Re: Does the Bible teach a flat earth?

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Wed Dec 18 2002 - 00:52:48 EST

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    Robert Schneider wrote:
    > Peter Ruest's critique of my statement on the meaning of Hebr. "chugh" and
    > the ascription of a three-storey model to the ancient Hebrews is rather
    > lengthy. I shall snip a few passages and respond:


    It seems that our disagreement results from starting with different,
    mutually incompatible axioms - an inspiration belief vs. a
    source-critical belief. Therefore I find it necessary to discuss this
    question first, before answering your objections. Please understand me
    correctly. I don't suggest that you don't believe in a divine
    inspiration of Scripture, but rather that you too easily adopt (at least
    some of) the source fragmentation hypotheses of the historical-critical

    As I explained before, in PSCF and on this list, I believe in the divine
    inspiration of the canonical books of the OT (excluding Apocrypha) and
    the NT. But rather than any mechanical or automatical theory of
    inspiration, I hold a view of inspiration combining God's sovereignty,
    design and guidance, on the one hand, with His respect for the prophet's
    personal dignity, freedom and individual character He has given him. It
    means that in interpreting a biblical text, we must take into
    consideration the time, culture, language and environment of the writer,
    on the one hand, and God's will to revelation, on the other hand.

    The first part of the job is what the historical-critical method is
    trying to do. But its success clearly depends on its correctly
    identifying the relevant parameters. For instance, assigning a time that
    is centuries or even millennia off the truth will invalidate most
    conclusions. The second part of the job is more difficult, but we may,
    at least tentatively, draw some conclusions from the whole context of
    divine revelation we know from the entire Bible. Now, the crucial
    problem with the historical-critical method is that its originators and
    many of the scholars using it since completely ignored this question of
    divine inspiration, perhaps taking a "scientific methodology" as an

    In my commentary, on this list (25 Nov 2002), "The Pentateuch dissected
    and revised", of A. Rofe's "Introduction to the Composition of the
    Pentateuch" (1999), I reported that Rofe, a Jewish scholar, summarized
    the current state of the Documentary Hypothesis by saying that it will
    remain a hypothesis and that many of its assumptions and conclusions
    have been shaken (yes, it's Rofe who says that). But he maintains that
    its 4 elements will endure: (1) real difficulties in the text, (2)
    caused by combining different sources, (3) style and content analysis
    sometimes identifies authors, (4) some of the texts can be dated.

    Looking at these 4 points, (1) the great majority of the difficulties
    presented allow for alternative interpretations in line with an integer
    and harmonious inspired text, (2) as a consequence, virtually no need
    remains for different sources not already implicit in the text, (3)
    consequently, most style and content differences will have to be and can
    be interpreted differently, (4) attempting to date sources constructed
    in such a way will be futile.

    The historical-critical method has rewritten virtually all of Israel's
    OT history and made suspect or irrelevant much of the theology conveyed,
    in God's plan, by this history. A historical-critical analysis ignoring
    divine influence and inspiration of the entire canonical Bible as a
    whole is sure to go off on a tangent.

    "The Bible claims to be inspired by God. He designed it for all
    cultures, but letting it be contaminated with gross errors would
    compromise it in some of them. As the Creator is its ultimate author,
    interpreting a biblical text merely within the framework of ancient Near
    Eastern culture is inadequate. A biblical writer was guided to select,
    from his own vocabulary, words and phrases compatible with reality, even
    while perhaps holding some erroneous belief." (quoted from A. Held & P.
    Rst, "Genesis reconsidered", PSCF 51/4 (Dec. 1999), 231-243;

    > Peter writes:
    > 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?
    > Bob's reply:
    > Peter, read carefully my article and the notes, and you will see where
    > I have taken the data on "chugh." In his article in TDOT, K. Seybold lists 6
    > occurrences of "chugh" in the OT (including Sir. 43:12). He points out that
    > "structurally, "chugh" belongs with the words based on the basic syllable
    > "hg," "bind, gird," etc., with the basic meaning of "describe a curve."
    > "Chugh choq" (Prov. 8:27; Job 26:10) is rendered "incise a circle." The
    > meaning of "mechughah" is uncertain, but it has been render as "compass" or
    > "calphers"; the latter instrument might be used in making an idol. I do not
    > accept the translation you give for Job 26:10, which strikes me as
    > attempting to avoid the meaning of "chugh" by using "bound." I think part
    > of the problem here is attempting to impose our modern knowledge of a
    > spherical earth on an ancient concept. I find nothing to support a
    > spherical meaning to "chugh" in any of these passages

    I had indeed reread your article when I wrote my (last) reply, but I
    just commented on what I found most applicable to the present
    discussion. I did comment on 5 of the 6 occurrences you listed in your
    paper, leaving out the non-canonical (and late) Sirach.

    In the Kohlenberger Interlinear, "choq chug" (not "chug choq") in Job
    26:10 (as a compound expression, it is a hapax legomenon!) is translated
    as "horizon [choq] he-marks-out [chug]". But with 124 occurrences in the
    OT, "choq" is translated (in the KJV) "statute" 84 times, "bounds" twice
    (Job 14:5 and 26:10), "ordinance" 9 times, "decree" 8 times, and 11
    other words in the rest of the cases (never by "horizon"). So to use the
    KJV's "bound" seems to be fair; apart from this word, the whole text of
    my quote has been copied exactly from the NIV. So it is not, as you seem
    to imply, my own translation. In Job 14:5, "choq" is the "bounds" set on
    the human lifetime. NIV's translation "horizon" in 26:10 may have been
    occasioned by a preconceived notion of what it should mean in the
    presumed three-storey cosmology. For "choq chug", you also list Prov.
    8:27. But there, "chug" occurs, but not "choq"; and in v.29, "choq",
    translated "decree" (KJV) or "boundary" (NIV), occurs, but not "chug".
    So the Prov. text adds nothing to the compound expression "choq chug".

    I am not imposing modern knowledge on an old concept. In fact, I wrote
    in my last post, "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."
    All I wanted to show is that the flat-earth-mythology interpretation is
    not at all required.

    > Peter:
    > 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"
    > Bob:
    > In my article I analyze Job 26:10 at length and show that the
    > translation "empty space" is a modern reading into the text of our own
    > conception of space. The translation is inaccurate and misleading.

    These are not my own translations, either, but the ones of the NIV and
    of the Kohlenberger literal interlinear text - without changing a single
    word. It's them that you charge with being "inaccurate and misleading".
    I agree with you that the modern concept of "empty space" is not taught
    by this text, but this does not exclude the possibility that the
    original may be compatible with the fact of a spherical earth in empty
    space. In this sense, I don't think the argumentation in your article
    adds anything to the understanding of what the text may imply. I agree
    with you in not believing that Job 26:10 can be taken as a proof text
    for a spherical earth in empty space, but your attempt to prove the
    contrary (in order to justify the belief that "the Bible's cosmology is
    flat-earth") is at least as inconclusive. At least as far as Job 26:10
    is concerned, we have to leave it with a "we don't know".

    > Peter:
    > "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)]."
    > Bob:
    > I have to say that everything you write about Greek theory of a
    > spherical earth and your reference to Jeffery Russell's book is irrelevant.
    > It does not speak to the issue of what the biblical texts are describing
    > phenomenally.

    As indicated in my last post, the paragraph you object to is a quotation
    from our article mentioned above, and it should be interpreted in that
    context, where we took great pains to guard against the charge of trying
    to have the Bible teach modern science. That would answer your
    objection. What we wrote _is_ relevant for the question of what biblical
    texts are _compatible_ with, which is not the same thing as what the
    biblical texts are _describing phenomenally_. What exactly do you mean
    and imply by "describing phenomenally"? There just are cases where we
    cannot be sure what a biblical text is describing phenomenally, and
    there we should remain open to the possibility that it might be
    susceptible to a different interpretation, at least as legitimate, but
    compatible with reality. To play the devil's advocate, one may claim
    that sometimes the writer himself may not have known it, thinking of a
    different concept in his mind, and it was only by God's gracious
    prodding that he desisted from using an unmistakable flat-earth
    formulation. No, I think it more probable (although my argument does not
    depend on this) that those writers may very well have had a concept of a
    spherical earth, be that from early Greek ideas which might have
    penetrated into their culture, or even from unknown sources. Of course,
    that's speculative, but hardly more speculative than the mythology
    conclusions of the historical-critical method.

    > Incidentally, Russell is a friend of mine, and I know from
    > our discussions that he makes it clear in his book that Christian thinkers
    > early on got their notion of a spherical earth from the Greeks and not from
    > the Bible.

    I never claimed that one can learn the notion of a spherical earth from
    the Bible, nor that early Christians did that.

    > If you read my article and particularly p. 161-162, and note 32,
    > you'll see that in his commentary on Isa. 40:22, St. Jerome (4th century)
    > specifically rejects the notion that this verse refers to a spherical earth,
    > and that contrary to the Greek theory of the four elements, in which earth
    > is a heavier element than water, he interprets this verse to say that earth
    > rests upon water, by the will of God. He clearly has in mind the biblical
    > model that you reject as being in the Bible. Jerome used the Latin word
    > "gyrus" from the Septuagint Greek "gyros" ("circle" "ring"), not the word
    > "sphera" (Gk. "sphaira") to translate "chugh." As I point out in my
    > article, nowhere in the LXX is "chugh" rendered "sphaira," or is "sphaira"
    > used at all, so those Hellenized Jews who translated the Hebrew Scriptures
    > certainly didn't see the notion of a spherical earth implicit in their
    > readings of passages with "chugh."

    If you read the argumentation given in our PSCF article indicated above
    for trying to harmonize biblical texts with scientific facts, you'll see
    that we don't claim infallibility for our interpretation, but that we
    want to show the _possibility_ of a harmonization without forcing the
    original texts. What we categorically reject is the near-infallibility
    claim of the historical-critical method working absolutely outside any
    consideration of divine inspiration. With the influence of divine
    inspiration, we are not claiming that God teaches us science through
    authors who couldn't know anything about it, but that He may have had
    His reasons for guiding these authors to select some way of expressing
    themselves which would not contradict reality, even if this reality were
    unknown to them, and even if the expressions selected are also
    meaningful in different cosmologies. This is a fundamental difference.
    Our attempts at harmonization are never an attempt to prove God, or to
    prove inspiration, or to prove biblical inerrancy.

    What we do have as solid facts (or very nearly so) is the Hebrew or
    Greek texts of the biblical originals. All else, whatever we find in
    translations or theological opinions, is interpretation which has to be
    judged on the basis of the facts. And the fact that a biblical text
    sometimes can have more than one "meaning" or legitimate application is
    obvious in various contexts of OT prophecy interpreted in the NT. From
    "Genesis reconsidered": "It is quite legitimate to reconsider, in view
    of new findings, a long-standing traditional in-terpreta-tion of
    biblical texts. The Bible itself presents some striking examples of such
    reinterpreta-tions. Job's friends were mistaken in their orthodoxy. Even
    Job him-self had to 'retract and repent in dust and ashes.' The
    Phari-sees, very seri-ous Bible students, separated the prophecies about
    the suffering Servant of God from the Messiah. They were wrong, as could
    be seen in Jesus Christ. Even his own disciples had to be led to a fresh
    view of Bi-ble passages they 'knew' very well, when they found his tomb
    empty, and when he 'ex-plained to them in all the Scriptures what
    re-ferred to himself.' [Footnote 31: Job 42:6; Luke 24:27. We are to
    study God's Word (Isaiah 34:16; Ezra 7:10; Psalm 119) and his works
    (Psalm 111:2; Ecclesiastes 1:13), and to judge tradition and teaching on
    the basis of external facts (Luke 7:19-22; Mat-thew 7:15-20; cf. 13:26)
    and Scripture (Acts 17:11).]" Were these "new" interpretations by God in
    Job or by Jesus in the NT erroneous?!

    As far as the sphericity of the earth is concerned, it is not a question
    of showing that biblical authors knew it (they may or may not have known
    it), but that what they wrote is, by God's subtle leading, compatible
    with it. Therefore any traces of a flat-earth view in translations
    (gyros, rather than sphaira) or theological writings are completely
    irrelevant to the question of the interpretation of the inspired
    originals. Even the Septuagint is already several hundred years younger
    than the latest Old Testament texts. While we certainly may judiciously
    take into consideration the choices made by translaters (such as those
    of the Septuagint or the KJV), they are not decisive, and philosophical
    opinions such as Jerome's or of other Bible scholars are even of much
    less relevance.

    > I agree with Paul Seely on this topic and side with his critique of
    > yours and Held's reading of the texts. I respect your convictions regarding
    > a concordist reading of Scripture and science, but do not agree with this
    > hermeneutic.

    I am just as much in disagreement with Paul Seely's views. Arguments
    based on facts are more convincing than those based on authorities.

    > Grace and peace,
    > Bob Schneider

    "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His
    people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His
    servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of
    old, that we should be saved..." (Luke 1:68-71).


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

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