Tag Archives: church history

Columbus and the Flat Earth

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, is the book for the day. Columbus did not show the world that the Earth was round. No educated European in 1492 believed that the Earth was flat. They all knew it was round. As all math geeks know, Eratosthenes of Cyrene had made a good calculation of the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE.

Catholic church authorities did not say that the plan of Columbus to reach the orient by sailing westward was impossible because the Earth was flat. Their scholastic theology was based on the philosophy of Aristotle, who understood perfectly well that the Earth was round.

There are passages in the Bible that suggest a flat Earth, but almost all theologians of ancient and medieval times knew the evidence for a round Earth was overwhelming, and understood the Bible was not to be taken literally in this and similar cases.

The objection to the plans of Columbus was that, thanks to Eratosthenes, people had a good idea of the distance from the west coast of Europe to the east coast of China, and could easily calculate that no ship of the day could possibly carry enough supplies for the voyage.

Columbus, acting like a 21st century Republican, rejected the best science of the day and chose a smaller alternative value for the circumference that suited his purposes. He was just lucky that the Americas happened to be there. As a result their inhabitants were then horribly unlucky.

The story about Columbus and the flat Earth is a 19th century invention, not history.

Also posted on Facebook.

Dating a passage in Acts

Acts 18:12-17 reads (NRSV):

12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. 13 They said, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of crime or serious villainy, I would be justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews; 15 but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I do not wish to be a judge of these matters.” 16 And he dismissed them from the tribunal. 17 Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.
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Cosmos and Giordano Bruno

I saw the first episode of the new Cosmos last week. The first and third parts were fine. The middle part, the cartoon about Giordano Bruno was the story I had heard long ago about how Bruno was a martyr for his scientific beliefs. This story is very widespread, and widely invoked by those who are hostile to religion. Back in 1971 I was in Turkey, on the walls of the formidable late medieval fortress of Rumeli Hisarı, when I saw a Soviet freighter passing through the Bosphorus named, in Cyrillic letters, Giordano Bruno.

Unfortunately, this was just cartoon history

Whose Birthday?

From Whose Christmas Is It Anyway?

….during the last years of paganism, the cult of Sol remained so popular that the Church Fathers could only neutralize its celebration on the [traditional] winter solstice of December 25th by setting the birthday of Christ on that very same day. In other words, they snatched the day and, sooner rather than later, Christ trumped Sol.

This view is now almost universally accepted; but is it true?

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News from the 16th Century

Is Bachmann the media’s anti-Christ?

Yesterday, California became the first state to require gay history in public school textbooks. But Im thinking states might want to consider just focusing on basic history. Yesterdays news cycle was full of stories showing some pretty striking ignorance of the events of the 16th century.

The article links to Bachmanns Former Church says Papacy is Antichrist; Will it Matter?, which is quite entertaining.