Value of Pi




Copyright 2003

Joseph Francis Alward

 

 

 

Bible skeptics allege that the writer of 1 Kings couldn't possibly have been inspired because he evidently believed that the value of pi was 3, not the more nearly correct value of 3.14, but a closer look reveals that if one allows for reasonable "round-off" by the Bible writers, there is no error.

 

    

 

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The circumference of a circle is obtained by multiplying pi times the diameter.  Bible skeptics allege that the writer of 1 Kings couldn't possibly have been inspired because he evidently believed that the value of pi was 3, not the more nearly correct value of 3.14.  As evidence, the skeptics point to 1 Kings 7:23 in which the writer says that circumference of Solomon's man-made circular pond was 30 cubits [1] and its diameter was 10 cubits: "He [Solomon] made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it."

However, if the circumference of the pond really was 30 cubits, the diameter would have to be 9.549 cubits, approximately.  Rounded to the nearest integer, the diameter is 10 cubits, which is close enough, even for a god who could have given the value of pi to at least 5.1 billion digits [2]--assuming this god was only interested in conveying information about Solomon's bath.

In some places, Bible authors report numbers accurate to one-half cubit, so some skeptics point to this fact as evidence that the author of the Solomon verse above was not inspired.  Skeptics say the author should at least have stated that the diameter was "about nine and one half cubits".  Before we rush to call this an error, we need to ask what kind of statement from Kings would have been acceptable.  It is not obvious that an omniscient god would always give his dimensions accurate to within half a cubit or better; whole numbers seem to be completely acceptable as long as it appears that God's principal message has been conveyed.  


[1] A cubit is about 1.5 feet.

[2] As of September 4, 1999, that many digits of pi had been calculated

Note added October 3, 2002:

The following is an adaptation of a post I sent on October 3, 2002, to Farrell
Till's errancy forum at http://www.topica.com/lists/ii_errancy/
 
"He [Solomon] made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten
cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits
to measure around it." (1 Kings 73)
 
In a previous post, I explained why I didn't think skeptics could argue that
the Bible writer thought the value of pi was 3. Briefly, I pointed out that
there were an infinite number of possible circumference-diameter pairs which
would round off to 30 and 10, and whose ratios were about 3.14, the correct
value of pi to two decimal places.
 
For example, if the bath's actual circumference and diameter were 30.4 cubits,
and 9.68 cubits, respectively, the ratio is about 3.14. Unless the skeptic
believes that it was improper for the writer to round off 30.4 cubits to
30, and 9.68 cubits to 10, then there is no error in this passage. I believe
the most the skeptic can do is question why the Bible writer didn't at least
warn the reader that the values stated were only approximately correct; the
writer could have said, for example, "about thirty cubits."
However, there are so many examples of whole numbers in the Bible which almost
certainly were rounded off without the reader being informed of this, that
it would be silly for the skeptic to point to all of them as an example of
bible error.
 
Nevertheless, I agree with skeptics who note that there is no better place
in the Bible than the Solomon's bath passage for God to have provided the
value of pi, if ever he had wished to do so. Nevertheless, I don't think
skeptics in debates with inerrantists should point to this as an example
of God's lack of foresight. If God's failure to spell out more precisely
the value of pi in his description of Solomon's bath is an example of what
the skeptic considers to be "error," then there would be no end to the list
of such "failures," for there are innumerable instances in the Bible where
God could have given us a lesson in science or math.
 
Once the skeptic uses Solomon's bath to criticize the Bible, he opens himself
up to ridicule from the inerrantist, who would ask the skeptic, "So, do you
also think the Bible isn't the word of God because he didn't provide the
universal gravitation constant (G = 6.67 x10-11 N-m2 /kg2) when he spoke
of the earth and sun in Genesis 1:1-19, or because he failed to take the
opportunity to explain the laws of light refraction when he described the
rainbow in Genesis 9:8-1? Are you saying the Bible's not the word of God
because it's not also a physics textbook?"
 
The fact that God didn't put in the Bible precise information about pi, or
any other fundamental constant, or science lessons, doesn't mean the Bible
couldn't have been written by God; it may only mean that God--if it
exists--intended for man to discover this information on his own.
 
As I've stated many times before, in this and other forums, the skeptic should
stay completely away from Solomon's bath when he is debating the inerrancy
of the Bible; otherwise, he may be accused to going out of his way to find
Bible "error" in every verse.
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1. See also, "Was it God's First Rainbow?"