408 years ago today, Galileo’s discovery changed our understanding of the solar system forever. His astronomical observations irrefutably confirmed the hypothesis formulated by Copernicus 100 years earlier that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system. This was an Earth-shattering discovery.
Between 7th and 13th January 1610, Galileo discovered and observed the four Moons orbiting Jupiter, demonstrating that not every object in the starry sky rotated around the Earth as their centre, and thereby put the nail in the coffin of 2000 years of Aristotelian cosmology.
The overweening Roman Catholic regard for Aristotlian authority held up Christian theology and scientific progress for a long time. The mold was broken by the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Copernicus was persuaded by Rheticus, a mathematician from the new Lutheran University of Wittenberg, where Luther introduced the European Reformation, to publish his early thoughts on the Sun being at the centre of the solar system. Reluctantly, because of fears of papal reprisals, he finally published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, his 70th year and the year of his death.
Copernicus was not the first with this hypothesis, and Aristarchus of Samos in Greece, living in the third century BC, is usually credited with being the first to advance the opinion that the Earth orbits the Sun, although extant Sumerian clay tablets show a heliocentric solar system at a much earlier date. Copernicus knew about Aristarchus’ opinion but it is difficult to prove if he was dependent upon him for the idea or not. At least, Copernicus is credited with popularising and breaking the paradigm in European thought, just as Martin Luther broke through the religious paradigm in Roman Catholic Europe at the same time.
Heliocentrism and spherical Earth
In the 6th century BC Pythagoras was reputed to favour the view that the Earth was a sphere rather than a disk. Possibly earlier philosophers concluded similarly, and by the 5th century BC it was generally accepted among the Greeks.
As far as written records can inform us, most people believed in terra firma in ancient times, that the Earth was fixed and immovable. Upon such an opinion the geocentric hypothesis had been developed and held sway for thousands of years.
In the medieval world, the heliocentrism of Aristarchus of Samos was not well-known—just as in our day biblical teaching is not well-known. Long before Aristarchus, the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BC told us that:
‘God sits above the circle of the Earth, Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in’ Isa 40:22.
While some may interpret this as ‘the disk theory’, Hebrew exegesis does not determine this. Rather, the Hebrew word translated ‘circle’ has more of a concept of movement as in ‘circuit’ rather than shape, suggesting that the Earth was ‘on the move’.
One may wonder nowadays why intelligent people could not see that the heavens were not turning but that the Earth was turning. Possibly they did – but the significant point is who wrote it down? Possibly Isaiah did, and he was probably not alone in thinking so. It is common for people who are unfamiliar with the Bible to think that the ancient Hebrews were an unscientific people. In fact, the most scientific book in the Bible is its oldest book, the book of Job, which is based in the Mesopotamian civilisation where the Babylonians were intimately involved in mathematics and astronomy and followed the Sumerian civilisation, where a heliocentric model was known. The Hebrews were not themselves involved in astronomy, which was often associated with false religion in those times, but this did not mean that they were ignorant and unscientific. The Hebrews had the book of Job as part of their Scriptures and had their own views of the natural heavens. The Hebrews were forbidden to worship the heavens and the false gods associated with them. Possibly Isaiah and his contemporaries understood that the Earth was revolving, rather than the visible heavens.
Some academics know so little about the Bible, its teaching and its history that they repeat the academic mantra that Herodotus is ‘the father of history’. As he lived in the 5th century BC, during whose lifetime the Hebrew Old Testament was being completed, this title suggests to the popular mind that the biblical narratives are not history, which is indeed the poorly informed opinion of some academics. However, this story will need to wait for another blogpost.
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