“I beseech you, my child, to look at heaven and earth and see everything in them, and know that God made them out of nothing; so also He made the race of man in this way.” (2 Maccabees 7:28, OSB)
The first literal reference to God creating heaven and earth “out of nothing” (Latin: ex nihilo) occurs in the book of 2 Maccabees, which was written about 120 BC. It is a work that was not written in Hebrew, but in Greek, and does not exist in the Jewish scripture today for this very reason. Genesis 1 simply states that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and says nothing about “ex nihilo. In Genesis 2, God is clearly the fashioner of that what already exists – like a potter, He gives shape and form to the existing material, and thus bestows meaning upon it, giving it a particular existence rather than leaving it as amorphous substance. This is certainly how humans were formed in Genesis 2.
But in the light of 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Hebrews 11:3, Christianity accepted the interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation story to mean that God created the universe “out of nothing.” As John Chryssavgis points out, this interpretation took a little time to gain credence among the Christians – Tertullian (2nd Century) for example states that Scripture does not unequivocally declare creation “out of nothing.” However, by the 4th Century Christian tradition accepts creation “out of nothing” as doctrine. St. Athanasius argues logically that if God had only shaped the world out of pre-existing matter, then why is He called Creator rather than merely craftsman? To be consistent with the witness of Scripture, one has to conclude that God made the world “ex nihilo.” And Christianity proclaims that He did this purely out of love, not for any other purpose. God wanted to share His life with something else – so He creates “not God.”
It is only in reading Genesis 1 in the light of other Scriptural texts that the question of creation “out of nothing” comes up. Genesis 1 itself is silent on the issue. But bringing the issue of creation “out of nothing” to Genesis is clearly interpreting Genesis 1. The literal reading of the text would not address the issue indisputably, since the text doesn’t use the words “ex nihilo.” And in fact, if we followed only the Jewish Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, which Christians see as the Old Testament), the question of creation “ex nihilo” would also not be addressed. Reading the Scriptures to discover the full meaning of the text requires interpretation – it requires keeping the text of the Scriptures in its Tradition which fully illuminates the text and brings forth illumination from the text.
“So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. … Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:30-35).
See Also My Limits of Biblical Literalism