I heard the other day that the literalist interpretation of biblical creation (A literal 7 day creation of the universe) isn't the classical historical interpretation that past Christians held. I was told that YEC was a relatively recent interpretation.

Meaning, has genesis historically been interpreted as figurative/metaphorical (and to what degree if so?) by past Christians?

If so, was YEC the default view? Were there "Old earth creationists" (or anyone who would be analogous to them) in the deep historic past?

On a side note, when did alternative non-literal interpretations of Genesis come about?

To be clear, this question is not the same as: Where does the belief that the Earth is relatively young (6000 years) come from?

Because I am asking about the origins of the doctrine itself, not seeking debate of the particularities of the doctrine and whether or not they are true.

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    I'd assume people wanted to reconcile their religious beliefs with the reality of the universe. If the Bible is supposed to be true, shouldn't God expose the truth in nature as well as in scripture?
    – Double U
    Feb 15, 2014 at 4:45
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    Many, perhaps most, doctrines only get clarified when there is a debate and dissenting position. YEC as a full-fledged movement is new, but only because OEC as a movement is new too. While you can find people for both positions all through Jewish and Christian history, the issue only became a major one in the 19th century.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 15, 2014 at 7:08
  • YEC doesn't only have to do with whether the days in Genesis are literally 24-hour days. It also has to do with adding up the years of all the genealogies and history of the Bible to see how long the world has been around since Adam. Hint: it doesn't add up to millions of years. Mar 24, 2014 at 23:42
  • Almost the same as this question: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/30111/11471
    – LCIII
    Jul 25, 2014 at 15:13
  • @LCIII: You mean "almost the opposite," right? :)
    – Flimzy
    Jul 25, 2014 at 20:54

2 Answers 2


If we go back to the earliest Christian teachers we will find a substantial focus on metaphorical and spiritual meanings of the Bible, more than maybe a modern Christian might expect. Roger Forster and Paul Marston write in "Reason and Faith" (Monarch, 1989):

In [the Church Fathers] there was, compared with today, a much greater emphasis on allegorical meaning of scripture. Thus, for example, Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 led many of them to take an allegorical interpretation of the 'days' in Genesis 1 to mean millenia. This view is expressed, for example, by Barnabas, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Methodius, Lactantius, Theophilus and John of Damascus.

That was not the universal view:

Basil specifically refers to 24 hour periods, yet later writes: "Whether you call it a 'day' or whether you call it 'eternity', you express the same idea.

Chrysostom, who appears to take the 'days' literally in his homilies, repeatedly emphasises that ideas are being given 'concreteness of expression' in Genesis 1-3, to help our 'limited human understanding'. Thus on the 'rib' used to form Eve, he writes: "Don't take the words in human fashion; rather interpret the concreteness of the expressions from the viewpoint of human limitations. You see, if he had not used these words, how would we have been able to gain knowledge of these mysteries, which defy description".

Origen writes (around 231 AD):

What man of intelligence, I ask, will consider it a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? And who could be found so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, 'planted trees in a paradise East of Eden'? ... And ... when God is said to 'walk in the paradise in the evening, ... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through semblance of history.

Augustine of Hippo writes:

Of what fashion these days were, it is either very hard or almost impossible to think, much more to speak. As for ordinary days, we see that they have no morning or evening but as the sun sets and rises. But the first three days had no sun, for that was made on the fourth day.

Augustine thought that the Genesis language reflected the Angelic perspective, which could know something either directly in God or in its later actual being.

The issue was not thought of as a crucial one to Christian belief.

The scientific evidence that pointed to an extremely old earth did not arise until the 18th century. This redating was not at the time generally taken as a 'disproof' of either Genesis or Christianity, and many of the scholars supporting it were Christian.

Significant Christian opposition to the geological dating did not arise until the early 20th century, with the Fundamentalism revival. Leading early exponents were George McReady price and Henry Morris. The Wikipedia article gives an excellent overview of the history.

  • There were plenty of theories that the universe was very old, perhaps even infinitely old, in ancient times. Some Egyptian writers traced lists of dynasties going back hundreds of thousands of years. These were considered just as "scientific" in their time as radiometric dating is considered today. Assuming we discount the Bible as evidence, I think it would be difficult to prove from historical evidence whether young Earth or old Earth theories came first.
    – Jay
    Feb 18, 2014 at 6:55
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    Nice answer! I'm sometimes surprised at how pervasive the fundamentalist movement has been...given it's relatively short existence.
    – user5286
    Feb 19, 2014 at 1:51
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    The fundamentalist movement, as I recall, was mostly a reaction against perceived "theological liberalism". Essentially, the "born in the wrong generation" folks. Never understood why it's so popular in US to the point where they conflate Americanised conservative Christianity with actual Biblical Christianity. Jun 22, 2019 at 9:36

The Wikipedia article on Young Earth Creationism gives a good explanation of it's origins, decline, and revival.

Regarding the age of the earth, it cites Seder Olam Rabbah from 160 AD:

The earliest post-exilic Jewish chronicle preserved in the Hebrew language, the Seder Olam Rabbah compiled by Jose ben Halafta in 160 AD, dates the creation of the world to 3751 BC

The same article references the commentary on Genesis by Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164) for the view that the six days of creation were 24-hour periods.

Ibn Ezra believed in the Ptolemaic universe, common in the middle ages, that the Earth was in the center of the universe and didn't move. That it was encapsulated in nine concentric spheres embedded with the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. The outer "diurnal" sphere revolved once every 24 hours.

With that background, we can understand Ibn's commentary on the creation as six 24 periods. For example, see his commentary on Genesis 1:5,8:

(5) by naming the light "day" and the darkness "night." The diurnal sphere revolved once, day blended into evening and night blended into dawn, day one.

(8) God named the heaven together with the air "sky." Although God had not completed God's work, the diurnal sphere revolved once, day blended into evening and night blended into dawn, a second day.

source: http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/GenTradIbnEzraRamban.html

Philosophers at least as early as Philo (c. 20 BC – c. 50 AD) did not believe the earth was created in six literal days. Philo had this explanation:

II. (2) "And on the sixth day God finished his work which he had made." It would be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed at all in time; because all time is only the space of days and nights, and these things the motion of the sun as he passes over the earth and under the earth does necessarily make. But the sun is a portion of heaven, so that one must confess that time is a thing posterior to the world. Therefore it would be correctly said that the world was not created in time, but that time had its existence in consequence of the world. For it is the motion of the heaven that has displayed the nature of time.

(3) When, therefore, Moses says, "God completed his works on the sixth day," we must understand that he is speaking not of a number of days, but that he takes six as a perfect number.

See also Old Earth Creationism

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