I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.
This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.
Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.
While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:
- “Christopher Columbus: 3 things you think he did that he didn’t,” by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post
- “The Round Earth and Christopher Columbus,” by David P. Stern, NASA
The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.
Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.
Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.
Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:
The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.
Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”
He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way, the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”
ARK — 21 October 2014