Does the Bible teach a flat earth?

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Sat Dec 14 2002 - 00:50:43 EST

  • Next message: "Re: joshua"

    Robert Schneider wrote:
    > Michael Roberts writes:
    > > Was Jesus a flat-earther?
    > > This is a serious question and what does it mean if we answer Yes?
    > > What about NT writers? How many of them were flat earthers?
    > > Or even OT writers?
    > As I argued in my PSCF article, "Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?"
    > (Sept. 2001, p. 159-169),,
    > claims that Isa.40:22a and Job 26:7,10 establish that the Bible teaches that
    > the earth is spherical are groundless. The Hebr. "chugh," which Morris and
    > other YEC's wrongly assert "literally means 'a sphere'," literally means "a
    > circle drawn with a compass" (as William Blake understood), and never means,
    > or implies, "a sphere.


    I am not going to defend Morris' or other YECs' point of view (see
    below). But how can you know that "chug" always means "circle", rather
    than "sphere" or any "round" shape? As far as I know, apart from the Old
    Testament we don't have any ancient Hebrew literature of a comparable
    age. But in the OT there are only three occurrences of the noun "chug":
    in Job 22:14, it is applied to the heavens, in Prov. 8:27 to the ocean,
    and in Isa. 40:22 to the earth. If you want to apply that to a
    three-storey cosmology, you may circumscribe the ocean by a circle, but
    the earth (the land as opposed to the ocean) would then be an irregular
    shore shape (part of which the ancients knew), and the heaven a
    hemisphere (certainly not a circle). If, instead, you take the Isa.
    40:22 reference phenomenologically, it might indicate the apparent
    circle of the horizon on a flat plain. But that has nothing to do with
    the earth as such. The verb "chug" is used in Job 26:10 for "marking (a
    circle?)", "He (God) marks out bounds on the face of the waters for a
    boundary between light and darkness" (and the only way a circular
    "boundary between light and darkness" "on the face of the waters" can be
    understood is to have a spherical earth, not a flat one!) In Isa. 44:13,
    "mechugah" (compass?) stands for an unknown instrument used by an artist
    for marking when carving a wooden idol; but what do you use a compass
    for when carving a human figure? Otherwise, the Hebrew concordance
    doesn't list any other occurrences of these or any related words. So how
    do you know it literally means a circle, but never a sphere? And Job
    26:7 says, "He spreads out the northern [skies] over empty space; he
    suspends the earth over nothing" (NIV), or "spreading-out north over
    empty-space suspending earth over not what" (Kohlenberger Interlinear).
    How one is to fit this into a three-storey cosmology eludes me, whatever
    the precise meaning of the mysterious terms used. (As for the words
    "raqia^" and "raqa^" you mentioned in your article, cf. "Genesis
    reconsidered", indicated below).

    > There is no other place in the OT texts, in my
    > view, upon which one can validly claim that the biblical writer understood
    > that the earth is spherical.

    Nor can we validly claim they believed it to be flat. And even if they
    did, the biblical texts they wrote don't require a flat-earth

    > The term "flat earth" has such a negative
    > resonance that I would avoid using it to describe what the OT writers
    > understood the earth to be. The Hebr. "eretz" means "the earth" as
    > distinguished from "the heavens"; "the dry land" as opposed to "the deep";
    > "the ground upon which people stand"; and other meanings.

    I agree with this.

    > It would be
    > better to say that the biblical writers understood the earth to be a
    > circular mass resting upon the deep and overarched by the firmament. This
    > cosmological model, which they shared with other near-eastern peoples, made
    > a lot of sense for their day, but it is not ours. Like all cosmological
    > models it was provisionally true, and we should honor it as such, neither
    > explain it away with wrong-headed interpretations such as Morris' nor
    > dismiss it as "pre-scientific" or worse. However the OT writers
    > conceptualized the world, their focus was upon the Creator that brought it
    > into being. They were proclaiming theological, not scientific truth.

    I agree with the last two sentences. But as Armin Held and I argued in
    our PSCF article, A. Held & P. Rst, "Genesis reconsidered", PSCF 51/4
    (Dec. 1999), 231-243;, this three-stories
    universe is neither taught in the Bible, nor was it a generally held
    belief at least since the 6th century BC, if not earlier. As we
    underscored both an old earth and a biological evolution, including that
    of humans, we certainly cannot be placed in the same corner as the YECs!
    Nor did we claim the Bible to "teach science". I don't suggest that you
    believe the Bible to "teach a flat earth", but your adopting some
    extremely Bible-critical views does have such an effect on the reader.
    We wrote:

    "We are not claiming Genesis 1 to 'teach modern cosmology', but we want
    to show that a very good case can be made for non-contradiction between
    the biblical narrative and scientific data. The opinions that Genesis 1
    reflects an ancient mythological world view, and that this view implied
    a flat earth and a solid firmament are popular. We consider both of
    these opinions to be in error." ...

    "As part of this process of mythologizing the Bible, the myth of the
    'three-stories universe' as the worldview before the Enlightenment was
    forged, with the celestial bodies fixed to a solid firmament above a
    flat earth, and hell underneath. Yet the sphericity of the earth was
    known at least since Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, and not much
    later all educated persons in the ancient world and throughout medieval
    times accepted it. Sun, moon and planets can be seen to move with
    respect to the other stars, which circle the earth. The spherical shape
    of the earth is also indicated by the fact that with decreasing
    distance, a mountain seems to rise higher and higher above the sea or a
    plain. In the third century BC, Eratosthenes estimated the earth's
    diameter from the relationship between geographical latitude and solar
    elevation. The lie of the belief in a flat earth was perpetrated around
    1830 by Letronne and Irving as a derision of creation [Russell, J.B.
    (1997), _Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians_
    (Praeger, Westport, CT)]."

    In response to a challenge to our paper, we wrote in A. Held & P. Rst,
    "Taking Genesis as inspired", PSCF 52/3 (Sept. 2000), 212-214:

    "Finally, we did not deny that many of the ancients may have believed in
    a flat earth, but we argued that even in the earliest times of humanity,
    the idea of a spherical earth would not have been very exotic in the
    thinking of some people, especially if they were familiar with
    observations on wide plains or the ocean. There is no reason to believe
    that the earliest Greek philosopher known to have postulated a spherical
    earth had more scientific information or was more intelligent than some
    people 1000 or more years earlier. Written records of those times
    dealing with such topics are certainly sufficiently rare that we cannot
    claim that we should have found some if they existed. Thus, there is no
    reason to force biblical texts to support a flat earth mythology. ...
    Russell did not consider views of the times when Genesis was written,
    but this does not invalidate our argument against the globality of a
    flat-earth myth as the world view of _all_ pre-moderns. Tanner refuted
    the idea that the Bible is talking about the earth as a _planet_ like
    the others, but he did not discuss the question of a belief in its
    flatness [W.F.Tanner, _'Planet Earth'? or 'Land'?_, PSCF 49/2 (June
    1997), 111-5]. In any case, whatever the ancients believed, the Bible
    does not support the erroneous beliefs they might have held."

    > For the same reason, I would not use the "flat-earther" designation in the
    > case of Jesus. A quick perusal of my concordance shows that in several
    > instances the evangelists report Jesus as referring to "heaven and earth" in
    > the way reminiscent of the OT (i.e., as a merism meaning "the entire
    > creation"), and distinguishing "heaven" from "earth" as in "may your will be
    > done on earth as it is in heaven." Nowhere, pace our YEC colleagues on this
    > list and elsewhere, do I find Jesus pronouncing on scientific matters. I
    > would infer that Jesus shared the common cosmological conception of his
    > contemporaries.

    The descriptor "the heavens and the earth" (which I agree is a merism
    meaning the entire creation) doesn't imply a three-storey universe at
    all, either in the Old or in the New Testament.

    I find it very questionable that Jesus wouldn't have known anything of
    the spherical shape of the earth which had been known for centuries in
    the Greek culture, to which Israel had been subjected at least
    temporarily since the 4th century BC - even if we (unreasonably) suppose
    that he didn't know anything beyond what the other Jews knew. At the
    very least, he must have been an astute observer of the sky, horizon
    effects, etc. to conclude for himself that the earth is a sphere.

    > So also the other writers: despite the fact that the notion of a spherical
    > earth has become established in Greek cosmology by the first century AD, I

    Do you really think it took the Greek culture 600 years to accept
    Pythagoras' idea of a spherical earth, or 400 years to accept
    Eratosthenes' measurement of its diameter, and the Latins 300 years

    > find no allusion to it in the other NT writings; the OT cosmology appears to
    > be preserved in 2 Peter 3:5-6 (a very late document in the canon),

    Very late? Bruce says the New Testament was substantially complete by
    100 AD. Rienecker and many other evangelical scholars consider 2 Peter
    as genuine, i.e. before about 64 AD.

    > and there
    > are references to "the ends of the earth" (Acts. 1:8), and "the four corners
    > of the earth" (Rev. 7:1)--not to be taken literally, I think, yet not
    > suggestive of a spherical earth. The three-storey cosmology of the heavens
    > above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth of Exod. 20:4 also
    > appears (Rev. 5:3). Whether Christians should continue to hold to the OT
    > cosmological model or accept the Greek model of a spherical cosmos only
    > becomes an issue three centuries later, as Augustine in _De genesi ad
    > litteram_ attests.

    Your interpretations of what you take as allusions to cosmology in the
    New Testament don't convince me. 2 Pet. 3:5-6 does appear to refer to
    the water in Gen. 1 and 7, but it takes quite some interpretation
    (eisegesis?) of early Genesis to find any indication of a flat shape of
    the earth (for Gen.1, see "Genesis reconsidered" mentioned above; Gen. 7
    refers to a local flood in the eretz="land"). Acts 1:8 mentions the
    "most distant regions" of the earth (heos eschatou tes ges), without
    specifying anything about its shape. Rev. 7:1 quotes Ez. 7:2 which
    speaks of the four ends of the land, seen in a vision, not of the earth
    at all, and Ez. 37:9, speaking of the four winds, corresponding to the
    four main compass directions (by the way, my use of "compass directions"
    doesn't indicate that I am a flat-earther believing the earth to be a
    flat circular disk!). Ex. 20:4 speaks of objects or inhabitants of the
    three living areas, air, land, and water, the waters "below the earth"
    in the sense that the water always lies deeper than the adjacent land.
    Rev. 5:3 doesn't speak of water at all; "no-one below the earth"
    certainly cannot indicate an ocean below the earth.

    Does the Bible teach a flat earth, as your argumentation suggests, or
    does it teach a spherical earth? I think it does neither. But what _is_
    formulated in the Bible is _at least_ as easily harmonized (compatible)
    with the latter view as with the former. But this fact is often swamped
    by the penetrance of the falsely so-called "assured results" of the
    historical-critical method. This method, with its source criticism, does
    take into consideration (as it should) the time and culture of the
    biblical authors (at least where it places them into the correct
    timeframe and relationship to their neighboring peoples), but it ignores
    the fact of divine inspiration - however you define this in detail, and
    as a result, it reaches many conclusions that are far off the mark. It
    not only destroyed the history of Israel, but much of the theology
    conveyed by and in this history throughout the Old Testament.

    > Back to Jesus. What does it mean if we answer "Yes" that Jesus did not
    > believe the earth was spherical? Does it make Jesus a "liar," as a
    > fundamentalist student of mine once said in response to my comments? No, I
    > explained to him, it illustrates what the Church understands the Incarnation
    > of Christ to entail. We believe with the author of Hebrews, that Christ was
    > in every respect like us, even to being tempted, except that he did not sin.
    > As the Calcedonian formulary affirms, Jesus shared our human nature
    > completely. That means he was not the Gnostic God walking around in a body;
    > it affirms that in emptying himself of divine power (Phil. 2:5-11), Christ
    > as the human Jesus not the divine Logos knew as his fellow-countrymen knew.
    > He shared our human limitations and that means that his human knowledge was
    > no greater than those he read the Scriptures with, and that is where he got
    > his cosmology.

    Jesus did empty himself, but (according to Phil. 2) in the sense of not
    using any divine power, or any other privilege beyond what the poorest
    humans had, for _his own_ benefit. But he certainly kept exercising his
    divine power where this was shown him by the Father to be appropriate in
    the pursuance of his task, like raising the dead, healing the sick,
    casting out demons, changing water into wine, walking on the surface of
    the lake, stilling the storm, etc. He retained the power to command
    legions of angels. He knew what was in men's hearts, what they thought,
    etc. He uttered many prophecies concerning the near to very far future.
    He knew of the many prophecies in "all the scriptures ... concerning
    himself" - prophecies none of his contemporaries recognized as such.
    With a power that astonished and scared all his contemporaries and
    silenced their leading theologians, the carpenter expounded the true
    meaning of the Scriptures they had missed - no one ever taught like
    that. There was indeed a severe kenosis, but we must not overextend it
    above what Scripture teaches us. He did share our human nature
    completely, but not to the complete exclusion of his divinity. This is
    underscored by the virgin birth and by his sinlessness.

    > A "Yes" answer certainly does not mean that, therefore, the Bible is not
    > "true."
    > Now, Michael, you raise an interesting question in regard to the "Sun, stand
    > thou still" episode in Joshua: are we to interpret this event through the
    > lens of our present knowledge about the earth and the sun, and their
    > relationship? But, I'll leave that one to someone else, at least for now.

    I'll pass this one.

    > Peace on earth!
    > Bob Schneider

    Grace and peace to you!
    Peter Ruest

    Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
    <> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
    "..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sun Dec 15 2002 - 14:29:24 EST