Noah, Ark, and Water

There are about six hundred global flood myths from every continent in the world, according to the well-regarded website,  There are many more narratives concerning historical floods that were local. 

Our concern in this lecture is with the Great Flood, or Noah’s Flood, described in the 6-8 sections of Genesis in the Old Testament Bible.  We shall be glancing at the probable forerunners to the Noah’s Flood myth, how they are both similar and different from the Biblical tale, what the flood story meant to the early Christian Church, and what happened when geology became a viable science. We shall turn our attention to the attempt to reconcile the Old Testament with science, leading to the so-called Mosaic geology, and to the contemporary scientific discoveries and the attacks on them from creationists.  We shall also glance at Grand Canyon geology in the United States because many creationists have taken up arguments that the formations of the Canyon “prove” there was a global flood that inundated the earth at one time.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

But truth is not what concerns creationists.  There have been a few sincere Christians who did try to reconcile geological facts with scripture. 

Many honest geologists abandoned the attempt when the facts made reconcilement impossible.  As for the rest of those who insist on the literal truth of Noah’s Flood, I have a wonderful quote that mocks the persistence of retaining a belief in impossible things. Donald Prothero, the author of the important volume, Evolution, 2007, has taken the following passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, 1872.  “Alice laughed”: ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was younger I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

Contemporary people acquainted with science find the Flood tale in Genesis impossible to credit, but before we go on, I believe it is worth reacquainting ourselves with the Biblical myth. Ten generations on earth had passed since god had created the earth and set Adam on it to live. Men had become extremely wicked.  Nor were the animals exempt.  All living creation had degenerated into evil and lawlessness. God resolved to destroy these unworthy creatures.  But since the six hundred year old Noah was a very righteousness man, god decided to spare him.  God warned Noah that he was about to create a flood which would decimate every living thing from the earth.  He gave Noah specific instructions for building an ark which could withstand the Flood.  Noah was to take with him his wife, three sons and the sons’ wives.  They were also supposed to take on board with them a pair of every kind of bird, mammal and reptile. There are different stories in Genesis 6 and Genesis 7, from two sources who disagree with each other. 

There might have been 7 pairs of clean animals or one pair to be taken aboard. In any case, god ordered Noah to store enough provisions to keep everyone alive.

Then, after Noah and his company had entered the ark, the rains came and all life that existed on earth died.  The flood rains were said to have fallen forty days and forty nights.  The flood likely lasted for a full solar year. A raven was sent out, but did not return. Apparently, being faithless, it merely flew about, waiting for the waters to subside.  Noah then sent out a dove and on the second trip, the dove returned with an olive branch, so Noah knew the waters had receded. The dove did not return on the third trip, presumably because it had found a dry place to land, so Noah knew it was safe to come out of the ark with his family.  The other creatures followed the humans.  Noah built an altar and made a sacrifice to god, burning some extra animals he had taken along on the ark for that purpose.  God was pleased by the sacrifice ceremony, and made a promise that he would never again send a flood that would destroy everything on earth.  As a sign of his promise to mankind, he created the rainbow.

That is the basic Biblical story.  There are two earlier versions, one from ancient Sumer, in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and one from Babylonia, another Mesopotamian city. It appears from excavations that Shurrupak, a city in Sumer, was destroyed by a flood around 2800 BCE.  In the three major flood myths that have been preserved, one mentions Shurrupak, and in another version, the protagonist of the tale bears the name of the king who actually did rule around the time of the inundation.

The earliest tablet found with this story written on it is from about 1600 BCE, but scholars believe that the myth had already been in circulation for about a thousand years before that time.

This Sumerian version seems to have had a political purpose.  The king was said to have survived the flood because a god who favored him learned about it and warned him.  When the flood was over and the waters had receded, there was a ceremony at which the divine right of kings was established, as well as injunctions pronounced for the benefit of the priestly caste, which supported the king’s divine right.  The gods were said to have given mandates to humans that they were to build cities on holy places and to work for the observance of the divine laws.

The Babylonian flood story that has been preserved dates from about 1165 BCE, but it is believed that it dated at least a century or two earlier in written form. It is called the Atrahasis Epic, and is supplemented by Tablet XI of the well known Epic of Gilgamesh, which is definitely based on the same myth. The Canaanites knew of the Babylonian story.  Fragments of it were found in the Canaanite city of Ras Shamra. The Hittites were very familiar with it as well. The ancient Greeks probably knew of it from their contact with the Hittites.  The Greeks went on to create a new version of their own.  The obvious parallels between the two combined Mesopotamian tales and the Biblical account are striking.

In each story, (1) there is a history of the world which began before humans were created. (2) In each version, the events were divinely decreed. (3) The survival of each protagonist was due to divine intervention, a warning from the god.

Both heroes were given divine instructions on how to build an ark, down to the number of stories, decks, and compartments, along with the directions for building a roof, a hatch and instructions to insulate the entire ark with pitch to water proof it. Each version contained a reconnoitering raven and dove and a sacrifice whose sweet smell pleased each god.

But the differences between the combined Mesopotamian epics and the Bible myth are telling.  The gods in the Atrahasis Epic were annoyed because humans made too much noise.  One god in particular, Enlil, was enraged by the human disturbance.  When the assembly of gods finally decided to wipe out mankind, they forgot that men sacrificed to them and fed them as well.  After the flood destroyed the human race, the gods were both starving and thirsty. The deities in the Mesopotamian Epic were depicted as petty and ineffectual, dependent on humans for sustenance. That was not the case in the Old Testament version of the Flood, in which there was only one supreme god, Yahweh, who was easily angered and overwhelmingly powerful.  His reasons for destruction were not petty- he was said to have rid the earth of all living things because of their corruption and wickedness.

In the next section of the lecture, I shall be going into what the Flood myth meant to the early Christian Church and why it was so important to believe and expound on the literal truth of the Biblical tale.  But I am also going to glance at some other “hidden meanings” that scholars, historians, psychologists and folklorists have purported to find in the Great Flood narrative. I am of the opinion that each of these interpretations gives a partial explanation for why the myth has endured for so long. There is no scientific evidence for the inundation of the whole world. 

There is only the evidence of local flooding, which would have ravaged the inhabitants and the civilizations of the cities and areas where they occurred. The local floods would have been so devastating as to be remembered and the memories passed on to future generations. 

Noah’s flood remains of enduring interest today, when creationists continue to attack science and insist on the literal truth of the story.  The Flood myth is without doubt a gripping tale.  Most Christians believe god will destroy the world a second time. Religious people believe the destruction next time will be brought about by fire, and that all the righteous will be saved.  The first time only Noah’s family of eight was saved. Presumably there will be many more righteous people when the time comes for the Last Judgment. What will happen to animals the second time around is a matter of debate.

But the “hidden meanings” of the Noah story are worth perusing.  Norm Cohn’s 1996 volume, Noah’s Flood, is an extremely erudite and excellent study.  Cohn and other historians offer the most convincing interpretation of the Flood, having to do with the collective redactors of the Old Testament- those men who collected the traditional material and then edited it.  Two scribes, J and P, as they are known, contributed to Genesis 6-9.  While the J and P versions were highly indebted to the early Mesopotamian narratives, the J and P redactors were also intent on transforming the myth for their own purposes.  J’s date remains somewhat unclear, according to the late Professor Cohn.  But P’s date, the Priestly version, has been loosely fixed at 550-450 BCE.

Since those dates seem to be correct, the P version would have been composed either during the Babylonian exile or while the scribes and the people were still under the impact of the experience, according to Professor Cohn.  It was in 597 BCE that Nebuchadnezzar took over Jerusalem.  Most of the skilled artisans and the important citizens were deported to Babylon, starting with the king and his family. The a few years later, the Temple of Solomon was completely burned, Jerusalem’s walls were razed and the area of Judah lost all of its independence.  “In ancient Near East literature,” states Cohn, “invasion and conquest are commonly symbolized by nature- storm and flood- which is sent by divine decree.”

The righteous ones, a small group of the exiled community, identified themselves with Noah.  That group, “either in Babylon, or after returning home to Judah, would define righteousness, as above all, devotion to only one true god.” Monotheism was firmly established, and with it, devotion to a god who was all powerful, not to be questioned, reasoned with or even to be understood.  We shall see, when we examine the Noah narrative vis-à-vis the Christian Church, how the Christian theologians and writers, the Church Fathers, viewed and made use of the flood narrative with regard, not to the past or the present, but to the future.  It was meant to predict the fulfillment of god’s plan for mankind.

Other, more contemporary interpretations of the Flood are illuminating as well. I am a proponent of a theory which was posited and discussed by the respected scholar, Sir James Frazier, in his 1890’s Golden Bough.

(Please see my lecture about the Virgin Mary and Jesus at believed that many diverse gods and heroes, what he called “Dying and Reviving Gods,” were modeled on the spirit of vegetation, the cycles of death and rebirth.” Heinrich Zimmerman, a celebrated Professor of Assyriology, argued in 1899 that the hero of the Babylonian flood myth was based on a sun god. About the same time, a Catholic priest of some erudition wrote a scholarly article stating that the god who unleashed the flood was the sun god, but that Noah was a moon god.

The psychoanalysts were not far behind the scholars. In the early 1900’s, Otto Rank, the Freudian, was most ingenious, combining myths of urination with those of being born, and also with sex to arrive at a psychoanalytic interpretation of the Great Flood narrative.  He found the Noah story a splendid example of what he termed a “complex myth.” In his version of the narrative’s meaning, the Flood had a urinary origin, the Ark was the motherly womb, the exit from the Ark was birth, and the children fathered by Noah’s sons were more symbols of procreation.

In 1944, Eleanor Bertine, an American Jungian analyst, maintained that the Flood was a symbol of the unconscious, both a danger and a potential aid to healing.  In the 1980’s, the well-respected folklorist, Allen Dundes, decided that the Flood myth was concerned with males trying to imitate female creativity.  The patriarchal males of ancient societies, he maintained, were engaged in an attempt to gain control over man’s privileged position in the world by becoming progenitors themselves, at least in fantasy. 

He believed that men continued to cling to such magical thinking in the contemporary world because they felt increasingly threatened by “angry females dissatisfied with ancient myths which gave priority to males.”

The remarkable intellectual labors and ingenious interpretations generated by the Flood narrative makes clear how strong a hold the story has exercised over our human imaginations.  We shall see, when we learn more on this topic, how determined believers have been to prove the story of the Flood is not an allegory, but prophesy, not a fable, but a reality. 

The Christian Church was most concerned with Noah’s Flood.  Very early in the Church’s history, the Church Fathers adopted a type of criticism known as typological criticism, with which they studied the Old Testament. As a general term, typology is a way of classifying people or objects according to similarities, such as “a typology of Greek drinking vessels.”  In Christian theology, typology was very important as it was used to demonstrate that Old Testament figures and events were not only precursors, but predictors for the so-called facts of the New Testament.  This form of exegesis lasted into the high Middle Ages and was ultimately adopted by the Protestant Reformation, so that it was not confined to the Catholic Church alone. Today it has been largely discarded by most Christian religions, except for the Eastern Orthodox Church which uses it for doctrinal purposes.

The Great Flood, or Noah’s Flood, was very important to the Church Fathers, who explained in their writings that Noah was the “type” of Christ and that Christ was the fulfillment, the anti-type. 

Here is a quote from Augustine, the great 4th Century Church theologian: “In the Old Testament, the new lies hid; in the New Testament, the meaning of the Old becomes clear.”  Not only Church Fathers but many laypeople who were Bible readers had the same assumption until the late 19th Century.

We need to keep in mind that most early Christians were living in expectation of the end of the world in their own time. They expected Christ to return and judge the world during their lifetime.  Professor Norm Cohn explains that “… already the Jewish apocalypse spoken of in I Enoch, which was well known and highly esteemed in Christian communities, had presented the Flood as in a sense prefiguring the End of Time.” As a result, many Christians saw Noah’s Flood as a prediction of the flood of fire that was imminent.  Matthew and Peter commented on the Flood as a predictor of the Last Judgment.

Noah was given several typological roles.  He symbolized the believing Christians, the righteous who would, like Noah, be saved when the end came.  It did not take long for the typology to be extended to Noah prefiguring John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus.  John the Baptist was well known for repeatedly warning of imminent destruction.

The theologians and writers became even more ingenious with time.  Noah was transformed into a preacher. The writers claimed that god had commanded Noah to make a rattle to attract the attention of the sinful populace.  People wouldn’t listen, but god postponed the Flood to give them a chance to repent. The transformation of Noah into a tireless preacher whose efforts helped delay the Flood was extremely important. 

As time went on, and Jesus did not return, and the Last Judgment did not take place, an explanation was needed and the writers found it in the Noah narrative. God was delaying the Last Judgment to give people time to repent.

In some quarters, Noah came to be seen as a type of Christ.  As Noah survived and then emerged from the Ark, so Christ was resurrected and emerged from the tomb.  These events prefigured faithful Christians being resurrected into eternal life.  Noah, like Christ, was the head of a new, righteous race of mankind.  From Origen to Cyril to Augustine, the early Church Fathers wrote about Noah as the prefiguration of Christ.  They did this for the edification of the faithful, to reassure them of life to come in heaven as a reward for righteousness. It was an ingenious argument, and had a very long life in official Church theology.

An expanded version of the Great Flood’s significance was adopted by the Church, using allegory.  I am employing the dictionary definition of allegory so that its meaning will be clear.  An allegory is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; it is a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. Piers Plowman, written by the Catholic William Langland in approximately 1360 to 1387, is a story that is a religious allegory, a fable or parable.  Its meaning is the quest for the Christian life. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queenewritten in 1590, is an allegorical poem meant to glorify England’s Queen Elizabeth on many levels.  Allegory is a more complex form of the aforementioned typology.

Some of the early church men became masters at decoding and describing how every utterance, every episode, of the Old Testament, was an allusion to the putative facts recorded in the New Testament.  Such meanings merely needed to be discerned and interpreted. Indeed multiple meanings could be found, they believed, in any episode.  They had the notion that god had intended such allusions as well as arranging that the episode would be recorded.  Professor Cohn provides some examples of the practice.  Justin, a Church Father, discovered the entire story of salvation through Jesus was predicted by the Noah’s Flood story.  The wood of the cross was prefigured by the wooden Ark. The eight people saved prefigured Christ’s resurrection on the eighth day of the Sabbath.  Early Church Fathers treated that day sometimes as the eighth day and sometimes, as the first day of the week. Justin argued that the fact that the Flood covered the earth meant that god’s message was intended for all mankind, and not just the Jewish people.

Augustine was the most ingenious interpreter, discussing at length the features of the Ark and comparing them with the Christian Church.  The door in the side of the Ark was a symbol of the lance wound in the side of Jesus, which was a symbol for the believers who entered the Church through the sacraments which issued from that wound. Augustine stated that every detail of the Ark’s construction was a symbol of some aspect of the Church.  He emphasized that the Flood and the Ark were extensively connected to the City of God, which was the Church. He maintained that the Church was threatened and buffeted about in “this wretched world” the same way the Ark had been tossed about in the waters of the deluge.

We need to keep in mind that Augustine, considered one of the Church’s most important and brilliant theologians, was writing in the 4th Century CE.  Jesus and the Last Judgment, as I have mentioned earlier, had not arrived.  Salvation and damnation were not seen as imminent any longer.  But the world, so often and so extensively wicked, remained, and so did the Church, mankind’s hope for salvation.  Augustine argued that god could save Christians just as he had saved a remnant of humanity during the Great Flood.  There was only one Ark, according to Augustine and his fellow churchmen, meaning that there could only be one true Church.  The Church was prefigured by the Ark, but it was more glorious, transforming humans.

The Flood was said to prefigure the saving rite of Baptism as well. The dove that had returned to Noah and brought him an olive branch symbolized peace, hope for resurrection and life everlasting.  Such exegeses endured until the end of the 17th Century.

There were also historical interpretations, in which the Flood story was taken literally, leading to arguments and speculations as to how the food in the Ark had been stored and so on.  By the 17th Century, scholars were giving credence to the belief that the Flood was responsible for the present physical state of the entire earth.  We shall see how the controversy developed between theology and science from this belief, and how the conflict continues into the contemporary world.

We need to keep in mind the fact that most educated people, as well as the common populace, accepted the Genesis story as fact throughout the Middle Ages.  But by the late 16th century, the Church ceased to be the center of Western culture. 

The secular state was becoming stronger and more entrenched, while commerce was becoming very important and not inclined to be governed by religious ethics, which were most often theoretical rather than real. 

Science was becoming autonomous, with its own methods and laws.  Isaac Newton and his theory of gravity helped to confirm materialistic views, even though Newton was a devout Christian in his private life.  The concept of a mechanistic, clockwork universe caused many people to doubt miracles and revelation.  But at the same time, although weakened, religion did not wither. Most scientists of that era were convinced that they could reconcile the Bible and science, that it was a necessity to do so and that the reconciliation was the logical outcome of their intellectual labor.

The tendency to see in nature the unfolding of god’s plan, a plan necessarily viewed as wise and benevolent, was very strong in England. It was at Cambridge University between 1681 and 1696 that two very well-regarded professors, Thomas Burnet and William Whiston, came up with works to explain Noah’s Flood.  They both believed in the reality of the inundation of the earth and gave credence to the idea that it had been sent by god to punish man’s wickedness and sin.  They also believed in a fiery conflagration in the future that would end the world.  They accepted the more modern thinking that god operated through natural causes.  This latter notion gave them encouragement in their quest to explain the Flood in scientific terms.

Thomas Burnet wrote what was considered a masterpiece in his day, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1681. It was very influential.  I shall be glancing at other theories briefly in this lecture as well.  But it is impossible to do them justice in our limited time. 

Burnet believed the world had been a virtual paradise prior to the Flood.  The popular notion of a paradisal world before the Flood appears contradictory with the Bible. Genesis was very clear that when Adam and Eve sinned, they were expelled from a life of ease and plenty and sent into a world of hardship, pain and death.

Nevertheless, Burnet hypothesized that the previous paradise of the world fell to ruins when the perfect sunshine that always fell on the earth caused subterranean water to turn to vapor, pressing on the crust, which split.  The water then rushed from the crust, which caused the Flood.  He even calculated the date, which was sixteen hundred and fifty six years after the creation. But more importantly, he imaged that god had coordinated the degeneration of mankind with the production of the Flood- it was apparent to him that natural causes had unfolded according to god’s plan. Burnet then calculated the next phase of the earth, ending in the Last Judgment, which he thought would come about in around 1500 years. 

Whiston believed in cometary influence- that a large comet had passed close to the earth, leaving huge quantities of vapors which condensed into water on the earth, beginning the flooding.  The pressure of water on the earth caused cracks on it, though which subterranean water gushed forth, adding to the outpouring. He, too, believed god had punished the wicked through natural causes and that the next ending of the world would be fiery.

But different thoughts were stirring.  Edmund Halley, the astronomer, read two little known or noticed papers at meetings of the Royal Society, but never published them for fear of enraging ecclesiastics. 

In his summary, he stated that he thought the Flood had taken place, that it had been caused by a comet, and that an event such as this had happened many times in the past, wiping out whole races of men.  But he concluded that life always renewed itself and would continue to do so.  His work was finally published in 1725.

The existence of fossils, some of them sea creature fossils found inland, became a quandary for scientists to try to solve. It was commonly believed they had been deposited there by Noah’s Flood. Nicolas Steno, (1638-1686), a Dane who wrote about geology prior to his unfortunate religious conversion, came to some important scientific conclusions around 1667. He had found stratifications while excavating. He understood that the layers were all laid down in an orderly fashion, and could be dated by the embedded fossils, layer by layer. Steno maintained that since the lower layers contained no fossils, those layers had to have been formed before the beginnings of life.

Cohn states that Steno’s Prodicusof 1669, established three new sciences: geology, paleontology, and crystallography. In the 19th Century, Thomas Huxley, the well known advocate of evolution, credited Steno with creating the “principles of investigation that have guided the researches of paleontologists ever since.” Steno never wrote about geology again after he was ordained as a Catholic priest. 

Opponents of such contemporary ideas and champions of Noah’s Flood were John Woodward, (1665- 1728), and his enthusiastic follower, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733.) It was Scheuchzer who became one of the leading proponents of a very influential movement, diluvialism, or the theory of a catastrophic flood, a global one, that wiped out everything on earth.

However, scientific methods and thinking were beginning to prevail, and by the mid 18th Century, the mistaken view of fossils was beginning to be difficult to sustain.  In fact, the time line of the Bible was coming into question as well as the belief that the Earth was 6,000 years old.  Christianity’s traditional views were slowly being displaced. Many people were realizing that the world was not the center of the universe, and the idea of a closed world was giving way to the concept of a universe of infinite space.  But although the concept of space was being radically altered, the age of the earth had remained fixed at 6000 years.  Time conception altered more slowly than space conception.  The understanding that the age of the earth was around four and a half billion years old rather than 6000, was a long process filled with conflict, but in the end, science prevailed. Diluvialism was discredited, as well as catastrophism, the idea that the earth’s surface was changed by short-lived, violent events that could not be explained with reference to the forces at work in the present. Neither concept was totally discarded, but it was mainly religious fundamentalists and some of the uneducated who would entertain such notions after the 18th Century.

In 1693, John Beaumont, a Fellow of the Royal Society, noted that if it were possible to deviate from the Mosaic account, he would be inclined to view the earth as eternal, or at least, believe that its origins were so old as to be beyond our human knowledge. Professor Cohn states: “… one may suspect similar thoughts were often hazarded in London coffee houses.”

Count de Buffon, (1707-1788) the eminent scientist, wrote Époques de la natur in 1778, in which he maintained that the age of the earth was almost 80,000 years in existence.

This was a very important volume, as were all his works, which influenced two generations of naturalists. He was considered the father of thought in naturalism in the late 18th Century. His private manuscripts discussed the possibility of the earth’s age being three to ten million years.  He believed there had been many local inundations and that the Great Flood might have been a minor episode.  He thought people were fusing the memories of many different flooding events together.

Buffon speculated that the last Great Flood had been 35,000 years before mankind had come into existence.  He theorized that humans had emerged from Central Asia around six to ten thousand years before, and that they had been a naked, wretched lot.  As they were defenseless against the elements, Buffon argued that of course these humans would remember local inundations as catastrophes.  Local floods were undoubted devastations to the early people who lived through them.  Notice how the paradisal view of the earth and of humans prior to a Great Flood had completely disappeared in a serious scientific work of the late 18th Century.

James Hutton, (1726-1797), the Scottish geologist, is known as one of the founders of historical geology, but Professor Cohn and other scholars believe his greatest achievement was “to have perceived in mere stones the proof of the unimaginable antiquity of the earth.” His Theory of the Earth, 1795, portrayed the earth as a self-regulating machine, as well as a self-renewing one.  Just as Newton found an unchanging order in the heavens, so Hutton stated that the earth’s history had the same unchanging order.  Here is how he closed his volume: “We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

While we now know that the earth is most likely about four and a half billion years old, Hutton’s statement helped to open up a magnificent vista of time.

Hutton was a pious, conservative man.  But when his expanded two volume Theory of the Earth was published, it was greeted in England with anger and dismay.  Britain had been shaken to the core by the anarchy that had reigned during the French Revolution of 1789. The English blamed deism, skepticism and atheism for having influenced people to commit the excesses and violence that were so prevalent at the time of the Revolution. They believed that Hutton was somehow in league with these wicked people, the irreligious, when he argued for the immense age, possibly eternal age of the earth.

There was monumental disorientation produced by the new geological discoveries; many people felt they had lost their emotional security.  In such a climate, it was not difficult for fundamentalist thinkers to experience a rise in popularity once again, in the hope that they would shore up the notion of a global inundation.  In some quarters, their theories were a comfort. For those fundamentalist writers and for those who embraced their theories, the notion of a global Flood became an article of faith.  Biblical inerrancy was reiterated, and such regressions in thinking seemed to restore order to mankind.  Unfortunately it has remained necessary in the present day to combat the same obscurantism that has sought to discredit science for several centuries. We are still in conflict with creationists in the early years of the 21st Century, with no end in sight.

The 19th Century saw the rise of scriptural, or Mosaic geology, which may be attributed to the recurrent desire to reconcile the Bible with geology. Young Earth theory, the belief that the earth was 6,000 or so years old, and a literal Biblical exegesis was popular among fundamentalist authors.  Martin J.S. Rudwick asserts that many of those writers were erudite Biblical scholars, but most of them had never studied a rock or a fossil at first hand.  In the early 19th Century, the French pioneer geologist, Georges Cuvier, put together a synthesis of scientific evidence that demonstrated the earth had suffered a series of catastrophic events that did wipe out some life forms but also gave rise to other unprecedented forms in their aftermath. He dismissed the idea of Noah’s Flood being the singularly isolated event responsible for creating extinctions, but he unfortunately stated that the last of the extinctions was caused by the Biblical Flood.  Mosaic geologists used his theory to reinforce their fundamentalist notions.  However they were disingenuous when they did so, as has been noted in contemporary works by serious scholars.

Around 1831, Adam Segwick, the influential president of the English Geological Society, openly criticized the nonsense of giving any credence to Mosaic geology rather than learning from the facts that could be observed in nature.

Scientists such as the British geologist, Charles Lyell (1797-1875), were resolved to establish and maintain geology’s cognitive boundaries. Lyell stated that he was determined to “free science from Moses.” He saw his task as that of connecting the present state of earth with its past by identifying the successive states it had passed through, in other words, a causal analysis. 

He tried to limit his research by insisting that only those forces known to be in action today could be evoked to explain the past.

Lyell was guided by several principles, but one of the most important was that fossil strata could be dated by reference to the proportion of extant species they contained.  He challenged catastrophism and vehemently argued, in his 1830 Principles of Geology, for a concept of a gradual change of the earth over the centuries, and for the idea of strictly local floods rather than one Great Flood. He stated that clerical geologists should not try to do two jobs at once.  He made a deliberate attempt to exclude so-called biblical geological research from scientific geological reasoning.  Lyell depended on known natural causes, and nothing else for his sources of knowledge. He was a strong proponent of gradualism, the gradual change of the earth’s surface, sometimes called Uniformitarianism. Gradualists believed that the “present is the key to the past,” insisting that geologists should not posit changes to the earth from any forces not apparent in the present. Lyell’s theories quickly became more popular and influential than those of the Mosaic geologists.

In recent years, some historians of religion and science have attempted to cast the efforts of Lyell and other professional geologists to exclude Biblical tenets from their science as a culture war, a struggle for hegemony in the field.  I cannot accept such an attempt at minimizing the genuine ideological conflict between biblical geologists and secular ones.  The history I have just related speaks for itself. 

I refer you to Ferngren’s Science and Religion Anthology in the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture, “The Conflict between Religion and Science,” for an extended look at the conflict and the publications engendered by it on both sides of the divide. We can be most thankful for such men as Charles Lyell that Mosaic geology did not prevail for very long in the geological sciences. 

We have seen the gradual change brought about by science in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when even fundamentalists grudgingly had to accept the concept of fossil fauna changing through time.  However, they did not like it, and when Christians don’t like facts that might cause reasonable people to change their minds, they come up with a religious or Biblical theory to support religion.  This brings us to the Seventh Day Adventist school teacher, George McCready Price, (1870-1963), a man with no training in geology or paleontology and with a background of only a few college classes.  His book, The New Geology, 1923, was influential in the creationist movement, but his ideas were taken up by creationists more extensively after his death. He came up with the ingenious idea of Flood geology, a term that has inspired creationists and annoyed genuine geologists and paleontologists ever since.  Each new creationist generation rebounds from its fantasy being discredited by sound science with a slightly modified version of Flood geology. One so-called theory after another has been shown to be incorrect, unscientific and often disingenuous. Exposure of their fallacious notions has not yet stopped fundamentalist efforts to find some way to disprove the scientific geological facts.

Price maintained that the Great Flood could account for the entire fossil record.  He was either unaware or had discarded the fact that religious geologists of the 17th and 18th Centuries had engaged in a serious attempt to prove that Noah’s deluge could account for the fossil record.  We have seen how they were forced to abandon the idea.  Prices’ so-called theory involved the notion that it was helpless invertebrates that were first caught by the Flood. He maintained that the land animals, who had either fled to higher ground or been carried by the flood waters to a higher level, had left their fossils on the upper strata.

Henry M. Morris, a hydraulic engineer, and John C. Whitcomb, an Old Testament theologian, published The Genesis Flood in 1961. Their volume has had many printings and is one of the most influential of all the works written by religious advocates of Flood geology. In Genesis Flood, they commenced to rework Price’s theory.  In their more elaborate conception, they claimed that fish and the hard, weighty shells of marine invertebrates would be found in the lower levels of earth strata, and the more advanced animals, reptiles and amphibians would occupy the middle. They theorized that the top layers would hold the fossils of “smart”mammals who would have known enough to climb to the highest levels to escape the rising waters. To discredit their theory, one merely needs to look at our national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, which contain long stretches of geologic time.  “Dumb”marine animal fossils are found on top of the fossils of the “smarter” animals.  There are other examples all over the world, where the fossils of all the life forms are found mixed together, exposing the creationist model as completely erroneous.

The supreme irony of the creationist position, according to Donald Prothero, is that the geological disproof of flood geology is found just under the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which purports to explain life on earth with Biblical stories. Professor Prothero explains: “The museum is built upon the famous Ordovician rocks of the Cincinnati Arch, which span millions of years of later Ordovician. “Prothero states that he has often explored around the slopes of that area and has observed hundreds of “finely laminated layers of shales and limestones, each full of delicate fossils, trilobites, bryozoans and brachiopods preserved in life position that could never have been disturbed by flood waters.”

Prothero goes on to explain that over a century ago, paleontologists documented how such communities of fossils change and evolve through time, and they can tell what part of the Ordovician each layer comes from.  It would have been impossible for hundreds of delicate layers to have been deposited in a single Noah’s Flood.  The Answers in Genesis Ministry that built the Creation Museum apparently never thought to examine the land they built it on carefully. I wonder if they hired engineers to examine the land prior to building the Museum. The engineers had to have known.

Prothero states that Big Badlands of South Dakota is one of the richest vertebrate-bearing fossil deposits in the world.  Prothero did much of the research for his doctoral dissertation there. He says that there is an interesting sequence of fossils from the base of the sequence to the Chadron Formation just above, and then to the overlying Brule Formation.

There are marine fossils at the base. But in the mid-level Chadron formation are late Eocene fossils, many of which are very large, even spectacular animal fossils, such as the huge rhino-like brontotheres.  Then, at the overlying Brule Formation, there are a great number of fossil mammals, many of them rodents, who could never outrun brontotheres.  The most amusing find on that overlying formation, however, is that the greatest numbers of fossils are tortoises!  That fact alone disproves Morris and Whitcomb’s spurious Flood geology.  According to Morris and Whitcomb, all those tortoises should be on the bottom layer.

I would like to quote Henry Morris on the “main reason for insisting on Flood geology.” I believe that it admits to his real intention to discredit science and shore up religion. This quote from Morris is from 1970.  “The main reason for insisting on the universal Flood as a fact of history and as the primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God’s word plainly teaches it!  No geological difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture.”

The following discussion concerning how the creationist movement has zeroed in on the Grand Canyon in an attempt to prove fundamentalist claims is gratefully dependent on Donald Prothero’s volume, Evolution, 2002.  I have quoted from his book frequently and copiously in the ensuing section.

The Grand Canyon is a perfect target for creationists.  I plan to go into some of the reasons creationists have for making the geology of the Grand Canyon a stalking horse behind which they seek to hide their true intentions.

But before I do, I would like to discuss an ongoing controversy that is an excellent example of how deeply creationists have penetrated and how far they have gone in their quest to challenge and overthrow scientific geology.  A Different View, 2003,a creationist book on the formation of the Grand Canyon, was placed in the visitors centers on the rim of the Canyon in that year.  It is apparently still on sale there, despite protests from rangers and geologists at the Canyon. This creationist view of the Canyon’s formation was edited by a river guide, not by a geologist.  The guide had undergone a religious conversion experience, which apparently gave him credentials equal to a PhD in Geology and Paleontology both. 

The book voices the views of a specific religious minority and selling it at a Federal venue seems to be unconstitutional.  The volume is also offered on From the reviews I have read at that site, the volume seems to convince and reinforce religious conservatives in their erroneous conviction that the Genesis Flood myth is accurate.  The sale of such a book, as well as the vociferous insistence of creationists that their views should be considered equally along with scientific geology and evolutionary biology, underscores an egregious fact. The United States is in the position of having the folklore and mythology of an ancient people who had no access to modern science being put in competition with some of the most advanced science of the 21st Century. 

Why have creationists focused on the Grand Canyon? The Canyon puts forward evidence that the earth is millions of years old.  It is one of the best presentations for proof that the earth has a long history. 

People come from all over the world to see the beautiful scenery and the rock formations at the Grand Canyon.  There are pictures, books, postcards, t-shirts and other products that have been seen and distributed all over the world to thousands of people.  What better spot to demonstrate creationist notions under the guise of scientific geology than the Canyon?  In fact, creationists have virtually ignored other national parks and geologic formations.  They are focused on the best known and best publicized national park in a desperate attempt to “prove” that the Grand Canyon is the result of a single Noah’s Flood.  They try to fit the Canyon into a Procrustean bed of their preconceived notions and do not appear to have ever examined flood deposits and ask what they should look like.

But creationists have a goal beyond the Grand Canyon- they seek to demonstrate that all geology can be explained by the Genesis Flood Myth.   However, geologic scientists, especially sedimentologists, have become like forensic detectives. For quite a while, they have had the knowledge and tools they needed to have studied actual flood deposits and to have learned exactly what they should look like.

As Donald Prothero states: “If Noah’s Flood Story were actually true, we would expect to find that the geology around the world (not just the Grand Canyon) would begin with coarse-grained, poorly sorted deposits of sand and gravel, and boulders from a fast-water stage of flood.  Once a flood recedes, it can leave only one kind of deposit: a single layer of mud. Most floods inundate an area, and then the mud slowly settles out of suspension from the standing flood waters until it accumulates in a thin layer. 

Even a worldwide flood would produce only one relatively thin layer of mudstone, not shale, because that requires burial and compaction over millions of years.”

Prothero continues: “How does this compare to the real Grand Canyon?  It’s not even remotely close!  Even a cursory glance at the sequence of layers in the Grand Canyon shows that it is highly complex and cannot be explained by a single super flood (or even many floods, if that were an option). “There is,” explains Professor Prothero, “no great deposit of coarse gravel and boulders near the base representing the high-energy phase of rapidly moving water. For another reason, the upper part of the Grand Canyon sequence above is not just a single, thin layer of mud.  Instead, it is a complex sequence of shales (not mudstones), sandstones and lime stones that alternate in a sequence that resembles no known flood deposits.”

There is also a large quantity of mud cracks in the shale units of the Grand Canyon.  Mud dries and cracks.  So common sense dictates that the mud was deposited and then dried up, not formed during the immense action of a flood.  There are hundreds of mud cracks and they are sometimes in a long sequence. It is quite obvious that these rocks demonstrate dozens of small episodes of mud depositing and then complete drying.  Any other type of unusual features some creationists attempt to mention as proof of inundation is incorrect, such as synaeresis cracks.  These cracks are also inconsistent with Flood geology.

Here is another observation from Prothero. He states that all the ancient Grand Canyon series rocks at the base of the canyon are now found tilted on their sides, eroded off on the edges, and then the rest of the Grand Canyon strata are deposited on top of them.  Prothero states that a flood geologist cannot explain this. “If they had been deposited by the Flood, this huge supernatural force would have rapidly tilted them on their sides and they would have all slumped downhill, only leaving big gravity stump folds. They have not.”

Professor Prothero demonstrates that one of the best proofs that Noah’s Flood did not form the Grand Canyon is “the distinctive white band that is visible just below the rim on both sides of the Canyon, known as the Coconino sandstone.  This unit has huge cross-beds that are only known in large-scale desert sand dunes, not underwater.  They also have small pits that are characteristic of the impacts of raindrops.  How did raindrops land on these surfaces if they were immersed in a great flood?  Even stronger proof is that quite a few of the surfaces of the dune have the tracks of land reptiles.  How does a creationist explain these- the dry sand dune features and land reptile tracks?”

Let us not forget that some two hundred years of mainstream geology has proved that the geologic record is too complex to fit into the simplistic Bible myth of Noah’s Flood.  Many of the scientists who conducted this research were religious, as we mentioned earlier, and they abandoned the attempt.  Creationists continue to twist and turn real data, trying to fit it into their fantasy of the reality of the Noah’s Flood, and ignore evidence that no true scientists would ever be allowed to overlook.

Time does not permit more than a glance at the dispute about the Grand Canyon, so please consult Donald Prothero’s volume, Evolution, particularly pages 58-78, listed in the Bibliography of the written lecture at 

In that short section, he quite effectively dismantles the Noah Flood fantasy and proves the falsity of the claims of creationists that the Grand Canyon was formed by so-called inundation.  His science is impeccable and his prose accessible and easily understood by the lay person.

In the present day, we have seen how fundamentalists cling to Flood beliefs.  Most of them give credence to the idea that the Great Flood is a historical fact.  If the creationists ‘give’ too much on this issue, they are afraid they will be jeopardizing a major tenet of their belief system.  For a detailed discussion of creationism please see my lecture on YouTube, “Evolution versus Creationism,” as well as the expanded text of the written lecture on

In our limited time, I am able to merely touch on some of the contemporary attempts to find Noah’s Ark.  Hector Avalos has detailed many of them in his article on Noah’s Flood.  (The reference to Avalos’ article is in the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture on this topic.) Avalos discusses, among other attempts to prove the historical reality of the Great Flood, the 1993 television documentary, “The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark,” which was produced by Sun Pictures under the aegis of Davis Balsiger.  Avalos states that Balsiger has authored other dubious efforts to support Biblical beliefs.  “Soon after,” says Avalos, “the program’s airing on CBS, a skeptic named George Jammal announced that he had manufactured some of the items that were treated as relics of Noah’s Ark in the televised program.”

He helped expose the fact that many Christian apologists, including the noted creationist, John Morris, who at one point apparently accepted Jammal’s artifacts as authentic, were uncritical in evaluating data.

The 20th Century also witnessed other Ark sightings.  A Russian airman was reputed to have found the remains of Noah’s Ark on a slope when he flew over Mount Ararat in 1916. Three American religious magazines reported that the Czar was apparently so impressed that he sent out an expedition that found the Ark.  Unfortunately, this momentous event happened in 1917, and in the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution, the evidence was lost. Then in 1953, the Chicago Sunday Tribune said that the evidence for the finding of the Ark was in the Geneva Library.  A believer searched the library for a year and could not find the Russian report.  Two of the magazines then retracted their stories.

How did Christians decide that Mount Ararat was the site of the Ark’s landing?  At first they were slow to conclude that Mount Ararat was the correct site. Genesis states that it was in the “mountains of Ararat.” But it was difficult to ascertain what was meant by that and where the region was.  There was an Ararat, a small, Northern Armenian district, that contained a tall peak, now named Mount Ararat.  By the end of the Middle Ages, there was a consensus by Christians that the Ark’s landing site was Ararat.  Ararat was, and still is today, a difficult mountain to climb.  The Armenian people had a tradition that not only was it impossible to climb but forbidden by god. 

Apparently some people had climbed it, however, because relics from the Ark were surfacing by the 17th Century.  Christian monks had come to live on the sides of the mountain and in return for curing a monk of a hernia, a Dutch traveler in the area claimed that he had received a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark. The same traveler reported that people were making medicinal powder from the pitch that had coated the Ark.  In Persia, there was a cross made of hard black wood, said to have come from the Ark.  Such relics may be presumed to be as concocted as the splinters of the cross on which Jesus was supposedly crucified and other specious artifacts. Sacred curios have traditionally been used to bilk believers of their cash or to convince the credulous of the truth of Biblical myths.

In the 19th Century, a few climbers and expeditions managed to make it to the top of Mount Ararat, and failing to find Noah’s Ark, erected successive series of crosses on the summit. Between 1952 and 1969, a French industrialist and explorer claimed to have sighted the Ark several times on Mount Ararat. He began by reporting that he had seen the hull of the Ark in the ice.  Later he dug down into the ice and found hand-tooled pieces of wood.  However, when his wood was scrutinized by a carbon test, it was found to be dated from the 7th Century CE at the earliest.

The American astronaut, James Irwin, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 15 Mission in 1971, mounted some expeditions to find the Ark.  He wrote a book, More Than an Ark on Mount Ararat in 1985.  He admitted failing to find Noah’s Ark, but discussed the spiritual values that he and his team had acquired during the quest.

In 1998, the oceanographers, William Ryan and Walter Pittman, published Noah’s FloodThe New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History. Their volume maintained that the Flood was a real event that had created the Black Sea about 5600 BCE.  The authors argued, however, that most people survived the inundation because they had time to flee to safer areas.  The survivors retained the flood memory and reported it to succeeding generations, according to the authors.  Ryan and Pittman did not provide any scientific criteria, Hector Avalos states, to prove that they could distinguish a “genuinely preserved memory” from a later literary creation. For instance, why did the surviving humans have the spectacular memory of a boat on the top of a mountain since they did not need a boat to escape in?  Thousands of people apparently reached safety without a vessel.

Donald Prothero brings up an important consideration about the fantasies of flood narratives vis-a-vis reality.  He points out that real geologists could not do the work of extracting oil, coal, gas, groundwater uranium and other natural resources if they followed flood geology.  Interestingly enough, Prothero states that he knows many devout Christians personally in the oil and coal business, and these people laugh at the idea of flood geology.  They are paid to find resources.  Knowing the complexity of real geology that they have come across in hundreds of drill cores spanning the entire continent, they do not even begin to try to interpret these rocks in a creation mold, says Prothero.  They do, however, apparently believe in much of the rest of the fundamentalist credo.

It seems that when getting paid and keeping one’s job, reality, in other words, comes up against fantasy, reality wins.  Since other fundamentalist fantasies do not affect the livelihood of the religious engineers and geologists, they are quite content to believe in them.

Hector Avalos makes an excellent point about memories of local flooding when he reminds readers about the 2004 Tsunami, whose devastation was severe and overwhelming. It was not necessary for that horrific event to be a global one to have it preserved in people’s memories. Humans in the past who were caught up in local disasters would have reacted to local inundations that occurred from time to time with the same terror we contemporary people do.  Such harrowing events are burned in people’s memories. If an entire area and many people were wiped out by a local flood, it would be very natural to have the events handed down in stories of a flood that destroyed the whole world. The world that those earlier people knew had truly been annihilated.

Why do people continue to believe in the mythical narrative of Noah’s Flood? One reason might be that science has shown that time stretches back enormously far, that man’s history, by contrast, is very short, that our planet is a speck in the universe, and that we humans are like a grain of sand in the vastness of the cosmos.  Some people take comfort in the Flood story and the rainbow that promises god will no longer visit the earth with a flood that wipes out all life.  Theologians and writers have claimed that the story of Noah’s Flood symbolizes a promise of eternal life for faithful believers.

There is solace and hope, even though it is false, for the weak and needy in such reassurances.  Instead of finding joy in the natural world and in humankind’s survival in it by our own efforts, some of us cling to a fairy tale that is most suitable for small children before those children abandon magical thinking and learn to reason as adults.

For no matter how many levels and dimensions thinkers in the past have conjured up for Noah’s Ark, no matter how many pairs of living creatures the theologians have imagined could possibly fit in the Ark’s described dimensions, no matter how much rain, no matter how many days and nights the water came down, we are still left with another empty fable of Biblical proportions.  Hector Avalos has written a very lucid summing up.  He states: “There is no single layer of flood destruction that can be correlated around the globe or definitive evidence of an ark on a mountain.  In short, there is no evidence for the occurrence of Noah’s Flood, while a veritable flood of evidence points to its legendary character.”

From the time of the Catholic Bishop and theologian, Augustine, from the time of the Protestant Reformation of Calvin, to the time of the creationists of the present day, the Flood remains nothing but a myth, believed in by primitive peoples who had no other explanation for why they suffered rains, floods and tsunamis which killed great numbers of their small populations, leaving behind searing grief and hardship for the survivors.  Mankind is still plagued by devastating natural disasters. But we humans have learned how to harness nature and to use the resources from the earth, the forests and the winds to slowly erect great cities and vehicles that move us from place to place with stunning speed.  We have invented moving pictures with sound, phones to speak at great distances, and antibiotics to save lives. We have accomplished these things ourselves. We have no need to believe in a god who punishes our wrongdoings, and who then is said to turn into a benevolent god who saves us. Religion attempts to maintain its control over people by infantilizing and frightening them. We have progressed beyond the desire for supernatural solace or intervention. 

We have been standing on our own feet since we first emerged, and we shall continue to do so.  To attribute any events, natural or human, to a supernatural force, is to denigrate humans’ ability to invent, problem solve and overcome. We have puzzled out the structure of the DNA-helix, which is the molecule that carries genetic information from one genome to another. We have mapped the human genome. We have already created animal life in the laboratory and we are on the verge of creating human life as well.

We are at the end of this lecture but before concluding, I would like to, once more, in this series of lectures, remind us all of the efforts of creationists, fundamentalists and obscurantists to keep knowledge of evolution, geology, and other sciences out of our children’s classrooms and textbooks.  We must fight them step by step, inch by inch, dollar for dollar.  Let us work unremittingly to keep superstition, childish nonsense and dark fears out of our lives, our children’s lives and our open-ended futures. Why am I dwelling on the fundamentalist threat?  Because it is so real and so dangerous to our secular future. 

Here is a quotation from Richard Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist, on the need to combat fundamentalism.  These are his thoughts on the struggle: “Once again, I am sorry to take a sledgehammer to so small and fragile a nut, but I have to do so because more than 40 per cent of the American people believe literally in the story of Noah’s Ark. We should be able to ignore them and get on with our science, but we can’t afford to because they control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers, and they include many members of the United States Congress, some state governors and even presidential and vice-presidential candidates. They have the money and the power to build institutions, universities, even a museum where children ride life-size mechanical models of dinosaurs, which, they are solemnly told, coexisted with humans.”

Here are the eloquent words of Darwin on the scientific viewpoint concerning man’s natural, biological evolution from simple forms:  “There is grandeur in this view of life … and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Video of Lecture: Noah, Ark, and Water

Lecture: Noah, Ark, and Water

Video of Discussion: Noah, Ark, and Water

Discussion: Noah, Ark, and Water


There are additional volumes and articles listed in the bibliographies under the lectures for Biology, Geology, Evolutionary Biology, Paleontology, the Conflict between Science and Religion, and Evolution and Creationism.

Avalos, Hector. “The Flood Myth and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 576-578.

Cohn, Norm. Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1996.

Dundes, Alan, Ed. The Flood Myth. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Prothero, Donald R. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Illus. Carl Buell.  New York: University of Columbia Press, 2007.   Prothero discusses “The Surreal World of Flood Mythology” in an excellent segment from pp 58-78.The volume contains an excellent bibliography as well.

Rudwick, Martin J.S. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology.  2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.