Tag Archives: Copernicus

Manuscript Errors

An erasure in the Codex Sinaiticus manuscript

In preparing to write about Nicolas Copernicus recently, I bought a 2-volume set of his complete works, translated into English (a big help since I am only beginning my study of Latin). However, I wasn’t expecting a translation of a Christian astronomer’s theories in the 1500’s to help me better understand how we can be confident in the integrity of biblical manuscripts from a thousand years earlier. How so? Let’s “sharpen our pencils,” as we say in engineering, and work through this problem.

The translator’s notes on the Commentariolus, Copernicus’ first draft of his geokinetic theory[1],  caught my eye for several reasons. First, we don’t have any surviving copies of the original treatise that Copernicus had dispatched to a few close friends. Second, Copernicus never put any title or claim of authorship on it. We owe that to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe years later. These are such common objections from skeptics regarding surviving Gospel manuscripts and their lack of direct claim of authorship, and yet in other historical investigations, those circumstances aren’t deal-breakers.  But third, and most significant to me, was how the original content could be rebuilt from copies with errors.

We have 2 surviving copies made from one of the originals by professional scribes hired by Brahe. These are known as the “S” and “V” manuscripts for Stockholm and Vienna, where they eventually came to reside, respectively. A third manuscript, known as “A” for Aberdeen, was made by a student copying the text of Commentariolus into the margins of his copy of Copernicus’ Revolutions in an abbreviated fashion. One scribe, it seems, was copying the original text by sight, and got off a line. He saw the same word (“orbis”) he’d just written used 6 words later, and proceeded from that point, skipping those intervening words, and garbling the sentence. The other scribe did not make the same mistake there, so that portion could be reconstructed from his copy. He did make his share of mistakes in other places, though. One in particular, was the writing of the words “ac si” for the word “axi”, a mistake that only made sense if he were taking dictation. The two sound similar, so he wrote what he thought he heard. Even if he were to read it back to the one dictating, it would sound correct. Since the first scribe was seeing the original words, he was not liable to that type of auditory error, but he was susceptible to visual errors like skipping a line. Now with only two formal copies of a text, we are able to be quite comfortable that we have the message of the autograph (the original manuscript) intact. Even the “A” manuscript, not attempting to be a word-for-word formal copy,  has still proven useful for corroborating some differences between the 2 formal copies, which were made by copyists likely not trained in astronomy. That’s because the “A” copy was made by another scholar who was  able to spot some of the copying errors in the manuscript he was reading (based on a non-surviving sister copy of the “S” manuscript) and correct them, thus bringing his copy into agreement with manuscript “V” which he never saw. The point, is the more copies we have of a manuscript, even partial copies, the more confidently we can reconstruct the original message.[2]

This is the same tactic used in data backup with RAID storage. RAID is an acronym for Redundant Array of Independent Drives. There are different levels of redundancy with RAID 0, RAID 1, all the way up to RAID 6 (currently). But the basic idea is that different hard drives will not all crash at the same time, and will not all get corrupted at the same data location. This means that if one drive crashes, the data on it can be reconstructed from the remaining drives in the array. Or if a particular file goes “bad” and won’t open anymore, the system can rebuild that file from the information in the other drives.

Now, consider how we have reconstructed an original amount of data from 2 copies of a manuscript, or from several computer drives. Do you see why objections that we don’t have any original biblical manuscripts fall flat? Or why the comparisons of the Bible to the “telephone game” don’t really pose a problem? We have thousands of manuscripts, and we keep finding more and more of them. Are they all complete? No, many are only fragments, but they overlap with other copies to provide better redundancy than any other ancient manuscript. Do some have copying errors? Sure. Do some have additions? Yes. But witness the genius of God, in that He basically set up a geographically-distributed redundant array of data stores for His Word from which we can reasonably reconstruct the original. Just as some of Copernicus’ manuscripts that only had one surviving copy were destroyed in different wars throughout Europe, one original manuscript of the Bible would be a very fragile thing. But a worldwide network of copies could never be taken out by floods, or earthquakes, or wars, or vandalism. The absence of an original manuscript isn’t a liability, it’s actually evidence of brilliant planning. But that’s the kind of God we serve.


[1] Commonly called the “heliocentric” theory, Copernicus technically theorized that the sun was near the center of the known universe of the time, not necessarily at the center. His primary postulate was that the earth moved, so “geokinetic” is more technically correct.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus – Complete Works, Volume 2: Minor Works, translation & commentary by Edward Rosen & Erna Hilfstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Paperbacks, 1992), pp. 75-80.

Portraits of Christians – Nicolas Copernicus

Astronomer Copernicus - Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.
Astronomer Copernicus – Conversation with God, by Jan Matejko, 1871.

Today I’d like to add to my previous series looking at examples of great scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were Christians. We seem to have this stubborn notion in our modern minds that  science and religion are mortal enemies. The atheist mantra is that religion equals primitive, backwards superstition, while science is gradually replacing it in an ever onward and upward march to a rational utopia. Or so I hear… And yet I read the writings of many of the “fathers” of science, and I see a very different picture. Today, let’s look at Nicholas Copernicus, often called the “father of modern astronomy.”

Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a canon (a church administrator/lawyer) at the Frombork Cathedral in East Prussia (modern Poland). He also wrote a memorable treatise on currency devaluation [1], and oversaw the defense of Olsztyn during an attempted invasion by the Teutonic Knights in 1520. However, Copernicus’ name would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books had not a young protestant math professor name Rheticus convinced Copernicus the Catholic to publish his life’s work. And so the 6 volumes of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was published shortly before Copernicus died in 1543. This proposed the idea that the earth moved and was not the center of the known universe. This is commonly known as the heliocentric view, although geokinetic might be more appropriate, as Copernicus focused more on the earth’s movement than on the sun’s centrality in his magnum opus. While the warning on the title page  of “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here,”  is certainly justified, there are a few passages relevant to our purposes amidst all of the spherical geometry.

Speaking in the introduction about the worth of pursuing astronomy, he states, “For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and good? For would not the godly Psalmist [Ps 92:4] in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hands, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?” [2]

I’ve come across several atheist memes that try to lay claim to Copernicus and treat his book (which includes the quote above) as the beginning of the end for belief in God. But, I ask you, does the above quote from the man himself sound like anyone opposing God? On the contrary, Copernicus argues that astronomy draws us to worship God all the more. In fact, talking about things “established in the finest order and directed by divine management” sounds like a taste of intelligent design and the fine-tuning argument a few centuries early.

What made Copernicus pursue this lifelong quest? He tells the Pope in his book’s dedication to him, “I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world.” [3]He then did a literature review, found some precedence for an orbiting earth, and proceeded with an investigation, open to that possibility in spite of what the great astronomer Ptolemy had said 1,400 years before.

It proved to be a long, tedious, detailed investigation crammed between his normal daily duties. He really was “moonlighting”. Not giving up, he wrote, speaking of the difficulties he encountered in his investigations, “Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters.”[4] Spoken like a true Christian.

“But wait!” the skeptic will say. “The church banned his book because of their narrow-minded opposition to the truth.” Let’s look at that. It is true that the Roman Catholic church put On the Revolutions on the Forbidden Books list, pending “correction”, although that was not until 73 years after it’s publication. During his lifetime, Nicholas was encouraged – no, prodded – to write his book by his good friend Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno. Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, had written to Copernicus as early as 1536, recapping the salient points of Copernicus’ “new cosmology” and encouraging him, “with the utmost earnestness” to “communicate this discovery of yours to scholars”.[5] Cardinal Schönberg did not see heliocentrism as contrary to Scripture. Who might see Copernicus’ views as a threat to the church? Copernicus tells us in his dedication (again, to the Pope) that “Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it.” [6] Hmmm… it seems that Copernicus thought, and was willing to say directly to the Pope, that only those distorting Scripture would see any fault in his work. He continues, “Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution also to the Church, at the head of which Your Holiness now stands.” [6] This should come as no surprise that Copernicus would believe his theory to be a contribution, rather than an overthrow, of the church. All truth is God’s truth, both the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of the world around us.  Therefore, true knowledge of the world around us contributes to our understanding of its Creator.

In July 1543, 2 months after Copernicus’ death, his friend Bishop Giese wrote to Copernicus’ young disciple Rheticus and mentioned a “little tract” Rheticus had written, regarding which, Giese said, “you entirely correctly defended the earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” [7] Bishop Giese also wrote a treatise (now lost) called Hyperaspisticon,  “upholding the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Bible, if read properly.” [8] But, as Copernican historian Edward Rosen laments, both works failed to survive [their] passage into the clutches of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.[9] What’s interesting here is that in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, this Catholic bishop and Protestant professor could both agree that Copernicus’ theory did not conflict with Scripture.

What can we say about this alleged dispute with the church? Simply that Copernicus’ disagreement was with Ptolemy, the 2nd century Greek astronomer, not the church. Many in the church, along with most scientists in the world, both before Copernicus, and for 2 centuries after him, rejected Copernicus’ theory and accorded to Ptolemy infallibility that is simply not the domain of any man. That is always a recipe for disaster, particularly for the church, who should know better than anybody that no one is perfect but God alone. But as for Copernicus, he was a indeed a Christian, a faithful servant of his church, and a model scientist.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monetae_cudendae_ratio, accessed 2016-10-30. His premise was basically that bad money (i.e. devalued, or inflated) drives good money (with intrinsic worth, like bullion coins) out of circulation, either abroad or through  hoarding by the citizenry. This is actually still a very timely work almost 500 years later.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions: Complete Works, Volume I, translated by Edward Rosen, 1992, Book 1 Introduction, p. 7.
[3] p. 4.
[4] ibid, p.8.
[5] ibid, p. xxi.
[6] ibid, p. 5.
[7] ibid, p. 339, notes for page 3, Line 38.
[8] ibid, p. 342, notes for page 5, Line36.
[9] ibid, p. 343, notes for page 5, Line 38.