Have a Slice of Pi

Drowning in the Molten Sea

By Jeff Laird

Today is Friday the 13th, a noted occurrence, but it's not nearly the most interesting date in the month. Tomorrow is "Pi day", a math nerd holiday of special significance. This year is especially interesting, since at a particular time, the digits on the clock will read very much like the number pi itself: 3.141592653 at 3-14-15 9:26:53 am. In honor of the ultimate Pi day, and math fans everywhere, here's a look at one of the sillier, albeit math-minded attacks I sometimes see thrown at Scripture.

Those who study the Bible in depth come across passages which need careful thought in order to understand. There may be historical, cultural, or linguistic issues involved, or perhaps it's just a difficult line of thinking. The point is there's nothing surprising, or appalling, about some people needing an in-depth explanation to feel comfortable with certain passages. What is appalling, if not surprising, is how often critics refuse to accept fairly easy answers to problems which aren't that hard to resolve. One such objection, often used by less sophisticated Bible critics, involves the number "pi", the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

The passage in question is 2 Chronicles 4:2-5, which describes an ornate metal sculpture. Critics claim the given dimensions do not match the known value of pi. First and foremost, this is a category error, in that a brief description is not going to be overly precise. It's not a technical blueprint. Secondly, when one actually reads the verses, and includes all of the available information, the ratio is exactly what one would expect. Third, ancient peoples, including Hebrews, were well versed in mathematics, making a huge, undiscovered geometry error unlikely. And yet, I've run into skeptics who insist this is a blatant mistake, even when every bit of that evidence is explained to them (2 Timothy 3:7).

2 Chronicles 4:2 describes this "molten sea" as "circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it." Stopping there, one might claim the Bible is describing a circle with a diameter of 10 units, and a circumference of 30, while the more accurate circumference for that diameter would be slightly more than 31, such as 31.416.

The first, most obvious response would be to look at a driver's license, or just about everything sold by weight in a grocery store. Most United States driver's licenses list height in whole feet and inches, but almost nobody is exactly that precise, particular height, to the micron. They're somewhere in that one-inch range. Yet few people complain about how scientifically backwards the license is, because it's plenty accurate for what it's meant for. The same is true with grocery store weights. Nobody would be surprised, or particularly concerned, to find a bag of potato chips labeled as 16 ounces actually contains 15.9 ounces. Or that the one right next to it contains 16.02 ounces. These numbers only imply a certain level of precision.

For those more mathematically inclined, note that it is impossible — literally impossible — to perfectly express the ratio of circumference to diameter. Pi is classified as an "irrational" number, meaning it can't be expressed as a fraction, and when it's written out in decimal form, the numbers never stop or repeat. Pi in decimal form is 3.141592653589793238462643383... and it just keeps going. So, no written description will ever "perfectly" match reality. Much like a driver's license, 2 Chronicles gives a brief description, just 115 words in the NIV, clearly not intended as an engineering schematic.

Those who respect both math and Scripture should also notice, most convincingly, there is more to the description of this object. 2 Chronicles 4:5 indicates the object was "a handbreadth in thickness." In full context, this means the 10-cubit diameter and the 30-cubit circumference are part of different circles. The 30-cubit circumference is that of the sea, meaning it's on the inside of the object. The "brim" is on the outside, per verse 2. A cubit is about 18 inches, a handbreadth is about 4 inches. If you draw a circle with a circumference of 540 inches (30 cubits x 18 inches), and a line exactly 180 inches long (10 cubits) through its center, you'll find the line extends past the circle by just a hair over 4 inches...or one handbreadth, exactly as described. That's not just close, it's about as close as you can get, given a verbal description.

A second general response is the same I alluded to when discussing animals in the book of Leviticus. Calling this an error essentially presumes that ancient Hebrews were stupid, which is hardly a reasonable assumption. In reality, ratios like pi aren't all that sophisticated, or hard to determine. Modern people get their math out of a calculator, and tend to assume every other human being in history was similarly handicapped. But geometry and detailed mathematics was well known long before the writing of the Bible. Even more absurd is that most critics who belabor this point also believe the Bible was heavily why wouldn't something so obvious have been part of the edits, if it really is an error?

I often refer to these types of passages as "red flag" verses. These are sections of Scripture, easily understood in context, quickly reconciled, yet which are clung to as "errors" by a skeptic. When you see lists with titles like "ten thousand Biblical errors," most of the list is in that category. Attacks on those verses are not the product of thought and analysis, but juvenile quibbling. Those who persist in them, especially after being shown simple reasons not to, should raise "red flags" in the minds of believers. There's no point in arguing with those who have absolutely no interest in the truth, so a red-flagged critic, in that moment, is simply not worth the time or energy it takes to debate the issue (Matthew 7:6)

People are right to ask us for reasons why we believe in the Bible, and we should try to give good answers to their objections where we can. But if someone persists in such an easily resolved issue, better to sail on, than drown in their molten sea, because they aren't interested in reason to begin with.

Happy Pi Day!

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Current-Issues

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Published 3-13-15