Does the Bible teach that Pi equals three?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I was listening to an audiobook called “Letters from an Astrophysicist” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He claims that the Bible is in error because 1 Kings 7:23 implies that pi must equal 3 even though pi = 3.14159. What are your thoughts? How would you respond to this claim?

Answer: I’m pretty sure I found the section of Tyson’s book you were referring to. Since I respect Dr. Tyson, I don’t want to “straw man” him. So I need to establish the context for the question you asked. To that end, I’ve included what I think are the relevant sections of his book for accuracy’s sake — and here we go.

In his book, Letters from an Astrophysicist (deGrasse Tyson, Neil. Letters from an Astrophysicist, W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.), Neil deGrasse Tyson shows that he is a caring, literate and engaging person... and frankly, I’m a fan. This book is a collection of his correspondence, so it is topically eclectic... and I enjoyed dropping in on his conversations.

Tyson — whom television proves is a first-rate communicator — does not have the bitter edge of a Richard Dawkins. This is why I consider him to be an earnest seeker in the net. My prayer is that he will reap the blessings of Romans 1:18-20 — and not its curse. God plays the long game. Many scientists have come over to ID (Intelligent Design) towards the end of their careers, and Tyson is in his 60s.

I qualified his “seeker status” with the term “in the net” because he is philosophically biased against metaphysics. My prayer here is that someday he will see how the Christian worldview gives untold explanatory power — all without sacrificing science! In the meantime, he wants us to use physics and not metaphysics to solve Earth’s problems... but I’m sure we need both.

Unfortunately, his one-legged approach is methodological materialism; this has an intrinsic anti-biblical bias. As such, he should not be the one judging Bible verses for inerrancy because he has already decided that its contents cannot defeat his naturalistic ideology.

.... I see two kinds of hope. One of them is religious where one prays or performs some kind of cultural ritual for things to get better. But there is another kind of hope—it’s the challenge of learning about the real world and using our intelligence to change things for the better .... So let’s find a way together to deflect the asteroids, find the cure to the next lethal virus, mitigate hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, etc. This can only be enabled by the efforts of a scientifically and technologically literate public. Therein lies a hope on Earth far greater than ever promised by the act of prayer or introspection.... (Emphasis mine, EDP)

(deGrasse Tyson, Neil. Letters from an Astrophysicist [p. 10]. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. From the letter entitled Coma.)

As to your question, following are excerpts from one of his letters entitled, Feed Christians to the Lions? His statements about Pi in the Bible are toward the end. (The underlined emphases are mine.) What amazes me most is how much traction this non-issue received as a challenge to the Bible.

Feed Christians to the Lions? [Letters from an Astrophysicist, pp. 87-89 selected]

[Tyson’s explanation of what drove this correspondence:]

In December 2005, Robert, a devout Christian, took issue with Darwinian evolution in particular, and the findings of science in general, wherever and whenever they conflict with scripture. He was sure that scientists see religious people as their enemy and that if scientists were in charge, we might feed them all to the lions. I think he was half-serious. My reply was a long and sustained response to each point that he made, in turn.

[Tyson’s response:]

Dear Robert, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution ...

In a nation (America) where Pew polls show that 50% of people believe that there was an Adam and an Eve as the original God-created humans, and that 90% of people believe in a personal God who listens to prayers, you have no foundation to suggest that popular culture will stigmatize you. You are correct to presume that I celebrate tolerance and diversity, especially of cultures, languages, traditions, etc. But you want this outlook extended to the subset of Christians who take the word of the Bible as literal truth? At any level where claims can be tested—no matter who is making the claim—the issue is no longer about tolerance, it’s about objective truths. For example, nowhere in the Bible is Earth described as a three-dimensional object. All references to it are flat. And until the 15th century, so too were all maps of the world, informed by scriptures. We can celebrate the cultural history of this notion, but it’s objectively false. Same holds for the value of Pi. In the Bible, a passage (I Kings VII) can only be true if Pi exactly equals 3.0. But we know better than this (so too did the earlier Babylonians, who calculated that Pi was a number between 3 and 4). But just because the Bible says Pi = 3, does not mean Pi = 3. The statement is objectively wrong, and is therefore not a matter of opinion. The fact that the people who wrote the Bible made Pi = 3 and Earth a flat disc is of some historical interest and worthy of study in history class, philosophy class, or religion class. But it has no place in the field of science, whose goal is to find truths of the universe that sit independently of opinion. [emphases mine, EDP]

Tyson is wrong about biblical Pi on several levels... at least one is epistemological, but most are hermeneutical. First things first, though: I’ve pasted in the offending verse below this paragraph. Our first task is to look it over and find the reference to Pi that has everyone so upset.

“Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.” (1 Kings 7:23, ESV)

I can’t find it either — and this is a big deal for both sides. You see, I believe the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God. If it is as I describe it, then the eternal jeopardies described in it are quite likely real... and non-believers had better repent or else! As such, we had better double-check the data.

Have you looked again? Good... because it’s time to clarify the question. If we are assessing the verse for biblical inerrancy, the question should not be, “Given what we know today about Pi, can really smart people test the stated values of diameter and circumference in a Bible passage to see if how precise they are?” ...  because the answer to that would be yes.

But we’re talking about biblical inerrancy; this has nothing to do with the mathematical concept of Pi. It does, however, have everything to do with what the Bible’s words say. So, what do the Bible’s words say about Pi? They say nothing! The Bible doesn’t even mention it... ever! So, what does it say?

The Bible reports that a craftsman made a big brass sea (bowl) for Solomon’s temple about 3000 years ago. At that time, people were measuring things using body parts!... you know... those things that vary with the individual! A cubit was the length of one’s finger-tip to the elbow, and a span was the breadth of a person’s hand.

But here’s the thing, when we use the diameter and circumference measurements given in this verse — and we calculate Pi — we get 96% precision compared with its four-decimal-place value of 3.1415... and I just don’t see the challenge here. How is that a problem for biblical inerrancy? It’s not... and this shows that the Bible’s critics do not understand the criteria for measuring biblical inerrancy.

These criteria are discussed thoroughly in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). This is a long document, but there are many issues you need to understand before weigh-in on biblical inerrancy. I’ll touch on just a few in my answer. Click here to review this document.

Following are four of the many problems with Tyson’s indictment of Scripture:

First, technical precision is not required in ancient documents because it’s not expected of ancient documents. Perhaps the bowl’s circumference was 9.55 cubits... which with a 30 cubit circumference would equal Pi to three decimal places. But here’s the thing: the Bible doesn’t describe measurements in those precise terms. Instead, it would just say 10. Why? Because the point is the bowl... not Pi.

So note this well: mathematical precision is never the point in Scripture. Any reader who was even a little conversant in hermeneutics — and these are the people who should be weighing-in on biblical inerrancy — understand that imprecision does not foil any reasonable definition of inerrancy.

Second, the Pi we are working with today is a mathematical circle whose line has no thickness and which has no extension in space. But this bowl is extended in space... and it had sufficient thickness to calculate Pi correctly simply by using the inner lip rather than the outer lip on one measurement. To see how this works, click here

Third, biblical inerrancy claims that the Bible is inerrant only in what it teaches and affirms. Here it affirmed the existence of a big brass bowl. This bowl was 10 cubits across and 30 cubits around… approximately. This is a reasonable description of a real item in the temple. The verse did not purport to tell us anything about Pi... or that the bowl's measurements would be accurate to the micron.

What’s all the fuss then? I’m not making it! It’s the modern-day God-haters who are picking a fight in a field they don’t understand. Pi is simply not on the table in 1 Kings 7:23... and the verse has no responsibility to it.

Fourth, the Bible uses round figures continually. If anything, it has a disdain for precise figures! (Numbers 1:16-4:48; 1 Chronicles 5:21; 2 Chronicles 13:17, Job 1:3; Ezekiel 47:4; Matthew 14:21; Acts 4:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Revelation 9:16 ). In its stories, when the Bible uses measurements and quantities, it is communicating scope. Precision has no place here. As such, when you’re telling a story — and this is what’s happening in 1 Kings 7:23 — precision would be counterproductive. I'd go as far as saying that precision is the enemy of scope!

In a tweet on March 14, 2015, Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The Bible’s best estimate for pi: 3.0 (1 Kings 7:23)”. He understood the value he calculated for Pi was an “estimate” five years ago. Did he change his mind? … or is he playing on both sides of the field? Is he giving the Bible enough credence to complain about it, but not enough to explain itself through a reasonable reading of ancient documents and engaging with its synergy?

Tyson should give our ancient documents the same consideration he insists upon for astrophysics. In his letter entitled, Accuracy, Tyson told how futile it was to insist on our common notions of precision when talking about astrophysical distances and quanta:

In astrophysics, however, these differences are small, knowing that the measured properties of things can range by factors of hundreds, thousands, or even billions. When communicating with each other in astrophysics, we invoke high precision only if some other physical quantity depends upon it. Otherwise, the precision is not only distracting, but in most cases, observationally or theoretically unjustified. [emphasis mine, EDP]

[Tyson concludes]

... when science is the subject, you should find questions that test understanding rather than numerical precision. You would be doing a service to the next generation of students as well as to the intellectual capital of this Nation.

(deGrasse Tyson, Neil. A letter entitled “Accuracy” in the book, Letters from an Astrophysicist (p. 203). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.)

I say to Tyson, do that same service to the next generation of textual scientists... those who are responsible to the standard rules of hermeneutics. Don’t hold them responsible for precision in texts that are purposefully and demonstrably imprecise.

What amazes me is how many people are willing to jump into hell rather than accept this plain factual statement in the Bible — one that met the communicative expectations of the Jews in Solomon’s time… and one that, therefore, falls within the parameters of biblical inerrancy... and one we’d expect from a people who were measuring things with their hands and elbows.

I have no problem when a Ph.D. astrophysicist comments on mathematics. I have a big problem, however — unless he is also holding a doctorate in philosophy or theology — when he weighs in on biblical inerrancy under the (implied) aegis of that doctorate. Tyson made some very basic epistemological and hermeneutical errors in taking on the Bible like this… and he might be sending people to hell despite his kind intentions and his approachable manner.

I pray this helped you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200622 Would you like some Pi?).

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