And he made a molten sea, ten cubits 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.An essentially identical description is in 2nd Chronicles 4:2. Each suggests the Old Testament set the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter -- π or pi -- equal to 3.
Now, at least in Euclidean space, everyone knows that pi = 355/113 = 3.1415929. (Irrational joke; kidding). So, a ten cubit diameter sphere would be more than 30 cubits round. Do these Old Testament passages prove god not infallible and the Bible not literally true?
Some say yes. Yet three verses down (Kings; Chronicles), the vessel is described as having "the thickness of . . . an handbreadth, and the brim of it like the work of the brim of a cup." As a result, believers argue that the "handsbreadth" (the thickness of a human palm) or the flare of the cup-shape top account for the missing circumference. Others use gematria numerology interpretation of scripture to decode the text as adding 111/106 cubits to the circumference, which would be considerably closer to Solomon's actual 31.4159265... cubit sphere. And closer than what would have required under Indiana's famous, failed, late 19th century effort to declare pi equal to (among other things) the ratio 4:5/4 = 3.2.
Who is right and what does it mean? I dunno (outside of rejecting any inevitable conflict between religion and science). Just thought it research- and essay-worthy.
(via reader John B., The Straight Dope, Hatless in Hattiesburg)