The Myth of the Flat Earth Concept

I am deeply concerned about the erosion of our education system under the current liberal Federal and State administrations, and the liberal teaches’ unions; and, the teaching of revisionist history by those teachers, instructors and professors who believe in an Evolutionary Worldview and use it as the basis for their instruction in the subjects that they teach.

At our presentations, the two most often asked questions are, “What about Carbon 14?” and “Did people really believe in a flat earth?”

I have addressed the flaws of Carbon 14 in another Bible Lab available on our web site “Articles” page. In this Bible Lab I will address the fallacy of the supposed belief in a flat earth.

Man, even pagan man, has always been able to reason that the earth was a sphere! The Hebrews knew it because God told them six times in the Old Testament that the earth was a sphere. (Gen. 1:2, Job 22:14, Job 26:10, Job 38:14, Prov. 8:27 and Is. 40:22) These verses were sufficient to convince Old Testament believers!

Ancient pagans were also able to reason that the earth was a sphere. Too many people seem to think that ancient man was illiterate, ignorant or stupid. I would remind everyone; however, that ancient man was able to do works of engineering that we have not been able to duplicate in modern times.

First, men were quite capable of reasoning that the earth was round. The shadow of the earth upon the moon was quite sufficient to prove the point. Only a sphere will cast a round shadow regardless of orientation. If the earth were a flat circular shaped object, like a pie pan, it would cast an elliptical shadow on the moon at various times.

Second, men were quite aware that as one traveled from near the equator of the earth toward the North Pole that the North Star would appear higher and higher in the night sky. In addition, the rotation of the earth was quite obvious, as all stars made a circular path around the North Star during the night. The angle that the North Star makes with the horizon is roughly equal to the latitude of observation. The farther north one travels the more noticeable this phenomena is.

Third, as one travels north and south over great distances, different stars become visible. This fact made it obvious that the traveler was traveling along an arc. These things were clearly known in ancient times. In general, almost everyone living after The Flood of Noah knew that the earth was a sphere.

Fourth, there is the weaker argument made by analogy. The lunar phases can only occur if the moon is a sphere. This would lead to a conclusion that, by analogy, the earth is also a sphere.

Now, let us switch from Bible verses, to the reason and logic of the mathematical proofs for a round earth. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276 BC - c. 195 BC) was a Greek mathematician, elegiac poet, athlete, geographer, astronomer and music theorist. He was well educated in the schools of Athens and Alexandria. He became the third curator of the Library at Alexandria, the most famous library of the ancient world. He coined the word “geography” and started the scientific discipline of geography. He would develop a system of dividing the world into latitudes and longitudes. He was the first person to accurately determine the size of the earth; the distance to the sun; and, the tilt of the earth’s axis. He even understood the concept of the need for a “leap day.” He was a friend of Archimedes. Eratosthenes and Aristotle taught that the earth was a sphere.

Around 240 BC, he made measurements of the shadow of objects at the summer solstice near Aswan, on the Tropic of Cancer, and due north at Alexandria. The difference is seven degrees 12 minutes. This means that the distance from Aswan to Alexandria is 3600 divided by 70 12’ or 1/50th the circumference of the earth. He estimated that the distance from Alexandria to Aswan was 500 miles (800 km). His calculation of the circumference of the earth was 24,662 miles (39,690 km). His calculation was correct to within less than a 2% error factor of the actual value!

As astronomy developed in Europe during the Renaissance (14th to the 17th century) the major figures would include Johannes Kepler (Germany, December 27, 1571 - November 15, 1630), Nicolaus Copernicus (Poland, 19 February 1473 - 24 May 1543) and Galileo Galilei (Italy, 15 February 1564 - 8 January 1642), although there were many other prominent astronomers during the time period.

The well known problem between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church, which had adopted the Greek worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy, was not over whether or not the earth or the sun was the center of the solar system. That story is more myth than reality. The actual problem that sent Galileo into house arrest was a personal problem between him and his old friend Pope Urban VIII over a fictional character in Galileo’s book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which a fictional character seemed to put the Pope into public ridicule. During the Renaissance, no one argued over whether or not the earth was a sphere. Every scientist in Europe knew that the earth was a sphere.

The idea that there was a time when Europeans believed universally in a “Flat Earth” is pure revisionist history. True, there were some ancient cultures and certain early Greek philosophers (all evolutionists) that promoted the concept of belief in a flat earth, however, these ideas were being disproven by the time of the Classical Greek and Hellenistic Periods. The works of Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 - c. 495 BC), his followers and the works of Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) had started to persuade the world that teaching about a flat earth was scientifically wrong. The distortion of history that many people in the last 2,000 years believed in a flat earth may be traced directly to the teachings of atheistic/agnostic anti-God, anti-Bible and anti-Christian authors.

As a case in point, consider the utterly false story, so often found in Western history books that Christopher Columbus was told not to sail west because he and his crew would fall off the edge of the world and be destroyed.

The sole argument at the time of the sailing of Columbus was not over whether the earth was a sphere or flat; the argument was over the size of the sphere and whether the ships of the time could carry enough water and supplies for a voyage of that distance (thinking that the entire distance from Europe to India would be over water). “Columbus, like all educated people of his time, knew that the world was round.” (Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus and the Age of Discovery. New York: William Morrow, 1991, p. 72.)

Columbus underestimated the circumference of the earth. The distance from Europe to China is about 10,500 miles. It was only providential that for Columbus, the Americas stood in his way.

“Educated opinion in Columbus’s day was that the earth was a sphere of about 24,000 miles in circumference. Therefore, since China was some 8,000 miles to the east, the conventional wisdom held it impractical to sail west for 16,000 miles to reach the Orient. That is why Columbus had such a hard time finding backers for his concept.”

“Columbus calculated the earth’s circumference at about 18,000 miles, and he also believed Ptolemy’s too large estimate of the eastward extent of Asia. Combining these two errors, he came to the conclusion Japan lay about 3,000 miles to the west of the Canary Islands.” (Sam Dargan, “Will the Real Christopher Columbus Please Stand Up, World, October 7, 1989, p. 20.)

Make no mistake: I hold Columbus in very high regard. Columbus was a Christian missionary. His stated purpose in sailing west was to take the Gospel to an unsaved world. Where he went wrong was in arguing that it would be shorter to sail from Europe west to get to get to India. The truth is that he was wrong. Anyone looking at a modern globe will see that it is closer to sail east!

Indeed, although wrong about the measurements, he was the finest sailor of his time. Bartolome de Las Casas (1484 - 1566), wrote in his Historia de Las Indias, that “Christopher Columbus surpassed all of his contemporaries in the art of navigation.”

Who then invented the flat earth concept which has been incorporated into so many of our modern day American history textbooks?

Over the last 20 centuries there have been men who taught that the earth was flat; notably Lactantius (AD 245 - 325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (AD Sixth Century). These men were, however, discredited by their peers.

Medieval scholar Jeffrey Russell stated that Cosmas: “had no followers whatever; his works were ignored or dismissed with derision throughout the Middle Ages.” [Emphasis added] (Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, New York: Prager, 1991)

Living shortly after Cosmas was The Venerable Bede (672 / 673 - 26 May 735). He was a monk living in Jarrow, England. He is known as the Father of English History. He maintained “that the earth is a globe that can be called a perfect sphere because the surface irregularities of mountains and valleys are so small in comparison to its vast size.” (Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, p. 20)

The truth is that before the voyages of Columbus, De Gama and Ferdinand Magellan few mariners sailed much beyond the horizon for some very practical reasons.

Prior to the invention of the precision marine chronometer by John Harrison (1693 – 1776) no one could accurately calculate longitude. To calculate longitude, you have to know the exact time difference between a specific point, i.e., Greenwich, England, and your location. Before the marine chronometer was invented, sailing beyond the horizon was dependent upon the navigation skills of the pilot (captain), unreliable measuring devices and a clear sky. Any sailor may reliably judge latitude by the length of the day; or height of the sun at noon; or specific stars above a horizon - but - longitude is quite a different matter.

The story which has become so much a part of American history textbooks; the story that Columbus was warned that he would fall off the edge of the earth if he sailed west: well, that story is the invention of a struggling American author of fiction - Washington Irving (1783-1859). Yes, the story of the flat earth and Columbus’ first voyage is the work of the author of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [The Sketch Book] (1820), which included his best known fictional folk stories of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (The Headless Horseman) and Rip Van Winkle.

Today it may seem hard to believe, but in the early years of the United States there were few national heroes. When the American Colonies broke off their ties to England, they also broke off their ties to the English heroes of centuries past. One of the persons who helped to fill that void was Christopher Columbus.

Note for example, the large number of State and Federal Capital cities named after Columbus - Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; and the Federal District of Columbia. There are large numbers of objects named after Columbus: Space Shuttle Columbia, Columbia University and the Columbia River. Last, but not least, “Hail, Columbia” was the unofficial national anthem of the United States until its replacement in 1931 by the officially mandated “Star-Spangled Banner”.

Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859) was born in New York City. In 1815, he moved to Europe. He lived in France and Spain until 1832. While in Spain, he translated a collection of manuscripts concerning the life work of Columbus. In 1828, he published a largely fictional work in three volumes entitled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Irving described himself as “apt to indulge in the imagination.” In fact, he had a bad habit of fictionalizing history. His History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809) was published under his pseudonym, Diederich Knickerbocker. “He perpetuated a prolonged hoax in order to persuade the reading public that Knickerbocher was a real person.” (Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, p. 52)

In the 1848 edition of the History of New YorkIrving admitted that he had embellished “the few facts” he could collect with fragments of [his] own brain.” [Emphasis added] (Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, p. 52)

Concerning Irving’s account of Columbus, Russell wrote: “It is fabrication, and it is largely upon this fabric that the idea of a medieval flat earth was established.” (Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, p. 53)

The obvious problem being that readers of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus could not possibly tell what was fact and what was fiction. For example, Irving’s description of the Council of Salamanca was a complete total fabrication.

Samuel Eliot Morison described Irving’s work as “misleading and mischievous nonsense, … one of the most popular Columbian myths.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942, p. 89.)

In 1834, Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), produced a work attempting to tie the belief in a flat earth with the early church fathers and published it in the magazine Revue des Deux Mondes. He was educated in the teachings of Mentelle and Voltaire.

In Revue he wrote that the flat earth was the majority view of the early Christian writers. His statements were utterly untrue, but liberal scholars have quoted him for over two centuries. In combination, the works of Irving and Letronne made the flat earth myth into a generally received “well-known fact.”

Two more men further served to popularize this myth. In 1874, John W. Draper wrote an anti-church diatribe entitled History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. In 1865, Andrew D. White became cofounder of the first explicitly secular university in the U. S., Cornell University. In 1897, he wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In these two books, they were knowingly attempting to discredit Christians and creationists in the battle over origins.

J. B. Russell wrote Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, 1991. He was no creationist, but he thoroughly documents how the invention of the flat earth was a direct attack against God, the history of the Christian Church and truth in general. His conclusion was that Secular Humanist authors were attempting to promote the idea that Christians were without intellect versus their (evolutionists) enlightened rationalism.

Clearly, while there were those instances throughout history when groups or individual people believed in a flat earth, it was never the general position of Christians nor that of the Christian Church universal.

Any attempt to condemn Christians as “flat earthers” is simply slander, gossip and libel. The often forgotten heritage of the Christian Church universal is that of great intellectual achievements; whether from saving the Bible and other ancient writings, or to the founding of scientific disciplines and the greatest of scientific discoveries!

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