Here are some headlines that are more phony than a $3 bill. My guess is some of us do or have taken them to be true. Grateful for the historians and the folks who do their homework!
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue to prove the world was not flat
Despite a persistent legend, neither Columbus nor his Spanish patrons thought Earth was a finite plane instead of a round planet.
When Columbus set sail in 1492, he predicted he’d make landfall in Asia. Legend has it that he defied Spanish officials to do so, sailing west instead of East because he was certain the world was round. There’s just one problem: It’s almost certain that in the 1490s, nobody thought the earth was flat. According to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, “no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat.”
That was thanks to scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who, as early as around 600 B.C., made observations that Earth was round. Using calculations based on the sun’s rise and fall, shadows and other physical properties of the planet, Greek scholars like Pythagoras and Aristotle determined that the planet is actually a sphere.
The Church has always taught the world was flat…
In 1874, John Draper (1811-1882), published The History of Conflict Between Religion and Science, in which he argued that current (nineteenth-century) events were reflective of the totality of Christian history. Draper with a little help from Washington Irving, thus popularized the “flat earth” myth, the idea that prior to Columbus there was a widespread, religiously-inspired belief that the earth was flat. Contemporary historians have squashed this myth, with Jeffrey Russell’s book Inventing the Flat Earth probably being the most detailed account of how and why it arose. Historian of science David Lindberg summarizes the medieval understanding of the earth and cosmos in his book The Beginnings of Western Science: “At the center of everything is the sphere of the earth. Every Medieval scholar of the period agreed on its sphericity, and ancient estimates of its circumference (about 252,000 stades) were widely known and accepted” (p. 253).
The rather mundane fact is that most educated Christian writers accepted Greco-Roman teachings about the earth and cosmos and quickly moved on to more urgent matters of sin and salvation. No Christian authority of any consequence ever taught that the earth was flat.
Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene*
Perhaps there’s no conspiracy theory about early Christianity more sensational and captivating than the claim that Jesus was married and had children. It’s not only fodder for books like The Da Vinci Code, but it seems to pop up again and again in the mainstream media.
Christians didn’t have a ‘Bible’ until the time of Constantine*
Then there’s the oft-repeated claim that early Christians, at least for the first four centuries, didn’t have a Bible. They were reliant merely on ever-changing oral tradition. And this problem wasn’t resolved until Constantine commissioned the production of a Bible in the fourth century (containing only the books he preferred).
While this is yet another intriguing conspiracy theory, it lacks any historical foundation. The earliest Christians had a “Bible” from day one—what we now call the Old Testament. For them, the Old Testament was the undisputed Word of God, and they were deeply committed to its authority. Moreover, from an early point Christians regarded their own books as scriptural, and a core New Testament canon is evident by the early to middle second century.
The words of the New Testament were radically changed and corrupted in the earliest centuries*
Rounding out our top fake news stories is the claim that the text of the New Testament has been so radically corrupted, edited, and changed that we can’t really know what the original authors said. Made famous by Bart Ehrman’s bestseller Misquoting Jesus, this story has been repeated ad infinitum.
But there’s no evidence for this level of radical corruption. Can we see scribal changes and mistakes in our New Testament manuscripts? Of course, but that’s true for every document of antiquity. The New Testament is no different.
And if there is a difference, it’s that the New Testament seems even more well-preserved than comparable documents in the ancient world. After generations of careful scholarship, and a wealth of manuscripts at our disposal, we can have great confidence in the words of the New Testament.