BMCR 2022.05.20

Antiochenische Kosmographie?: Zur Begründung und Verbreitung nichtsphärischer Weltkonzeptionen in der antiken Christenheit

, Antiochenische Kosmographie?: Zur Begründung und Verbreitung nichtsphärischer Weltkonzeptionen in der antiken Christenheit. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, Band 191. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. viii, 250. ISBN 9783110749571 $114.99.


The erroneous idea that the majority of late antique and medieval Christianity had a non-spherical view of the world, i.e., the earth’s shape was widely understood to be flat like a disc, persists in German school textbooks until today. Even the church historian Cardinal Walter Brandmüller in a published interview wrongly accused Claudius Ptolemy of representing the idea of a flat earth in his geocentric view of the world.[1] The book by Benjamin Gleede to be reviewed here reveals several reasons for this false modern assumption by examining the questioning of the spherical shape of the earth associated with the “Antiochian school” of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia from the fourth century onwards (chapter 3). According to Gleede, the book emerged as a by-product of a lengthy and convoluted editing project on the Quaestiones collection of a Nestorian flat-earther. His work thus ranks with important works on the subject by Reinhard Krüger,[2] Frank Schleicher,[3] and Hervé Inglebert[4] on late antique Christian cosmography.

The reasons for questioning the spherical consensus established since the third century BC are located by Gleede in the reception of Old Testament Jewish traditions, which is why he also examines models of non-spherical cosmography in biblical, parabiblical, and rabbinic literature (chapters 1; 4). How difficult it is to analyse these different ancient Jewish texts containing references to cosmographical ideas and systems becomes clear just by looking at modern everyday language which, when referring to the turning of the earth’s surface towards and away from the sun as a result of the earth’s rotation, speaks completely inadequately of sunrise and sunset. Being aware of this simplified usage of language that is conditioned by the observer’s perspective, we need to keep in mind questions regarding genre, scope, and tradition-historical background when approaching these texts. Which expressions about the shape of the earth and its position in relation to the sun and other celestial bodies have to be interpreted as relics of archaic cosmology still present in later texts, as metaphors (chapter 2.3), or even as myths that encode the author’s system of symbols[5] and have to be read with the spectacles of a Platonic mythologist?[6] Uncovering the roots of Diodorian concepts, Gleede raises the legitimate question of whether anti-Ptolemaic biblicism is much more attributable to a particularly Syropalestinian Christian common sense, dominating eastern Mediterranean theological discourses on cosmography in the last decades of the fourth century, than to a particular Antiochian scholastic tradition. Gleede states that only then can we answer the question of whether it is indeed primarily genuine theological ideas that lead authors such as Cosmas to attack the scholarly consensus, or whether local traditions and emerging cultural differences between Greeks and Syrians played a more significant role. These theological ideas would then have to be questioned as to whether they can indeed be described as genuinely “Antiochian,” i.e. Diodoran or Theodoran, or whether in the later opposition to Ptolemy completely different religious ideas and theologoumena come to bear, which cannot be proven to have existed amongst the so-called Antiochians.

In the main part of the book (chapters 2 and 3), Gleede discusses individual representatives of non-spherical cosmography before Diodorus and their representatives in his wake. According to Gleede, Diodorus is the first author to launch a broad, theologically charged critique of pagan scientific cosmology, and he did so based on sacred scripture. Since the works of Diodorus and Theodore, undoubtedly the most important author of the “Antiochian school,” have come down to us only in fragments, Gleede analyses successively representatives of the “Antiochian school” up to the clearest and most detailed development of Diodorian ideas in the theologian Cosmas, in order to then examine the older material for continuous lines of tradition. From a few fragmentary pieces of information about Diodorus’ cosmography, we can gather that he considered the tabernacle – apparently following a Jewish conception (Philo, De vita Mosis II:74–108) – to be an image of the world (Collectio coisliniana 20 [TEG 10, 37 f.]). In this context, Gleede notes the importance of Theodoret of Cyrus, insofar as Theodoret describes but does not interpret many details of the tabernacle, thus providing strong evidence for anchoring the basic conception of “Antiochian” cosmography in the tabernacle typology of the Letter to the Hebrews in Diodorus and Theodore. In his commentary on the Psalms, Diodorus remarks on Psalm 148:4 (Appendix 6.1) that David is in agreement with Moses in having God create the firmament as the second heaven after the first heaven. This Antiochian basic concept of the two substantially different heavens is also shared by Severian, Theodore, and Pseudo-Justin. With recourse to Isaiah 40:22, the first heaven and the firmament are carried as a uniform, semicircular vault by the water, which in turn is carried by the earth and thus solely by the divine commandment of Job 26:7.

Gleede’s reception-historically oriented method for reconstructing Diodorian and Theodorian cosmography is convincingly and comprehensibly demonstrated to the reader. By tracing the development of the cosmographic discourse among the representatives of the “Antiochian school”, and by clearly naming divergent positions and impulses for innovations within the discourse, he has succeeded in elaborating clearly the cosmography of Diodorus and Theodore.

Drawing on his reading of authors such as Nonnus of Panopolis, Zacharias of Mytilene, John Malalas, Boethius, and Cassiodorus, Gleede concludes, in his final assessment of the significance of Antiochian cosmography, that a silent majority among Christians and theologians is to be expected for the fifth and sixth centuries. In the tradition of apologetic indifferentism, this majority would have seen no reason to commit themselves in one direction or the other or to seriously question the spherical worldview. Gleede further concludes that the successes of the Diodorian school seem to have been largely confined to the realm of exegetical debates. Furthermore, the Antiochian tabernacle cosmography seems to have disappeared completely from the Greek theological debate by the seventh century at the latest.

For the purpose of exploring the topic more deeply, Gleede offers central texts of the “Antiochian school” in German translation. Texts that broaden the thematic spectrum, on the other hand, are cited in the footnotes in Greek or Latin alone. The volume closes with an appendix containing a preliminary edition of Nicetas of Heraclea’s doxographical collection of patristic voices on Ps 103:2-3 and Diodorus’ notes on Psalms 103:1-6 and 148:1–7, both of which were considered to supplement the Mosaic cosmogony (chapter 6).

Trained by his editorial work, Gleede shows his philological skills and deep familiarity with the sources of late antique Christianity on every page of the book. The strength of his work lies in its focus on a confined period of time, area, and language of discourse which allows a deep dive into, and an intensive engagement with, the topic. Gleede’s book is a fascinating read that will not only be of great service to church historians and laymen interested in the cosmographic debates of the fourth to seventh centuries. Rather, researchers of Enochic and rabbinic literature will also discover interesting parallels that not only testify to the lively exchange between Christian theologians and Jewish scholars but can also help us determine, to some extent, the circulation of these Jewish sources and their ideas in late antiquity.


[1] Walter Brandmüller, Ingo Langner, Der Fall Galilei und andere Irrtümer: Macht, Glaube und Wissenschaft (Augsburg: Sankt Ulrich Verlag, 2006) 62–64.

[2] Eine Welt ohne Amerika (2 vols.; Berlin: Weidler Verlag, 2000).

[3] Cosmographia christiana: Kosmologie und Geographie im frühen Christentum (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2014).

[4] Les Mutations des savoirs (cosmographie, geographie, ethnographie, histoire) dans l’Antiquite chretienne 30–630 (Paris: Institut d’études augustiniennes, 2001).

[5] Cf. the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl in Acts Thom. 108–113 and the analysis of the myth by Gerhard Selling, “Der Mythos als Gattung und sein Verhältnis zu Sage, Legende und Märchen,” in Allegorie – Metapher – Mythos – Schrift: Beiträge zur religiösen Sprache im Neuen Testament und in seiner Umwelt (ed. D. Sänger; NTOA 90; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011) 261–275.

[6] Cf. Plato, Phaedr. 230a as well as Theo Kobusch, “Die Wiederkehr des Mythos: Zur Funktion des Mythos in Platons Denken und in der Philosophie der Gegenwart”, in M. Janka and C. Schäfter (eds), Platon als Mythologe: Interpretationen zu den Mythen in Platons Dialogen (2nd edition; Darmstadt: WBG, 2014) 47–60.