Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Theological Significance of Geocentrism

Tomorrow's live internet class continues with the topic of astronomy. Last week, we discussed how Chazal came to accept the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model of the universe, and how the Rishonim viewed that acceptance. Tomorrow, we will be discussing how the Rishonim utilized the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model, in which the earth is at the center of the concentric spheres of the universe, as part of their theological worldview. Next week, we will move on the topic of the Copernican revolution. To register for the class, click here.


  1. Just don't make the common mistake that geocentrism was a form of human hubris, earth and man at the center of the universe.

    To the contrary, for the vast majority of medieval thinkers (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike), the "lower" world was exactly that, while majesty and holiness were a function of the heavens above and around the earth. There were some exceptions of course.

    Many modern thinkers (most prominently Freud) misrepresented the medieval mentality on this issue.

  2. It's actually a dispute between Saadiah Gaon and Rambam.

  3. An alternative cosmology that doesn’t require dark energy may have the effect of putting the Milky Way near the center of the universe. That’s not the only interpretation, but it is being considered.
    Space.com ( http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/090817-dark-energy-alternative.html ) reported on work by mathematicians at UC Davis who solved Einstein’s field equations without dark energy. If the big bang produced ripples in space-time, it could give the illusion that the universal expansion is accelerating without actual acceleration. “One potential issue with this idea is that it might require a big coincidence,” Space.com said: “For the universe to appear to be accelerating at the same rate in all directions, we in the Milky Way would have to be near a local center, at the spot where an expansion wave was initiated early in the Big Bang when the universe was filled with radiation.” Blake Temple of UC Davis acknowledged that it may look coincidental, but may reflect local conditions from our vantage point.
    Still, National Geographic News ( http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/08/090818-dark-energy-einstein.html ) seemed alarmed by the suggestion. This violation of the Copernican Principle (the idea that all observers in the universe get the same large-scale view) would be a “hard pill to swallow.” It will take more work before the evidence in favor of dark energy is overthrown. Space.com, on the other hand, called dark energy a “hasty fix to an inconvenient truth” in the 1990s – the discovery that distant supernovae were dimmer than expected and must be accelerating from us. Temple argued that dark energy looked like a fudge factor. That’s why the UC Davis team tried to find an alternative cosmology without it.

    If it turns out our galaxy is near some kind of privileged location, that would be interesting, but does our theology require it? No; our significance to God is not a function of our coordinates. There are already so many “cosmic coincidences” that make our universe, galaxy, star and planet unique, we don’t need another one that puts man at point zero in sector zero in quadrant zero in the big scheme of things (if there even is a way to measure a center, considering the intertwined relationships of light and time).
    The center might not be a good place to be, anyway. We obviously don’t want to be at the center of the Milky Way (too crowded), or at the center of the sun (too hot), or at the center of the earth (too dark). A comfortable place in the suburbs works out just fine so long as we can live, move, and have our being. (Thanks, D.C.)

  4. R. Norman Lamm discusses the Rishonim in Challenge(pgs 375-376), linked below.


    I first saw the discussion of it in one of my father's old, dusty, Tradition magazines from Winter 1965(see link to archives)


  5. My father used to say how interesting it would be if we found out that after all the rotations of the galaxies and the rotation of the universe itself, that in the end, the temple mount was at point 0,0,0 of the universe.

  6. I guess it would be equally interesting if we found out that 770 Eastern Parkway is at point 0,0,0 of the universe.
    Or the Vatican.
    Or Times Square.

  7. Hi. Saadia Gaon was a prominent exception, a minority opinion not just within Judaism but even within the entire medieval world.

    Highly recommend the relevant chapter devoted to this topic in an outstanding new book, "The Legend of the Middle Ages" by Remi Brague.


  8. Please see the many works of Wolfgang Smith on this topic.


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