Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940’s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God'(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)

Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been
slain.

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

Playing ‘Catch-Up’

I realize there has been a lack of posts here lately; I have just finished some indexing work and final manuscript reviews for certain projects I am working on and have not had a chance to catch up on blogging.  Now that some of my projects are (finally) complete, I can concentrate on writing some overdue book reviews and focus on the my next project currently in the works.  Expect some new content here soon!

Gerd Lüdemann has a New Book Out!

I like Gerd, he’s a brilliant scholar and has produced some excellent publications which continue to challenge scholars in New Testament.  The blurb from the book, though, is a little troubling for a minimalist like myself:

Biblical historians have long held that the New Testament abounds in sayings incorrectly attributed to Jesus. In order to assemble as complete a collection of authentic sayings as possible, they have, for the most part, been intent on seeing how the sayings deemed authentic are connected to one another, and attempting to picture their specific contexts. In What Jesus Didn t Say, Gerd Ludemann flips the coin and focuses on the inauthentic words of Jesus not only those thought to be clear inventions, but also sayings that exhibit noteworthy alterations to their original form and intent. For his selection, he uses sayings that: are attributed to Jesus after his crucifixion; presuppose a pagan rather than a Jewish audience; involve situations in a post-Easter community; reflect the editorial influence of the author. According to Ludemann, the sheer abundance of inauthentic Jesus-sayings demonstrates that, soon after his sudden and dramatic death, he became the center of a new faith. From the very beginning, Christians imagined what answers Jesus would offer to the questions that arose among them. When the words they recalled no longer seemed adequate, they revised or invented new sayings to suit the existing situation.

One has to wonder how anyone can locate ‘authentic’ vs. ‘inauthentic’ sayings from a figure of which we have no historical record.  We have theological narratives of the figure, which might constitute a layer of historical evidence, but these wouldn’t be valuable as historical data, not like a biography or a history might be–and even in those cases, such as with the biography of Apollonius, problems abound for historian seeking ‘authentic’ sayings or deeds!   I would be interested in reading about his methods, but I suspect that his method involves utilizing a lot of the same resources that produced the Jesus Seminar, and led to a lot of the same poor conclusions.   For example, did he lump all ‘testimony’ to a figure of Jesus, dated in the first two centuries CE, into one pile and search for similar sayings attributed to him?  And if so, how did he determine that a saying, which might appear in almost every ‘testimonial’, was an authentic saying vs, one that was part of the kerygmatic tradition of the church or if it wasn’t an intertextual emulation of something from scripture or another source?  Does he have methods which can demonstrate this or did he just continue along the same sort of ‘party line’ as other historical Jesus proposals which have utterly continued to show their narrowed focus?

I would be interesting in a copy, and perhaps so should my readers.  Amazon lists it, and you are encouraged to go investigate these questions for yourself!

(h/t to Jim West!)

Astrophysicist Discusses Gods and Aliens

When I first saw the interview title (‘Is there a God? Aliens? An Astrophysicist answers’), my instinct was to say ‘Well, here’s another case of a person speaking on matters they have no expertise in.’   But I was pleasantly surprised when I read the following:

“What I tell people is that science in general and astronomy in particular do not address the question of whether or not there is a God. In science, conclusions are made based on evidence and confirmation of predictions, and that’s what differentiates scientific knowledge from unscientific knowledge.

“Recently Pope Benedict said something like this: ‘The Big Bang theory is proof that God exists.’ Actually it’s not. It’s only proof that something happened at the beginning of the universe, where there wasn’t space or time and then there became space and time. For many people, astronomers’ discoveries confirm what they thought was true all along: that God is there. And then for many others, the discoveries of astronomers confirm what they thought all along, and that is that God is unnecessary — that God doesn’t exist.

“So the Big Bang doesn’t really prove whether God or the gods are real or not, or whether the flying spaghetti monster is real or not; it’s just really, really cool — and what you believe follows from it is just a leap of faith.

via Is there a God? Aliens? Astrophysicist answers – Technology & science – Science – LiveScience – msnbc.com.

His answer, in sum, is simply ‘Why are you asking me whether God exists?’  He isn’t saying God does or doesn’t exist, nor does he offer any theological advice.

Jim West has posted up some thoughts on his blog about this:

Theologians don’t dive into science and opine on topics like physics and mathematics and chemistry, so why do sciency people think they have the tools to speak about theology?  Instead of answering questions they can’t, why can’t they just say ‘that’s not my field, I think it best you ask a theologian’.

But I think Jim might have misread the article (very unlike him).  He doesn’t offer a single comment related to the study of God–and in fact is rather dismissive of it, which is precisely what Jim is asking of him.  Saying ‘Science doesn’t address God’ is precisely what we’d expect to hear from a scientist when asked about God.

Jim continues:

Or perhaps theologians should babble on about science.  Let’s see how the sciency people like that.  [And we know they don't.  Just start a conversation on intelligent design or creationism and their little sciency heads explode in rage.  Well here's some rage back at ya!]

But the thing is, Jim, if more theologians said ‘well religion doesn’t address science’ more often, I think scientists would be less inclined to cringe every time a theologian (dilettante) states the world is only 6,000 years old, that multi-celled organisms don’t spring from single-celled organisms, or that evolution is a myth–all things that are outside their field of expertise.  What this scientist said is what you want scientists to say (essentially):

‘We don’t know, we don’t deal with those sorts of questions.  Ask me about quarks or something.’

When he was asked his opinion, he stated it.  But he was quite clear about his agnosticism and, in my opinion, quite appropriate in his answer.

In any event, the article is worth the read.  And to all of my atheist friends, take heed!  Using science as a device to say ‘well, God doesn’t exist’ just doesn’t work.

Calvin and Hobbes on War

Simcha and Goodacre on the Crucifixion Nails of Jesus

Joe Zias was goodly enough to post that Simcha Jacobovici had posted up an article on James Tabor’s blog in response to the critics (really, those ‘critiques’ are the actual academic response to his sensational ‘find’ of the ‘crucifixion nails’ of Jesus.)  You can read Simcha’s response (if you are feeling particularly masochistic or if you feel like throwing up a little in your mouth) here.

Mark Goodacre wrote up a reply on the Biblical Studies message board (cited with permission) in response to this which I feel is quite astute as it is erudite (and polite–more polite than it should be):

Simcha’s response (now published on James Tabor’s blog) illustrates
something quite interesting about strategy, to my regret. Although he
spends much of the essay berating the ad hominem nature of the attacks on
him, the fact is that on this occasion he *has* posted a detailed response
to his critics. And this is the frustration: those of us who have, in the
past, engaged in a kind of patient, calm, detailed response to his claims
have been ignored. It is only now that abuse and ridicule have been
directed towards him that he has responded. To illustrate further: I
listed seventeen errors and inaccuracies on the “Jesus Family Tomb website”
over four years ago on my blog. From time to time, I draw attention again
to the list. They include serious, egregious errors, nonsense,
misstatements and so on. To this day (and I checked again last night),
every single one of them is still there on the site.

I say this with regret because I share that naive belief that academics
sometimes have that non-academics might respond to correct errors when they
are pointed out in a patient and friendly way. Sadly, and on repeated
occasions, this is not the case.

Cheers
Mark

So true, Mark.  SO true.

Must-Read Additional Links:

2010 Debate on Reliability of Scripture « XKV8R: The Official Blog of Dr. Robert R. Cargill

Thanks to Bob Cargill, you can watch the whole debate between Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans on the reliability of the Bible.  Do check it out!

If you have an hour, you really ought to listen to the 2010 debate between Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Craig Evans on the reliability of scripture. Below are the YouTube videos in 9 parts.

I’ll let you decide whose argument is more compelling. However, I agree with the moderator, Pastor Jerry Johnston, who states after one of Dr. Evans’ responses (Pt. 3, @ 3:37), “Sounds like an evangelist.”

The key questions are as follows:

1. Are the gospels reliable? (Pt. 1 @ 3:50)

2. Do the gospels accurately preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ? (Pt. 2 @ 3:42)

3. Do the gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus Christ? (Pt. 3 @ 3:42)

4. Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition? (Pt. 4 @ 4:25)

5. Do archaeologists and historians use the gospels as sources? (Pt. 5 @ 4:05)

6. Have the gospels been accurately preserved down through the centuries? (Pt. 6 @ 6:22)

7. Do scribal errors and textual variants significantly impact any teaching of Jesus or any important Christian teaching? (Pt. 7 @ 7:33)

8. Final Remarks (Pt. 8 @ 7:01)

via 2010 debate on the reliability of scripture between bart ehrman and craig evans « XKV8R: The Official Blog of Dr. Robert R. Cargill.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 771 other followers

%d bloggers like this: