THE BIBLE AND A FLAT EARTH; A CASE STUDY IN EXEGESIS
ON DOES THE BIBLE TEACH SCIENCE?
I have never met a flat-earther but some Afrikaner farmers in the remoter parts of South Africa were in the 1970s. My source was a fellow geologist Dr. Piet Joubert, also an Afrikaner, who regaled friends about it. When local farmers asked about his work, Piet happened to mention that the earth was spherical, to which they retorted, “Ek is plat!” About the same time other geologists working in Zimbabwe told theirAfrican laborers that men had walked on the moon and were told, “Yes, baas, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin.” With these exceptions there can be few who accept that the world is flat and hence it is a good example to discuss the Bible in relation to science.
Before doing so, the myth of a flat earth must be dispelled. Most people in the West believe that until the time of Columbus most Europeans believed in a flat earth and it was the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, which disproved a flat earth around about 1,500 and is still repeated by some (Moore, 2002, p. 148). It is one of the instances where the Church opposed science and AndrewWhite waxes eloquent on the subject. The myth of the flat earth was wonderfully exploded by J. B. Russell (Russell, 1991), who demonstrated that few theologians believed in a flat earth in contrast to the majority like Augustine and Aquinas who took the earth’s sphericity for granted.
However the cosmogony of the Bible tells a very different story. The New Testament makes no clear reference to cosmogony but Rudolf Bultmann claimed that it teaches a three-decker universe, but this cannot be substantiated. In his classic argument presented in 1941 Bultmann in New Testament and Mythology (Bultmann, 1984, pp. 1–2), the world-picture of the New Testament as something highly mythological: The world is like a three-storied building. In the middle is the earth; above it is heaven, below it is the subterranean world. Heaven is the dwelling-place of God . . . the lower world is hell, the place of torment. He argued that “modern man” cannot accept Christianity without “demythologizing” the biblical world view. Though few still adhere to Bultmann’s “demythologizsation,” many still believe that the New Testament writers held to a flat earth. That would be highly unlikely, especially for the Greek-educated Luke and Paul, as the Greeks had demonstrated the earth’s sphericity in 500 BC. It is entirely reasonable to regard the apparently mythological descriptions of “the heavens” in the Lukan and Paulinewritings as metaphorical. However, it is possible that Gallilean fishermen and carpenters could have adhered to a three-decker universe. In the centuries beforeChrist, astronomers considered the earth to be spherical but the stars were tiny and fixed on the celestial dome. The small size of the stars is probably reflected in Matthew 24 vs 29, “and the stars will fall from heaven.”
However, the Old Testament was a very different world, going back to 2000 BC.8 The dates of the actual composition of Old Testament books are in dispute. Many liberal scholars hold that all were written after the Exile and thus are post 500 BC, with Genesis being of a Babylonian origin. The most Conservative Evangelicals reckon that Job was written before 1500 BC, and that Moses wrote the Pentateuch in about 1450 BC. Moderate evangelicals argue that little of the Old Testament was committed to writing before 1000 BC.
The differences are more than those of theology as if the biblical books were written before 500 BC. then the authors could not have known that Greek astronomers had demonstrated the earth’s sphericity, and thus would have held to the conventional beliefs of their societies, viz., that the earth was a flat disc, with the hemispherical firmament above, and the underworld below. To those who consider that the Bible will reflect the world view of the writers’ day that presents no problem. But to those who hold fast to a strong form of Inerrancy, then the “science” in the Bible must be accurate. Thus some evangelicals argue that biblical writers believed that the earth was spherical. As Moses and Isaiah lived in the fourteenth and eighth century BC this was before the time of Plato (427–348/7 BC) when most educated Greeks began to accept that the earth was spherical. To maintain that the Israelites believed that the earth was spherical (often with the implication that this had been revealed to them by God) it is necessary to interpret several Biblical passages contrary to their “plain and literal” meaning. Take Isaiah chapter 40 vs 22, “It is he [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” Most commentators take the word for circle khug to mean a flat disc or the dome of the firmament. However Mark Eastman in his article, “Science and the Bible,” states:
Despite contrary assertions, the fact of a spherical earth was clearly proclaimed in the Bible by the prophet Isaiah nearly twenty-eight centuries ago . . . “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers [etc.]” Isaiah 40:22 (NKJ).When Isaiah wrote this verse he used the Hebrew word “khug” to describe the shape of the earth. Although this word is commonly translated into the English word “circle,” the literal meaning of this word is “a sphere.”9
Jonathan Sarfati in Refuting Evolution,
argues in a similar way, as does Henry M. Morris, who in The Biblical Basis of Modern Science asserts that khug in Isa. 40:22 often translated “circle” means a “sphere” (Morris, 1984a, pp. 245–246). All of these writers claim that the Hebrew khug—or hˆug of Isaiah 40:22a means “sphericity.” No biblical scholars support this; in the nineteenth century Delitzsch translated it as the “vault of heaven” which is supported by Allen in DOTTE. Arguments that the Bible teaches the earth’s sphericity are to be found in many YEC writings and Web sites.10 Sarfati also argues that Luke 17:34–36 implies that Jesus believed the earth to be spherical, because Jesus “stated that different people on earth would experience night, morning and midday at the same time!” This raises a fundamental question: Just how should one interpret the Bible in light of modern scientific knowledge? The YECs Nelson and Reynolds state that one should not readmeanings into biblical texts that are not there in order to make them conform to modern scientific knowledge (Moreland and Reynolds, 1999). Some YECs do not follow their advice. Besides the earth’s sphericity, Eastman finds references to such modern scientific knowledge as ocean currents (Isaiah 43:16; Psalm 8:8), elementary particles (Hebrew 11:3), and nuclear explosions (2 Peter 3:10). Such fanciful eisegesis as this is matched by Morris’ readings into the text of Job, whom he credits with knowledge of the hydrological cycle (28:24–27), and the rotation of the earth (38:12–14). He also claimed that Job describes dinosaurs in Job 40 vs 15ff and, according to Henry Morris (Morris, 1984, pp. 356–359) from Job chap. 41 vs 20–21 some dinosaurs were like dragons and breathed fire. No one can fault their devotion to the Bible, but by reading modern science into the Bible, they make mockery of it by ignoring the historical context of the Bible. Ernest Lucas emphasizes that the thought world of the Ancient Near East of Babylon and Egypt demonstrates that the Cosmology of the Hebrews was similar to that of its neighbors, with some kind of flat earth and heavens above and the underworld beneath (Alexander and Baker, 2003, p. 137). This is manifest in Exodus 20 vs 4, which of the “heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” This is similar to Egyptian cosmology (Alexander and Baker, 2003, p. 134). In parts of the Old Testament there are still references to Babylonian and Egyptian mythology associated with their cosmology.
There have been many interpretations of the firmament of Genesis chap. I vs 8. Calvin writing in his commentary on Genesis in 1553 claimed that this was a description of clouds carrying rain, no doubt because although no Copernican he was a well-informed Renaissance man and knew that the heavens or the firmament was not a solid dome. During the next three centuries most commentators evaded the question of what the firmament was, partly because Copernicanism was unquestioned. With the rise of more detailed biblical studies in the nineteenth century and research into other ANE cultures, scholars began to see that this fitted into typical Egyptian cosmogony. Conservative exegetes objected, as did Delitzsch in his commentary of 1852 (Keil and Delitzsch E. T., nd, p. 53) presumably to allow Genesis not to contradict modern astronomy. He also argued for six Solar Days and a global flood and questioned the reliability of geology. Several decades later he took a far more open line in a later commentary on Genesis.
Many recent commentators ignore the question, but Paul Seely, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, has demonstrated conclusively that the firmament was a solid dome (Seely, 1991) and this has been incorporated into the commentaries by Walton and Currid. To conclude then, the writers of the Old Testament clearly accepted a flat earth as part of the common ANE cosmogony. This is of no concern to many Christians, who accept that the writers were children of their time. However if Inerrancy extends to history and science, then it is inevitable that some Inerrantists would feel obliged to demonstrate that the Bible taught a spherical earth. The question of a flat earth in the Old Testament highlights the problems some evangelicals face in relation to science and the Bible.
I feel as bit like this!!!
- www.marshill.org/Apologetics%20Pages/science and the Bible.htm
- “The Bible and the Earth’s Sphericity” posted on the Creation Research Society web site: www.creationresearch. org/creation matters/ Astronomy and the Bible, www.answersingenesis.org/docs/400.asp