Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Flat Earth

A number of young-earth creationists purport to find in Isa. 40:22 and Job 26:7 evidence that the bible teaches that the earth is spherical. A detailed analysis of key Hebrew words and their translations in ancient and modern versions shows that there is no substantive evidence and thus no warrant for this claim. But that is another work. They also claim that the bible does NOT say anything about the earth being flat. This work demonstrates their denial of the truth of the flat earth bible.

The Earth is Flat

When I first became interested in the flat-earthers in the early 1970s, I was surprised to learn that flat-earthism in the English-speaking world is and always has been entirely based upon the bible. I have since assembled and read an extensive collection of flat-earth literature. The biblical arguments for flat-earthism that follow come mainly from my reading of flat-earth literature, augmented by my own reading of the bible.

The bible is, from Genesis to Revelation, a flat-earth book, implying that the writer viewed the habitable earth as a four-cornered area that sat fixed on a foundation.

Except among biblical inerrantists, it is generally agreed that the bible describes an immovable earth. At the 1984 National bible-Science Conference in Cleveland, geocentrist James N. Hanson told me there are hundreds of scriptures that suggest the earth is immovable. I suspect some must be a bit vague, but here are a few obvious texts:

1 Chronicles 16:30: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.”

Psalm 93:1: “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm ...”

Psalm 96:10: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable ...”

Psalm 104:5: “Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken.”

Isaiah 45:18: “...who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast...”

Suffice to say that the earth envisioned by flat-earthers is as immovable as any geocentrist could desire. Most (perhaps all) scriptures commonly cited by geocentrists have also been cited by flat-earthers. The flat-earth view is geocentricity with further restrictions.

Like geocentrists, flat-earth advocates often give long lists of texts. Samuel Birley Rowbotham, founder of the modern flat-earth movement, cited 76 scriptures in the last chapter of his monumental second edition of Earth not a Globe. Apostle Anton Darms, assistant to the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, America's best known flat-earther, compiled 50 questions about the creation and the shape of the earth, bolstering his answers with up to 20 scriptures each. Rather than presenting an exhaustive compendium of flat-earth scriptures, I focus on those which seem to me the strongest. I also comment on some attempts to find the earth's sphericity in the bible.

Scriptural quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New English Bible. Hebrew and Greek translations are from Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. The biblical cosmology is never explicitly stated, so it must be pieced together from scattered passages. The bible is a composite work, so there is no a priori reason why the cosmology assumed by its various writers should be relatively consistent, but it is. The bible is, from Genesis to Revelation, a flat-earth book.

This is hardly surprising. As neighbors, the ancient Hebrews had the Egyptians to the southwest and the Babylonians to the northeast. Both civilizations had flat-earth cosmologies. The biblical cosmology closely parallels the Sumero-Babylonian cosmology, and it may also draw upon Egyptian cosmology.

The Babylonian universe was shaped like a modern domed stadium. The Babylonians considered the earth essentially flat, with a continental mass surrounded by ocean. The vault of the sky was a physical object resting upon the ocean's waters (and perhaps also upon pillars). Sweet (salt-free) waters below the Earth sometimes manifest themselves as springs. The Egyptian universe was also enclosed, but it was rectangular instead of round. Indeed, it was shaped much like an old-fashioned steamer trunk. (The Egyptians pictured the goddess Nut stretched across the sky as the enclosing dome.)

What was the Hebrew view of the universe?

The Shape of the Earth

Disregarding the dome, the essential flatness of the earth's surface is required by verses like Daniel 4:10-11. In Daniel, the king “saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth...reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth's farthest bounds.” If the earth were flat, a sufficiently tall tree would be visible to “the earth's farthest bounds,” but this is impossible on a spherical earth. Likewise, in describing the temptation of Jesus by Satan, Matthew 4:8 says, “Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [cosmos] in their glory.” Obviously, this would be possible only if the earth were flat. The same is true of Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye shall see him...”

The Book of Enoch

The cosmology previously described is derived from the bible itself, following the 19th century flat-earthers. Some of the evidence is more ambiguous than we would like. Ambiguities in ancient documents can often be elucidated by consulting contemporary documents. The most important ancient document describing Hebrew cosmology is 1 Enoch (sometimes called the Ethiopic Book of Enoch), one of those long, disjointed, scissors and paste jobs beloved by ancient scribes. For a dozen or so centuries, European scholars knew 1 Enoch only from numerous passages preserved in the patristic literature. In 1773, the Scottish adventurer James Bruce found complete copies in Ethiopia.

Numerous manuscripts of 1 Enoch have since been found in Ethiopian monasteries. Turn of the century scholars concluded that parts of the book are pre-Maccabean, and most (perhaps all) of it was composed by 100 B.C. [Charles, 1913]. These conclusions were largely vindicated when numerous fragments of 1 Enoch were found among the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. There have been two major English translations of 1 Enoch, the 1913 translation of R. H. Charles and the 1983 translation by E. Isaac. All of the quotations that follow come from the newer translation.

The importance of 1 Enoch is poorly appreciated outside the scholarly community. Comparison of its text with New Testament books reveals that many Enochian doctrines were taken over by early Christians. E. Isaac writes:

There is little doubt that 1 Enoch was influential in molding New Testament doctrines concerning the nature of the Messiah, the Son of Man, the messianic kingdom, demonology, the future, resurrection, final judgment, the whole eschatological theater, and symbolism. No wonder, therefore, that the book was highly regarded by many of the apostolic and Church Fathers [1986, 10].

First Enoch influenced Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, and several other New Testament books. The punishment of the fallen angels described in 2 Peter seems to come directly from 1 Enoch, as does much of the imagery (or even wording) in Revelation. The Epistle of Jude contains the most dramatic evidence of its influence when it castigates “enemies of religion” as follows:

It was to them that Enoch, the seventh in descent from Adam, directed his prophecy when he said: “I saw the Lord come with his myriads of angels, to bring all men to judgment and to convict all the godless of all the godless deeds they had committed, and of all the defiant words which godless sinners had spoken against him (Jude 14- 15).”

The inner quote, 1 Enoch 1:9, is found in the original Hebrew on a recently-published Qumran fragment [Shanks, 1987, 18]. By attributing prophecy to Enoch, Jude confers inspired status upon the book.

First Enoch is important for another reason. Unlike the canonical books of the bible, which (in my view) were never meant to teach science, sections of 1 Enoch were intended to describe the natural world. The narrator sometimes sounds like a 2nd century B.C. Carl Sagan explaining the heavens and earth to the admiring masses. The Enochian cosmology is precisely the flat-earth cosmology previously derived from the canonical books.

I went to the extreme ends of the earth and saw there huge beasts, each different from the other and different birds (also) differing from one another in appearance, beauty, and voice. And to the east of those beasts, I saw the ultimate ends of the earth which rests on the heaven. And the gates of heaven were open, and I saw how the stars of heaven come out...(1 Enoch 33:1-2).

Again, Enoch says, “I went in the direction of the north, to the extreme ends of the earth, and there at the extreme end of the whole world I saw a great and glorious seat. There (also) I saw three open gates of heaven; when it blows cold, hail, frost, snow, dew, and rain, through each one of the (gates) the winds proceed in the northwesterly direction (1 Enoch 34:1-2).” This accords well with Jeremiah 51:16 which says, “he brings up the mist from the ends of the earth, he opens rifts for the rain and brings the wind out of his storehouses.” In subsequent chapters, Enoch journeys “to the extreme ends of the earth” in the west, south, and east. In each place he saw three more “open gates of heaven.”

There were other things to be seen at the ends of the earth. Earlier, we deferred discussion of the King James version of Job 26:7, “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.” On several occasions when Enoch and the angel are out beyond the dome of heaven, Enoch comments that there is nothing above or below. For instance, “And I came to an empty place. And I saw (there) neither a heaven above nor an earth below, but a chaotic and terrible place (1 Enoch 21:1-2).” Could this be the kind of nothingness referred to in Job?
An angel also showed Enoch the storerooms of the winds (18:1) and the cornerstone of the earth (18:2).

Weaker Arguments

Flat-earthers also offer some scriptural arguments that are (in my view) weak, ambiguous, erroneous, or irrelevant. (Ironically, it is these that apologists for sphericity usually choose to deal with in their rebuttals to the flat-earthers!) The weak and ambiguous arguments can help support a cumulative picture but are insufficient on their own.

One of the weaker scriptural arguments is that the sky literally has openings (windows) which God can open to let the waters above fall to the surface as rain (see Genesis 7:11, Genesis 8:2, Isaiah 24:18-19, Jeremiah 51:15-16, and Malachi 3:10). While the idea and scriptures are certainly consistent with the flat-earth cosmology, they could (for instance) refer to openings in a spherical shell surrounding a spherical earth. The same applies to the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:4, often cited as an attempt to literally reach the heavens.

Likewise, flat-earthers frequently cite the numerous Old Testament verses referring to the earth's foundations (see 2 Samuel 22:16, Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, Proverbs 8:29, Isaiah 24:18, and numerous others). Foundations are, however, fairly well-covered by geocentricity. No one would argue for a flat-earth solely on the basis of “foundations” quotes.

Another less-than-conclusive argument that the bible is a flat-earth book is its references to the earth's “corners.” For example, “After this, I saw four angels stationed at the four corners [gonia] of the earth holding back the four winds...(Revelation 7:1).” Spherical apologists are quick to point out that the Greek gonia can refer to regions rather than points. Most translations of the bible opt for points (the King James version says “on the corners of the earth”), implying that the writer viewed the habitable earth as a four-cornered area. (This was indeed the way many early churchmen interpreted it [Cosmas, 548]. The modern flat-earth model doesn't have literal corners.) The corners could, however, be those regions at the ends of the earth referred to by Jeremiah: “[H]e brings up the mist from the ends of the earth, he opens rifts for the rain and brings the wind out of his storehouses (Jeremiah 51:16).” We shall return to the ends of the earth.

The biblical view of the universe is relatively clear and consistent. biblical statements bearing on cosmology are (with one possible exception yet to be discussed) consistent with the well-known flat-earth cosmologies of the ancient Near East, but they are often flatly con- tradicted by modern science. How do spherical apologists reply?


From their geographical and historical context, one would expect the ancient Hebrews to have a flat-earth cosmology. Indeed, from the very beginning, ultra-orthodox Christians have been flat-earthers, arguing that to believe otherwise is to deny the literal truth of the bible. The flat-earth implications of the bible were rediscovered and popularized by English-speaking Christians in the mid-19th century. Liberal scriptural scholars later derived the same view. Thus, students with remarkably disparate points of view independently concluded that the ancient Hebrews had a flat-earth cosmology, often deriving this view from scripture alone. Their conclusions were dramatically confirmed by the rediscovery of 1 Enoch.

From the work of Robert J Schadewald

On March 12, 2000, Robert J Schadewald, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Bob was a technical writer by profession, but was also known by many others as a researcher of the scientifically quirky. The creation/evolution issue occupied much of his time, but his true specialty was the turn-of-the-century flat-earth, geocentric, and hollow-earth movements. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was truly the authority on these early pseudosciences, about which he wrote several articles.

He assembled an unusually complete library of materials on these enthusiasms, including original books and pamphlets as well as copies of obscure and one-of-a-kind items archived at libraries in the US and abroad. Bob was a bibliophile’s bibliophile: whenever he visited a city, he inevitably would check the library’s holdings, and he always made the rounds of used bookstores. Bob's library reflected his fascination with how science could be distorted, spun around, and turned inside out to justify false claims, whether those of special creation, or the even more bizarre "theory" of a hollow earth. He delighted in pointing out similarities in how geocentrists, flat-earthers, and creationists marshaled their arguments. One of his prize possessions was a framed certificate declaring him a member of the International Flat Earth Society, headed by Charles K Johnson, of Lancaster, California. He was always happy to relate the story of how Johnson rescinded his membership after he discovered that Bob possessed “spherical tendencies”.

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