Monday, January 30, 2006

Were our ancestors flat-earthers?

Hint: No.


Victor Reppert said...

Yes, I did. But doesn't the common myth of a flat earth before Columbus suggest an interest in insulting the intelligence of our forbears?

Jason Pratt said...

Bit of history here (courtesy of _Inventing the Flat Earth_.)

In point of fact, Columbus' dispute had nothing at all to do with flat-earth vs. spherical earth. All parties involved in the dispute agreed the earth was spherical. Columbus didn't have to test it: any common sailor visiting an mountainous island in the Mediterranean could infer it eventually by watching the mountain-top 'rise' over the horizon; and that had been true for a _long_ time.

The dispute was over the _size_ of the Earth. By the calcs Columbus was using, he believed he would be able to reach India sailing westward before he ran out of provisions. This ran against standard calcs for the diameter (and thus circumference) of the Earth, which had been accepted for a very long time already among scholars.

The irony was, Columbus _was_ wrong!--the standard calcs were correct. Had North America not been in his way, he would have died, and all his men with him. As it happened, he believed he'd been proven correct about the circumference of the globe, and so we have "Indians" now in America. {g}

As to what the ancient Hebrews believed and when--I'm not sure we're in any position to be positive about that, given that the poetic descriptions in the OT are just that: descriptions chosen for poetic emphasis.

For myself, I suspect they generally believed the Earth was flat (though possibly still round, to match the apparent vault-shape of the sky); a culture generally needs either fairly sophisticated astronomical techniques or a robust maritime industry, to stand a chance for its scholars to figure out the shape of the world. The Greeks had both; the Hebrews had neither.


Steven Carr said...

I'm not sure what you class as sophisticated astronomical techniques, but Erastothenese stuck a stick in the ground.

I'm sure the Hebrews could have invented sticks, especially with a god to help them.

Jason Pratt said...

I'm sure even _you_ are aware that Erastothenes did more than just stick a stick in the ground, Steven.

For interested parties (or in case Steven really does think Erasto simply invented sticks and sticking one in the ground somehow _by itself_ was all he needed to discover the spherical shape and approximate circumference of the world), Roger Foster at the Coordinate System Analysis Team provides a brief, clear overview of Erast's reasoning and calculations (with illustrations) at

This would be considered fairly sophisticated mathematics applied to astronomical objects, by any fair account of the period--which, btw, was well after the close of the Hebrew canon. (Though if I poked around I could probably turn up similarly sophisticated mathematical techniques, including in regard to astronomical objects, in other cultures concurrent with the story told in the OT.)

Steven's cluelessly spiteful comment notwithstanding, no one here (so far as I know) is promoting the importance of the OT and its story along the lines of the Hebrews being the greatest scientific and philosophical minds (much less culture) of the pre-classical (or even classical) age. Certainly _I'm_ not, as should have been obvious from my previous comment.