Is the Earth a Circle or Sphere?
In the UK, there’s a TV show called QI and it’s hosted by our British gem, Stephen Fry.
Where am I going with all of this?
Recently, some TV channels have been showing repeats of the QI show and not so long ago, Stephen mentioned the following exchange between an elderly lady and William James:
After a lecture on science, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “what is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”
When I was young, I was told that we know the Bible to be correct, because of the uncanny accuracy of its scientific knowledge. This conclusion was based on eight words. Here they are:
“The circle of the earth” – Isaiah 40:22 and “Hanging upon nothing” – Job 26:7
If you ignore the prepositions and articles, you come down to two significant words, which are, “circle” and “nothing”. That’s not much to base a life on, but did the Bible display scientific foreknowledge by indicating that the earth was spherical and suspended in space?
Well, first of all, we need to determine if the Bible really meant what we thought it said. Secondly, is this knowledge remarkable enough to require divine guidance? And finally, is the Bible scientifically accurate in all of the other things it said?
The Circle of the Earth
If you look at a pizza from a distance, it looks like a circle. Therefore, when the Bible speaks of “the circle of the earth”, did it mean that the earth was spherical, or just round?
Well, the evidence seems to indicate that God thought the earth was flat and round, like a pizza. Here is why I and a great many others (including Stephen Fry) say that:
“I saw a tree of great height at the centre of the world. It was large and strong, with its top touching the heavens, and it could be seen from the ends of the earth.” – Daniel 4:7, 8
Therefore, God inspired Daniel to write that the earth’s surface has a centre, and that a tree could be tall enough to be seen everywhere on the planet. But, the surface of a sphere has no centre, and no matter how tall a tree is, it will not be visible from a large part of that sphere.
Jesus and the Devil make a similar mistake:
“The devil took him (Jesus) to a very high mountain and displayed before him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence….” – Matthew 4:8
Now, you could argue that the Devil used a vision to show Jesus the kingdoms, but the scripture implies that the purpose of going up the mountain was to make it possible to see the ends of the earth.
A similar concept regarding height shows up in Genesis 11:4. In this story, the people are trying to build a tower that would reach right up to heaven. This was very threatening to God, because heaven was his realm. Therefore, he confused their languages and scattered them. I wonder why he hasn’t put a stop to modern sky scrapers. Surely the height of a ziggurat could not compare to the Empire State Building.
Therefore, when the Bible talks about “the circle of the earth”, it appears to be talking about a flat, round surface, not a sphere.
The Hebrew word (חוג – chwg) refers to a circle, and to the action of circling. It does not refer to a sphere, or a ball, although it is often claimed by fundamentalist writers that the Hebrew word chwg “circle”, which appears in Isaiah 40:22 can also mean “sphere,” but I haven’t seen any textual evidence to support this claim.
Another word meaning “circle” or “to encircle”, dwr (as in Isaiah 29:3) was used to refer to spheres, as it is in Isaiah 22:18 (where it has the sense of “ball”), but 40:22 does not say that God resides above the “ball (dwr) of the earth”.
I could go on an tell you that Ibn Ezra’s commentary of Isaiah did not take chwg as referring to a three-dimensional sphere but simply noted that the expression implies that the earth is “not square” (also two-dimensional), but that would bore you.
But, let’s give God the benefit of the doubt and overlook this mistake. Let’s assume that he really did know the shape of the earth. Would that be evidence of divine inspiration?
Everyone who grew up watching Bugs Bunny knows that common knowledge held the earth to be flat until Christopher Columbus (not the guy who messed up the first two Harry Potter films) proved them wrong. Except, of course, for a bunch of Greek fellows. In 240 BC, Eratosthenes not only figured out that the earth was spherical, but he even managed to devise a brilliant method of calculating its diameter using trigonometry. Aristarchus built on this information to calculate the diameter of the sun. He was a little off, but he realised that the earth and sun were both spherical, and that the sun was many times larger than the earth. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the spherical shape of the earth was common knowledge among the Egyptians and Greeks as far back as 2550 BC.
Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) believed in heliocentrism, which basically means that the sun (helios in Greek) is at the centre. Unfortunately, God disagreed with the theory of heliocentrism.
Biblical references Psalm 93:1, 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 state (depending on the translation) that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” In the same manner, Psalm 104:5 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Further, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” etc.
Are you starting to get the picture?
Okay, that’s enough of History 101. What I can’t understand is that even if God had actually thought that the earth was spherical, it really wasn’t that remarkable of a conclusion. Other people, you know, the ones he had created, had figured it out all by themselves.
Stay tuned for next Thursday’s article when I will discuss Gods other scientific mishaps.