Biblical Value of Pi

Solomon and the Molten Sea

In describing the temple that King Solomon built for the King of Kings, several articles of furniture are described. One of these pieces is a “a molten sea.”

 2Chronicles 4:2 reads thus, “Also he made a molten sea of ten cubits from brim to brim, round in compass, and five cubits the height thereof; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.”

A supposed discrepancy has arisen from this passage concerning the mathematical accuracy of the Bible. The value of π (pi) is known to be equal to the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter.  

The aforementioned scripture states that the molten sea was “ten cubits from brim to brim” and “a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about;” thus, its diameter was 10 cubits, and its circumference 30 cubits. Dividing this circumference of 30 by a diameter of 10 gives a value of exactly 3. This is where the questions arise.  It is commonly known that the value of π is approximately 3.14159265358979. In fact, this value has been proven so exactly, that its value is known to hundreds of thousands of digits.

Why then does the Bible appear to give the value of π to be 3? A diameter of 10 cubits should yield a circle having a circumference of more that 31.4 cubits--not 30 cubits. Is the Bible just rounding things off? Are the Biblical values just approximate and not really exact? If we see here that the scripture is not exact, what other passages also contain words that cannot be received with complete accuracy?    

Let us examine the passage more carefully. First, the Bible says that the molten sea was “ten cubits from brim to brim.” This logically would be from the very edge of the rim on one side to the very farthest point on the opposite side.  Second, the same verse declares that “a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.” What is the antecedent of “it?” Clearly it is the molten sea mentioned previously in the verse; therefore, the “line of 30 cubits” compasses the sea, or the liquid contained in the vessel. Taken exactly as described, the measurement appears to be the inner diameter of the basin--the distance around the sea.

When we realize that this molten sea has a thickness associated with it, the 10 cubits from brim to brim becomes the outer diameter, while the 30-cubit measurement describes the inner circumference. Since the diameter is obtained by simply dividing the circumference by (pi), the inner diameter can be calculated as 9.549 cubits. Additionally, the thickness of the vessel is found by taking half of the difference between the inner and outer diameter. Using the inner diameter just calculated and the given outer diameter of 10 cubits, the thickness is 0.225 or approximately 4 inches.  

Furthermore, verse 5 of the same chapter adds validity to this conjecture. “And the thickness of it [the molten sea] was an handbreadth, and the brim of it like the work of the brim of a cup, with flowers of lilies, and it received and held three thousand baths.” The outer brim was ornamented with lilies; thus, the outer rim had a jagged-like shape, and was not round like the inner rim. Henceforth, giving a dimension for the outside circumference would not have much meaning. Additionally, verse 5 indicates that the thickness of the vessel was “an handbreadth.” While the exact length of the Biblical handbreadth differs according to various scholars, it literally means the breadth of a hand, or approximately 3 to 4 inches--precisely the same thickness as previously calculated!

Consequently, while this appears to be a straightforward error, a careful examination of the Biblical wording along with some common sense confirms that the Word of God is, in fact, infallible.

Eric J. Nafziger

Daily Proverb

Proverbs 21:31

The horse is prepared against the day of battle: but safety is of the LORD.