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Biblical Science?

Entry 1786, on 2016-04-28 at 21:22:11 (Rating 4, Religion)

I was recently shown a small card which contained some religious propaganda. It was left at a lecture held in a science department at a university and purported to demonstrate how the Bible must have a supernatural origin considering it presented so many facts later shown to be real science where other sources of the same era got the same fact wrong.

Needless to say I was somewhat skeptical of the claim, but I decided to give it a fair chance and did some research on the subject. Because properly researching a subject like this takes a significant amount of time and effort I thought I should look at the first claim initially and then maybe move onto the rest later.

So here's the first claim: according to the Bible the Earth is a sphere (Isaiah 40:22). And according to modern science the Earth is a sphere. But according to "science then" the Earth was a flat disk.

The phrase "science then" presents a few problems. First, science in its modern form has only existed for a few hundred years so what "science" thousands of years ago thought is very hard to establish. Next, when was "then". The authors and dates of Biblical verses are not well known so the time we should be comparing the knowledge level of is hard to establish.

Then there's the other, perhaps bigger, problem of Biblical interpretation. What do Bible verses really mean? Has meaning been lost in translation? Which meaning should we accept when many possibilities exist? And how literally should we take this material?

Well it actually doesn't matter much because whatever criteria you use the claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Let me explain why...

First, here's Isaiah 40:22 from the New International Version: "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in."

I looked at the translation of the verse in over 20 different Bible versions and 16 of them used the word "circle", one used "disk", one used "globe", and the rest didn't really specify any particular shape. So it seemed that the intention was to indicate a two dimensional shape (apart from the one which used "globe", the Douay-Rheims Bible, which isn't considered one of the more accurate translations).

But I wasn't happy with that. I found the translation for the Hebrew word "chug" which seems to translate to circle, circuit, or compass. I also checked a few sources (all pro-Christian) for how the word "circle" is used in other parts of the Bible. In every case it is used to indicate a flat shape rather than a sphere.

Here's a quote from a Christian site, the Christian Resource Institute: "We certainly affirm that Scripture is fully inspired by God... Yet what is interesting is that even with inspiration, God allowed these ancient ways of looking at the world to stand without correction. In other words, God did not reveal modern scientific knowledge to the ancient Israelites, or correct their ancient views of the way the world works."

So this is saying that the Bible contains the deliberate error that the Earth is flat rather than spherical just to make it easier for the ancient Israelites. I thought the Bible was supposed to be a source of knowledge, but that hardly matters because the clear conclusion (from a pro-Christian source remember) is that Isaiah thinks the Earth is flat.

So from that perspective alone the original claim fails. But the problems for this claim go far beyond that...

The authorship of Isaiah is highly uncertain. Most modern scholars think there were at least two authors. The first was Isaiah himself (although the Biblical character almost certainly never existed) and the first 39 verses were written by him. But the rest were done by another unknown prophet many years later and those include the verse in question (40) as well as others containing the so-called "Prophecy of Cyrus" (which, of course, wasn't a prophecy at all).

So the date this material comes from is unknown but the earliest date is likely to be around 500 to 550 BCE. What did "science" know about the Earth then?

The idea of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BCE, when it was mentioned in ancient Greek philosophy, and the Egyptians observed a phenomenon consistent with it around 610595 BCE. So even if the Bible had stated the Earth was spherical (which it didn't) that wasn't unique knowledge at the time.

And even if both claims were true (that the Bible stated the Earth is a sphere and that no one else knew this) then the claim is still weak because, with all the claims made in the Bible we would expect some to be true and some false based purely on chance. Since there are undoubtedly hundreds of parts of the Bible (the creation myth, for example) which are false, finding one small part which might be construed as being true according to certain interpretations might not be surprising. But this even fails that rather minimal test.

Finally, plenty of other books (and other sources) claim to contain secret knowledge. Muslims use a very similar argument to support the Koran but I often see Christians ridiculing it. And various conspiracies exist claiming that the Egyptians, Dogon, Aztecs, and many others had advanced knowledge given to them by gods, aliens, etc. It's all utter nonsense.

So the claim that the Bible contains unique science regarding the shape of the Earth unknown to others at the time fails in every way. I would hope that any intelligent person - like those likely to be at a science lecture - would recognise this frivolous nonsense for what it is, so the propaganda was pointless. It's actually rather pathetic that anyone in this day and age would even have the slightest disposition towards treating this stuff seriously.

On the other hand, maybe some of the other 11 claims are more realistic. But I won't really know that until I research those too. Sounds like a good subject for a future blog post!

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Comment 4 (4488) by OJB on 2016-05-01 at 17:24:38: (view earlier comments)

I don't really care what the point of the verse was. It was either as some sort of myth or metaphor with some hidden meaning, or it was an attempt at a statement of fact. For the religious propaganda material to be effective it had to be an attempt at fact. If it was, then it failed. If it wasn't, then it also failed.

My point here was to discredit the pro-religious material, nothing more.

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Comment 5 (4489) by richard on 2016-05-03 at 20:18:30:

Yeah - I see the motvation to be sure. I agreed that the particular piece of pro-religious material was flawed. My point however was that there was awful lot of (wasted?) effort spent attacking a rather obvious straw man (the scientific 2d/3d question), when the more appropiate approach would really have been to explain why that material should not be trying to extract and promote some scientific point that was clearly never intended by the original author. But I admit that wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. :)

Oh - Just an aside: The morning after posting Comment3, I read this re the Highlanders on StuffNZ "The Highlanders were happy to snap a two-game losing streak with a grinding win over the Brumbies" - and had to smile. Cheers.

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Comment 6 (4490) by OJB on 2016-05-03 at 22:00:52:

Well I can only answer the material I see. The claim was clearly made that the Bible contains science and many people believe it does. I just wanted to point out that it obviously doesn't.

You do have to wonder why, if God made the universe, he didn't reveal a few little bits of previously unknown information in the Bible which he supposedly inspired, so the idea isn't totally ridiculous.

If the material had contained an argument based on theology, morality, or something else then I would have discussed that instead.

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Comment 7 (4496) by INRI on 2016-06-06 at 11:36:10:

Wait. I'm confused. Is it spherical or flat? Just googled plenty of "evidence" for a flat earth ;).

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Comment 8 (4497) by OJB on 2016-06-06 at 14:16:38:

Sure, it's easy to prove the Earth is flat. A few years back I proved it in this very blog! Right here.

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