Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Jesus and the Flat Earth

I do not have time to respond to all the points of interest in Chris Tilling’s recent post concerning the limitations of Jesus’ knowledge, but I would like to say a few things. First, let me make it clear that these comments will not address the larger issue of whether Jesus could be wrong about certain matters. I will here merely note some inadequacies in the examples used in Chris' post.

Before exploring the idea of the flat earth, I point out some statements with which I take issue.

He was fully a first century man. This is why Jesus didn't tell the world about a cure for cancer, or instruct people on basic sanctity in relation to bacteria and such like, or detail the way to make penicillin, projects that would have saved thousands upon thousands of lives, many more than hundreds of his miracles put together.

This is certainly a strange thing to say. “Jesus would have cured cancer if he had known how.” Such an argument ignores the entire discussion about God’s righteousness in the face of suffering. It is generally thought by Christians that God could now obliterate cancer from the human condition, but he doesn’t want to, for whatever reason. I’m not sure how this wouldn’t apply to Jesus in his earthly life.

I affirm the orthodox teaching of the incarnation, that Christ is fully God and fully man.

While Tilling says that he affirms the orthodox teaching of the incarnation, it seems rather that he maintains the orthodox terminology, while applying that terminology to concepts that would not have been acceptable to those who first developed the doctrine. I’m thinking especially about Jesus’ ignorance nescience. I find it doubtful that many of the Fathers would have allowed this concept much leeway outside the specific context to which Matthew 24:36 restricts it. But see the next point.

Origen and some of the other Fathers would say Jesus is 'ignorant' on certain matters, but they really mean that he was nescient.

I have not researched the history of exegesis for Matthew 24:36, so I cannot speak with authority on this point. I reiterate that a priori I am doubtful that the orthodox Fathers would have found much that Jesus didn’t know. Jerome, for one, rejects even the explicit statement of the verse, and says that Jesus did in fact know just as much as God the Father regarding the coming day.

Finally, did Jesus think the earth was flat?

There are three points I’d like to make. But before getting to them, let’s just change the perspective by asking whether an average first-century Palestinian Jew (A1PJ) would have thought that the earth was flat. Since some say that Jesus was an A1PJ, this will answer their question, and since some say that Jesus was decidedly not an A1PJ, phrasing the question in this way will avoid having to discuss the special knowledge that Jesus himself may have possessed.

First, according to the "authoritative" Wikipedia article on the idea of a Flat Earth, very few educated people have ever believed in a flat earth, at least since Hellenistic times. Eratosthenes, already in the 3rd century BC, calculated the circumference of the earth amazingly close to the correct measurement. This was done in Alexandria, the major location of diaspora Jews in Hellenistic and Roman times. It is debatable whether an A1PJ would have been exposed to this knowledge, so we must look for sources that indicate the cosmology current in Palestine.

Second, does Matthew 4:8 imply a flat earth? I am not a NT scholar, so I’m not up-to-date on scholarship regarding the formation of the Gospels, but I do think the parallel in Luke is worth reading.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. (Matthew 4:8)

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. (Luke 4:5)

In my view, the Lukan account does not at all imply a flat earth, but rather some sort of a visionary experience, and this despite the devil’s taking Jesus “up”. Perhaps some say that this is exactly why Luke made the change from Matthew, i.e., because he knew that there was no mountain that could give a view of the entire world, and maybe this was due to Luke’s more sophisticated cosmology. In any case, it will not be agreed by all that Luke’s version should be taken into account when interpreting Matthew.

I admit that the following argument is speculative, but I think Luke’s insight would have been readily apparent to any A1PJ. In other words, anyone would know that there was no mountain that could give a view of all the kingdoms of the world, simply because such a mountain could not be seen from Palestine. In other words, if a mountain could overlook every kingdom, then every kingdom could also see that mountain. But no such mountain could be seen from Palestine. Surely the Evangelists had scaled the local mountains and perceived that the views offered were not nearly extensive enough to see the whole world (even if we take “all the kingdoms of the world” to include only the Roman Empire and the various other known kingdoms on the outskirts of the Roman Empire). So I don’t think we need to understand Matthew’s account in the sense that the “very high mountain” offered a view of the world to Jesus that could be seen also by anyone else. I also find it significant that the mountain is not named—an indication that Matthew does not intend any physical mountain?

The difficulty with this interpretation, then, is why the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain. As often noted, Jesus had quite a few “spiritual” experiences on mountains, so that is not so unusual in this case. But why does the writer specify that the mountain was “very high”? It is possible that Matthew uses the adverb and adjective to indicate the spiritual nature of the experience. Luke’s version does support this reading, though I understand that that evidence is not admissible by all. In any event, I do regard it unlikely that any educated A1PJ actually thought that a mountain, no matter how high, could provide the required view. (I qualify the author of the First Gospel with the adjective “educated” exactly because he was an author—he could write, after all.)

Third, does Second Temple Jewish literature support the idea of a flat earth? The suggestion has been made that 1 Enoch does so. I haven’t the time to read through 1 Enoch right now, but I’ll simply say that the passages used by some to establish the point do not convince. In any case, 1 Enoch was certainly not looked on by all, least of all the Jerusalem establishment, as authoritative, and is associated most closely with sectarian groups like the Qumran community. So would an A1PJ take his cosmology from 1 Enoch? I guess some would and some wouldn’t.

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