Science in Christian Perspective
"Planet Earth"? or "Land"?
William F. Tanner*
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306
From: PSCF 49 (June 1997): 111-115 Response: Siemens
Ancient Greek and Hebrew words which are commonly translated as "earth" ("Earth") or "world" in the English Bible, do not refer to the planet on which we live, but rather to "land," "country," "ground," "soil" or "dirt." The meaning of "all the Earth" is vastly different from "all the land." The concept of our home as a planet was not known until many centuries later, because it was not known that any planet was anything more than a point of light. The discovery that the Earth is essentially a sphere (e.g., "round") is not closely related to the equally important discovery that it is one of the planets. Modern English-English dictionaries do not invariably make the necessary distinctions, in some instances even citing "earth" (without an initial capital E) as the name (identification) of our planet, although other planets, such as Venus, are identified with a capital initial letter.
Many letters of the Greek alphabet can be represented, at least in an approximate way, by English (e.g., Latin) letters, such as "k" for the Greek kappa and "t" for the Greek tau. Several others become ambiguous when rendered in English. For example, both epsilon and eta are commonly shown by the English "e," though the former (as in "met" and "set") is quite different from the latter (roughly as in "day" and "say"). In this communication, epsilon is represented by "e" and eta is indicated by "Í." Likewise "omicron" (as in "dog" or "log") is shown as "o," whereas omega (as in "go" or "slow") is indicated by "."
The English words "earth" (or "Earth") and "world" are commonly used to translate various ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words, which did not actually carry the same meanings as the popular modern renditions suggest. These popular mistranslations appear to be based on presuppositions and/ or modern observations, rather than on the meanings of the ancient words themselves. That is, these translations may show what the translator believed the record should have shown, rather than its actual meaning. This may be the error of over-editing in the process of making the translation; it is an error that is very difficult to avoid.
Two main classes of examples are discussed here: (1) those words that are translated as "earth" (or "Earth"), and (2) those that are translated as "world." Regardless of the intent of the translators, the typical reader takes the English rendition, in either case, to mean "the planet on which we live." Unfortunately, this is not the meaning that should be associated with either of these words.
The three main topics in this communication are (1) words that are commonly rendered as "earth" (or "Earth"), (2) words that are commonly translated as "world," and (3) the concept of our home as a planet, in certain important ways like other planets such as Venus and Mars, rather than merely as a flat platform on which we live ("fiat earth" idea). This last idea is central to the ancient earth-centered (geo-centric) model of the universe, even though it may not be stated explicitly.
The pertinent ancient Greek word is gÍ (with an eta rather than an epsilon). This word also appears as gea; and, in poetical or metaphysical writings, as gaia. It is correctly translated as earth (not Earth), that is, as loose earth, dirt, soil, ground, land, or country. It refers to something that an observer can see, at least in good part, in the immediate neighborhood, by simply looking. In some English renditions of the Old Testament, it has been taken to mean "Earth" (that is, the planet on which we live). In some translations the ambiguous word "earth" is used (not capitalized, but perhaps with the definite article), but the reader is then free to assume that "Earth" was intended, rather than "land" or "ground," especially if the definite article was present ("the earth" rather than "the land"). The reader is therefore likely to make a global inference which is not warranted. This poor choice may be reinforced by the fact that some modern English-English dictionaries list the name of our planet with an initial lower case letter "e": planet earth (even though the names of other planets, such as Venus, are capitalized). Nevertheless the ancient Greek word did not mean "our planet," regardless of the preferences we may have for capitalization in English. The fact that both meanings are capitalized in German, is not pertinent here; all nouns have initial capital letters in German, whether dirt, ground, land, countryside, or the name of a person or a planet.
Definitions of gÍ in five selected Greek-English dictionaries (or lexicons; see References) are tabulated here:
earth (opp. to sky, air, fire, water) ....5
The last item (which at first glance might be thought to require the meaning "globe" or "planet") was illustrated by citing Luke 21:35. Examination of this reference, in either Greek or English, shows that "land" is a much better choice, and that "globe" or "planet" could be adopted only with (1) a total ignorance of, or disregard of, the meaning of the Greek word, (2) a total disregard of the Greek expression for planet, as discussed in some detail below, and (3) a blind projection of modern knowledge back into an era in which it had not yet been promulgated. The shape of our "land"ówhether flat, round, or perhaps something elseódoes not identify it with the planets; however, the casual reader is not likely to attach this caveat to the impression that one receives from the text.
The Greek word gÍ (and its variants) occurs roughly 3,000 times in the pre-Christian Greek (Alexandria, LXX) version of the Old Testament (and about 40 times in the Greek New Testament). Its meaning is generally "land," "country," "ground," or "soil." Where it is translated as "earth," the reader is left to make the decision about whether a capital letter was intended (or the decision about whether or not the translator generally made this distinction). The choice which any one person makes may reflect the personal bias which one brings to the task, but if one should choose to adopt an initial capital letter, one would do so without any support from the Hebrew or Greek words. Moreover, there was nothing in the general body of knowledge, 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, to indicate "planet," rather than "land," "country,""ground," or "dirt."
The ancient Hebrew words erets and adamah, like the Greek word, have "land," "ground," "soil," or "country" as primary meanings, but not "planet" nor "Earth." Classical Latin had a word that served essentially the same purpose: terra. Some modern Latin-English dictionaries give this word two quite different definitions ("land" and "our planet"; see References). However, it is highly unlikely that the second definition was in use in the Roman Empire; it would not have made sense to the people of that day because it was obvious to them that we do not live on a tiny speck of light. In this case, the second definition ("our planet") has been projected backward in time from modern knowledge. Contemporary Spanish uses tierra (derived from Latin) in both senses, generally without any capitalization, but modern usage does not define the meaning of a word, or its stem, 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.
The ancient Greek word era is closely related to the Latin terra, but does not appear in either the New Testament or the pre-Christian Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX). In no case should the Greek era be confused with the Late Latin word aera, meaning a time period of unspecified length, markedóin some wayóby an unusual event or a distinctive set of conditions: the modern English derivative, and equivalent, is "era."
A Greek New Testament word that is commonly translated as "world" is ain, which means "age" or "era," but not "planet." Another New Testament word is gÍ, which is discussed above, and which commonly means "land," but not "planet." A third Greek word which may be translated as "world" is kosmos which means "order" or "arrangement" and which might be well rendered at some points, in view of the context, as "social order." And a fourth such word is oikoumenÍ which identifies either "inhabited area" or "habitable area" (but not a planet with people on it).
The first ("era" or "age") and the third ("social order") are very closely related. An "era" (or "age") is necessarily characterized by some distinctive event or feature, perhaps a certain type of social order. In New Testament thought patterns, the present "age" or "era" is marked by a distinctive social order, and the "coming era" will be marked by a different kind of social order; hence "era" and "social order" are, in some sense, interchangeable.
The popularity of the translation "world" with the corollary that this is really our planet, hence "the Earth," raises a question about the English word. What does "world" really mean? Any given English-English dictionary might list one or more of the following meanings: planet earth (commonly given first and thus providing a priority for translation), whole universe, humankind, people in general, some part of history, individual experience, individual outlook, and others. This is nevertheless not a list of meanings of the ancient Greek words, and should not be extended backward into time.
What word might ancient writers have used, if they had really intended to convey the idea of a planet?
Many modern English words have been taken from ancient Greek, so that (for example) "geology" might be assigned to gÍ and logos, the combination presumably meaning, as is commonly stated in print, "the Earth" and "the body of knowledge about," hence "knowledge about our planet."
But this construct requires the use of a concept which had no currency more than a few centuries ago. To be clear at this important point, one needs to recall the ancient Greek expression for the English word "planet." Planets were observed in the night sky by ancient astronomers, who worked without optical telescopes of any kind. Without magnification, planets were only points, or dots, of light. The Greek label (two Greek words) is properly translated as "wandering star(s)," referring to the fact that the planets "wandered" (apparently aimlessly, or erroneously, compared with the other stars which were observed to move in systematic and predictable fashion). This "wandering" was caused by the factónot known at that timeóthat the planets revolve around the sun, as well as exhibiting the apparent motion caused by the rotation of the Earth on its own axis, whereas the "regular" stars have the latter motion only, as seen in an observational time frame longer than a few days, and do not have the former motion (around our sun). That is, our solar system, including all of the visible planets, is centered (roughly, but not precisely) on the sun, and revolves around it, but other stars (non-wandering, or regular, stars) do not exhibit this local motion. This is an elementary condensation of observed facts, but nevertheless it was not generally known as recently as four centuries ago. The concept of a more-or-less spherical Earth does not carry with it the concept of the Earth as a planet, and the two ideas should not be joined inseparably with each other, as if they necessarily belong together.
The Greek verb which is the basis for "wandering" or "going astray," when cast in a commonly-cited form, is plan·; this means to wander, to go astray, to lead astray, to mislead. From this verb, one can derive a noun (planÍtÍs), and then one can derive an adjective, which is similar; they describe a more-or-less aimless wanderer, vagabond, rover, or person who is straying or mistaken in his path. In ancient Greek writings, the adjective is then combined with a noun meaning "star" resulting in "straying star," "erratic star," or "wandering star." In English, we have taken the adjective only, and from it we have developed the word "planet," which we use as a noun. But in ancient Greek the pertinent noun is "star," and the concept of a planetóas something quite distinct from a staróis not present. A "planet" was only one variety of star: the dot of light that wanders aimlessly in the sky. Both were merely points of light in the night sky, distinguishable from each other because of the two different kinds of paths.
Ancient writers of Greek had available to them the expression "wandering-star" (meaning planet), if they had chosen to use it to refer to the place where we live, but they did not do so.
The idea that humankind lives on the surface of a dot of light (a planet or wandering star) was not present; instead, people were known to live on "the land." This means that there were actually three main, and possible, categories of location; (1) "regular," "systematic," or "predictable" stars (all of which were only dots in the night sky), (2) wandering or "erratic" stars (likewise dots), and (3) the large land on which we live (not a dot). The three were not to be confused with each other, although the first two were closely related (two kinds of stars). A fourth category included the sun and moon, which were thought to be "special purpose" bodies (e.g., to illuminate the day and to illuminate the night).
This basic four-fold division is the framework for the earth-centered (geo-centric) model of the universe. This model was so strongly embedded in human thought that Galileo's effort to present a different model, based on observations with the newly-invented optical telescope, brought down on him the wrath of the authorities much less than four centuries ago. It is important to note that, in this model, the "earth" (meaning land) is the immobile center of everything, and is not a mere planet (which moves, as everyone can see).
The derision that greeted Columbus only five centuries ago, because of his proposal to sail west in order to reach an eastern destination, was not only a reflection of a widely-held opinion that he would surely fall off of the edge of the fiat earth (meaning land), but also indicated the common idea that there were indeed three categories, one of which was a single-member class: the flat "land" on which we live. Even in the twentieth century we have had a hard time eradicating the ancient notion that the Earth is a more-or-less flat tract of land (something like a breakfast waffle, or a piece of toast, but much larger). The contempt commonly attached to the term "Flat Earth Society" does not change the fact that some people still adhere firmly to the basic philosophy of this inferred "organization."
The modern category of planets specifically includes the one where we now live: "Earth" (because it is a proper name, rather than "earth"). This idea does not appear in the ancient Greek; there was no recognition by the poets and sages that the "land" on which we live is the surface of one of the "wandering stars." The modern identification came into popular thought centuries later, after the invention of the optical telescope, so that planets (but not the other stars) could be observed as tiny discs, each one having a visible diameter.
It is true that the Greek geographer, mathematician, land-surveyor, and administrator, Eratosthenes (about 275-194 B.C.; in Egypt) made a very clever inference about the diameter of an Earth which he thought was spherical, by observing how the sun's rays illuminated different parts of two widely-separated water wells, on a north-south line in Egypt. He noted that the two wells were not illuminated in the same way at noon of the same day. In one well, a much larger proportion of the bottom was illuminated by a sun which appeared to stand directly overhead. If the sun's rays were assumed to be parallel with each other, because the sun is located at a relatively great distance, then the necessary inference is that the surface of the Earth is convex-outward. His logic was correct, and his numerical result was reasonably close to the modern value, considering the uncertainties in his work. (In the last few decades, many a college student, with the cooperation of an assistant at another location on a north-south line, has repeated this simple experiment, with fairly good numerical results, showing again that our planet is indeed essentially a cylinder, a globe, or some similar shape, and that we live on the outside.)
The statement about "outside" is necessary from the geometry of the experiment. It is, however, diametrically opposed to the central theme of those people who hold that we live on the inside of a hollow planet, with the sun at the center. This, and slightly-different but closely-related ideas, were advocated more-or-less independently byóamong othersóJohn Alexander Dowie, Wilbur Glenn Voliva, John Cloves Symmes, Marshall B. Gardner and Cyrus Reed Teed in the interval since about 1820. Shortly before 1900, Teed's followers established a town south of Ft. Myers, Florida, where his teachings ("Koreshanity," from Koresh, a Hebrew version of his first name) were preserved.
The result obtained by Eratosthenes had not crept into popular thought 2,000 years ago, and it does not alter the derivation of "geometry," which means to measure the land, not to measure the Earth. (In any case, Eratosthenes did not measure the Earth; he measuredóor adopted the locally-accepted value ofóthe north-south distance between two water wells, and then he developed very simple geometrical logic that led to an estimate for the circumference of the Earth).
Nor does the inference made by Eratosthenes have anything to do with whether or not our home is also a planet. The concept of the planets, as seen in the night sky without telescopic magnification, is not dependent on the shape of the land surface on which we live, and in fact is not related to the shape of that surface. The demonstration by Eratosthenes (that our "land" is really essentially a sphere) provides a single concept; the idea that it is also a planet is quite a different matter, which was not demonstrated until much later.
In each of these instances, gÍ refers primarily to what we would call "land," or "country," but does not refer to the planet. As landscape or countryside, it includes the rocks immediately below the surface. In this sense, "land" is a good basis for the word "geology," but the connection between "Earth" (the planet) and "geology" must be inferred after the latter word has been coined.
We should translate the ancient Greek word gÍ as "land," "country," "dirt," "soil," or "ground." This restriction makes a big difference in the apparent meaning of certain verses in the Old Testament. The expression "all the land" might, or might not, be very restrictive. It some cases it might be limited to the area within a few tens of kilometers of the writer. But if we render it "all the Earth," we present a markedly different concept, one which was not in the mind of the writer. There was perfectly good terminology available to identify the "planet" in contrast with the "land," if the writer had wished to do so. "Land" is local or regional, although it might extend in an extreme case to many days or weeks of journeying. "Earth" or "planet" is global; its use, in translation of ancient manuscripts, marks the insertion of a concept which was not generally known at the time of writing, and which would have been seen as irrational.
One result of this review is to note that the word "geology" is not derived from an ancient expression, meaning "the study of the Earth," but rather from words meaning "the study of the land." A parallel expression having a similar derivation, "geometry," did not mean, initially, "measurement of the Earth" (which is a formidable task, even today), but "measurement of the land."
In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, in the pre-Christian Greek version (LXX), the word gÍ appears many times. As an example, it is used to distinguish one category of location (e.g., dry land) from "seas" or "oceans." This clearly does not mean "planet." It is also used in the same chapter, as in many other places in ancient Greek writings, to distinguish "land" from "skies" or "heavens." Therefore the first chapter of Genesis recognizes three major classes of location: land, sea, and sky. In this setting, it is not appropriate to translate either the Greek word or the Hebrew wordóeach of which is limited to other meaningsóas "planet," "the earth," or "Earth."
The use of either "world" or "earth" blurs the translation by introducing a term which (in either case) is ambiguous in English. At each point, "land," "ground," "country," or "soil" would be a better choice. Refusal to use "earth" (and by implication, "Earth") or "world" has the consequence that overly-broad interpretations are not suggested, and the correct focus can be maintained: "all the land" instead of "all the planet."
Arndt, W. F., F. W. Gingrich and F.W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
Liddell, H.G., and Scott (no initials given). An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Marchant, J.R.V., and J.F. Chartes. Cassell's Latin Dictionary (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., no date given).
Newman, B.M., Jr.; in K. Aland, M. Black, C.M. Martini, B.M. Metzer and A. Wikgren. The Greek New Testament, Third ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1975).
Pershbacher, W.J. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Co., 1882).