HOLIDAY ASSIGNMENT: Explain the dimensions of the MOLTEN SEA in as few words as possible!

For years I’ve had to field the silly claim that “The Bible says Pi=3” and/or “The molten sea in 1Kings 7:23 has erroneous dimensions.” Both are mind-numbingly silly and not only the mathematics-challenged screw it up badly. (I’ve seen some mathematics journal articles get it wrong and some get it right–as well as at least one ACM SIG journal!– and for the most fascinating of reasons in both instances!) It is an example that reminds us that not only young earth creationists have cognitive dissonance. If someone is determined to prove YECs or the Bible “wrong” no matter what, they will! (At least, in their minds they will.)

I have lectured on this fun topic in a number of venues over the years and I found this interesting: If I am dealing with a scale model of the molten sea (a water vessel of great size in the Temple grounds) or a simple diagram, nobody has ever denied the 10 cubit diameter and 30 cubit circumference. Nobody challenges the 1 Kings 7:23 description because they can see it before them! (And to call it “erroneous” is not pedantic. It is flat outright wrong.) But on Internet forums, many are determined to prove me wrong. And I must be wrong, obviously, because this is seen as a creationist and/or a “Biblical” claim!

And just as creationists will declare everything about evolution wrong, so do many declare the Bible or any other religion-related text wrong: every time! Everything in it just surely has to be wrong! Of course, as an occasionally-grouchy professor, I must grade answers right or wrong by the factual content, not by the ideology or passion of the student, all regardless of their hurt feelings or dashed perceptions. In Biblical studies, just as in the sciences, data/evidence matters. It always matters.

So I was thinking: What could be written in the fewest ASCII characters to show that the 10 and 30 are not erroneous descriptions? (Readers, feel free to email me your own answers to this challenge.)

So I’ll try:

1) 9.55 * 3.14159 = 30.002 {diameter x Pi = circumference if we presume a perfect cylinder.}

2) The Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy held by Ken Ham et all (and a great many evangelical Christians) has NOTHING to do with PRECISION. Only TRUTH. (I won’t go into the details of how Ham would define it. Another time.) Moreover, general approximations in the description of a very large (and hard to measure because it is taller than a man) water basin/tank are NOT “errors”. The author of 1Kings was telling the reader that the “molten sea” was 10 cubits across and 30 cubits circumference. He had no reason to care about the fractional amounts and neither would the reader care. (And how would the fractional amount be expressed in ancient Hebrew, many centuries before the birth of Jesus?) And EVEN IF the molten sea were a perfect cylinder, 10 and 30 cubits respectively are certainly permissible and correct descriptions of a 9.55 cubit and 30.002 cubit vessel that is about 7 1/2 feet tall!

3) The text tells us that the molten sea is flared like a tulip. So the top, out-of-reach rim could have been EXACTLY 10.00 cubits across and the description would still be perfectly valid–and reasonably precise! The text does not tell us where the diameter and the circumference were measured. In any case, even today we often round numbers to the nearest whole. That doesn’t make us wrong or in error–just approximate.

Those who are familiar with my academic career will be humored by a statement made by a commenter under the Sensuous Curmudgeon blog for 11/26/14 under the Ken Ham article. He insults my academic acumen and what aspirations I might optimistically pursue–or not. It would be fun to answer him by a factoid from my CV, but that risks betraying my identity. And that is something those of us ex-YECs hiding away in the WPP (Witless Protection Program) cannot do. So I challenge my readers to (1) find the insulting reader’s comment in that section under the aforementioned blog, and (2) explain why it made Professor Tertius’ belly “shake when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.” I can’t say at this point what the grand prize will be for the reader first to email me the correct answers to this challenge. But the funniest entries will be shared on this blog and the BSF email newsletter community for sure!

One other memory comes to mind. A very long time ago I was speaking at the University of Chicago (sponsored by the Beinecke Foundation, if my aged mind is holding up) and posed this molten sea problem to the faculty and grad students present. I can still remember the results because of their interesting pattern: 40% of the esteemed faculty who were present correctly debunked the claim of “an error defies Biblical inerrancy doctrine” in the text but 60% of the students got it right. Yes, for the faculty the performance was 40/60 and for the doctoral hopefuls (and some Masters and a few undergrads were present, to tell the truth). The Internet hadn’t emerged yet, so hecklers were few. One student initially objected but soon “got it”.

One more thought: As my TA (Teaching Assistant) reminded me so many years ago, Pi=3 is not a wrong answer, even if the Bible or some other ancient text had said so. (The Bible says nothing about Pi but let’s imagine.) Pi=3 and Pi=3.14 and Pi=3.1415926 are all false statements. The different is precision/accuracy in terms of significant digits. [Yes, I fully admit that I’ve committed the heinous sin of treating “precision” and “accuracy” as synonyms when they do not mean the same thing. I don’t want to pursue yet another tangent, plus while teaching overseas I discovered those terms are used in opposite ways depending on where I was!] Yes, Pi=3 is pitifully poor in getting useful answers and Pi=3.14 is much better, but both are “wrong” if people get as pedantic and passionate as we all do when opposing whatever is our own particular “ignition point” issue: evolution, young earth creationism, global warming, Ken Ham or the Bible.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “HOLIDAY ASSIGNMENT: Explain the dimensions of the MOLTEN SEA in as few words as possible!

  1. It has been pointed out to me that some within the BSF community have known me for years and therefore put everyone else at a significant disadvantage in identifying the irony in the commenter’s insult under the S.C. blog. Professor Tertius most certainly agrees. Therefore, my long-time colleagues have voluntarily recused themselves from the CV-rebuttal challenge.

  2. “What could be written in the fewest ASCII characters to show that the 10 and 30 are not erroneous descriptions?”

    10 x 3.14 =30 (for extremely small values of 10).

  3. OK, let’s get serious. Are you telling me that if some tourist brochure describing the Molten Sea (were it to be discovered) were to say that it is about 10 cubits across and 30 cubits in circumference, you [I’m speaking about critics in general] would be complaining about error bars and precision? Why do you think people always bring up the Molten Sea as if it were a “Bible error” when in any other context of daily life the lack of FRACTIONS or decimal places would be a non-issue?

    As I said, I would like to know how the critics think the ancient writer was supposed to go about expressing the fractions!

  4. As I’ve said many times before, if a critic wants to obsess on some Bible passage, there are far more interesting ones. Personally, I’m partial to the Census of Quirinius. That’s a far more interesting quirk of the text!

    • TomS

      I remember even as a kid, when hearing the Christmas story, how Augustus ordered a census of the whole world. Did Augustus even suspect that there were people in the Americas, let alone expect that the Mayas would pay attention to him. What did the emperor of China think?
      No, even as I kid I realized that “the whole world” was hyperbole. Is there any place where the Bible says “the whole world” where anybody thinks that is to be understood literally – with the sole exception of the story of Noah’s Flood?

      • TomS, the passage they usually cite about the “whole world” and the flood is in 2Peter. Yet, when we look more closely, the Greek word is NOT the word GE (which would meant the world of continents and rocks) but the Greek word COSMOS (which meant the world of PEOPLE.) Of course, by PEOPLE they thought in terms of creatures like them: the DESCENDENTS OF ADAM. And only a few centuries after Adam, the Imago Dei creatures, the descendents of Adam were not yet all that numerous nor spread out. So the idea of a flood of Noah’s ERETZ (“land”, “country”) is reinforced in 2Peter where “the world of people” is mentioned, NOT the PLANET EARTH (the world of “all land/rocks/continents”.) 2Peter clearly chose a “all people” word, not “entire planet earth” word.

        So, I can’t find an “all of the planet” or “global flood” in the Bible at all. They didn’t think in terms of a “globe” or earth as a planet that was a huge sphere.

        As to Augustus, he indeed knew that there were “barbarians” [who spoke strange bar-bar-bar-bar languages of babblings!] outside of his empire but they didn’t matter! (Indeed, he knew that Alexander the Great had fought all the way into India….and Rome didn’t extend that far.)

        So, yes, “the world” has always had varied meanings.

        Otherwise, “all of the world” including Chinese people and Fijians and Patagonians traveled to buy grain from Joseph….and to hear Peter preach on Pentecost.

        And here’s my ultimate analogy of how “world” can have much smaller meanings: Americans call their baseball championship which only became International a few years ago: THE WORLD SERIES! LOL! (Yes, for years the World Series only included American teams!)

  5. Toms

    BTW, Augustine was a native of North Africa. Is it possible that his mother tongue was a “barbarian” language? I can imagine that his education began by telling him that he was never to use that language again.
    BTW2, you are using the totum pro parte “American” exclusive of Canadians and other residents of the Americas.
    BTW3, other famous hyperbolic Biblical references to the whole world are when all the kings sent gifts to Solomon and the devil showed Jesus all the world from a mountain (assuming that mountain was not on the Moon).

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