Mini-Book Review: Inventing the Flat Earth

Russell, Jeffrey B. Inventing the Flat Earth.  New York: Praeger, 1991.

This is one of those books I heard I ought to read, but took a while to find and get around to.  It’s an entry in the genre, history of ideas.  Specifically, it rebuts the idea that most Christian thinkers since earliest times thought the world was flat, and that it was Columbus who proved it wasn’t by not sailing off the edge of it.  More broadly, in removing this linchpin, he rebuts the more vague, general concept that the blind dogmatism of Christian theology has been largely responsible for resisting the progress of knowledge, e.g. revealing the roundness of the earth, soon to be followed by Galileo’s breakthrough in backing Copernican heliocentrism against the Church.

The key piece of evidence against this idea is that many leading (late) medieval Christian thinkers were Aristotelian, e.g. Thomas Aquinas, and that Aristotelian cosmology was fundamentally spherical, with earth at the centre, surrounded by a whole series of mobile ‘shells’ that carried the successive planets in their orbits about it.  It was premised on the differing ‘weight’ of the elements of earth, water, air and fire, so that the heaviest, earth, must inevitably settle to the centre.  There was no more efficient concentration of earth in the centre of the cosmos than a sphere.

Russell mentions a practical illustration of the prominence of a spherical view of the earth during the Middle Ages – kings’ orbs symbolizing their worldly dominion…in the shape of spheres.  He can cite plenty of examples of overt references to the sphericity of the earth, and shows that most actual references to primary sources come eventually down to the Latin church father Lactantius and the Eastern Alexandrian writer Cosmas Indicopleustes.  Both are authentic flat earthers, and Cosmas’ sixth-century Christiana Topographia explains the world as a rectangle on the model of the tabernacle floor plan.  It is indisputably flat earth, but what is disputable is just how widespread such a view of the world was, then and afterwards.

Russell makes these two figures seem like exceptions to the rule of a mostly better-informed Christendom, along the way conceding that the eastern father Severian was another flat-earther and that others like Basil the Great prevaricated, feeling torn between philosophy’s support for a spherical earth and apparent biblical support for a flat one.  On the other hand, philosophically astute thinkers like John Philoponus were apparently embarrassed by Cosmas’ cosmology and sought to refute it in favour of a philosophially robust Christianity.

Russell’s historical protagonists are above all the ‘creative’ C19th historical writer Irving Washington and the Frenchman Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787–1848), both filtered especially through the sceptical Andrew Dickson White, the writer who above all others established the sense of conflict between science and religion in popular culture.  The difference between Russell and those opposite is essentially that for them the church, with its vast majority of unknown opinions, is guilty of obscurantism until proven innocent, and for Russell it is innocent until proven guilty.

My sense is that the flat earth idea is mostly erroneous, as Russell proves, and that in educated circles there was no doubt well prior to Columbus that the earth was a sphere.  But I am a little cautious regarding the Eastern church in the patristic era.  Russell mentions that Diodore of Tarsus was reproved by Photius for being flat-earth, and Theodore of Mopsuestia is suspected of having viewed the world the same way.  This helps to explain Severian’s stance shortly afterwards.  I have read other Eastern and Syrian treatments where the firmament is treated very literally as a dome covering the earth, and I suspect that a flat-earth understanding may have been rather widespread in the Eastern and Syrian churches late in the patristic period.

But not so later.  The medieval church can’t be condemned for both scholasticism, which was Aristotelian, and for believing in a flat earth, because the two are mutually exclusive.

By the way, it’s a rather quick and easy read.  I recommend it.

Once More on that Noah Movie

So I didn’t bother going to see it, and in fact got pretty tired of hearing about it, but I do find gnosticism fascinating, and had begun to figure out that there was a fair bit in the movie, e.g. the term ‘the Watchers’, which I recognised from 1 Enoch.

Here’s an informative and frustrated vent from one Dr. Brian Mattson:

He’s right on the money with recognising all the gnostic signs.  You can see this kind of mysticism getting going in some of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, e.g. 1 Enoch, as well as in some additions to Genesis in the Aramaic Targums.  Then the full-blown version of this good-v-evil cosmic myth, where our Creator God is put on the evil side, is found in the Nag Hammadi literature, those addressed by church fathers like Irenaeus (see article in link) and Clement of Alexandria, as well as the Kabbala.

Mattson wonders how even church leaders missed the fact that the movie was based on this long, Gnostic tradition.

But does anyone read the gnostic documents any more?  We ought to, because it keeps coming back, always with a new face.

Am I going to see the movie.  Hmmm, still not sure I could be bothered just yet.  But the gnosticism would be interesting.  Twisted and wrong, but interesting.

A Chicken and Egg Problem in Ancient Israelite History: The Law Book and Josiah’s Reform

This thought stemming from my reading of the long and classy introduction to the book of Jeremiah by Jack Lundbom in his vast commentary that makes up 3 vols. of the Anchor Bible series… see his Jeremiah 1-20, 105-106.

Lundbom Jeremiah 1-20

Critical scholarship for a long time believed and often still believes that the law book that was found in the temple in the 18th year of the reign of king Josiah (i.e. about 622 BC) according to 2 Kings 22:3-10 consisted of a large middle portion of what we know now as the book of Deuteronomy.  This is seen to be the catalyst for Josiah’s ensuing reformation of religion in the Judah of his day, which particularly sought to purify worship of Yahweh by eliminating religious ritual in outlying sanctuaries and restricting it to the temple in Jerusalem.  The narrative in 2 Kings 23 in fact focuses on the destruction of pagan altars outside of Jerusalem, but texts like 1 Kings 3:2 imply that a more thorough program of centralization of worship was undertaken.  This interpretation of the cause-and-effect relationship, that the law book inspired Josiah’s reformation, is clearly supported by the order of events in the Kings narrative.

Lundbom, however, says, “More recently, however, the Chronicler’s account has been given preference,” referring to 2 Chronicles 34, where the reason the law book is found in the temple is that Josiah has already, from 628 BC, undertaken religious reforms of the kind that led to the temple’s renovation.  This sequence has a certain credible logic to it.  Without such reform, no renovation might be expected.  Chronicles has usually been regarded as an inferior historical source to Kings, partly by virtue of being clearly composed later and being somewhat derivative in relation to Kings.  But every history has agendas or axes to grind, and the editor of Kings may in fact want to show that the Law of Moses in textual acts as an effective catalyst for religious renewal.  As an instance of Chronicles’ stricter historical accuracy, I think of its faithful relaying of the names of Saul’s sons despite their being compounded on the name of the rival god Baal (1 Chron. 8:33-34).  In any case, it is interesting to consider the alternative possibility that the discovery of the law book might have been the culmination for Josiah’s reforms rather than their initial catalyst.

As a footnote to this, Lundbom adds another unique suggestion – that the law book discovered in the temple was not the body of Deuteronomy at all, but the poem, some (esp. from the Albright school) would say ancient, known as the Song of Moses and found in Deuteronomy 32.  Often when I have sought to trace archaic or potentially archaic language through the Old Testament, it has appeared in this unique poem along with other well-known texts such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.  I am not yet in a position to evaluate Lundbom’s suggestion, but it shows an ability to stand outside of the mainstream consensus and find new answers to old questions, which is always good for keeping our thinking flexible!

The Three Kinds of Writing in Joshua and Their Purposes

The book of Joshua is a great example of a biblical book that contains different genres (kinds of writing) that predominate in different sections of the book, and each has its reason for being there.  I think that when the average reader tackles a book like Joshua, a narrative or history-telling book of the Old Testament (OT), s/he sets out reading it as narrative, the genre that tells a story.  And that is not wrong, because narrative provides the ‘matrix’ that holds the book together.  But embedded in the narrative is another genre that, as Robert Alter once pointed out in his essay, ‘Sacred History and Prose Fiction’ (in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman, p. 17), dialogue carries much of the meaning in OT narrative, and this is particularly true in a book like Joshua.  What appears within the speeches in Joshua, whether by God or by Joshua or even by others, is programmatic, of defining importance for the theological claims of the book, which determine how the narrated and recreated history is to be understood.  That is why dialogue predominates when counted by verse in the earliest and latest chapters of the book:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Notice also the other main genre in Joshua here, which is usually called (from memory) ‘boundary lists’.  We normally skip that section, or pay it little attention, but it could offer insights into what period that kind of detailed territorial information was in high demand, i.e. where in Israel’s history its first audience could be situated.  It seems to me that its relevance has to be pre-exilic.  That would tie into the significance of the famous (or notorious) ‘to this day’ statements that are so abundant in Joshua and tip the hand to the time period in which the book was written.  See Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 22:22; 23:9; 24:15.  Josh. 15:63 is a telling example; it reports the Jebusites of Jerusalem as not yet dislodged from there.  Since this was something achieved early in David’s reign according to 2 Sam. 5:6-10, we have a clue that the Joshua map lists or much, most or all of the book might have been produced as early as this, in the 10th century B.C.