Flat earth beliefs go back to antiquity but were subsequently rejected by most people until they were reintroduced in the nineteenth century. Many believers, ancient and modern, relied on the Bible to support their contention that the earth is a plane. Although some Christians claim that the Bible does not sanction flat earth beliefs, an examination of the relevant Biblical passages shows the opposite.
As far as the status of pseudo scientists go, those who believe in a flat earth must surely occupy the lowest rank. Even the creationists turn their noses up at the contemptible lot. During a debate between the creationist Duane Gish and the paleontologist Michael Voorhies, the latter suggested that the Creation Research Society looked like the Flat Earth Society. A furious Gish called the remark a “smear” and denied that any members of his organization also belonged to the Flat Earth Society. Not long afterwards a certain person who identified himself as G.J.D. reacted to the outburst of Gish in the creationist newsletter Acts and Facts. He was incensed by Gish’s claim and identified himself as a member of both organizations but added that since Gish regards him as persona non grata, he will resign as a member of the Creation Research Society. (See Robert Schadewald Scientific Creationism, Geocentricity, and the Flat Earth in the Skeptical Inquirer Winter 1981-82 p. 41).
The differences between the two groups are difficult to understand, given the fact that both appeal to the Bible in support of their positions. One would think that if the Bible says the world is flat, all literalists, which include creationists, would accept it. The problem is that the shape of the earth is nowhere explicitly and fully described in the Bible. For that reason, the author of the book Flat Earth (2007), Christine Garwood, indignantly rejects the description of the Bible as a “flat earth book” by Schadewald (P 16). According to her the Bible is not a systematic study of the geography of the earth and heaven and can therefore not be used as a basis for flat earth beliefs. Like many Christians, she argues that the Bible says the world is spherical. If fact, we are told on page 351 of her book that it was inter alia as a result of Columbus’ belief in the Bible that he knew that the world is a globe.
Garwood also claims that even before the discoveries of Columbus, people generally (by which she presumably means more than 50%) accepted that the world is spherical. We have, however, in the absence of medieval opinion polls, no information on that score. All we have are the views of those who could read and write.To infer from their writings what the illiterate common people of the time thought of the shape of the earth is, to put it mildly, a stretch. Further doubt regarding Garwood’s claim of a widespread belief in the sphericity of the earth in medieval times can be found in opinion polls conducted among primary school children in 1996. In Britain 20% believed the earth is flat while the comparable figure from the United States was 50% for children under 10 years. (See page 361 of Garwood’s book.) If the figure is so high in modern times, how much higher was is during the Middle Ages when people knew next to nothing?
The medieval Church fathers may not have known much more, but they wrote on the subject. And what they said carried a great deal of weight. A synopsis of their views can be found in Andrew D. White’s monumental work first published in 1896 under the title A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1993 vol. 1 p. 89 – 113) as well as Daniel J Boorstin’s book The Discoverers (1984 p. 107 – 111) . These theologians, which included Eusebius, Lacantius, St John Chrysostom and Ephraem Syrus, rejected the view (first proposed by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (570 BCE to 494 BCE) and later confirmed by the Greek geographer Eratosthenes who measured the circumference of the earth in 240 BCE) that the earth is spherical and proposed instead that it is flat.
Their views on the flat earth culminated in the cosmography of the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century. According to him the flat world is in the form of an oblong parallelogram and surrounded by four oceans. He estimated the travelling time across the length to be 400 days while traversing the breadth would take 200 days. An enormous wall, he said, forms the outer boundary of the structure on which the firmament or vault, cemented to the wall, rests and within which the sun, moon and stars move. Cosmas was absolutely convinced that his description is correct because it is in the form of the Jewish tabernacle (and also in accordance with Hebrews 9:1-3). To round it off, Cosmas divided his boxlike cosmos into two compartments. The lower floor, where humans live, is flat but the sky above it extends right up to the stars. The upper storey, on the other hand, is the abode of heavenly beings where the angels keep themselves busy by pushing the sun, moon and stars around and watering the earth by opening the windows of the heaven so that it can rain. The hell is, of course, at the bottom of the earth but is connected thereto by means of holes in the oceans into which ships fall if they are not circumspect. Even in the time of Columbus sailors were afraid that it may happen to them.
One reason why there was so much opposition to the idea of the earth as a globe was the problems that the church fathers experienced with those people who lived on the diametrically opposite side of the world; the so-called antipodes (“opposite feet”). These would be, for the Europeans, those who live in Australia and New Zealand. It was believed that an impassable fiery zone on the equator surrounded the globe and separated the two hemispheres. It was accordingly argued that if lands exist on the opposite site of the world and were inhabited, the people could not possibly be descended from Adam and Eve and the animals could not have been inside Noah’s ark. Detractors also identified other problems. Lacantius, for instance, asked scornfully how it is possible that a person’s footsteps can be higher than his head, that crops grow downward and that rain and snow fall upward. Others, such as the church father Augustine, denied the existence of the antipodes because they are not mentioned in the Bible. According to him God would never have created the antipodes because they will not be able to see the Second Coming. A belief in the antipodes subsequently acquired the status of heresy in the Church and, needless to say, led many to reject the belief in a spherical earth.
Garwood, however, dismisses these members of the Church as “extremists” and calls them “atypical”. According to her , “…the early Church fathers were not literalists who believed…the world was a plane.” The majority, she says, accepted that the world was a globe and interpreted the scriptures allegorically (p.23). This is such a ridiculous claim, it could only have come from a Christian apologist. Far more accurate, I think, is the assessment of Boorstin who states that a “..few compromising spirits tried to accept a spherical earth for geographical reasons, while still denying the existence of Antipodean inhabitants for theological reasons. But their numbers did not multiply.” (p.108)
Later during the Middle Ages, when the works of Aristotle reached Europe (via the Islamic world), he became an esteemed authority. As a result, many scholars adopted his views on the sphericity of the earth. There were, however, those who disagreed. Some of these were the reformers Luther, Calvin and Zwingli who maintained that the earth is flat and reviled as heretics those who held contrary opinions. But their opposition to the idea of a spherical earth was in vain. The voyages of discovery, particularly the circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan from 1519 to 1522, soon put an end to flat world beliefs.
But they were again resurrected. Garwood’s book deals principally with the revival of the idea in the 1840’s and it’s subsequent history up until 2001.The strange thing is that during the period that she discusses, the flat earth movement was, contrary to what one would expect, dominated by Englishmen rather than Americans. The founder of the movement was a British socialist doctor (apparently more a quack than a reputable healer) by the name of Samuel Birley Rowbotham. He called himself “Parallax” and his system “Zetetic Astronomy”. With a firm belief in the literal truth of the Bible and an exceptional ability as an orator, he persuaded several people to accept his view that the world is flat. According to him the earth resembles a pancake with the North Pole at it’s centre. An enormous wall of ice forms the edge of the world, supplanting the continent of Antarctica which, according to him, does not exist. Parallax argued that the motionless earth is the centre of the universe and that the sun, moon and stars are but a few thousand miles from it’s surface. Gravity is, according to him, a myth. What really happens when something falls towards the earth when it is dropped, he maintained, it that the weight of the object propels it downward. He attributed the tides of the sea to the earth drifting on water and the rocking motion resulting therefrom which creates the illusion of incoming and outgoing tides.
Unsurprisingly, Parallax had to deal with the proofs for the spherical earth that were accepted by most people at the time. For each of these he devised a counter argument backed up by experiments, complicated mathematical calculations and quotations from Scripture. Modern day believers, of course, have to contend with a larger number of proofs than Parallax. These include pictures from space. See https://www.livescience.com/60544-ways-to-prove-earth-is-round.html . Not that true believers in the flatness of the earth are persuaded by these demonstrations that they are wrong. They simply argue that the whole business is a swindle. Why all the scientists and explorers who, after all, do not know each other would want to conspire to defraud an unsuspecting public and what advantage they hope to gain from it, they cannot say. For a recent overview of the movement and how they deal with these problems, see http://www.livescience.com/24310-flat-earth-belief.html .
One of the most interesting incidents that Garwood discusses in her book concerns the challenge that was issued by one of the fanatical followers of Parallax, one John Hampden, to the scientists of the time. If any of them could prove to the satisfaction of an independent adjudicator that the earth is spherical, he said, he would pay the scientist £500, a princely sum in those days. (Should they fail, they would have to pay him £500). The only scientist who was prepared to take up the challenge was Alfred Russel Wallace.(He was the person who discovered the principles of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin, forcing the latter to rush his classic book The Origin of Species into print in 1859.) Wallace thought that he might be able to persuade Hampden to change his mind after witnessing a proper scientific demonstration. He also hoped that it would inspire confidence in science among the general public. Moreover, he was, unlike Darwin, not a wealthy man and the £500 could come in handy.
After some problems, the experiment was duly conducted in conditions acceptable to both parties. A pole was erected in the Old Bedford Canal, Cambridgeshire, between to the Old Bedford Bridge and Welney bridge, a distance of six miles (9.66 km). A surveyor’s telescope was also placed atop Welney Bridge . Certain markings on Old Bedford Bridge and the top of the pole were in line with the telescope and all these were exactly thirteen feet three inches (4 meters) above the water line. Peering through the telescope, one could see that the top of the pole was 4 – 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meter) higher than the markings on Old Bedford Bridge – demonstrating the curvature of the earth. Although Hampden at first disputed the outcome of the experiment, he eventually paid the money over to the adjudicator, John Walsh. However, shortly after the matter had been concluded, Hampden started a libelous campaign against Wallace and Walsh, forcing them to approach the courts for relief. Although Hampden was briefly imprisoned for threatening the lives of Wallace and Walsh, they had no success in shutting him up. The matter was eventually brought to a head when Hampden, contrary to expectation, successfully sued Wallace for the return of his £500. The court held that the undertaking to pay the money was a wager and, as such, against the public interest.
But I wish to return to the question whether the Bible propagates a flat earth or not. One would think that Garwood would have addressed the aspect in her book because it is, after all, central to her thesis. But, given her views to which I have already referred, she evades the subject and the only reference thereto appears in an annexure on pages 363 to 369 of her book. It contains the heading SCRIPTURAL ‘PROOFS’ with the explanation that it has been taken from Parallax’s book Zetetic Astronomy. The inverted commas create the impression that she thinks that the proofs are spurious and not worth analysing. But the matter is too important to be dismissed in such a cavalier fashion. Consequently a brief investigation will be conducted into what the Bible says on the shape of the earth. (I must point out though, that I did not rely on Parallax and his proofs in what follows and that the analysis is my own. I shall, moreover, refer to the translation of the Bible as it appears in the Revised Standard Version (1952) since it seems to be the most accurate of the various English translations available).
It should be borne in mind that the Biblical mythology and cosmography borrowed a great deal from ancient Mesopotamia where the earth was regarded as flat. However, because most of the intended readers of the Bible, the ancient Israelites, knew what everyone thought was the form of the world, the scribes did not deem it necessary to explain it in any great detail. Consequently, one only finds scattered references to the aspect and they appear throughout the Bible.
According to Genesis 1:6-7 God divided the waters below from the waters above it by means of a dome. The word “dome”, of course, gives the whole show away. A dome only fits over a flat round surface – definitely not a globe. Some translations of the Bible try to hush the matter up by using the words “firmament” and “vault” instead. The waters below were believed to be under the earth and that is why Noah’s flood was caused when “…the fountains of the deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened.” (Gen 7:11). Later, however, it came to be believed that the realm of the dead was instead under the ground. One reads accordingly in Numbers 16:30-33 that “…the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up…and they go down alive into Sheol…” Sheol was what the Greeks called Hades later became the Christian hell. See Luke 16:22-24 and Philippians 2:10.
It is apparent from other passages in the Bible that the earth is flat but round and accordingly resembles a coin or a pancake. Proverbs 8:27-29 tells us that God “…drew a circle on the face of the deep…(and)…marked out the foundations of the earth.” This aspect is further elaborated upon in Isaiah 40:22 where we are are informed that God sits “…above the circle of the earth…(and) stretches out the heaven like a curtain, and… a tent to live in.” According to these passages the earth is covered by a round tent (or a dome) and propped up by a foundation. Job 26:11 adds that the heavens too rests on pillars while we are told in Job 38:4-6 that the foundation of the earth was laid by God and that it rests on a cornerstone. On what the cornerstone rests, we are not told. Not that it is unimportant. Carl Sagan tells on page 293 of his book Broca’s Brain (1979) the apocryphal story of a Western traveler who asked an Oriental philosopher to describe the nature of the world.
“Oh” he said, “it is a great ball resting on the flat back of the world turtle.”
“Ah yes, but what does the world turtle stand on?”
“On the back of a still larger turtle.”
“Yes, but what does he stand on?”
‘A very perceptive question sir. But it is no use, it’s turtles all the way down.”
Perhaps it is in the case of the Bible also cornerstones “all the way down”.
There are also other indications in the Bible that that the earth must be flat. The contemporary belief that the heaven is “above” not only agrees with Isaiah 40:22, but also with Ezekiel 1:26 where it is expressly stated that the heaven is overhead, above the dome to be precise. Such a conception fits in with the idea that the world is flat for then it is overhead for everyone. It can, however, not be reconciled with a spherical earth because then heaven would be (if it is above the northern hemisphere) at the feet of those in Antarctica and to the side of people who live on the equator.
With a spherical earth, there can of course be no centre on the outside of the globe. But that is not the case with a flat earth. Does the Bible say where the centre is? Yes, indeed it does. In fact, God himself tells the Israelites that their country, and particularly that Jerusalem, is the centre of the world. See Ezekiel 38:12 read with Ezekiel 5:5 in this regard.
Nothing is said in the New Testament to contradict the view of the cosmos set forth earlier. On the contrary, the authors elaborate thereon. In Matthew 12:42, for instance, Jesus refers to the “ends of the earth” while in a vision reported in Revelations 6: 13-14 it is said that the “…stars of the sky fell to earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale” and that sky rolled itself up as a scroll. That is in agreement with Genesis 1:16-17 where it is stated that the stars (together with the sun and the moon) were placed in or against the dome.
The question still remains why no recorded instance exists of someone being called to account during the Middle Ages for denying that the earth is flat. One would think that many people would have suffered this fate during a period in the Church when dissenters were mercilessly persecuted. Giordano Bruno, for instance, was burnt at the stake in the year 1600 for advocating the existence of other worlds, what we call today exoplanets (see my essay, in Afrikaans, on the subject at https://www.lewies.co.za/eksoplanete ) while Galileo was placed under house arrest for his adoption of the heliocentric theory. Why were those who rejected the Biblical claim of the flat earth not similarly persecuted? I think there were two reasons. The one was, as we have seen, that the concept is not clearly and unambiguously spelled out in the Bible and the other is that by the time the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, began with its activities in 1480, the global voyages of discovery, initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal earlier in the century, were already under way – changing our view of the geography of the world forever.