What You Say Seems Strange to Us, So You Are Wrong and You Must Die

I grabbed today’s post, with full permission, from the blog of Craig Vick, a pastor, who is a great guy, and I base that judgment on the fact that he and I agree on some things.

Which brings me to today’s post. You’ll figure it out immediately, but for those few of you who, like me, need things spelled out: the story contains a lesson that can be applied to other contexts, say….oh just thinking off the top of my head…the ever-so-rare topic of theological disagreements in churches and academic institutions.

So, with that, I bring to you the matter of Hippasus of Metapontum and irrational numbers.


Hippasus of Metapontum is believed to be the first mathematician to prove the existence of irrational numbers. Last year, much to the delight and amazement of the archeologists involved, clay tablets were discovered which contained an account of Hippasus’s trial. Using my best seminary Greek skills, I offer the following translation:

Hippasus, 5th c. BC, math heretic, martyr

The small group of mathematical priests rowed out into the calm sea. When their boat came to rest Pythagoras asked Hippasus if he would present the proof. Hippasus was only too happy to oblige. With great zeal he walked his brothers through the reasoning that showed that the square root of two could not be represented as a ratio of two numbers. With every step of the proof his enthusiasm grew. When he finished he was out of breath. Looking around at his brothers he expected to see in their faces a joy of discovery. He’d seen this joy many times in the past.

He saw no joy, only blank stares and a couple of frowns. Pythagoras broke the silence. “Hippasus of Metapontum, how could you have done this disgraceful thing? For many years our order has taught the harmony of the cosmos. More than a few of our brothers have died for that truth. You yourself swore to uphold it. How can you now turn your face against everything we believe with this wretched proof?”

“I believe with all my heart in the harmony we proclaim,” Hippasus protested. “I have only shown that the square root of two cannot be represented as a ratio. The harmony of the cosmos is more complex than we ever dreamed.”

Pythagorus, math gatekeeper

“All numbers can be represented as ratios,” a brother proclaimed. “The unity of all numbers is in the one.”

“You must renounce this so called proof. You’ve sworn to uphold the deep teachings of the brotherhood.”

Hippasus protested. “Our brotherhood upholds the right of conscience. How can I, in good conscience, renounce a proof? Am I to feign rejection of what I see to be true?”

The brothers took a vote. Hippasus was condemned to die. He was thrown off the boat. The brothers watched as he thrashed about the water, gasped for air and sunk beneath the gentle waves.

“We’ve done a great thing here today,” one of the brothers announced. “This proof is dead, and will never be heard from again. The world will always know that all numbers can be represented as ratios.”

reviewing two reviews of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (3)
When Cute Little Bunnies Talk Theology
Kent Sparks and Our Sacred, Broken Bible
Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Handling Theological Disagreement I Learned in Kindergarten
  • Stephen

    I suppose you could be thankful that the minority (8) of the WTS faculty who voted against you didn’t throw you in that “pond” (the once-upon-a-time tennis courts) on Westminster’s property?

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    I should point out that Dr. Enns and I also have some disagreements, the most serious of which is this: I’m a fan of the true team, the Green Bay Packers, whereas he cheers for the Yankees, wrong sport, wrong team. If we ever get a chance to meet I’m hoping to correct this apostasy. If I don’t succeed I may need to prepare my boat.

  • Rev Herbert W Johnstok, B.S.

    This is a very strange story. What is the moral of this story? Is it that majority vote is not a good thing? I have always believed it is best to teach the controversy and then let the students vote on what the truth is. What is wrong with that? If you do not like democracy, you are probably a COMMUNIST and you should go back to the country you came from. AMERIKA — LOVE IT OR LEAF IT!

    • kathy

      On many levels, that is a very strange comment. Especially after a party just recently tried their best to prevent many students from voting in our democracy. And especially seeing how the moral is quite obvious. For starters, there are majorities in sheer number, and there are minorities in number with a majority of power. I do believe the boat does not represent society as a whole, but the minority with the power. Do you believe we have a true democracy the way a minority of people behind the scenes influence our representative government so negatively, for the love of money? Sign up here and go work on your masters in ethics. http://www.anticorruptionact.org

    • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

      No doubt you believe I should leave by boat.

    • David C.

      Plato said democracy was a ship of fools ( a ship witout a captain). Just because there is a majority, does not make it correct.

  • Jon Hughes

    What we need is a Gamalial for these types of ‘threatening’ situations (Acts 5:33-39)!

    • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

      Amen to that! I also think that, at least in the tradition I live in, we need to rediscover our high regard for individual conscience.

  • Myron Williams

    so if you are presenting what appears to be an irrational truth you may need a life preserver or know how to swim? i’ll try to remember that. it’s far better than never getting into the boat.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    I wish I could tell you otherwise.

  • rvs

    Great story–I find myself thinking of Albert Hosteen’s great comment in the x-files episode “Anasazi”: “In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so men can know them.” Hypatia also comes to mind.

  • Doc Mike

    Many murdered misfits have been vindicated by history. At the same time, many tragedies have been averted by the exposure of error by similar misfits.

    The comparison of mathematical proofs with theological matters, however, is apples and oranges. The former can be determined by empirical means while matters of theology are too often matters of opinion or conjecture by honest men and women. Lacking clear biblical evidence, grace and a reluctance to judgment are called for in matters theological differences. To apply (and paraphrase) Paul’s dictum,

    “One person regards salvation as secure, another regards it insecure. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Rom 14.5

    • peteenns

      I disagree, Doc Mike. The comparison I am making was not on the level of empirical vs. conjectural epistemologies, but the fear that drives some to “take people on a boat ride” when their view is threatened in the face of new and persuasive ideas.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Yes, fear. You have named it! The OED has some great quotes using that four-letter word both as a noun and as a verb. Here are a few.

    1569 R. Grafton Chron. II. 355 They are euer in feare to lose that they haue.

    1535 Bible (Coverdale) Psalms lii[i]. 5 They are afrayed, where no feare is.

    1901 ‘L. Malet’ Hist. R. Calmady v. ix. 460 Some fear-driven hurrying ghost.

    1870 W. Morris Earthly Paradise II. iii. 149 His hope fear-tangled..bound his eyes full fast.

    1593 T. Nashe Strange Newes 74, I fearblaste thee..with the winde of my weapon.

    1923 D. H. Lawrence Kangaroo xvi. 335 The herd instinct, for example, is of many sorts. It has two main divisions, the fear-instinct, and the aggressive instinct.

    1890 W. James Princ. Psychol. II. xxiv. 419 A certain amount of timidity obviously adapts us to the world we live in, but the fear-paroxysm is surely altogether harmful to him who is its prey.

    1800 T. Cogan Philos. Treat. Passions i. ii. 102 As soon as we cease to fear, we begin to hope.

    1893 Morley in Westm. Gaz. 19 Apr. 3/2 Those only see aright into the future of civilised communities who hope—not those who fear.

    a1618 W. Raleigh Remains (1664) 116 To fear the losse of the bell, more than the losse of the steeple.

  • Joe Rutherford

    Numbers ought not to be called irrational in the first place. I’ve had to work with numbers such as pie and others in the industrial trades and usually we round off to the third decimal. It works and is completly rational. NASA can do the same thing with many more decimal places and or other forms of math to get practicle results. Sorry for the math 101 lesson and if I can remain in the boat I’ll mend my ways. After all many “brothers” have died for their cause of democracy and if some choose to call the rational irrational there is no need to throw them out of the boat. Besides all this, if the boat they are in has Titanic written on it…. On a more serious note, I think we all must deal with people who seem to want to push us into oblivion. When this happens my MO is 1st to get offended, then hurt, then self examination. Often I come away seeing the need for at least some self improvement. In the end it all works for the good, for those who love God…. Dr Petre, Your case in point (or point in case?) is valid and for now the board has decided you may remain in the boat, with the condition that you acknowledge your error and acknowledge that indeed the square root of 2 is rational. Good article sir.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com Wayne

    It should be noted that this fingering of Pythagoras for this alleged injustice may well be spurious. The wikipedia article on Hipasus is worth a look:
    Otherwise, I do appreciate the spirit of your article and am shoulder to shoulder with you in encouraging people to entertain one another’s thoughts more dispassionately and for each of us not to not take our own thoughts quite so serioiusly.