How and why did the flat-earth myth get started? The legend was popularized by Washington Irving in his three-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). Irving, best known for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," used his fiction-writing skills to fabricate a supposed confrontation that Columbus had with churchmen who maintained that the Bible taught that the Earth was flat. No such encounter ever took place.
The Bible does not engage in speculative scientific descriptions about the earth’s external foundations. It simply states that God "stretches out the north over empty space, and hangs the earth on nothing" (Job 26:7). Those who accuse the Bible of teaching a flat Earth point to how the Bible speaks of having "four corners" (Isa. 11:2 and Rev. 7:1) and "four winds" (Jer. 49:36 and Matt. 24:31).
Medieval science as practiced by Christians went astray when "the Bible was . . . read through `Greek’ spectacles." Certainly the Greeks were right in many of their observations, but it was an almost religious attachment to Greek cosmology that was the West’s greatest impediment to further discovery and scientific advance.
Daniel J. Boorstin, an accomplished historian, writes that "The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."1 Early observers of earth’s landscape and the heavens that were beyond their grasp put forth theories of design that were picturesque but woefully inaccurate if taken literally.
Each and every Columbus Day, we are reminded by some misinformed historians who should know better, that the great navigator proved by his daring bravado that the Earth was more like a blue marble than a dinner plate.