to us is the question, What kind of people were these Stone Age or paleolithic persons? Are they in any way like the persons we meet in the early chapters of the Bible?

The answer to this question must be tentative, since it is based on our interpretation of the known artifacts left by them. That is, much that they left has not been found; much that they had has not survived, because made of perishable material; our interpretations may be wrong, and, because writing had not yet been invented, we have but small clue to their thoughts, ideals, and aspirations.

Hunter. The obvious deduction from the evidence of stone tools is that paleolithic man was a hunter. None of the bones found in connection with him are of domestic animals, so it is assumed that he hunted wild animals. That he roamed from place to place is assumed because of the absence of any permanent buildings at the open-air sites which have been discovered, and because he is known to have lived in caves. Stone sickles suggest the reaping of wild grains.

Language? A further interpretation is suggested by Braidwood, who has proposed three steps in the history of tool-making. First, utilization, in which man used anything that was handy to do the job. Second, fashioning, in which a tool was prepared for a specific job. Third, standardization, in which tools were made according to "certain set traditions." Now, the existence of various traditions of tool-making indicates to Braidwood that there was present "a notion of the ideal type of tool for a particular job." Both the concept of ideal types and the skill to make them must have been passed on from generation to generation.

Reasoning from this, Braidwood proposed that the notion of an ideal type is really a symbol, and that these early men may have had word-symbols-i.e., language-as well. He acknowledges the conjectural nature of his proposals, but they are indeed suggestive.3

Religious Beliefs. Was paleolithic man a religious person? It is thought that he was. This conclusion is drawn from the burial of the dead, and from the Stone Age paintings found in European caves. Frankfort says, "From paleolithic times onwards, man has been aware of being involved, not only with his kindred, but with superhuman powers." He adds that the cave paintings are not only "expressions of a coherent religious conception," but also show that "from the first, man possessed creative imagination."4

The same point has been made with wit and incisiveness by G. K. Chesterton, in a book which deserves to be better known among Protestants, The! Everlasting Man. In a chapter titled "The Man in the Cave," he uses Stone Age cave art to scotch the idea that the cave man was a brute whose "chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about." "People have been interested in everything about the cave man," he says, "except what he did in the cave," and what he did there is one of the few things we really know about him.

"What was found in the cave was not the club, the horrible gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head." It was paintings of, animals which were found there, expressions of "the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things." In short, the archaeologist had "dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man. That sounds like a truism," adds Chesterton, "but in this connection it is really a very tremendous truth."5


We may summarize by saying that the first great stage of human life, in Mesopotamia as elsewhere in the ancient world, seems to have been both precarious and primitive, but genuinely human. Stone Age persons were nomadic, drawing their livelihood from wild animals and grain, and lacking both metal and pottery. Nevertheless they possessed some manual skills, imagination, and religious belief. This stage of existence lasted for thousands of years, until a sudden and striking change occurred.


Whereas many anthropologists today regard Africa as the "cradle" of human life, it was in Mesopotamia that civilization first appeared. What is meant by "civilization" must be discussed later, but at present it will be enough to say that the precursor of civilization was a middle stage, a relatively sudden change in the whole way of life-from merely collecting food to settled village life and the domestication of grains and animals.

This change-sometimes called the food-producing revolution-has been most clearly delineated by Braidwood, to whose writings the following discussion is indebted.6

The earliest evidences for the change appear at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, and consist of village sites scattered across what Braidwood calls "the hilly flanks of the fertile crescent." The important feature is that they are villages rather than temporary nomadic settlements.

Geographic Area

The "fertile crescent" is by now a rather well-known term to describe the geographic area arching from the head of the Persian Gulf northwest across upper Syria and the headwaters of the Euphrates, and down the Palestinian littoral to the Nile Valley.

It was not in this area that the food-producing revolu tion took place, but rather in the hilly fringe areas, especially on the north. Another way of putting it would be to say that many centuries before people settled in southern Mesopotamia--at the site of Abra ham's Ur, for example-farm villages had been flour ishing in the north.

This change-over sometimes is identified as the transi tion from the paleolithic age to the neolithic age, and is dated by Braidwood between 9000 and 7000 BC.

Advances in Knowledge

What did these villagers know that the ice age hunters did not? They had permanent homes, usually with mud walls; pottery had been invented, and a variety of pottery shapes and types developed; there were stone and flint tools, they had domesticated both grain and animals. At one important site, Jarmo, 95% of the animal bones belong to domestic species.7 Braidwood says, "In no case is there any question but that we have to deal with a well-settled farming and animal-tending community ."8

Moreover, there is evidence of extra-utilitarian interests. For example, there is decoration on the pottery; there are beads and other bits of jewelry; and there are figurines of animals and humans, probably connected with fertility rites of some kind. The presence of sea shells from the Persian Gulf suggests extensive trading relationships.

Surely the most important of these changes is agriculture. For grain production to be developed, an "extraordinary first step" must be taken, in which "the satisfaction of immediate needs is limited" in order to save seed, store it and later sow it again. In addition to this, knowledge of cross-breeding and selection was discovered, so that wild grasses were improved, and "vastly more nutritious grains" were produced.9



A Relatively Rapid Change.

To this brief description two comments may be ap pended. One has to do with the relative suddenness
with which the change took place.

Human life had existed in the middle-east-although not in the area later known as Sumer-for perhaps half a million years. During these millennia, the con ditions of which must necessarily be described as
primitive, man's life seems to have undergone rela tively little change.

Compared with this vast stretch, the changeover-even if it took two or three thousand years is relatively rapid. Frankfort says that the "peculiar coherence" of the mature Mesopotamian civilization was "the out
come of a sudden and intense change, a crisis, in which its form-undeveloped but potentially a whole
- -crystallized out, or rather was born."11

A second remark concerns the causes of this revolutionary change. We do not know why or how it happened, and the best workers in the field acknowledge this. Of course, they feel that the retreat of the last great glaciation had something to do with it, but on the whole the question of "why?" is recognized as a philosophical one, which the historian as such does not answer.


It is with the third stage of human history in ancient Mesopotamia that "civilization" first appears. This is to say that Stone Age man--either paleolithic or neolithic-cannot really be called civilized. This in turn pre-supposes a definition of "civilization," to which we must now turn.

A Definition

When we say that man during the ice age was not "civilized," we do not mean that his behaviour, as Childe says, does not appeal to our own sense of propriety and good taste.12 Civilization is not present, he believes, unless there are present at least three elements: writing, cities and wide political organization, and occupational specialization.13

The same matter has been dealt with even more carefully by Braidwood, in an important monograph published in 1952. We deal with civilization, he says, if we find a culture with a preponderance of eight elements. These are: fully efficient food production, cities, a formal political state, formal laws, formal projects and works, classes and hierarchies, writing, and monumentality in art.14

A Unique Development.

Now, there are many places where the transition from Stone Age culture to a society that may be called civilized has taken place. Examples of early transitions are Egypt, the Indus Valley in India, and a little later, China, and the New World. There are even societies which are today making this transition.

But the transition in ancient Mesopotamia is of unique interest, because it was the first time in human history that it had ever happened. The developments in the Nile and Indus Valleys were probably influenced by the achievement in Sumer, but who influenced the Sumerians? Apparently no one: the efflorescence of civilization was spontaneous.

Shortly after 4000 BC, settlements first appear in southern Mesopotamia, the general area of Abraham's Ur. These villages differ from the northern farm villages by their size, by large buildings identified as temples, and by metal tools. This period is called the Proto-Literate by archaeologists, because writing appears in rudimentary forms.

An Illustration

A site which is representative of the Proto-Literate period is Uruk, the Erech mentioned in Genesis, where most of the important elements in "civilization" appear.

1. Efficient food production. Settlement in the south is possible only by virtue of irrigation. This is true today, and reputable scholars believe it was true in the Proto-Literate period as well.

Irrigation is a complex arrangement, both socially and technically. A division of labor must be effected, in which some people maintain the irrigation system, while others raise grain. It is expected that the farmer will share his crops with the irrigation worker. Still others work at craft specialities, making tools and pottery. Regulations governing these various responsibilities must be effected, and sanctions imposed. Probably some kind of enforcement agency is necessary.

This seems simple enough to, us, but it presupposes a trust and solidarity among large groups of people which neither of the two earlier stages reveal and it involves both craft specialization and political organization-both important elements in civilization.

2. Monumental architecture. There is at Uruk a monumental temple, erected on a succession of large platforms. The excavator estimated that it took 1500 men, working a ten-hour day, five years to build the temple.15

Interestingly enough, according to Childe, the oldest building yet found in the south is a shrine, located at the city of Eridu. This suggests that the social solidarity necessary for successful irrigation was religious in nature, "a feeling of dependence on a personal deity."16

3. Writing. Clay tablets with simple pictographs appear. While they are not literary texts, they do represent the invention of writing, and at a date considerably earlier than the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs. These earliest tablets are thought to have been devices for keeping accounts in connection with the temple, which was the largest economic unit in the city. They are written in Sumerian, which is the oldest known written language.

4. Political organization. In the absence of literary texts from this period, it is not possible to be certain about the type. But Thorkild Jacobsen, long of Chicago and now of Harvard, has advanced the thesis that the city-states of early southern Mesopotamia were regulated by what he calls "primitive democracy." Ultimate authority and sovereignty resided in a general assembly of all citizens. In a crisis--either internal or external-the assembly met to pool its experience and inventiveness, and to act as a unity. Leaders for the occasion were chosen, depending on the type of crisis. For internal situations, a man was chosen to the office of EN, while for military actions the office was called LUGAL. When the crisis passed, the men returned to their regular occupations.

Jacobsen thinks that this city pattern was extended to Sumer as a whole. Eventually, perhaps because the EN or LUGAL were reluctant to relinquish the power given them by the assembly, ways were found to perpetuate it. A "primitive monarchy" developed, but this takes us beyond the proto-literate period.17

5. Artistic Actitity. Finally, there was a surge of artistic activity. The architecture of the temple represents this, as does its detail and decoration. Cylinder seals appear-intricate carvings done on small cylinders of stone or metal, and used to impress distinctive designs on wet clay. The artistic and technical skill reflected by these seals is unbelievable in such an early period. Sculpture in the round also appears for the first time.

Spiritual Factors

It is necessary to stress here, as I did after discussing the food-producing revolution, the importance of non-economic factors. While Gordon Childe has interpreted it primarily in economic terms, others have seen a broader picture.

For instance, Braidwood, who believes civilization would not have developed on the basis of food-production alone, says,

The great change between pre-civilization and civilized human life came in those realms of culture other than the technological and economic ... In this sense there was certainly a change In kind of human life as civilization appeared.

This change in kind he sees in terms of new social institutions, new forms of thought, and a new moral order.18


We must now return to the relevance of all this to the student of the Bible. Can any of these three stages of human life be equated with the culture represented by the early chapters of Genesis?

Aspects of Culture in Genesis

Several important types of human activity may be found in Genesis I-XI.

1. Domestication of both grain and animals. "Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (4:2). The same is implied by Adam's giving names to the animals, and the remark that among them "there was not found a helper fit for him" (2: 19-20). Similarly, Jabal is "the father of all those who dwell in tents and have cattle" (4:20). Noah also is described as a "tiller of the soil" (9:20) and made wine.

2. Cities. The grandson of Adam, Enoch, "built a city" (4:7). In a later chapter reference is made to burnt brick and mortar, and the building of a ziggurat in Sumer (11:3ff).

3. Metal Work. The man Tubal-cain is described as "the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron" (4:22). Musical instruments-the lyre and the pipe -are mentioned in 4:21.

Thus in these chapters several elements of civilization are attested or implied: domestication of grain and animals, monumental architecture, political organization (implied by the city), and specialization of crafts.

Genesis Reflects "Civilization'

From our survey of the development of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, it is clear that the domestication of grain and animals cannot be dated before about 7000 BC, while forging implements from metal is a practice attested first about 3500 BC. The reference to working with iron suggests a far lower date, as smelting of iron was not known until the, latter part of the second millennium BC, that is, after 1500 BC.

It is therefore a reasonable conclusion that the early chapters of Genesis reflect human society and life as it was known not earlier than the Proto-Literate period of ancient Mesopotamia. Another way of putting it is to say that the early chapters of Genesis reflect civilization, which we know to have appeared first in ancient Mesopotamia about 3500 BC.

It is precisely here that the problem for the conservative Christian arises. If Genesis 1-4 are taken as historical accounts, then the stage of culture which we have denoted by the "food-producing revolution" was reached by the second generation of human beings (Cain and Abel), cities by the third generation, and the forging of metal, including iron, by the seventh generation. To put it still more baldly, if Adam was a literal, historical person, the actual father of two men named Cain and Abel, it begins to look as though he would not have lived earlier than about 7000 BC.

On the other hand, the archaeological record shows the existence of human life through thousands of generations before the food-producing revolution and the efflorescence of civilization. Ramm has already pointed out the dilemma, saying, "The evident recency of the data of Genesis 4 seems to involve us with the recency of man in Genesis 3."19 It is one of the few problems in his excellent book to which he is able to offer no solution.

Searching for an Answer

The most which I can do at this point is to call attention to certain features in this historical and prehistorical survey which deserve special note by the conservative Christian, and to point out lines along which a solution may be sought.

1. While the Old Testament seems to present the origin of human life and civilization as approximately simultaneous, it does present it as occurring in the area of ancient Sumer. Of all the centers where the transition from primitive to civilized life occurred, the first was right here. Moreover, here the transition occurred spontaneously, without influence from other centers. This correlation should not be overlooked.

2. Another is the importance of non-economic factors, including religion, in the development of civilization. I have already noted the presence of temples from the first in Sumer, and the importance of religion in fostering the social solidarity necessary for irrigation and subsequent expansion. In Proto-Literate ruins, says Frankfort, "the temples are the most striking feature.1220 This is significant because Genesis shows human life originating with God, and possessing moral qualities from the start. And while the Sumerians worshipped a pantheon which we would find difficult to identify with the God of the Old Testament, it is nevertheless most suggestive to realize that in this up to that time-utterly unique, qualitative development in human life, religion was a major factor.

3. Again, note should be made of the comparative recency of the food-producing revolution, a receney which accords well with a literal creation of man as described in Genesis 1-2.

One way of resolving the tension between the apparent antiquity of man according to archaeology, and his apparent recency according to the Bible, has been to look for some place in the prehistoric sequence where brute became man through the creative act of God, imparting to him the imago Dei.

To those who prefer this type of solution, may I respectfully commend the food-producing revolution? In this case, Genesis 1 and 2 are not telling us so much about the primeval origin of human life itself, as about the first great strides in human life, which brought man to the state we call "civilized."

4. One other possible solution to this problem will be regarded as a live option by some, and should be mentioned. It is hinted at by Ramm, when he says,

Perhaps our problem is interpretative. Maybe our trouble Is that we are trying to apply modern methods of historiography to a method of divine revelation which will not yield to such a treatment.21

Perhaps the question we have to ask is the question of genre. It is the beginning of wisdom in Biblical interpretation to inquire, What kind of literature is before us in this passage?

The opening chapters of Genesis have always been regarded as of the historical genre by conservative Christians. There are good reasons for so regarding it, and I am aware of these reasons.

Since the problem of the antiquity of man is so acute when these chapters are regarded as history, it may be that conservative Christians should ask again this fundamental question in Biblical interpretation. Perhaps along this line a solution may be found.

I cannot close this paper without emphasizing our unique dependence on and need for the early chapters of the Bible. The debate over historical correlations must not be allowed to obscure the great moral truths revealed here, namely, that behind the processes of life there stands the creative hand of God, that human life is moral in quality, and marked by spiritual needs which can be met only through a right relationship to God.

The Biblical doctrine of creation, which is adumbrated here, is crucial for the Christian understanding of life. It constitutes the only real reason why a man should become a Christian: the God who calls in Jesus Christ is the Creator, and has designated the conditions of uman life. This is the answer to every person who thinks that in submitting to Christ, life will somehow thereafter be truncated, less than full, less than normal. The Biblical doctrine of creation affirms that no man is fully normal who is not in a right relationship with God through Christ.


1. The theory that Ur was in northern Syria has not found general acceptance. See Wisemen, IgUr of the Chaldees," New Bible Dictionary, p. 1304f.
Ia. Robert J. Braidwood, Prehistoric Man (Chicago Natural History Museum, 1961), p. 22; see also Donald R. Wilson, "How Early is Man?" Christianity Today VI (1962), 1175-76 (September 14).
2. Robert J. Braidwood, The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization (Eugene, Oregon, Oregon State System of Higher Education, 1952), p. 11. A discussion of the Palestinian material may be found in W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1961), p. 52-57.
3. Braidwood, Prehistoric Man, pp. 48ff.
4. Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), p. 27f.
5. G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Doubleday Image Books, 1955), 26-28, 30.
6. See, most recently, "The Earliest Village Communities of Southwestern Asia Reconsidered," Atti del VI Congresso Internazionale delle Scienze Preistoriche e Protostoriche (1962), 1, 115-26. Here, Braidwood discusses three phases of the changeover: a) A terminal food-collecting stage, ca. 15,0009,000 BC; b) Incipient cultivation and domestication, ca. 9,000. 7,000 BC; c) Primary effective village-farraing communities, ca. 7,000 BC, well-established by 5,000 BC.
7. Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East, 4th edition (New York, Grove Press, n. d., but about 1950), p. 106.
8. Braidwood, The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization, p. 16.
9. Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East, p. 31.
10. Braidwood, Prehistoric Man, p. 17.
11. Frankfort, op. cit., p. 3.
12. Encyclopedia Britannica (1961) vol. V, p. 742b.
13. Ibid., p. 741b.
14. The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization, p. If.
15. As reported ibid., P. 39.
16. Childe, New Light, p. 114.
17. Thorkild Jacobsen, "Early Political Developments in Meso-
potamia," Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 52 (1957) 90f.
18. The Near East, p. 42.
19. Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Eerdmans, 1956), p. 328.
20. Op. cit., p. 54.
21. Ramm, op. cit., p. 330.
22. in addition to the titles in the footnotes, the following works are important: Braidwood, Robert J., "Asiatic Prehistory and the Origin of Man," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 6 (1947), 30-42. Childe, V. Gordon, What Happened in History? (Penguin Books, 15957). Jacobsen, Thorkild, "Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (190) 159-72.