Re: [asa] Concept of "nature" and "natural" in the ancient world?

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 03:57:25 EDT

Hi, Christine!

There actually is no word in Biblical Hebrew for "nature", and the concept
does come to us from the Greeks -- the Greek "physis" (whence physics,
physical, etc.) being generally rendered as "natura" (whence nature,
natural, etc.) in Latin.

At the risk of sounding unduly self-promoting, let me say that my book, *The
Bible, Baconianism, and Mastery over Nature: The Old Testament and its
Modern Misreading* deals at great length with the Hebraic idea of nature,
albeit mostly with reference to the Hebrew Bible, and with only a glancing
discussion of the New Testament. See the discussion on pp. 149 ff.,
beginning with:


"As many competent scholars have pointed out, the word 'nature' has no exact
equivalent in Biblical Hebrew. The King James translators of old were
sensitive to the fact: the English word 'nature' is absent from the
Authorized Version of the Old Testament. In fact, even the New Testament
shies away from the idea; though the Greek language has the word 'nature'
(physis), it is never used in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or
Revelation. To put these facts into the phrasing of many modern
theologians, one could say that 'nature' is not a 'Hebraic' concept. The
ancient Hebrew writers, therefore, would not have written of 'dominion over
nature'. For 'nature', they would have had to substitute other words."


So when one talks about "the Biblical idea of nature", one is speaking
loosely, meaning, "the Biblical writer's conception of that collectivity of
things and forces and events that we today would call 'nature'". And the
danger in trying to relate the Bible to our modern concerns is that we may
impose upon that collectivity a unity which it did not have for the Hebrew
writers, by thinking of it in terms of our unifying concept of "nature".

As for what Paul is doing in the few spots where he uses the word "nature",
I cannot say, because I have not carefully studied the passages. The only
general remark I would make is that Paul's metaphysical and anthropological
discussions are often both idiosyncratic and syncretistic. By the latter
term I mean that you will find in Paul a mixture of Hebraic and Hellenistic
ideas. I for one find that his co-ordination of those ideas leaves much to
be desired, with respect to both clarity and coherence. However, learned
commentaries on Paul will doubtless have some more or less useful
suggestions on how to sort out the tensions in his thought with reference to
Stoicism, Platonism, intertestamental literature, etc. You'll have to dig
into some of them. Perhaps George Murphy knows the most reliable scholarly
commentaries on Paul. I don't.

I for one find it significant that the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels manage
to convey their message without speaking of "nature". Much more could be
said about that, but I will leave it there.


P.S. Don't forget to consult the works of the great British scholar, Henry
Wheeler Robinson, a very learned Baptist who wrote a number of books and
articles touching on "nature" in the Bible, and who has some lengthy
discussions of the anthropology of St. Paul. Sometimes the oldest sources
are still among the best.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Christine Smith" <>
To: <>
Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 2:16 AM
Subject: [asa] Concept of "nature" and "natural" in the ancient world?

> Hi all,
> It wasn't until I studied the concept of "nature" in college that I really
> grasped how distinctively human a concept it is, and how our understanding
> of it can change over time. I've been pondering for awhile now how this
> plays a role in what Paul writes in Romans 1:26-27. What does Paul really
> mean when he refers to "natural" and "unnatural"? What did these concepts
> mean in the ancient world? Did they have a significantly different meaning
> or connotation than they do today? Looking up the words "Nature" and
> "natural" in blueletterbible, I noted that this term does not appear
> frequently, and is almost entirely confined to the New Testament. Were
> these Greek concepts in origin, rather than Hebrew? Anyone have any
> insights or knowledge of how the "nature" distinction was understood in
> the ancient world? Has anyone ever studied this before?
> Please note - I am *not* looking for a debate on Paul's views of
> homo**sexuality here. I am simply trying to understand the words and
> concepts being referenced here.
> Thanks ahead of time for your thoughts :)
> In Christ,
> Christine
> "For we walk by faith, not by sight" ~II Corinthians 5:7
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Received on Sun May 31 04:00:34 2009

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