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The Great Trial of Science vs Religion

Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (19th century)

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson May 23 – May 29, Joshua 1-8; 23-24

By 1610, the observations of planetary movements compared to the concept of a geocentric universe had become so complicated that astrolabes such as the one in the entrance to the Galileo Museum in Florence were constructed to explain their paths. I visited the Galileo Museum, with eight of my family members in March 2022 and stood before this amazing, giant concoction of early seventeenth century imagination.

Astrolabe in the entrance to the Galileo Museum Florence

I also stood in awe before a display of some of Galileo’s actual telescopes. Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de' Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642), better known simply as Galileo, built his first, 3x magnification telescope in 1609, based on information conveyed to him about the first telescope built a year earlier in the Netherlands by the lens maker, Hans Lippershey. Galileo constantly improved his telescopes, selling many 3x to 9x magnification versions to merchants who found them useful both in ocean travel and as items of resale or trade. He eventually developed a 30x magnification version.

In March 1610, Galileo published the Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), based upon his initial telescopic observations. That treatise included his drawings of mountains and shadows on the moon, as seen through his telescope, as well as the moons of Jupiter, which he called the “Medicean Stars,” to be politically correct for his time.

Galileo's sketches of the Moon from Sidereus Nuncius

Galileo’s notes on the positions of Jupiter’s moons as seen through a telescope such as the one shown. Galileo Museum Florence.

Galileo’s observations, which supported the heliocentric model of the universe, proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, in his 1543 De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, conflicted with the geocentric paradigm of the time. The issue finally came to a head in 1632 when Galileo published his sarcastic Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which defended heliocentrism, directly contradicted geocentricism, and was extremely popular among the populace. In 1633, Galileo was ordered to appear before the Roman Catholic Inquisition, which, in 1616, had declared heliocentrism to be “formally heretical.” The Inquisition found Galileo “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and sentenced him to house arrest, where he remained the rest of his life, until his death in 1642. After the trial, all heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was commanded to abstain from maintaining, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas.

The principal argument advanced by the Inquisitors to support their geocentric paradigm was Joshua 10:12-14: “Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? [Lost Scripture] So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel.” Of course this is the King James version of the account, published in 1611, twenty two years before Galileo’s trial.

But the Inquisitors were not reading from the King James Bible, they were reading from the Clementine Vulgate, the official Roman Catholic Latin version of the Bible, published in 1592. Although they certainly believed that the sun stood still, which was the crux of their argument against Galileo – that if the sun stood still, it must be moving around the earth – that is not what the Vulgate actually stated. It actually stated, “steteruntque sol,” ( which literally translates as “the sun stood up,” and which is much more ambiguous. The Hebrew phrase is הַשֶּׁ֜מֶשׁ(haš·še·meš) וַיִּדֹּ֨ם(way·yid·dōm), which means “the sun was dumb, was astonished, was stopped, or perished” ( Although the seventeenth-century King James translators and Inquisitors believed the sun “stopped,” that may not actually have been what happened. And even though the Hebrew authors, writing some six hundred years after the events in Joshua, may have believed that the sun “stopped,” what was written in Hebrew was far more ambiguous than the apparently clear-cut version in the King James Bible, written by scholars who, like the Roman Inquisitors, were disciples of the geocentric paradigm.

Neither Copernicus nor Galileo was the first to propose a heliocentric universe. Around 270 BC, the Greek astronomer and mathematician, Aristarchus of Samos, calculated the size of the Earth and measured the sizes of and distances to the Sun and Moon. He determined that the sun was at least six times larger in diameter than the earth and concluded that the earth, being smaller, must be orbiting the sun, which had the greater gravity. The Chinese believed that the extra-terrestrial bodies floated in a void of infinite space, and apparently never engaged in the debate over which object formed the center of the universe.

Likewise, although there is ample evidence of pre-Columbian American astronomy, there are no records indicating that they ever considered a geocentric or heliocentric universe. The extreme exception to this paucity of evidence concerning pre-Columbian astronomy is the statement by Nephi in the book of Helaman (12:13-15), around 6 BC, “Yea, and if he say unto the earth—Move—it is moved. Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done; And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” Of course, Nephi didn’t say that God had made the earth go back, he only said that He could make the earth go back. Because Nephi, by possession of the Brass Plates of Laban, probably had the Book of Joshua, it is possible that he was referencing the story of the Battle of Gibeon. The apparent anachronism of Nephi’s account – correcting a geocentric concept to a heliocentric concept – may have existed among the Nephites because of their possession of records unique to them in pre-Columbian America. However, Biblical records, and presumably the Brass Plates records, did not support heliocentrism. Therefore, another explanation of Helaman 12:13-15 is that they may have been editorial comments inserted by Joseph Smith as the instrument through whom the Book of Mormon was conveyed from the Nephites to us modern readers. We know from eye-witness accounts, such as those of Emma Smith, that Joseph did not open the Gold Plates and read them line by line. Rather the Plates often remained wrapped in a table cloth and laid on the table beside Joseph, probably as a catalyst, while he received the record by revelation.

However, Nephi’s account of the Earth going back has its own problems. The Earth, being a sphere, does not rotate equally at every latitude. At the equator, the Earth is 24,855 miles in circumference, so making one complete rotation in 24 hours, means that the Earth is rotating at 1,036 miles per hour at the equator. At a latitude of about 40 degrees north or south, the Earth is 19,014 miles in circumference, and thus is rotating at a speed of 792 miles per hour. At the North and South Poles, the circumference of the Earth is zero; zero divided by 24 gives a rotation speed of zero. Of course we don’t perceive the Earth’s rotation (that was a major point of contention between the geocentric and heliocentric models) because the atmosphere rotates at the same speed as the Earth at different latitudes. If the Earth were to suddenly stop rotating, the change in momentum would cause anything not solidly attached to the surface/core, such as the water in the oceans and the land itself, to fly eastward. The moving earth crust and oceans would cause massive earthquakes and tsunamis.The atmosphere would also keep moving for a time, scouring the landscape, initially with 1000 mph winds at the equator. Of course the farther from the equator, the less damage there would be, until at the poles there would be no change.

I think it is quite reasonable to say that even though the Lord could stop the Earth’s rotation, He would not do so, and didn’t do so upon Gibeon or in the valley of Ajalon. I think a more reasonable account of Joshua 10:12-14 is that the Sun appeared to stand still and the day appeared to lengthen during the battle between the Israelites and the Amorites. All of us have had the experience of some days flying by whereas other days seem to drag on forever. It is likely that the early oral accounts of the battle of Gibeon included the idea that the battle seemed to drag on for an extremely long day, and then, over time, the story was embellished and enlarged to heroic proportions so that the “seemed to” became left behind, and we end up with a written account that is impossibly exaggerated to the point where the Sun actually stood still.

The exaggerated nature of this story is strengthened by the Hebrew writers appeal to another source: “Is not this written in the book of Jasher?” (Joshua 10:13) The Biblical scholar, Harry Whittaker, argued that Joshua 10:12-14 was actually a poem taken from the poetic Book of Jasher ( If these verses were indeed poetry, then they were likely not intended to be taken literally, or the literality of the story was sacrificed for the sake of poetry. We see this poetic license in more modern times, where the historicity of David Crockett’s life is hopelessly sacrificed for the sake of poetry in the Ballad of Davy Crockett by T. Blackburn and G. Bruns. Another reason to think that the Joshua verses were originally written as poetry is the statement that “the moon stayed.” What would the moon staying have anything to do with literally lengthening the day, as, is well known, the moon can be seen during daylight? So these verses were apparently written as heroic poetry describing a prolonged battle.

What Joshua and his army accomplished in 24 hours is truly remarkable. The men of Gibeon appealed to Joshua for help “quickly.” (Joshua 10:6) “So Joshua therefore came unto them suddenly, and went up from Gilgal all night” (Joshua 10:9) This was a remarkable forced march of about 18 miles through rugged mountain passes and including an elevation increase of approximately 3,400 feet. The battle was joined early the following morning and the enemy was soon routed south down the valley of Beth-horon toward Azekah and Makkedah (Joshua 10:10), a distance from Gibeon of as much as 25 miles. There, the fleeing enemy army was hit by a tremendous hailstorm, and more “…died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.” (Joshua 10:11). For an army to march all night for 18 miles, engage an enemy in the morning, and then pursue it another 25 miles was indeed a heroic feet. Yet, according to the Biblical record, and compared to a map of the area,Joshua’s army apparently did it. This was the miracle. Joshua’s army attained an apparently unprecedented military accomplishment. So much was achievedduring this amazing 24-hour period that it was later described in the heroic, poetic language of the Book of Jasher and the Book of Joshua as a doubling of the day’s length. (

Unfortunately for the advancement of science, and the subsequent decline in religious belief, in the seventeenth century, the Roman Catholic Inquisitors took the poem in Joshua 10:12-14 as being the irrefutable word of God rather than as the poetic license of a heroic ballad. Galileo’s conviction of heresy by the Inquisition in 1633 created a schism between science and religion, which, unfortunately has never been repaired. On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair had been handled by the Inquisition, and officially conceded that the Earth was neither stationary nor the center of the universe. Regrettably, the Pope’s apology was far too little and way too late, and irreparable injury to theology had already been done. Science, which has no concern for anyone’s belief, ultimately survived the Galileo affair. Now it falls to scientists like myself, who are also religious, to attempt to bridge the chasm between science and religion started by the wedge of the Inquisition.

Trent Dee Stephens

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