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Is the Bible more like Plato's or Copernicus' books?

The Bible, some critics of Judeo-Christian theism like to say, is little more than a collection of fairy tales told by illiterate Bronze Age goat herders. Why, they ask, should we orient our lives by the teachings of such ignorant and primitive men?

That’s cute, and rhetorically effective. And, even though it’s not precisely accurate — David, for instance, began as a shepherd but died a king and was clearly a talented poet; Isaiah was a highly educated man with connections to Jerusalem’s royal court; Paul was an urbane Roman citizen, steeped in both Jewish lore and Greek literature — it raises a serious question: Can anything valuable be gleaned from reading old books?

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Jesuit astronomer who directs the Vatican’s observatories in Italy and Arizona, addressed this topic at last weekend’s Interpreter Foundation conference on science and Mormonism. After describing the foundational importance of Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1543 book “De revolutionibus” to our modern understanding of the solar system, he turned to a fellow planetary scientist in the audience and asked whether she had read it. She admitted that she hadn’t. Next, he asked a philosopher sitting in the audience whether he had read Plato’s “Republic.” He had.

Brother Guy (as he likes to be called) then explained that the difference in the answers didn’t mean that the philosopher was a good scholar while his planetary scientist colleague was a bad one. Instead, it indicated that the two fields are very different, and that the roles of older books in them are fundamentally distinct.

Old books in chemistry and biology are soon scientifically obsolete. Even if they were once pivotally important, their continuing significance, if they have any, is merely historical. Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” is still read for its literary qualities and its historical value, but it’s no longer studied as a guide to evolutionary biology. Nobody reads Ptolemy’s “Almagest” or Isaac Newton’s “Principia” in order to understand modern astronomy and physics.

Some critics of religious belief say that this demonstrates that science is superior to religion, because it makes progress while religion doesn’t.

But science, one might argue, makes quantifiable progress only because it addresses rather narrowly defined (and often quantifiable) topics. Many other fields — art, literature, ethics and philosophy, for instance — can’t really be said to “progress” in the sense that astrophysics plainly has. But that scarcely means that they’re worthless. Few would seriously argue that Danielle Steel is a greater author than Shakespeare simply because she writes in the 21st century while he died in the early 17th. Works by Homer, Virgil, Dante and John Milton are still well worth reading.

Old books remain directly relevant in many fields. Courses in political theory routinely begin with Plato’s “Republic”; courses on literary and ethical theory commonly commence, respectively, with the “Poetics” and the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle.

Brother Guy contended that, in important ways, the Bible resembles Plato’s “Republic” more than it does the great treatise by Copernicus. But he made another essential point, as well: When a new scientific theory replaces an older one, it doesn’t necessarily throw out the data that accompanied the older one. Although older data might be replaced by newer observations, new theories often simply interpret the original data differently. Copernicus and Johannes Kepler were able to make better sense of much of the same data that Ptolemy and later Tycho Brahe had used in their own sun-centered models of the universe. Thucydides and Tacitus remain essential sources for classical Greek and Roman history, even if our interpretations differ from theirs.

Thus, while, on the whole, we no longer understand the physical universe as ancient biblical authors did — like everybody else in pre-modern times, they were unaware of galaxies, subatomic particles and DNA — we don’t really read the Bible to learn about science. As Galileo commented, citing “an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree” in his 1615 “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” “the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

The Bible isn’t a textbook of organic chemistry, genetics or stellar evolution, and it shouldn’t be read as such. It is, however, a record of encounters with the divine, and, most vitally, of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like the historical accounts of Tacitus, Plutarch and Thucydides, it remains significant as a historical source. But its data concern issues that are much more important than the intrigues, wars and schemes of ancient politicians.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.