The Cosmos of Cosmas

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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11 Responses to The Cosmos of Cosmas

  1. Cal says:

    I appreciated your full orbed (pun intended) commentary on a figure I knew nothing about. But most importantly, it’s rare when a figure is taken in whole for both the good and the bad. Cosmas may have had a wooden literalism and rigidity in understanding the role of Scripture in the case of geographic shaping, but he also understood the historico-allegorical (keeping both the sacrament and historicity) in the cosmos being a temple.

    Today’s intellectual climate is about point scoring and piecing together too easily fit together narratives. There are only good guys and bad guys, and we’re all stupider for that. To sort through the evidence is a hard discipline, and I appreciate that you did. It’s a boost for my own work!


    PS. As a brief aside, you mentioned Noah’s Ark: I was curious how you understand this event? What sort of material have you found helpful?

    • Cal says:

      By Noah’s Ark, I mean the Flood, and not in terms of theological impact, but whether it was local/global/merely-allegorical and/or all men were present.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Cal, Interesting guy, isn’t he, Cosmas?

        I’ve probably not thought as thoroughly about Noye’s Fludde as would be useful, but a bit of my working framework follows.

        (1) There is an undoubted literary relationship between the biblical flood and the Mesopotamian “reports” (the word the academics seem to like). That includes earlier parts of Genesis compared to Eridu Genesis, Atrahasis etc. They are all variants, so judging who copied whom and why is rather subjective.
        (2) Wenham does a good job of showing that the biblical account is an authored unity, and that the source-critical tales, in the lighty of the ANE discoveries, are fantasies of Victorian methodology, more or less.
        (3) There is a traceable degree of the connection between the Mesopotamian stories and history. For example Eridu is claimed in the tales to be the first city, and many archaeologists say the same. Complex political organisation seems to have begusn in that region, and the tales say “the kingship descended from heaven.”

        Ashurbanipal in the 7th century had pre-flood docuents in his library (and found them tedious) – and most notable of all, treated “The Flood” as a key event as we might say, “Before the War” or “since the Black Death.” There is evidence of a sizeable flood around Eridu, matching the tales, around 2900BC that may have been pivotal in their history.

        All that makes me think the Flood was a real cataclysm, but not worldwide. How does that relate to the biblical account and its theology? My own feeling is that it could fit OK, as I see Adam and Eve as historical figures, albeit represented both mythologically and archetypally, in the kind of time-frame suggested by Genesis, ie chalcolithic Mesopotamia, around 3-4000BC. They were the first to be in personal relationship with Yahweh, and so the first capable of sin (whatever else might have been new in their humanity).

        If sin (and in some sense true humanity) came through them, then both would have spread through the population in a geographically limited way after the few generations before Noah. There was therefore no need for a global flood, and the Hebrew account can be read with local inundations in mind. It may be significant that Mesopotamian literature regards their land as “the world”, though they must have been aware of distant barbarians. Indeed, their own stories of man’s creation have local referents.

        The question if one wants to explore the historical setting without much evidence would be how Adam (and hence Noah) relate to Mesopotamian society. Did God reveal himself to one man amongst pagan compatriots, his line becoming “proto-Israel”, or did he reveal himself to “Mesopotamia” and paganism result from apostasy, as in Romans 1?

        Personally I prefer the former, but as Sailhamer says more generally of Scripture, we need to remember that it is the Scripture that is inspired and useful for salvation rather than the events-behind-Scripture.

        One further principle I try to remember is that any interpretation requiring divine science-lessons is less plausible. Hence God’s teaching about evolution, or about a Fall back in the Pleistocene, or a Flood in 10,000BC seem to me less plausible than some interaction with both events and thought-forms at the time of writing.

        One book I’d like to get, but c an’t even afford secondhand, is I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood. But even what’s on Google is useful.

        • Cal says:

          When you define Adam as a Proto-Israel, where do you get such an interpretation/how do you justify it?

          My initial issue would be that Paul extrapolates much more of a universality in the Adam-Christ paradigm. Or do you think such universality is linked with the promise that Israel would be a ‘light unto the Gentiles’?

          My thought is that Adam and Eve represent the first ‘Humans’, though many hominids may or may not have existed. However, Adam was also federal head of mankind, in an expressed, ontological covenant with his Maker.

          I think the Flood is local, but effecting the race of Adam, for their mingling with daughters of men (non-imago-Dei?)

          One of my issues with Adam as mere covenantal head is the problem of death. Not that ‘termination’ (which I’d hold as distinct to death) didn’t exist, amongst animals, plants etc. But Mankind wasn’t supposed to die, hence the anxiety, the dread, the despair etc. all which is the fear of death found in Hebrews.

          I know we’ve started down the rabbit hole with this one, but I appreciate the interaction.


          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


            Whilst it pays to be tentative (and certainly a number of sticky issues have gradually found resolution in my mind on that basis), I tend to follow much the same line as you.

            The work to be done, I think, is on that “human/hominid” distinction. If “first human” is not considered purely biologically, but in spiritual terms, the divide might not be between Adam as first H. sapiens v the previous H. erectus, or whatever, but between Adam the first man in relationship to God and his contemporaries in ANE society.

            One could view that in traditional terms as the endowment with a new kind of soul – or in Athanasian christological terms as the life of Christ. But it’s a historical and spiritual more than a biological and evolutionary event.

            That’s why I said I’m not comfortable with Genesis being some kind of hidden metaphor for deep time events. If Adam appeared as the first “human” (in the above sense) amongst pretty rational H sapiens, then his ethnicity bears on the story of Israel.

            The universal aspect comes, as you rightly say, partly through federal headship. His job is (analogously to the Lord Jesus, and indeed as his delegate) to bring the knowledge of God, and the knowledge/actuality of eternal life, to his race and the whole creation and transform it. In the event not only does he fail to do so, but instead he spreads sin and spiritual death. That’s the sense in which I used the term “Proto-Israel”, rather than implying that he’s just an earlier version of Abraham or Moses for one nation… though they too were aware of the universal nature of the promise.

            But an orthodox view of human solidarity and ancestral/original sin is still possible IMO – I still haven’t abandoned the thoughts I had in 2011 on MRCA.

            Whether or not the sons of God/daughters of men passage describes it, one can still imagine the whole Homo divinus package, and its accompanying problem of sin, spreading out slowly from Eden. The stage for biblical events enlarges in tandem: at first it’s only Mesopotamia, then the ANE, then only by the time of Christ is the message for all men.

            There are dangers in that (the history of pre-adamic man is a fascination one covered in one of the recommended books, Adam’s Ancestors). But as I said, to me it’s a working hypothesis that, most importantly, enables me to interpret the biblical text in its own terms, avoiding the infamous TE “upwards Fall” and so on.

            If it’s true, both biology and ANE and biblical studies are likely to cast light on it in due time.

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              Additional points regarding true humans and Adam and Eve; the event described in Genesis is momentous and even though we discuss Adam, the direct involvement of God should not be viewed as an ‘event done in a corner’ so to speak, but one that has a universal impact on earth and all inhabitants, impacting in a profound way on all thinking beings. We should also remember in that period (perhaps 3-5,000 BC) population modelling indicates the present population of humans could have arisen from a handful of human ancestors. Within such a contest, Adam can be seen as central to the continued growth in the numbers, and intellectual/spiritual outlook, of all of humanity. I think such an outlook is sensible as it may deal with ancestral issues, original/ancestral sin, and the way the message commences from Genesis (Genesis is now a prologue to the Bible).

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                GD – the problem (with the science, that is) of a recent origin for mankind-the-species is the wealth of evidence for quite cultured H sapiens existing long before that. Even within the last 24 hours I’ve seen a neolithic long barrow in England dating to 5000BC, and I have only to cross the channel to see palaeolithic art from 30,000 BC.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:


    The distinction is that of ‘true humans’ as opposed to the various proposed species – my comments are not meant to provide a biblical rational for all observations made on human (type) species (aboriginal art in Australia has been identified to ~40,000 years ago). We may account for the Genesis narrative within what is understood of the past, without a need to provide a detailed picture of all geo-bio events. Nonetheless I understand why some may wish to see Genesis in the wider geo-bio context; I am saying this is not as necessary as it may at first appear.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      One interesting development since my thinking on this in 2011 is the degree to which interbreeding between closely related hominins has been recognised. We all, apparently, contain Neanderthal DNA from what they think is a relatively small hybridization events.

      That’s not directly relevant to the matter in hand, of course, but does show how if “true humans” in the Adamic, rather than the biological, sense arose in one location, it’s not implausible for their descendants to spread through the population relatively rapidly and completely.

      Cal mentioned the “Sons of God/daughters of men” passage. It’s been interpreted either as Adam’s line “marrying out” or as some kind of demonic sexual thing. Both have a long pedigree since pre-Christian times, I believe. Though there are strengths to each, the factual implausibility of the second (and its incongruity with any other biblical reference to angel or demons) mostly makes me lean towards the first.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        I also am inclined to the view of spreading out/marrying out, although I also think the paucity of detail in Genesis is something we should take seriously. The geo-biological state of affairs is also impressive for its lack of detail, and I leave it at that. I am fascinated by the data available on races that may have been isolated for many thousand of years, such as Australian aborigines and those in the South Americas. Their development may or may not include the hybridization you mention – again I see more speculation and assumptions to fit in with Darwinian stuff, so I place these in the agnostic basket.

        On knowledge and understanding given to Adam and his descendants by God – this is the momentous event I mentioned and I speculate this would have impacted on the consciousness of all who came in contact with Adam and his descendants – this gives an added dimension on original/ancestral sin that has been discussed.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    What I think interesting in this last discussion is that the three of us have fielded these ideas from quite different national and denominational traditions, and largely separate and individual reflection, and yet find a broad agreement on the kind of thing that works. We share a strong commitment to biblical faithfulness and the value of science, and the same kind of shape emerges.

    It makes me wonder quite why the “mainstream” of theistic evolutionists, if we take BioLogos, Giberson, etc to represent that, is the insurmountable difficulties so many of them see, and we don’t, in a historic Adam (not only in the sense of his existence, but in the sense that Genesis 2-4 reflect a “historical” tradition – the scare quotes being simply because history as a genre didn’t exist when the book was written).

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