The Ptolemaic System

The accusation is made by critics of Christianity, that the early church believed the earth was flat:

"The Patristic Philosophy. As to the earth, it affirmed that it is a flat surface, over which the sky is spread like a dome, or, as St. Augustine tells us, is stretched like a skin." (John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, p. 67).

Indeed we even hear that the church burnt at the stake those enlightened souls who taught the rotundity of the earth:

  • “Nevertheless, even in his age — i.e., 600 B.C., Confucius and his school taught the sphericity of the Earth and even the heliocentric system; while, at about thrice 600 years after the Chinese philosopher, the Popes of Rome threatened and even burnt 'heretics' for asserting the same.”
  • (Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine, Complete Illustrated Edition, SD p. 441, Kindle location 39084).

Is this accusation fact-based? Did the Popes of Rome ever burn any heretic at the stake for asserting the sphericity of the Earth? Did the church 'fathers' teach a flat earth? It is certainly true that, in the middle ages, the church adopted, and made its own, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy; not that it hadn't been generally believed prior to that, but medieval scholasticism was a 'theory of everything' which incorporated even astronomy and physics. But does the Ptolemaic system incorporate a flat earth, as the critics allege? They express astonishment that, even after Magellan had circumnavigated the globe, people could still believe in Ptolemy's astronomy:

"Henceforth to read the work of Copernicus was to risk damnation, and the world accepted the decree. The strongest minds were thus held fast. If they could not believe the old system, they must pretend that they believed it; — and
this, even after the great circumnavigation of the globe had done so much to open the eyes of the world!" (Andrew D. White, The History of the Warfare between Science and Theology, p. 149).

Is it really true that the circumnavigation of the world disproves the Ptolemaic system? Or did Columbus set sail, hoping to reach the orient, on the strength of Ptolemy's claims, Copernicus' magnum opus not yet having been published?:

The System Equant
Terrestrial Ball Jewish Witness
Money in the Bank Poets
Geography Dark Ages

The System

The description of the universe systematized by Claudio Ptolemy is science, not mythology; it has high predictive value. If you want to know when there will be an eclipse of the sun or moon, or where Venus will be in the night sky six years from this date, Ptolemy's system works as well as Copernicus'. According to the atheists, the Catholic church could not accept Kepler's laws of planetary motion because they were laws:

"When Kepler announced his three laws, they were received with condemnation by the spiritual authorities, not because of any error they were supposed to present or to contain, but partly because they gave support to the Copernican system, and partly because it was judged inexpedient to admit the prevalence of law of any kind as opposed to providential intervention. The world was regarded as the theatre in which the divine will was daily displayed; it was considered derogatory to the majesty of God that that will should be fettered in any way. The power of the clergy was chiefly manifested in the influence they were alleged to possess in changing his arbitrary determinations."
(Draper, John William (2014-03-31). History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (Illustrated) (p. 221).)

Back in the real world, Ptolemy's astronomy is no more or less law-determined than is Copernicus' or Kepler's. Neither system is as under-determined as quantum mechanics. A theist, under either of these systems, might propose that God, who legislated natural law, retains the right to disregard it and act otherwise. Galileo pointed out that Joshua's stopping the sun was an easier miracle to accomplish under Copernicus' system, because it only required stopping the rotation of one small body, the earth, whereas under the Ptolemaic system it required stopping the primum mobile, the outermost sphere. No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas thought that the stoppage of the outermost sphere meant. . .the end of the world!: "Again it is written (Job xiv. 12): Man when he is fallen asleep shall not rise again till the heavens be broken; he shall not awake nor rise up out of his sleep. . .Therefore when the dead shall rise again, the heavens will be broken in the sense that their movement will cease." (Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God (De potentia), Question 5, Article 5.) It is not clear why Kepler, who thought angels guided the planets, would have understood his system to be "derogatory to the majesty of God."

As the medieval scholastics tinkered with Ptolemy's system, the problem was not that it lost any of its impressive predictive value. Rather, the system could be corrected almost ad infinitum, by the addition of another epicycle; it the process, however, it had become dauntingly complex:

"No other ancient system had performed so well; for the stars, Ptolemaic astronomy is still widely used today as an engineering approximation; for the planets, Ptolemy's predictions were as good as Copernicus'. But to be admirably successful is never, for a scientific theory, to be completely successful. . .Given a particular discrepancy, astronomers were invariably able to eliminate it by making some particular adjustment in Ptolemy's system of compounded circles. But as time went on, a man looking at the net result of the normal research effort of many astronomers could observe that astronomy's complexity was increasing far more rapidly than its accuracy. . ." (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 68).

Ptolemy was not a Christian, but a pagan, and unfortunately he handed along with his beautiful astronomical system an entanglement with the pagan practice of divination by astrology. Astrology is a highly deterministic scheme which is unfortunately a pseudo-science. When the astrologers said it's all fated in the stars, it's not like people did not understand what they were saying or that some evolutionary advance in human consciousness was required; they just didn't think the program had any merit. In Ptolemy's astronomy, the heavens are proposed to move spherically because, among other things:

  • “In a word, whatever figure other than the spherical be assumed for the movement of the heavens, there must be unequal linear distances from the earth to parts of the heavens, wherever or however the earth be situated, so that the magnitudes and angular distances of the stars with respect to each other would appear unequal to the same people within each revolution, now larger now smaller. But this is not observed to happen.”
  • (Ptolemy, Almagest, Book 1, 3. That the Heavens Move Spherically).

Andreas Cellarius, Map of the Ptolemaic System

That means the outermost sphere, which is huge, is rotating around with incredible rapidity. Given that, according to the atheists, God and the angels dwell on the upper side of this moving sphere, they are in for a wild ride!

How big was the system? Archimedes posed the question, how many grains of sand could fit into the universe. He makes assumptions about the size of the outermost sphere which he considers very generous, coming up with "The following results can now be proved:. . .And 'diameter of 'universe' < 10,000,000,000 stadia." (Archimedes, The Sand Reckoner, Volume One of the World of Mathematics, James R. Newman, p. 424). A 'stadium,' the standard Greek foot-race, which was not really standard, averaged around 600 ft. So this big blue marble,— although I don't know if it was blue, what color is the quintessence?— was decidedly smaller than the Copernican system. An observer would encounter difficulty gaining a view of it from the outside anyway, because everything was inside.

The earth in this system is round, though some people insist otherwise. Ptolemy thought the earth was spherical because, among other compelling reasons:

  • “Now, that also the earth taken as a whole is sensibly spherical, we could most likely think out in this way. For again it is possible to see that the sun and moon and the other stars do not rise and set at the same time for every observer on the earth, but always earlier for those living towards the orient and later for those living towards the occident. For we find that the phenomena of eclipses taking place at the same time, especially those of the moon, are not recorded at the same hours for everyone -- that is, relatively to equal intervals of time from noon; but we always find later hours recorded for observers towards the orient than for those towards the occident. And since the differences in the hours is found to be proportional to the distances between the places, one would reasonably suppose the surface of the earth spherical, with the result that the general uniformity of curvature would assure every part's covering those following it proportionately. But this would not happen if the figure were any other. . .”
  • (Ptolemy, Almagest, Book 1, 4. That the Earth, Taken as a Whole, is Sensibly Spherical).

This seventeenth century artist has taken the liberty of enlarging the earth for clarity. In Ptolemy's system, the earth is a point by comparison with the sphere of the fixed stars:

  • “Now, that the earth has sensibly the ratio of a point to its distance from the sphere of the so-called fixed stars gets great support from the fact that in all parts of the earth the sizes and angular distances of the stars at the same times appear everywhere equal and alike, for the observations of the same stars in the different latitudes are not found to differ in the least.

  • “Moreover, this must be added: that sundials placed in any part of the earth and the centers of armillary spheres can play the role of the earth's true center for the sightings and the rotations of the shadows, as much in conformity with the hypotheses of the appearances as if they were at the true midpoint of the earth.”
  • (Ptolemy, Almagest, Book 1, 6. That the Earth Has the Ratio of a Point to the Heavens).

That Ptolemy realized, "that the earth has sensibly the ratio of a point to its distance from the sphere of the so-called fixed stars," is often misstated and misunderstood by atheist critics. Certainly the Copernican universe is far vaster than the Ptolemaic, but the earth in this system is not as huge in proportion to the whole as they imagine. They draw devastating conclusions from the size of the earth respecting the significance of your and my life. Thus we read,

"By the aid of these numbers we may begin to gain a just appreciation of the doctrine of the human destiny of the universe— the doctrine that all things were made for man. Seen from the sun, the earth dwindles away to a mere speck, a mere dust-mote glistening in his beams. . .Of what consequence, then, can such an almost imperceptible particle be? One might think that it could be removed or even annihilated, and yet never be missed. Of what consequence is one of those human monads, of whom more than a thousand millions swarm on the surface of this all but invisible speck, and of a million of whom scarcely one will leave a trace that he has ever existed? Of what consequence is man, his pleasures or his pains?"
(Draper, John William (2014-03-31). History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (Illustrated) (pp. 166-167).)

On the question, does God concur that 'small=insignificant,' only He can speak for Himself, and as it happens, the answer is 'no:'

Part of the sting of this objection, at the time of the French Revolution when atheism was big, is the widely held assumption that all of these stars must have planets revolving around them, and all of these planets must harbor life. Why would this be a problem? Because of the consequent assumption that Christ's crucifixion would have to become a traveling road-show. But are these other places all populated? This does not actually seem to be the case. Moreover, if we ever do succeed in communicating with the people on other planets, if any such exist, how do we know their message to us will not be 'Repent!'? The atheists, if you query them, are assuming these people agree with them, and lining them up in regiments in a vast argumentum ad populum against theism! Since these people are, for now, imaginary, the atheists have discovered they can make their imaginary friends say whatever they want them to. It would be interesting to have this conversation, though a conversation with the atheists' imaginary friends is not interesting. There are various possibilities. When Christians made contact with the Aztecs, for example, it was discovered that these people already had a religion, but that their religion revolved around human sacrifice of involuntary victims. It is easy to see why this was controversial. We may hope that the aliens are into something milder, like Ethical Culture.

The attentive reader will note, that the world-system of these atheist critics displays more facility at imagination than observation, because their aliens holding suspect theological views are no more known from experience to exist than aliens holding orthodox views, and are thus available even for a fallacious appeal to popularity. Other features of the atheist critics' world-view, like infinite extent of the universe and its lack of a beginning in time, also owe more to imagination and wish-fulfillment than verified observation: "If there be a multiplicity of worlds in infinite space, there is also a succession of worlds in infinite time." (History of the Conflict of Religion and Science, John William Draper, p. 226.) We are soberly informed that Christian teaching is false, because it knows nothing of the atheists' beginningless "infinite time," which modern physics knows nothing of either.

Ptolemy's system is geocentric. While we envision earth hurtling through space, while turning about on its axis, in Ptolemy's system, everything else moves, not the earth. Ptolemy had heard speculation to the contrary:

  • “Now some people, although they have nothing to oppose to these arguments, agree on something, as they think, more plausible. And it seems to them there is nothing against their supposing, for instance, the heavens immobile and the earth as turning on the same axis from west to east very nearly one revolution a day. . .for us to grant these things, they would have to admit that the earth's turning is the swiftest of absolutely all the movements about it because of its making so great a revolution in a short time, so that all those things that were not at rest on the earth would seem to have a movement contrary to it, and never would a cloud be seen to move toward the east nor anything else that flew or was thrown into the air. For the earth would always outstrip them in its eastward motion, so that all other bodies would seem to be left behind and to move towards the west.”
  • (Ptolemy, Almagest, Book 1, 7. That the Earth Does Not in any Way Move Locally).

The architects of Ptolemy's astronomy could not fathom why a moving earth would not leave behind it a garbage stream like the wake of a negligent cruise liner, a trail of dropped items like the clues left by a fleeing criminal. Why would your dropped keys, not tethered to your hand nor to the ground, not fall somewhere other than directly below where you dropped them, as they are always observed to do, if the earth beneath your feet has moved in the mean time? It took the genius of Galileo Galilei to explain this, thus making the world safe for heliocentrism.

The ancient astronomers had a fairly good number for the circumference of the earth: "Remembering, however, that Eratosthenes of Cyrene, employing mathematical theories and geometrical methods, discovered from the course of the sun, the shadows cast by an equinoctial gnomon, and the inclination of the heaven that the circumference of the earth is two hundred and fifty-two thousand stadia, that is, thirty-one million five hundred thousand paces. . ." (Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, Book I, Chapter 9, pp. 27-28). Realizing that they could tell you the earth's circumference,— not offer a suspicion or a suggestion that the earth was round,— one would hope the atheists could finally put to bed their endless, raucous claim that people in antiquity believed in a flat earth. Otherwise one must conclude that nothing is too ridiculous to exhaust the gullibility of the atheist.

Part of the problem with critics like Andrew D. White and John William Draper, beyond simple dishonesty, is that they seem to have very little understanding of the Ptolemaic system. After a brief review of Bede's cosmography, about which, since it is not found in my edition of Bede's work, I cannot comment directly, Draper fulminates, "Was it for this preposterous scheme — this product of ignorance and audacity — that the works of the Greek philosophers were to be given up?" (John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, p. 70). But which of the works of the Greek philosophers was being "given up" if Bede describes the earth as central and the heavens as moving around it? That is the Ptolemaic system! Before deciding who is abandoning Greek astronomy and who is conforming to it, they should first have investigated its contents. It would not then have entered their minds that Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe should have confirmed Copernicus and refuted Ptolemy! "They originated in commercial rivalries, and the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, De Gama, and, above all, by Ferdinand Magellan." (John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, p.153). This elementary precaution was omitted in this case, and the atheists should stop repeating their nonsense. They literally don't know what they're talking about.


 On the Heavens 


Above it was mentioned that Ptolemy's system is geocentric. That's true. . .approximately. Ptolemy used several different constructions to model the orbits, including eccentric circles and the equant. The heavenly bodies are not necessarily orbiting around the center of the earth, but around a (moving) point somewhere in the vicinity. Moreover these big circles are carrying epicycles, smaller circles along for the ride, stubbornly pursuing their own motion even as they are carried along the larger orbit. The system is dauntingly complex. Copernicus, though retaining epicycles, was able to simplify the system by running the planets around the sun.

Proponents of the Ptolemaic system understood that the system had departed from perfect geocentricity: "...for according to Ptolemy, the motion of the planets is in eccentrics and epicycles, which are motions, not around the middle of the world, which is the earth's center, but around certain other centers." (Thomas Aquinas, 'On the Heavens,' Book I, Lecture 3, 28). The system ultimately departs from its starting premises of geocentricity and uniform circular motion, and ends up vibrating and shimmying like a washing machine with an unbalanced load.


Terrestrial Ball

Ptolemy's system was originated not by himself but by earlier astronomers. His degree of originality is difficult to estimate: was he a mere textbook compiler, or did he make significant improvements to the system he inherited? The Renaissance would raise the cry, 'ad fontes,' to the sources, but the medievals actually preferred derivative commentaries and textbooks, if they were up-to-date. Ptolemy's contemporary acceptance was not universal, but the widespread belief that has somehow established itself amongst atheists that everyone prior to Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat is baseless. When the hymn-writer sings,

"Let every kindred, every tribe,
On this terrestrial ball,
To Him all majesty ascribe,
And crown Him Lord of all;
To Him all majesty ascribe,
And crown Him Lord of all!
           (All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name) is foolish to insist the question of flat-earthism remains open. And writers in antiquity also called the earth a globe or an orb:

"Our own nation, whose history Africanus traced from its beginnings in yesterday's discourse, now holds sway over the whole world [orbis terrae]." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book III, Chapter XV).

"For the human race was born subject to the condition that they should guard the sphere which you see in the center of the heavens and which is called the earth [illum globum, quem in hoc templo medium vides, quae terra dicitur]." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book VI, Chapter XV (Scipio's Dream).
"Military discipline jealously conserved won the leadership of Italy for Roman empire, bestowed rule over many cities, great kings, mighty nations...made it from its origin in Romulus' little cottage into the summit of the entire globe [terrarum orbis]." (Valerius Maximus, 'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book II.8).
"For he wisely realized that increase for Roman empire was to be asked for in the days when triumphs were sought on the near side of the seventh milestone, but for a people that possessed the greater part of the whole globe [terrarum orbis] it would be greedy to ask for more and abundantly fortunate if they lost nothing of what was already theirs." (Valerius Maximus, 'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book IV.1).
"The magnanimous monarch, who had already embraced the entire globe [terrarum orbem] by his victories or expectations, in so few words shared himself with him companion." (Valerius Maximus, 'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book IV.7).
"The signal clemency of the divine leader kept this father safe, but who would not think his daring more than human in that he did not yield to one to whom the whole world [terrarum orbis] succumbed?" (Valerius Maximus, 'Memorable Doings and Sayings,' Book V.7).

In his 'Phaedra,' Seneca warns that Hippolytus' chastity will be the end of mankind, ruining the entire orb:

"The unwedded life let barren youth applaud; then will all that thou beholdest be the throng of one generation only and will fall in ruins on itself. . .Come now, let love but be banished from human life, love, which supplies and renews the impoverished race: the whole globe [orbis iacebit squalido turpis situ] will lie foul in vile neglect; the sea will stand empty of its fish; birds will be lacking to the heaven, wild beast to the woods, and the paths of air will be traversed only by the winds." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Phaedra, lines 466-480).

Incidentally, Seneca also mentions in passing the antipodes: "Fugitive, traverse nations remote, unknown; though a land on the remotest confines of the world hold thee separated by Ocean's tracts, though thou take up thy dwelling in the world opposite our feet, though thou escape to the shuddering realms of the high north and hide deep in its farthest corner. . ." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Phaedra, lines 928-936). A sphere must of necessity have an opposite side, though whether people inhabited these regions was necessarily controversial. It would mean that the Romans, who thought they had conquered the inhabited world, just about, really had never even laid eyes on much of it.

"For the earth is level in all directions; its sunken and flat parts are only slightly lower than the elevated ones. It approximates to the curved surface of a sphere [in rotundum orbis]. The seas also form part of this, and they combine to create the regular shape of the one globe." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 3, 28.5).
"They [the mountains] are outdone by, or outdo, each other, but none rises high enough for even the greatest of them to have any significance in comparison to the whole universe. If this were not so, we would not say that the whole earth is a ball. The properties of a ball are roundness and a degree of evenness. You must realize that this is the evenness you see in balls used in games: the seams and the cracks do not really prevent them from being described as equal in every direction. Just as in this kind of ball those gaps are no obstacle to its appearing round, in the same way lofty mountains are no obstacle in the case of the whole earth either; their height is swallowed up in a comparison with the whole world." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 4b, 11:2-3).

"Then he told how the god had severed the expanse of sea and placed the round world [globum] in the center of the system; how he appointed lofty Olympus to be a habitation for the gods." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book XI, Kindle location 3280).

Cicero cavils against the antique poet Ennius for referring to the 'arch' of heaven, even while holding a globe in his hand: "In such metaphorical expressions, dissimilitude is principally to be avoided; as, Caeli ingentes fornices, 'The arch immense of heaven;' for though Ennius is said to have brought a globe upon the stage, yet the semblance of an arch can never be inherent in the form of a globe." (Cicero, On the Orator, Book III, Chapter XL, 162).

Given the ubiquity of referring to the world as a 'globe,' it is hardly surprising to find a Christian author like Tertullian following suit: "I suppose they did not think that, having been published before the deluge, it could have safely survived that world-wide [ante cataclysmum editam post eum casum orbis omnium rerum abolitorein salvam esse potuisse] calamity, the abolisher of all things." (Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, Book 1, Chapter 3).

Since the 'ball' and 'globe' language is boiler-plate, it comes as no surprise when Eusebius puts the phrase in the mouth of the Emperor Constantine:

"The stars move in no uncertain orbits round this terrestrial globe." (Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, Book 2, Chapter 58).

This language did not thereafter pass out of fashion:

"For all those things, which at present you witness in the Church of God, and which you see to be taking place under the name of Christ throughout the whole world [totum orbem terrarum], were predicted long ages ago. . .It was foretold not only by the prophets, but also by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, that His Church would exist throughout the whole world [universum orbem terrarum], extended by the martyrdoms and sufferings of the saints. . ." (Augustine, On Catechizing the Uninstructed, Chapter XXVII, Section 53.)

Readers of the Latin Vulgate have encountered this "orb," translating Greek words which have no particular spatial implications: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. [factum est autem in diebus illis exiit edictum a Caesare augusto ut describeretur universus orbis]" (Luke 2:1). It is eccentric to say the very least for speakers who believe the earth is flat to call it an 'orb' or 'globe.' The pagan Ptolemy thought it was round, the early Christians thought it was round, taking this view uncritically from their culture. But some people dissented; the great natural poet Lucretius was not a round-earther, nor were two named Christians of the early period, Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes. Does the dissent of two individuals legitimize the claim that the early church believed in a flat earth?:


Jewish Witness

Did the Jews agree with the pagans on the rotundity of the earth? One answer is found in the Talmud, which discusses statuary. Is it an ornamentation to a city, or idolatry? According to the Rabbis, if a statue, of an emperor, say, holds a ball in his hand, this suggests he rules the whole world, the prerogative of God:

"...Rabbah said: There is difference of opinion [with regard to statues] in cities;  but as for those in villages all agree that they are prohibited.

"BUT THE SAGES DECLARE, [AN IMAGE] IS NOT PROHIBITED etc. [It is prohibited when holding] a staff, because [the implication is] that it rules the whole world as with a staff. [...] [It is prohibited when holding] an orb, because [the implication is] that it grasps the whole world as though it were a ball."
(Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zara 41a).

But why would holding a ball convey this message, if it were thought the earth is flat? Some of the Rabbis do seem to have held low views of God and questionable ones about the shape of the earth; they may have transmitted these views to Mohammed ibn Abdallah, the unlettered Arabian prophet. But the old view is still found alongside; it never really disappeared.

The Assumption of Moses, a Jewish apocalyptic work extant only in Latin translation, uses our familiar phrase: "Accordingly He designed and devised me, and He prepared me before the foundation of the world, that I should be the mediator of His covenant." (Assumption of Moses, Chapter 1); "Dominus invenit me, qui ab initio orbis terrarum pręparatus sum, ut sim arbiter testamenti illius" (Latin quoted from Harnack, Adolf von (2011-04-14). History of Dogma, Volume 1 (Kindle Location 2606). Kindle Edition.)

Philo Judaeus was an elder contemporary of Jesus and Paul. He held the earth to be spherical, generally at the center of the universe, circumnavigated by a revolving sun, as is typical of the system which would be perfected in Ptolemy's textbook: "In the first place, the year contains three hundred and sixty-five days; therefore, by the symbol of the solar orbit, the sacred historian here indicates the life of the repentant man. In the second place, as the sun is the cause of day and night, performing his revolutions by day above the hemisphere of the earth, and his course by night under the earth, so also the life of the man of repentance consists of alternations of light and darkness; of darkness, that is, of times of agitation and circumstances of injury; and of light, when the light of virtue and its radiant brilliancy arises." (Philo Judaeus, Questions and Answers in Genesis, Book I, Question 84). Whether there is, or is not, any natural likeness between the life cycle of a repentant man and the sun's daily journey, apparent under Copernicus but real under Ptolemy, Philo here describes a solar course above one earthly hemisphere by day, the other by night, causing an alternation in light and dark between the deserted hemisphere and that presently visited. A flat earth has no hemispheres.

On into the middle ages, Moses Maimonides believed in a spherical earth: "Thus we find, 'Who sitteth over the circle of the earth' (Isa. xi. 22). Who remains constantly and unremittingly over the sphere of the earth; that is to say, over the things that come into existence within that sphere." (Moses Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, p. 31). He regards it as a proven fact that the earth is a globe: "It has however, already been proved that the earth has the form of a globe, that it is inhabited on both extremities of a certain diameter, that both the inhabitants have their heads towards the heaven, and their legs towards each other, and yet neither can possibly fall, nor can it be imagined. . ." (Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 153). The stars, he says, are ninety times bigger: "The body of each of these stars is more than ninety times as big as the globe of the earth, and it is possible that the thickness of the sphere is still greater. .  .If the whole earth is infinitely small in comparison with the sphere of the stars, what is man compared with all these created beings!" (Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 315). He helpfully advises that the distance to the seventh sphere, that of Saturn, is "nearly seven thousand and twenty-four years' journey."

Like Thomas Aquinas, and like certain Arabs of that period, he thought Aristotle knew it all, and one of the things that Aristotle did know, is that the earth is spherical. Maimonides knows of flat-earthers, but he considers them ignorant: "For a proposition which can be proved by evidence is not subject to dispute, denial, or rejection: none but the ignorant would contradict it, and such contradiction is called 'denial of a demonstrated proof.' Thus you find men who deny the spherical form of the earth, or the circular form of the line in which the stars move, and the like: such men are not considered in this treatise." (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, p. 52). His dates are 1135-1204 A.D., which somewhat predates Magellan.

On the negative side, we have the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which incorporates a flat-earth astronomy.


Money in the Bank

A round object turns up on Roman coins, such as this one depicting the Emperor Caracalla holding the world in his hand:

Emperor Caracalla

You would think the atheists would be more familiar with the orb, because it turns up in their own cultural monuments. Director Sergei Eisenstein's epic silent movie 'October,' commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution, begins with the heroic proletariat tearing down a monumental statue of Czar Alexander III. The word 'Czar,' like the German 'Kaiser,' is a naturalization of 'Caesar,' and the Russian Czar inherited some of Caesar's attributes as well as his name, including the orb. So what is Alexander holding in Eisenstein's classic film? An orb, of course. Here is a screen grab from the movie:

Czar Alexander III statue falling from Sergei Eisenstein's 'October'

Someone was not thinking clearly in selecting the orb as a token of flat world domination. A comical use of the world-ball motif occurs in the compilation of legends concerning Alexander the Great called 'The Alexander Romance.' Darius the Persian had sent to Alexander, among other things, a ball, suggesting that young Alexander should run along and play with the other children: "'I sent the ball so that you can play with children your own age and not mislead so many young men at such an arrogant age into going around with you, like a brigand chief, and disturbing the peace of the cities. . .'" (Darius' letter, Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance, p. 680, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon). The delighted Alexander pretends that Darius has given him the world-ball!: "'As for the ball, you are indicating to me that I shall gain control over the whole world: the world is spherical and round.'" (Alexander's reply, Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance, p. 682, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

How widely was this knowledge diffused? Petronius portrays the nouveau riche freed slave Trimalchio showing off his awareness of the rotundity of the earth: "'Everything I do has a reason: mother earth is in the middle of all, round as an egg, and she has all good thing inside her, like a honeycomb.'" (Trimalchio, Petronius, Satyrica, Chapter 39, p. 35). Ovid, explaining why the temple of Vesta was circular in form, relates it to the earth:

"Yet the shape of the temple, as it now exists, is said to have been its shape of old, and it is based on a sound reason. Vesta is the same as the Earth; under both of them is a perpetual fire; the earth and the hearth are symbols of the home. The earth is like a ball, resting on no prop; so great a weight hangs on the air beneath it. Its own power of rotation keeps its orb balanced; it has no angle which could press on any part. . ." (Ovid, Fasti, Book VI, Kindle location 26414, Complete Works of Ovid).

Plutarch, in his Life of Numa, drags heliocentrism into the picture, but leaving aside all complications, the understanding that the earth was round was no secret in antiquity. Nor was this common understanding controverted by the great majority of Christians.

Down to medieval times, evidently the bishop of Rome used to hand off to the German emperor a golden world ball in token of his esteem: "The emperor Henry II received from the pope the golden imperial ball as an emblem that the world belonged to him, and Frederic II was laid under the pope’s ban because he declined the crusade he was enjoined to undertake." (von Herder, Johann (2016-02-24). Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Kindle Locations 11790-11792). Random Shack.) This enlightenment German nationalist author feels rather crabby that the pope got to hand out these world balls, but wouldn't it be a bit grabby to pick such a thing up and allot it to oneself. Why a golden ball, if all these people, as they claim, thought the earth was flat? Should have been a plate, which is cheaper to manufacture. Why not economize, and make it the world plate?



Some people are willing to concede that the astronomers of antiquity realized the earth was round, as indeed cannot be denied. They allege, however, that most people did not know this. While there are dissenters throughout the period, in fact most people had good reason to know this. A rotund earth turns up in popular poetry, like Virgil's Georgics:

"As our globe rises steep to Scythia and the Riphaean crags, so it slopes downward to Libya's southland. One pole is ever high above us, while the other, beneath our feet, is seen of black Styx and the shades infernal. . .There, men say, is either the silence of lifeless night, and gloom ever thickening beneath night's pall; or else Dawn returns from us and brings them back the day, and when on us the rising Sun first breathes with panting steeds, there glowing Vesper is kindling his evening rays." (Virgil, Georgics, Georgic 1).


Geography, a sister science to astronomy, was also premised on the idea of the rotundity of the earth:

"Take, for example, the proposition that the earth is spheroidal: whereas the suggestion of this proposition comes to us mediately from the law that bodies tend toward the center and that each body inclines toward its own center of gravity, the suggestion comes immediately from the phenomena observed at sea and in the heavens; for our sense-perception and also our intuition can bear testimony in the latter case. For instance, it is obviously the curvature of the sea that prevents sailors from seeing distant lights that are placed on a level with their eyes. At any rate, if the lights are elevated above the level of the eyes, they become visible, even though they be at a greater distance from the eyes; and similarly if the eyes themselves are elevated, they see what was before invisible. This fact is noted by Homer, also, for such is the meaning of the words: 'With a quick glance ahead, being upborne on a great wave, [he saw the land very near].' So, also, when sailors are approaching land, the different parts of the shore become revealed progressively, more and more, and what at first appeared to be low-lying land grows gradually higher and higher."
(Strabo, Geography, Book I, Chapter I, Section 20).

Strabo, writing in the first century A.D., knew of people who had attempted circumnavigation, without success:

"For those who undertook circumnavigation, and turned back without having achieved their purpose, say that they were made to turn back, not because of any continent that stood in their way and hindered their further advance, inasmuch as the sea still continued open as before, but because of their destitution and loneliness." (Strabo, Geography, Book I, Chapter I, Section 8.)

Dark Ages

The knowledge of a rotund earth was never lost; Thomas Aquinas, writing in the middle ages, boasts of the improved number his contemporaries had worked up for the circumference of the earth:

"But according to the more careful measurement of present-day astronomers, the earth's circumference is much less, i.e., 20,000 times 1,000 paces and 400, as Al Fargani says; or 180,000 stades, as Simplicius says — which is about the same, since 20,000 is 1/8 of 160,000. . .And so, from all of this, we can argue that the earth's quantity is not only spherical, but not large in comparison to the sizes of the other stars." (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's De Caelo, 'On the Heaven,' Book II, Lecture 28, 543).
Though these new and improved numbers are too small, they were encouraging: "And therefore, we would not consider as very absurd the view of those who wish to link, on the basis of similarity and nearness, the region situated in the far west about the pillars of Hercules (which Hercules set up as a memorial of his victory), and the region in the far east about the Indian Ocean, and who say there is one sea, the Ocean, bordering on both places. And they make a conjecture as to the similarity of both places from the elephants which arise in both places but are not found in the regions between them." (Thomas Aquinas, 'On the Heavens,' Book II, Lecture 28, 542). Columbus may have been encouraged by these too-small numbers, very up-to-date but actually not as good as the ancient numbers.

If you listen to the atheists, they will tell you Magellan discovered that the earth was round: "The San Vittoria, sailing westward, had come back to her starting-point. Henceforth the theological doctrine of the flatness of the earth was irretrievably overthrown." (John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, p. 158). It is a plain fact, an undeniable fact, that Ptolemy's system features a round earth. Thomas' achievement, the marriage of pagan learning with Christian revelation, held the church so spell-bound that the popes could not accept Copernicus' new astronomy, with its revelation that Aristotle, and Thomas relying upon him, was simply wrong with regard to geocentrism. What, then, to make of rhetoric like this?

"These were— the discovery of America in consequence of the rivalry of the Venetians and Genoese about the India trade; the doubling of Africa by De Gama; and the circumnavigation of the earth by Magellan. With respect to the last, the grandest of all human undertakings, it is to be remembered that Catholicism had irrevocably committed itself to the dogma of a flat earth, with the sky as the floor of heaven, and hell in the under-world. Some of the Fathers, whose authority was held to be paramount, had, as we have previously said, furnished philosophical and religious arguments against the globular form. The controversy had now suddenly come to an end— the Church was found to be in error."
(Draper, John William (2014-03-31). History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (Illustrated) (p. 272).)

One cannot characterize Draper's thesis otherwise than as flat-out lying, because "Catholicism" had never committed itself, revocably or irrevocably, to any idea of a flat earth. It would be accurate to say that "Catholicism" committed itself to geocentrism by embracing Thomas' scholasticism, because Ptolemaic astronomy, which incorporates a round earth, is a central and necessary feature of the system. There had not been any 'official' Christian astronomy prior to that era, although the majority of the early church writers took Ptolemaic astronomy for granted. Not everyone was enthralled with Thomas' achievement; indeed it caused a schism, because the Reformers noticed, and objected, that the gospel, translated into the categories of Aristotelian psychology and then back into plain speech, did not come out sounding like the gospel at all.

You could almost say Thomas was loyal to the Ptolemaic system to a fault, because there was for a long time a connection between astronomy and the pseudo-science of astrology; Ptolemy himself was both an astronomer and an astrologer. Instead of discarding astrology as a pagan practice condemned in the Bible, Thomas left room for its possible truth. Ptolemaic astronomy is real science, though time has passed it by, whereas astrology has never been more than pseudo-science. The two disciplines, though long keeping company, are not really linked as to content, which did not prevent the pagan theologian Iamblichus from suggesting you should believe your horoscope because Ptolemaic astronomy is good at predicting eclipses!:

"This, however happens not in this science alone, but likewise in all the sciences, which are imparted by the Gods to men. For time always proceeding the divine mode of knowledge becomes evanescent, through being frequently mingled and contaminated with much of what is mortal. This divine mode is indeed [in astrology also], and a certain clear indication of truth, though it is but small, is at the same time preserved in it. For it places before our eyes manifest signs of the mensuration of the divine periods, when it predicts the eclipses of the sun and moon, and the concursions of the moon with the fixed stars, and when the experience of the sight is seen to accord with the prediction. Moreover the observations of the celestial bodies through the whole of time both by the Chaldeans and by us, testify that this science is true." (Iamblichus, On The Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians, pp. 159-160).

Should Thomas have tossed this baby out with the bath-water?:

People who want to criticize the church's loyalty to Ptolemaic astronomy will have no difficulty finding fault with Ptolemy's model. The system is geocentric, but not with respect to a fixed point; the whole contraption does a little shimmy, like a grocery cart with a bumpy wheel. Though serviceable in prediction, another thing the system doesn't have going for it is simplicity: it is mind-numbingly complex. Why the atheists feel to need to make up a non-existent feature: a flat earth,— is a mystery. Oddly enough, geocentrism is not yet dead. Robert Sungenis, a Catholic apologist upset that papal proclamations down through the years have assumed geocentrism, has revived the system:

The Center The Magnificat
Beautiful Simplicity Pagan Philosophy
Galileo's Crime The Stable Earth
The Moving Sun Tycho Brahe
Pagan Religion Philo Judaeus
The Revolution

Unlike competing systems of astronomy, this one is envisioned as a sort of jitterbug: "For on this account, the heavens also are said to form a perpetual dance, and all the celestial orbs participate of rhythmical and harmonious motion, being filled with this power supernally from the unpolluted Gods." (Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, Volume I, Book V, Chapter XXXV). What, you may be wondering, is the music of the spheres?:


 Scipio's Dream 


Atheists commonly assume that the earth occupies the central position in Ptolemy's astronomy because the earth is taken to be the most important. This ancient astronomy, in other words, is assumed to operate on a principle of wish fulfillment, though the people who so assume do not normally admit their own 'science' proceeds from a principle of wish fulfillment. In fact the earth is considered, by those who laid out the parameters of this astronomy, not to be the best and noblest, but the lowest (literally), of the constituents of the universe.

  • “And according to Aristotle's principles, their order in dignity corresponds to the order of their position, on the ground that the higher sphere contains the lower and the container is more noble and more formal than the contained, as is said in Physics IV and as will be said later in the section treating of the earth.
  • “According to this, then, it must be understood that the optimum in things is permanence, which, in separated substances, is realized without any motion at all, and whatever of permanence exists in lower things is derived thence. And this explains why the outermost heaven, which is nearest to the separated substances, is by its diurnal motion the cause of the sempiternity and permanence of things; on which account, it ranks highest in resembling the first principle.”
  • (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's 'On the Heavens,' Book II, Lecture 18, Section 468).

There is a hierarchy of importance assigned to the constituents of this astronomy, but that hierarchy runs in reverse order from what the atheists assume: the earth, occupying the 'sublunary sphere,' is the realm of change and decay, by contrast with the more excellent and enduring heavens. The earth does not occupy a privileged position, but a lowly one, in every sense of the word. Thomas Aquinas, who adopts this system, ventures to call it "ignoble:" "And therefore, in the whole universe, just as the earth which is contained by all, being in the middle, is the most material and ignoble among bodies, so the outermost sphere is most formal and most noble, while among the elements fire is above all containing and formal." (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's 'On the Heavens,' Book II, Lecture 20, Section 485).

The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, an enthusiast for the Ptolemaic system, is unwilling to join the rabbis in saying the heavens were made for man:

"You must not be mistaken and think that the spheres and the angels were created for our sake. Our position has already been pointed out to us, 'Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket' (Isa. xl. 15). Now compare your own essence with that of the spheres, the stars, and the Intelligences, and you will comprehend the truth, and understand that man is superior to everything formed of earthly matter, but not to other beings; he is found exceedingly inferior when his existence is compared with that of the spheres, and a fortiori when compared with that of the Intelligences." (Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 313).

The rabbis may have felt this could fairly be inferred rom scripture, or in any event it is stated baldly in apocryphal works like the Assumption of Moses: "For He has created the world on behalf of His people." (Assumption of Moses, Chapter 1). Maimonides understands what the rabbis are saying, but the supernal outermost sphere blinds him to all else; certainly man, who is dust and ashes, is no match for this shining, whizzing and harmonious beauty. The Ptolemaic system seems to have that effect on a lot of people. In this system, earth is central to be sure, but it is also lowest. The atheists are mistaking the aesthetics and theology of the system; the pagans who invented it were not trying to glorify man.

The ancient pagans deified the heavenly bodies, and in Aristotle's case, this tendency is especially conspicuous with regard to the outermost sphere. This whole conception is so shot through with pagan thought-forms and expectations it is a wonder Christians like Thomas felt comfortable with it. It is striking that the Medievals were so lacking in self-confidence they were unwilling to strike out on their own; the ancient Greek astronomy was already more than 1,500 years old when Thomas took it up, with only minor tweaks and modifications. The development of this astronomical system by pagan Greeks in the centuries before Christ was not, contra the atheists, an instance of Christian wish-fulfillment.

The atheists are a creative people, and just as they are determined to assign features to the Ptolemaic system which it does not have, such as a flat earth, they are also determined to 'find' an unmet Christian theological need which the pagan Ptolemy anticipated and to which he fit a solution as tightly as a hand to a glove. But the God of the Bible is omnipresent: "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" (Psalm 139:7), He is a spirit: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." (John 4:24); He does not stand in need of situating. Thomas did not adopt this celestial architecture because it was uniquely well-suited to the Christian world-view, but because it was the most successful scientific astronomy known to him.

The reasons why geocentrism prevailed over heliocentrism, in the majority view, during the period of classical antiquity, were physical not theological. The problem of reconciling a rapidly moving earth with the perceived stability of objects seated upon the earth was not solvable by classical physics. Certainly in pagan theology, — and Ptolemy, along with his predecessors, was a pagan, — human beings are not terribly important, and the sun is a bigger god than the earth: "Hence also the sun when he [first] appeared, astonished the [mundane] Gods, and all of them were desirous to dance round him, and to be filled with his light." (Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, translated by Thomas Taylor, Volume II, Book VI, Chapter XII, p. 416). They may have wanted to dance around the sun (in ancient astronomy, planets and stars are animate), but the mechanics just didn't work out. It is a consistent feature of the atheist use, and misuse, of Ptolemaic astronomy, that they assign motives to these people which no one at the time ever articulated, and ignore, or are unaware of, their stated reasons for the choices they made.  In Biblical religion, as we have seen, bigger is not necessarily better, nor is centrality any great thing.

Some people accuse Mohammed ibn Abdallah, the unlettered Arabian prophet, of being a flat-earther. In time, the Muslims would pick up Greek astronomy and run with it; it's not for nothing that we call Ptolemy's great work by an Arabic name, the 'Almagest.' But at the start, their conceptions on this point are not so clear: