Every historical document is a product of its times. The prevailing culture is, in most cases, readily discernible from the text. This is true also of religious documents, and true, in particular, of the Bible.
Among Fundamentalist circles, however, there exists a belief that the Bible is completely inspired by God. Of a necessity, this implies that all its pronouncements are true, and there can be found no error in its pages. A number of Christian scholars have also argued that the Bible displays scientific knowledge ahead of its time, adding support to the theory that the Bible is divinely inspired. Is this true? As it turns out, the answer is No. The Bible, like any other ancient historical document, reflects the prescientific thinking that prevailed when it was written. This is obvious in several areas.
The Bible, in common with most ancient systems, presents a very simplistic account of man's origins in two related, yet contradictory Creation stories presented in Genesis 1 and 2 respectively. Both present man as special creations of God.
Ever since the time of Darwin, of course, we have known that man, along with all life on earth, is the product of millions of years of evolution, a fact which has stood the test of time. Evolution today underlies a large number of scientific systems, including biology, geology and astronomy. There is no longer any doubt that evolution has occured, although there is still a lively debate as to its exact mechanism and tempo.
Naturally, the theory of evolution is still opposed by a small sect of Christians, who see it as a direct attack on the Bible. The situation is not very different from that which prevailed about 400 years ago, when astronomers such as Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo were heavily persecuted by the Church for suggesting that the earth is a sphere, and that it revolves around the sun, in concert with the other planets. At that time, the Church attacked the 'new' astronomy, not because it conflicted with Science, but because it conflicted with the Bible (as we will see later in this article).
"To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus Christ was not born of a virgin." - Cardinal Bellarmine 1615, during the trial of Galileo
"People gave ear to an upstart astrologer [Copernicus] who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool [or 'man'] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." - Martin Luther
"Those who assert that 'the earth moves and turns'...[are] motivated by 'a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;' possessed by the devil, they aimed 'to pervert the order of nature.'" - John Calvin
Christian Fundamentalists today attack the theory of Evolution for precisely the same reasons.
Fortunately, the truth eventually prevailed, and Christians learned to accomodate the new cosmogony into their belief systems, even going so far as to claim that it was there all the time. The same accomodation of evolution has already been made by most Christian sects (including the Catholic Church, who obviously learned something from the Galileo incident), and will eventually be accepted by most, if not all, of Christianity.
The cosmology of the ancient Semites can be determined from a number of sources, most notably by comparison with the Babylonian and Sumerian myths (see the Sumerian Mythology FAQ). In addition, Ugaritic literature throws much light on the mythology of the old Canaanites.
Among the Semitic ancients, the notion of a geocentric universe was common. Coupled with this was the idea of a the world as a house or dwelling. The earth was the floor - sometimes thought to be square, but mostly considered to be circular. Heaven was the roof of the world, and viewed either as a tent stretched out over the earth, or as a ceiling supported by pillars or mountains. The earth was considered to have a fixed, immovable foundation, and was usually viewed as being supported in the sea, again usually on pillars. Below the earth was the abode of the dead, a concept that later developed into the Hell of the New Testament. Above the sky was the Heaven - the abode of the gods. Some ancient myths also held that there was a storehouse of water just above the sky. This water was occasionally let through the sky by windows or doors, thus causing rain on the earth.
Of course, this notion was not shared by all ancient peoples. Erastosthenes of Alexandria, for example, argued that the earth was spherical as early as 300 BC, and was even able to make a surprisingly accurate estimate of its diameter. Just fifty years later, Aristarchus of Samos developed a heliocentric theory of astronomy.
Unfortunately, these ideas were not widely disseminated outside of the Mediterranean, and they soon fell into disuse, being replaced by the Ptolemaic geocentric theory. Certainly, the ancient Semites had no use for such theories, and consequently the Bible reflects a geocentric universe and a flat earth.
There are several Biblical references to a flat earth, both in the Old and the New Testament. There are, obviously, no explicit statements to that effect, quite simply because it was the prevailing paradigm, and was simply assumed by the various writers.
The Corners of the Earth
The most common reference is to the 'four corners' of the earth. For example, Isaiah 11:12 reads:
And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
Whether one assumes that the author meant literal corners, or the four cardinal directions, this statement still appears to presuppose a flat earth. Of course, it is possible that the phrase is employed in a symbolic sense, as we, for example, refer to the sun 'setting' and 'rising', even when we know better. However, it must be borne in might that this allegory did not arise ex nihilo - it is, in fact, a reflection of an earlier, prescientific point of view, during which our language developed.
There are more references to the four corners, which occur in contexts that make it difficult to assume a symbolic or metaphorical meaning. For example, Revelation 7:1 reads:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth...
Although this statement occurs in the context of a vision, it is still difficult to escape the conclusion that the writer had a flat earth in mind. If a spherical earth is assumed, it must be asked "where were the angels positioned?"
Looking to the Ends of the Earth
Another implicit statement which occurs with some frequency in the Bible, is the notion that the entire earth is visible from a suitably high vantage point. One such statement occurs in Job 28:24:
For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven...
This verse also makes the assertion that the earth has 'ends', i.e. that it is bounded in some manner. This phrase occurs many times in the Bible, where it is often used, admittedly, in a symbolic sense.
Of course, it could be argued that God is omnipresent, and would therefore be able to see all the earth at the same time. However, such statements are not limited to God. In Matthew 4:8, the following statement is made:
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them...
Clearly, the implication here is that 'all the kingdoms of the world' are visible from a suitable point. This is obviously impossible with a spherical earth.
In several instances, it is assumed that all people on earth would be able to witness an event taking place high in the sky. Revelation 1:7 (alluding to Zechariah 12:10) contains this statement:
Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him...
Again, this statement only makes sense if we recognize that the writer had a flat earth in mind.
The Foundation of the Earth
Continuing the metaphor of the universe as a house, the Bible often speaks of the earth having foundations. Job 38:4-6 describes the construction of earth, with God as a Divine builder:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof...
This passage refers to several building techniques common among the ancient Semites: digging the foundations, using a plumb-line, measuring the site, and laying the cornerstone. Although obviously allegorical, this passage does serve to illustrate the prevailing paradigm of the times. It should also serve as a note of caution to those scholars who insist that the book of Job contains scientifically accurate information. Psalm 104:5 repeats the idea of the earth's foundation:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Note that this verse could be interpreted to indicate that the earth is immovable - an idea entirely inconsistent with the scientific notion of the earth moving through space. This notion is repeated several times in the Bible.
As previously noted, some of the ancient myths held that the continents (i.e. the dry land) were supported in the sea by pillars. I Samuel 2:8, for example, reads:
...for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them.
Similarly, Job 9:6 speaks of God shaking the pillars of the earth.
The Stretched Out Sky
Concomitant with the idea of a flat earth was the notion that the sky is a physical entity, stretched over the earth like a ceiling. In the prescientific mindset, it was believed that the sky could be reached from an extremely high point. This notion, for example, underlies the myth of the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:4 reads:
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven...
In Daniel 4:11, we find both the notion of a reachable sky, and a flat earth in the same verse:
The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth...
Along with the idea of the sky as a ceiling, we find that the Bible repeatedly refers to the pillars of heaven. These pillars, in the ancient Semitic mindset, were thought to hold up the sky, just as columns were used to support the roof of a house. Job 26:11 reads:
The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.
Elsewhere, we find references to the sky being 'stretched out' above the earth. Isaiah 40:22 reads:
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth...that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in...
This is a clear allusion to the ancient view of the world. The sky is described as a tent, stretched out over the earth.
Much has been made of the word 'circle' in this verse. Some writers contend that it shows an understanding of a spherical earth in the Bible. This is not so, however. The Hebrew word used here simply denotes a circle, which is consistent with the ancient idea of a flat, circular earth. In Proverbs 8:27, we find another notion common among the ancient Semites - that the sea was bounded by a circle, which prevented it from falling off the world:
When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth...
See also Job 38:8-11, where the writer speaks of God bounding the sea with bars and doors.
So deeply ingrained was this notion of God 'stretching out' the sky, that is repeated a number of times in the Bible, by several different writers, indicating the prevalence of the myth. Some examples:
Isaiah 48:13 Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens...
Isaiah 51:13 And forgettest the Lord thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth...
Zechariah 12:1 ...the Lord, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth...
The idea of the sky as a physical ceiling was carried over to the New Testament. Revelation 6:14, foretelling the end of the world, reads:
And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together...
Again, this is a good allusion to the ancient world view. It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the modern view of an intangible, limitless sky.
Following the idea of the sky as a physical entity, the ancients also considered the stars to be suspended just below the vault of the sky. Isaiah 14:13, the famous story of the fall of Lucifer, contains this statement:
For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God...
Of course, it is entirely possible that the phrase 'above the stars' is used as a metaphor of power, as in Nahum 3:16. The imagery of this passage, however, seems to preclude this interpretation. Note that Lucifer is said to 'ascend' into heaven, 'above the Stars of God'. Remember that it was thought that God dwelt above the sky. Thus, the interpretation of this passage of Lucifer literally ascending above the sky into God's domain is more consistent.
In other places, the Bible seems to indicate that the stars can be knocked out of the sky. For example, Daniel 8:10 reads:
And it waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them.
This imagery was repeated in the New Testament. Revelation 12:14 (which is quite possibly an allusion to Daniel) reads:
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth...
The Windows of Heaven
As noted, ancient Semitic cosmology also included the notion of a great body of water stored above the sky. The first mention of this myth is found at the very beginning of the Bible, in the Creation epic of Genesis 1. Verses 6 to 8 read:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.
Note that Heaven (i.e. the Sky) is said to separate the 'waters above from the waters below'. Some commentators have speculated that this may refer to the moisture carried by the clouds in the atmosphere. However, there are more references to this water above the earth in a manner which makes this interpretation difficult. In the story of the great flood, we find a reference to the 'windows of heaven' in the context of rain. Note Genesis 7:11:
...the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
Note that in Genesis 8:2, when the rain stopped, we are told that the 'windows of heaven' were closed.
The ancients, of course, had a rudimentary knowledge of human (and animal) anatomy, gleaned, no doubt, from countless dissections of corpses. However, the functions of the various organs were only vaguely understood. In addition, they had no knowledge at all of genetics, and even the process of conception was not completely understood.
Ruminant Hares and Four-legged Grasshoppers
While recording the Jewish dietary laws, the writer of Leviticus makes some very strange assertions regarding animal biology. In Leviticus 11:3-6, we are told, for example, that a hare (i.e. a rabbit) chews the cud in the same manner as a camel. Verse 6 reads:
And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
Obviously, a hare lacks the necessary arrangement of internal organs to be able to chew the cud like a cow or a camel.
Elsewhere in the same chapter, we are told that certain insects have only four legs:
Leviticus 11:20-23 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you...Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.
One would have thought that the Deity would have taken time out to count the legs on a grasshopper.
In Genesis 30, we find a rather strange story. Laban, Jacob's employer, had promised Jacob that he could have all the striped and speckled goats in his flock. Laban then went on to ensure that this would not happen - he removed all the striped and speckled goats from his flock, and moved them far away. Laban thus had a fairly good understanding of the process of genetic inheritance. Jacob, however, did not. The Bible records that Jacob got hold of some green branches, pulled the bark away in strips, and planted them in front of the troughs where the goats would come to drink. Jacob was here acting under the old Semitic notion that the offspring were influenced by the environment of their parents during conception. The Bible goes on to record that this is exactly what happened:
Genesis 30:37-39 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink. And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.
Obviously, this is impossible by all the laws of genetics, as we understand them today. The genetic makeup of the embryo, we now know, is determined entirely by the genes selected at random during conception - the environment has absolutely nothing to do with the process.
Thinking with the Heart, Feeling with the Kidneys
Just as the process of conception was not well-known, the seat of consciousness and cognition was also an unanswered question. The ancients were of the opinion that, in general, thoughts arose in the heart, and that emotions were generated by the kidneys or the bowels. The brain, when it was mentioned at all, was generally assigned a very minor role. There are a number of references to 'thinking' with the heart, as well as making moral judgments with the same organ:
Genesis 6:5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Proverbs 16:9 A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.
The New Testament, too, was not immune to this problem.
Luke 6:45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.
Romans 10:10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
Although a case could be made for metaphorical, or allegorical speech in these passages (after all, we still use the heart as a metaphor for the mind), it is a little harder to explain away the fact that the Bible repeatedly assigns emotions to the kidneys (translated 'reins' in the King James Version) and the bowels:
Jeremiah 31:20 ...I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him...
Psalms 73:21 Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.
Proverbs 23:16 Yea, my reins shall rejoice, when thy lips speak right things.
II Corinthians 6:12 Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.
Philippians 1:8 For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
Revelation 2:23 ...and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts...
Conclusion and an Allegorical Note
When confronted with these arguments, the Biblical inerrantist is wont to point out that these passages may be poetic; in other words, they are not intended to be taken literally. In fact, this is partly true. Much of the imagery pointed out above occurs in the context of dreams or vision, or is found in poetic sections of the Bible. Does this invalidate the argument, however? No, mainly because the idea is to show that the prevailing, prescientific paradigm is reflected in the Bible. The various writers, whether they were employing metaphorical language or not, cast their messages in terms with which they were familiar. Thus the prevalence of outmoded and ancient thinking in the Bible argues strongly against its Divine origin.
What this indicates is that, in fact, the Bible does not contain knowledge, at least from a scientific point of view, that was not available to its writers. When closely examined, we find that there is good reason to believe that the Bible originated in the mind of Man, and that there is no Divine fingerprint upon its pages. Christians are fond of telling us that the Bible is timeless, its message pertinent to all ages and peoples. In fact, we find instead that it contains myths thousands of years old. The world has moved on - the Bible and the Christian ethic is no longer applicable to our society.
Relevant Articles from The Skeptical Review
Flat-Earth Belief of Bible Writers
What About Scientific Foreknowledge in the Bible?
Scientific Boo-Boos in the Bible
Does the Bible Speak of the Brain?
Chew on This... Again!
Still Chewing: Chasing Rabbits With Dr. Geisler
Related LinksThe Talk.Origins Archive
Almost beyond belief, there still exist groups today who insist that the Earth is the center of the Universe, orbited by the Sun. This position is based, not surprisingly, on a literal reading of the Bible. The chief proponent of this system is Gerardus D. Bouw. The Geocentric viewpoint is elaborated in the periodical "Biblical Astronomy".
Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel
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