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I have recently read that many pagan religions have their creation myth being creation by bringing order to primordial chaos. The accounts, if you squint, are not that different from what we have in Genesis 1, yet today the mainstream interpretation is, as far as I am aware, creatio ex nihilo.

Do we know when creation began to be interpreted as creatio ex nihilo rather than creation from chaos? It seems the chaos concept is ancient, widely believed in historically, and Genesis doesn't stray far from this description, so when did abrahamic religion start to use creatio ex nihilo, assuming such a start exists? Can we tell?

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  • I would recommend looking among the Fathers of the early church, because they would have brought philosophy to bear on the question. Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 12:15
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    Creatio ex nihilo is not solely derived from Genesis 1, but from all the other passages that talk of creation too. But even in Genesis 1, it says that God created the heavens and earth before referring to any formlessness or chaos.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 12:23

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Actually, pagan religions were teaching creation out from chaos or some substance, while the Bible teaches creation from nothing (ex nihilo). This contrast is seen very early in Christian history.

As mentioned in the comments, Genesis 1:1 sets the stage.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Gen 1:1

There have been two choices. Believe the Bible or believe pagan alternatives. Although see the quote below from Jewish Encyclopedia. Irenaeus wrote circa 185 CE.

  1. For, when they [who believe in a substance that existed prior to Gen 1:1] tell us that all moist substance proceeded from the tears of Achamoth, all lucid substance from her smile, all solid substance from her sadness, all mobile substance from her terror, and that thus they have sublime knowledge on account of which they are superior to others,—how can these things fail to be regarded as worthy of contempt, and truly ridiculous? They do not believe that God (being powerful, and rich in all resources) created matter itself, inasmuch as they know not how much a spiritual and divine essence can accomplish. But they do believe that their Mother, whom they style a female from a female, produced from her passions aforesaid the so vast material substance of creation. Irenaeus AH Book II Chapter X 3

Achamod is further described here as a type of Gnosticism or knowledge-based relition that would be more ancient than circa 200 CE.

Add*: In Guide 2.30 Maimonides says, "I have already made it known to you that the foundation of the whole Law is the view that God brought the world into being out of nothing." -source-

Maimonides writes circa 1180 CE, but apparently thinks along the lines of tradition (creation ex nihilo, but is aware of a different tradition, creation from something pre-existent).

it is clear that the Prophets and many of the Psalms accept without reservation the doctrine of creation from nothing by the will of a supermundane personal God (Ps. xxxiii. 6-9, cii. 26, cxxi. 2; Jer. x. 12; Isa. xlii. 5, xlv. 7-9): "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth." To such a degree has this found acceptance as the doctrine of the Synagogue that God has come to be desinated as "He who spake and the world sprang into existence" (see Baruk She-Amar and 'Er. 13b; Meg. 13b; Sanh. 19a, 105a; Ḥid. 31a; Ḥul. 63b, 84b; Sifre to Num. § 84; Gen. R. 34b; Ex. R. xxv.; Shab. 139a; Midrash Mishle, 10c). God is "the author of creation," ("bereshit" having become the technical term for "creation"; Gen. R. xvi.; Ber. 54a, 58a; Ḥag. 12a, 18a; Ḥul. 83a; Ecclus. [Sirach] xv. 14).

The bringing into existence of the world by the act of God. Most Jewish philosophers find in (Gen. i. 1) creation ex nihilo (). The etymological meaning of the verb, however, is "to cut out and put into shape," and thus presupposes the use of material. This fact was recognized by Ibn Ezra and Naḥmanides, for instance (commentaries on Gen. i. 1; see also Maimonides, "Moreh Nebukim," ii. 30), and constitutes one of the arguments in the discussion of the problem. ...

... The belief in God as the author of creation ranks first among the thirteen fundamentals (see Articles of Faith) enumerated by Maimonides. It occurs in the Yigdal, where God is called , "anterior [because Himself uncreated] to all that was created "; in the Adon 'Olam; and it is taught in all modern Jewish catechisms. Jewish Encyclopedia

So, to answer the OP, the Abrahamic religions apparently* always believed in creation from nothing, that God is the Creator, that there is nothing above Him. The myth of creation from something apparently* belongs to other religions.

*added

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  • Indeed. There exists only God and that which God has created. +1 Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 15:35
  • Hmm how far back does our evidence for creatio ex nihilo go in Judaism?
    – kutschkem
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 15:57
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    @kutschkem How old is Gen 1:1? Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 21:02
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    A sentence with a suggestive literal construction is evidence by default, however weak you regard it. Do you mean hard proof? Or evidence? Fwiw, Psa 33:6-9 and 102:25 seem pretty unambiguous, but they're later. Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 9:14
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    earlychurch.org.uk/article_exnihilo_copan.html This article points out some unambiguous passages in the apocrypha, the misc DSS, and Hebrews 11, among others. Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 18:30
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As I understand it, this question is not asking how Genesis 1:1 (or other Biblical passages) are interpreted today, but rather, how such passages were interpreted anciently.

There are Christians today who read these passages and understand them to describe creatio ex nihilo, and there are Christians today who read these passages and understand them to describe creatio ex materia. Other posts on this site address contemporary views; discussions on Mi Yodeya address Jewish history. I'll focus here on where we find these ideas in early Christian history.

The earliest surviving Christian source to clearly describe creatio ex nihilo is Tatian, writing in the 2nd half of the 2nd century:

And as the Logos, begotten in the beginning, begat in turn our world, having first created for Himself the necessary matter, so also I, in imitation of the Logos, being begotten again, and having become possessed of the truth, am trying to reduce to order the confused matter which is kindred with myself. For matter is not, like God, without beginning (Oratio ad Greacos ch. 5)

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing a few years after Tatian, may be described as the first major/mainstream Christian writer to argue explicitly for creatio ex nihilo (Tatian was rejected by contemporaries, including Irenaeus, as a heretic--see Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.28.1).

Creatio ex nihilo is not found in the extant writings of the Apostolic Fathers (2nd generation Christians, writing ~AD 70-120), nor in the writings of Tatian's teacher Justin Martyr (major works ~AD 150-165), who argued for creatio ex materia:

God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world, spoke thus: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and it was so. So that both Plato and they who agree with him, and we ourselves, have learned, and you also can be convinced, that by the word of God the whole world was made out of the substance spoken of before by Moses (1st Apology ch. 59).

In the generation prior to Tatian the extant Christian sources all favor creatio ex materia. In the generation following Tatian there are Christian writers arguing for creatio ex nihilo (e.g. Irenaues, Origen of Alexandria) and there are Christian writers arguing for creatio ex materia (e.g. Hermogenes, Clement of Alexandria). Creatio ex nihilo became a more dominant viewpoint by the end of the 3rd century.

Further reading on the relevant history here.

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  • A friendly reminder that the purpose of the downvote button is not to indicate "I disagree with this post" =). If you disagree with this post, please consider writing a response to the OP. Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 4:49
  • You say the earliest surviving source is Tatian and then you refer to sources in the generation prior to Tatian. Can you explain this? Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 13:13
  • @MikeBorden sure thing. The debate in the late 2nd/early 3rd century was between creatio ex nihilo & creatio ex materia. There are extant Christian sources earlier than Tatian arguing for creatio ex materia, but there are not extant Christian sources earlier than Tatian arguing for creatio ex nihilo. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 1:30
  • Thanks. Are you sure Justin Martyr isn't referring to what God began to do in Gen. 1:2 with the material He created in verse 1? Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 13:43
  • Reasonably sure, yes. Otherwise Justin wouldn't have spoken favorably of Plato's view. Commented Jun 4 at 2:03

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