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Heresy and Noah

May 5, 2010
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Pat McCullough over at kata ta biblia has been doing some interesting posts on the historicity of the Bible (or lack thereof). In light of the most recent round of craziness on Noah’s ark (see my previous post here), his post on how It Doesn’t Matter if Noah’s Ark Existed is quite germane.

For some (distinctly American) Christians, the historicity of the flood is tied up into the very nature of Jesus Christ. Jesus mentions Noah in Matthew 24: 37-39. The reasoning goes as follows: If the flood didn’t happen, if there is no Noah, then Jesus is wrong, the Son of God is not infallible, and the Faith is a lie.

Pat responds to this (admittedly tortured) train of logic with the following:

But why can’t Jesus be culturally bound? Seems to me (reading his culturally bound parables, for instance, or about his culturally bound crucifixion) that he was. It also seems to me that suggesting otherwise feels a bit like docetism.

Indeed, Pat is quite right. In general, orthodox Christianity holds that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Christ’s divinity and humanity both need to be taken into account when discussing things like what he would or would not have known. To state that Jesus had to know something because of his divinity collapses his two natures, which is a theological no-no, especially in light of Philippians 2 and Paul’s discussion of Christ’s self-limitation in the incarnation. In other words, defending the faith by defending Noah’s ark winds up violating the faith it was based upon. Ooops.

At the end of the day, none of this should really matter when discussing the historicity of Genesis 6-9 or the validity of amateur archaeologists’ claims of giant wooden boats atop snowy peaks. These things should all be dealt with based on their own terms and only later brought together, when they show credibility on their own. However, it is not unique in the history of the Christianity for folks to use theological assumption as the judge of textual analysis or scientific discovery. We’ve been here and done this before.

  1. May 5, 2010 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the link love, Jim. I love it when my writing is called germane.

    This line is what I was going for: “In other words, defending the faith by defending Noah’s ark winds up violating the faith it was based upon. Ooops.” Well said.

  2. May 10, 2010 2:07 pm


    As you know, I put together a series in which I respond to this post as well; the first and last posts are:

    The bone I want to pick with you and Pat McCullough is the following.

    Given that it does not matter if Noah’s Ark existed, what does matter? What makes the flood narrative a superb vehicle for the communication of universal truths? What are those universal truths?

    So long as scholars like you fail to address these questions, however tentatively, I think you essentially concede the argument to those who read the texts naively (something I argue we can and should do) without the benefit of the enrichment that comes from understanding a text like the flood narrative as protological in nature.

    • May 11, 2010 8:18 am

      John, I don’t think it concedes my point to those who think the earth is flat (or 6000 years old) to say that letting a heterodox christology dictate the reading of science is a bad idea. Shades of Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler here.

      Both in your comment here (and in your own post where you mention this post) you seem to be faulting me for not dealing with an issue that I never set out to write about. The concern you raise really isn’t even on my radar. Why does the flood narrative need to be a superb vehicle of universal truths? And, even if I grant that point, does that necessitate that the flawed theological argument I mention in this post be allowed to stand? I don’t think so.

      Perhaps when I get a breather (after finishing grading, writing the last bits of the dissertation, finalizing my syllabus and finishing incantation translations due to Alan) I’ll be able to get back to this. But here all I can say is that I can’t abide the kind of pars pro toto arguments used by Young Earth Creationists and “arkeologists.” On the best of days they are creating a false dichotomy, and often the logic isn’t even that good.

  3. May 11, 2010 11:45 am


    Thanks for the conversation on this.

    I hope you do come back to the subject when you have some breathing room. As I’m sure you know, arkeology and young earth creationism strike me, no less than you, as indices of inappropriate expectations foisted on the biblical texts.

    Which is why I think it is important to broaden the discussion beyond criticism of inappropriate expectations to a discussion of appropriate expectations. It’s the natural follow-up question.

    After all, when you teach these texts, both Atrahasis and Genesis 6-9, I assume you strive to help students understand that the genre of protological narrative is well-suited to vehiculating the kinds of truth they seek to convey.

    I also concur that it would be a strong, contrarian thesis to argue instead that there is mismatch between genre and truth-content.

    Either way, here’s hoping that you will develop theses of your own, not only so that we can get a taste of the kind of dichotomies and logic that are congenial to you, but, first and foremost, in the interest of reading these texts for all they are worth. I continue to consider that the common point of departure for informed discussion of the texts.

  4. May 15, 2010 9:46 pm

    Jesus is neither culturally bound, nor mistaken. Jesus transcends all time. He is the Alpha and the Omega. If you accept that Jesus is the Word made flesh, you’ll have no problem accepting the Biblical flood. If someone thinks Science is the absolute, they’ll probably reject the second coming of Jesus also. Our faith doesn’t depend upon finding the Ark, or whether the Shroud of Turin is authentic or not. There’s a great cloud of other evidences, “many infallible proofs.” Yet, everything matters in some way, and to some degree, because it’s all part of the puzzle.

  5. May 16, 2010 8:38 am

    Thanks for your comment. There’s a lot there. I’m not trying to make science the only arbiter of truth, nor am I arguing for or against the second coming (though I have dealt with the Shroud a few times). What I find problematic is that belief in the incarnation would lead to a belief in Noah’s Ark. I don’t think that’s the case and think that most of the arguments linking them are problematic from within Christian theology.

    I think you’re falling into the same heterodox trap I mention in the post. Christian theology holds that in order to be the saviour of humanity, Jesus was both fully God and fully human. This is the essence of the incarnation.

    Throughout the history of the Church there have been numerous problems holding this balance in check. So for example, Ebionites and Arians overemphasized Christ’s humanity. Docetists and Appollinarians overemphasized his divinity. All were declared heretical.

    During his earthly ministry, Paul mentions in Philippians 2 how the eternal Son had to empty himself of his divinity in the incarnation. Part of this process entailed a limitation of knowledge (Irenaus spent a lot of time on this issue in his writings). To be fully human means to have a finite amount of knowledge. Saying that belief in the incarnation necessitates belief in an historical Noah stresses Christ’s humanity over his divinity.

    Now, this doesn’t entail that Christ currently has these limitations. Obviously, Jesus post resurrection is able to do things he wasn’t in his earthly ministry. (Note: it is the post-resurrection, post-ascension Jesus that states he is the Alpha and Omega, etc.) Theologians debate the if and how of Jesus’ limitation in the incarnation upon the exalted Christ. But, that’s not for me to discuss here and now.

    Sorry for the long response. Hopefully we can continue this dialog.

  6. May 21, 2010 9:49 pm

    I don’t think your response is long, but I needed a little time to get back to it. This is actually a huge subject. There are passages relating to it in Old Testament prophecies, as well as the New Testament. Jesus mentioned knowledge that as a man he had apparently not accessed. Mark 13:32, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

    It appears that in becoming a man, he limited himself in certain ways. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about the end times. In Matthew’s account of this in 24:35-39, Jesus speaks of Noah and the flood, as well as events of the future. In that instance, he mentions these things as if he knows them, and I believe he does. Note that in verse 35, he says that his words will not pass away. That can only mean that time will never prove him wrong. It can only prove him to be correct.


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