The Bible and Astronomy
But let us pass for a few moments to the field of astronomical science. You need not be told of the discoveries that have been made, nor of all the appliances in use for making discoveries in the stellar universe. There are now telescopes of such penetrating power that by looking through them you can read, in a clear atmosphere, it is claimed, ordinary print twenty miles distant. And there are microscopes of such magnifying power that looking through them the edge of a razor, which is supposed to be one thousandth of an inch in thickness, appears, it is said, to have the breadth of three fingers on a man’s hand; while a dot so small that three of them can lie side by side across the edge of the sharpest razor, may be magnified to the size of an English shilling. There are spectroscopes, too, which can tell you, beyond question, what are the materials now in a state of combustion, not only on the sun, but on stars so remote that the comprehension of their distances is impossible. Telescopes have been, and are now, everywhere busy watching and searching the stars; and of late the spectroscope, too, is lifting up to them its curious eye. The Christian believer, meanwhile, is wont to ask, “What are the results of all these explorations of the physical heavens? Are they harmful to the Bible, or otherwise?”
This, at the outset, will be conceded: that if the Bible is merely like other books, and if other books of contemporaneous date, in the light of modern investigation, are filled with erroneous astronomical statements, then we may also expect to find in the Bible similar mis-statements.
A test question.
But, on the other hand, if upon examination it shall appear that the Bible, having had many things to say as to the origin and building of the stars and the earth, though not designed to be a special treatise upon world-building and astronomy, has escaped all of the errors of the ancients; and if it is the only book of ancient date that has thus escaped; and, further, if it shall appear that the Bible harmonizes with what is established and recent in astronomical science, and is the only ancient book that does harmonize with recent investigations – then does it not follow that the Bible carries upon its pages incontestable evidence of a high and matchless authority and authorship? What, therefore, are the facts in the case? is the question confronting us.
It is well known that telescopes, microscopes, and spectroscopes have played much havoc with most of the ancient treatises and systems of astronomy and astrology. They have fatally smitten the astrologers of Babylon and Assyria, the shasters of India, the astronomy of Ptolemy, the cosmogonies of the intellectual Greeks and Romans, the partially borrowed Koran of Mohammed, and the speculative scientific views of nearly all the church Fathers.
But it is, or ought to be, equally well known, that telescopes, microscopes, and spectroscopes have not played havoc with revelations as to these subjects found in the Bible. The conclusion, therefore, seems to be inevitable.
But perhaps these points need illustration. We, therefore, first call attention, for a moment, to certain views concerning the influence, or, rather, the supposed influence, of the stars upon human interests and destiny.
In early times the sincerity of man’s belief as to the influence of the heavenly bodies in all the affairs of life cannot be doubted. The science of astrology was the outgrowth of that faith, and is coeval with the science of astronomy.
Among the most civilized of ancient nations, and especially in those periods and countries where the stars were believed to have life, astrology became almost an essential part of the national character and thinking. It shared the favor of the common people, and the patronage of kings and rulers.
Astrology was divided into national and judicial. Natural astrology observed what were the different aspects of the heavenly bodies, and decided upon the relative importance of star-appearances, and showed what natural phenomena, such as eclipses, winds, storms, earthquakes, and the like, would result from given appearances of the heavenly bodies. Judicial astrology, by the same observations, foretold what were called moral events, such as the successes and reverses, the plenties and the famines, of nations and individuals.
Egypt is supposed to have been the home of astrology, as it also was of astronomy: its sway in that country was imperial.
Among the Babylonians, too, astrology was regarded, in matters of national welfare, as of primal importance. Judicial astrology was allowed to decide all matters, important and unimportant. Of earlier date that the palmy days of the Babylonian empire are some of the books of Babylon on astrology – books that were extant in the days of Aristotle.
In Chaldea, the sway of this science was also supreme. Astrologers formed the highest caste, and enjoyed a prominent place in the royal court. No house could be built, no journey begun, no campaign undertaken, until the astrological diviners had examined the stars, and discovered the propitious time.
The ancient Persians, no less than the Egyptians and Chaldeans, also sought the supposed aid of astrology. Nothing was done by them without consulting the stars. The journey was commenced, even the dress or coat was put on, only at the propitious astrological juncture.
Thus also was it with the Arabs. They neither sowed nor reaped, undertook expeditions, nor engaged in business, without consulting the stars.
Throughout Europe, too, the fascinations of astrology are found for centuries well-nigh bewitching the people. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, astrology was taught in the universities of Italy, and professors of astrology were appointed at Padua and Bologna. Catherine de Medicis of France allowed no great enterprise to be undertaken without consulting and following the dictation of the stars. During the reign of Henry III., and also that of Henry IV., astrology formed at court the engrossing subject of ordinary conversation. And, says D’Alembert, “There is hardly an edifice in Constantinople and in all Greece that has not been erected according to the rules of apotelesmatic astrology.”
Such are the facts. The world was filled with these notions. It was believed and taught, out of the schools and in the schools, that man’s destinies were controlled by the stars; that successes and reverses, national and individual, came at the caprice or dictation of those heavenly bodies. It was popular to hold these views: it was popular to teach them. With these astrological notions the Bible writers were familiar.
The Bible writers were familiar with these views,
but never adopted them.
Those Bible men must have known that their popularity would have been enhanced if they had adopted the prevailing beliefs of those times. Had Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or John, or the other inspired men, introduced into their writings the astrological tables and maxims in vogue in their times, it would have given a caste and currency to their writings not otherwise attainable. Of this they must have been fully aware. There were, therefore, strong temptations to yield to these popular demands. But if they had yielded! Indeed, how easily in those times the authority of the Bible could have been imperiled! For astrology, in intelligent circles, is now laughed at. Modern thought has written over its grave this epitaph: “Made up of the greatest possible amount of error, mixed with the least amount of truth.” And, too, wouldn’t that have been the epitaph written over the Bible had it taught the astrology and astronomy which were in vogue when it was compiled and authorized?
But the fact in the case is, that, amid this condition of things extending from the days of Moses a long way past the days of John the Apostle, the Bible was not astrological. Indeed, from first to last it was emphatically anti-astrological. Is not this dead silence respecting the star-theories of those who were contemporaries with the men who wrote the Bible, a piece of very weighty moral evidence that in its origin and composition it is not like other books? Its voice in all these matters is modern rather than ancient? But why? is the question requiring solution. Its teachings, as every reader of it knows, are uniform, and are these: Supernatural influence in national and individual affairs are solely in the hands of an infinite Being “who makes for righteousness.” “Dominion and fear are with him, he maketh peace in his high places. Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight” (Job xxv. 2, 5) – is the voice of one of the earliest writings of the Bible composed in Arabia; and “To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” (Jude 25) – is the response that came from one of the last of the inspired writers.
But let us advance a step farther. Ancient philosophers, teachers, and common people not only held erroneous views as to astrology: they were likewise much mistaken in their other astronomical opinions.
The earth: its shape, foundation, and composition.
The following grouping will fully establish this statement: Anaximenes held that the earth is shaped like a table, and Leucippus said that it had the form of a drum; but every child now knows that its shape is like that of an orange or an apple. Pindar taught that the earth rests upon columns and pillars of adamant; and other ancient writers maintained that it rests upon the back of a huge tortoise, which in turn is supported upon the coils of an immense serpent. Such is its resting-place (they seem to have reasoned); for, if not, upon what does it rest? Most men appear to have been silenced, and let it rest there. There were still other teachers, in other countries, who advanced the theory that the earth is supported upon the backs of huge elephants, the motion of whose heads caused earthquakes.
Do these notions seem crude? But we must not forget that those were crude ages, in which mistakes of this kind may well be excused.
Even Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle argued that the earth is a live being; and that the east, whence motion commences, is the right, and the west is the left hand of the world. Even Christian theologians as late as Galileo’s time taught that the earth is stationary; and Augustine, 400 A. D., declared that there are no inhabitants on the nether side of it. A different view at that time was theological heresy. What would be thought of a teacher in our day, if advancing any of these views? He would not only be dismissed from his position, but his insanity would perhaps be argued as of an incurable type. Philolaus had a theory that the earth’s destruction is to come about by the waters of the moon being poured down upon it through a whirlpool in the atmosphere. But the probabilities are that the moon has not so much as a cupful of water with which to cloud its sky, to say nothing of deluging a world.
The moon: its composition, size, and distance.
The moon in its composition, according to Pharnaces, is “wholly a mixture of air and wild fire.” But the facts are now well established, that there is no atmosphere on the moon, and, further, that its fires were extinct thousands of years ago, and that, therefore, it is nothing but a burnt-out slag. Alarchus held that the face in the moon is a reflection of the ocean upon our earth. But the outlines of that face are now know to be the shadows cast by its lofty mountains into its own deep caverns. Some of the Stoics declared that the moon exceeds in magnitude the earth; and Anaximander affirmed that it is nineteen times larger than the earth, being a circle filled with fire like the sun. But, as a matter of fact, the earth in volume exceeds the moon in the proportion of ninety to one. The shasters of India tell us that the moon is fifty thousand leagues higher up than the sun, that it animates our bodies, and shines with its own light. But the moon does not shine with its own light, and, instead of being more remote from us than the sun, is millions of miles nearer.
The sun: its character and size.
Philolaus held that the sun is a crystal whose light is merely a reflection of the light of the earth. But no one now need be told that this is false, inasmuch as the sun is a globe of fire sending its flames a hundred thousand miles up from its surface.
As to the size of the sun, there were many conjectures. Heraclitus declared that the sun is no larger than the breadth of a man’s foot. Epicurus said that he embraced all the opinions that had been held respecting the size of the sun; namely, “the sun may be of a magnitude as it appears, or it may be somewhat greater, or somewhat less.” Anaxagoras taught that the sun was made from a mass of iron somewhat larger that the Peloponnesus, and the Peloponnesus has an area of only eight thousand five hundred square miles. Anaximander was quite extravagant for his time; claiming that the sun is twenty-eight times larger than the earth, having a circumference which resembles a hollow chariot-wheel filled with fire. But Parimenides opposed this view, insisting that the sun is only about the size of the earth. As a matter of fact, however, the sun is not like a chariot-wheel, and in volume exceeds the earth in the proportion of one million four hundred thousand, to one.
As to the composition of the stars, there were various conflicting opinions. Diogenes thought that the stars resembled pumice-stones, and that they are the breathings of the world. Philolaus of Crotona contended that the stars are made of crystal much purer than diamonds. Plato thought that the stars are of a fiery nature, mixed with something resembling glue. Zenophanes taught that the stars are composed of inflamed clouds, which are kindled at night, but quenched during the day. Anaximenes said they are fastened as nails in the crystalline firmament. Others, says Plutarch, taught that the stars are fiery plates of gold, resembling pictures. Heraclitus and some of the Stoics held that the stars depend for their illumination upon exhalations from damp places on the earth. The ancient Persians taught that the stars are the gods of the universe.
By some of the philosophers in early times, it was maintained that comets are the souls of good men on their way to heaven; others said that they are angels escorting righteous souls to places of rest.
The Milky Way.
And several of the Pythagorean philosophers taught that the Milky Way is an old disused path of the sun.
Number and distances of the stars.
Thus also there were differences of opinion as to the number and distances of the heavenly bodies. Some of the ancients thought that there are about a thousand stars. Even Hipparchus and Ptolemy never hinted at their incalculable number.
Hesiod affirmed that it would take a brazen anvil nine days to pass from the stars to the earth, and nine days to go from the earth to the infernal regions. Therefore, according to this estimate, only eighteen days would be required to travel the spaces occupied by the sidereal heavens. But the fact is, that even light itself, moving at the rate of nearly two hundred thousand miles per second, cannot travel those sidereal spaces in a million ages.
But in review of ancient speculations, we must pause. As every child knows, they are utterly false. Still, as already suggested, those men must not be over-much condemned. They theorized as best they could with the light they had. The earth does appear to be shaped like a table; and seemingly it must rest upon something – either pillars, tortoises, serpents, or elephants. The moon really seems farther away than the sun, and apparently shines with its own light. The sun does not seem larger than the estimates given by the ancients, and on the clearest nights the unaided eye can count only a few thousand stars. The Milky Way can easily be imagined to be a disused path of the sun, and comets with their flowing robes might well be thought to be escorting angels.
Why did not Bible-writers make similar statements?
Now, while casting no reflections upon ancient philosophers, we certainly have a right to ask how it chanced that Moses, instead of limiting the stars to a thousand, hints that their number is innumerable (Gen. xv. 5). How, too, did it chance that Job did not propose serpents, elephants, tortoises, or something of the sort, for the earth’s foundations; instead of declaring, in that age of scientific ignorance and in direct opposition to the statements and speculations of his time, that it is God who stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing (Job xxvi. 7) – precisely where modern science hangs it?
Or, vary the form of these questions, What if Isaiah, in his supposed inspired utterances, had said that the sun is in size equal to the Peloponnesus, that it is shaped like a chariot-wheel, and that in eighteen days a brazen anvil can pass the stellar spaces? And, if he composed his writing as other men compose theirs, why was he not liable to these or other similar utterances? Or, what if the Apostle Peter, instead of saying that fire, with great noise and melting elements (2 Pet. iii. 10-12), is to be, as modern science hints, “the dread communist of the universe,” had said that the earth is to be destroyed by the waters of the moon poured down upon it through a whirlpool in its atmosphere? These mistaken opinions were common talk among the people living when and where this Bible was written. What was it, therefore, that guarded its writers and compilers against introducing into it these errors, almost any one of which would now be appalling to those who regard the Bible as the word of God?
Bear in mind, at this point, that these various disclosures of the Bible were placed on record at a time when even the names of some of the modern sciences hand not been spoken. Chemistry, geology, and mineralogy were hardly born before the beginning of the nineteenth century; and astronomy has widened immensely the fields of her conquests within the last three-quarters of a century.
It is only a little over a hundred and fifty years since the Ptolemaic theory – the theory that the earth is in the centre, and that the sun moves about it – was taught in so respectable an institution as Yale College. Any alteration, therefore, of the Greek and Hebrew text of the Bible to suit the late discoveries of modern science, as was for a time claimed by a few unscholarly minds, has been rendered impossible. Now, in view of all these facts, can any man, in his reason, decide that this Bible, freely referring as it does to the various phenomena of the physical universe, could have escaped all these errors of the ancient writers and philosophers, provided there were no supernatural influences controlling the minds of those who wrote and compiled it?
Other important revelations in the Bible.
But we have not yet completed this part of our subject. There are scientific thoughts in the department of astronomy expressed in the Bible, which seem far, very far, beyond the possible ken of those who wrote them. The writer of the book of Job speaks, for instance, of the loosing of the bands of Orion (Job xxxviii. 31). Until recently there was no intelligent interpretation for that passage. But astronomers have discovered of late the almost startling fact, that our planetary system is slowly drifting away from the constellation in which Orion is chief. Does some one reply that this Bible expression is merely a poetic fancy? Why were not Homer and Virgil equally correct in their fancies? This same Bible-writer also speaks of an empty place in the north (Job xxvi. 7). Poetic, it is said? Doubtless it is poetic, and perhaps the writer did not understand the full import of his words: but what is singular is the fact that this expression, written in an age when errors in science everywhere prevailed, is, in the light of modern discovery, a marvel of scientific accuracy; for modern astronomers now tell us that the only space in the stellar heavens of our hemisphere where the telescope can discover no stars is not east or west, but north.
In view of these and many other Scriptural statements, need there be any surprise that the illustrious astronomer Sir John Herschel was led, in the rapture of his admiration for the Bible, to exclaim, “All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more and more strongly the truths contained in the Holy Scriptures?”
And it is our own late and honored astronomer, Gen. O. M. Mitchel, who after passing in imagination beyond suns and systems towering on the right hand and on the left, and with thoughts expanded and aglow with sublimities, and struggling for expression, in a passage of rare beauty, exclaims, “Let us turn to the language of the Bible: it furnishes the only fitting vehicle to express the thoughts which overwhelm us, and we break out involuntarily in the language of God’s own inspiration, ‘Have ye not known, hath it not been told you from the beginning, have ye not understood from the foundation of the earth? It is he who sitteth upon the circle of the earth, that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created all these things, that bringeth out their host by number? It is he who meted out the heavens with a span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighted the mountains in scales and the hills in balances. It is he who stretcheth out the north over the empty place and hangeth the earth on nothing. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens. He telleth the number of the stars. He calleth them all by their names. He commandeth the sun, and it riseth not, and sealeth up the stars. He bindeth the sweet influences of the Pleiades, and looseth the bands of Orion. He bringeth forth Mazzaroth in his season, and guideth Arcturus with is sons. Lo! These are a part of his ways; but the thunder of his power, who can understand?'” We do not hesitate to say that these closing sentences quoted from the book of Job, in scientific accuracy and poetic grandeur, even under the intense blaze of the culture and civilization of the nineteenth century, are unequalled by any page from the pen of any skeptic who has ever assailed the blessed Book, and will survive when every thing skepticism has produced which is not in harmony with its revelations shall have sunk forever into the depths of oblivion.