The Bible on Scientific Nomenclature

If the Bible is the truth how come we don’t see scientific distinctions in nature with the naming of creatures and objects? For example, some people question how can there have been no death before the fall if God allowed humans and animals to eat plants, aren’t plants alive? The first audience of the bible didn’t have the knowledge and understanding we have today so the text needed to be simple enough for it to be understood through time at different levels of human knowledge as well as across cultures no matter the level of education. Jesus’ parables are primarily about agriculture because no matter how much humans progress scientifically, we all still eat from the same process of sowing and reaping.

The Bible uses phenomenological language, which means it describes things as they are experienced by humans, rather than the details of its unseen molecular processes. For example, the word translated as “stars” is not defined as “Large Gaseous Bodies” that are millions of light-years away from the Earth. It is not that they do not exist in that form, but rather it is that the Bible is not describing them from that perspective but from the perspective of humans looking on from earth. Likewise, the Bible speaks of the sun “rising” and “setting” in the sky. It is not that the sun has actual astrophysical motion relative to the earth, but rather that the Bible is not describing the motion of the sun from the perspective of those on the earth’s surface.

Life, in the Bible, is not defined as anything with RNA/DNA but only applies to animals and humans because they are living breathing animated creatures. Plants and microbes like body cells (eukaryotic) and bacteria (prokaryotic) are not seen as “life” in the bible as they are based on more recent knowledge gained from new perspectives gained from modern technology. Therefore they can be eaten or die pre-fall of man without it being a “contradiction” to death only being a result of the fall. Basically, the bible defines living beings as those that breathe life’s breath and have blood. Plants don’t use nostrils to “breathe” in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, nor do they have blood. They are not typically observed eating or having physical sexual intercourse as animals and humans do, so they would not have been described as life to any ancient person.

In addition, a similar argument is made when skeptics say things like “the largest sea animal is a whale and the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great ‘fish’ but whales aren’t fish, they are aquatic mammals”. They see the phrase “fish of the sea” and critique the bible on scientific accuracy because it’s not just “fish” that live in the sea. However, the 1600s Elizabethan English of KJV didn’t distinguish sea creatures as cephalopods, arthropods, or cetaceans & porpoises (aquatic mammals), they just said fish back then so it’s accurate for their language at that time the KJV was written. That word simply meant everything that lived in water, just like “foul of the air” applied to everything that flew in the air, even if it was not a “bird” with feathers.

Ancients cultures usually defined animals by their domain. The word for living beings is nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ) in Hebrew. This word is often translated as soul but that is not actually what it means. The Greeks are the ones that had a concept of a separate soul from the body and spirit. The Hebrews used the word nephesh for all living things. So a dead animal carcass would be a dead nephesh. Like many ancient cultures, the Israelites divides animals by domain (land, sea, and air), rather than the modern taxonomy system that we have now like mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians. So the old English bible would call bats (flying mammals) “fouls of the air” even though they aren’t birds. Therefore, while whales aren’t fish by today’s definition, they and other aquatic mammals live in the ocean, so they are living creatures (nephesh) of the sea.

We must remember that when reading the bible in any language other than Hebrew we are reading a translation so there is a linguistic and cultural barrier to overcome. In addition, languages change over time so old English writing is not going to exactly match modern English writing so we must be aware of historical linguistic context as well. I wrote an article tangential to this topic when talking about dinosaurs here.

Bible Project Word Study on Nephesh

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