Lecture 2: Early Religions and the Rise of Christianity

2.1 Introduction

Science as we know it today is a very special, relatively recent and unique occurrence in human history. We must ask why science arose in our civilisation and not in any of the other great civilisations of history. The last two or three millennia have seen a dozen or so great civilisations with highly organised cities, well-developed political systems, great poetry and drama, but nothing at all like our modern science. They seem to have all that is needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world, but they failed to do so.

If we look at these civilisations we find highly-developed technical skills in the working of stone, wood and metal, great skill in making pottery and ceramics, but not a detailed understanding of the behaviour of matter, expressed in mathematical terms. Measurements are made to high accuracy, both in the construction of buildings like the pyramids of Egypt and for surveying agricultural land. The motions of the stars and planets were recorded by the Babylonians, but there was no comprehensive understanding of the way these motions can be calculated by solving the equations of dynamics. The Greeks speculated about the ultimate constituents of matter, but did not know whether they exist or if they do what is their size and structure or how they interact with each other and how their properties can be related to those of everyday matter. Above all, there is no conception of the way all the infinite variety of phenomena, astronomical, electrical, dynamical, chemical and atomic, can be understood as the manifestations of a unified structure that can be expressed in a very few differential equations.

This detailed understanding of nature that we call science first came to maturity at a very definite point in human history, namely in Europe in the seventeenth century. It was primarily the achievement of Newton, who built on the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and showed how to combine the empiricism of Bacon and the rationalism of Descartes. Using and developing the concepts of space and time, mass and force, velocity and acceleration, momentum and energy that had been gradually refined over the preceding centuries, he formulated the laws of motion, and showed how these can be used to calculate both celestial and terrestrial motions, the orbit of the moon and the fall of an apple. To do this, he developed the differential calculus, and showed how this powerful mathematical technique can be used to express his laws of motion in concise and elegant differential equations, and then solved them to give a precise account of various motions. He thus laid the foundations of theoretical physics, and the extraordinary growth of science since his time has been essentially a development and extension to other realms of phenomena of the method first due to him.

Viewed in the context of the whole of human history, this is an extraordinary occurrence, one that makes our civilisation unlike any other. For the first time the world is unified by easy travel and communications, and man has a vision of the whole planet, and the relations of its parts. This is so remarkable that we are forced to ask why this all started in Europe in the seventeenth century, and why not in any of the great civilisations of antiquity. Why not in ancient China, with its highly developed technology? Why not in India or Egypt, Babylon or Persia, Mexico or Peru? They seem to have all that is needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world, but they failed to do so. If the reason is not to be found in the material conditions of those civilisations, we must look for it in the realm of ideas. This leads us to ask why science did not develop in Greece, intellectually the most impressive of the ancient civilisations?

The Greeks made such brilliant contributions to so many areas of thought and asked so many of the right questions about the world, that we must ask why their science was in the end a failure. Partly this was because some of their ideas about the material world were in fact wrong, and this inevitably prevented further progress. Another reason seems to be a failure of confidence, of the will to carry on in spite of every difficulty. These two difficulties were eventually overcome from, humanly speaking, a rather unexpected quarter.

Our attitude to the world, whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, whether we confidently believe that the material world is good and will yield its secrets to us or whether we think that it is evil, inscrutable and unfathomable, whether we believe in progress or whether we believe that it is all determined by fate, all these attitudes are determined by our religion. So it was from religion that we received the ideas that got the scientific enterprise going again.

Early man personified natural forces: Wodin and Thor are the gods of the storm, Wodin of the wind and Thor of the thunder. We commemorate them on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Gods were thought to inhabit trees and stones and other natural objects. Ceremonies were held in sacred groves, and men were sacrificed to the sacred oak in an attempt to influence natural forces. With such beliefs science could not develop.

In the East there were great religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, that still remain today. Two quotations will illustrate their attitude to the material world: 'The Eastern mystics are not interested in approximate or relative knowledge. They are concerned with absolute knowledge involving an understanding of the totality of life. Being well aware of the essential interrelationship of the universe, they realise that to explain something means, ultimately to show how it is connected with everything else. As this is impossible, the Eastern mystics insist that no single phenomenon can be explained . . . The Eastern mystics, therefore, are generally not interested in explaining things, but rather in obtaining a direct, non-intellectual experience of the unity of all things. This was the attitude of the Buddha who answered all questions about life's meaning, the origin of the world, or the nature of nirvana, with a noble silence.' In the climate of such beliefs science could not develop.

This leads us to ask what are the conditions that must be satisfied if science is to develop, and this is considered in more detail in section 2.2. We find that while certain material conditions are necessary, what is critical is the beliefs about the world, and these are ultimately religious.

If we look at the religions of the Middle East, particularly the powerful empires of Egypt, Babylon or Assyria we find that these also were not conducive to the rise of science. We finally find that the ideas we seek came from the Israelites, a small, weak nomadic tribe claiming Jerusalem as its Holy City. So first of all we describe their beliefs in section 2.3, and see how they differed radically from those of their powerful neighbours. Contained in their scriptures were some of the vitally important ideas about the world that are the necessary foundations of science.

The Israelites looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, a mighty leader who would lead them to victory against their foes. When eventually he came, as a babe in a manger, he was not recognised, his teachings were rejected, and he was put to death as a common criminal. Yet this man was not only the Saviour of mankind; he was also the saviour of science. What this means is described in section 2.4.

That Saviour claimed to be the Incarnation of God Himself. He founded a Church, and gave it authority to teach in His name. Surprisingly enough, humanly speaking, that Church has endured the vicissitudes of nearly two thousand years.

During the first few centuries of the Christian era there were many discussions of the nature of God and the relation between God and Christ. Again and again new ideas were put forward, and a Church Council was summoned to decide the issue. One of the most important of these is the Council of Nicea in 325, and its importance for the development of science is also considered in section 2.4.

In the early Christian centuries there were many writers who considered subjects related to science, and these are considered in section 2.5.

2.2 The Origin of Science

Why did science develop in our civilisation and not in any of the other great civilisations of the past? This is a complicated historical question that can be approached by listing the conditions that seem to be necessary for the rise of science and then seeing to what extent they are present in the different civilisations. If we find that the conditions necessary for the rise of science are present in only one civilisation then we have as full an explanation as it is possible to have for a historical phenomenon. We cannot of course expect to understand or explain the detailed history, for this depends on the presence of men of genius and other external circumstances.

If we think about what is needed for the viable birth of science, we see first of all that it needs a fairly well-developed society, so that some of its members can spend most of their time just thinking about the world, without the constant preoccupation of finding the next meal. It needs some simple technology, so that the apparatus required for experiments can be constructed. There must also be a system of writing, so that the results can be recorded and sent to other scientists, and a mathematical notation for expressing the results of measurements in numerical form. These may be called the material necessities of science. Since they may be found to a greater or lesser degree in most of the major civilisations of antiquity, we must look elsewhere for the answer to our question about the unique birth of science.

If the answer does not lie in the material conditions, we must seek it in the realm of ideas. Is it not possible that whether science develops or not depends on the attitude of the people to the material world? We can imagine that certain attitudes would prevent anyone thinking about the world in a way likely to lead to a scientific understanding, while others might at least provide a fertile soil for its growth. The type of thinking carried out in the early stages of science is done by people who share the ideas and beliefs of their civilisation. It is only later when science is well-established that specialised languages and modes of thought grow up and are taught to students and young scientists.

If we think about science and the attitudes that are likely to help its growth we can see first of all that it is essential for people to be interested in the material world. This implies that they must believe in some sense that it is good, so that it is worthwhile and respectable to try to find out more about it. Some people have thought that matter is evil, and that we must have as little to do with it as possible. Some early mystery cults taught that the world is evil and transitory, so that perfection may be attained only by turning away from the things of this world towards the eternal spiritual realm. If you believe that, then there is no possibility at all that you will become a scientist.

Another essential belief is that matter is orderly, that it behaves in a consistent and rational way. This means that if we observe and measure something one day, we will get the same results if we do the same thing on another day, or at another place. If we did not get the same results, if things behaved in a chaotic or random way, it would be impossible to build up a body of knowledge and science would be impossible. Unless we believe that there is an order in nature we will never take the trouble to find out what it is.

Concerning the order in nature, there are two possibilities. We may believe that the order in nature is a necessary order, that the material world could not be made in any way except the way it is in fact made. If we believed this, we might then think that the order of nature can be discovered by pure thought, that science can be developed in much the same way as mathematics. Many people have indeed tried this, and have not got very far; their speculations turn out in the end to be either trivial or wrong. We know that the only way to find out about the world is by controlled observation and experiment, and this is not encouraged if we believe that the order of the world is a necessary order.

The other possibility is that the order of the world is one of many possible ones. In other words we could assume that the order is contingent, that it depends on something else, that it could be other than it is. If we believe this, then the only way to ascertain that order is by observation and experiment, and thus the way is open for the development of science.

Another requirement for the development of science is the belief that the whole enterprise is a practicable one. We must believe that the order in nature is in some degree open to the human mind, that if we try hard enough we can discover some of its secrets. If the order in nature is hidden from the human mind, if there is no way of discovering it, then there is no point in trying to find it.

To sum up so far, we can see by considering the nature of science that it can grow in a civilisation in which the people believe that the world is good, or at least morally neutral, that it is rational and orderly, that it is contingent in the sense that it could be other than it is, and that it is apprehensible by the human mind.

These beliefs are essential, but they are not enough on their own. Scientific research is difficult, and nature does not readily yield its secrets. There needs to be a strong motivation to carry the scientist through all the failures and disappointments that inevitably come his way. Without this we might never get down to work, even though we recognised the theoretical possibility of attaining some knowledge of the world.

Another important characteristic of science is that it is a communal endeavour, the work of many minds. Every scientist builds on the work of his predecessors and shares his results with his colleagues. If scientists kept their results secret, the knowledge they gained would die with them and an extensive coherent body of knowledge would never be established. The scientist must therefore believe that whatever knowledge he gains is not his alone, but must be shared with the whole community.

These are the main beliefs that must be held by the whole community before science can even begin. They need not be held consciously and explicitly, in the sense that they could write them down in an orderly list. Many of them are usually held unconsciously or implicitly. They are to us so obvious that we would never even think of formulating them. They are part of the very fabric of our thought and form the way we look at the world.

Yet when we do think about them we realise that they constitute a very special set of beliefs that is by no means universal in human history, In fact if we examine the beliefs of past civilisations we find that many of them are quite different from those that we have seen are essential for the development of science. The very special set of beliefs about the material world that is needed for the growth of science did exist in Europe in the seventeenth century and this is why science as we know it developed at that time. But what is the origin of those beliefs, and why were they present at that time? To answer this questions we must go back to the beginnings of our civilisation.

2.3 Israel

The beginnings of civilisation are to be found in the Near East, in the fertile crescent stretching in a great arc from the Tigris and Euphrates to the Nile. It was dominated by the powerful civilisations of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria. The monuments remaining today fill us with awe, but they give us only a small indication of their power. In their midst was a small and apparently insignificant tribe, the Israelites, with Jerusalem as their holy city.

The Israelites were powerless against their great neighbours. Time and again they were defeated and taken captive. They were exiled to Egypt around 1220 BC and eventually led out by Moses. Centuries later, their city was destroyed and they were dragged off again to captivity in Babylon (586-538 BC).

By the waters of Babylon I sat down and wept,
When I remembered thee, O Sion.

After forty years they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt their Temple, only to be conquered again and their temple destroyed.

What distinguished the Israelites from their powerful neighbours was their beliefs. The Babylonians bowed down to Marduk and the Egyptians worshipped Amon. Complicated and confused creation myths with many gods fighting each other were developed to account for the origin of the world. In stark contrast, the Israelites affirmed their belief in one supreme transcendent personal God, who made everything and who guides and governs our lives. Throughout their exiles they remained faithful to their God, and each time He brought them home. They did indeed have periods of decline, when they built idols themselves, but eventually they repented and were forgiven. Throughout all their trials and tribulations they kept their identity, and their influence shaped a world where the power of Babylon, Egypt and Assyria is but a memory.

Their sacred books express their belief in a transcendent creator in matchless style. In His reply to Job, Yahweh asks:

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?
  Tell me, since you are so well-informed!
Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?
  Or who stretched the measuring line across it?

The heroic mother of the seven martyred brothers in Maccabees likewise expressed this belief when she exhorted her last son to stand firm and willingly share the fate of his brothers: 'I implore you, my child, observe heaven and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made them out of what did not exist, and that mankind comes into being in the same way.'

The book of Genesis bears witness to the same belief from its opening phrase: 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' In contrast to the confusing and complicated creation stories of surrounding civilisations, the creation story in Genesis has a clear logical structure, expressed in poetic form. It clearly expresses belief in the absolute sovereignty, rationality and benevolence of God who brings all things into being by His command and communicates His own goodness to them. Although not expressed in modern language, it contains essential beliefs about the world that must be held if science is to flourish.

The earliest psalms tell how God made the world and prepared it for man. He sets the heavens, the moon and the stars in their places and makes man the ruler over His works. The heavens show forth not only His glory, but also His lawfulness. The same law shows man the path to happiness and gives him confidence about his place in the world. This confidence is the one of the bases of science:

Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me every day of my life;
My home, the house of Yahweh, as long as I live.

So the whole world is the house of Yahweh; it is a good world, where we can live in peace, provided that we keep God's commandments. Those are specified in Psalm 24: to avoid lies and not to pay homage to worthless things.

The Israelites were secure in their beliefs, but were surrounded by unbelief. The Egyptians and Assyrians hoped to sway their idols by sacrifices, but the God of the Israelites was far above such things. When they fell into idolatry, they were recalled by Isaiah and by Jeremiah.

The Israelites emerged from the Babylonian captivity with their faith stronger than ever. The Babylonian idols were ridiculed by Isaiah, and the power of Yahweh described in a way that has no counterpart in any other ancient literature:

Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion.
Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem.
Shout without fear; say to the towns of Judah,
'Here is your God.'
Here is the Lord Yahweh coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him.
Who was it who measured the water of the sea in the hollow of his hand,
and calculated the dimensions of the heavens,
gauged the whole earth to the bushel,
weighed the mountains in scales, the hills in a balance.

The first chapter of Genesis, despite its apparent simplicity, is highly structured to express very clearly the rationality of the universe and the absolute power of God who brings all things into existence simply by His command. His goodness is simply stated, without any argument or justification.

Man, and only man, is said to be made in the image of God, whereas other creation stories show pantheistic tendencies. Man is given the mandate to 'multiply, fill the earth and conquer it' and to be 'masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth'.

Confidence in the goodness of creation shines forth from the Psalms:

You visit the earth and water it, you load it with riches;
God's rivers brim with water to provide the grain.

It is this same confidence that underlies the scientific endeavour.

While we find in the Old Testament the essential truths about the relations of God, man and nature, it is a mistake to seek a close correspondence with the latest scientific results. St. Augustine remarked that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. We should therefore not expect the Bible to teach us any matters relating to science, or to mathematics. There have been many attempts by concordists to relate the creation story in Genesis with what we know from science about the evolution of the universe. These are fundamentally misconceived, and are liable to be made ridiculous by the advance of science. It is evidently not possible to analyse Genesis in a scientifically satisfactory way as a temporal sequence: how, for example, can the planets exist prior to the sun?

2.4 Christianity

The birth of Christ is universally recognised as a watershed in human history. Whatever one thinks of Christ, there is no denying that this poor carpenter from Nazareth, a small village in a minor province of the mighty Roman empire, who formed a group of itinerant preachers and taught for a few years before being disgraced and killed, had more effect on history than any other man, before or since. Whitehead has spoken of the two most momentous events in human history: the birth of science and the birth of a babe in Bethlehem, and the connection between them is stronger than is generally realised.

Christ was not concerned to teach science, but inherent in his teaching is a set of beliefs about the natural world that eventually led to the first viable birth of science in the High Middle Ages, and to its subsequent flowering in the Renaissance. The foundations of these beliefs were revealed to the Israelites, in particular the belief in the rationality of the world, which was ordered by its Creator 'in measure, number and weight', the most frequently-quoted Biblical phrase in medieval times.

The Biblical teaching on creation was reinforced and extended by the teaching of Christ. The Christian belief concerning creation emphasises not only that the universe was created by God out of nothing and in time, but also that the universe is totally dependent on God and totally distinct from God. The universe at any instant is sustained in being by God, and without this sustaining power it would immediately lapse into nothingness.

In the early Christian centuries there were passionate debates about the nature of Christ, and heresies abounded. To define the true nature of Christ was the task of a series of Councils of the Church, and of these the Council of Nicea in 325 formulated the creed that is widely held today:

'Credo in unum Deum. Patrem omnipotentum, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de luminae, Deum verum de Deum vero. Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri; per quem omnia facta sunt . . .'

It is easy to recite those hallowed phrases without fully realising their impact, and still more their importance for science. The beginning of the Nicene creed asserts the creation of the universe by God: 'Factorem coeli et terrae'. One of the early heresies was pantheism that failed to distinguish between God and His creation, holding that it is in some way part of God. In the Greco-Roman world the universe was thought of as an emanation from a divine principle that is not distinguished from the universe. Pantheism is explicitly excluded by the Nicene creed when it says that Christ is the only-begotten Son of God. Christ is begotten, not made. Only Christ was begotten and thus shared in the substance of God; the universe was made, not begotten. ('Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum . . . Genitum, non factum'). Since pantheism was one of the beliefs preventing the rise of science in all ancient cultures, the Nicene creed prepared the way for the one viable birth of science in human history.

Many ancient cosmologies held that the world is a battleground between the spirits of good and evil. This dualism is inimical to science because it makes the world unpredictable. Dualism is excluded by the Nicene creed when it says that all creation takes place through Christ ('per quem omnia facta sunt').

Inherent in the Christian doctrine of creation is the belief that God freely chose to create the universe. He was not in any way constrained either to create or not to create it in the way that He did. It is therefore not a necessary universe in the sense that it had to be created or could not have been created otherwise. There is therefore no possibility of finding out about the universe by pure thought or by a priori reasoning. We can only hope to understand it by studying it and by making experiments. Thus the Christian doctrine of creation encouraged the experimental method, essential for the development of science.

All ancient cultures held a cyclic view of the world, and this was one of the beliefs that hindered the development of science. This cyclic pessimism was decisively broken by the belief in the unique Incarnation of Christ; thereafter time and history became linear, with a beginning and an end.

The theological disputes of the early Christian centuries seem a long way away, but they were of decisive importance for subsequent history. Who now has heard of the Valentinians, the Marcosians, the Nicolaitans, the Encratites, the Borbonians, the Ophites or the Sethians, to list but a few? More have heard of the Arians, a heresy still prevalent today. Arius and his followers were prepared to accept monogenes, but consubstantial was unacceptable because it is not to be found in Scripture. If the young deacon Athanasius had not prevailed against them, Christianity would have been completely destroyed.

In his epistle to the Collossians, St Paul says that in Christ all things took their being, and were all created through him and in him. He stressed Christ as the divine logos and the consequence that the creation must be fully logical and orderly.

2.5 The Early Christian Centuries

During the early years of the Church there were few studies of the physical theory of nature. The physics of Aristotle received little attention and the prevailing view of the universe was that of Plato. Plato distinguished between the stable and eternal ideas that constitute the essential structure of a thing, and the matter that together with the form constitutes the thing itself. The eternal ideas are produced by their numerical structure, so mathematics is intimately related to all physical phenomena. Thus for Plato, mathematics is essential for the study of nature. The early Christians, and especially the Fathers of the Church, saw Plato's forms as eternal ideas in the mind of the Creator. Plato's cosmology was used by the Fathers of the Church, and later by Augustine, in their commentaries on creation. Some of the works of the Greeks were translated by Boethius (c475-524), in particular Euclid's Elements and Plato's Timaeus, but it was not until the twelfth century that Aristotle's writings on science and scientific methodology became generally available in the West.

Many early Christian thinkers studied the natural world and wrote about it in the context of their beliefs. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) encouraged the systematic study of the natural world, since he believed that its sacramental nature is symbolic of spiritual truths. He was a compulsive observer of a wide range of natural phenomena, always on the lookout for anything that gives even a fleeting glimpse of the Reason that he believed lies behind all things. He was interested in nature primarily because it reveals God to the attentive observer. His philosophical reflections on the nature of time are still quoted as among the most profound ever written.

In the early sixth century John Philoponus, a Christian Platonist who lived in Alexandria, wrote extensively on the material world, showing the influence of Christian beliefs on those of the surrounding pagan world, particularly those derived from ancient Greece. He commented extensively on Aristotle, whom he greatly admired, but when the teaching of Aristotle was contrary to Christian belief he did not hesitate to differ from it. This was particularly important in his commentary on Aristotle's physics where he said, contrary to Aristotle, that all bodies would fall in a vacuum at the same speed, irrespective of their weight, and that projectiles move through the air not due to the motion of the air but because they were initially given a certain quantity of motion. This is a remarkable anticipation of ideas normally associated with Galileo, and shows a decisive break with Aristotelian physics. He was not the first writer in antiquity to break with Aristotle, but he did so more clearly and decisively.

The connection between his rejection of Aristotelian ideas and his Christian beliefs is to be found in the doctrine of creation. Addressing the question of motion, he asked 'could not the sun, moon and the stars be not given by God, their Creator, a certain kinetic force, in the same way as heavy and light things were given their trend to move?' He also believed that the stars are not made of the ether but of ordinary matter, thus rejecting Aristotle's distinction between celestial and terrestrial matter.

This shows very clearly that the Christian beliefs about the world are incompatible with the Aristotelian views on the divinity of celestial matter and the eternity of motion. It was a thus inevitable that the spread of Christianity should lead eventually to the destruction of Aristotelian physics, thus opening the way to modern science. This is not to say, however, that Christian beliefs give any specific guidelines for the development of science. Nevertheless, the removal of obstacles is by itself no small service.

Philoponus was also the first to say that Genesis was written for spiritual and not for scientific instruction, a wise statement that was too far in advance of its time to be congenial to contemporary theologians. This theological boldness perhaps explains why Philoponus' ideas did not lead to further scientific developments. His ideas on motion are remarkably similar to those of Buridan and Oresme in the High Middle Ages, which did succeed in initiating the scientific enterprise. To be fruitful, ideas have not only to be right, but they need to fall on fertile ground, in this case a society sufficiently developed to make full use of them. This was lacking for Philoponus, but not in the High Middle Ages. There has been some speculation about whether the ideas of Philoponus were known to Buridan, but nothing seems to be established definitely on this question.

We are now on the threshold of the decisive breakthrough that led eventually to the rise of modern science. This will be described in the next chapter.


S.L. Jaki, The Saviour of Science. Regnerey Gateway, 1988.

S.L. Jaki, Genesis 1 Through the Ages. Thomas More Press, 1992.


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