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Does the Bible Teach that Pi = 3?

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Filed under The Bible

Pi

Every year on March 14 fans of math gather to enjoy a slice of pie along with discussions about pi, or the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Since the value of pi is approximately 3.14, pi day is held on March 14 (or 3/14) each year.

One objection to the Bible that pops up all over the Internet is the claim that the Bible teaches that Pi is actually three and not 3.14. In the first Book of Kings, Solomon selects Hiram to create a large, bronze basin of water for the new temple. 1 Kings 7:23 describes how Hiram “made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference” (a cubit is about 18 inches in length).

The skeptic says this is mistaken, because if the diameter of the basin was ten cubits, then the circumference should be about 31.4 cubits, not thirty cubits. Steve Wells, the author of the Annotated Skeptics Bible, writes, "This verse implies that the value of pi is 3. (The actual value is approximately 3.14159)."

Of course, the Book of Kings is neither a mathematical textbook nor is it an architectural manual. The ancient writers would have had no qualms about referring to the circumference of Solomon’s basin as being 30 cubits in length even if it was actually 31 cubits in length. This is like how we might say a Boeing 747 jet airliner can hold 63,000 gallons of fuel even though technically it can hold 63,705 gallons of fuel.

Furthermore, we have to remember that the Bible is not trying to teach the value of pi; it’s just recording how a real object was created. Calculating the circumference of a circle in a math problem is easy, because the circle is composed of a line that technically has no width. In contrast, Solomon’s basin would have had thick sides in order to maintain its structural integrity. 1 Kings 7:26 says, “Its thickness was a handbreadth; and its brim was made like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily; it held two thousand baths.”

This means that the basin had a rim that was greater in circumference than the circumference of the basin’s main body (due to its ornate lilylike shape). According to 1 Kings 7:23, the basin was 10 cubits from “rim to rim,” which probably included the thick edge fashioned like a lily that was a “handbreadth” in width. This means that the diameter of the basin may have been closer to 9.6 cubits in order to allow for a rim that is about 3 inches wide (or a "handbreadth" in width). If it were, then the circumference of the basin below the ornate lily rim would have been 30 cubits in length, just like the Bible describes it.

Skeptics will always find what they consider to be errors in the Bible if they assume the Bible is some kind of divine encyclopedia written by God himself. But the books of the Bible have both a human and a divine author, which frees them from error but also imposes limits on what is taught (just as Christ was fully God but was still limited in his human nature). One such limitation includes rounding for simplicity.

In conclusion, a closer look at the passage shows that the skeptic's argument that the Bible teaches that pi equals three just doesn't add up.
 
 
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with permission.
(Image credit: The Meta Picture)

Trent Horn

Written by

Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • 42Oolon

    Agreed. This is a weak argument in criticizing the Bible.

    I would like to know more about how if "the books of the Bible have both a human and a divine author", we distinguish between human error and divine perfection in the writing we find in the Bible.

    • Linda

      Yes, I'd like an elaboration of this as well.

    • This task was never meant for each individual to accomplish on his own. That's why, thankfully, God left an infallible Church to guide us in understanding the Scriptures.

      Also, the confusion you suggested seems more prominent when expressed generally. But it fades away when we discuss individual passages. Was there a specific passage you're having difficulty understanding?

      • 42Oolon

        Let's hear more about the infallibility of the church. Including what the church is.

        • I'm not sure what you're asking. Are you wondering what infallibility is? Or are you asking what the Church is? Both?

          • 42Oolon

            Both. I understand infallible to be never wrong. Certainly this cannot be said of the Catholic church. (I understand that infallibility is rarely used.) I am also interested in what exactly is meant by the church, is it the Catholic organization, how does it see the eastern churches, protestant churches.

        • paulalovescats

          All 87, 362 versions of the bible in different peoples' heads are apparently correct. hee

    • Sean Alderman

      Its important to keep in mind two things... 1) that the divine revelation is inspired in a manner which can be understood by the author and the people of the time. 2) that scripture is meant to convey a theological truth, not necessarily a scientific, mathematical, or historical truth.

      As Father Spitzer, S.J. puts it, "divine revelation is not divine dictation."

      http://magisgodwiki.org/index.php?title=The_Bible_and_Science goes deeper.

      • 1) that the divine revelation is inspired in a manner which can be understood by the author and the people of the time.

        And yet Christians claim to find in the "Old Testament" endless references to Jesus and Mary that no Jew in Old Testament times could possibly have understood.

    • SperoAmicus

      First it's important to distinguish between infallibility and inerrancy, something which a lot of people are understandably confused by. Infallibility refers to doctrine, while inerrancy refers to everything else. For instance, the Catholic Church considers itself sometimes to be infallible, but not inerrant.

      While the entirety of the Bible is considered infallible, the inerrancy is filtered through the author's contemporary standards, writing style and intentions, all of which would have been more or less made obvious at the time. If the human author intends to get the details right, as with Luke, then the details should be correct. Mark, for instance, is written to be short and to the point, something that's easy to read and recopy. So in Mark, innerrancy bends to those needs.

      In addition, inerrancy only applies to the Bible as it was originally written. Infallibility, with the Catholic Church, carries forward to St. Jerome's Vulgate translation in Latin, something which was decreed in an effort to resolve the issue of typos and translation errors. By all accounts St. Jerome did his due diligence with the Vulgate and had access to manuscripts which have long been lost. And Latin is a simpler and more straightforward language than Greek, which gives the Church a better platform for translating both the Bible and the appropriate commentaries into languages which don't have the support of strong scholarship.

      When you take all of this into account, and add to it the challenge of understanding the context of the time period, the modern Bible is rife with issues like the one in this article which appear to conflict with a layperson's understanding of infallibility and innerancy, but obviously do not on further examination.

  • Linda

    I'm glad this came up. When people ask for proof of God, I often think if how marvelously interesting the world is. Pi is a perfect example. It's noticeable that the circumference of a circle is about three times its diameter, a pattern that doesn't really require any mathematical prowess. But it's not quite three. It's just enough off to be intriguing, to have more dedicated minds pursue it. And then it's infinitely fascinating, never repeating, but extending out as far as anyone can tell. It seems God has given us an entire universe like this: observable, predictable, reliable in so many ways, but then *not*, and *not* in endless, compelling, challenging ways. I love it! :)

    • 42Oolon

      I agree that it is marvelously interesting, but you'll agree that this issue is neutral in terms of evidence of a God. After all if Pi were perfectly 3 and there were no irrational numbers etc, this would be evidence of intelligent design. If there were no predictability in nature it would show that the workings of the universe were beyond us and must make sense to God. We have a mix which is also confirming god for you.

      • Linda

        I'm going to disagree, actually. I don't think it's neutral. If pi were just three, it would show simplistic, almost childlike design. It's too easy. It's *almost* that simple though, so we can see it. We notice it. But then as we investigate, we see that it's more than that, but consistently more than that. It has depth and intrigue. *That* demonstrates intelligence. On the other hand, if the world were truly random, it would be entirely unfathomable and frustrating. we would be on guard constantly and unable to investigate even one little bit of it. But the world, the universe, our bodies, rocks, grass -- everything, it seems -- contain complementary simplicity and complexity.

        In a mystery novel or movie, we are bored when the answer is obvious, when the solution is apparent. We don't like it. But pi, like prime numbers or the Fibonacci sequence, are intriguing. They capture are imaginations, call to us, almost beg for investigation. I believe only a brilliant, loving Creator could come up with something this fantastic.

        • 3 is just 3. Too simplistic. ;)

          Why can't God make all numbers transcendental numbers?

        • 42Oolon

          We are not talking about random vs simple, we are talking complex vs simple. I take it that you are saying both the complexity or the simplicity we see is evidence of God? Where something is evidence for God, regardless of what it is, I think we are dealing only with a presupposition. I am interested in what made you believe in the God in the first place, rather than how you see the world once you have accepted his existence.

  • The Bible is not a science book or a history book. It’s the story of a relationship; a relationship between God and man.

    • josh

      It reads as an abusive relationship. Get out of there man!

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Only to those inclined to see abuse in everything.

  • It is interesting to me that when one of these problems involving the alleged inerrancy of the Bible is tackled, there are usually multiple (incompatible) explanations to explain away the problem. In this one, (1) since the Bible is not intended to teach science, approximate numbers are not a problem, and (2) since the basin had a rim, it really could have had a 30-cubit circumference.

    Certainly, though, if God had inspired the biblical authors, all of these difficulties could have been avoided with minor word changes (e.g., "approximately 30 cubits").

    The Catholic version of "inerrancy" is explained in Dei Verbum, as follows:

    Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

    Of course, the value of pi can hardly be something God wanted to put into scripture for the sake of salvation. However, this leaves the exegete the task of determining virtually everything in the Bible is not truth, what is truth, and what must be truth for the sake of salvation. What is patently untrue must obviously not be for the sake of salvation. What was taken to be true in the past and is now seen to be patently untrue (e.g., the story of Adam and Eve) must somehow be separated into what is not true and what needs to be reinterpreted as true to retain the doctrine that has been based on it that is considered necessary to salvation. Thus we have the Catechism saying the story of Adam and Eve is in "figurative language" (not literally true) but that nevertheless it tells us something that is true but is communicated in figurative language.

    • David, thanks for the great comment. A few thoughts in reply:

      "It is interesting to me that when one of these problems involving the alleged inerrancy of the Bible is tackled, there are usually multiple (incompatible) explanations to explain away the problem."

      I'm afraid I don't understand the problem. Why would you assume that each possible interpretation must be compatible with all the others? In this case and others, the exegete is not claiming that all interpretations are mutually congruent but that there are *many* possible explanations that, each on its own, solve the apparent contradiction.

      "Certainly, though, if God had inspired the biblical authors, all of these difficulties could have been avoided with minor word changes (e.g., "approximately 30 cubits").

      Perhaps. But so what? If God is able to effectively communicate his message, even using human writers who aren't optimally clear, then I don't see a problem.

      "However, this leaves the exegete the task of determining virtually everything in the Bible is not truth, what is truth, and what must be truth for the sake of salvation.

      Not the individual exegete, but the Church. This is one of the strongest arguments for the Catholic magisterium vis a vis Protestantism.

      "What was taken to be true in the past and is now seen to be patently untrue (e.g., the story of Adam and Eve) must somehow be separated into what is not true and what needs to be reinterpreted as true to retain the doctrine that has been based on it that is considered necessary to salvation."

      I'm confused by your reference to Adam and Eve. The Catholic Church still teaches that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is true. If I'm wrong, please show me where it teaches differently.

      "Thus we have the Catechism saying the story of Adam and Eve is in "figurative language" (not literally true) but that nevertheless it tells us something that is true but is communicated in figurative language."

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems you're implying that something expressed in figurative language cannot be true. The Catholic Church would not share this belief. An analogy shows why: If I described the fall of the Berlin Wall through evocative poetry, using figurative language, the literary form would not necessarily mean that the Berlin Wall never fell. It would just mean I'm using a different form of language to describe a real event--the fall would still be true.

      • In this case and others, the exegete is not claiming that all
        interpretations are mutually congruent but that there are *many*
        possible explanations that, each on its own, solve the apparent
        contradiction.

        And it seems to me, the more possible interpretations there are of a text, the ambiguous the text is (basically by definition) to the point where it can be meaningless. What good is a text with five or six plausible interpretations that contradict one another?

        As I am sure I have said in previous messages, I once read in a Protestant study Bible several possible explanations of the text, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." That is a very important text for Catholics, of course, since it is used as a "proof text" for the papacy, and the Protestant study Bible wanted to make it go away. One of the many possible interpretations was the following. Jesus said, "You [Jesus points to Peter] are Peter and upon [Jesus points to himself] this rock I will build my church." Consequently, Jesus, not Peter, is the rock on which the church will be built. If you allow yourself that much liberty in interpreting a text, you can make it mean anything you want.

        I remember the story of someone arrested for lighting a cigarette in a gas station using the defense that the sign said NO SMOKING PERMITTED. That, he said, did not prohibit all smoking, but rather permitted people not to smoke. There is a sign I have seen on a number of places in New York that sell food that reads ALL BAKING DONE ON THE PREMISES. I think it certainly means, "All the baked goods we sell here are baked here." But every text requires interpretation, and a truly ambiguous text with five or six plausible meanings can be almost worthless.

        • ziad

          I was going to reply and say "precisely! "And leave it at that lol
          You are arguing for Catholicism (whether you mean to or not) this is why we have a church with the authority to allowe or disallow certain interpretations. Most if not all of the 5 to 6 Protestant interpretations you read would be considered false. The church can call foul play when she sees one (such as the example you gave). We know that that is the wrong interpretation because the church tells us.

          Edit:some typos

      • Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems you're implying that something expressed in figurative language cannot be true.

        Something expressed in figurative language cannot be literally true. Would you say that the Catholic Church teaches that God formed Adam from clay and breathed life into him, formed Eve from Adam's rib, that a serpent tempted Eve to eat fruit from a certain tree, that she got Adam to eat it, and that God expelled them from the garden so they could not eat from the Tree of Life and posted angels to guard the entrance to the garden? Do you believe snakes crawl instead of walk because God punishes all snakes for what happened in the garden?

        • "Something expressed in figurative language cannot be literally true. Would you say that the Catholic Church teaches that God formed Adam from clay and breathed life into him, formed Eve from Adam's rib, that a serpent tempted Eve to eat fruit from a certain tree, that she got Adam to eat it, and that God expelled them from the garden so they could not eat from the Tree of Life and posted angels to guard the entrance to the garden? Do you believe snakes crawl instead of walk because God punishes all snakes for what happened in the garden?"

          Ah, I think I see where our difference lies. When I said that a statement can still be true, even when expressed using figurative language, I didn't mean that *the figurative symbols* would contain literal truth. I meant the message which the figurative language pointed toward would still have truth.

          In the case of the Genesis narratives, its clear that Genesis 1-2 is primarily interested in communicating a few key facts:

          1) God created the universe out of nothing

          2) God created mean in his own image

          3) The Original Man sinned, thus creating a rift between God and all men

          Those three facts are what all the rich, figurative language points. And while I believe all three facts are true, I don't believe the figurative symbols have historical basis. Does that make more sense?

          When you ask, "[Does] the Catholic Church teach that God formed Adam from clay and breathed life into him, formed Eve from Adam's rib, etc....." the answer is an unequivocal "Yes" so long as you understand in doing so she is teaching using figurative language, just as a poet or lyricist teaches through symbols and metaphors.

      • Not the individual exegete, but the Church. This is one of the strongest
        arguments for the Catholic magisterium vis a vis Protestantism.

        Well, if we were to take that at face value, Catholics wouldn't (or perhaps shouldn't) read the Bible. The Church should just read the Bible and tell the faithful what it meant. And of course I think Catholics still lag way behind most Protestants in reading and studying the Bible, although in theory they are now urged to. I went to Catholic school in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I was never required to own a Bible. Of course, until the publication of the Jerusalem Bible in 1966, Catholic Bibles were scarcely worth owning. I am always fascinated by the fact that so many Catholics now swear by the RSV, which we were forbidden to look at prior to Vatican II. My father, who was not a Catholic, had a copy of the RSV, and I was a trifle fearful of having a Protestant Bible in the house!

        In actual practice, it seems it is overwhelmingly exegetes and other biblical scholars who tell us what the Bible means (or at least says). Off the top of my head, I can't think of a particular Bible passage that the Church has declared means one thing and exegetes or scholars interpret differently. It seems to me the Church insists on various large scale themes rather than insisting on the meanings of individual passages. I do not ever recall reading anything about the Bible that said (more or less) this passage is vague or obscure and interpreted many different ways, but the Catholic Church has clarified the meaning, which is as follows, " . . . ."

        • "Well, if we were to take that at face value, Catholics wouldn't (or perhaps shouldn't) read the Bible."

          This is not true, and doesn't follow from my statement above. Unfortauntely, this is too thick a subject to get into here. If you're sincerely interested in understanding how Catholics understand Scripture, I'd be happy to dialogue more through email. I'd also suggest reading "Dei Verbum", the Vatican II document which outlines the Church's relationship to the Bible.

    • ziad

      David,

      Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) differs from other Christian denominations on authority. Catholics argue that Jesus did not put a book for salvation, but rather established a church. The church was the one that put the Bible together (chose books of the new testament and decided which old testament canon to use). The church also has the authority to interpret the bible. It is SHE who tell us what is to be true and important for salvation and what is not.

      • ziad,

        I have made much the same argument to people who attempt to use the Bible against the Church. But once the Church declares that the Bible is inerrant (in the somewhat limited way the Church does), the Church is constrained by the authority they have declared it to have.

        • ziad

          I think I agree to your statement ;)
          We still believe that the Bible is inerrant (as most Christians do). But we differ in that only the Church has the authority to interpret it correctly. So I do not think you and I are disagreeing here, are we?

          • I think we are in basic agreement, but I do see a problem in that the Church has interpreted the Bible differently at different times. At the time of Galileo, the Church interpreted the Bible to teach that the sun (and everything else) revolved around a stationary earth. Now the Church has abandoned that position. At one time, the Church insisted on the reality of Adam and Eve. Now it is not quite clear minimum truth the Church finds in Genesis. Certainly the Church does not exist the story of Adam and Eve is historically accurate. At one time, the Church insisted that the human race descended from two and only two parents (the Catechism still seems to claim this), but it is not at all clear that the Church officially insists that "monogenism" is true. I would argue the Church does not, but others would see it differently.

          • ziad

            I will try to address each issue you mentioned with my limited knowledge so bare with me :)

            As for Galileo, the issue was not a matter of doctrine (which what some portray it to be) but rather a scientific one. Galileo was not the first person to come up with the theory that the Sun was the center and Earth was rotating around it, but he was the first to say that his math and observation "proves" so. Most scientists at the time (mainly were associated with the Vatican) looked at his findings and found it not comprehensive and proves nothing, and as such told Galileo not to publish his writings stating that he has proof when there was none.

            Now the issue of Adam and Eve. I think you are mixing that with the creation story. The Church doctrine STILL holds that the human race descends from one man and one woman, who we call Adam and Eve. The church still holds that these first humans committed the "Original Sin" and the downfall of humanity. The Church never held (and as I understand, still does not hold) that the story of creation (where God creates everything in 7 days) ought to be taken literally. The story has more profound faith proclamations than scientific ones. For example, God separates the light from darkness before creating the sun, the moon and the stars. One way suggested to understand this is that God is the source of Light (and Life) rather than the sun and the moon (which people used to worship).

          • DannyGetchell

            Setting aside for a moment the 1616 determination by the Holy Office that Galileo's assertion is formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture......

            I'll assume you are correct that the dispute between Galileo and the Church was an issue of scientific proof, not theology.

            That changes the controversy but does not make it go away.

            The "Galileo question" as rephrased becomes this:

            Is it an appropriate role for the Church to evaluate scientific theories as published, and to enforce legal punishments upon the advocates of those theories the Church deems unproven??

          • ziad

            I agree that the church should not at any time be involved in such matters. The issue is at the time the church was governing the land. I do support the separation between church and state, but that does not change the fact that the church was acting as the governing body at the time. Governments can and do sensor what can and cannot be published (although they might not be democratic governments).

          • ziad

            adding to "Creation story"..
            The Church still holds that everything was created by God, and that humans were created differently than other creatures (in the image of God). Those are the only two doctrinal proclamations that I can remember that the Church professes about the creation story (I am not including the story of the fall as part of the creation story)

          • "At one time, the Church insisted on the reality of Adam and Eve. Now it is not quite clear minimum truth the Church finds in Genesis."

            David, I've answered this above. The Church has always taught, and still teaches, the historical existence of Adam and Eve (understood as the first ensouled human beings.) There has been no change in teaching.

            "At one time, the Church insisted that the human race descended from two and only two parents (the Catechism still seems to claim this), but it is not at all clear that the Church officially insists that "monogenism" is true."

            Mike Flynn has an excellent article explaining how belief in Adam and Eve is completely compatible with biological polygenism: Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice.

  • stanz2reason

    I ate some pie too... ;)

  • severalspeciesof

    I have always known this argument to be against the notion of the bible as literally inerrant and infallible, nothing more, nothing less...

    Glen

  • DannyGetchell

    An equally if not more interesting question is, could God create a circle for which "pi" does equal 3??

  • paulalovescats

    No, just human authors. I've never seen anything to prove otherwise. I stopped listening to the voices in my head.