Thursday, December 30, 2004

Book Report Thursday: The Biblical Flood

The Biblical Flood by Davis A. Young Davis Young is a geology professor at Wheaton College, a small Christian college in Michigan. He uses Noah's flood as a lens to examine how Christian thinkers have considered extrabiblical evidence in their understanding of both scripture and the natural world. The essential points of contention in regards to the flood are:
  • Whether the flood was geographically universal, covering the entire globe, or local, limited to Mesopotamia.
  • Whether the flood was anthropologically universal, destroying the entire human population other than the 8 ark-riders, or local, meaning that there are living humans not descended from Noah.
  • Whether the flood required extensive miracles, such as the wholesale creation and later destruction of the flood waters ex nihilo, or whether its proximate causes were mostly or entirely natural.
A brief synopsis:
  1. Early Church fathers did not hesitate to cite extrabiblical knowledge in support of their interpretation of Scripture. For example, Augustine referred to the existence of marine fossils in the mountains, and the prevalence of flood traditions in many cultures as positive evidence for a universal deluge.
  2. Young argues that an appeal to extrabiblical knowledge is absolutely appropriate, because God created both Scripture and the natural world, and hence prima facie there cannot be any contradiction between the two. Any apparent contradiction is due to either incorrect interpretation of Scripture, or erroneous science.
  3. Many writers strove to explain how the flood and ark could work without resorting to miracles. Note that this is a rather different exercise than seeking evidence of the deluge itself; a miraculous deluge might still be expected to leave evidence that we could discover. For example, James Hutton explained the global deluge by positing an enormous subterranean abyss, which an earthquake unleashed. Edmund Halley (yes that one) suggested that a passing comet might have caused a great tidal wave to wash across first one side of the globe, then the other. An entire field of "arkeology" (my favorite word of the month!) grew around the calculation of the size of the ark, the arrangement of the animals within, and the logistics of transporting, feeding, and returning the animals. Johannes Buteo, a Catholic mathematician, calculated in 1554 that a year's supply of hay for the ruminants would occupy 146,000 cubic cubits, filling the second deck of the ark. The world's larger animals would occupy a space equivalent to 120 cows; the reptiles could wrap themselves around rafters and beams. In 1675, Athanasius Kircher estimated that 4,562.5 sheep would be required to feed the carnivores.
  4. Over time, scientific evidence piled up that challenged the traditional interpretation of the flood. The discovery of the Americas & Australia, with animals unique to each, now required long and tortuous journeys for the critters to and from the ark. In the nineteenth century, the discovery of dinosaur fossils presented a challenge to the space requirements of the ark. And in the twentieth century, modern dating techniques establish a human presence in the Americas at least 15,000 years ago -- well before the posited historical flood -- calling into question the anthropological universality of the flood.
  5. Young notes that many writers adjusted their interpretation of the scripture of the flood in response to this new evidence:
    • The critical school of scriptural analysis accepts that there was a historical flood in Sumeria in around 2,500 B.C., an event incorporated into the epic of Gilgamesh, and later into the Hebrew Bible.
    • Modern Evangelical commentators have for the most part pressed the case for a universal flood on both textual and scientific grounds. Scripturally, a geographically or anthropologically local flood poses problems for the promise of God to Noah never again to flood the Earth. A variety of Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist and other Christian scholars have appealed to scientific uncertainty about the distant past, or embraced fringe science (such as using frozen mammoths as evidence of a catastrophic deluge), to assert that extrabiblical evidence can support, or at least not contradict, the traditional interpretations.
    • Young himself, with a vocal minority of Christian scientists, believes that the text describes a disrupting event in Mesopotamian civilization, in order to make vital theological points about human depravity, faith, and obedience.
I'm entirely wooed by Young's argument that if one believes God created both scripture and the natural world, there can be no threat in understanding both as thoroughly as possible. The appeal to fringe creation science by some evangelicals puts their faith on less firm ground, by making it seem that any alternate understanding of the worldly evidence would overthrow their religious understanding. As Augustine himself wrote:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars... about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.
I came away from the book intensely curious what Jewish scholars have written about the historical reality and nature of Noah's flood. In fact, I found it rather curious that Young didn't consider their writings at all, since they've presumably been pondering this for at least a thousand years longer than Christians. Will report back if I learn anything.


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