Learning of the Ancients

Dallas Willard

Originally published in Sunday School Lesson Illustrator


Table of contents


A short while ago there were no automobiles, ballpoint pens, or atomic bombs. Such new inventions or experiences may create the impression that life today is radically different from years past. Often science and technology are assumed to be characteristic of modern man. Those who lived prior to our era are considered to have lacked modern conveniences, to have been intellectually weak, superstitious, and incapable of scientific thinking and technological development.

The facts of history, however, prove such an assumption invalid. People struggled with science and technology long before the dawn of recorded history. Scientific curiosity, critical thinking, and experimental inquiry and proof are as old as mankind. There are, of course, many new results from scientific endeavors which alter our life-styles; but the basic dimensions of human life, including the quest for knowledge, remain the same. So far as basic human endeavors are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun.

The Wisdom of the Egyptians

Several ancient cultures are noted for their elaborate systems of technology and philosophy. One of the oldest of these cultures arose in Egypt, where the nation of Israel was molded initially. Moses “was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22) before he ever attempted to work with his own people, the Hebrews. God chose a man already highly educated in literature, medicine, engineering, architecture, and moral and political theory, to lead his Chosen People.

When Egypt is mentioned today, the awesome pyramids, with their mysterious, mummified inhabitants often come to mind. These architectural wonders were built for the religious purposes of protecting the body’s living image (ka) for eternity. The first of these huge structures was built approximately two thousand years before Moses lived. The largest, the so-called Great Pyramid, measures 775 feet at the base on each side and is 480 feet high. The fifty-six beams which form the ceiling over its funeral chamber are solid stones that weigh an average of fifty-four tons each. No one today understands how these edifices were designed and erected, given the mechanical equipment of that time. Although slaves composed the labor force, the secret of how their combined strength was harnessed to move the huge stones into place has not been determined. Yet there the pyramids stand.

While the pyramids and other engineering feats such as the Sphinx and the magnificent granite obelisks are a source of awe, other lasting scientific and technological contributions of the Egyptians lay in other areas. The Egyptians gave mankind the book in its earliest form, as a roll of papyrus. This, along with the ink and writing instrument which went with it, was a truly great technological achievement. The pen was a simple reed, and the ink was formed by mixing soot and vegetable gums. Without means of communication a culture cannot advance. Thus, 2700 years before either parchment or paper were generally available, the Egyptians used a material highly suited to the diffusion of knowledge and culture. The papyrus roll had such excellent qualities that it continued in use until the eleventh century A.D. Most of the sacred and secular literature of the western world was recorded on papyrus.
For papyrus to be useful, symbols had to be created. Hieroglyphics, representation of an object by a picture, was the earliest form of Egyptian writing. Later, drawings were made based on collection of homonyms for the more difficult words. Ultimately letters were created so then an alphabet of twenty-four consonants was used. The Egyptians contributed one of the earliest alphabets, one on which Oriental cultures relied heavily.

The architectural and engineering feats undertaken by the Egyptians demanded, in turn, knowledge of mathematical principles. Also, it was necessary to keep numerical accounts of goods, cattle, and slaves. The famous Rhind Papyrus, now in the British Museum, is a systematic treatise on mathematics, derived from the eighteenth or nineteenth century before Christ. In it a subtle method for fractions is explained, and forty typical problems are solved. The solutions show that Egyptian mathematicians of that time possessed quite accurate formulas for area and volume including the area of the triangle and circle, and for the volume of the cylinder and square pyramid. The astonishing accomplishments of the Greek mathematicians, of a much later time, were greatly dependent upon mathematical insights known and used by the Egyptians for many prior centuries.

Medicine reached surprising levels of sophistication in several cultures. Remains of prehistoric man show that even the complicated procedure of trephanation (boring a hole in the skull for medical purposes) was practiced successfully prior to recorded history. Circumcision, a surgical procedure for religious purposes was common in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C. and was a part of the Semites’ prehistory. A detailed portrayal of this operation is found on the wall of a tomb of the sixth dynasty of Egypt (ca. 2625-2415 B.C.).

Specialization among physicians was common by the third millennium before Christ. Records reveal specialists in teeth, eyes, stomach and bowels, and in “internal fluids,” among other fields. Examination of the medical papyri, of which the Smith and Ebers papyri are most noteworthy, show a wide range of careful observation and generalization concerning cases requiring internal medication or surgery. Many health laws mentioned in the first books of the Old Testament express views researched and developed by Egyptians physicians. The ancient world looked at Egyptians as the medical leaders of the world, a fact well attested in ancient Greek writings.

A survey of Egyptian endeavors in engineering, mathematics, and medicine exhibits the scientific quest pursued by the human mind in some of its finest moments, three to four thousand years before the Christian era. Though developments often were prompted by pagan reasons, the Egyptians—and others—nevertheless provided mankind with a great legacy of knowledge. To have been “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” was a tremendous intellectual accomplishment.

The Learning of the Chaldeans

Another high culture of remote antiquity was that of Mesopotamia. Roughly contemporary with the Egyptian, this culture developed in a similar physical setting. The Sumerians, whose civilization is the oldest yet discovered, lived in the great valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They had thoroughly mastered the arts and technologies of a vast agrarian and commercial enterprise by 3000 B.C. Massive water control projects that were initiated involved the drainage of seaboard marshlands and irrigation of deserts. Irrigation canals were large and extensive. Later the emperors built and maintained the canals, organizing them into a transportation and communication network of national dimensions. In the field of weights and measures, the Sumerians surpassed all other peoples of antiquity, and were not surpassed themselves until modern times.

However, the scientific genius of people and their Babylonian (often called Chaldean) successors shone brightest in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. Despite an absence of algebraic symbolism, these civilizations performed algebraic operations that involved unknown quantities. They also discovered the importance of a numeral’s position as determinant of its value Thus the “2” in “21” indicates “20,” while the “2” in “12” indicates “2.” This device was afterwards lost for millennia. Further, they extended numbers to apply to parts of the unit, as well as to multiples of the unit. This principle also was lost until 1585, when our decimal system was introduced. Finally, these peoples saw the utility of having the same base for their number system as for their measuring devices. Our numbers are based on tens, but our system of measures (feet, pounds, dozens and quarts) are tied to numbers other than 10, such as 12. We have not caught up with the ancient Sumerians in this matter, though recent attempts to introduce the metric system in the United States have been made. However, we have accepted from the Sumerians the process of multiplication the 360-degree circle, perhaps the seven-day week, the twelve-hour day, and perhaps our 365-day, 6-hour year.

As this heritage might indicate, the Babylonian work in time measurement was second only to their mathematical innovations. This work was, basically, the measurement of the cycles through which the sun, moon, and planets move in relation to one another and to the fixed stars. The planets held deep religious significance to the Babylonians. Thus, astronomical observations were made carefully, studied, and recorded over a period of several centuries. In 767 B.C., during the reign of the Babylonian King Nabonassar, observation of astronomical phenomena became continuous, with records carefully filed on clay tablets. These records of the Babylonian astronomers were kept continuously for over 360 years, even after the Chaldeans lost their independence to Persia. The prophet Daniel lived and worked in Babylon during this period. No subsequent series of continuous observations, even in modern times, is close to 360 years in length.

Around 500 B.C., when the observations had proceeded for about 250 years, a Babylonian astronomer named Nabu-rimannu—possibly a contemporary of the aged Daniel—used them to calculate the time required by the moon and sun to complete their various cycles. Among other things, he exactly dated eclipses of the sun and moon, their progression through the zodiac, the phases of the moon, and the solar equinoxes and solstices. Among his most notable accomplishments was the calculation of the length of the year. Based on the time required for the sun to return to the same celestial background, he calculated the cycle to be 365 days, six hours, fifteen minutes, forty-one seconds in length. This measurement, made over two thousand years before the telescope was invented, and hence relying only upon observations of the naked eyes, was in error only by twenty-six minutes and fifty-five seconds.

Over a century later another Babylonian astronomer, Kidinnu, with a full 360 years of observations to work with, made out elaborate tables on celestial motions which were more accurate than those established by Nabu-rimannu. Indeed, some of his measurements exceed in accuracy figures long in practical use by modern astronomers. Kidinnu even detected the minute difference that exists between the length of the year as measured from equinox to equinox, and its length as measured between two successive arrivals of the earth at its point nearest to the sun. These two Babylonian scientists, Nabu-rimannu and Kidinnu, first revealed to man a system of the celestial realm and, thus, became the founders of astronomical science as an established human institution.

The Mesopotamian monarchs of the period did much to advance knowledge, no doubt because they thought knowledge served their purposes as rulers. For example, Darius the Great (521-485 B.C.), used governmental funds to establish a medical school in Sais, Egypt. Daniel 1 strongly suggests that the policy of Nebuchadnezzar was to place the most promising young men from newly subjugated peoples into an “Institute of Advanced Studies,” as we might call it. There their mental powers were developed and placed at the service of he monarch. So when Jerusalem fell the Babylonians chose from among the Israelites “children . . . well favoured, and skillful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science . . . whom they [the king’s servants] might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans” (Dan. 1:4). Verse 5 indicates that these young men, though already intellectually outstanding, received a three-year course of studies in Babylonian learning—which by that day included what was best from “the wisdom of the Egyptians.” Clearly this meant that they would be seriously involved in extensive scientific studies not entirely different from what might be undertaken today.

The Greeks Seek After Knowledge

The Greeks were fortunate enough to reap the harvest of centuries of previous scientific work, and thus were able to accelerate the progress of knowledge remarkably. In order to appreciate the learning of antiquity, however, remember that the first steps are the most difficult and hence constitute the greatest attainments. It is not remarkable, for example, that automobiles and airplanes can be produced given the tools, factories, and designs developed from earlier years. But it is amazing that starting from scratch, ancient man should produce the ideas and instruments upon which all subsequent science and technology depended.

The specific scientific discoveries and innovations credited to the Greeks are so numerous and complex that they cannot be summarized briefly. However, two outstanding emphases in scientific research should be singled out. Paul the apostle probably referred to these when he said “the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22b).

The first emphasis was on the systematic character of scientific knowledge. That is, genuinely scientific knowledge in a given area must use only a minimal number of concepts or basic terms, and only a minimal number of axioms or basic premises. Then it must display the remainder of knowledge in that area as subsumed under or derived from those basic terms or premises. Those who have studied high school geometry, with its definitions, axioms, and theorems, will be familiar with this model of a science. In the ancient world Euclid’s Elements of Mathematics most clearly approximated the model; but other areas of science also aimed at it. For example, in astronomy, Plato (428-348 B.C.) set the task of “accounting for” all celestial motions in terms of motion which traversed an exact circle, at a never-varying speed. Only such motion, the Greeks thought, was appropriate to the dignity of “celestial bodies,” as contrasted with “bodies terrestrial” (1 Cor. 15:40). All astronomy was, thus to be unified into a system by reference to the central concept of uniform, circular motion. This goal was, in the main, pursued by astronomers until the time of Galileo (A.D. 1564-1642).

The second emphasis by the Greeks was upon the explanatory or theoretical character of science. It might be enough for the Babylonians to know that the sun or moon or planets would behave certain ways at certain times. But why do they behave as they do? For example, the (often irregular) apparent behavior of celestial objects was to be explained in reference to nonapparent (assumed) uniform circular motion. This, in turn, was explained as being the motion most suitable to a “celestial” nature. It was this drive to explain the apparent by the nonapparent which moved the Greek scientists in their research and theorizing. Though the Greeks differed over the details of the correct explanation, the words, “things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:3), expressed for them a typical scientific philosophy.

False Sciences

As science progressed it became clear that whole systems of knowledge could in fact be wrong or questionable. The history of science from ancient times is littered with theories which once were knowledge. It is difficult to say, in a given age, which theories are true and which are false. Astrology for example, is one of he oldest of the pseudo sciences. It purports to reveal the character of periods in our lives, based only on how the stars influence us when they are in certain positions Astrological interest, of course rises to the genuine scientific study of celestial objects of astronomy. But astrology lives on today, as evidenced by the horoscope in the daily news paper. Many Christians who see astrology as a pagan religion would not think of planting their tomatoes or peanuts until the moon is in the “correct” phase. The basic idea is to use “scientific” knowledge of how the heavenly realm influences you to make things turn out as you wish.

Gnosticism which is “knowledge-ism”or “scientism,” was a pervasive philosophy in the New Testament world. It claimed that salvation for man could come only through acquiring mysterious knowledge. (See the article, “First Century Heresies.”) Such “knowledge” was thought to give magical powers to the possessor in some cases. It always was offered as a way of escape from ordinary human life, which was regarded as totally unredeemable.

Gnosticism in its early forms is largely—not wholly—dead. But “knowledge-ism” is still very much with us. All around us we see persons hoping to solve their problem through the pursuit of knowledge—psychological, technological, or even “religious.” Certainly we need knowledge. But wisdom is more important, and that involves an understanding of the limitations of knowledge. We can never fully understand anything, no matter how great our learning may be (1 Cor. 8:2). When we think we do fully understand something, we become dogmatic and puffed up (1Cor. 8:1). We depend on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5) and, thus, fall prey to ignorance and pride.

This is strikingly illustrated by the incident of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). The Story reveals a technological arrogance on the part of the ancient Mesopotamians. They knew how to build very high structures, but failed to realize just how limited their knowledge was. They believed that the sky was a firm, domelike structure (a “firmament”) upon which God dwelt, only a short distance above the earth’s surface. Their pride moved them to “make . . . a name” (v. 4) for themselves by building a way into the presence of God. The result of this proud and ignorant undertaking was confusion, inability to communicate between men, and failure. It is ever so with men. There is nothing new under the sun.

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead.
across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
by which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

George Santayana

“And now abideth faith, hope, and charity: these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Dallas Willard. "The Learning of the Ancients" Sunday School Lesson Illustrator (Summer 1975): 68-75.