Obeying the Torah

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

As with the Old Testament, the New Testament was written during a time of rapid social change. The Jews were a minority group struggling to find a voice against the vastness of the Roman Empire. There was immense confusion and doubt surrounding religious beliefs with conflicting ideals grappling to become the major influence. The Romans had conquered Egypt and Greece combining a multitude of different Gods and ideals in the process. Greek philosophy had a significant stimulus, impacting social behaviour to influence both life-styles and religious views.

The School of Athens. Fresco by Raffaello Sanzio 1511

Preceding the Romans occupation, Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle (356-323 BC) brought Hellenic teachings to the Middle East. In addition to recording information about the culture and natural environment of the countries he encountered, Alexander wanted to disseminate Greek knowledge and values. At the western edge of the Nile Delta he founded a city named Alexandria that became a prominent seat of learning. Euclid, Archimedes and Eratosthenes all researched in the museum that he established there. When Alexander died the region fell into turmoil, with Palestine caught inbetween the constantly bickering Egypt and Syria. Rome around this time was heavily influenced by Greek and Oriental philosophies through trading with the Eastern Mediterranean, and was receptive to new ideologies. The fact that other societies had their own Gods made them sceptical about the Gods that they worshipped and many were ready for change.

Once Rome had control over France and Spain in Western Europe it set out to dominate intimidating cultures from the East. It overturned Syria and Palestine and under the leadership of Caesar Augustus gained Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra. Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome when they invaded Palestine around 63 BC. He was still emperor when Jesus of Nazareth was born,  the Hellenic-inclined Herod the Great was  King of Palestine. Caesar Augustus was one of the most powerful Roman emperors, who had mediated in disputes amongst Roman leaders following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and had successfully policed trade routes within and around the Mediterranean. He was held in high regard by the people of the Roman Empire who saw him as a saviour-king, constructing temples in his honour as if he were a deity.

Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people. Ecce homo! (Behold the man!). Painting by Antonio Ciseri, 1871

In Palestine, Herod built a huge temple to honour Augustus called Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of his name. To encourage the Jews to follow a Hellenistic way of life he also constructed gymnasia, theatres and stadia. To pay for these ambitious building projects he collected taxes from the Jews. The Jews resented his  efforts to bring Greek influence to the district. As a consequence of this Herod was always fearful that his position would be threatened and so appointed secret agents to ensure that none of his subjects would be disloyal. In this respect he went to extremes, having his mother-in-law, two of his sons and a wife executed because he questioned their loyalty. Upon his death, Herod’s three sons, Archelaus, Herod and Philip, under the direction of the Roman Empire, distributed his territory between themselves. Archelaus ruled Judea, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, during the time of Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, while Philip governed the remaining regions. Rome also appointed a series of procurators to govern the Jews, the most famous being Pontius Pilate. The procurators were as unpopular as the other occupiers because they resorted to cruelty in order to control the Jews, who persistently refused to acknowledge Greek religions in favour of their own. The Jews believed that if they did not understand and follow the words of God as told to Moses in the Torah they would become slaves once more. It was in this atmosphere of intense suppression that the Jews hoped for a redeemer to free them once more from the trappings of servitude. Jesus of Nazareth became a potential contender to fulfil this role.

…in the beginning there was chaos from which evolved order

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

The application of molecular archaeology has largely denounced the explanation of creation as proposed by Babylonian type theories recorded in the Old Testament. Several views held at this time have been dispelled by Science. For instance, rain was thought to fall from seas separated from the Earth by a dome structure which the Creator called sky [Gen. 1, 6-7].

Then God commanded, “let there be a dome to divide the water and keep it in two separate places”- and it was done. So God made a dome, and it separated the water under it from the water above it. He named the dome “sky”.

Birds and fish were created on the fourth day, while animal life on Earth was created on the fifth. On the sixth day the Creator placed humans on Earth to control the animals that existed in the land and sea. The order in which the animals appear seems to be fairly logical, fish and birds being further down the food chain than the higher animals with humans at the very top. There is no mention of bacteria and parasites. Evolutionary speaking they should appear before the birds and fish in day three.

So God made a dome, and it separated the water under it from the water above it. He named the dome “sky”. Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1860

Theories involving the spontaneous generation of living beings were widely accepted for centuries. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle in the 4th Century BC held views that contradicted a gradual evolution of life forms. Plato argued that there were two worlds: one was real the other was imaginary. The variations that were present in plants and animals were merely imperfect illusions of an already perfect form. This philosophy was known as idealism or essentialism and ruled out evolution as organisms were already in the form that they were destined to become. Aristotle recognised that organisms could be arranged according to complexity this is often referred to as a scale of nature or scala naturae. He believed that there was an organism at each scale; species were fixed and no evolution occurred. This view persisted for 2000 years and was widely adopted by natural theologists who thought that the Creator had designed each species for a specific purpose.

Linnaeus in the 18th century adopted a filing system for all these species. He was a natural theologian who claimed that he had developed the classification system in order to reveal Gods plan, he clarifies this using the phrase:

Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit; God creates, Linnaeus arranges.

During the nineteenth century yeasts were thought to be part of the plant kingdom in the division of Thallophyta because they lacked true roots, stems and leaves. They were eventually classified as fungi because they do not contain chlorophyll or rely on photosynthesis to create energy. Instead they live a parasitic or saprophytic existence, living off the carbon sources supplied by other organisms. Like other species of fungi, yeast can also form spores. In the case of S. cerevisiae these are found in a sac called an ascus this has earned them the further classification of Ascomycetes.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first biologists who proposed a theory of evolution in 1809. As curator of the invertebrate collection in the Natural History Museum in Paris, he observed that insects changed gradually over the centuries. He thought that microscopic creatures were at the bottom of evolution and generated spontaneously from inanimate material. Lamarck felt that creatures evolved towards greater complexity and that higher organisms were aiming towards perfection to become completely adapted to their environment. He proposed that organisms adapted continually thereby some aspects of their physiology grew stronger while others disappeared and that these life-time improvements could be passed on to their offspring. Lamarck’s hypotheses have been largely disproved but his views were revolutionary; he implied that species evolved and that they were not fixed. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was to directly challenge the current viewpoint of fixed design. Natural, or should it be supernatural, theology, was the accepted way of thinking and doing science, each species being allocated a specific niche by a supernatural being.

At an early age Darwin was already a keen naturalist and obtained a degree in theology at Christ College Cambridge where he became the protégé of the botanist Professor Henslow. When he was 22 he joined the crew of The Beagle, a survey ship whose mission was to chart the South American coastline. During this voyage he collected flora and fauna while others surveyed the coast. He was particularly interested in the diversity of species that were present in the Galapagos Islands and recovered over a dozen different types of Finch. Darwin began to understand through his own work, and that of others, that the origin of new species arose from a distant ancestor by the gradual accumulation of adaptations. He saw this within the beaks of the finches that he had collected from the Galapagos Islands. Each Finch had a specialised beak that was adapted to forage for the type of food found on its island of origin. This was visible evidence that selection through environmental factors could contribute to speciation.

Darwin’s drawings of beak variation in Finch species.

Darwin was reluctant to introduce his theories publicly because, being a theologian, he was aware of the controversy that this would cause. He wrote an essay on the origin of species in 1844 that remained unpublished until 1858 when extracts from it were presented to the Linnaean Society. In the same year another naturalist, Alfred Wallace published a paper on the evolution of new species. This prompted Darwin to complete his book the Origin of Species, which was published the following year. The Origin of Species presented a strong argument for natural selection through scientific evidence and became adopted by evolutionists as the primary text on the subject. At the time molecular genetics and the true nature of genetic inheritance were still undiscovered so Darwin adopted a Lamarckian approach to explain acquired characteristics. Where strengths acquired during the course of a life-time could be passed down to the next generation.