“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Matthew 24:37-39)

Over at First Things there is an interesting debate taking place regarding the historical meaning and value of a statement of Jesus which is, ultimately, a question regarding the historical nature of the Bible and the nature of history itself.  The original context for this current debate was a dispute between Joe Carter and David Hart regarding biblical teaching on capital punishment. Mr. Hart took issue with Mr. Carter’s original column and in the comments to Hart’s post, Joe Carter responded to participants who assailed him for his fundamentalist and literal reading of the Bible. The response of Carter, below, to one respondent should give a fair sense of the issues:

“@Andrew Lyttle ***If you really believe Noah was a real historical personage, then indeed we have nothing to talk about. Your view of scripture, of history, and of reality in general is so alien to mine that we clearly have no common ground.***

I am indeed an untutored fundamentalist who believes, as Jesus did, that Noah was a real historical personage. As Jesus said,  "But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be."

But what did he know. He was just a first century Jew living in Palestine. He didn't have the book learnin' necessary to understand that Noah couldn't have actually existed.”

This citation from Matthew 24:37-38, embedded in the comment above, is proof Carter states that Jesus believed Noah was an historical person and so proof that Noah was an historical person.

Today, Carter has posted a longer response to those who question his claims that Jesus spoke of Noah as a real historical person because Jesus believed Noah was an historical person and so, unless Jesus is a liar, Noah was an historical person. Carter delves into a slight digression on kenotic theology, in which he discusses in what manner Jesus might have emptied himself of his divinity, though Carter himself does not assent to the claims of kenotic theology, concluding, however, that even those who do hold that Jesus “emptied” himself would agree that Jesus would not lie. He states,

To my knowledge, there are no advocates of kenotic theology that believe that Jesus emptied himself of all divine attributes. Had he done so he would be merely “fully human” and not divine at all. The question then is what divine attributes he would have kept in order to fulfill his mission.

While it would be presumptuous to attempt a complete list, I believe there is one class of attributes that must be included: Jesus would have kept whatever aspects of his divinity are necessary to prevent him from intentionally deceiving his followers.

I think the foray into kenotic theology is not that significant for his argument, finally, as discussions regarding the relationship of Jesus’ divinity and humanity date back into the ancient Church, often based on Luke 2:52,  “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” and is a major issue of its own, needing its own discussion, and a sidelight to the major issues Carter wants to address:  a) Jesus’ claim about Noah indicates that Noah was a real historical person and b) if Jesus claimed him as a historical person, and we deny that Noah was an historical person, we make Jesus, and God the father, a liar. No Christian who believes Jesus is both human and divine would claim Jesus as a liar, whatever their theological bent, so this, to my mind, is a question of biblical interpretation and history.

Carter can see four options for how to understand what Jesus said in Matthew 24:37-38 regarding Noah:

“For instance, there are only a few possibilities for how we can interpret Jesus’ claims about Noah and the days of Noah:

1. He knew that Noah was a real person and was speaking the truth when he claimed the patriarch existed.

2. He knew that Noah was not a real person and intentionally lied when he claimed the patriarch existed.

3. He knew that Noah was not a real person and was merely making a metaphorical or literary reference (e.g., he was referring to Noah like we would refer to Achilles).

4. He did not know that Noah was a mythical figure and in making the claim he was unintentionally misleading his hearers.

All Christians will reject the second option. If we believe (a) lying is a sin and (b) Jesus never sinned, then it follows that he could not have been intentionally lying in this instance. We can also reject the third option since there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.

That leaves the first and fourth options. My contention is that four should also be dismissed for reasons similar to the second. If God the Father is omniscient, then he knew about and approved of every word that would be uttered by the Son during his earthly ministry. If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.”

Carter is correct that Christians will reject the second option he lists, that Jesus intentionally lied, but his quick dismissal of the third and fourth options does indicate a narrow understanding both of history, biblical interpretation and, frankly, lying and deception. I want to look at the other three claims and comment on my sense of their merit.

“1. He knew that Noah was a real person and was speaking the truth when he claimed the patriarch existed.” The historicity of Noah is, of course, a possibility, but the close relationship of the Noah flood account to those found throughout the Ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamian versions in which Utnapishtim and Atrahasis appear in similar roles to Noah, which indicates to most scholars that the Genesis flood account is a variation of a mythic tale in which many cultures reflected theologically on the meaning of a great flood. The fact that the Genesis account contains, quite clearly, two different variations within it, P(riestly) and J(awhist) accounts, in which in P two pairs of every animal come onto the Ark and in J Moses takes seven pairs of clean animals and two pairs of unclean animals, also points to a reworking of the tradition not on the basis of historicity, but on concerns regarding issues of purity. If scholars today, though, reject the historicity not of a great flood in the Ancient Near East, but of the account of Noah, does that mean Jesus was wrong in believing there was such an historical person as Noah and so unintentionally deceiving his listeners and readers today by referring to Noah as a real person? Or was Jesus aware that Noah was not an actual person and so referring to Noah to make a theological point, though recognizing that Noah was simply a character in an ancient story and still deceiving his listeners? Are these the only options?

On point 3., “He knew that Noah was not a real person and was merely making a metaphorical or literary reference (e.g., he was referring to Noah like we would refer to Achilles),” Carter says, “we can also reject the third option since there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.” This is a strange argument, since the proposition is concerned with the belief of Jesus – “He knew that Noah was not a real person” – while the response is concerned with the beliefs of his hearers – “there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.” Whether the hearers at the time considered Noah a mythical figure has nothing to do with what Jesus thought and taught. I can speak to a child who considers Santa Claus as a real person who brings gifts on Christmas Eve, but this does not indicate that I share that belief. I do not mean the example of Santa Claus as rude or mocking, just an example that Jesus could hold beliefs different from those to whom he spoke. So whether people of Jesus’ time considered Noah an actual historical figure, and how Carter knows that they did believe this, I know not how, does not impinge on what Jesus thought. While I do not think that we can settle definitively what 1st century Jews believed on this particular score, it is probable that they did think of Noah as an historical person from the past. This does not settle, though, what Jesus himself believed.

This brings up 4., “He did not know that Noah was a mythical figure and in making the claim he was unintentionally misleading his hearers.” On this score Carter says, “If God the Father is omniscient, then he knew about and approved of every word that would be uttered by the Son during his earthly ministry. If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.” This is where I think major issues arise regarding interpretation, history and the meaning of deception, though theology could be added to the mix in addition.

I want to come back to these two points that are at the heart of Carter’s claims: a) Jesus’ claim about Noah indicates that Noah was a real historical person and b) if Jesus claimed him as a historical person, and we deny that Noah was an historical person, we make Jesus, and God the father, a liar. We need to look at the passage once more: “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matthew 24:37-39). Jesus is attempting to make the point that the day of the Son of Man will catch people unawares, happy in their lives, until Judgment falls upon them, just as it did in Noah’s day. I am not convinced that Jesus’ use of this example indicates that he thought Noah was an actual historical person, only that it is a worthy parallel to the need for preparedness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. His hearers most likely would have believed that Jesus was referring to an actual historical event and person, but if Jesus did not think the account of Noah was an historical account, does this mean that Jesus is misleading or deceiving his hearers? Does it mean what Carter says? “If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.” I simply do not see the deception, if Jesus presented Noah as a real person, because the theological point is to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man and the example provided by the Flood account of Genesis is an excellent example of the folly of turning away from God’s warnings. What does it matter if Jesus did not believe Noah was an actual person and his hearers did? The point is the same: prepare yourselves.

Nor do I see an issue if Jesus, according to our historical understanding of Noah today, “mistakenly” believed that Noah was an historical person. Jesus, as a first century Jew, must be bound by the understandings of reality that are shared by those amongst whom he lives and teaches, not due to his own limitations, but due to their limitations. On matters of theological truth, there is simply no way in which Jesus can lead anyone astray, but does this extend to matters of geography, chronology, and history? Could Jesus transcend his time and speak of the actual age of the earth, Big Bang theory, a modern cosmology, and the extent of the earth’s lands, including the Americas, Antarctica and Australia? What would be the point of it to a 1st century Jew? There would be no context in which this knowledge would be helpful or valuable. If knowledge is historically bound, and some forms of knowledge and understanding increase over time, one is bound to express the truth in terms which meet the listeners at a level which they can accept and understand. Revelation emerges in time, bound by the language, genre, and, yes, historical knowledge of that time.

Let me give another example from the New Testament about which Jesus may be said to be “deceiving” or “misleading” us: Moses’ authorship of the five books of the Law. The ancient belief, maintained by some Jews and Christians today, but not many, is that Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. According to biblical scholarship, which I accept on this score, there is no way in which this can be literally true, not only for powerful literary and historical reasons related to the texts themselves, but for the description at the end of Deuteronomy of Moses’ death. Yet Jesus refers to the belief that Moses wrote the five books of the Law on numerous occasions. In Mark 12:19, the Sadducees say, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.” In Jesus’ response, Mark 12:26, he denounces their interpretation of Scripture and God’s power, but not their understanding of authorship: “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” In John 1:45, Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." My final example is from Luke, where the risen Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

Are we being deceived and mislead by Jesus and by the Scriptures if Moses was not, as was believed and accepted in Jesus’ day, the actual author of the five books of the Law? I think not. This was a common understanding of Jesus’ day and it is not a belief upon which salvation hinges, just as belief in Noah as an historical or mythic figure is not a salvific matter. As far as I am concerned, whether one believes that Noah actually existed or that the five books of the Law were written by Moses is inconsequential. I do not believe these things because the evidence points me away from these things.  That Jesus would share the common beliefs of 1st century Jews on matters of the historical existence of Noah and the authorship of the Law by Moses does not indicate an attempt to deceive or mislead, nor does it indicate that Jesus was “wrong” concerning these things; what it indicates to me is a limited historical imagination on those who would make these things matters of "deception."

As Dei Verbum 12 states,

Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.

Balance that with Carter’s final statement:

I refuse to believe that the Father would allow the Son to deceive mankind about anything. Because of this belief, I trust that whenever Jesus made a claim about history that he is making an assertion that is trustworthy and factually accurate. I believe that Noah existed because Jesus tells me so. Unless I’m presented with evidence that is more convincing than the words of the Creator of the Universe, I’ll continue to trust that this belief is warranted.

Some Christians may claim they know more than Jesus about Antediluvian history. Others may even claim that the Father would allow his Son to deceive his followers. They certainly have the freedom to express those beliefs. But since I refuse to believe that God tells lies, I won’t be joining them in their self-deception.

The focus on the “literal” historicity of all events or persons described and discussed in the Bible by Jesus, or in the Bible as a whole, is a failure to recognize that Jesus’ primary purpose was to seek and to save those who were lost and that he came at a particular historical time and place. Jesus could not be an alien to that time or place, but it was essential that he speak in terms which were comprehensible, reasonable and sensible to the age in which he came. This is not deception, this is not a “lie”; this is a manifestation of God’s love for us as we need him to speak to us in terms which we can comprehend. If Jesus spoke of Noah as “real” and I believe he was not an historical person, or if Jesus attributed the first five books of the Bible to Moses, and I believe they were not written by him, this is neither a claim that Jesus was “wrong” nor a claim that I know “better” than Jesus. This is an acknowledgement of the way in which God must always speak to us.

“In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous "condescension" of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, "that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature."  For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (Dei Verbum 13)

Jesus was not limited in his knowledge, understanding and wisdom, but our ancestors were and we are today. Whenever we read the Bible, it is an act of translation and interpretation, which includes passages about which we continue to struggle to understand, even though we have an increased and better understanding and knowledge of history today than existed two thousand years ago.  Whether Jesus spoke of Noah as an historical person, though, is hardly an act of deception or of lies, whether in the ancient context or today, but a misunderstanding on our part of historical context, both then and now, of literary genre, and a misunderstanding of how revelation is constantly in need of interpretation, not for Jesus’ sake but for our sake.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

 

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 4/23/2011 - 9:01am
While I do not have the expertise of either E.B. Stansfield or John W. Martens, I would like to suggest that between "myth" and "history", one might find "legend".  Also, one might want to coin the term "post-Wellhausen scholar" to indicate someone who recognizes the presence of different strands in the early biblical texts but who does not adhere to Wellhausen's chronologies.
Edward Stansfield | 4/21/2011 - 2:16pm
Jesus, Noah & Moses: Response to Martens & Carter (3rd & final)


Widespread acceptance of Wellhausen’s hypothesis among Catholic theologians (Martens for example) has had a harmful effect on Catholic biblical education. The JEDP theory is a very skeptical explanation for the origin of the earliest scriptures in the bible and, (to be perfectly blunt) skepticism doesn’t sell bibles! Teaching about this theory in Catholic religious education and the theory’s inclusion in Catholic bibles actually discourages people from reading the bible or even buying the bible in the first place.
 
While these claims may seem extraordinary or counter to the prevailing thinking in academia, there is quantitative data to support them. The Christian Bookseller’s Association maintains a list of the top ten best-selling bible translations in the country. The best sellers are as follows:
 
1. New International Version (NIV)
2. King James Version (KJV)
3. New King James Version (KJV)
4. New Living Translation (NLT)
5. English Standard Version (ESV)
6. Holman Christian Standard Version (HCSB)
7. The Message
8. New International Readers Version (NIrV)
9. New American Standard Bible update (NASBu)
10. Reina Valera 1960 (Spanish)
 
All ten best-sellers have two things in common: they are all protestant bibles and they all reject Wellhausen’s JEDP theory. Martens assumes (as I’m sure he was taught) that JEDP is “fact” and “scholarship,” but the bibles on this list did not fall out of the sky. Scholars created them and rejected JEDP in doing so. This is not a small group of scholars, but rather, the translation and editorial committees that produced these bibles are generally larger then the committee that gave us the New American Bible. Furthermore, the list decisively proves that in order to get people to read the bible (and even buy it in the first place) you must achieve one essential prerequisite: throw Wellhausen under the bus!
 
Finally, Martens and Carter bring up Jesus and Martens claims that Jesus was ignorant of scripture because on several occasions he attributes certain passages of scripture to Moses. While Moses probably did not write the entire Pentateuch all by himself, he could easily have written all the passages that Jesus attributed to him. While I can accept Martens’ claim that Jesus could be ignorant of various matters and did not need to cram all the knowledge of the universe into his brain, I would not be so quick to accept the opinion that Jesus was so ignorant of scripture as to render him incompetent to serve as a preacher. While the ignorance of Jesus can be accepted theologically, ignorance to the point of incompetence is another matter, and should not be so blithely accepted just because a scholar has a theory.

Edward Stansfield | 4/21/2011 - 2:09pm
Jesus, Noah & Moses: Response to Martens & Carter (part 2)


Martens more serious error comes when he brings up his old pals, Mister J Source and Mister P Source. For those of you who don’t know, these two gentlemen sprang from the fertile imagination of a German theology professor from the 1800’s named Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen claimed that certain passages in the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the bible) were written by a hypothetical “J source” back in the 900’s BC while others were written by a similar “P source” in the 400’s or 500’s BC. It was traditionally believed that the story of Noah was written by Moses.
 
For some mysterious reason Martens brings up “J” and “P” as reasons to reject the existence of Noah. However, historically speaking, the question of whether J and P existed has nothing to do with whether Noah existed. Do we have any reason to believe that J and P were any more or less knowledgeable about Noah than Moses was? If the entire bible is divinely inspired regardless of who wrote it, then aren’t authorship and historical accuracy two separate questions? My suspicion is that Wellhausen’s followers tend to bring up his theory as a subtle way of implying that the scripture is not inspired and dismissing it from further consideration. Thus, J and P can be brought up to justify any attack on the value of the text.
 
Martens’ adherence to Wellhausen’s theory of four sources (J, E, D & P) is a major historical error. Wellhausen originally conjectured this hypothesis in his book, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. However, although he claimed his book was a “history,” the truth was that Wellhausen was a theologian and not a historian. He did not have a degree in history, and never did any historical research. In fact, Wellhausen put his earliest source in the 900’s BC because he wrongly assumed that there was no writing or civilization before 1000 BC. In reality, Hebrew writing has been discovered in Egypt dating back to the 1500’s BC and literate civilization is much older than that. While many theologians and professors of dead languages have advocated Wellhausen’s theory, none of them have ever uncovered any historical evidence to support it. While Martens claims that JEDP is “scholarship,” I can assure you as a historian that it is not history.
 
In his discussion of the flood, Martens unwittingly stumbles across two distinct flaws in the JEDP theory. The first concerns the animals Noah took into the ark. According to Martens’ uncritical acceptance of Wellhausen’s view, Mister J Source tells us that Noah took a pair of each kind of unclean (not kosher) animals into the ark, along with seven pairs of each kind of clean (kosher) animals. The historical problem is this: how would “J” and his audience know which animals were clean or not? According to Wellhausen, the kosher laws of Leviticus were supposedly written by “P” hundreds of years after “J” was dead and gone. This is a major paradox in the JEDP hypothesis that demonstrates that the J text could not have been written centuries before the P text.
 
Next Martens throws Utnapishtim and Atrahasis at his readers and unknowingly trips over another flaw in JEDP. Atrahasis and Utnapishtim (from the Epic of Gilgamesh) both date back to at least 1700 BC or earlier. However, if these flood stories provide us with the cultural context for Noah’s flood story from Genesis, then why should we believe that Genesis was written at least a thousand years later? Don’t these stories make an earlier date of Genesis more likely? When we compare the scriptures of the Torah to other ancient documents one clear trend emerges. The Torah bears a closer resemblance to documents written before 1000 BC than to documents written later.
 
The Pentateuch contains several statements that are obviously unlikely to be written by Moses. But why should we jump to the fallacious conclusion that the entire Torah was written after 1000 BC? Because Wellhausen said so? Why should I value his opinion of a historical matter when he’s not a historian and has no historical evidence? The fact is that the Torah contains the laws of the Old Testament and King David wrote three different psalms mentioning the law during the 1000’s BC. Ethan and Asaph, who were contemporaries of David, mentioned the law in their psalms, and Solomon mentioned the law in the proverbs. While other Israelites besides Moses surely contributed to the Torah, they most likely did so before David started singing songs about it. Everything not written by Moses himself could easily have been written before David’s time. That’s what the historical evidence says.

Edward Stansfield | 4/21/2011 - 1:52pm
Jesus, Noah & Moses: Response to Martens & Carter (part 1)

In a recent post Martens made the argument that the story of Noah from the book of Genesis is not necessarily historically correct just because Jesus mentioned Noah. In this he is probably correct. However, in making his case he made several conspicuous errors that should be corrected.
For one thing, Carter’s original argument that Genesis is not a “myth” is theologically correct. The papal encyclical Humani Generis specifically states that there is no mythology in the bible. It says, “whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity.” There are several official church documents such as Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum, which advise us that there are different forms of literature in the bible and then proceed to list several of these. However none of them include “myth” as a literary form that is in the bible.
However, just because the story of Noah is not a myth that does not mean that it is historically accurate. The timing of the story is determined by its place in the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 and genealogies are not intended to be chronologically accurate, but merely intended to demonstrate that so-and-so is descended from this other guy. Besides, biblical genealogies often skip generations. Thus there is no way of knowing exactly when Noah’s flood might have happened.
The story says, “19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits [4] deep.” What were “all the high mountains” from the author’s point of view? Neither Noah nor Moses nor Joshua nor Miriam nor the J source or P source nor any other possible author of the story had ever seen the Himalayas nor did they know how tall Mount Everest was. Likewise, the ancient Israelites had no topologically precise way to measure the heights of mountains. While the story is undoubtedly an accurate reproduction of the vision of the prophet to whom it was revealed, we should not infer too much geographical information from it.
The flood story implies that the world was flooded, but this is the world from Noah’s point of view. The flood would have covered a large area (there were many large floods in ancient and prehistoric times), but there is no reason to conclude that it was global. While the story is not accurate in every detail, it should not be dismissed as, “myth.”
WILLIAM ATKINSON | 4/19/2011 - 8:45pm
Message vs the Messenger or way messenger is story adlibing, will always cause tension and cause for concern in beliefs and faith.   In our age where knowledge and intellegence is expanding at a unfathomed metod mankind is suddenly thrown into the fray, even young minds question the strict adhearance to authoritated intrerpretation of historical concepts of science, philosophy and theology.  All those enities involved in massive religion education and existence now finds themselves deeply involved in movements of knowledge development and research like never experienced before and in some ways the old schools of thinking and dogmatic processes are passe:  Unfortunately we still have dictatorial empirical processes which will always put up barriers and blocks to discoveries and experments, but the dicotemy of different beliefs and faiths challenged by historical ideas will always be with us challenging the new world of massive information to come to terms with the messages and messengers of the past, so much to include the writers, authors, sayers of historical works, including old and new testaments such as the bible and other works of history are.
Anonymous | 4/15/2011 - 4:46pm
No one knows when Noah would have existed - but if we stipulate that it was before recorded history - i.e. 7,000 BC or so, it's plausible that a person who built a boat could have saved his family from a regional catastrophe - perhaps tsunami during a hurricane - that would have obliterated their entire known world.

What I find odd is the common reaction of many "theologians" to pooh pooh the existence of Noah and his Ark since it was 'merely' written about in our scriptures, but then give great archeological weight to pagan tomes of history or other works as though their authors never made mistakes or fabricated myths.... AND to assume that a miraculous flood could not possibly have happened, but by golly they're sure as shootin 'faithful Christians' who believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection so don't you dare question their faith! Uh huh. So a regional flood is impossible.... because we only have our holy book to go on...but the Incarnation and Resurrection are fact...why?
Now, I believe both in Noah's real existence and the Incarnation and Resurrection but then I'm merely a philosopher not a self-styled "theologian". The thing is, the crux of the argument is not found on textual analysis or cultural presuppositions, but on METAPHYSICAL presuppositions as to what is and is not "possible".

Muslims (and Jews) disbelieve in the Trinity (and Incarnation) because their metaphysics hold God to be incapable of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Modern "theologians" disbelieve in Noah (and Adam/Eve, etc.) because they apparently either implicitly or explicitly hold to a metaphysical (and therefore PHILOSOPHICAL) SCHOOL OF THOUGHT that precludes miracles from happening.

And amazingly, no one picks up on this. They're no longer making theologican assertions but philosophical ones, dressed up in theology. So let's go back to brass tacks, shall we? In Genesis 1:1 what do we read in our book of theology? "In the Beginning, God said...." The concept "beginning" is metaphysics, a truth claim about a state of being. The presence of God, the action of God comes next.... all theo-logy is built on a premise of metaphysics.

And thus most theological hereses are at their core, philosophical errors, not theological ones.
Chris Sullivan | 4/14/2011 - 5:32pm
Thanks John for an interesting and helpful piece which adresses important issues of scripture interpretation.

Similar points could be made about Jesus' references to Jonah.

I'm not sure than we necessarily have to read these passages as the Ipsissima Verba of Christ so much as the gospel author's use of ways of speaking about Noah, Moses and Jonah that made sense to them and their communities.

God Bless
Winifred Holloway | 4/16/2011 - 4:54pm
I am surprised of late when disagreements on the literal interpretations of scripture turn up in Catholic publications.  When I was a Catholic grammar school girl during the 50s and 60s, we were taught  that there was knowledge acquired by our minds and a knowledge learned by seeing with our hearts.  A knowing, if you will, not necessarily amenable to the rules of scientific inquiry.  Literal readings of scripture were thought to be wrongheaded and the sole provence of fundamentalist ''holy rollers.''  (I aplogize for the caricature, but that was the message then.)  I am hardly an expert, but one reason I believe scripture is so rich and so fruitful for readers is the dance back and forth between the words and imagery in the scripture,  and the imaginations and experiences of the readers.  In short, whether or not Noah was an actual person and the events described regarding the Flood were historical is not relevant to our belief.
Marie Rehbein | 4/15/2011 - 3:45pm
"The historicity of Noah is, of course, a possibility, but the close relationship of the Noah flood account to those found throughout the Ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamian versions in which Utnapishtim and Atrahasis appear in similar roles to Noah, which indicates to most scholars that the Genesis flood account is a variation of a mythic tale in which many cultures reflected theologically on the meaning of a great flood."

It seems possible that so many stories about a great flood mean that there was really a flood.  I think it is reasonable to believe that more than one individual rode it out, but that they did not necessarily know about one another.  The trauma of it, I would think, would lead to looking for deeper meaning.  (Nowadays we suffer from PTSD and take drugs instead) 

It just seems natural to me to think of Noah being an actual person who was the subject of an account handed down by those descended from those who knew him.  However, Jesus's point does not hinge on Noah being an actual person, does it?  Using Jesus's reference to claim absolute certainty about the flood and Noah seems rather narrow minded and improperly focused.