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Cosmology, the study of the origin & structure of the universe:

Part 1 of nine parts:

Overview about cosmological beliefs.
The ancient Pagan view that
originated in Sumer.

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Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, Supreme religious authority, Saudi Arabia. In 1993, he issued the following Muslim religious edict:

"The earth is flat, and anyone who disputes this claim is an atheist who deserves to be punished."

Webmaster's note:

That is no meaningless threat. Being an Atheist in Saudi Arabia and a dozen other predominately Muslim countries can lead to the death penalty.

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Overview of beliefs about cosmology:

Historically, there have been three main Western belief systems that describe the shape, layout and movements of the earth, as well as the moon, sun and the rest of the universe:

  • The ancient, pre-scientific Pagan view, found throughout the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. This involved a flat earth held up by columns above an abyss. This arrangement is seen in the diagram below. This belief system appears to be the source for some descriptions of the Earth in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

  • The earth-centered view, which was developed by the ancient Greeks, and was generally accepted among educated persons in Europe by the 3rd century CE. It survived until after the time of Copernicus (1473-1543 CE). This involved the earth in the shape of a sphere at the center of the universe. The sun, moon, planets and stars all revolved around the earth.

  • The modern view, which is a refinement of Copernicus' beliefs of 1543 CE. The moon revolves around the Earth; the Earth and other planets follow near circular elliptical paths, with the Sun at one focus.

This series of essays describe the ancient Pagan belief system, as found in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Israel, etc, and how it collapsed when faced with the considerably more accurate view of later Greeks. It briefly describes the Copernican theory. It concludes with an anti-Christian hoax of the 1830's which partly survives today, and the resurrection of the flat earth conspiracy theory in modern times.

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The Pagan, pre-scientific cosmology as developed throughout the Middle East:

Sumer was one of the world's first civilizations; it may have actually been the first. Its beginnings can be traced to a collection of farming villages circa 5000 BCE in what is now southern Iraq. It lasted for about three millennia, until finally collapsing after an attack by the Amorites circa 2000 BCE.

One reader of Bible Review magazine suggested that humans in ancient times would not be aware of either "the diffusion of blue sunlight by" the atmosphere or of the hydrologic cycle whereby water vapor ascends from oceans and other bodies of water, only to later fall back to earth as rain. The blueness of the sky would have suggested to the ancient observer that the sky is composed of water. It would be from this reservoir that water would return to the land in the form of rain. This theory would have required some form of a rigid shell dividing the water above from the Earth and its oceans below. 1 This was probably the reasoning by which the Sumerians developed their concept of a multi-layered universe.

According to the "Sumerian Mythology FAQ" web site:

"The boundary between heaven and earth was a solid (perhaps tin) vault, and the earth was a flat disk. Within the vault lay the gas-like 'lil', or atmosphere, the brighter portions therein formed the stars, planets, sun, and moon." 2

Variations of this belief spread across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Today's liberal Christians generally interpret the cosmology passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as one variation of this belief system. Religious conservatives disagree.  According to Gregory Riley, author of "The River of God:"

"The physical universe as the ancients perceived it was small, much like a sphere half filled with water, upon which floats the flat disk of the earth. There was water everywhere else -- above the heavens, around the earth, and below, flowing around the under-world...This is known as the three-story universe: heaven above, the earth in the middle, and the underworld below." 3

To the Babylonians, their chief city, Babylon, was at the center of the world. The Sumerians viewed Nippur at the earth's center. For the Greeks it was Delphi. For the ancient Hebrews, and some later Christians, it was Jerusalem.

Ancient cosmology

The Earth was believed to be circular and more or less flat, much like a dinner plate. Columns of mountains around the edge of the Earth held up a rigid metal dome (a.k.a. vault or sky canopy) which formed the sky. The sky was assumed to be relatively close to the earth - perhaps a few thousand feet or so in the air.

The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:2-9) relates how ancient people living in a plain in the land of Shinar decided to build "a tower whose top may reach unto heaven." A later text (3 Baruch 3:7) describes how the Tower was eventually built. The book was written by a Jewish author during the second or third century CE who described Jerusalem after the attack by Nebuchadnezzar circa 587 BCE. It describes how the builders of the tower actually reached the underside of the firmament of the sky and attempted to pierce through the metal surface with an auger. 4 This book was not included in the official canon of the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).

Above the dome were the "superior waters," or "the waters which were above the firmament" as mentioned in Genesis 1. Inhabitants of Heaven opened vents or floodgates in the in the sky canopy to allow the water to pour down to earth in the form of rain or snow. It was through these gates that the water was poured during the flood of Noah. At that time, the "Fountains of the Deep" mentioned in Genesis also opened to add to the flood. Later, the same openings in the firmament were also used to pour fire and brimstone down from Heaven to exterminate all human life in Sodom and Gomorrah. There were also drains in the earth that allowed water to flow under the earth. Also in the underworld was a massive cavern which the ancient Israelites called "Sheol." This was the home of the dead where the ancient Hebrews believed that people went after death to live a sort of shadowy, lifeless existence, isolated from God.

The sun, moon, planets and stars were all pushed by supernatural beings across the underside of the dome of the sky each day. Heaven was seen as being located above the superior waters. God was originally viewed as having in a larger-than-human body, who resided in Heaven, seated on a gigantic throne.

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This topic is continued in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Was the biblical Earth flat?," Letter by Carl Ponder of Austin, TX, Bible Review. 2003-FEB, Pages 51 & 52.
  2. "Sumerian Mythology FAQ," at:
  3. book cover Gregory Riley, "The River of God," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). Page 22. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. Ibid, Page 27-28.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JAN-28
Latest update and review: 2016-SEP-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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