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Two Pagan views and the modern view

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"Cosmology" means the study of the origin and structure of the universe.

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.
  • The earth-centered view, which was developed by the ancient Greeks, and was generally accepted among educated persons by the 3rd century CE. It survived until after the time of Copernicus (1473-1543 CE).
  • The modern view, which is a refinement of Copernicus' beliefs of 1543 CE.

This essay describes 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 the Greeks. It briefly describes the Copernican theory. It concludes with an anti-Christian hoax of the 1830's which partly survives today.

Pagan, pre-scientific cosmology in 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 oceans below. 14 This was probably the reasoning by which the Sumerians developed their concept of a multi-layered universe.

"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." 1

Variations of this belief spread across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. 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." 2

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

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 dome (a.k.a. vault or sky canopy) which formed the sky. The sky was assumed to be relatively close to the earth - 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 builders reached the underside of the sky and attempted to pierce through the metal surface with an auger. 3

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, The Fountains of the Deep mentioned in Genesis also opened to add to the flood. Fire and brimstone were also poured down from Heaven to exterminate all 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 being in a larger-than-human body, who resided in Heaven, seated on a gigantic throne.

Replacement of the ancient Pagan cosmology with a new Pagan cosmology:

The three-story universe became threatened by advances in Greek philosophy and science in the 6th century BCE.

  • Pythagoras (circa 580 - 500 BCE) "taught that the Earth was a sphere at the centre of the Universe. He also recognised that the orbit of the Moon was inclined to the equator of the Earth and he was one of the first to realise that Venus as an evening star was the same planet as Venus as a morning star." 4
  • Empedocles (circa 492 - 432 BCE) reasoned that the earth was in the center of the universe because it was composed of heavy elements. Air surrounded the earth, because (in his belief) it was the next lightest element.
  • In the 3rd century BCE, Eratosthenes calculated the earth's circumference to be about 40,000 km (25,000 miles) -- a fairly accurate estimate. 5

These scientific discoveries had a profound effect on religious belief. The Greeks perceived the universe as consisting of:

  • The rotating, spherical earth located at its center.
  • Seven invisible, concentric, crystalline spheres to which the moon, sun, and five visible planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were attached. (Actually, the planet Uranus is visible to the unaided eye, but it appears to have not been detected as another planet by the ancients.)
  • An eighth invisible sphere to which the stars were attached.

No longer were people able to conceive of God as a physical entity in a human-like body sitting in his throne a few thousand feet above the earth's surface, looking down on humanity like a person might view grasshoppers. Instead, he was viewed as a spiritual entity. He was believed to reside "behind the veil of the vastly distant eighth sphere." 6

Historian Jeffrey Russel wrote:

"Although there were a few dissenters--Leukippos and Demokritos for example -- by the time of Eratosthenes (3 century BCE), followed by Crates(2 century BC), Strabo (3 century BCE), and Ptolemy (first c. CE), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans." (Calendar notation changed from the original). 7

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A few Christian holdouts:

The medieval Christian Church generally accepted the Pagan Greek cosmology. Historian Jeffrey Russel said that:

"...tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise." 7  

He wrote in his book:

"In the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era, five writers seem to have denied the globe, and a few others were ambiguous or uninterested in the question. But nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared." 11,12

Lactantius (245-325 CE) was one holdout. He was a professional rhetorician who converted to Christianity in mid-life. He rejected the Greek scientists-philosophers and reverted to the concept of a flat earth with an over-arching vault. 8

In the first half of the sixth century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek Christian from Alexandria, also rejected the Pagan concept of a spherical earth and also reverted to the flat earth concept of the Bible. The following image comes from his work, the "Christian Topography," circa 522 CE. 9

As shown in his drawing, he accepted the Hebrew Scriptures' belief in a heavenly vault that is rigidly attached to the earth at the far ends of the world. He believed in an additional, novel feature: an elevated firmament in the middle between the vault and earth. On its upper side, it held the waters in place. As a result, it had to be both horizontal and flat, as shown. Unlike the scriptural view, he believed that the earth (and thus the vault) was not round but square in cross section.

His main objection to the Greek cosmology was that he felt it came from Pagan origins. He commented:

"No man can serve two masters, (Matthew 6:24) as has well been said by the lord, but if one will serve God, let him serve him, or if Mammon, then Mammon. And again he says through Paul: 'Ye cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord, and of the table of devils.' (1 Corinthians 10:21) And again: 'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what fellowship hath righteousness with lawlessness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?' (1I Cor. 6:14-16)." 10

He did not appear to realize that the cosmology in the Hebrew Scriptures also appears to have come from a pagan source -- a much more ancient Middle Eastern myth.

The modern view of cosmology:

Copernicus (1473-1543 CE) sounded the death knell of Greek cosmology in his most important book Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies. In it, he described a crude model of a sun-centered solar system. In order to escape imprisonment, the book was presented as a hypothesis - a work of imagination. Copernicus was in many ways lucky. He died on the day that the first editions of his book were distributed, before he could be arrested.

To defend the status-quo, Protestant and Catholic churches quoted a passage in Psalms in which the sun "cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber". From Ecclesiastes they quoted: "The earth standeth fast forever". Martin Luther mentioned Joshua's command that the sun stand still.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was the first major supporter of Copernicus' theory; he was imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1592. and later burned alive for heresy. Early in the 17th century, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) invented the telescope which revolutionized astronomy. He observed that the planet Venus went through phases, that there were spots on the sun and that Jupiter had moons. The church arrested Galileo twice; the Inquisition showed him the instruments of torture that would be used to force his recantation if he didn't offer it willingly. He abandoned his teachings under pressure and retired. It was not until the year 1835 that the teachings of Copernicus and Galileo were finally accepted by his Church. Another century and a half were to pass before the Roman Catholic church issued an apology.

The Big Lie:

There is massive documentary evidence that the Medieval Christian church generally accepted the Greek spherical earth cosmology. However, an false belief that the church taught a flat earth became near universal. The "Historical Society of Britain some years back listed [this belief] as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions." 7

The hoax began in the early 19th century and has largely continued to the present day.

Washington Irving (1783-1859) widely recognized as America's first man of letters, popularized the mistaken idea in his 1828 history of Christopher Columbus. (One source incorrectly cites the novel Rip van Winkle.) 8 Irving's book includes "a fictitious account of Columbus's defending a round earth against misinformed clerics and university professors" at a meeting at Salamanca, Spain, in 1491. Presented as a historical documentary, it was largely a work of fiction.

A strongly anti-religious French author, Antoine-Jean "...Letronne falsely claimed that most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Ambrose and Basil, held to a flat Earth.7  In his book On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers (1834), he misrepresented "the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth." 7 His work has been repeatedly cited as 'reputable' ever since." 8

This idea was repeated by two leading anti-religious writers, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, later in the 19th century. It became imbedded in school books as early as the 1860's.

Author Daniel Boorstin, wrote, as late as 1985: "

A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia...afflicted the continent from...300 to at least 1300 [CE]. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." 10

The hoax continues today, in ever diminishing strength. It is still found throughout the Internet, and even in some academic texts.


  1. "Sumerian Mythology FAQ," at: http://members.bellatlantic.net/
  2. Gregory Riley, "The River of God," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). Page 22. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. Ibid, Page 27-28.
  4. "Pythagoras of Samos," at: http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/
  5. G. Riley, Op. cit., Page 38-39.
  6. G. Riley, Op. cit., Page 41.
  7. Jeffry B. Russell, "The myth of the flat Earth," American Scientific Affiliation Conference, 1997-AUG-4. at: http://www.id.ucsb.edu/fscf/library
  8. "Who invented the flat Earth?," ChristianAnswers.net, at: http://www.christiananswers.net
  9. Andrew Wiesner, translator, "The Fourth Book of the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes," at: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~awiesner/
  10. Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers: A history of man's search to know his world and himself," Random House, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  11. Jeffrey Burton Russell, "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians," Praeger Publishers, (1997).
  12. "Flat Wrong," Book review of Ref. 11, Teachers in Focus Magazine, at: http://www.arn.org/docs/hartwig/mh_flat.htm
  13. "New American Bible, Saint Joseph Personal size Edition," Catholic Book Publishing Co. A diagram showing the cosmology of the ancient Israelites -- "The World of the Hebrews" -- is shown opposite Page 4.
  14. "Was the biblical Earth flat?," Letter by Carl Ponder of Austin, TX, Bible Review. 2003-FEB, Pages 51 & 52.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JAN-28
Latest update and review: 2008-DEC-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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