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Creatio ex nihilo in Palestinian Judaism and Early Christianity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2012

Markus Bockmuehl*
Keble College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PG,


Recent decades have witnessed a near-consensus of critical opinion (1) that the idea of God's creation of matter ‘out of nothing’ is not affirmed in scripture, but instead (2) originated in a second-century Christian reaction against Gnosticism's convictions about matter as evil and creation as the work of an inferior Demiurge. (3) Judaism's interest, by contrast, was generally deemed late and philosophically derivative or epiphenomenal upon Christian ideas. This essay re-examines all three convictions with particular reference to the biblical creation accounts in Palestinian Jewish reception. After highlighting certain interpretative features in the ancient versions of Genesis 1, this study explores the reception of such ideas in texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature. It is clear that the typically cited proof texts from biblical or deutero-canonical books indeed do not yield clear confirmation of the doctrine they have sometimes been said to prove. Genesis was understood even in antiquity to be somewhat ambiguous on this point, and merely to say that creation gave shape to formlessness need not entail any creatio ex nihilo. This much seems uncontroversial. Nevertheless, closer examination also shows that the Scrolls and the rabbis do consistently affirm Israel's God as the creator of all things, explicitly including matter itself. Graeco-Roman antiquity axiomatically accepted that ‘nothing comes from nothing’, which also meant the pre-existence of matter. To be sure, the conceptual terminology of ‘nothingness’ came relatively late to Christians, and even later to Jews. Yet the substantive concern for God's free creation of the world without recourse to pre-existing matter is repeatedly affirmed in pre-Christian Jewish texts, and constitutes perhaps the single most important building block for the emergence of an explicit doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’. In its Jewish and Christian origins, therefore, the idea of creatio ex nihilo affirms creation's comprehensive contingency on the Creator's sovereignty and freedom. This in fact is a point which has been rightly and repeatedly accented in both historic and modern Christian theology on this subject (e.g. by K. Barth and E. Brunner, J. Moltmann and C. Gunton). Well before its explicit articulation in dialogue with Hellenistic philosophy, the doctrine of God's creation of all matter was rooted in biblical texts and their Jewish interpretation, which in turn came to be refined and enriched through Christian–Jewish dialogue and controversy.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012

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1 This article originated in a focused project on the meaning and theological significance of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, part of an ongoing small annual working group with scholars from a variety of institutions including Notre Dame and Southern Methodist Universities, Princeton and Fuller Seminaries. I am grateful for feedback and suggestions to friends and colleagues in that group as well as in audiences at the 2010 British Association for Jewish Studies conference in Southampton and at the Systematic Theology seminar in the University of St Andrews (2010).

2 Ταῦτα δὲ ἐγένετο μὲν οὐδέποτε, ἔστι δὲ ἀεί· καὶ ὁ μὲν νοῦς ἅμα πάντα ὁρᾷ, ὁ δὲ λόγος τὰ μὲν πρῶτα τὰ δὲ δεύτερα λέγει. Sallustius, De Dis et Mundo 4.9, ed. G. Rochefort, Saloustios: Des dieux et du monde, Collection des universités de France (Paris: Société d’édition Les Belles Lettres, 1960).

3 Heraclitus of Alexandria, Homeric Questions 1.1: πάντα γὰρ σέβησεν, εἰ μηδὲν λληγόρησεν.

4 See e.g. Plutarch, De Animae procreatione in Timaeo 1014B: οὐ γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἡ γένεσις ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ μὴ καλῶς μηδ’ ἱκανῶς ἔχοντος, also quoted by Young, Frances M., ‘“Creatio ex Nihilo”: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991), pp. 139–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 ‘Creatio ex Nihilo’, p. 139.

6 John C. O'Neill, ‘How Early is the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo?’, Journal of Theological Studies (2002), p. 454, suggests, perhaps a little too strongly, that putting Gen 1:1 first ‘converts the old mythology into a statement of creatio ex nihilo’.

7 So e.g. Justin, 1 Apol. 110.2; Athenagoras and the anonymous De Resurrectione; cf. Wisdom 11.17 (κτίσασα τὸν κόσμον ἐξ ἀμόρφου ὕλης). See further e.g. May, Gerhard, Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 120–39Google Scholar.

8 References cited in Copan, Paul, ‘Is Creatio Ex Nihilo a Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination of Gerhard May's Proposal’, Trinity Journal 17 (1996), p. 83Google Scholar, nn. 29–32; I am also indebted to an unpublished paper by J. Ross Wagner, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo in Hellenistic Judaism’ (Notre Dame, 2010).

9 So, famously, Lucretius De Rerum Natura 1.149–50 (nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus umquam), following Parmenides ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος οὐδὲν γίνεται (cited e.g. in Philo Aet. 5; Aristotle, Metaph. 11.6 (1026B)). Note also Persius 3.83–4, in an anti-Epicurean taunt.

10 Young, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo’, p. 139.

11 Winston, David, ‘The Book of Wisdom's Theory of Cosmogony’, History of Religions 11 (1971), pp. 185202CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited: A Reply to Jonathan Goldstein’, Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (1986), pp. 88–91; May, Creatio ex Nihilo, pp. 6–26.

12 So e.g. Löhr, Winrich A., Basilides und seine Schule: Eine Studie zur Theologie und Kirchengeschichte des zweiten Jahrhunderts, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 83 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), p. 314 and n. 110Google Scholar questioning May's appropriation of secondary phraseology in Clement of Alexandria. Cf. previously Young, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo’, pp. 147–8; See also Stead, G. C., review of Gerhard May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts: Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1978)Google Scholar, Journal of Theological Studies ns 30 (1978), p. 548, who suggested that first-century bc ‘scraps’ of philosophical evidence for the existence of such a doctrine can in fact be found in Eudorus and Cicero.

13 May, Creatio ex Nihilo, p. 24. This latter point too has been staunchly challenged, e.g. in McDonough, Sean M., Christ as Creator: Origins of a New Testament Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Contrast e.g. James D. G. Dunn, Romans, Word Biblical Commentary 38 (2 vols. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988), vol. 1, p. 218, on Rom 4:17, who assumes this text, like passages in Philo (Opif. 81; Leg. All. 3:10; Migr. 183; Heres 36; Mut. 46; Som. 1:76; Mos. 2:100, 267; Spec. Leg. 4:187) and Jewish apocryphal literature (Joseph and Aseneth 12:2; 2 Baruch 21:4; 48:8; 2 Enoch 24:2; Ap. Const. 8.12.7) to be straightforwardly about creatio ex nihilo.

15 Key passages in the Hebrew Bible include Gen 1, Isa 44:24, Prov 8:22–6 and perhaps Ps 33:6, 9. While these texts may be judged consonant with a notion of creatio ex nihilo, they do not in my view establish such a notion and were not judged by pre-Christian readers to do so.

16 We thereby also usefully bracket out several customarily cited but relatively fleeting ‘hot-button’ proof texts – including the Jewish 2 Macc 7:28 (οὐκ ἐξ ὄντων ἐποίησεν αὐτὰ ὁ θεός) and Wisdom 1:14, along with more doubtfully classifiable ones like Joseph and Asenath 12:1–2; 2 Baruch 48:8; Shepherd of Hermas (Mand. 1.1; Vis. 1.1.6); Odes of Solomon 16:18–19; Apostolic Constitutions 8.12.7. Suffice it to say that some (like O'Neill, ‘How Early is the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo?’, with a pedigree reaching back to Origen on 2 Macc 7:28 in Joh. 1.17.103; Princ. 2.1.5) regard these texts as ‘slam dunk’ evidence while others (including the present writer) consider them to illustrate what May calls ‘factors tending to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in Judaism’ (May, Creatio ex Nihilo, p. 21). For Philo of Alexandria's views see, in addition to May, Sterling, Gregory E., ‘Creatio Temporalis, Aeterna, vel Continua? An Analysis of the Thought of Philo of Alexandria’, Studia Philonica Annual 4 (1992), pp. 1541Google Scholar.

17 See Kister, Menahem, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu, Primordial Elements and Creatio ex Nihilo’, Jewish Studies Quarterly 14 (2007), pp. 229–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Pace Pelikan, Jaroslav, What has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 48Google Scholar, the LXX choice to render ארב ‘to create’ by ποιέω (rather than e.g. κτίζω) is not in my view among the more interesting of these ambiguities; nor is the supposedly unique divine subject of ארב (which does in fact repeatedly take a human subject in the piel and hiphil).

18 Hayman, A. Peter, Sefer Yesira: Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary, TSAJ (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), pp. 35–6Google Scholar, demonstrates text-critical emendations of Sefer Yetzirah in the direction of creatio ex nihilo, preferring the use of ארב to בצח and רצי. This is most striking in the case of Qoh 7:14, substituting ארב for the MT's השע (para. 60; contrast para. 48a).

19 Similarly R. Yehudah bar Ilai is cited as saying that the word םארבהב in Gen 2:4 should be interpreted not ‘when he created them’ (be-hibar'am) but ‘by the letter he [sc. of his divine name YaH] he created them’ (be-He bar'am), leaving the yod of the divine name to be the letter by which he creates the world to come (b. Men. 29b).

20 Variants in Neofiti and Fragment Targum MSS attest readings including אתמכוחב/המכחב/ ןימדקלמ for the first word of the Pentateuch; some Neofiti MSS further insert ללכשו ‘and formed’ after ארב ‘he created’, as if to underline that both generation and formation are in view.

21 Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’; contrast more critically Niehoff, Maren, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis’, Harvard Theological Review 99 (2006), p. 44 and n. 35CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For further discussion see also Alexander, Philip S., ‘“In the Beginning”: Rabbinic and Patristic Exegesis of Genesis 1:1’, in Grypeou, Emmanouela and Spurling, Helen (eds), The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 129Google Scholar.

22 Cf. also Veltri, Giuseppe, Eine Tora für den König Talmai: Untersuchungen zum Übersetzungsverständnis in der jüdisch-hellenistischen und rabbinischen Literatur, TSAJ 41 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1994), pp. 30–1Google Scholar, on this material. He comments that the rabbis tend to side with the LXX translation.

23 Gen. Rab. 1.10.

24 As when he makes clay birds to fly by speaking the ineffable Name over them (Infancy Gospel of Thomas A 2.3; Qur'an 5.110; Toledot Yeshu, etc.)

25 Alexander, ‘In the Beginning’, pp. 14–17.

26 Cf. Bauks, Michaela, Die Welt am Anfang: Zum Verhältnis von Vorwelt und Weltentstehung in Gen 1 und in der altorientalischen Literatur, Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1997), pp. 1433Google Scholar. Taken in isolation, texts like Pss 74 or 29 do arguably suggest hints of creation as a matter of Chaoskampf, but in the canonical frame this is relativised by Gen 1, including e.g. its affirmation that the sea monsters (tanninim) of Ps 74 are themselves created on Day 5 (Gen 1:21).

27 Charlotte Hempel has argued that the S manuscripts should perhaps be seen not as successive variants on a base text but as attesting a formative document in continual flux and development (Seminar paper on the Tolerance of Textual Diversity at Qumran, Oxford, 13 Oct. 2009).

28 1QS 3.15–16. DSS translations are adapted from Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (eds), The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (2 vols. Leiden/Grand Rapids: Brill/Eerdmans, 1997–8).

29 1QS 11.11, 17–18 = 4Q264 frg 1.4–6.

30 1QH 13.7–8, 10 (5.13–14, 16).

31 Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’, pp. 249–53 and passim.

32 Cf. b. B. Bat.16b; b. Qidd. 30b; b. Šab. 146a: God created both the Evil Desire and the Torah as its antidote; also (b. B. Bat. 74b; Nid. 22b) the sea monsters.

33 Levenson, Jon D., Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 47Google Scholar.

34 B. Ber. 32b.

35 Sa'adia, Sefer Emunot ve-Deot (Book of Beliefs and Opinions) 7.7: Sa'adia ben Joseph: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, ed. Samuel Rosenblatt, Yale Judaica Series (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976), cited in Goldstein, Jonathan A., ‘Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’, Journal of Jewish Studies 38 (1987), pp. 187–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. Bodendorfer, Gerhard and Millard, Matthias, Bibel und Midrasch: Zur Bedeutung der rabbinischen Exegese für die Bibelwissenschaft, Forschungen zum Alten Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998), p. 146, n. 86Google Scholar: Ramban is consistent in maintaining that bara’ always refers to creatio ex nihilo.

36 Genesis Rabbah 10.3. This is also a point well put in Niehoff, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo Theology’, p. 47.

37 See Limor, Ora and Stroumsa, Guy G., Contra Iudaeos: Ancient and Medieval Polemics between Christians and Jews, Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1996), p. 75Google Scholar, point out that an outsider like Eusebius praises the Hebrew account of creatio ex nihilo (Praep. Ev. 7.16–22).

38 B. Ned. 39b (Soncino trans.).

39 Goldstein, Jonathan A., ‘The Origins of the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo’, Journal of Jewish Studies 35 (1984), p. 129CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Note the critique of Winston, ‘Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited’ with the rebuttal (and partial self-correction) in Goldstein, ‘Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’. NB the same creation/bodily resurrection link continues to be made in later rabbinic thought: cf. Sysling, Harry, Tehiyyat ha-Metim: The Resurrection of the Dead in the Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch and Parallel Traditions in Classical Rabbinic Literature, Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1996), pp. 12Google Scholar. Cf. also 2 Bar. 21.2; 48.8.

40 As Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’, p. 245, puts it in relation to 2 Macc 7:28 and related texts, ‘the things are not considered existent before they are formed, but this does not necessarily mean that the author believed in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the strict sense’. Similar questions pertain to New Testament texts like John 1:3; Rom 4:17; Col 1:16; Heb 11:3.

41 So e.g. Hengel, Martin, Studien zur Christologie: Kleine Schriften IV, ed. Thornton, Claus-Jürgen, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 201 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), pp. 410–11Google Scholar.

42 Genesis Rabbah 1.9. Cf. the discussion in Goldstein, ‘Origins’; Winston, ‘Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited’; Goldstein, ‘Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’; Niehoff, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo Theology’; Kister, ‘Tohu wa-Bohu’. Young, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo’ mentions the text but dismisses its relevance fairly summarily.

43 See Niehoff, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo Theology’, p. 46 (citing Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period, 2nd edn, Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targum (Ramat Gan/Baltimore, MD: Bar Ilan University Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 355), p. 48 on the late expression ‘may that man perish’ (הרבג אוהד החור הפת).

44 So e.g. Niehoff, ‘Creatio ex Nihilo Theology’, pp. 48–9. Bidirectional influence on Christian and Jewish exegesis is also affirmed e.g. in Herbert W. Basser, Studies in Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses, 70–300 C.E., The Brill Reference Library of Ancient Judaism 2 (Leiden/Boston, MA: Brill, 2000); also Kessler, Edward, Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for the extent of the ongoing relationships cf. e.g. Krauss, Samuel and Horbury, William, The Jewish-Christian Controversy: From the Earliest Times to 1789, TSAJ (Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1995)Google Scholar; Horbury, William, Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)Google Scholar; Stemberger, Günter, Jews and Christians in the Holy Land: Palestine in the Fourth Century (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000)Google Scholar.

45 Goldstein, ‘Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements’, p. 187, writes, ‘No known pre-rabbinic Jewish text can be proved to assert the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, though passages from scripture and Hellenistic Jewish literature are ambiguous enough to have had that meaning read into them by intelligent believers.’

46 Brunner, Emil, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Dogmatics 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1952), vol. 2, p. 10Google Scholar. Cf. Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology (3 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991–8), vol. 2, p. 14Google Scholar.

47 Cf. further Jenson, Robert W., Systematic Theology (2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 2.12 (citing Loci Communes 638): ‘“Before” there is the creature there is God and nothing. Nor is this nothing of the kind that can be the antecedent condition of something. God speaking is the creature's only antecedent condition: as Philip Melanchthon formulated, “When things were not, God spoke and they began to be.”’

48 Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 2.14. Moltmann famously and somewhat questionably draws on the kabbalistic notion (in Isaac Luria, 1534–72) of a divine tzimtzum (contraction) in order to allow for the womb-like Nothing out of which creation then ‘issues’ or emanates. See Moltmann, Jürgen, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation. The Gifford Lectures 1984–1985 (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 86–8Google Scholar.

49 Gunton, Colin E., ‘The Doctrine of Creation’, in Gunton, Colin E. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 141–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 The vital role of Christ as the Word or reshit in this creatio ex nihilo has been stressed by a variety of modern theologians including T. F. Torrance (who in reliance on Athanasius regards the homoousion as the key to this doctrine): cf. the discussion in Luoma, Tapio, Incarnation and Physics: Natural Science in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance, American Academy of Religion Academy Series (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 44–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 143–7. Note also McDonough, Christ as Creator.

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