Science and faith

Do the Bible and modern science tackle similar questions? Christopher Howse offers this insightful examination of faith and the scientific method in The Spectator.




The Serpent’s Promise, by Steve Jones (Little, Brown)

The weight of bacteria that each of us carries around is equal to that of our brain, a kilogram of the creatures, billions of them, ten times as many in the gut alone as the number of human cells in the body. There could be 10,000 distinct kinds, with a different community on the forehead from that on the sole. There are fewer kinds in the mouth or stomach than at the back of the knee, which has a more diverse population than any other part. This is surprising and interesting, and we would like to know more about this teeming personal nature reserve.

The intestinal appendix, Steve Jones explains, ‘once assumed to have no useful role’, acts as a reservoir from which, in the event of an attack on the internal ecosystem by aggressive bacteria, useful cells can emerge once the coast is clear. I knew I shouldn’t have let a surgeon make off with my appendix, but science knew best. The connection with the Bible here is that a bacterium (of the kind that causes leprosy) was found in the shroud of a man buried in the first century in Jerusalem, at Haceldama, the ‘Field of Blood’ mentioned in the Gospel.

‘In biblical times that disease was feared above all others,’ Professor Jones says. Is that true? There are two chapters in Leviticus that go into bewildering detail about the signs of leprosy. There is the separate case of the Syrian Naaman, cured of leprosy by Elisha. Then there are the lepers cured by Jesus. There is no talk in the Bible of the disease being feared. In any case ‘the leprosy of Leviticus might not have been the malady we now know by that name,’ the author says.

‘The biblical version was probably a complex of skin infections such as ringworm, psoriasis and boils.’ In which case, the Haceldama discovery would be something of a side-issue. At the root of Professor Jones’s attitude to the leprosy of Leviticus lies a comical misunderstanding. ‘Leviticus,’ he declares, ‘is obsessed with hygiene.’ He writes as if the ancient Israelites washed in order to get rid of the germs of a nasty disease. But the Levitical concept of clean and unclean had nothing to do with contagion from germs. Anyone would be made unclean by touching a woman in her period or by emitting semen, and there was no fear of disease in either.

The Israelites were also forbidden to wear clothes woven of linen and wool together and, unlike the loony theories of Bernard Shaw and the scientistic advocates of Jaeger clothing, this had nothing to do with health. What it did have to do with is hardly for an experimental scientist to say, unless he recognises anthropology as a valid discipline of study. Orifices, body-fluids and food are commonly used as ritual metaphors in religious practice. It was hard luck on the lepers that, as their disease was regarded as a symbol of an impure society, they had to live outside the camp. Not that Judaism alone cast out lepers: hundreds, Professor Jones notes, ‘were shut away against their will’ into the 1990s in Japan.

The fatal flaw of The Serpent’s Promise is that it is not, as its subtitle says, The Bible retold as science’. Biblical ‘questions asked long ago can be explored with the latest technology’, writes the respected geneticist and Daily Telegraph columnist. ‘This volume is an attempt to do just that...’

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CAPTION:  The Cleansing of Naaman by Elisha. Woodcut from the Biblia Sacra Germanaica, Google images