Bill Long 11/22/04
Further Reflections on a Theological Problem
We have seen that several pagan philosophers and geographers proposed the sphericity of the earth and the existence of the antipodes (people living on the opposite side of the earth or an opposite side of the earth) in the Hellenistic and Roman times. These dual assertions caused theological problems for the nascent Christian movement. However, the sphericity of the earth was less of a problem than the existence of the antipodes. Indeed, the sixth century theologian Isidore of Seville expressed his belief in the earth's sphericity but denied belief in the antipodes. The controversial nature of belief in the antipodes has to be further explained.
Beginning with Augustine in the early 5th century, two Biblical texts were used to deny the existence of the antipodes--Psalm 19:4 and Romans 10:18. The latter is a quotation of the former, and they read as follows.
"Their line is gone out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world (Ps. 19:4)."
"Their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world (Rom. 10:18)."
How These Texts Were Read
Augustine was working with the theological belief of the unity of the human race, that is, of humanity's descent from its common ancestor, Adam. It was necessary to assert this commonality or else original sin and the promise of redemption could not be asserted for those who might not have been descended from Adam. But it was likewise important that the Gospel had been preached to all creatures, for otherwise how could God truly hold them responsible for a lack of saving knowledge of Christ if they had not heard the message?
These Scriptures served Augustine's purpose. When he reads such statements as "Their line" or "Their sound" has gone out to all the earth, he sees this as Scriptural testimony to the fact that the word of the Gospel, through the words of the original apostles, went out to the known inhabited earth. From the second century legends arose the belief that each of the 12 Apostles was given a region of the earth to evangelize, and each faithfully fulfilled his calling. Therefore, the Scripture was fulfilled that said that "their line is gone out through all the earth."
But positing the existence of an earth under the earth, a sort of "counter-earth" which was on the opposite side of the earth as it was known in the 5th century, would throw this theological world into a real tizzy. There is no evidence from Scripture or tradition that the apostles preached to the antipodes; and it would have been theological improper had they not done so. Thus, there can be no belief in the antipodes and, as a matter of fact, the proclamation of the antipodes would call into question the unity of the human race and the truth of the biblical assertion that the word (i.e., the Gospel) had gone out to the ends of the earth. Thus, with the authority of the Scriptures and Augustine, belief in the antipodes was suppressed in the Church.
Putting the Texts into Context
A modern biblical critic, even of the conservative variety, would smile when examining the exegetical method of Augustine and subsequent theologians with these texts. The first, from Psalm 19, refers to the glories of creation and has nothing to do with the proclamation in words of God's grace. Indeed, the context of Psalm 19 talks about the wordless glory of the created world, a glory that would probably as powerfully atttest God's glory in the antipodes as in the earth as they knew it. The second, from Romans 10, applies the Psalm 19 text to the theological problem of the so-called "unbelief of the Jews,"--i.e., Paul's musings on why the Jews, to whom Jesus was supposedly sent, were in large measure so adamantly opposed to his claims. Thus, a contemporary exegete would interpret these exegetical gymnastics as indicative of methods that served to buttress conservative truths rather than as methods to unfold the meaning of the sacred text. Nevertheless, Augustine's interpretation of these texts held sway for more than 1000 years in Christendom.
Denial of the two issues of sphericity of the earth and existence of the antipodes had its effect in a new "science," that of "Christian" map-making. It might seem amusing at first to believe that one's Christian faith had anything to do with such a "science," but from looking at the work entitled Christian Topography (ca. 547 CE) of Cosmas Indicopleustes, we see that the Scriptural insights are incorporated into a theory of mapmaking. The world is a flat surface, with the vault of heaven suspended over it. In this case Cosmas uses the text of Hebrews 9:1-2, speaking about the Hebrew tabernacle of Exodus 25-40, to suppose that just as the tabernacle was a rectangular object, so the surface of the earth was twice as broad (from Gibraltar to India) as it was wide (from Scythia to Africa). Cosmas also asserted that the doctrine of the antipodes was untenable, and this for two reasons: (1) the terrific heat that would be on the other side of the world; and (2) because the inhabitants of the antipodes were not descended from Adam. In addition, Cosmas made such cogent and convincing arguments as the fact that the rain couldn't fall on people of the antipodes because the rain would have to fall upwards--a phenomenon that simply can't happen.
Now we can easily recognize how part of the wonder attending the crews of Columbus and, even more, of Magellan in the early 16th century was the fact that at some point the sailors must have believed that they were seeing the antipodes, both in the sense of the opposite region and of people who lived on the opposite side of the earth. It took time, however, for the doctrine of the untenability of belief in the antipodes to work its way out of the collective Western consciousness. Now, however, it is only a fable, a barely-known story of another era. But, at one time, it was a theologically central doctrine, buttressed by Scripture and the authority of the great Augustine. What are the "antipodes" of today's scientific and theological discussion? Maybe only those who follow us 1000 years from now will be able to tell us.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long