Saturday, October 24, 2015

Isaiah's 'circle of the earth'- A bad creationist argument

Isaiah 40:22
"It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers..."

I think it would be really cool if the above verse was a supernatural scientific revelation that set Israel apart from the rest of the ancient word with respect to cosmology. My whole life I've grown up hearing evangelicals repeat it as proof that the Bible is inspired, and a few years ago my PhD theology professor cited it to our class as a proof for the Bible's divine origin.

The physicist Jason Lisle at Answers in Genesis propagates the idea

In reality, this is lazy folk apologetics and needs a spanking. There is nothing scientifically special about this passage, because we have plenty of pagan ancient Near Eastern depictions which describe the earth as a circle. I'm sorry if that kills people's apologetics joyride, but God doesn't need us making up stupid arguments from unchecked, sloppy assumptions to defend him.

Answers in Marduk:

The Babylonian map of the world depicts the earth as a round, flat disc encircled by the sea, from mythological sources far predating Isaiah. I guess Marduk appeared to the Babylonian priesthood and informed them the earth is a circle too?

I’ll plunder Paul H. Seely’s Westminster Theological Journal article (1997) for a few more examples: 
“Diodorus Siculus (II:31:7) tells us that the Babylonians told him the earth is ‘shaped like a boat and hollow.’ The boat is undoubtedly a coracle, used into modern times by natives on the Euphrates. The coracle is circular, rounded at the edges like the yolk of an egg, but, of course, hollow.”
Kramer and Lambert believe the Babylonians inherited this idea from Sumer

Egyptologist, John Wilson says the Egyptians believed the
“earth was conceived of as a flat platter with a corrugated rim. The inside bottom of the platter was the flat alluvial plain of Egypt, and the corrugated rim was the rim of mountains which were the foreign lands."
Othmar Keel, “noting that the ocean around the earth was long conceived of by the Egyptians as circular, concluded…:
'This fact suggests that in Egypt, visualization of the earth as a circular disc was from very ancient times at least an option.’ This conclusion is supported by evidence, as early as the fourteenth century BC, of circular representations of the figure of Osiris or Geb [the earth god].'”
In “the time of Rameses III (1195-1164 BC) in an inscription…reads ‘...they laid their hands upon the land as far as the Circle of the Earth.’”

In addition to these types of examples, in ancient Greece we have Homer and over half-a-dozen philosophers arguing the earth is a flat disc down until 400 BC.  “Herodotus (c. 400 BC) uniformly rendered the earth just as Homer had described it, as a disc.” He writes (4:36),
…all the map-makers—there are plenty of them--who show Ocean running like a river round a perfectly circular earth, with Asia and Europe of the same size. 


You can easily go all over the world finding these examples.  Because of the curvature of the horizon, it is very natural (if not most natural) for pre-scientific people groups to assume the earth is a disc. If the Bible contains scientific revelations beyond the culture around it, this verse can't be used as an example.  


  1. You might want to consider the only writing on this subject that is clear:

    "Anaximenes and Anaxagoras and Democritus give the flatness of the earth as the cause of its staying still. Thus, they say, it does not cut, but covers like a lid, the air beneath it. This seems to be the way of flat-shaped bodies: for even the wind can scarcely move them because of their power of resistance. The same immobility, they say, is produced by the flatness of the surface which the earth presents to the air which underlies it." - Aristotle, On The Heavens, Book II.

    There is more where that comes from. These three are the only people in all of history who are clearly marked out as flat-earthers. They were also all followers of the religion of Scientific Atheism. Except for them, no one in the ancient world believed in anything other than a spherical earth.

    Washington Irving made up a different flat earth for his novel about Christopher Columbus, and an army of intellectuals proceeded using Irving's methods to "discover" the flat earth everywhere, while ignoring all the facts that were readily available. For example, we could argue that modern Americans are flat earthers using the same methods that you have parroted because an image of the earth on my screen is always flat!

    Dishonesty is the greatest value among intellectuals, so be careful!

    1. "These three are the only people in all of history who are clearly marked out as flat-earthers. Except for them, no one in the ancient world believed in anything other than a spherical earth."

      --I appreciate the comment, but now that I'm on the other side of Wayne Horrowitz's doctoral dissertation on this. I know the claim is false. Most ancient people believe in a flat earth and many native people today still do. Genesis was redacted during the Babylonian captivity. The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish tells us Marduk formed the earth and the raqia sky vault from the split corpse of Tiamat. Reads the fourth tablet:

      "Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
      While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
      He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
      One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
      He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
      And bade them not to let her waters come forth.

      I'm also reminded of the Heliopolis Pyramid texts which have Atum rising from the 'mound of creation' in watery chaos called Nun and my own years of reading Biblical creation literature in the original Hebrew. There is nothing scientifically distinct in how Israel described the cosmos from her neighbors. In that Babylonian text you can see that the solid sky retains waters above. Genesis 1.6-7 describes the same and so does psalm 148:4 and Genesis 7.11. Job 37.18 follows Near Eastern traditions of identifying the material of the sky vault with metal.

      Seely has cited an array of ancient texts showing other ancient texts and myths teaching a flat earth view, including many more Greek philosophers than this:

    2. I will note again that Aristotle gave a catalog of all the known beliefs at his time regarding the shape of the earth. Only some old earth evolutionists and atheists are called out as believing in a flat earth. The writer Manilius (in Astronomica) speaking of astrology used all the same figurative language "How great is the space occupied by the vault of the heavens", compares it to a temple, etc., but he also explicitly called out that he believed in a spherical earth. This is how the ancient world handled language. Pliny the Elder catalogs beliefs from around the known world and gives his view of the sphericity of the earth, but does not list any known flat earth views.

      Horrowitz fell for a hoax, and his dissertation is garbage. The junk scholarship was initiated by Washington Irving, and given credence by Andrew Dickson White, professor of history and founder of Cornell University in his polemic against Christianity.

      The Enuma Elisha seems to me to be a mockery of the gods, so I do not expect them to represent anything sensible as far as Babylonian beliefs go, even if you could interpret the imagery.

    3. Just one more quote from the Egyptologist Gaston Maspero:

      "The Earth, as they believed, was a flat and shallow plane, longer than its width. The sky, according to some, extended overhead like an immense iron ceiling, and according to others, like a huge shallow vault. As it could not remain suspended in space without some support, they imagined it to be held in place by four immense props or pillars. The floor of the temple naturally represented the earth. The columns, and if needful the four corners of the chambers, stood for the pillars. The roof, vaulted at Abydos, flat elsewhere, corresponded exactly with the Egyptian idea of the sky."

      I have to wonder if Maspero is serious or not. Apparently any design of a building that has a flat floor and a roof with four supports to hold up the corners is proof that the architect believed in a flat earth!

      There is exactly zero direct evidence for a flat earth belief beyond the three mentioned by Aristotle, but there is plenty of evidence that modern intellectuals will go to any length to discover the flat earth belief in the poetic and symbolic writings of peoples whose true beliefs on the subject are undiscoverable.

  2. Hello Ben,

    Hope you are doing well! Since two weeks ago I was reading the account of Eratosthenes computation of the circumference of the Earth in Greek (so you can get an idea of my hobbies!), I thought you might like another reference to the "circle" of the earth, but this one from a spherical Earth purist:

    "Therefore the distance from Syene to Alexandria must necessarily be a fiftieth part of the great circle of the earth." - Greek Mathematical Works, Aristarchus to Pappus, page 270-273, Loeb Classics

    And I will note that the Isaiah reference comes from 2nd Isaiah (!) placing it during the classical era and not too far removed chronologically from Eratosthenes. Separately, Babylonian astrologers were certainly well aware of the differences in star positions due to latitude, while longitude effects the timing of eclipses, but these all necessitate a spherical earth framework. (Prior to the invention of the street light, people were much more observant of the stars!)

    Eratosthenes is referenced by the geographer Strabo, and the Loeb classic version of this features a flat map showing the continents just as you described - with water all around and a circular limit - but now as part of a work that explicitly calls out a spherical earth. Strabo also begins his discussion by mentioning Homer and Hesiod and this is intermixed with discussion of the Arctic circle, among other things, so that it is clear that Strabo presumes that everyone has a spherical earth belief.

    When my classes end I will give some of these items a little more checking, since I haven't yet exhausted my search for cognates to the Hebrew word translated as "circle" in my Akkadian and Ugaritic vocabularies, and I am still doing a word search outside of the Bible for the LXX vocabulary.

    Do you still want to fight for the belief that the ancient world had a flat earth belief beyond what Aristotle itemized?

    1. I do, and I have the source material on hand. I'll need more time to respond since, I'm in the midst of final exams.

    2. Take your time. I would prefer one good argument to many bad ones, so I will note what constitutes a good argument:

      1. A credible source should write in plain language, such as the quote I gave regarding Aristotle's remark on the three flat earthers.

      2. There should be a second witness. I haven't cited this yet, but there is at least one that I have the reference for and many others who discuss these three characters. Herodotus repeats a lot of garbage along with the good, as do other writers.

      3. If you make an argument from a work, you should have read it cover to cover and perhaps with a commentary or two written by a specialist. That is to make sure that the quote isn't taken out of context. The quotes I have given so far were all ones I arrived at in my own studies and were not copied from some collection of proof texts. Aristotle's quote regarding the beliefs of the shape of the earth is consistent with the theme of his work, On The Heavens, which deals with the properties of the universe and how he imagined that we fit into it.

      4. No eisegesis! Not even a hint. Aristotle's quote more than passes this test.

      5. It should not require interpretations of imagery that are clearly documented as being embraced by those who support the opposite view. For example, even today NASA publishes images of the earth projected onto flat media, so a flattened image of the earth on a clay tablet doesn't count for anything, nor does "vault of the heavens", because Manilius used this language within a few sentences of a polemic in support of the spherical Earth, most likely directed against the Epicureans (but I can't be 100% sure of this since he doesn't explicitly call them out).

      6. It should not rely on the argument that a statement of the sort, "I do not believe in X", implies "I do believe in Y", with an eisegeted presupposition that Y = not-X, since whoever wrote the statement is probably thinking completely differently than we do. This form of an argument constitutes eisegesis.

      7. I have been bitten a few times on translations, since none of the extra-Biblical literature has had more than a tiny fraction of the care given to translation that the Bible has been given, so this should be given some attention.

    3. My original blog post argues that Israel wasn’t scientifically special in its cosmology. Since you believe Israel and everyone else believed in a spherical earth, I'm sure you agree to the extent of this post that the Isaiah passage is a poor apologetics text.

      When I quoted Enuma Elish’s explicit statement the heaven was formed from the solid body of Tiamat you doubted that this notion was retained into the 2TP, so here are counter examples:


      Ezekiel 1:22-26: “Can you like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?”

      3 Baruch 2:4 (1st-3rd century AD):
      And I Baruch asked the angel, “Tell me, I pray you, what is the thickness of this heaven in which we have journeyed, and what is its width…And the angel, whose name was Phamael, said to me, “This door which you see is (the door) of heaven, and (its thickness) is as great as the distance from earth to heaven, and the width if the plain which you saw is the same (distance) again,”

      3 Baruch 3:6-8:
      “And appearing to them, the Lord changed their languages; by that time they had built the tower 463 cubits (high). And taking an auger, they attempted to pierce the heaven, saying ‘Let us see whether the heaven is (made) of clay or copper or iron.’ Seeing these things, God did not permit them (to continue), but struck them with blindness and with confusion of tongues…”

      Genesis Rabba 4.5.2:
      The thickness of the firmament equals that of the earth: compare, It is He that sitteth above the circle (hug) of the earth (Isa. XL, 22) with, And He walketh in the circuit (hug) of the heaven (Job xxn, 14) : the use of ' hug’ in both verses teaches that they are alike. R. Aha said in R. Janina's name: [It is but as] thick as a metal plate. R. Joshua b. R. Nehemiah said: It is about two fingers in thickness. The son of Pazzi said: The upper waters exceed the lower ones by about thirty xestes, [for it is written,] And let it divide the waters from the waters (la-mayim)…Our Rabbis said: They are half and half [i.e. equal].

      Josephus, Antiquities, 1.1.30:
      “After this, on the second day, he placed the heaven over the whole world, and separated it from the other parts; and he determined it should stand by itself. He also placed a crystalline [firmament] found it, and put it together in a manner agreeable to the earth, and fitted it for giving moisture and rain, and for affording the advantages of the dews.

      1 Enoch 33:1-2 (Enoch is long winded on this so here is an example text):
      "I went to the ends of the earth and saw there huge beasts…And to the east of those beasts, I saw the ends of the earth whereon the heavens rest. And the gates of heaven were open, and I saw how the stars of heaven come out..."

      I should probably drop it, but I’m interested to know if you have any texts showing Babylon propounded a spherical earth at *any* period before its fall. I haven’t studied the language so I went through my digital copy of Ulla Koch-Westonholz’s, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (Denmark: Museum Tusculanum, 1995), 20-21 and found this statement:

      “In Babylonia we have no evidence for a change from the ancient tripartite cosmology…There is no evidence that the movements of the celestial bodies were ever envisaged as spheric, even in the latest and most advanced stages of Babylonian mathematical astronomy.”

      I’ve restricted myself here to a few Jewish sources here since I’m literate in Hebrew and can translate Aramaic and Koine, but, I’ve read dozens of other native myths with this same solid sky dome. Many have heros going to the edge of the world and interacting with the sky dome or climbing it. Just for fun, here is also a really fascinating paper on Australian aboriginal cosmology which contains these sorts of myths:

      See for example, the Mandalbingu myth involving the sky being raised by magpies and set on low boulders.


    1) The Babylonian map of the world is a *picture* of the round-flat earth described in Gilgamesh (the whole story is about him traveling to the "edge" of the earth.) How do you specifically respond to the scholarly consensus that this map describes the entire world?

    2) I already quoted where the Enuma Elish has Marduk spitting Tiamat in half and forming the solid sky from the one half. Tablet V line 62 continues (the Lambert translation): “Thus the [other] half of her he stretched out and made it firm as the earth.”

    3) Here’s a below the belt kick, (since it comes from Choctaw mythology.) You did state, “These three are the only people in all of history who are clearly marked out as flat earthers.” There are plenty of recorded native legends that contradict this. David Bushnell Jr. recorded this story he received first hand for the Smithsonian bureau of American Ethnology. (You can find the digital book on google.)

    “Tashka and Walo were brothers. They lived a long while ago, so they say…When they were four years old, they started to follow Sun’s trail. They walked all day…but that night when the Sun died…they slept. Next morning they began again to follow Sun, but when he died at the edge of the earth, they could still see their own land. Then they followed Sun many years. At last they became grown men. One day they reached a great sea-water. There was no land except the shore on which they stood. When Sun went down over the edge of the earth that day, they saw him sink into the waters. Then they crossed the sea-water, to the edge. So they came to Sun’s home.”

    This passage may remind you of a famous passage in the Quran (Surah 18:83-6):

    "And they ask you about Dhul-Qarnain (Alexander) Say: 'I shall recite to you something of his story.'
    …So he followed a way. Until, when he reached the setting place of the sun, he found it setting in a spring of black muddy (or hot) water. And he found near it a people. We (llah said (by inspiration): “O Dhul-Qarnain! Either you punish them, or treat them with kindness.”

    Of the Quranic example above, Gabriel Said Reynolds writes, “The extremely close correspondences between the Syriac Alexander Legend and Qur’an 18:83–102...must mean that the two texts are related.” We are certain that the Quran is talking about a flat earth cosmology because you can compare it to the Syriac tradition stream:

    There's a few. In general, I'm sympathetic towards your view, and I agree with you that the Greeks had an early spherical earth and that the Middle Ages also propounded it. But cultures before the Greeks and other pockets after them retained the common sense approach of a flat cosmology with a solid sky dome. (Some still do.) I'm convinced Israel is included among this group because, I see very little difference in their cosmology compared to the Babylonian and other ancient material.

    1. If you're interested in Qur'anic cosmology, I would recommend these two recent articles:
      -Damien Janos (2012), “Qur’ānic cosmography in its historical perspective,” Religion 42, pp. 215-31.
      -Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri (2016), “The Qurʾānic cosmology, as an identity in itself,” Arabica 63, pp. 201-34

      Of course, as C. Cullen has pointed out, the Chinese (hardly a primitve people) believed that the earth was flat until the seventeenth century, when Western astronomy was being taught by Jesuits from Europe

  4. Now I am the one overwhelmed with classes! 2nd semester Biblical Greek.

    So I do agree with you on the conclusion: That the Isaiah passage doesn't show quite what it has been interpreted to show. I was digging into the words a bit and would like to do more, since this sees to me a more constructive use of energy than what we are doing. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah and Job has only a few occurrences and isn't sufficiently attested to derive anything that I can see so far. Instead, we must look to the Greek word used in the LXX, which is γῦρος, which is translated either as "circle" or "vault". I am guessing the Hebrew meaning is deduced from the Greek, which was assigned at a later point in time. What is bugging me is that the Greek mathematicians prefer the word κύκλος for circle and I can't find any good examples of the use of γῦρος, although it is clearly related to modern words such as gyroscope. Thus, I am leaning towards "rotation", which forms a circle, but that is pure speculation at this point. I have read countless Greek texts over the years, all in English, but now must go back through them again in Greek searching for occurrences.

    I am glad to see you don't lean towards a Middle Age teaching of the flat earth. When I was in school in the 1960's, we were taught that Columbus was obstructed in his quest to travel to the new world by an ignorant church that taught that the Earth was flat. We were told that this derived from the Bible, and it was quite clearly the "scholarly consensus". This story that originated with Washington Irving was quietly pulled from the text some years ago and replaced with a new hoax that was in my children's textbooks here in California - that Columbus needed a Muslim navigator with the implication that the Christians were too uneducated and ignorant to have done this for themselves, never mind what Columbus wrote in his letters.

    I will agree that the quote from the Quran is certainly evidence of a goofy view of the solar system, but it did not make it into any text books as evidence that Muslims thought the world flat, and to be precise, it doesn't actually assign a shape to the Earth! Nor have scholars felt it necessary to claim that this passage in any way relates to an Islamic flat earth belief. And so I will cite this example that you gave as evidence that the scholarly consensus is often schizophrenic or bipolar, being dependent on the context to which the scholarly consensus is providing the answer, rather than according to the evidence!

  5. (2nd part) But going back to my point, none of the myth genre literature that you have cited actually calls out a flat earth. The flat earth interpretation is all eisegeted into the text based on presuppositions of the scholars on how the literature must be interpreted. But we do not need to depend on eisegesis into myth genre literature, when there is a clear example to the contrary:

    "If the Earth were flat, you [the moon] would rise for the whole world only once and the failure of your light would be lamented by every land at the same time. But since the shape of the Earth follows a smooth curve, the Moon appears to these lands first, and then to those, ..." - Manilius, Astonomica, I.225

    and the same author:

    "Next has heaven a temple of its own, where, its rites now paid, the Altar gleams, ..."

    "These then are the constellations which decorate the sky with even spread, their fires panelling the ceiling of heaven with various designs." I.532

    "How great is the space occupied by the vault of the heavens ..." I.539

    " ... where heaven's lowest edges and Earth's uppermost rim meet" I.646

    Thus, the scholarly consensus relies on eisegeting a flat earth notion into figures of speech that were long ago associated with spherical earth/heavens notions, and the association with a spherical earth/heavens is the only documented association. I will again cite Aristotle's On The Heavens, since it describes the stars as being on a spherical surface far away from the spherical earth. Everyone believed that the sky was a dome shape (that is, a sphere), and that this dome was outside the dome (sphere) of the earth. Thus (hopefully the Bibleworks fonts show up):

    "τὸν γῦρον τῆς γῆς" - Isaiah 44:22


    "γῦρον οὐρανοῦ ἐκύκλωσα" - Sirach, 24:5

    Which is my other observation: Flat Earth scholarship is is based on a relentless search for proof texts that completely ignores what is known in the greater context of ancient and classical literature.

    And noting again, there is nothing that I have seen in your quotes of the Enuma Elisha from which a shaped of the earth might be derived. Even if there were, we have no evidence that the Enuma Elisha and the Epic of Gilgamesh were taken any more seriously than we are when we talk of Santa's workshop at the North Pole, for which future archaeologists will find plenty of evidence. But going further, Aristotle, Strabo and Pliny provide summaries of competing views that are known to them, which is orders of magnitude better for providing certainty and clarity than moderns arguing for an interpretation of a myth that is extracted out of an unknown context and for which even our understanding of the vocabulary is subject to large uncertainty bounds.

    I will still claim that the evidence that you are reporting merely shows that many modernists have a deep inner need for Washington Irving's hoax to be true, regardless of what the true evidence is!

    1. I'll give you the last word here. I'm convinced the texts I provided are sufficient to convince any readers to my side. Good luck with Greek I'm about to take my Greek final this week.

    2. May God grant you a good test as well.