While I was looking for suitable graphics to illustrate the mediaeval worldview for my recent series on the history of cosmology, I suddenly came upon this unfamiliar and completely off-the-wall conception, by one Cosmas Indicopleustes:
Cosmas turns out to be a sixth century monk whose idiosyncratic cosmology runs contrary to the trend of patristic Christian writing as well as radically defying the then prevalent Ptolemaic “secular” model. I thought it might be good to include him to counterbalance the case for the danger of letting theology be dictated by science, by showing the risks of defying secular knowledge altogether with excessive biblical literalism. That remains worth doing, as it’s partly true that Cosmas can be seen as a kind of sixth century Creation Science Fundamentalist.
But reading about him soon revealed that Cosmas’s significance is much less simplistic and more fascinating than that, and there are some interesting lessons to draw from him for today. I hope you find it interesting.
First, a brief biography. A Greek from Alexandria, Cosmas Indicopleustes (a pseudonym meaning “Indian Traveller”) never completed formal education and became a spice merchant, trading as far afield as Sri Lanka, the most distant point of Roman travel. In later life he became a monk and around 550 wrote Christian Topography as both a travel book and cosmology. He was vehemently opposed to the classical “geocentric spheres” pagan cosmology, and to those Christians who acquiesced with it, and as well as inveighing against its implausibility proposed a cosmic model in which the universe was the shape of Moses’ Ark of the Covenant (rather than a US mailbox, as it might appear).
The latter pages of his work are devoted to rebutting the criticism of his views by his fellow monks. He repeatedly denounces “those reprobate Christians who … prefer, through their perverse folly or downright wickedness, to adopt the miserable Pagan belief that earth and heaven are spherical, and that there are Antipodes on whom the rain must fall up.”
His model was constructed from literalistic and rather idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture, supported by dubious quote-mining from respected authors, and defended as self-evident against his critics – who seem to have included most other Christians, who couldn’t find it in their Bibles. So it rather reminds one of something like the vapour canopy once popular in Creation Science circles, or the hermeneutic acrobatics used to accommodate dinosaurs into a global Flood (or to fail to accommodate them in the ark, thus explaining their extinction).
What makes his example instructive in this respect is that his sixth century biblical literalism, every bit as faithful to inspiration as that of Fundamentalists now, ends in a completely different place from American twentieth century literalism, and so demonstrates that cultural presuppositions really do shape how we read the Bible. “The plain literal meaning” is not as obvious as it seems.
That said, it’s useful to point out that Cosmas, his Christian opponents and the Patristic sources I’ve mentioned before in the context of cosmology all agreed on the inspired truth of the biblical text. Only their hermeneutical approaches differed. The common idea that biblical infallibility is a modern invention that can be easily jettisoned doesn’t hold water historically.
But there are a number of other things to learn from Cosmas. The first is that he is less of an indictment of modern simplistic Creationism than he is of modern scientistic mythmaking, that sadly still prevalent rewriting of history to promote a materialist fundamentalism. As we saw in the Patristics post most Christian writers then took a spiritual approach to cosmology, and either ignored, or endorsed, the Ptolemaic cosmography. There were just two exceptions: the first was the third century rhetorician Lactantius, who converted late in life, and on principle rejected all Greek philosophy, ending up promoting a flat earth. The second was Cosmas, whose ideas found little contemporary support (there are only two extant manuscripts of Christian Topography) and who was probably mainly copied because of the usefulness of his geographical writing.
But that did not stop people like Andrew Dixon White, in the nineteenth century, pretending that these two writers represented the entire Christian Church and held back science for many centuries, until a brave Columbus defied the flat-earth tradition by sailing west to the Indies. This complete fabrication is still touted out regularly today, together with a raft of other thoroughly debunked fables, some of which I’ve commented upon on The Hump, for example, here, here, here, and here.
The introduction to the English translation of Cosmas’s book says:
However, his idea that the earth is flat has been a minority view among educated Western opinion since the 3rd century BC. Cosmas’s view has never been influential even in religious circles; a near-contemporary Christian, John Philoponus, disagreed with him as did many Christian philosophers of the era. David C. Lindberg asserts: “Cosmas was not particularly influential in Byzantium, but he is important for us because he has been commonly used to buttress the claim that all (or most) medieval people believed they lived on a flat earth. This claim…is totally false. Cosmas is, in fact, the only medieval European known to have defended a flat earth cosmology, whereas it is safe to assume that all educated Western Europeans (and almost one hundred percent of educated Byzantines), as well as sailors and travelers, believed in the earth’s sphericity.”
But although Cosmas is, in the scheme of Christian cosmology, an insignificant player rather than the poster-boy for universal blinkered ignorance that he has been painted, like other such victims of mythmaking (eg Bishop Wilberforce or William Paley) he actually has a lot more going for him than first appears. To begin with he presents a remarkably accurate geographical account of places he actually visited, for the time. He doesn’t indulge in tall travellers’ tales, and is considered to be a more truthful writer than others of his era. He also illustrated his manuscript richly (the 10th century manuscript in the Vatican having illustrations probably copied from his originals).
Even on his cosmography he was not ignorant of the alternative view – he included an illustration of the Ptolemaic Universe in his book. But he rejected it because of the problems he thought it raised (to many of which, in all fairness, the philosophers had no answers), and because he thought Scripture taught a different view.
What is most remarkable, though, is what one finds as one reads the case he makes for his system from Scripture. For example, from Book III:
The great Moses, after relating that on the second day God had created the firmament, and by dividing it had made one place into two, explained nothing further about the future state—-that is, the upper place—-but turned his discourse entirely upon this state—–that is, upon the lower place—-relating that God gathered together the waters, and brought forth out of the earth the green herbs and the trees, and in like manner adorned the heaven with stars, and again from the waters produced the winged fowl and aquatic animals, and in like manner again made from the earth brute animals and man. Then again, when he had been commanded to make the Tabernacle in imitation of the form of the world, he divided the one tabernacle by means of the veil, and made it into two—-an inner and an outer—-within the outer of which the priests continually discharged their sacred offices as being in this world, while into the inner the high priest alone once a year entered, as if into the upper place, that is, into heaven. On this account the inner Tabernacle was entirely inaccessible to them, being a type of the things in heaven.
In other words, the basis of his cosmological case is that the Genesis creation account is in fact a description of a cosmic temple, the very case I made at the beginning of the cosmology series, which I based on findings from biblical and ANE studies that academics like John H Walton and G K Beale have only made in the last decade or two. So Cosmas was actually 1500 years ahead of his time in noticing a major theme of biblical teaching on creation. Granted he over-interpreted the biblical teaching in his system, and in particular failed to appreciate that the Hebrew text was not overly concerned with material topography, but with God’s functional relationship to his universe.
Nevertheless, much to my surprise, this much mocked writer (when he is not simply forgotten) brings us back to where I started the series on Cosmology through the ages, and to where I finished it. Maybe the lesson is always to try to understand the positions of others fully, before we reject them out of hand.