How to be Objective About the Alabama Pi April Fools’ Prank

The April 1998 newsletter New Mexicans for Science and Reason contained a prank article mocking the Bible. Here is a brief quote:

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA engineers and mathematicians in this high-tech city are stunned and infuriated after the Alabama state legislature narrowly passed a law yesterday [March 30, 1998] redefining pi, a mathematical constant used in the aerospace industry.  …”The Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.” Alabami Pi Hoax

The mockery is based upon the Bible passage describing the construction of the basin for Solomon’s Temple. The basin is known by a few synonyms, such as the laver or the brazen sea.

He also made the molten sea, ten cubits ⌊in diameter⌋, and five cubits was its height. A measuring line of thirty cubits would encircle it all around. Gourds were under its rim surrounding it all around; ten to the cubit, surrounding the sea all around with two rows of gourds, which were cast when he cast the metal. The sea was standing on twelve oxen, with three facing to the north, three facing to the west, three facing to the south, and three facing to the east. The sea was on top of them, with all of their hindquarters turned to the inside. Its thickness was a handbreadth, but its rim was as the work on the brim of a cup, like the bud of a lily; it held two thousand baths. a)W. Hall Harris III et al., eds., The Lexham English Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 1 Ki 7:23–26.

A precision circle has no artistic decoration.

The Bible provides information about the brim of the basin. It was artistically shaped as a lily blossom. You are provided a very specific context. The brim was not simple, not shaped precisely as a perfect circle. If we accept the Biblical account, the craftsman had a 4% margin of about 4 inches on the rim. If a mathematical formula does not include some amount of artistic margin for this stated variance, then I must conclude that someone is deliberately misrepresenting this passage of Scripture.

A precision circle is perfectly round.

The Bible does not claim that Solomon’s basin was perfectly round. Round containers for liquid are often purposefully deformed at the rim to provide for pouring out the contents of the container. There are no legitimate reasons for an open-minded person to demand that the basin be a precise circle since there is no such claim in Scripture.

A precision circle has zero thickness.

The Bible provides a measure of thickness of a handbreadth. Even if the basin were perfectly round, which it was not, neither those who accept the Scriptures nor those who mock the Scriptures know 1) the exact thickness of a handbreadth or 2) if the artisan was to measure inside the thickness or outside the thickness or split the difference. (My handbreadth is very close to 4 inches… the same amount of margin described in the Bible.)

The following statements are not applicable unless you demand that the Scripture is describing a mathematically precise circle and therefore reject that the object was an artistic basin formed by a craftsman.

In order to arrive at a precise calculation of pi (π), you must have a precise measuring device. I measured a plain round bowl from my kitchen with my sewing measuring tape. The circumference was 19.25. The diameter was exactly 6. My measuring tape does not even have 6.127465309038. It is reasonable to accept that Solomon’s construction team was skilled enough to work with a rod divided into basic units.

If I want to be precise, how many decimal places for π are needed? Is 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 more precise than 3.14? 3.14 is the approximation acceptable to the organization that published the “scientific” article. If scientists can approximate π by rounding to two decimal places, what would happen if we approximated π in whole numbers? It is reasonable to accept that the Bible description uses whole units without fractions or decimals. π rounded to a whole number is 3, the number affirmed in the Bible even though this passage is not describing a perfectly round precision circle.

It is therefore my opinion that only a narrow-minded agenda-driven person would consider the description of the basin in First Kings chapter seven as evidence for error in the Bible.

References   [ + ]

a. W. Hall Harris III et al., eds., The Lexham English Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 1 Ki 7:23–26.