Appendix C: The Fathers of the Church and Flat-Earthism

Few modern Christians understand how thoroughly early Christianity was dominated by the Near East.  Of the early Fathers, most wrote in Greek.  At first, Alexandria, Egypt, was the intellectual center of Christianity, followed by Antioch and Rome (last).  Later, Constantinople emerged as a rival.  The Latin Fathers did not reach parity with the Greek Fathers until about the 4th century.  Indeed, the 4th century was the great intellectual flowering of early Christianity.  After centuries of struggle and occasional persecution, the Christians won with Constantine.  That left them free to fight among themselves and persecute each other in the process of hammering out an orthodoxy. 

For example, John addressed his Revelation to “the seven churches which are in Asia”—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  All of these cities were in western Asia Minor (now western Turkey).  According to the book, John had his vision on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea, just off Asia Minor.  Canonical Epistles were explicitly addressed to Christians in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, and Galatia (a region).  Except for Rome, all these were either in Greece or Asia Minor. 

All of the important councils of the early church were held in Asia Minor.  The first four ecumenical councils were Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451)—cities in what is now western Turkey.  Not until 1123 was an ecumenical council held in the west (at the basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome). 

While there is nothing explicitly spherical in the canonical Bible, one of the Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome, seemed to reveal Ptolemaic leanings in his noncanonical First Epistle to the Corinthians.  (Clement reputedly was a disciple of Peter and later served as Bishop of Rome.) Clement wrote: “The ocean, unpassable to mankind, and the worlds that are beyond it, are governed by the same commands of their great master” (Clement 9:12).  This is not necessarily Ptolemaic, but the concept of lands beyond the ocean was part of Greek astronomy and anathema to the known flat-earthers among the Fathers,

It is intriguing that the flat Fathers seem to have completely ignored the Book of Enoch as support for their views.  It is not clear whether that was due to unfamiliarity, rejection, or both.  Of the Fathers who did refer to the Book of Enoch (Tertullian, for one), none endorsed its cosmology. 

Antioch was founded as a Greek city in about 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator, one of the heirs of Alexander the Great.  In time, Antioch rivaled Alexandria in prestige and power, and the Romans tended to favor it over Alexandria because it was more centrally located.  It was one of the first gentile cities evangelized by Christians, and, according to tradition, St. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, before he moved on to Rome.  By 400 A.D., the population of Antioch was 200,000, but that count probably didn’t include slaves.  By the 4th century, the Patriarch of Antioch ranked third after Rome and Alexandria in all of Christendom.  It would eventually be eclipsed by Constantinople before its fall to the Saracens in 635. 

Antioch gave its name to a school of theology that insisted on a literal interpretation of the Bible and the human limitations of Jesus.  Antiochene theology sometimes opposed and sometimes agreed with Alexandrian theology.  Generally, the Antiochene theologians rejected the allegorical interpretation of the Bible favored by the Alexandrians and insisted on a more grammatical and literal interpretation.  The Antiochene viewpoint was Aristotelian and historical; the Alexandrian was Platonic and mystical.  Antiochenes sought the meaning intended by the writer rather than some obscure, hidden meaning.  They also held some parts of the Bible to be more valuable than others.  Except perhaps for that, they were much like modern fundamentalists. 

Under “Antiochene Theology,” the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explicitly lists Paul of Samosata (3rd century), Lucian of Antioch (d. 312), Marcellus of Ancyra (d. c. 374), John Chrysostom (347–407), Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350–428), Nestorius (d. c. 451), and Theodoret (c.393–c.458).  Elsewhere, it also identifies Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394) and Severianus of Gabala (fl. 400–408) as Antiochene theologians.  Of the nine so identified, at least four—Theodore, Diodorus, Chrysostom, and Severianus—were dyed-in-the-wool flat-earthers, and I am not aware that any Antiochene explicitly endorsed a spherical earth.  It seems that flat-earthism may have been a de facto doctrine of the Antiochene school. 

Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394) has been called “the father of Biblical interpretation.” His biography is sketchy, but he was a native of Antioch, and he studied in Athens as a young man.  After returning to Antioch, Diodorus headed a monastery outside of town, and his theology students at the monastery school included John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia.  In his theology, Diodorus followed the Antiochene tradition, and he insisted on a literal and historical exegesis of the Bible and the complete humanity of Jesus.  He was the founder of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, and he opposed the doctrine of eternal punishment.  Diodorus reportedly upheld the tabernacle shape of the universe and blasted the “atheists” who accepted the geocentric system in his book Against Fatalism.  The reputation he earned in Antioch was such that he was consecrated Bishop of Tarsus in 378. 

In about 400, one Severianus was made Bishop of Gabala, a city on the northern part of the Syrian seacoast, about fifty miles south of Antioch.  An Antiochene theologian, he is best remembered for his political machinations.  With Serapion and Theophilus of Alexandria, Severianus conspired against Chrysostom, who had formerly been his friend.  He also was a strong opponent of the sphericity of the earth. 

In his Six Orations on the Creation of the World, Severianus insisted that God made the highest heaven on the first day, “not the visible heaven, but the one above it, for the visible was made on the second day.  God made the higher heaven—the heaven of heavens to the Lord, and it is higher than this visible heaven, and, as in a house of two stories, between it and the earth another heaven is interposed.  God having thus created the world as one house, placed this visible heaven as a roof in the middle, and the waters above it.” At the beginning of the second day, water lay over the earth, but God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water (Genesis 1:6).” According to Severianus, “thereupon a solid ice-like substance was produced in the midst of the waters, which made lighter the upper half of the water, and left the other half underneath.” Elevated, this solid firmament became the roof of the lower world.  To save this firmament from being damaged by the heat of the sun, moon, and stars, “He spread over the upper surfaces of heaven those sea-like expanses of water.” This layer of water also prevents the heat of the sun from rising and being lost, illustrating once again “the wisdom of the Architect.”

Severianus held that the sun, moon, and stars were made out of light created on the first day.  He noted that the Bible says that “The sun goeth out upon the earth” and “from the end of heaven is his going forth, and at the end of heaven is his goal.” He concluded that the sun does not return by a route under the earth, but rather via the north, apparently outside the vertical walls where the firmament comes down to earth. 

As for those compromisers who would allow a spherical heaven, Severianus had nothing but contempt: “He made therefore the heaven, not a sphere, as those vain babblers conceive—for He did not make a rolling sphere, but, as the prophet says: Who hath made the heaven as a vaulted chamber and stretched it out as a tent to dwell in; for none of us is so impious as to be persuaded by these triflers, and not by the words of the Prophet, which declare that the heaven has a beginning and end.”

Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c.315–403), was another outspoken flat-earther from the same period and area.  A native of Palestine, Epiphanius founded a monastery in Judea in about 335.  A scholar of some ability, Epiphanius wrote a valuable treatise on Hebrew weights and measures and another half-finished work on gems, but he is best remembered for his Panarion, also known as A Refutation of All Heresies.  The latter is a hammer-and-tongs job better known for its heat than for the light it sheds on the views of those Epiphanius considered heretics.  As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church put it, “His unbending rigidity, his want of judgement, and his complete inability to understand any who differed from him, were reflected in his writings no less than in his life.” Epiphanius was elected Bishop of Cyprus in 367 and (perhaps later) was made Metropolitan of the island, and he apparently remained in his see to the end of his long life. 

Like Severianus, Epiphanius claimed that the higher heaven was created on the first day, and likewise the waters and angels.  The second day was entirely devoted to the creation of the firmament.  The quotes from Cosmas seem in perfect agreement with his quotes from Severianus. 

John Chrysostom (347–407) was the most famous Antiochene theologian—indeed, the most famous of all the Greek Fathers of the Church (some would say Origen).  Born to a wealthy Antioch family in either 345 or 347, John and his friend Theodore of Mopsuestia studied together under the great pagan orator Libanus at Antioch (law and rhetoric, respectively).  In 369, however, the two friends abandoned worldly pursuits and together entered the school of Diodorus (later Bishop of Tarsus) in a monastery at Antioch.  Diodorus was then the leader of the Antiochene school of theology and presumably already a vehement flat-earther. 

John and Theodore of Mopsuestia remained friends until the former died.  Both were outspokenly Antiochene in their theology, which means that they insisted upon a strict grammatical–historical interpretation of the Bible, and they flatly rejected the allegorical interpretations put forth by the Alexandrian school. 

Regarding Chrysostom’s views, Cosmas wrote, “He places the air first, then the moon, then the sun; in the next place, the firmament, then again, the heaven of heaven, without saying there are more than two heavens, and he ridicules those who say that it is a sphere, and maintain that it is in motion.”

In Homily vii, Chrysostom wrote, “[W]ouldst thou learn about the earth?  What dost thou know?  Tell me.  How great is its measure?  What is its size?  What is its manner of position?  What is its essence?  What is its place?  Where does it stand, and upon what?” Further: “Again, concerning the sea?  But certainly you will be reduced to the same uncertainty, not knowing where it begins, and where it ends, and upon what it is borne, what supports the bottom of it, and what sort of place there is for it, and whether after it there is a continent, or it ends in air and water.” The last clauses in each quote are consistent with a flat earth and seem impossible to reconcile with a sphere. 

Homily xiv on Hebrews deals with the Tabernacle.  It is a commentary on Hebrews 8:1–2: “Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens: a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.” Regarding the last part of this passage, Chrysostom asked rhetorically, “Where are they who say that the heaven whirls around? where are they who declare it is spherical? for both of these notions are overthrown here.”

The Tabernacle fixation apparently began with Clement of Alexandria (c.150–215), but (being Alexandrian) he didn’t take it literally.  Others did.  Chrysostom’s Homily xv is on Hebrews 9:1–5, and it also deals with the Tabernacle.  He wrote, “‘For’ (he says) ‘there was a tabernacle made; the first, which is called holy, wherein was the Candlestick, and the Table, and the Shewbread.’ These things are symbols of the world.” This quote of Hebrews 9:2 and its treatment gives the impression that Chrysostom really did take the Tabernacle as a model of the world. 

Theodore of Mopsuestia (d.c. 428) was a flat-earther who taught the tabernacle theory and had angels keeping the stars in motion.  Together with John Chrysostom, he studied in Antioch, first under the pagan orator Libanus, and then at the monastery school of Diodorus of Tarsus, where he studied for ten years.  In 392, he became Bishop of Mopsuestia, and he remained in his see for the rest of his life.  A prominent Antiochene theologian, Theodore gained a reputation for his learning and ultraorthodoxy.  His works were especially influential among the Nestorians, and some regard him as the real founder of the sect (Nestorius was his disciple).  The so-called Nestorians carefully distinguished between the human and divine natures in Christ, and they refused to call Mary the Mother of God. 

Mopsuestia was in Cilicia (now southern Turkey) on the Pyramus (now Jihun) River, whose mouth is at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.  Some of Chrysostom’s letters to Theodore have been preserved.  According to the introduction to two of the letters, John and Theodore remained good friends from their student days until Chrysostom died in 407.  They studied together under Diodorus of Tarsus, who was a flat-earther. 

Theodore apparently set forth his flat-earth view in a work on creation that has not survived.  Fortunately, the work was attacked by Johannes Philoponus, a late 6th century grammarian of Alexandria, who defended sphericity in a book on the creation of the world.  Apparently, Theodore quoted the Bible to prove that the heaven is not spherical and that the stars are moved by angels. 

The name of Nestorius is attached to a popular “heresy” that sprang up in the 4th century and essentially took over the church east of the Euphrates River.  Several sources agree that the true founder of Nestorianism was Theodore of Mopsuestia, an outspoken flat-earther who counted Nestorius among his disciples.  The Nestorians held that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ, one human and one divine, and they refused to call Mary the Mother of God.  The Nestorian Church gradually formed after the council of Ephesus, and its intellectual center was at first Edessa (known as the Athens of Syria).  A school of Nestorian theology arose there under Ibas, who became Bishop of Edessa in 435.  Several Persian kings supported them, but the Nestorians were expelled from Edessa in 489.  By that time, a strong school had arisen at Nisibis, which became the center of Nestorian culture.  The Patriarchate (Catholicos) was centered at Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris.  After 498, the title was Patriarch of the East.  The Nestorians proselytized widely, and they established Christian communities in India and China. 


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