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>Flat earth cosmology and other assumptions

> Michael Patton posted recently that he thinks that people lose faith because of lack of discipleship and he mentioned in passing that Christians used to believe the world was flat. That Christianity didn’t teach a flat earth doesn’t change the thrust of his argument. Nevertheless, I offered my thoughts as this lie needs to die.

In response to this others claimed that the Bible teaches a flat earth.

Greg made this comment,

…the idea of a “flat” earth is presented in the Bible, simply because that’s how the people envisioned it back then. They’d go up onto a mountain top, look around, and see a round, disk-shaped earth. That’s all they knew, and God no where in His Word sought to obviously correct that understanding. I think any “scientific” statement in the Bible is best understood by the science of their day, not ours.

The cosmology presented in Genesis is incredibly similar to Egyptian and Babylonian cosmology. Not in its theology, just in its structure. Sometimes we like to think that the Israelites developed their culture and wrote the Bible in a vacuum, that there was no influence or sharing of ideas between others in that same era and geographical location.

I’ve noticed that Christians tend to try and explain this kind of stuff away so we can make the Bible conform to our modern understanding of science. We have this misplaced idea that to be reliable, the Bible needs to match our understanding of everything, or that if there’s some borrowed stuff from Babylon or Egypt that its any less inspired. We sometimes forget that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. God inspired in a manner that would be meaningful to ancient Israelites. He accommodated Himself to them by taking their cosmology and reinterpreting it in light of Himself.

Its really quite fascinating when you read Genesis with this in mind. You come across a whole mass of information and meaning that we moderns tend to overlook because we just don’t think that way anymore.

And he recommended the article A Common Cosmology of the Ancient World. I have only read some of this and would like to respond to it in more depth at a later stage. For now I wish to make a few comments about assumptions in Greg’s quote and then a few thoughts on the flat earth question.

The phrase

any “scientific” statement in the Bible is best understood by the science of their day

poses problems. Firstly science in the modern sense dates back a few hundred years. Rather statements of this type in the Bible are factual claims. Granted they may come from inference rather than direct observation but they are not scientific in the way we understand the term. Further many modern “scientific” claims are claims of history not operational science. There is much truth in understanding the Bible on its own terms not ours, but “own terms” is about how the Bible uses language, not its objective claims. The ancient Israelite concept of what constitutes “life” may not fully correspond to ours, but Jesus either rose from the dead or he did not.

The related comment

He accommodated Himself to them by taking their cosmology and reinterpreting it in light of Himself.

is a significant claim. Agreed, God does not have to correct our misconceptions. And not doing so does not give tacit approval. But statement says that God tells us our misconceptions are correct when they are not. I disagree.

What about cultural influences?

Sometimes we like to think that the Israelites developed their culture and wrote the Bible in a vacuum, that there was no influence or sharing of ideas between others in that same era and geographical location.

I am not certain who holds to the Bible being written in a vacuum. Israel clearly interacts with the nations thru-out both Testaments. They constantly shared ideas with their neighbours, much to God’s displeasure. The proposal that God hated the behaviour of the pagan nations and constantly told Israel not to emulate them and repeated told them not to worship foreign gods or adopt their practices, yet borrowed their incorrect structural cosmogony seems unlikely.

To flat-earthism. I note that the objection is a slightly different point to the one I made. I have previously posted that the sphericity of the earth was documented as least as early as 500 BC. Patton’s comment was about Christianity teaching a flat earth. The history is that Christianity has, by and large, taught a spherical earth when addressing the topic. The most that can be said is that some argued against antipodean lands and/ or inhabitants for reasons unrelated to the earth’s shape.

As mentioned, I hope to post later about the claim about the Bible teaching a flat earth. For now I have several general comments.

  1. Because the flat-earth myth was invented by infidels in an attempt to discredit Christianity, in any discussion about earth topology Christianity should be given the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Geocentricism is not the same as flat-earthism.
  3. “Evolutionary thinking” is much more pervasive than we realise. For example the idea that polytheism developed into monotheism is an social evolutionary idea not a biblical one. The Bible suggests the reverse.
  4. Why should every other text (and theory) be the standard to which the Bible is compared? If the Bible and any particular text disagree why is it assumed the Bible is in error?
  5. Accounts recorded by Scripture and other cultures could be due to common memory. If there is borrowing going on it may be from the Bible (or possibly source texts in the case of Genesis) to other nations than vice versa. A comparison of texts is helpful.
  6. We must be careful about forcing poetry. As I previously wrote:

    Poetry frequently talks about real events and uses literal wording at times. However features of poetry include the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. When reading poetry it is important to understand the point being illustrated, not insist on the literal meaning of the underlying wording. If a poem uses a phrase that is intended to be literal or does indeed coincide with reality then it is not unreasonable to use the passage as support that the author understood this particular concept. It is not valid, however, to force literalism on a poetical passage.

  1. 2009 January 29 at 15:59

    Bethyada,
    Thanks for replying. Have you listened to the talk by John Walton I sent to you? It’s here, under June 23, 2008: http://www.logos.com/lectures
    “The proposal that God hated the behaviour of the pagan nations and constantly told Israel not to emulate them and repeated told them not to worship foreign gods or adopt their practices, yet borrowed their incorrect structural cosmogony seems unlikely.”
    The key to understanding this concept lies in the fact that the ancients viewed the world as “god-filled”. There was no “nature” or “natural phenomena” to them. Either this or that god or gods were controlling whatever part of nature they had in mind. This is why many cultures of the day had a sun god, or a river god, fertility gods and rain gods, etc. etc.
    This is how the Israelites thought too. Remember they as a nation came out of Egypt, a very pagan nation. More than likely they adopted much of their pagan thought about nature too, and we see that in how quickly they reverted back to pagan worship after the crossing of the red sea. They feared for their safety in the wilderness (considered as a death sentence to them) and so reverted back to paganism in an effort to appease the gods for their continued survival.
    Here comes Moses and, being the smart guy that he is, gives them a creation account of their own to reassure them of their God’s control over their survival in the wilderness.
    I’m sure you’ve heard that the creation account in Genesis 1 is an apologetic against paganism of the day, right? How after each day of creation, a new set of deities’ jobs are vanquished and replaced by the great I AM as the sole mover and maker.
    Given the state of things, God wasn’t concerned with correcting their understanding of nature. All He wanted to do was correct their theology. And that is what He did in Genesis.
    John Walton goes a lot more into this stuff, and even more, so I’d highly recommend listening to it.
    I do not think you understand Genesis as an ancient would, and because of that your interpretations are going to be wrong. For example, in Genesis One when God brings things into existence. Did you know that your definition of existence is probably different than that of an ancient Israelite’s? If your definitions are different, than your interpretations are going to be different. Everything changes then.
    That, and the idea that God has to conform His revelation to our modern knowledge, and the total absence of thinking of the universe as a temple, all cause our interpretations, if they don’t take these things into account, to miss the mark.
    Listen to Walton. I know he’ll help you understand Genesis in ways that you never thought of before because its not natural for us to think like the ancients did.

  2. 2009 January 31 at 07:46

    Greg, there are deeper issues here. I think the key is probably number 3 in my post list. Evolutionary thinking as applied to the history of the world is so pervasive and most fail to see. It is not that I claim more knowledge than those who have studied the ancient Near East, it is that I reject many of the premises that even conservatives hold to. If the foundations are wrong then it matters less knowing to high detail.
    For example your original quote mentioned Babylon and Egypt as sources. Babylon post dates Moses by 1000 years. This can only hold if we claim the ideas were absorbed in Exile and pose a composition of the Pentateuch post Exile. I deny this. While your theory could theoretically hold for Egypt, I deny that Genesis post dates Egypt. Sure the form came about by Moses during the Exodus which postdates Egypt, but most of the material antedates it. The use of the monetary term kesitah, the reporting that the area of the Dead Sea was a valley shows that ancient material was used even if the form was written in 1500BC if one posits various updates during the following hundreds of years.
    The story of Babel suggests that monotheism antedates polytheism, and history suggests that this is often the case. It happened with Israel and with Egyptian monotheists. Though the Exile managed to force the Jews back to monotheism.
    I wanted a text because audio takes too much time, not because I have a problem with Walton. I would rather read the text of his talk. I prefer text and pictures over audio. The file you linked to for example is 75MB! and I can read in 15 minutes what it takes 60 minutes to listen to. It may be good, but so much is recommended to people they do not have the time to assess everything. I will look at material from different sides but I won’t spend an hour reading something I have essentially read before, or I may skim read parts to see if it is worth me taking more time to read in depth.

  3. 2009 January 31 at 23:16

    I feel it’s so sad that the ancient strictures still hold so strongly today, confusing and as controversial as they are. Look what Northern Ireland has been like for 400 years – only now, thankfully it seems to be becoming peaceful. But for all those years, just because of slight differences in understanding they killed each other. And that inspite of the fact that Jesus Christ was the head of each factor. Misunderstanding in mythology and resultant ignorance is a lethal mask.
    Tragically it exists today where so much politically and religiously goes on behind closed doors, so that the human race is kept in state of mistrust and misunderstanding.
    Cosmology seems to be holding to a theological strategy where Big Bang, with all its flaws has pontificantly been clung to regardless of those flaws.
    I have recently written the following:-
    Scientific or orthodox cosmology is based upon the notion that there was a beginning, almost as if there had to be one. After all, most religions on the planet ascribe to that as a fundamental keystone. Starting from nothing gave the image of God as the creator, of absolutely everything.
    But Science at least, felt a tad uneasy about this simplicity because of the law of conservation, so it accepted the ingenious notion that at some time in the past the whole universe, matter, energy and all, once existed as a singularity. Without any proof or known reality, the word was, that it existed and then exploded, or expanded. Why? Was not answered, and where it came from is now claimed to be the collapsed state of a previous universe. And this brought a whole knew meaning to the word, ‘beginning’. Many would claim that it was a transition and not a beginning, because all the materials to make the present universe already existed. This was further confused by the claim that time did not exist before the explosion. Funny that, because even the word ‘before’ suggests a passage of time.
    In order to keep this very shaky beginning going, continued expansion and all, has required explanation. Rate of expansion, thought of once as being from a central point somewhere in the universe, but since that couldn’t be found is now claimed to have no central point and that the universe is expanding in all directions no matter where you are in it, so everything else will appear to be racing away from you.
    The containment still exists as a bubble extended to 27 billion light years across. And oddly we appear to be right in the middle. But now, at long last, Science is letting the truth sneak out under the door, bit by bit. Being right in the middle of the expansion, of course was great for the first page of Genesis, but, hey, come on, this is 2009.
    So is this the start of the collapse of Big Bang? Is Science going to let a little bit more and a little bit more out from under the door? What with dark energy sneaking in from outside through perferations in the bladder as well, something’s going to have to give.

  4. 2009 February 3 at 04:12

    Why should every other text (and theory) be the standard to which the Bible is compared? If the Bible and any particular text disagree why is it assumed the Bible is in error?
    That’s a very good question, but the most likely “answer” is that it is assumed to be written by men long before the advances of science, and men with a religions bias to boot.

  5. 2009 February 3 at 07:01

    Bethyada,
    So I wrote this nice long reply, then found this blog post by Walton that explained all I was trying to say, and in a better way too! A lot of what he says is also in the talk, so I think you’d like this one.
    http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2009/01/do-we-need-backgrounds-study.html
    I found a few other things written by him that I think can help give you an idea of what I am talking about.
    The one here: http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2008/09/we-have-been-di.html talks about the Hebrew word for create, bara’. He looks at how an Israelite would understand the concept of God bringing something into existence. This is important because, for example, in Genesis One God is bringing a lot of things into existence! If we don’t know what that means, than our interpretation may be off.
    Here’s one on the relation between the temple and the cosmos: http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2009/01/templecosmos.html
    One of the creation of humankind in the Ancient Near East: http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2009/01/creation-of-humankindane.html
    And this one was just interesting: http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2008/08/hebrew-corner-1.html.
    Bethyada, I hope these can give you a better idea of what I’m talking about and advocating.
    Walton has a commentary on Genesis out in the NIVAC series that is very good, as well as a book called “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” that really goes further into this topic.
    Bruce Waltke, in his Old Testament Theology, also delves into it too in Ch 7.

  6. 2009 February 3 at 07:05

    David,
    Might things change if we have not understood the opening chapter of Genesis correctly? Maybe Genesis One isn’t even talking about material existence. Could this be a modern concern that we try to read out of an ancient text that didn’t intend to address that aspect?
    Check out the links I posted in reply to Bethyada.

  7. 2009 February 3 at 10:05

    In order to find true meaning from something that is not plain to see causes confusion.
    I see the opening words of Genesis as saying that ‘In the beginning’ was the word, meaning that the structure that was to be, earth, would be a perfect combination of every physical component, right down to the last subatomic particle – and God is Law, the law of everything.
    Everything has a beginning, be it a new evolving construction or dismantling, which latter, is the beginning and continuance of those changes.
    When God created man, he did not snap his fingers and man appeared, he used material that was at hand. Perhaps this was the clue to understanding conservation, and that earth, sun, other planets etc., was what is meant here, ie, a new solar system.
    Can God be influenced? Well some times there are what appear to be miracles, but law is law and surely it can’t be sacrificed to suit an occasion that appeared to be bound to happen.
    I look upon the state of our world having been influenced by the way we manage it physically, because actions speak louder than words, and if we decide wrongly, even with the best of intentions, God’s Law will apply, regardless.
    I think of people kneeling down facing Mecca 5 times a day in prayer, and regardless of the intensity and earnestness of their prayers, God will not cover their barren land with forests that once stood there. On the other hand, if they used their skills and picks and shovels and planted a million trees a day within the same time frame of each prayer, God would do his part, – through their efforts. He gave us the tree species in the first place, and we have learned how to propagate them, nourish them, water them, etc.
    Actions speak louder than words.
    I think we should stop expecting God to be a father figure who will make choices if we ask. To learn about, respect, and cultivate what God has given us, should be our No. 1 priority. Sectarianism and everything that causes friction between races and credos should be put on the back burner and it should be realised that we are all earthlings, and all belong here, regardless. Love thy neighbour.
    David

  8. 2009 February 5 at 22:35

    Greg, I have read all your links to Willow and the article by Gier. I have yet to listen to the Willow lecture.
    I can agree with much of what Willow writes. I don’t dispute that other cultures think differently and it is important to grasp what they actually mean. I doubt the Bible is as tenuous as reading Willow may suggest because although there are several difficult biblical passages (in terms of underlying meaning), much of what is written is quite clear.
    One must also remember that understanding one ancient culture does not mean other ancients were similar. There are distances of several centuries between cultures; the BC era was longer than the AD one.
    I have significant problems with Gier however. A longer response is needed. But he forces literalism onto poetical passages and I have previously dealt with this. There is an insistence that the Hebrews were wrong and passages that are insightful are dismissed with the assumption that the Hebrews cannot possibly have known thus.
    *He has a naturalistic bias.
    *He subscribes to JEDP (I deny it).
    *He assumes demythologising and does not consider mythologising.
    *He chooses word meanings that suit his theory.
    And he fails to see the problems with his own theory. All theories have problems, showing up your opponent’s problems doesn’t make yours correct, especially if yours have many more!

  9. 2009 February 10 at 06:55

    Thanks for reading Walton. He has a lot more to say in his books, which I would recommend at least a perusal, as he is able to explore the ideas he puts forth in greater depth there.
    And yeah there will always be parts of scripture that says what it means and means what it says. But at the same time, as Walton mentioned in several of the blogs about translating, its not always that easy. There is always room for further study.
    Going forward we as Christians must always be willing to follow where God’s Word leads us and not be afraid to discard tradition if a new understanding can fit the picture better. Many doctrines, or the expression and depth of understanding concerning them, have developed, been lost and found again numerous times throughout our history. There is always the possibility old understandings will crumble in the face of new discoveries. Martin Luther against the Roman Catholic Church is a good example.
    With Gier, I knew you wouldn’t like him much for the above reasons you gave, more or less.
    And while I agree with some of your concern with him, I want to add that I have the same sort of concern about you.
    What I mean by that is, and please correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be concerned with the idea that the Bible has to reflect our current understanding of the world in order for it’s inerrency and infallibility to be upheld. Your bias is constrained to a specific view of inerrency. He may prefer another, but each one tips either of you in a particular direction and to a particular interpretation that satisfies the requirements of that inerrency.
    This concerns me because I see an initiative to interpret passages in a certain way that conforms it to modern science, when an interpretation that draws from the science of their day explains it much better. I see this a lot in the church, and once again, if I am wrong about you, I apologize.
    A modern person who wishes to explain scripture in light of modern science has the burden of proof upon them first. They need to show how an ancient person could have known what we know, what benefit it provided the ancients, why God would only make it truly relevant to moderns in the West, and why the church missed these interpretations all this time and had to wait until the 20th century before science could shed light on things.
    Does that make sense?

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