Did Biblical Authors and Columbus’ Opponents Assume a Flat Earth?
October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
In an effort to undermine the truth of God’s word, some claim that the Bible describes the earth as flat. It’s also a popular tale that has Christopher Columbus (I’m writing this on Columbus Day) setting sail to disprove a popular notion that the earth was flat. Both of these claims about popular flat earth beliefs actually fall flat.
First, the Bible simply does not at any point teach that the world is flat. Most critics, who reject divine revelation and claim that the Bible was written by primitive ancients unaided by God, point to two verses that mention the “four corners of the earth”, maintaining that this illustrates a flat square.
“He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12)
“After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.” (Revelation 7:1)
What should be obvious in these passages is that the authors (the prophet Isaiah and the apostle John) are using commonly understood figurative language, and both Isaiah and Revelation are marked by that feature. If I said that we have set out to explore the four corners of the world, you would probably not call me a flat-earther, but would assume that means we have set out to explore everywhere on earth. “Four corners” (or “four quarters” in a few translations) can be synonymous with the four directions; north, south, east and west; which simply means “everywhere”.
Another argument for the Bible’s supposed flat earth view cites passages that seem to describe a point above the earth where all the earth is in view, which would be impossible with a spherical earth.
“The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.” (Daniel 4:10-11)
Aside from the fact that Daniel is describing a dream and dreams do not necessarily reflect the world in a scientifically or cosmologically accurate way (as our own dreams prove), the word “earth” here doesn’t necessarily mean planet. The Hebrew term ar’a (אַרְעָֽא׃, Strong’s 772) used here for “the earth” corresponds to erets (אָ֫רֶץ, Strong’s 776) which includes territories, regions, and countrysides as well as an entire planet.
While inspired by God, Biblical authors often used a phenomenological approach, describing things from their own subjective experience. The “whole earth” to these authors was the known kingdoms of the world from their own perspective on the face of the earth, not necessarily the unknown features on the other side of the globe.
Matthew 4:8 says “the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” (Parallel passage in Luke 4:5) There is obviously no literal high point on earth where one can view “all the kingdoms of the world”, even if “world” here means the known world in the vicinity of where Jesus was. However, as Ezekiel and John were often “taken” to places in a vision, Satan may have presented the kingdoms of the world to Jesus in a similar way.
While it’s pretty clear that the Bible itself does not claim that the earth is flat, I don’t think it expressly states that it is spherical either, as some apologists assert. A common passage called upon to show God’s spherical design on earth is Isaiah 40:22. “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.”
While a globe is definitely circular, a two-dimensional circle is still understood as flat. At most, this verse allows for a round, flat object, like a plate or a frisbee. And from a phenomenological perspective, a person standing on the face of the earth and surveying 360 degrees of horizon, he might deduce a circle from what he sees of the earth.
There are, in my opinion, passages that better signal a spherical earth than Isaiah 40:22. For example, Job 26:10 says “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness.” A circular boundary between day and night COULD be understood to be the circular edge of a round, flat earth, like a 2-sided coin. However, the circle being on the “face”—not the “edge”—of the earth seems an odd fit for a flat arrangement, but quite natural for a rotating spherical planet constantly ringed by a circular division of light and dark.
Proverbs 8:27 is similar: “When he established the heavens, I was there; when He drew a circle on the face of the deep.” On the first day of creation, God created the heavens and the earth, and we find His Spirit hovering over the face of the deep (earth’s waters, which spanned the entire planet’s surface on day 1). Then God spoke light into existence, thereby separating the light from darkness; day and night (Genesis 1:1-5).
More evidence of a spherical concept of earth in the Bible:
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.” (Ecclesiastes 1:6)
“…the sun… Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (Psalm 19:4,6)
The wind and sun appear to follow a “circuit” around the earth. It makes more sense to understand this circuit as truly a circular path where, particularly in the case of the earth’s rotation, relative sunlight moves around a spherical planet.
I would stop short of saying that the Bible clearly defines the earth as a spherical orb, but it certainly does not say that it’s flat.
What about the fact that people in Christopher Columbus’ time thought the earth was flat? Well, this is actually not a fact, but a myth. It was well-known in the 15th century, actually since about 1,300 years before Columbus, that the earth was a sphere.
The myth came from a Washington Irving book (mostly fiction) published in 1828, The Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus. Irving wrote that Europeans learned from Columbus’ trips to the New World that the world was round, but prior to that most people believed it was flat.
But before Irving’s book, a French archaeologist by the name of Jean Antione Letronne perpetrated a fictitious account of Christopher Columbus appealing to the Council at Salamaca to convince them that the world was round. Letronne was no friend of Christianity, so many think he fabricated Columbus’ argument before ignorant Church leaders who held to a flat earth belief. It is thought by some that Irving took this idea and ran with it.(1)
Before the 1830s, there was no confusion anywhere over who thought what about the shape of the earth. It seems almost everyone understood it as a sphere. But the argument shows itself as another straw man fallacy about the perceived conflict between science and faith, which in itself is a fictitious conflict.