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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.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

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:

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

 

 

The Great Detective

The Great Detective

So here’s a Sunday-late-night meditation. I love to read mystery fiction and to watch detective stories on TV. What is it about detective fiction that resonates with the human spirit (or at least with the spirit of some of us)?

I think at our core as humans we might have a hardwired attraction for storytelling. Storytelling seems to be a part of human culture for as far back as written records exist. But many of those stories involve enigmas and riddles. Tonight I’m wondering whether riddles and mysteries represent a storytelling form that might appeal to the human spirit at its core. Why? I’m not sure. Does a puzzle somehow help us to exercise mental muscles in a way that challenges and intrigues us? Maybe so.

Another thought I’ve had is that mysteries appeal to us in a moral sense. Most mysteries are fundamentally about justice. A great injustice has been committed — usually the horrific crime of spilled blood. The murderer must be identified, caught, and punished, or at least stopped. A student of the Scriptures would say that one of the primary qualities of Jehovah the Creator is justice. Created in his image, we reflect that moral quality. So perhaps we are drawn to a story that centers around that theme.

Okay, now back to the detective show I was watching …

ARK — 5 October 2014

 

I was intrigued recently to read an article by independent scholar Bengt Sage, “Noah and Human Etymology,” in which he makes a startling claim:

As traditions of the universal flood spread around the world with the post-Ararat migrations, the venerable name of Noah traveled with them.

Manu being saved from the deluge

The fish avatar of Vishnu saves Manu and the Seven Sages during the deluge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sage goes on to make connections between the name Noah and various versions of that name in Sanskrit, Latin, Lithuanian, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian, Gothic, and even African and East Asian languages.

I admit I was skeptical at first. Sage seems to base a number of his assertions on apparent cognates among the various languages — cognates being two or more words having a common etymological origin. The problem is that similarity between two words in different languages does not in itself prove a common origin — false cognates are a possibility. So the similarity among the names Manu in Sanskrit, Menes in Egyptian, and Minos in Greek does not prove that they all originally referred to the same person.

However, some investigation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveals that Sage’s assertions have more going for them than I originally thought.

In discussing the Sanskrit name Manu, Sage writes:

Manu was the name of the flood hero in the traditions of India. He, like Noah, is said to have built an ark in which eight people were saved. It is highly probable that Noah and Manu were thus the same individual. “Ma” is an ancient word for “water,” so that Manu could mean “Noah of the waters.”

… In Sanskrit, the name Manu appropriately came to mean “man” or “mankind” (since Manu, or Noah, was the father of all post-flood mankind).

This claim is generally in line with what the OED says in its Manu entry:

Etymology:  < Sanskrit Manu progenitor of mankind (also used with metaphorical implication ‘mankind’; derivatives meaning ‘offspring of Manu’ are used for ‘man, human being’), cognate with man n.1 Compare manvantara n.

Note in that entry that the OED lists Manu as a cognate to the English word man. The OED entry on man discusses extensively the Indo-European derivation of the word man, specifically connecting it to the Sanskrit manu, Sanskrit also being part of the (hypothetical, really) Indo-European language family.

In Hindu mythology, the story of Manu does carry some striking similarities to that of Noah. The Encyclopedia Britannica relates the story thus:

In the story of the great flood, Manu combines the characteristics of the Hebrew Bible figures of Noah, who preserved life from extinction in a great flood, and Adam, the first man. The Shatapatha Brahmana recounts how he was warned by a fish, to whom he had done a kindness, that a flood would destroy the whole of humanity. He therefore built a boat, as the fish advised. When the flood came, he tied this boat to the fish’s horn and was safely steered to a resting place on a mountaintop. When the flood receded, Manu, the sole human survivor, performed a sacrifice, pouring oblations of butter and sour milk into the waters. After a year there was born from the waters a woman who announced herself as “the daughter of Manu.” These two then became the ancestors of a new human race to replenish the earth. In the Mahabharata (“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”), the fish is identified with the god Brahma, while in the Puranas (“Ancient Lore”) it is Matsya, the fish incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In the Hebrew Bible, Noah’s name “No-ach” probably means something like “rest” or “consolation.” As you might know, I’m working on a fiction series called “Edhai,” which is set in ancient times and touches on Bible history. The story begins during the pre-flood period, so I’m interested in the character of Noah. In the Edhai series, the main characters are entirely fictional, and real Bible characters such as Noah only appear briefly if at all. However, knowledge of their life and times is vital to the story line.

I plan to release the first episode in the Edhai series in the very near future. If you’re interested in hearing about that release — or in following my research as I work on the series — of if you just want to keep in touch, please sign up to receive my email updates by following this link.

ARK — 24 September 2014

Indiana Jones

Credit: Wikimedia

Science writer Erik Vance posted a good piece this week titled “Why Archaeologists Hate Indiana Jones” at the science blog The Last Word on Nothing. His piece is a kind of companion and commentary to his more formal National Geographic article in August about looting at archaeological sites in Guatemala.

Much as we might get a kick out of Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequel films, when it comes down to it, Indiana Jones is not an archaeologist but a looter. As one Tulane archaeologist told Vance:

“That first scene, where he’s in the temple and he’s replacing that statue with a bag of sand — that’s what looters do. [The temple builders] are using these amazing mechanisms of engineering and all he wants to do is steal the stupid gold statue.”

Vance makes the point that

A real archaeologist would have taken a photo of it, told the Nazis they could have the stupid thing, and spent the next 10 years studying the temple’s booby traps.

The National Geographic article stresses the harm that is done through the looting of ancient sites. Some antiquities collector gets a few pots for his collection, and meanwhile a whole building gets destroyed. Those pots might be interesting and valuable, but their archaeological value is practically nil if no record is made of the context in which they were found.

I follow archaeology news because it informs my Edhai project, an historical fiction series set in ancient times. To keep in touch with me and to receive updates on my project, as well as my comments on ancient history, fiction writing, and other topics, please follow this link to sign up for my email newsletter: http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 11 September 2014

 

I’ve been slowly working my way through the Hebrew Scriptures, reading the Hebrew and English in parallel so as to read with understanding — I described my process previously in my article “How I’m Learning to Read Biblical Hebrew.”

Years ago when I started reading the Bible (online access to the Bible here), I found it a real chore to get through books two through five of the Pentateuch — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy —  because of the focus on the details of the Law and the Israelite genealogy, and especially the repetitiveness of the text.

But now that I’m using that text to learn the original language, I’m finding that the repetitiveness is a learning aid. For example, I’m now reading Numbers 7, in which chieftains of each of the 12 tribes bring in one-by-one the same offering of dishes and flour and bulls and rams and so on. The repetition in the text is actually helping me to learn the Hebrew words for these things. And rather than boring me, that repetition is helping me to engage more deeply with the text.

I don’t know whether other students have had the same experience, and I have no idea whether the text was structured that way partly on purpose. But I can say that it’s working out that way for me.

ARK — 26 August 2014

 

That’s a provocative title, I know. The truth is that I don’t actually refuse to read professional book reviews. But I seldom do, and I’m about to explain why.

For one thing, I do have time to read books, and lots of them. But I don’t have time to read a lot of what is written about books.

I’m certain many readers of books don’t read book reviews for that same reason. But not having time in itself is a lame justification for not paying attention to professional book reviews. However, there are also two important reasons why I place limited value on professional book reviews:

  1. First, professional book reviewers make their livings writing book reviews, and that fact colors their writing about the books they read. They have motivation to write what they are ‘supposed’ to write about the latest literary sensation. But also, they have to pan a certain portion of the books they read. If a reviewer likes all the books they read and that’s what they say in their reviews, what use are they? So they have to pooh-pooh a certain number of books to justify their existence.
  2. My second reason won’t matter to many readers, but it explains my motivation for placing a low priority on professional book reviews: Most reviewers have to tow the line on current literary trends. That means they don’t comment on elements of books that I need to know about: Does the book contain explicit sex scenes, sadistic violence, or extensive profanity? (See “Should a Novelist Write Characters Who Use Profanity?“) I told you this point wouldn’t matter to many readers, but it does to me, and professional book reviewers have to ignore such considerations or risk the disdain of mainstream luminaries.

All that said, I will occasionally read a book review in a publication such as The New Yorker, or at least a portion of such a review — often such reviews are insufferably long. But more often I will pay the greatest attention to ratings and reviews on Amazon, where I can find out what I really want to know: Is this a terrible book, and does it contain a lot of swearing? Thanks for letting me know. I’ll find something else to read.

ARK — 18 August 2014

 

 

What were people like in prehistoric times? British archaeologist and paleolinguist Colin Renfrew has some ideas. Renfrew’s book “Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind” is a discussion of findings from what’s referred to as “cognitive archaeology,” a theoretical model that tries to describe the thinking of ancient peoples by studying archaeological finds.

The book reads well and is useful and interesting for me, as my Edhai fiction project focuses on the remote past. I particularly appreciated Renfrew’s discussions of economics and trade in prehistoric times. As one might expect, Renfrew subscribes to a view of the past conventional in mainstream academia, filtered through darwinism and an inflated chronology of history and prehistory. Outside of those common assumptions, I find this book commendably free of speculation.

These comments are based on my review of “Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind” at Goodreads, where you can see what I’m reading, along with my other reviews.

ARK — 13 August 2014

 

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