Monday, March 12, 2007

No, she's a-round, like my head

Like others who get their history from watching too much Bugs Bunny, The Sea of Faith is just sure Jesus said she's a-flat, like your head:
At the time of Jesus, the Jews, Romans and Greeks believed that the earth was flat, had ends and was supported by pillars and that the sky was a solid dome also supported by pillars.

Also, there was the belief that the Stars can fall from the sky or heaven in Matthew 24:29. It was not until the middle of the 5th century that Socrates proposed that the earth was round and suspended in space.

Finally Galileo advanced science to the point where he showed that the earth and planets orbited around the sun. He was forced to renounce this claim on threat of death by the Church of Rome. There has been an explosion in our understanding of the cosmos since the launch of the Hubble space telescope and it is often difficult for us to think in terms of the world view of the 1st Century.
With history like this, who needs, well, history? But just for fun, let's apply a little:

Did the Romans, Jews, and Greeks believe in a flat Earth? That would have come as news to the very Greek Aristotle, who wrote 400 years before Christ that:
"[O]bservations of the stars make it evident not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size... There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward... All of which goes to show [that] the earth is circular..." -- On the Nature of the Heavens
The spherical nature of the Earth was apparent to anyone in the ancient world who traveled, so long as they gave it a minute's thought - and looked up. Others who did so were the 6th Century bc Pythagoras (he of the eponymous Theorem) and Eratosthones (2nd century bc), who not only calculated the Earth's circumference within 2%, he calculated the distance to the sun and the moon just for grins.

As for the Jews, Job, in what is quite possibly the oldest book in the Bible, says that rather than pillars*, God "hangs the Earth upon nothing" (26:7) and Isaiah (40:22) says that God sits upon "the circle of the Earth." Now one might argue that Job and Isaiah are prose, and therefore cannot truly represent what the Hebrews envisioned scientifically. Fine, I'll accept that, but then let's not have any rubbish about how the Psalms (e.g. 93:1), which are poetry, teach a fixed earth because they say that it "cannot be moved."

OK, how about "stars falling from the sky"? Do we not today still talk about "falling stars" and "shooting stars"? We know thay are not really stars by our modern accounting - that's just a manner of speaking - but to the ancients, all the bright things "up there" were accounted as stars. Their word encompassed every body in the heavens, and that their words do not make the same distinctions that ours do is simply a matter of different languages. We don't even have a word that means what theirs did, and so direct translation is misleading at best. In the New Testament, Jude talks about "wandering stars," and we know stars don't really wander all that much perhaps. The Greek word he used? "Planetes." That one might look familiar.

It might also come as a bit of a surpise for Socrates to learn that he lived in the middle of the 5th Century, about the time Rome was falling. He was born ca 470 bc, which would have made him close to 1000 years old when he made that discovery. Then he stuck around to star in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I suppose.

Skipping forward from Jesus a millennium and a half: whether or not Galileo was forced to renounce heliocentricity by some Pope in the 16th Century is irrelevant to the "the world view of the first century." It is far more relevant to the politics of a Church** that was on the verge of falling apart and for political reasons would not allow its authority undermined no matter the source.

There is no doubt that some people believed in a flat earth...that there were even arguments about it is sufficient evidence to prove that. But to propose that *everyone* did, that no one even considered the possibility of a spherical Earth until half a millennium after Christ, is the most ignorant brand of rubbish imaginable***.

Unfortunately, it is upon that pile of ignorance that too many would-be teachers build their modern fairy stories.

* The "solid dome supported by pillars" comes from the Babylonians, not the Greeks, Romans, or Jews.

** I'll not defend the church on that, they were wrong on all counts.


*** It's like saying that the 21st century world view doesn't believe in Uzbekistan because most of us can't find it on a map.

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