William Lane Craig On The Babylonian World Map

Continuing the discussion from Recent BioLogos Content:

The timing of @jongarvey and @jammycakes’s exchange is very interesting.

Today, WLC emailed me to highlight precisely this topic in his October newsletter: https://pages.e2ma.net/pages/1787618/10190

He takes Denis Lamoureux and John Walton to task for their representation of the Babylonian world map. This is a worthwhile read.

All the while, I’m ploughing ahead in the study of the historical Adam. Having completed a slew of Genesis commentaries, I’m now reading about the nature of ancient mythology. It is troubling how the ancient evidence is so often misrepresented or misinterpreted. To give just one example, consider the so-called “Babylonian World Map.” In his book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! , Denis Lamoureux writes,

People in the ancient Near East believed that the earth was a circular island surrounded by a circumferential sea. . . . The ancient geographical idea of a sea encompassing a circular earth appears in a map of the entire world drawn by the Babylonians around 600 BC. . . . Ancient Near Eastern people believed that the earth literally came to an end at the shore of the circumferential sea (pp. 92-94).

The Old Testament scholar John Walton makes a similar claim in his Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology , p. 93. Lamoureux provides this reproduction of the “Babylonian World Map”:

On this basis it is argued that the biblical authors similarly believed that the earth is a flat disc which comes to an end at the surrounding ocean.

Is that true? Well, consider what this ancient clay tablet really looks like:

from W. Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography , p. 406

Now what do you suppose those triangles represent which are on the other side of the ocean? The cuneiform text on the reverse side of the tablet identifies them as eight regions (not seven, as in Lamoureux’s reproduction) and speaks of traveling to them. They are lands beyond the sea, places like Dilmun [Bahrain], Magan [Persian Gulf Coast including Oman], and Meluhha [Indus Valley], with which Babylon traded. Between and beyond these regions lies uncharted territory. The closing section of the text explains that the earth’s surface extends limitlessly to the north, south, east, and west of Babylon. So to say that the map represents the earth as a flat disc in the midst of a surrounding ocean is a gross misunderstanding.

Indeed, the idea that this diagram is a “world map” is a misnomer. The tablet carries no such inscription. Countries like Egypt, with which Babylon was familiar, don’t even appear on it. If it is a map at all, it is a highly stylized map of Mesopotamia with Babylon near the center (naturally!). Overseas countries lie either in the identified regions or in uncharted territory, which is limitless. The circular shape of the ocean shouldn’t be taken literally. Babylonian seafarers knew that you couldn’t travel by ship from the Persian Gulf (what they called the “Lower Sea”) to the Mediterranean Sea (the “Upper Sea”).

Moreover, it’s not even clear that this artifact is a map at all. Horowitz observes that it is similar to geometrical diagrams in Mesopotamian mathematical texts. According to Horowitz, the map and the text on the reverse side are similar in format to geometric problems that consist of diagrams and procedural instructions in the second person: e.g. , “Draw a line from point A. . . .” Similarly, the “map” can be considered to be a diagram, with the text on the reverse repeating the phrase “where you go.” Such an interpretation would make good sense of the artificiality of the “map”: perfectly circular with a compass hole in the middle and eight symmetrical triangles roughly the same in size, representing regions said to be evenly spaced seven leagues apart.

The further claim that the biblical text also assumes a world geography of a disc-shaped earth surrounded by water is thus unfounded and, given Israel’s familiarity with overseas nations (Genesis 10.1-31), including seafaring peoples and Mediterranean islands, wholly implausible. In fact, according to I Kings 9. 26-28; 10.22 Solomon owned a fleet of ocean-going merchant ships which sailed from the port of Ezion-Geber on the Gulf of Aqaba and plied the waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, so that they would have been familiar with overseas lands.

This is but one example of the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of ancient texts that is all too frequent in the literature. It is a sobering reminder to read secondary literature with a healthy dose of scepticism.

I am inclined to agree with WLC on this. What are your thought? @deuteroKJ @jongarvey @jack.collins

Similarly, it seems that many authors mistake a phenomenological description of the world for a cosmology. I’m not sure, however, that they had a cosmology in the first place. To draw an analogy, I am not sure my three year old son has any “cosmology” either. He probably does not know the earth is a globe, but he also does not think the earth is flat. I’m not sure he thinks in cosmological terms. He appears to understand the world in phenomenological terms, which might easily be mistaken for flat earthism in a cosmological discourse… It seems this is a similar sort of error that might be made at times.

Any how, back to the “map” at hand. WLC questions whether it is a world map, but it seems valid to still call it a map of their world. Right? Regardless, this is somewhat akin to archeologists a thousand years from now discovering a map of Saint Louis, and then concluding from this that we though the world was a flat square.


@Alice_Linsley Please weigh in here. You are the expert in these artifacts. What did they really say and there real meaning? Thanks


@jongarvey has some good thoughts on this:

I don’t want to comment on whether this represents a flat earth, or how geographically inaccurate it is. What impresses me is that it’s the whole world , as far as the Babylonian scribe was concerned. The tablet also contains matching astronomical information, which would make this a map not just of the world, but the universe. So it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that one of the titles of both the kings of Assyria like Ashurbanipal and those of Babylon like Nabonidus was the term “king of the universe”.

Our first instinct is to marvel at what a restricted circle of experience primitive man must have had. But that would be to miss something obvious. In 800BC, the supposed date of the original map, the Neo-Assyrian Empire possessed not only the marked area on the modern map, but one three times as big. This was the time when Assyria was building up to destroy Israel, and to occupy Egypt. Mesopotamia’s empires had been in contact with surrounding civilizations literally for millennia – Abraham had gone to Egypt from there a thousand years earlier, and he wasn’t the only one.

The map clearly chooses to ignore all that as “them out there” – the only world that matters is the heartland of Mesopotamia itself. One can argue that the surrounding ocean (“Bitter River”) was, like the mediaeval world ocean, a cosmological assumption based on the best information that travellers’ tales could bring back. But even if that were so, they must have known well that it didn’t begin just beyond their borders.


@cwhenderson, he also writes:

Jan and I shall be traveling this month to Houston to teach apologetics for a week at Second Baptist Church in conjunction with Houston Baptist University. Houstonians, please join us!

Any chance you will get to see him? Say “hi” if you do.

Nice to be vindicated by such an august figure as WLC!

One small point (which he spotted and I haven’t) might have great significance to the GA hypothesis, and that is the mention of trading links to the Indus Valley (Meluha).

The Indus valley appears to have been a second, independant, origin for Neolithic culture, compared to that centred on Anatolia, and this can be traced both in genetic markers and cultural spread.

It’s always been a commonplace, confirmed now in many ways, that Neolithic culture (which implies genealogy, of course) spread northwest across Europe from Anatolia to reach Britain - Stonehenge and all that.

The Indus distribution is very different, though trading links appear very early on, making the existence of the Indus Valley culture “over Persia Way” well known to any conceivable author of Gen 1-11, be that ancient Mesopotamian, Mosaic or Exilic.

Yet the Table of Nations of Gen 6 omits all mention of that culture, which to me falsifies the usual understanding that the writer thought of all the nations he couold and arbitrariliy allocated “Semitic” (in the anthropological usage) forbears to them. Rather, it appears that it represents an entirely Western “Semitic” spread of culture, in a genealogical sense, at the time in question.

Theologically, it implies shows authorial awareness, and silence on, peoples not included in the Flood event - huge implications for the thesis that Genesis is aware of a populated world.

Scientifically the Table of Nations confirms the power of genealogical spread within the area of the Table of Nations (consistent with genetic and cultural evidence), making subsequent universal spread inevitable - one intermarriage with the Indus Valley group and Adam’s line will soon include that whole culture.


I agree with Craig.

J. Richard Middleton (as far as I can tell) concurs as well: “So long as we don’t take this world picture as overly literal (it is more a phenomenological portrait of the world), this makes perfect sense as a non-scientific way of describing the human environment.”


Also, Enns and Lamoureaux’s claim that the hebrews thought there had to be a first man so they just “came up” with Adam seems to view the ancients as nincompoops as well. I see Adam more as a fully acknowledged literary representation of however humanity began and also of “every man.”

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I think this is more Tremper Longman’s view

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This is a footnote from my thesis that is very pertinent:

"137 See Dennis O. Lamoureux, “No Historical Adam: Evolutionary Creation View,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 49-54. It seems clear that there is some ancient science in Genesis 1. However, Lamoureux seems to take the ancient science too literally. As Richard Averbeck points out, scholars are beginning to depart from the view that the ancient Egyptians, for example, actually believed their drawings of the cosmos were accurate scientific descriptions. The drawings of the ancient picture of the world that are reprinted in textbooks do not “take into account the fact that, for example, the ancients knew that it did not rain unless there were clouds in the sky.” See Richard Averbeck, “Understanding the Evidence: Interpreting Genesis in Ancient Near Eastern Context,” 6.


I tend to agree with @jongarvey, though I see no reason ancient people wouldn’t have assumed a flat earth.


So why have people taken this scholarship seriously? Isn’t this just the mirror version of the concordism these same scholars complain about at RTB?

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I don’t read Lamoureux and Walton as pushing the same thing (notice that WLC mentions Walton but only addresses the details of Lamoureux). I don’t have a specific text in mind, but I generally find Walton more nuanced and careful than Lamoureux. While I get what WLC is objecting to, it may be a bit of an overreaction. But I look forward to reading more as he continues writing.

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Agreed that Denis L. And Walton are different categories. The bigger problem is that the non-concordists appear to have nurtured a concordism of their own.

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@deuteroKJ do you think “Dy’s-concordism” works?

I saw the post but didn’t have time to think about it. I’m not so good with labels. But I think you do need to specify the difference between dys-concordism" (or whatever) and “non-concordism”…unless you’re replacing the latter.

If non-concordist means opposing esiegesis, we should all oppose it. We should all be non-concordist. Dys-concordist is a type of concordism that seeks to finds conflict between science and scripture with eisegesis.

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There’s a difference between an assumption, and a question you’ve never considered.

The ground is flat, give or take the hills and valleys, and the surface of water is flat, but the question of the shape of the world only begins to be asked when one envisages the extent of the world.

A comparison would be our very vague conception of the universe: most of us have the idea that it’s finite, but mixed up with some tricksy science. Accordingly, I doubt we (lay people, I mean) think of its shape at all unless someone presses us on it… inwhich case we probably think of a huge sphere… but then we heard somone say the universe is flat, and someone else clever talk about a torus. In the end we think it better not to assume anything at all about such high matters!


Incidentally, it’s interesting to read ancient authors, like the Church Fathers, discussing the shape of the world. It’s spheroidal shape was seldom in question (but only because that was a pretty universal view by early AD), and questions like whether the southern hemisphere was inhabited or not were more discussed.

My point is that the general ambience (given that the writers were mainly theologians with a philsophical outlook rather than career scientists) was, “Some say this, some say the other, but whilst I prefer one option I’m not that bothered.” That’s the way it’s bound to be when you have no definite information, and no immediate likelihood of gaining it.

It seems that the concordism is presuming that they even cared about the cosmological questions like the shape of the earth.


What I find interesting though is that some people, or at least Dante Alighieri, started believing that Earth is round at least a century before Columbus.