A Book That Is Misrepresented
“The doctrine of the double motion of the earth about its axis and about the sun is false, and entirely contrary to Holy Scripture.” So stated the Congregation of the Index of the Roman Catholic Church in a decree in 1616.1 Does the Bible really disagree with scientific facts? Or has it been misrepresented?
IN THE winter of 1609/10, Galileo Galilei turned his newly developed telescope toward the heavens and discovered four moons circling the planet Jupiter. What he saw shattered the prevailing notion that all heavenly bodies must orbit the earth. Earlier, in 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had theorized that the planets revolve around the sun. Galileo verified that this was scientific truth.
To Catholic theologians, however, this was heresy. The church had long held that the earth was the center of the universe.2 This view was based on a literal interpretation of scriptures that pictured the earth as being fixed “on its foundations, unshakable for ever and ever.” (Psalm 104:5, The Jerusalem Bible) Summoned to Rome, Galileo appeared before the Inquisition. Subjected to rigorous examination, he was forced to recant his findings, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
In 1992, some 350 years after Galileo’s death, the Catholic Church finally acknowledged that he was right after all.3 But if Galileo was right, then was the Bible wrong?
Finding the True Sense of Biblical Passages
Galileo believed the Bible to be true. When his scientific discoveries contradicted the prevailing interpretation of certain Bible verses, he reasoned that theologians were missing the true sense of the passages. After all, “two truths can never contradict one another,” he wrote.4 He suggested that the precise terms of science do not contradict the everyday words of the Bible. But theologians would not let themselves be persuaded. They insisted that all Biblical statements about the earth are to be taken literally. As a result, not only did they reject Galileo’s discoveries but they also missed the true sense of such Scriptural expressions.
Really, common sense should tell us that when the Bible refers to “the four corners of the earth,” it does not mean that the Bible writers understood the earth to be literally square. (Revelation 7:1) The Bible is written in the language of ordinary people, often using vivid figures of speech. So when it speaks of the earth as having “four corners,” a durable “foundation,” “pedestals,” and a “cornerstone,” the Bible is not offering a scientific description of the earth; obviously it is speaking metaphorically, as we often do in daily speech.a—Isaiah 51:13; Job 38:6.
In his book Galileo Galilei, biographer L. Geymonat noted: “Narrow-minded theologians who wanted to limit science on the basis of biblical reasoning would do nothing but cast discredit upon the Bible itself.”5 That they did. Actually, it was the theologians’ interpretation of the Bible—not the Bible itself—that put unreasonable constraints on science.
Similarly, religious fundamentalists today distort the Bible when they insist that the earth was created in six 24-hour days. (Genesis 1:3-31) Such a view agrees neither with science nor with the Bible. In the Bible, as in everyday speech, the word “day” is a flexible term, expressing units of time of varying lengths. At Genesis 2:4, all six creative days are referred to as one all-embracing “day.” The Hebrew word translated “day” in the Bible can simply mean “a long time.”6 So, there is no Biblical reason to insist that the days of creation were 24 hours each. By teaching otherwise, fundamentalists misrepresent the Bible.—See also 2 Peter 3:8.
Throughout history, theologians have often distorted the Bible. Consider some other ways in which the religions of Christendom have misrepresented what the Bible says.
Misrepresented by Religion
The actions of those who say they follow the Bible often besmear the reputation of the book they claim to revere. So-called Christians have shed one another’s blood in the name of God. Yet, the Bible admonishes followers of Christ to “love one another.”—John 13:34, 35; Matthew 26:52.
Clearly, the Bible cannot be judged according to the words and actions of those who simply quote it or claim to live by it. An open-minded person may therefore want to discover for himself what the Bible is all about and why it is such a remarkable book.
a For example, even the most literal-minded astronomers today will speak of the “rising” and “setting” of the sun, stars, and constellations—although, in fact, these only appear to move because of the earth’s rotation.
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Two of Galileo’s telescopes
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Galileo facing his inquisitors