The pope and the telescope

The pope refusing to look though Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter is an icon of humanism: science v religion (or ‘blind’ faith). The pope declined to view evidence that not everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Yet, from a Biblically based Hebraic perspective the moral of the story is turned upside down or, rather, put right-side up.

Why wouldn’t the pope look? Galileo developed the ideas of Copernicus about the solar system, with the cautious backing of cardinal Barberini. But, Galileo fell foul of Vatican politics and lost Barberini as an ally after he became pope Urban VIII. This is the pope who declined to look through the telescope and forced Galileo to recant his claims.

There is a deeper story here than the workings of a papal court. Greek philosophy dominated Western thought and rationalism. Aristotle’s idea of the sun, moon and stars fixed on crystal spheres revolving around the earth was generally accepted. The irrelevance or subordinate nature of the merely material world compared to higher thought comes from Plato and Aristotle. By the 17thC, it was embedded in Western thought – and to some extent in Jewish and Islamic thinking too. So why look through a contraption like a telescope to test an idea? Greek philosophy leaves only a subordinate role for empiricism.

Unlike the Greek philosophers, the Bible gives great weight to the material world as created by God and as humanity’s sphere of action. Viewing the material world as both to be engaged with by us and as where God reveals Himself is part of the Hebraic mind-set. Galileo’s development of the scientific method stands on this foundation.

The word ‘science’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘knowledge’. The Hebrew term for knowledge – yada – and related words are used in the Bible for practical knowledge (including the sexual act), for the ability to discriminate morally and for Divine knowledge (by man of God and by God of man). These are all part of a continuum of knowledge experienced and worked out in creation, without the hierarchy imposed by the Greek philosophers.

Copernicus, Galileo and other astronomers saw no contradiction between their theories and the Bible (Interpretation of the relevant Bible passages is for discussion another day.)

Zechariah 9:13 says “I will stir up your sons O Zion against your sons O Greece.” In these terms, the confrontation between Galileo and pope Urban was not between science and religion but between the sons of Zion and of Greece.

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