Thursday, April 29, 2010

Noah's ark

Warning: Zero poker content.

You've probably heard by now of the most recent claims that Noah's ark has been found in eastern Turkey. How many times have we heard this before?

At the risk of offending some of my readers (that usually doesn't stop me, after all), if you believe the Noah story to be literally true, then you haven't thought through the facts very carefully. (You also apparently haven't noticed that the story is actually composed of at least two different parallel stories, cut and spliced together, and that they sometimes directly contradict each other. See, e.g., here for an introduction to this analysis.)

More subtlely, though, if you believe it to be literally true, you have completely misunderstood the nature of the story. The cure for this, if you are open-minded, is to read The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, by Northrop Frye. It may be the most perceptive and eye-opening book ever written about the Bible. He carefully explicates the nature of myth and storytelling through the ages. He will explain to you, e.g., that our habit of labeling stories as "true" if they actually took place in history, and "false" (or some other word) otherwise, is a peculiarly modern perspective; it is a dichotomy that would have been completely foreign and incomprehensible to the people who actually wrote the Bible, and would never have occurred to them.

Here's one of my favorite observations from the book. It uses the story of Jonah as its example, but could just as easily have used Noah instead (p. 45):



Put most bluntly, not even the people who were originally responsible for reducing the Noah story to paper (or papyrus or vellum or whatever else they might have first used) thought that they were relating anything like history, as we understand the term. That is not to say that they were lying. But it is to say that they were telling a story that they would have said is "true" not because it faithfully reflected actual events, but because it taught what they perceived as truths about the deity they worshipped. (For example, that once in a while he gets angry with his creations and decides to eradicate them, at least mostly.) In short, if you think that there was a real person named Noah (at the time some 600 years old, allegedly) who built a real ark and gathered real animals from all over the earth and floated his way through a planetary flood, then you are believing something that not even the originators of the tale would have wanted or expected you to believe.

As Frye writes, in his usual pithy fashion (p. 36), "It seems clear that flood myths are better understood when they are compared with other flood myths, not when they are compared with floods."

Actually, now that I put my mind to it, I remember that Frye does briefly talk about the question of the "literal" truth of the ark story, and says pretty much what I just wrote (though much more colorfully and eloquently). In fact, it's on the page right before the one I excerpted above (p. 44):





(You can get a sense of how much this book impacted me and changed my entire way of thinking about things biblical by the fact that 20+ years after reading it I still vividly remembered these two relevant passages.)

Believe whatever you want to believe. But at least do yourself the favor of being informed about the subject (if it's important to you) from sources a little more deep and informed than your local Sunday School teacher is likely to be. If you get your biblical literalism hopes up over this latest press release, you are likely to be disappointed--again.


Addendum

Just a few hours after posting the above, I find this on a news page: Doubt cast on Noah's ark

This part, I realize, is just shooting fish in a barrel, but I can't help myself. Look at the brain trusts represented in some of the first comments to that story from the faithful:

"All people that don't believe boy oh boy you are going to be in for a rude awaking fell soooo sorry for ya when that sky cracks open..."

"Reliqion is not a bunch of hoo ha it is something REAL if it was not for god U would have never been here he sacreficed HIS life for US....second brian i know u sed its not a hate 2 christianity but people are not looking for 15 minutes of fame because fame comes naturally honey...people are simply saying they found something that had 2 do with GOD the person who i repeat " SACREFICED HIS LIFE FOR US " okay....but okay i think that is great like praise the lord and thank god for all he has done for us and all of his a mericles....GBU all i will pray for U.....hopefully god will help some people :) YOU GO JESUS !"

"Also, the Bible has been proven by many "experts", both Christian & not, as being "the" most accurate book ever written. There's overwhelming evidence that it's real."

(At this point, the more thoughtful Christians look for the nearest exit so as not to be too closely associated with those among their fellow churchmen who are so eager to show off their stupidity and ignorance.)

5 comments:

There are some who call me... Tim said...

Whether you believe or not (I don't), the best way to approach an announcement like this is to think of "cold fusion".

Yeah - it'd be really, really interesting if true, but let's have other disinterested/independent parties review the claim, and either verify or shoot it down.

I did read some articles since the announcement implying that this ark find is a fake, but then I have no reason at this time to believe THOSE posts either - this early in the game, I have time to wait for answers.

Julius_Goat said...

Here, here, Grump.

Keiser said...

Sometimes a boat with some cages on it is just a boat with some cages on it. From what you've said about that book it pretty much runs parallel to most of my beliefs. I'll have to check it out so I can formulate my personal beliefs more clearly.

Only problem is I haven't actually read the Bible. Do you think that would be required as a frame of reference before understanding what this author is talking about?

Rakewell said...

Keiser: I dunno. Having been raised on a steady diet of scripture, it's impossible for me to figure out how understandable a book about it would be absent that background.

bastinptc said...

You do good dialects. Felt like I's back home.