The Pillars of the Earth

A favorite tactic among Christian fundamentalists is to claim that the Bible contains verses which display a level of scientific understanding not available to human beings at the time. These passages, they say, could only have been written by an all-knowing god and are proof that the Bible’s composition was divinely guided. And I agree that this is a perfectly good criterion which could, in principle, detect the influence of revelation on a primitive people. But what remains to be answered is whether the Bible actually displays this kind of understanding. In this essay, I’ll examine some of those claims as presented by this apologist web site, and investigate how the Bible holds up in the light of the scientific revolutions that have occurred in the millennia since it was written.

The Claims

The stars are too great in number to count (Genesis 15:5, Jeremiah 33:22, Hebrews 11:1)

This verse exemplifies a fallacy we’ll see repeated throughout this article: Christian apologists take obvious facts about the world, facts that were readily known to people of antiquity, and act as if their mention in the Bible constituted an amazing insight. In this case, the Bible mentions the fact that a large number of stars are visible in the night sky. These apologists treat this as though it were a profound statement requiring deep scientific understanding.

The Earth is shaped like a sphere (round) and rotates (Isaiah 40:22, Luke 17:34-36)

This claim is inaccurate. The first verse simply speaks of “the circle of the earth”, and of course a circle is a two-dimensional object. But even if this verse had spoken of a spherical Earth, that would have been no proof of divine revelation, because that fact was known to people of antiquity. It can readily be deduced from several lines of physical evidence. In fact, not only did the ancient Greeks know that the Earth was spherical, they accurately calculated its circumference without recourse to divine intervention, by cleverly applying some basic principles of geometry.

The second verse supposedly speaks of “Christ’s Second Coming as happening while some are asleep at night and others are working at day-time activities in the field, an indication of a rotating earth with day and night at the same time.” Actually, the verse only says “there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left… Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” There’s no indication that this is meant to describe anything other than people engaged in a variety of activities at the time the Second Coming happens. Why can’t people be asleep during the day?

The sun is is moving through space in a huge orbit (Psalms 19:4-6)

This passage says of the sun, “His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it.” Nothing in this verse remotely implies that the Sun is orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Far more likely, this is a reference to the Sun’s daily rising and setting and implies a geocentric view of the cosmos. (The apologist site itself suggests this alternate interpretation.)

Light travels in a path, darkness does not (Job 38:19)

This deeply silly argument takes a verse which says, “Where is the way to the dwelling of light?” and treats it, via a contrived exegesis, as if it were a mention of electromagnetic waves. What the verse actually says is not that light travels along a way, but that there is a place, a “dwelling” of light, that God can reach and humans cannot. There is nothing here that is remotely scientifically accurate.

The universe is expanded from its original size (various)

Most of these verses refer to God “stretching forth” or “spreading out” the heavens, which the apologist site suggests should be viewed as a reference to Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe. But none of these verses carry any specific details that would support this interpretation: for instance, pointing out that celestial objects such as stars are moving away from the Earth. Most notably, none of the verses listed indicate that this is an ongoing process, which would be an unusual claim potentially pointing to outside influence on the authorship of these texts.

What is the real meaning of these verses? In context, they are far more likely a reference to the “firmament” which, in ancient Hebrew cosmology, was a sort of solid dome set over the Earth to hold back the primordial waters (Genesis 1:7-8). This firmament evidently has windows which God can open, resulting in torrential rains like the kind that caused Noah’s flood (Genesis 7:11, 8:2). Most of the verses cited here are references to this primitive cosmology, which envisions not an enormous and ancient cosmos far surpassing the powers of human imagination, but a small universe centered on humanity and the Earth.

For instance, one of the verses, Ezekiel 1:22, speaks of “the likeness of the firmament” which was “stretched forth over their heads above”. Far from envisioning an immense and expanding universe, this passage imagines the firmament as something like a ceiling hanging just overhead, perhaps with stars embedded in it like lamps hanging from chains. Another of the cited verses, Isaiah 40:22, specifically describes God as the one who “stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” – as if God was a desert nomad, setting up his tent by pitching a tarp overhead. And an even more revealing verse, Job 37:18, says that the sky “is strong, and as a molten looking glass”. This verse envisions the firmament as a solid object in the clearest possible terms, and to cite this as if it were a scholarly discussion of the Big Bang is deceptive and clumsy in the extreme.

The universe is finite in size (various)

It is not currently known whether the universe is finite or infinite, so any claim that the Bible anticipates scientific knowledge in this area is premature at best. And in any case, most of the verses cited by these apologists to support their preferred option require some severely contorted exegesis: for instance, saying that God “stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” and then concluding that the universe must be finite because “a curtain is clearly a finite object”, or because a verse from Psalms says that God calls all the stars by their names. A curtain is also made of cloth, but that doesn’t mean the universe is made of cloth; and if you begin with the premise that God created the stars, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be an infinite number of them, each with their own distinct God-given name.

Earth floats freely in space (Job 26:7)

This is one of the few verses on this page that is not obviously wrong – it does indeed say that God “hangeth the earth upon nothing”. Still, this must be weighed against the many verses, including one from this same chapter of this same biblical book, which say that the Earth and the heavens are supported by pillars that shake when God gets angry (Job 9:6, Job 26:11, Psalms 75:3, 1 Samuel 2:8).

If we are to claim that the Bible displays profound scientific accuracy, we cannot just dismiss verses that say things that are obviously scientifically inaccurate. Many apologists strain to detect even the vaguest correspondence between Bible verses and scientific fact, but when a verse from the text says something that is plainly wrong, they avoid having to admit this by immediately consigning it to the status of metaphor or poetic allegory. This is dishonest, and if one wants to make an argument for divine revelation, the same standard must be applied to every biblical verse.

Life is in our blood (Leviticus 17:11, Leviticus 17:14)

Again, this is a readily obvious fact about the world. This apologist site makes the ridiculous claim that it took divine revelation to tell us that people who bleed too much tend to die. It self-congratulatingly discusses George Washington’s death due to bloodletting – “had any of the doctors who practiced this treatment read these Bible verses, they would have known that it could have fatal consequences” – but does not even consider the highly probable scenario that Washington’s doctors, like most doctors of past ages, had read the Bible and were not dissuaded from this practice.

Circumcisions should be performed on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:12)

The apologist site claims that clotting factors peak in the blood on the eighth day after birth, making this the best day to perform a circumcision. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, there’s another possible explanation: natural selection. The ancient Hebrews might have unintentionally carried out a natural experiment by circumcising their male newborns on random days after birth. Circumcision in a prescientific society, without benefit of sterile surgical tools, must have been a ghastly affair that resulted in infection and death for many infants. Over long periods of time, as people noticed that circumcision in one particular day gave the best chance for survival, that would have become the preferred date until finally it was codified into law. Notably, the Bible does not explain why circumcision should be performed on this date, which is what we would expect if the date had been fixed through a process of unconscious selection.

In addition, there are other ways to explain this verse that do not require the assumption of divine revelation. Some Jewish commentators offer a plausible alternative, which is that performing circumcision on the eighth day was a symbolic choice intended to ensure the infant had already lived through at least one Sabbath. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that the Bible also commands animal sacrifices be made on the eighth day after the animal’s birth (Leviticus 22:27), a case in which the levels of clotting factor could not be a consideration.

Finally, one has to ask: If the Bible was written by a divine author, why would it command circumcision at all? Why would God create his people with foreskins if he only wanted them to be cut off anyway? This sort of ritual mutilation bears resemblance to similar customs in primitive, tribal societies all over the world, most of which symbolically mark rites of passage through ritual scarring or body modification, but why an omnipotent creator would care about or desire such a thing seems totally inexplicable.

Jews and Arabs descendants of one man (various)

All human beings alive today are descendants of one man if you go back far enough. This is the “Y-chromosome Adam”, who was not necessarily the first human being but merely the most recent one who has descendants living today. The same is true of “Mitochondrial Eve”, who was the most recent female common ancestor, not the first woman ever to live. (Y-chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve were not contemporaries.) The apologist site under discussion links to a creationist page which misleadingly discusses these as if they were the biblical first couple, so I thought it important to set the record straight.

In any case, this verse is, again, not something that would have taken divine insight to arrive at. People who lived side-by-side in ancient times, who were of the same race and who had similar cultures, guessed that they were descended from the same forebears. As it turns out, they were correct.

Laughter can promote physical healing (Proverbs 17:22)
Depression can be harmful to your physical health (Proverbs 17:22)

These two claims appeal to the same verse, so I’ll examine them together. This verse says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Evidently, we are expected to believe that it took divine revelation for people to figure out that laughter makes you feel good and depression makes you feel bad.

And as long as we’re going to be sticklers for scientific accuracy, I have to take issue with this apologist site’s generalized claim that the Bible predicts that “depression can be harmful to your physical health”. What the Bible actually says is that depression “drieth the bones” – which is inaccurate, as this is not a symptom of depression (or any other physical ailment I’ve heard of). If this seems overly literal, I agree that it is – but the fault is not with me, but with the apologists who insist on treating these folk proverbs as if they were scientific assertions of sufficient accuracy to foreshadow twentieth-century discoveries in psychology. One cannot treat the Bible as scientifically accurate by discarding all the details of its verses which are incorrect.

The Jet Stream (Ecclesiastes 1:6)

This verse is a general musing about the winds blowing around in a circuitous path until they return from whence they came. As they have done elsewhere, this apologetics site uses scientific knowledge that has since been gained and reads it back into these vague metaphors, pretending that they are far more precise than they really are and contain far more detail than they really do. An observation that wind sometimes blows from one direction, and sometimes from the other, is not to be equated with a precise scientific description of the high-velocity air currents that form at the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere.

Also, this site again ignores relevant details from the biblical text that disconfirm their claim. The Bible claims that the wind “goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north”. As you can see from maps of the jet stream, its flow is actually in a predominantly east-west direction, circling the poles.

Hydrological cycle (Job 36:27-28, Amos 9:6)

The first verse, from Job, observes that water vapor can condense into liquid water – hardly an observation inaccessible to the ancients – and makes the leap that this is the cause of rain as well. The verse from Amos states that the seas are the source of the water in the rain. I have no problem granting that both of these verses are correct. However, the Hebrews were not the only ancient culture that figured this out: Aristotle correctly described the hydrological cycle as well, in the fourth century BCE, in his treatise Meteorology. Like the sphericity of the Earth, it takes no special revelation to discover, only patience and a talent for observing the natural world.

Air has weight (Job 28:25)

It’s not explained why the fact that air has mass could not have been deduced by anyone who’s ever felt the wind blow or seen it shake the trees. Indeed, that’s how it’s used in this verse, which speaks of “the weight for the winds”.

Anthropic principle (Isaiah 45:18)

This verse from Isaiah asserts that God created the world so that he could create people to live on it; he did not intend to create the world only to leave it empty and uninhabited. What scientific discovery this is supposed to foreshadow, I have no idea. The anthropic principle is not a “discovery”, but the common-sense assertion that, in order for us to be here to observe the world, the laws of nature must be such as to permit the existence of observers like us.

Dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time (Genesis 1:23-27, Job 40:15-24)

Since this is not an instance of scientific foreknowledge, but rather scientific error, I see no need to discuss it further.

Entropy (Psalms 102:25-26, Isaiah 51:6, Hebrews 1:10-11)

All three of these verses repeat the proverb that the earth “shall wax old like a garment”, in contrast to the eternality of God. Incredibly, this apologist site goes on to discuss the Second Law of Thermodynamics – implying that the former was an accurate foreshadowing of the latter!

The authors of this apologist tract take a basic fact about the world – that clothes get tattered and threadbare over time – and treat it as if its mention in the Bible constituted an astounding scientific insight. A correct statement regarding an obvious, everyday phenomenon is not the same thing as a precise mathematical description of that same phenomenon. Using reasoning like this, we could conclude that Amos’ famous verse – “Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (5:24) – displays miraculous foreknowledge of the Navier-Stokes differential equations for fluid turbulence.

Many ancient religions, Judaism among them, incorporated some form of apocalypticism: the notion that the world was somehow flawed or corrupted, that things were getting steadily worse as a result, and that a day was coming when God would sweep away the evil and remake creation in a pure and permanent form. But try as some might to pretend otherwise, this mythological belief simply cannot be made into a scientific treatise on the heat death of the universe. At a sufficiently low level of detail, these two ideas are roughly similar. That is the most that can reasonably be said, and it is not enough to support a claim of divine revelation.

All things are made up of sub-atomic particles that are invisible to the naked eye (Hebrews 11:3)

Are these people serious? This verse simply says, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear,” and in context, is clearly a faith statement that the visible world was made by an unseen deity. To try wringing mention of electrons and protons from this is beyond absurd. And, in any case, Greek philosophers such as Democritus correctly theorized that the world is made of atoms well before the writing of the New Testament.

Time had a beginning (1 Timothy 1:8-9)

Interestingly, this apologist site takes a somewhat schizophrenic position toward the scientific consensus on this subject. It applauds scientists’ conclusion that the cosmos as we know it had a beginning, yet it denies the Big Bang, the reigning theory of how this happened, calling it a “fairy tale”. Does it make any sense to praise someone for coming to a particular conclusion while, at the same time, denying and pouring scorn on every reason they offer for that conclusion?

Of course, it’s obvious why they do this. This is a creationist site that endorses a literal interpretation of Genesis – and, given its earlier uncritical claims about humans coexisting with dinosaurs, it’s a fairly extreme creationist site at that. They’re certainly aware that the creation myth of Genesis – the land being separated from the primordial water, Earth created before the rest of the universe, all species created simultaneously or nearly so – is systematically contradicted by what we have learned about the actual origin of the universe and the subsequent evolution of life on Earth.

Other than the unelaborated statement that the universe had a beginning (something about which there is a one-in-two possibility of guessing correctly), the Bible actually clashes with scientific discovery, rather than anticipating it. Only by stripping the text down to its most basic outline, and ignoring everything it says about how creation actually took place, do these apologists claim to discover a point of agreement with science.

Modern communications, perhaps even satellite television broadcasts (Revelation 11:7-11)

This verse is about the Antichrist killing the two “witnesses” of Revelation, after which people of many nations will rejoice and celebrate their deaths. It has nothing to do with modern communications or television.

I suppose the impression we’re meant to take away here is that only modern media could make it possible for people from many nations and cultures to learn about the deaths of two individuals in a short period of time. If that’s what was meant, it would display a gross ignorance of history: at the time the New Testament was being written, there were plenty of large, cosmopolitan cities like Rome, or even Jerusalem, where people of diverse backgrounds met and mingled.

The oceans have circulating currents or ‘paths’ (Psalms 8:8, Isaiah 43:16)

These verses often come up in discussions of scientific foreknowledge in the Bible, and I’ve never understood why. The first one claims that there are “paths of the seas,” i.e., currents, which is of course true, but why would any apologist imagine that this was not known to seafaring ancient cultures? The site mentions the oceanographer Dr. Matthew Maury, but describes his contribution wrongly: he did not discover ocean currents, but made substantial progress in mapping them.

The second verse cited describes God making “a path in the mighty waters”. In context, this is clearly a reference to the miracle of the parting of the sea so the Israelites could escape Egypt.

There are springs that arise from the ocean floor (Job 38:16)

This verse asks, “Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea?” Apparently, in the apologists’ eyes, this is meant to refer to the “black smoker” hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom.

But, again, this interpretation can be arrived at only by embellishing the biblical text with additional detail. The apologist site credits the Bible with pointing out that “there are springs that arise from the ocean floor”, but in fact the Bible says no such thing. It merely refers to “the springs of the sea”, without providing any further detail about them. Presumably, what we have here is an example of reasoning by analogy. Ancient people knew full well that rivers and streams arise from groundwater springs, and naturally assumed that the oceans had a similar source. But this is not accurate: the oceans are composed of primordial water, outgassed from the mantle when the Earth was young, and are for the most part a closed system.

Mountains and deep valleys exist on the ocean floor (Job 38:16, Jonah 2:5-6)

The verse from Job, as a proof of ocean valleys, is highly contentious at best. This listing of parallel translations shows that, of a dozen different translations, only one (the 1995 “God’s Word” translation) even mentions the term “valleys”. Most simply translate it as “recesses of the deep” or “secret places of the deep”. Only highly creative reinterpretation could see this as a mention of seafloor trenches, and the specificity is not there in the original text to support such an inference.

The verse from Jonah is more interesting, but it does not prove what these apologists think it does. It says that Jonah, in the fish’s belly, “went down to the bottoms of the mountains”. It does not say that the mountains themselves were on the ocean floor. In context, this clearly reflects the ancient Hebrew cosmology that all the land is underlain by primordial water, the same “fountains of the deep” which erupted to produce Noah’s flood.


Summing up, I think it’s informative to see just how thin this list is. Even if all these apologist claims were correct, it still wouldn’t constitute a very impressive catalog, compared to what the Bible could have said if an all-knowing being had had a hand in its composition. Imagine if the Levitical laws on quarantine were justified by an accurate presentation of the germ theory of disease, including a description of the difference between bacteria and viruses. Imagine if the Book of Genesis, which says the stars and planets were placed in the night sky as portents for the inhabitants of Earth, instead pointed out that the planets were fellow worlds like our own and gave some accurate details about the composition of each one. Imagine if it correctly expressed the distance between the Sun and the nearest stars in terms of the speed of light, or explained what a comet was, or described the life cycle of a star. Many other examples can be imagined. Details like these could be readily explained in terms that even the ancients would have understood, and would have left no doubt that some advanced intelligence had a hand in the authorship of the text.

But that is not what we find in the Bible. If we remove the passages that are simply incorrect, as well as the metaphorical and poetic verses which these apologists have tried to equate with later scientific discoveries, what remains is a collection of folk wisdom and basic facts about the world. Most of these things were obvious to even a prescientific culture, and none would have required divine revelation to find out. At most, it would have required patience, skill at observing nature, and the ability to make a few logical connections. None of these things were lacking in the ancient world.

Modern apologists actually demean the intelligence of people in ancient cultures by implying that they could not have figured out anything without God’s help. In fact, primitive societies that survive today often show an impressive amount of knowledge about the things in their world that matter to them: the medicinal uses of plants, how to track animals, how to forecast the weather, how to make tools and construct shelters, and so on. They do not, of course, know about things like the Big Bang or the laws of thermodynamics – those discoveries are the province of an industrialized society with the technology and leisure time for rigorous scientific exploration. And it’s to be expected, in primitive societies, that myth and superstition would be mixed in with genuine knowledge.

In this respect, the Bible is no different from the many other surviving relics and legends of humanity’s past. It’s a product of the times and places that created it and displays the same knowledge and beliefs as people of those eras. Like all books, it is a human creation whose origins can be inferred from its composition. To claim that it stands out from all the rest, in any important sense, is an assertion that finds no support from the evidence.


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