Secular Sam’s Guide to the OT: Pi Day

Pi Day: the 14th day of the 3rd month, at about the 15th hour, which would be 3 PM…

Consider 1 Kings 7:23

And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other: it was round all about, and its height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did circle it round about.

What’s the value of pi here? Just plain old 3.0. Apparently the Babylonians used pi = 3 1/8 and the Egyptians used pi = 3 13/81. Although nobody seems to know how the Babylonians and the Egyptians got as close as they did, it is even more mystifying that the ancient Israelites were so far off! I mean, you’ve gotta know that it isn’t exact.

So did they really not know the value of pi? Were they uninterested in anything other than whole numbers? Or was the molten sea not hemispherical? We were discussing this at lunch today, and no one could think of an instance where the OT uses a fractional number. I can think of one instance in the NT — the corpses of the two witnesses lie in the streets of Jerusalem for 3 1/2 days in Rev 11:11 (ooohhhh, spooky), but that’s about it.

Anybody else?

  • John C.

    No, I don’t know of any OT fractions off the top of my head

  • http://www.ldsliberationfront.net RoastedTomatoes

    I suppose the rim-to-rim figure of 10 cubits might have been measured at the widest point. If the fraction thing isn’t true.

    Or G-d could have changed the geometry of the Land of Israel.

  • John Mansfield

    The Old Testmanet fraction use that comes to ming first is Judges 19:29. “And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.”

    Searching under “part”, a few instances come up:

    1 Samuel 9:8. Behold, I have here at hand the fourth part of a shekel of silver.

    2 Samuel 18:2. And David sent forth a third part of the people under the hand of Joab, and a third part under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third part under the hand of Ittai the Gittite.

    2 Kings 6:25. The fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung [sold] for five pieces of silver.

    2 Kings 11:5-7. A third part of you that enter in on the sabbath shall even be keepers of the watch of the king’s house; And a third part shall be at the gate of Sur; and a third part at the gate behind the guard: so shall ye keep the watch of the house, that it be not broken down. And two parts of all you that go forth on the sabbath, even they shall keep the watch of the house of the LORD about the king.

    Nehemiah 9:3. And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God.

  • Ben S.

    The LXX “corrects” the text to read thirty-three.

    Israelites didn’t know Pi. My testimony is accordingly shattered, so off to grab a beer ;)

  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us John C.

    I am deeply ashamed that I failed to make that connect, JM. I may turn in my biblical scholar badge.

  • Mogget

    Interesting. When I posed the question, I was actually thinking more along the lines of numbers associated with structures, but then the example from the Apoc doesn’t fit in that category, either.

    I have since noticed that the Chronicler relates the same thing, but ends up with a different volume. No solid geometry in Israel, either. Ben can have two beers.

  • http://www.ldsliberationfront.net RoastedTomatoes

    Since beer was classified (in 1833) as a mild barley drink, Ben can have as many as he wants if he believes in the D&C Word of Wisdom, as opposed to the church manual version.

    A topic for future conversation: what is it that makes the noncanonized, practiced Word of Wisdom more binding than the canonized one? But, back to pi and textual criticism.

  • Ben S.

    “what is it that makes the noncanonized, practiced Word of Wisdom more binding than the canonized one? ”

    The binding interpretation of living prophets?

  • http://mormanarchy.net Watt Mahoun

    Binding for the life of the living prophets or until the next revelation?

    As for PI…my guess is that fractions were considered un-wholly :P and numbers like PI…well, you know how the Pythagoreans felt about them…black magic…not for common consumption…top secret stuff.

  • http://mormanarchy.net Watt Mahoun

    Then Wikipedia has this:

    It is sometimes claimed that the Bible states that π=3, based on a passage in 1 Kings 7:23 giving measurements for a round basin as having a 10 cubit diameter and a 30 cubit circumference. Rabbi Nehemiah explained this by the diameter being from outside to outside while the circumference was the inner brim; but it may suffice that the measurements are given in round numbers. Also, the basin may not have been exactly circular.

    Hmmm…round numbers…or was it an imperfect circle? I’m still going with the “un-wholly” mystery theory which means: round numbers. The alternative? That the Bible was at one point handled by nincompoops and/or that God/his people can’t calculate PI…but the those pretender/usurper Egyptians can.

  • Ronan

    Goody! Threadjack. Can a canonized modern revelation (D&C 89) be reinterpreted uncanonically?

  • Ronan

    Answer: well, of course it can, but what does that say about the Mormon canon?

  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us Mogget

    Well, let’s summarize things. The ancient Israelites knew God and fractions, but not PI, solid geometry, or irrational numbers. They did make beer, and Ben can have as many as he wants as soon as President Hinckley takes us all back to the “Good ol’ Religion” of the 1830s.

    Ahhhh. I love waking up to this sort of theological progress.

    But why is it that RT always knows stuff like that? Do tell, my man, do tell…

  • http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us Mogget

    what does that say about the Mormon canon?

    It’s not so much open as swinging…?

  • John C.

    “Ahhhh. I love waking up to this sort of theological progress.”

    Ain’t it the truth?

    “what does that say about the Mormon canon?”

    I am not sure since we apparently don’t think that Continuing Revelation is all that important.

  • http://ldsscience.blogspot.com Jared

    Rabbi Nehemiah explained this by the diameter being from outside to outside while the circumference was the inner brim

    I hear that “the Lord’s geometry” has been a source of confusion and contention between Church architects and the builders.

  • Mogget

    Speaking of the Lord’s building, the angel and the spires are going to come off the DC temple for refurbishing after GC.

    That’ll mean that no one in DC will be able to figure out where they are on the Beltway. Expect a serious spike in traffic fatalities.

  • http://www.ldsliberationfront.net RoastedTomatoes

    Mogget: so, since this thread seems to have been definitively jacked, let me answer your question. There would seem to be two possible reasons why I know about the 19th-century meaning of mild barley drinks as mentioned in the Word of Wisdom. First, I could be obsessed with beer. Second, I could be obsessed with the 19th-century history of Mormonism.

    Well, I’ve never bought a beer in my life.

  • Mogget

    I confess…a certain disappointment…
    ;)


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