In biblical cosmology, the firmament is the vast solid dome created by God on the second day to divide the primal sea (called tehom) into upper and lower portions so that the dry land could appear. The concept of a solid firmament was adopted into the subsequent Classical/Medieval model of heavenly spheres, but was dropped with advances in astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it survives as a synonym for "sky" or "heaven".
The word "firmament" is anglicised from Latin firmamentum, used in the 4th century AD Vulgate Bibley). and derived from the Latin root firmus, "firm". It is used to translate the Hebrew word raqia, or raqiya`, derived from the root raqa (רקע), meaning "to beat or spread out", e.g., the process of making a dish by hammering thin a lump of metal.
The ancient Hebrews, like all the ancient peoples of the Near East, believed the sky was a solid dome with the Sun, Moon, planets and stars embedded in it. Around the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE the Greeks, under the influence of Aristotle who argued that the heavens must be perfect and that a sphere was the perfect geometrical figure, exchanged this for a spherical Earth surrounded by solid spheres. This became the dominant model in the Classical and Medieval world-view, and even when Copernicus placed the Sun at the centre of the system he included an outer sphere that held the stars (and by having the earth rotate daily on its axis it allowed the firmament to be completely stationary). Tycho Brahe's studies of the nova of 1572 and the Comet of 1577 were the first major challenges to the idea that orbs existed as solid, incorruptible, material objects, and in 1584 Giordano Bruno proposed a cosmology without a firmament: an infinite universe in which the stars are actually suns with their own planetary systems. After Galileo began using a telescope to examine the sky it became harder to argue that the heavens were perfect, as Aristotelian philosophy required, and by 1630 the concept of solid orbs was no longer dominant.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article "Firmament".|