Interpretations of Genesis 1: 1–2 varied with the version of the Bible that was used. The Hebrew version begins with a relative clause: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void . . . .” (New Revised Standard Version), much like the parallel Hebrew construction in Genesis 2:4. So the Hebrew version of Genesis began with the primordial materials of formless earth, water, and darkness (Genesis 1:2).
Various interpretations of this “beginning” were possible. Some rabbis accepted the inference that God began with a pre-existent chaos and then created an ordered cosmos (Genesis Rabbah 1:5).
Others brought in texts like Proverbs 8:22–24 to demonstrate that God had created the water and the darkness and that the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 was God’s own wisdom as encoded in the Torah ( Jubilees 2:2–3; Genesis Rabbah 1:1, 9).
Still others argued that God must have created worlds before this one (Genesis Rabbah 3:7; 9:2).
Most Diaspora Jews and early Christians, however, used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. This text begins with the absolute statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” which implied an absolute beginning for this universe.
It also implied that the unformed earth and water were included in the initial act of creation. This reading was followed by pioneering theologians like Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and became the standard interpretation for Christians.
The meaning of the six days of Genesis 1 was also debated. Some exegetes thought there was a temporal sequence of days without specifying their exact length ( Jubilees 2:2; Genesis Rabbah 1:3).
For those who accepted the idea of an absolute beginning, this implied that God created the cosmos in two stages: God made the building materials (unformed earth, water, etc.) at the beginning of the first day; then God illuminated and formed those materials as described in the narrative (Wisdom of Solomon 11:17; 4 Ezra 6:38–40; Justin Martyr).