Jewish Scholar Examines Bible in Science-Religion Debate

Story posted October 31, 2008

By Birgitta Polson '09

The creation story in the book of Genesis is often at the center of current debates about religion and evolution. The text provides views about how the world came into being that, to some people, seem to be fundamentally opposed to modern theories of evolution.

According to noted Judaic scholar <>Jon D. Levenson, however, such fixed interpretations may be short-sighted. "It's wrong to read [Genesis] as a history book," said Levenson, adding, "to do so will ignore the problem of cultural translation." Instead, he suggested, people should consider how the idea of creation functions within a particular culture.

Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, made his remarks before a diverse audience of scholars, students, and community members at a Bowdoin symposium on "Faith, Reason and Evolution," on Oct. 23, 2008. His was the first in a series of three lectures that will be part of the public symposium.

Levenson's talk, titled "Genesis and the Creation of the World," encouraged people to rethink how they read and interpret Genesis 1. He focused on the different textual traditions that precede Genesis-pulling passages from various other parts of the Bible and asking his audience to read along with him - in an effort to show how these traditions shaped the creation story in Genesis

Ultimately, he said, concepts of creation that come from a specifically religious context are inherently different than what can be explained by a modern, scientific accounts of the world.

Levenson's afternoon lecture attracted well over one hundred fifty people and was the springboard for an engaging public forum that followed his lecture that evening.

"I thought it was valuable that people were exposed to a Jewish reading of Genesis," noted Associate Professor of History Dallas Denery, one of the symposium organizers. "For Christians, Genesis is a Christian book, but, as Levenson suggested, there are many other ways to read the text. For anyone who is going to approach the often thorny questions of creation and evolution, it is first crucial to understand this argument."

"Faith, Reason and Evolution: A Public Colloquium" is sponsored by the Bowdoin College departments of Biology, History, Philosophy, and Religion. The series is intended to offer a thoughtful environment for sharing a wide view of ideas and viewpoints about creation and evolution.

The second talk and symposium in the series will take place on Friday, November 7 at 4 p.m. in Cleaveland 151. The speaker is Patrick H. Byrne, a professor specializing in the philosophy of science and 20th century theology at Boston College. His address is titled, "Why Do People Think Science and Faith Are Incompatible?" A public symposium will follow at 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium.

The third and final talk, "Religion and Evolution," takes place Friday, November 14 at 14 p.m. in Cleaveland 151. Pulitzer-prize winning author Edward Humes will give a talk titled, "Talk Radio Evolution: The War on Science and the Second Coming of Scopes." The public forum, which takes place a 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium, will investigate the social and political background behind recent efforts to introduce creationism and intelligent design into high school curriculums.

All events connected with "Faith, Reason and Evolution: A Public Colloquium" are free and open to the public. For more information, call (207) 725-3582.


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