Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ancient logistics II

I’m going to begin by quoting from a classic attack on the biblical account the flood:

When one reads the story of the great flood in the book of Genesis, one is struck by the matter-of-fact style of the narrative. While it definitely has the larger-than-life flavor typical of legends, the reader would not suspect that he or she is dealing with the bizarre impossibilities we have detailed above. After all, the ancient Hebrews lived on a small, disc-shaped world with a dome overhead and waters above and below. There were only a few hundred known animals, and subjects such as ecology, genetics, and stratigraphy were not even imagined. The deluge was a mighty act of God, to be sure, but nothing that the ancient Hebrews would have found too extraordinary.

When, however, this same story is brought into the twentieth century and insisted upon as a literal account of historical events, a considerable change is observed. No longer a simple folk tale, it has become a surrealistic saga of fantastic improbabilities. Events which seem relatively straightforward at first glance—building a boat, gathering animals, releasing them afterwards—become a caricature of real life. The animals themselves are so unlike any others that they may as well have come from another planet; genetic Frankensteins with completely unnatural social, reproductive, and dietary behavior, they survived incredible hazards yet remained amazingly hardy and fecund.

How can we account for this transformation? Put simply, the tale of the ark grows taller in inverse proportion to the advance of science. Two centuries ago, when biology and geology were in their infancy, the theory of a worldwide flood as a major event in the earth's physical history seemed perfectly plausible and, in fact, was advocated by various scientists.


Notice Moore’s underlying assumption: the flood account is unrealistic because the primitive, unscientific author didn’t know any better. People back then were in no position to ask common sense questions about the logistics of the flood.

Let’s compare Moore’s assumption with some of Augustine’s observations on the flood account, as he considers various objections to the account by critics of the day:


For, not to mention other instances, if the number of the animals entailed the construction of an ark of great size, where was the necessity of sending into it two unclean and seven clean animals of each species, when both could have been preserved in equal numbers? Or could not God, who ordered them to be preserved in order to replenish the race, restore them in the same way He had created them?

But they who contend that these things never happened, but are only figures setting forth other things, in the first place suppose that there could not be a flood so great that the water should rise fifteen cubits above the highest mountains, because it is said that clouds cannot rise above the top of Mount Olympus, because it reaches the sky where there is none of that thicker atmosphere in which winds, clouds, and rains have their origin...They say, too, that the area of that ark could not contain so many kinds of animals of both sexes, two of the unclean and seven of the clean...As to another customary inquiry of the scrupulous about the very minute creatures, not only such as mice and lizards, but also locusts, beetles, flies, fleas, and so forth, whether there were not in the ark a larger number of them than was determined by God in His command...

For Noah did not catch the animals and put them into the ark, but gave them entrance as they came seeking it. For this is the force of the words, They shall come unto you, Genesis 6:19-20 — not, that is to say, by man's effort, but by God's will.

Another question is commonly raised regarding the food of the carnivorous animals,— whether, without transgressing the command which fixed the number to be preserved, there were necessarily others included in the ark for their sustenance...


There is a question raised about all those kinds of beasts...propagated by male and female parents, such as wolves and animals of that kind; and it is asked how they could be found in the islands after the deluge, in which all the animals not in the ark perished, unless the breed was restored from those which were preserved in pairs in the ark. It might, indeed, be said that they crossed to the islands by swimming, but this could only be true of those very near the mainland; whereas there are some so distant, that we fancy no animal could swim to them.



  1. When Celsus wrote against Christianity in the second century, and Origen replied in the third, there was already widespread discussion of the historicity of the Bible and of pagan accounts. For example, Origen refers to how a disciple of Marcion, Apelles, dismissed the Old Testament as legendary (Against Celsus, 5:54). Origen refers to logistical questions that had been raised about Noah's ark, the idea that the Pentateuch was written by a group of people rather than by Moses, and disagreements about how literally to take pagan accounts (Against Celsus, 4:41-42). Such issues were commonly considered and discussed among ancient Christians, Jews, and pagans, even well before Augustine's time.

  2. Dave Armstrong's going to zing you for quoting from a Catholic website, you know... Prots both (a) hate Catholics and are phobic about quoting from the Church Fathers, and (b) are dependent on Catholicism and the Church Fathers to do their intellectual heavy lifting. Apparently.

  3. This is one of the things that Jason just alluded to:

    "After this he continues as follows: 'They speak, in the next place, of a deluge, and of a monstrous ark, having within it all things, and of a dove and a crow as messengers, falsifying and recklessly altering the story of Deucalion; not expecting, I suppose, that these things would come to light, but imagining that they were inventing stories merely for young children.'

    Now in these remarks observe the hostility— so unbecoming a philosopher— displayed by this man towards this very ancient Jewish narrative. For, not being able to say anything against the history of the deluge, and not perceiving what he might have urged against the ark and its dimensions—viz., that, according to the general opinion, which accepted the statements that it was three hundred cubits in length, and fifty in breadth, and thirty in height, it was impossible to maintain that it contained (all) the animals that were upon the earth, fourteen specimens of every clean and four of every unclean beast."


  4. Steve, Ancient Logistics? "How ancient" are we talking about?

    Augustine wasn't around in 600 BCE when the biblical Flood story probably attained its present form, nor was he around when even older ANE Flood stories were written. (Same goes for your first "Ancient Logistics" post in which you cited Augustine musing on the existence of "waters above the firmament.")

    What I find interesting about Augustine is that he did seek to defend the Bible's primacy in matters both cosmological and historical. For instance Augustine spoke of the firmament being firm (yet turning, perhaps like an upside down bowl); and he denounced the idea that the lengthy lists of ancient Egyptian kings implied a genuine time line going back further than the Flood or further than the creation of the Bible's Adam and Eve.

    So Augustine was not a modern in respect to either cosmology or history, but a "defender of the Bible" . . . and a defender of damnation for unbaptized infants, and of celibacy, and the necessity of Christian rulers to persecute heretics.


    "Steve, Ancient Logistics? 'How ancient' are we talking about? Augustine wasn't around in 600 BCE when the biblical Flood story probably attained its present form, nor was he around when even older ANE Flood stories were written. (Same goes for your first 'Ancient Logistics' post in which you cited Augustine musing on the existence of 'waters above the firmament.')"

    Irrelevant. The salient distinction is not between one prescientific writer and another prescientific writer, but between scientific writers and prescientific writers.

    The question at issue is whether prescientific writers entertained common sense, logistical objections to cosmographical models.

    If they did, which is demonstrably the case, then you can't claim that Gen 1 is false because people in his day and age didn't think through the real world implications of a cosmographic model.

  6. Edward T. Babinski said...

    "What did Christians discuss most back then? Around the time of the Council of Nicea and for centuries afterwords, Christians debated theological issues, like Arianism vs. Athanasianism, and nuances concerning 'the Trinity.'... Donatism was of course a major controversy by Augustine's day, namely, whether or not bishops should be consecrated who had disavowed the faith under Roman persecution."

    Utterly irrelevant to the topic of the post. Desist from leaving irrelevant, off-topic comments.