Ancient Hebrews' knowledge of the earth's shape

I am debating some people about whether the ancient Hebrews thought the earth was spherical or not.

I was wondering if anyone has any information - that isn’t verses from the Bible - that suggests that they knew that the earth was spherical. i.e. that the earth has no ends - that it has a continuous surface - that’s shaped like a ball where people and water can stick on its sides and even upside-down on the bottom.

Also, information about other early cultures would be helpful.

e.g. History of Astronomy - “In around 500 BC another philosopher, Anaximander (Pythagorus’s teacher), suggested, possibly for the first time, that the world was round…”

Are there any earlier dates for this discovery? I mean did any of the Babylonians or Egyptians ever suspect the earth was spherical?

So having a good idea of the beliefs of other ancient cultures (including Aztecs, etc) about the shape of the earth would give a good idea about the possible beliefs of the ancient Hebrews.

And again, no Bible verses please. I’ve discussed this with many people and I don’t think there are any Bible verses which say that the earth is spherical with land and water all around it including on the sides and bottom. It does talk about the “circle of the earth” but there is a Hebrew word for ball and this word can’t be translated to mean ball (according to Strongs’ at least). The rest of the passage shows fairly clearly that it isn’t talking about a spherical earth. There is also a passage about a circular shadow on the sea. This was used by the Greeks to show the earth was spherical but it doesn’t prove that the Hebrews knew the earth was spherical. So I don’t think the Bible is clear enough about what the Hebrews believed. In fact there are many verses that seem to imply a flat earth, but that link shows that it is possible to explain them away - that they are figurative or bad translations.

I’m not near any of my sources now, but IIRC, most of the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian sources I’ve seen seem to suggest a flat earth. That said, we’re talking about long-lived civilizations, and most of the quotes I’ve come across are from poets, not astronomers. So it’s possible that they knew. Both groups became excellent astronomers. It’s likely the Egyptians knew about the precession of the equinoxes, because there’s evidence that they rebuilt some of their sunrise-aligned temples to accommodate changes in direction of solstice sunrise. You don’t have to accept the assertions in Hamlet’s Mill to accept this info. On the other hand, you can have a great practical knowledge of astronomy without believing that the earth is round.


No fair. How many ancient Hebreww sources are there, if you cut out the Bible? It contains the oldest Hebrew literature we have. Other sources are a lot more recent. I don’t know of anything that suggests Hebrew knowledge of a round earth, while Bible verses certainly suggest a flat earth. But, again, the same comments apply – any Hebrew astronomers probably weren’t writing the Bible.

The most I think we can say is that there wasn’t an obvious widespread belief in a round earth among the intelligentsia of any of these groups in the time period you’re interested in. Among the Greeks (and later, the Romans), though, there demonstrably was – writings by Eratosthenes, Aristotle, and others make this clear.

I don’t know about any earlier dates, but I have a date for a more conclusive round-earth theory: in about 235 BCE, Eratosthenes of Egypt calculated the circumference of the earth based on differences in shadows at two locations at noon on the summer solstice. He arrived at an answer of about 25,000 miles, remarkably close to the correct answer (24,800 miles).

What I mean is that if you think the ancient Hebrews think the earth was flat then there is no need to give Bible verses - I already know them and examples can be found in the shape of the earth Christian article. On the other hand I’d be interested in non-Biblical information about a Hebrew belief in a flat earth. If it is more recent than the Bible then this is even better since it suggests that the Bible would also be at the same or more primitive scientific level.
As far as Bible verses go regarding a spherical earth, as I’ve said, I think they’re too ambiguous and lean onto the idea that the earth was flat.

Well if the Egyptians and Babylonians believed in a flat earth then this doesn’t look good for the Hebrews…

Well actually I’m interested in the beliefs of the Bible writers - whether phrases like “the ends of the earth” were meant to be literal or figurative. Today they are obviously figurative since we believe in a spherical earth, but for those phrases to be figurative according to those author’s points of view, they’d need to believe that the earth was spherical. I’m looking for evidence that they thought the earth was spherical.

Ok. It is just that some Christians say that would be easy for cultures to discover that the earth was spherical just by watching ships vanish over the horizon, watching the eclipses, etc. Maybe the earth could have been hemispherical rather than spherical since it is pretty strange to think that people could stand upside-down. I wonder what the Greeks thought about that implication - that some person’s “down” is another person’s “up”.

Just in case people get the impression that the Egyptians also discovered that the earth was round independently on the Greeks… he seems to have been a Greek scholar who studied in Athens. He lived in Egypt as a librarian Alexandria’s library - which was founded by the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great. So he got his idea about the shape of the earth from other Greeks (but he worked out the measurements himself…)

The Talmud states that the earth is spherical in a number of places. The link below cites one, from the Jerusalem Talmud. I remember reading references to a spherical earth in Talmud Bavli Megillos, though I don’t remember the exact page.

Jews had long learned from the Talmud that the world was a globe. In the fourth century, the Jerusalem Talmud (Aboda Zara, 42c) unequivocally asserted that the world was globular in form. The Zohar (Leviticus 1.3) was even more specific, declaring that the earth rotates on its axis like a ball… The great Maimonides and other medieval Judaic scientists subscribed to that concept.

Th thirteenth century fabulist Isaac ben Sahulla made the antipodean theory familiar widely among the Jews in his work, Meshal haKadmoni. The theory held that people’s feet pointed to the center of a spherical earth. Thus, the concept of a globular world was inherent in Judaic tradition from the most ancient times. Roger Bacon (1213-92), an English friar, quoted Hebrew sources to show that Asia could be reached by sailing west from Europe. The church proscribed the reading of Bacon’s books and Bacon was imprisoned.

It says that is from the fourth century. (BCE or CE? - CE I guess)

That wouldn’t be about ancient Hebrews. By ancient I mean in Biblical times.

And also, it should predate the Greeks’ belief in a spherical earth. (e.g. before 500 BC)
Perhaps the Hebrews believed in a flat earth before that time, but weren’t dogmatic about it, and changed to a spherical earth belief when they came in contact with the Greeks and Romans.

No links, or even definite knowledge, but I seem to remember that there might be works in Sanskrit that mention the motion of the Earth around the Sun. I know that’s not precisely what you’re after, but it might help.