Sunday, December 6, 2009

Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought

Having a previously unread book by Norman Cohn to read is something to look forward to. So, when Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought arrived in the mail, I commenced it in a state of pleased anticipation.

Entirely justified pleased anticipation. Highly readable, the product of great erudition, with many colour and black-and-white illustrations, Noah’s Flood takes the reader from the Mesopotamian origins of the flood story to the modern tendency for academics to seek hidden mythological meanings in the tale.

The bulk of the book is taken up examining the slow move away from the literal acceptance of the Genesis story. This was the heart of the book’s achievement and value for me: it really brought home how utterly accepted was the notion that Noah’s flood was a real, and a real universal, event in Earth’s history. Noah’s Flood conveyed, more powerfully than any other book I have read, just how much science has come to replace religion as a means for explaining why the world is like it is and how recent a change that is.

For example, prior to 1872 we had no knowledge that there were Mesopotamian precedents to the Genesis story: that is a product of C19th archaeology, particularly the energetic obsession of one George Smith who, before dying of dysentery on an archaeological dig at the age of 36, transformed our understanding of Mesopotamian civilisation through his work discovering and translating cuneiform tablets (Pp18ff).

Back when the sacred history of the Earth as set out in Genesis was taken to be the history of the Earth, dictated by God to Moses, the flood story was examined for what implications for humanity’s future could be found there. Noah was even presented as a preacher of righteousness, a sort of prefiguring of John the Baptist or Christ. Noah’s flood became a source for typology (seeing portents of events to come) and allegory (seeing pre-figurings of the Gospel) by eminent Christian thinkers.
Something absent from Noah’s Flood is Noah as having one of the Covenants with God. In Jewish theology, the Noahide Covenant applies to all humanity, since we are all Noah’s descendants. This rather reinforces the comparison with Christ, since Christianity takes Christ having established a new Covenant.

Another response were attempts to “fill in the gaps”, something Jewish methods of scriptural interpretation particularly encouraged but which Christian writers also engaged in. The discovery of the Americas, and a mass of hitherto unknown species, raised disturbing questions about all species having dispersed from a single ark. People began to wonder if the flood had been as universal as had been thought. As a scientific consciousness began to develop, people began to wonder where all the water had come to flood the Earth, leading to speculations of a watery abyss under the Earth’s crust.

As science became more and more an independent source of truth, the urge to find scientific explanations for the Flood expanded. This led to a considerable amount of intellectual ingenuity. The most famous, and influential, attempt being Thomas Burnet’s The Sacred Theory of the Earth, first published in 1681, which used the Flood to explain the present state of the Earth and was praised by such luminaries Newtown, Leibniz and Coleridge, who was particularly taken by its style. As Cohn notes:
Burnet was indeed on the of the last great masters of English in the ornate, sonorous baroque mode, and his style has continued to command admiration (p.61).
But the book was not only a prose achievement, it was a genuine intellectual achievement, representing:
… an ingenious synthesis of two very different bodies of thought: the new, mechanistic cosmology of Descartes and the age-old theological tradition concern God’s curse on the earth (p.58).
It was also, of course, an intellectual dead end but fruitful in a different way. It was part of the stepping away from Scripture as authoritative historical record and therefore Scripture history as structuring what science had to explain.

Much of the mechanistic cosmology in Burnet’s book had been already set out in Descartes Principia Philosophiae (published in 1644 in Amsterdam in Latin, since Descartes had been much bothered by the condemnation of Galileo in 1632 and so put time, space and language between himself as a French subject, Galileo’s condemnation and his own ideas). Something Burnet was less than forthcoming about (p.58).

Burnet played somewhat loosely with the text of the Genesis story, and his approach did not make sense in light of Newtonian mechanics. Enter William Whiston and his use of Halley’s comet to explain the origins and mechanics of the Flood in his A New Theory of the Earth (or, to give the book its full title: A New Theory of the Earth from its Origin to the Consummation of All Things. Wherin the Creation of the World in Six days, The Universal Deluge, and the General Conflagration, As laid down in the Holy Scriptures, Are shown to be perfectly agreeable to Reason and Philosophy) first published in 1696 which went into six editions to 1755. Whiston’s book was praised by, or influential on, thinkers of the stature of Locke and Berkeley (p.64).

In 1694 Halley himself had read two papers to the Royal Society, one suggesting a cometary cause of the Flood and another speculating on the Earth having suffered periodic space-borne catastrophes. This, of course, would undermine the notion of the Earth being about six thousand years old. Apprehensive of incurring ecclesiastical censure, Halley refused to have the papers published until 1725.

You get a good sense from Noah’s Flood of how Christian orthodoxy restrained and restricted intellectual freedom. Somewhat in the same way that pc does nowadays (including some otherwise unexpected targets of repression)—Mark Lopez’s use of the techniques of freethinkers in dealing with Christian orthodoxy in his own work is entirely apt.

If it had been a case of comets to the rescue, fossils now entered into scientific consciousness as a problem for the Flood story. The existence of fossils had long been known and why the remains of sea creatures should turn up in high mountains had been an intellectual puzzle for many centuries. One for which, from Tertullian onwards, the Flood had been cited as an explanation (p.73). But, again, human intellectual ingenuity applied itself to the problem and, in the case of Nicolaus Steno (who later became a Catholic priest) and John Woodward, applied itself to finding solutions to reconcile Scripture, observation and science. On the way through, Steno established the basic principle of geology and palaeontology that lower layers are older than higher layers (and that layers without fossils must have been laid down before life appeared). Indeed, in his short work Prodromus, Steno founded three sciences—geology, palaeontology and crystallography (p.76). Woodward, by plagiarising Steno’s work in his own An Essay Towards A Natural History of the Earth, did much to popularise Steno’s discovery of the principle of stratification.

Genuine scientific advance, as in the case of Steno, could and did march with belief in the Flood story. Johann Scheuchzer—an avid and careful collector and describer of fossils, along with other useful scientific work—became a strong proponent of diluvialism, treating the Flood as a real happening that explains the world around us but was nevertheless a divine, miraculous action. He even misidentified the fossil of a giant salamander as that of a man drowned in the Flood (Pp89ff).

One of Cohn’s great strengths is to convey how perfectly sensible at the time were things that look ridiculous nowadays are. Such as notion that the Earth was about six thousand years old—the time scale established from Genesis. So much that we take as “obvious” evidence for the antiquity of the Earth and the Universe were just not known at the time (p.94). In terms of the interests of science, the key framing Scripture gave was in its sense of time:
Though the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had shattered the traditional view of space, it left the traditional view of time intact (p.94).
Archbishop Ussher’s work in establishing—based on the evidence accepted at the time—the time scale of the Earth is regarded as ludicrous now, but was the height of respectable scholarship at the time. Creation was on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, Noah and his family joined the animals on the Ark on Sunday 7 December 2349 BC, on Thursday 18 December 2348 they left the Ark.

Given such a time-scale—and the basic correctness of the Biblical timescale was just an accepted background fact—then the Flood provided a good explanation for why the Earth was like it was. Perfectly respectable geologists used it as such (Pp96ff).

Cohn’s achievement in illuminating the past provides insight into the present. For Scripture as providing background truth that science had to deal with is the situation much of Islam is currently in. (The analogy between contemporary Islam and the situation that Western Christendom was in the C17th and C18th is even stronger given that critical Biblical scholarship did not really start until the C19th.)

Once the traditional framing of time began to break down, intimations of which had emerged in the late C17th but began to get seriously underway in the late C18th and early C19th with the work of geologist such as James Hutton, this put the Flood story in a rather different context. There were ingenious attempts to attempt to harmonize the Flood story with what earth sciences were discovering, but these ultimately failed.

Which led to a response familiar in our time: fundamentalism. Irishman Richard Kirwan had provided a precursor in arguing for Scriptural literalism against Hutton in the late C18th but got seriously underway with the work of Granville Penn in the 1820s. Gradually it became accepted, however, that the Noachian Deluge was a local one. Except, of course, fundamentalist insistence on the truth of the Flood story has enjoyed a resurgence in C20th US. Cohn, while taking us through why it is not an intellectually respectable response, understands well its appeal:
… ‘the deep abyss of time’ has become immeasurably deeper, the minuteness of human history far more evident. But for those armed with fundamentalist belief, that bottomless pit is simply not there. Six thousand years since the original Creation, for thousand years since that second creation, the Flood – these are reassuring thoughts. And however tragic the story of the Flood itself, it does at least allow a central place to mankind, its past salvation, its assured future – also reassuring thoughts (p.129)
We are not bland truth machines, but creatures of passion. Beliefs that do not imperil our day-to-day purposes but give us a sense of place and meaning can be very attractive.

But with Noah’s Flood assigned to the level of mythos not logos for most people (even most Jewish and Christian believers), this has left it open to the games of anthropologists and other academics. In his last chapter, Hidden Meanings Again Cohn provides a survey of attempts to find hidden mythological meanings in the Flood story. His touch is light, but it is clear he finds them no more respectable than their theological predecessors in the hidden meanings game:
Not one of them shows any awareness of the thought which obsessed the men who composed the Genesis story and which continued to obsesses generation after generation of Christians: the thought of a wrathful God intent on punishing a sinful mankind, cleansing a corrupted world, and making a fresh start (p.133)
They are, however, testaments to the continuing power in the story of Noah’s Flood.

Noah’s Flood is a splendid journey through intellectual history, illuminating religious, scientific and scholarly history and, in particular, the slow emancipation of science from the framings of religion.


  1. You are right about the flood story getting pride of place; Augustine (to take one well known historical example) had the wit to advise his congregants not to get into arguments with pagans on things like, say, the age of the earth. However, he also insisted that the flood story should be taken literally, even if doing so resulted in hoots of derision from pagan interlocutors.

  2. Thereby doing his bit to establish the Flood story in Western consciousness so thoroughly it was still a live scientific issue in the early C19th.

    Of course, Augustine's theology of scriptural exegesis has provided the basis for the Catholic Church to--kicking and screaming at times admittedly--make its peace with science. Scripture has a presumption of truth but not an absolute claim of truth given that the world is God's direct creation while Scripture is indirect. Galileo's problem was not contradicting Scripture but failing to provide sufficient response to reasonable objections (such as, if the Earth moves around the Sun, why don't we see parallax motion by the stars?)

  3. There is a big group meeting in Melbourne at the moment. Perhaps they could clarify things, of course, they would (almost) all have different versions.