The Bible & The Shape of the Earth — A Blog Exchange with Richard Peachey

(excerpted from

Alan Cooper

February 8, 2014 at 6:27 pm

  It’s ok Richard. Those of us who deny that evolution is incompatible with ALL religion are quite happy to let it be incompatible with yours if that’s the way you want it. And if you like you can even also insist that the (approximate) sphericity of the earth is also incompatible with your religion. It is however possible to be religious in some sense of the term without being completely nuts.

Richard Peachey

February 11, 2014 at 8:10 am

  Hi, Alan. No one is suggesting that evolution is incompatible with ALL religion. Evolution is quite compatible with religions having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof (2 Timothy 3:5). For example, liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and any others who downplay the authority and historicity of the Bible.

  Now regarding the sphericity of our planet, that is something that’s empirically verifiable — unlike biological macroevolution, an abiotic origin of life, and a “Big Bang.” The medieval church has indeed been accused of retarding the progress of science by teaching that the Earth is flat — but that charge is actually a myth propagated by evolutionist academics (!) who should have known better. Take a look at Stephen Jay Gould’s writeup on this, originally published in Natural History [Vol. 103, No. 3, pp. 12-19, 1994]:

  By the way, did you know that the current leadership of the Flat Earth Society are . . . evolutionists?

Michael Fugate

February 11, 2014 at 11:34 am

  What does the Bible say about the sphericity of the earth? Do orbs have corners?

Richard Peachey

February 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm

  Interesting questions — and distinct questions, each of which requires a separate answer.

(1) “What does the Bible say about the sphericity of the earth?”

  (a) There’s no particular requirement that it must say anything. (The earth’s shape is not a “salvation issue,” where our eternal destiny depends on having the correct knowledge.)

  (b) In fact, the earth’s sphericity was ascertainable empirically, and did not need divine revelation for us to learn about it. By the 5th century before Christ, the large majority of Greek philosophers understood the earth to be round. “Aristotle [4th century BC] saw that the evidence of the earth’s sphericity lies in the spherical appearance of the heavens, in the limitation of our view over the sea by the curvature of the earth, in the fact that we see the stars differently depending on our latitude, in the perfect motion of the stars, which implies that they move on a perfect sphere, in that the hull of a ship disappears from our eyes before the mast does, in that the higher one’s elevation the farther one can see, and in that eclipses of the moon are caused by the shadow of the spherical earth.” (Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, pp. 24f.) Aristotle also had non-empirical reasons for his view, involving aesthetics and symmetry, but the foregoing are all empirically based.

  (c) Not only did the ancients determine the earth to be spherical, but its circumference was even calculated to a fair degree of accuracy — by Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC.

  (d) As Stephen Jay Gould noted, in an essay discussing Russell’s book, “Greek knowledge of sphericity was never lost, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

  (e) Having said all of that, there is a biblical text that can be taken as alluding to the shape of the earth. Isaiah 40:22, referring to God, says: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth ….” The Hebrew word translated “circle” is khug. One of my Hebrew lexicons (Gesenius) says this word means “a circlesphere, used of the arch or vault of the sky”; another lexicon (Davidson) defines the word as simply “circlesphere“. So it seems the word is compatible with a three-dimensional globe, but such a shape is not necessarily demanded by the word. (This is something like our word “round” which applies to circles, discs, cylinders, and spheres.) Conclusion: Because of the semantic range of the Hebrew word, and because Isaiah 40:22 is written in Hebrew poetry, and because there is no other text that definitively indicates the earth’s shape, I am not going to insist that Isaiah 40:22 must be understood as referring to a spherical earth.

  (f) For a stronger view (which I think is overstated), that Isaiah 40:22 cannot be taken as referring to a spherical earth, see Robert J. Schneider, “Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?”

(2) “Do orbs have corners?”

  (a) “Orb” is synonymous with “sphere” or “globe.” No, they do not have corners.

  (b) This question is different from the first, in that the Bible is not required to explicitly present a spherical earth, but on the other hand it is required not to teach some other shape for the earth, such as a flat disc or square. If the Bible clearly promoted such a shape, that would be a material error, which would overthrow the inerrancy of Scripture, and would constitute evidence that the Bible is not the revelation of an all-knowing God.

  (c) Isaiah 11:12 states concerning the Lord: “He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters [or corners] of the earth.” The Hebrew word translated “quarters” or “corners” is the plural form of kanaph. One of my Hebrew lexicons defines this word as a wing, edge, extremity (Gesenius); another says it means wing of a bird, extremity, extreme part, corner (Davidson).

  (d) Ezekiel 7:2 contains the same expression, including the number “four,” and the Hebrew word ‘eretz which is translated “earth” in Isaiah 11:12. But ‘eretz in Ezekiel 7:2 evidently refers only to the land of Israel: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel: The end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land.”

  (e) The expression “ends of the earth” or “edges of the earth,” but without the number “four,” also occurs in Isaiah 24:16; Job 37:3; 38:13. The Hebrew wording is the same as in Isaiah 11:12 and Ezekiel 7:2.

  (f) Because the above passages from Isaiah and Job are all written in Hebrew poetry (contrast with Genesis 1), and the words kanaph and ‘eretz have a variety of meanings within their respective semantic ranges, and they are not intentional didactic passages regarding geomorphology or cosmogony (in contrast to Genesis 1), it seems to me ill-considered to insist that they are clearly teaching error.

  (g) Revelation 7:1 states: “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.” (Compare with the similar expression in Revelation 20:8.) The Greek term translated “corners” is the plural of gonia, which, according to my Greek lexicon, can be rendered as angle, corner, obscure place, extremity, or quarter (of the earth).

  (h) Because Revelation is an apocalyptic book, often employing (what strikes us as) lurid, bizarre imagery, and the author is borrowing an expression from the Hebrew Bible which may be translated in different ways, and the Greek word translated “corners” has a wide semantic range, and the book of Revelation is not intentionally didactic regarding geomorphology or cosmogony (in contrast to Genesis 1), it seems to me inappropriate to insist that the cited passages in Revelation are clearly teaching error.

  Thanks for your questions, Michael. In a way, I apologize for the lengthy response, but I hope it’s helpful.