Asked in The BiblePhysicsColonial AmericaThe End of the World (apocalypse)
Why did people think the world was flat?
September 20, 2013 5:43PM
Actually it's a fallacy to think that before Columbus people thought the world was flat. Even in Biblical days there was a strong belief in a spherical earth. The fallacy derives from the ideas that people have adopted from Genesis - which are allegorical both in description and theology - that heaven is 'up there' whereas we are on a 'flat' earth - despite the idea of a flat earth not mentioned at all in Genesis - or even anywhere in the Bible for that matter.
In fact, ancient Greeks knew that the earth was round. Eratosthenes (276-195BC) even calculated its circumference - and did it so accurately as to be just a few percent out of today's accurate figure. He also calculated the tilt in the earth's axis, invented the leap day, and some say even the distance between the earth and sun, centuries before Jeremiah Horrocks and Captain Cook did so by observing transits of Venus.
His ideas were passed on throughout society so that most people of intelligence knew the spherical nature of the earth.
The idea that Columbus traveled to America to 'prove' the earth was round is another fallacy. He did so, not to PROVE it was round, but, KNOWING it was round, sailed west to try to find a short cut to India. In those days the Suez canal did not exist and so any passage to India for trade in eastern goods, spices and so on, had to be done by passing round the Cape of Good Hope - treacherous waters for the small ships of that day. Therefore any short cut would be safer and quicker, and provide better trade profits.
However, Columbus did discover the West Indies in error thinking he had arrived in India. He didn't discover 'America'. Many knew of America long before Columbus - including the 11th and 12th century Vikings and, some say, even some Welsh explorers.
People thought the Earth was flat because they could not imagine it being any other shape - if it was a sphere, supposedly they would "fall into space" if they were on the other side of the world.
People thought that if they sailed over the horizon they might fall straight down.
If any searched the Scripture like the Bereans did, perhaps they would have known the Earth was round like a circle:
New International Version (NIV)
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.