Does the Bible Teaches That p = 3?

Claimed Error: In the account of Solomon building the Temple, the Bible at I Kings 7:23 describes the physical dimensions of the molten sea. The circumference of the sea is given as 30 cubits, while the diameter is listed at 10 cubits. Using these lengths, the Biblical measures would give a value for p of 3.00, whereas we know that the value for p is 3.1416.

This supposed "error" in the Bible is often one of the first which skeptics will use when dealing with Christians. Unfortunately for critics of the Bible, it is also a claim which is based upon a failure to read the surrounding context of the passage. Believing that they have found the locus classicus of stupid scientific errors in the Bible, the average skeptic will rely upon this claim in the hopes that it will fool his or her opponent who likewise has not read through the entire passage in I Kings 7 (and given the decline of Bible reading and knowledge among American Christians, this is altogether plausible). Yet, we see that this particular attack has no merit upon which to stand, simply because of the fact that the solution to this "problem" is found a mere three verses afterward.

Let us look at the entire passage in I Kings where the making of the molten sea is discussed:

"23And he made a molten sea, from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about. 24And under the brim of it round about there were knops compassing it, ten in a cubit, compassing the sea round about: the knops were cast in two rows, when it was cast. 25It stood upon twelve oxen, three looking toward the north, and three looking toward the west, and three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east: and the sea was set above upon them, and all their hinder parts were inward. 26And it was an hand breadth thick, and the brim thereof was wrought was wrought like the brim of a cup, with flowers of lilies: it contained two thousand baths." (I Kings 7:23-26)

Wow, pretty clear, eh? Thirty cubits....ten cubits....C/d=p....30/10=3, so p equals 3! Well, this is not the case because the skeptics are neglecting some important information supplied by the passage, which makes this challenge very easy to answer without having to delve into the less-than-satisfactory significant figures argument forwarded by Henry Morris and others.

Notice that in verse 26, we are told that the sea was a "handbreadth" in thickness (which would include the brim, at the top edge of the sea's walls). We were told in verse 23 that the sea had a diameter of 10 cubits from one brim to the other. Now, the operative portion of the sea when we are dealing with its volume is the inside of the sea (with verse 26 giving us said volume contained within). The thirty cubits line which did "compass it round about" would seem to be a measure of the inside circumference of the sea. Putting this information together, we see that the Bible is giving us the measures for the inside circumference of the sea, but yet is giving us the diameter between the outside edges of the rim (which is why the thickness of the sides, and therefore the rim, would seem to have been given to us).

Now, what happens we then subtract the two handbreadths from the diameter given, thereby obtaining the inside diameter? Let's convert these Hebrew measures into good old British Imperial. A cubit in the Hebrew kingdom, as determined by calculation from the Siloam inscription1, measured about 17.5 inches, with a small amount of uncertainty introduced from possible rounding in the ancient figure used to calculate this value. Likewise, a handbreadth was a linear measure of four fingers thickness, and would be roughly (the consensus varies) 3-4 inches in length. For purposes of our calculation, then, let us take a median value of 3.5 inches for a handbreadth.

So, the value for the outside diameter is 10 cubits, or 175 inches. Subtracting 7 inches from this (two handbreadths), we arrive at an internal diameter of 168 inches. Since we have both the inside diameter and the inside circumference (30 cubits, or 525 inches), we can now determine what the value for p would be from the Biblical information.

C = p*d ---> C / d = p
525 in. / 168 in. = 3.13 = p

Given the fact that we are dealing with a fair amount of uncertainty in the absolute length of our measures, the cubit and the handbreadth, this is really quite close to the value of p which we have determined for us today. It is certainly not the 3 which skeptics try to claim that the Bible teaches. Their basis for claiming this value lies in that they do not read the whole passage closely enough, and fail to see the contextual clues which provide a fuller understanding of what the passage is describing.

End Notes

(1) - The Siloam inscription is an ancient Judahite epigraph detailing the creation of Hezekiah's tunnel (see II Kings 20:20, II Chronicles 32:30) which he designed to provide Jerusalem with a supply of fresh water in times of seige. The text of this inscription can be found e.g. J.C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, Vol. I, Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions, p. 22. The translation of the text can be found e.g. R.B. Coote, "Siloam Inscription", Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman, p. 24. The inscription declares the length of the tunnel to be 1200 cubits. Since the tunnel has been measured at 1750 feet (530 m) in length, this yields a length of 17.5 inches per cubit.