Sunday, 11 May 2008

Did Jesus believe in a flat earth?

When responding to Tilling earlier, I indicated that as well as discussing the characterisation of knowledge I wanted to correct other false statements in his post. The 2 errors were the flat earth claim and the idea that metaphors would puzzle Jesus. Here I address the flat earth.

The flat earth claim probably is unfounded. That Christianity promoted a flat earth was in large a lie propagated by the likes of Andrew Dickson White in his anti-Christian polemics. Jeffery Burton Russell has discussed this in detail (summary here) and even an atheist site has acknowledged the false claims against the church. The latter's view of Christianity remains somewhat hostile.

The knowledge of the sphericity of the earth can be currently dated at least as early as ~500–600 BC in Greece. Pythagoras (~500 BC) and Aristotle (~350 BC) believed the earth was a sphere; though spherical claims may have easily predated this, especially in other regions. I am not aware of extant documents that inform us what other empires before Greece which include Persia, Babylon, and Egypt, thought of the earth's shape. I do dispute the claim that much of Hebrew theology and cosmology derives from Babylon; these ideas are partially based on (what I would consider) false synchronisms. Reviewing knowledge earlier than Egypt, we have Josephus claiming that Abraham introduced astronomy to the Egyptians. I doubt we have enough information to adequately judge Josephus' claim but the assumption of ignorance of the ancients is tired and likely reflects modernist arrogance. Even the events at Babel suggests that astronomy was a significant feature there.

Given that the Greeks knew the earth was a ball centuries before the Roman empire existed it is highly likely that the Roman world at the time of Christ believed in a spherical earth. The occasional theologian in the centuries after Jesus suggested a flat earth but this was the exception. Perhaps more commonly, opposition arose at times against the idea of the antipodes. One must be careful not to view this as evidence that the person was arguing for a flat earth. There were (false) reasons for arguing against men living on the other side of the earth unrelated to the shape of the earth. Men could hold to a spherical earth and disbelieve in either antipodean lands and/ or inhabitants.

The Bible makes very little comment of the shape and structure of the earth. Most of the passages referenced are poetical. Poetry frequently talks about real events and uses literal wording at times. However features of poetry include the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. When reading poetry it is important to understand the point being illustrated, not insist on the literal meaning of the underlying wording. If a poem uses a phrase that is intended to be literal or does indeed coincide with reality then it is not unreasonable to use the passage as support that the author understood this particular concept. It is not valid, however, to force literalism on a poetical passage. This is also true with the use of metaphor in prose, though this is generally more obvious.

In summary we have documentary evidence for the knowledge of a spherical earth for more the last 2500 years and it was common knowledge at the time of Christ. The idea of a flat earth has never been seriously held by the majority of people
since before the time of Christ and the medieval flat earth myth was invented by infidels in their attempt to discredit the church.

4 comments:

  1. Explain what Jesus meant when He said "... the four corners of the Earth." A sphere hasn't any corners. A cube, a square and similar shapes have corners.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It probably refers to the points of a compass

    ReplyDelete
  3. I still can't reconcile Matthew 4:8 with a globe?!?! And what about Heliocentrism being rooted in the occult?

    ReplyDelete
  4. As to Matt 4, I suspect it was either a view of the Roman empire (or perhaps a vision).

    I don't know about the relationship between heliocentricism and the occult. Though the point is do we orbit the sun regardless of whether or not certain groups worship the sun. Errant beliefs tend to beget errant beliefs (especially defiant men who reject the truth). Nevertheless, everyone believes some true things. And it is possible to be correct on accident.

    ReplyDelete

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