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The Bible and Astronomy

by Hector Avalos

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 4.

Long before telescopes and sophisticated instruments, ancient peoples looked to the heavens for answers to the basic questions of life. From the very first verse, the Bible, the most influential collection of books in Western civilization, purports to provide answers to some of these questions, claiming that the Hebrew god created the heavens (Genesis 1:1) and that he made the Earth for human beings to inhabit (Isaiah 45:18). Heavenly luminaries were formed to provide light for Earth and markers for the seasons (Genesis 1:14-16). The Earth was the center of the biblical universe.

The relationship between the Bible and modern astronomy has been very complicated and often turbulent. For most of the last two thousand years, any research on astronomy had to follow the biblical interpretation of the Church, as the case of Galileo in the seventeenth century illustrated. Accordingly, many scientists would argue that, for modern astronomy to be born, biblical cosmology had to die.

Galileo vs. Ptolemy (and the Church)

Galileo took one of the first steps leading toward the death of biblical cosmology by mounting a systematic challenge to the biblical notion that the Earth was the center of the universe. The centrality of Earth had long been associated with the cosmologies of Aristotle and Ptolemy that had been adopted as the official teaching of the Church. These cosmologists held that an immovable Earth was orbited by concentric spheres in which the various planets and stars were embedded. A complex series of circular motions by each sphere and the associated celestial bodies was purported to account for all observable heavenly motions, including the apparent retrograde motion of some planets. The heavenly bodies, such as the Moon and Sun, were perfectly homogeneous in their composition and structure.

In contrast, Galileo sought to confirm the theory, most forcefully presented in the sixteenth century by the Polish astronomer Copernicus in his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, that the Sun was the center of the universe. As Alexander Koyr, William Shea, and other historians of science have noted, most of Galileo's arguments were no better empirically than those of Ptolemy, and definitive confirmation of the Copernican system was found long after Galileo's death.

Galileo's certainty seems to have rested on the assumption that mathematical simplicity is a guide to truth. Even if two otherwise contrary systems could account for heavenly motions, the simpler mathematical model should be preferred. Galileo's faith in mathematical simplicity is evident in his famous Dialogo (after 1744 titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican):

Who is going to believe that nature ... has chosen to make an immense number of very huge bodies move with incalculable speed, to achieve what could have been done by a moderate movement of one single body around its own center?

But even if Galileo's mathematically simple model did not constitute proof that the universe actually worked in this manner, Galileo announced other discoveries that cast doubt on Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology. Such discoveries were facilitated by Galileo's innovative use of the telescope to explore the heavens beginning around 1609. Galileo showed, for example, that the Moon's surface has mountains and valleys, and is not perfectly smooth as Aristotle postulated; that the Sun has spots, not a homogeneous surface; and that Venus has phases, which would not be expected if Venus moved uniformly around the Earth.

The Church reacted against such challenges by placing Copernicus' De Revolutionibus on the index of prohibited books in 1616, 73 years after its publication and indicating that the Church saw no early threat by this "revolutionary" work. In 1633 Galileo was tried and found guilty of teaching the Copernican system. His sentence included imprisonment, which was commuted to house arrest at his home near Florence for the remaining years of his life.

Eventually, modern cosmology established the validity of the heliocentric theory. Moreover, modern cosmology showed that the sequence of cosmogonic events in Genesis 1, if interpreted literally, is not correct. Stars were formed on the fourth day of creation in Genesis 1:16, whereas modern astronomy has established that stars are still being formed today. Water on Earth exists before any other principal component in Genesis 1:1-3, whereas in modern cosmology our watery planet is a relatively late product. Even the need for a creator has been challenged. In his introduction to Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Carl Sagan observed that Hawking outlines "a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do."

In addition, developments in biblical scholarship, especially in the nineteenth century, undermined the idea of a unified biblical cosmology. Most modern biblical scholars identify at least two different creation stories in Genesis, one in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and another in Genesis 2:4b-2:25. Among a number of differences, the first story places the creation of all animals before the creation, on the sixth day, of man and woman together. The second creation story has a different sequence: the human male (Gen. 2:7), then all the animals (Gen. 2:19), and finally the human female (Gen. 2:21-22).

Biblical cosmology is preserved in some circles, most notably in the writings of Henry Morris, John Whitcomb, and other fundamentalist Christians known as "creationists." Most creationists still uphold the basic sequences and chronology of Genesis 1, not Genesis 2, as the paradigmatic creation story even if they disagree on whether to interpret the length of the days literally, or as more prolonged periods of time. And, as a secular biblical scholar, I also see the continuing, and in my opinion misguided, attempts by some modern astronomers to harmonize astronomy and the Bible.

A Primer in Biblical Cosmology(ies)

The most common view found in the biblical texts indicates that the Hebrews thought of a tri-partite universe (heaven, Earth, and underworld), with the sky as a sort of metallic dome. On the other side of the walls of this dome were the storehouses for rain and snow. Rain occurred, for example, when the doors or windows of these storehouses were opened by God as in Genesis 7:11-12. The edge of this dome, outlined by the horizon, rested on pillars or mountains which had roots extending deep into the Earth (see Job 26:11). The Earth, which was declared to be immovable (Psalm 104:5), was a disk supported on water. Rivers were often seen as originating in this underground water. See Genesis 2:6 where "stream" rather than the "mist" of the King James Version is a better translation.

The Hebrew god and his divine retinue inhabited the heavens, although he also visited the Earth to see what human beings were doing (Genesis 11:5). The idea of persons living in heaven was an idea popularized by Christianity. However, the books attributed to a figure called Enoch reflect the existence of a vigorous pre-Christian Jewish literature which speaks of temporary visits and tours of the heavenly realms. These narratives are usually viewed as works of the imagination and theology by biblical scholars, but they have become evidence of space travel in antiquity for many UFO enthusiasts.

Astronomers' Misunderstandings

Many modern astronomers evince misunderstandings of biblical cosmology. For example, Robert Jastrow writes in God and the Astronomers: "The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy."

Another possibly misguided effort centers on providing scientific explanations for what may be purely literary phenomena. One case involves the Sun and Moon standing still in Joshua's battle at Gibeon (Joshua 10:12-13):

On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel, "Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon." And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

This command by Joshua is most probably a literary motif also found in many other battle accounts of the ancient Near East. Consider in the Iliad, the famous Greek epic of the early first millennium b.c.e., that Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, requests Zeus grant that "the sun set not, neither darkness come upon us until I have cast down in headlong ruin the halls of Priam."

Astronomers have also sought to explain the Star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2-10) without any apparent attention to possible literary motivations. For example, a recent article in Popular Mechanics reports that Ivor Bulmer Thomas has attempted to link the Star of Bethlehem with a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in May of 7 b.c.e., or a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 b.c.e. Another astronomer argues on the basis of Chinese records, however, that a nova occurring in the spring of 5 b.c.e. may be a more probable explanation.

As is the case with references to eclipses, it is certainly possible that the author of Matthew was referring to an authentic astronomical event in a general sense - a conjunction of luminaries. It is also well known, however, that in the ancient world astronomical signs were associated, almost routinely and without much precision, with people favored by the authors. Attempting to provide scientific explanations for these literary motifs may be as misguided as providing scientific explanations for how Superman flies or which astronomical event corresponds to the explosion of the planet Krypton.

Theologians' Misunderstandings

Perhaps more often than scientists who seek to correlate the Bible and science, religious commentators will attempt to harmonize new scientific discoveries with biblical references. After the formulation of the law of gravitation, a few conservative biblical commentators sought to explain "chains" and "cords" in the Job 38:31 passage, "Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?" as reflecting biblical knowledge of gravitational bonds. The problem is that we really do not know that the relevant Hebrew words referred to those specific constellations, if any at all. "Cords" and "chains" may refer to some design that the ancients saw, like Orion's starry belt, rather than any theory of gravitation.

A similar situation obtains in Isaiah 40:22, which is sometimes cited to support the idea that biblical authors knew of the spherical shape of the Earth: "It is he who sits above the circle of the Earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in." Some argue that knowledge of the Earth's sphericity is more than can be expected in ancient times, and that such knowledge must therefore be attributed to some supernatural source. However, the Hebrew word translated here as "the circle" most probably refers to the circle traced by the horizon and is not reference to the sphericity of the Earth at all. Languages related to Hebrew have the same word-root to refer to the horizon. Moreover, even if the Hebrew authors knew about the sphericity of the Earth, such knowledge would not require any supernatural explanation. After all, Eratosthenes of Alexandria, an ancient Greek mathematician active in the third century b.c.e., not only knew that the world was round but also used trigonometry to measure the size of its circumference to a respectable degree of accuracy.

Why Harmonize the Bible and Astronomy?

The motives for attempting to harmonize astronomy and the Bible are complex. A common one is to unify ethical and scientific systems of "truth." The desire to validate the social and ethical policies of the Bible is clearly at the heart of some attempts to show that the Bible is reliable in all that it teaches. Protestant theologian Bernard Ramm provides and example of this line of reasoning in The Christian View of Science and Scripture:

The theological, the ethical, and the practical are so conjoined in the Bible with the statements about Nature or creation that it is impossible to separate them, and to impugn one is to impugn the other.

In other words, if the Bible cannot be trusted concerning its truth claims about the origin, structure, and purpose of the universe, how can it be trusted to provide reliable information about ethics? Any scientific disconfirmation of biblical cosmology will result in the devaluation of the biblical ethical system.

In general, for scientists who do not think that ethics should be built on a biblical foundation, the harmony of the Bible with astronomy is not important.

Across the Great Divide

Galileo was finally exonerated by Pope John Paul II in 1992, which is yet another signal that the literal biblical interpretation of the origin and structure of the universe has been largely overthrown. Yet biblical ideas have not disappeared completely. In their most vigorous form, they are still found in the writings of the so-called creationists. In a weakened form, they are still found in the work of some respected astronomers. Both forms seem to be motivated by the desire to preserve two important institutions, science and religion. It is often the case that such astronomers do not use the same degree of rigor and critical approach to the Bible that they might use in their own field, and the case is the same for many biblical commentators who seek to use astronomy to buttress religious claims. Astronomers and biblical scholars need to interact more than ever in order to avoid some basic misunderstandings of both the Bible and astronomy.


All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America, (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1989).

This article is published with the permission of the author and adapted from his "Heavenly Conflicts: The Bible and Astronomy," which appeared in the March-April 1998 Mercury.

Hector Avalos is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University in Ames, where he was named the 1996 Professor of the Year. He also serves as Executive Director for the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.

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