Did Noah's Flood Happen? An Historical Overview

As part of my concerted campaign to lose all my friends, welcome to part 1 of my mini-series on Noah's flood. In brief my argument will be
- Was there a global flood? No.
- Does it matter? No.
If you're satisfied with that stop reading now.

The church held, almost unanimously, to a universal flood until the mid-seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, a very large segment of the church no longer viewed a universal deluge as credible. Why?

The standard attitude throughout Christian history has been one of respecting what we can learn from Scripture but also from external sources. Evidence from outside the Bible has almost always been considered relevant and helpful when thinking about biblical matters. This has certainly been the case with the story of the great flood. Christian commentators would regularly appeal to extra-biblical sources. Things like stories of people who had found pieces of wood from the ark, various diverse traditions about the landing site of the ark, data on how the ark was capable of handling the species of animals known at the time, and, by the fifth century, fossils were being linked with animals killed in the flood. Belief in a universal flood was sustainable for centuries because it was not inconsistent with the knowledge we had from these other sources.

The problems began as evidence began to grow that was not consistent with a universal flood. Explorations of the new world in the 15th and 16th C increased our understanding of the size of the earth and the number of animal species in it. The result of this was that people began to see that far more water was needed to flood the earth than seemed to be available and that there were more animals than seemed capable of fitting in the ark. There was also the problem of how Noah’s descendents had got to such remote places and set up what appeared to be ancient civilizations.

From the 16th C the fossils began to become not so much a support for a global flood as a puzzle – their locations seemed hard to account for on the flood model (e.g., buried in layers of rock at great heights in the mountains rather than near the surface). This conviction grew as study of fossils intensified over the years. By the 19th C the number of now-extinct species discovered as fossils further intensified the problem of the capacity of the ark – we now have to fit mammoths and dinosaurs into it whilst wondering if it was worth the effort given that they then went and became extinct. It was also becoming clear that fossiliferous rocks could not have been deposited in a single flood event.

Usually Christians did not dismiss any of this external evidence as irrelevant but sought to see how it could be accounted for in terms of a universal flood. But as more and more evidence came to light this became harder and harder. The development of geology in 18th and 19th Cs compounded problems by

(a) a failure to find evidence of a global flood,
(b) more plausible explanations of geological features that had been seen as evidence for a universal flood,
(c) evidence hard to reconcile with a global flood.
It ought to be mentioned at this point that most of the scientists working on this evidence were orthodox Christians and not atheists seeking to disprove the Bible.

It was in the 17th C that some began to suggest that the flood may have not been universal but perhaps more local (an idea first floated in the 5th C by Pseudo-Justin). The idea was not mainstream then but as evidence against the flood piled up people began to ask whether they had read the story correctly and new attempts to interpret the Bible arose in an attempt to hold biblical and scientific evidence together. By the early part of the 20th C few biblical scholars any longer endorsed the notion of a universal world flood. Non-traditional interpretations of the flood were common and nobody was over-fussed.

This changed in the early 20th C as the fundamentalist-modernist controversies kicked off in the USA. A literal global flood became one important issue for the fundamentalist camp. This line was defended by either
(a) ignoring the external evidence, or
(b) developing what is now known as creation science with the goal of arguing that the evidence really does support a universal flood. The father of modern flood geology was George McCready Price (1870-1963) but the most influential book was John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ text The Genesis Flood (1961). That book is still in print and has been foundational in the creation-science research project.

To their credit the flood-geologists did not see empirical evidence as irrelevant and worked hard with empirical data to try and show that it supported a global flood. But it has to be said that their attempts to do so have largely been seen by mainstream science as a pseudo-science, accused of only considering selected pieces of evidence that confirm a pre-decided conclusion. It is also accused of defending highly implausible interpretations of empirical evidence. Few flood geologists can lay claim to significant expertise in geology, paleontology, anthropology, or biogeography. Geologist Davis Young comments that the “views of earth history offered by [the flood-geologists] are simply and obviously incorrect.”


Anonymous said…
You are setting the cat amongst the pigeons :-)

So if we don't take the flood story literally what does that mean for the declarations in the story. How is the local made universal, if the flood wasn't global?

How is a high view of scripture maintained if we read this as something other than a real account, of what God did?
Robin Parry said…
Good questions Jase - wait for part 3.
Robin Parry said…

I mean - parts 3 and 4 (those are the theological ones)

graham old said…
Welcome to the world of blogging, Robin!

Jason, if I can butt in, I don't think it's about taking anything more or less literally. I think it's just about recognising that we often mistake language that could be local (e.g. 'land') for universal.
jonny_norridge said…
thanks robin,
makes me think about who the Noah story compares and differs from the surrounding cultures flood myths. Isn't that what scholars have done with the creation narrative?

It's been a while since I've read it, but what does the flood narrative in the Gilgamesh Epic communicate?

enjoying your posts Robin.
Jonny Norridge
Robin Parry said…

Indeed so - part 3 of the mini series will address that issue (it goes live on Saturday morning)

Thanks for the kind words

Robin Parry said…

on erez as land or earth in Gen 6-9see Part 3 on Saturday.

Teresita said…
If you follow the chronology of the Kings of Judah/Israel back from the date of the destruction of Jerusalem known from secular history (587 BC), you end up with a date of 2509 BC for the flood. Meanwhile Egypt has a continous written history going back to about 3100 BC, (plus archaelogical evidence of continuous habitation going back to 9000 BC) and the only floods they talked about were the ones involving the Nile River which irrigated their crops.
Robin Parry said…

You are correct about that (if what I have read elsewhere is right - I am no expert on Egypt ... on anything actually but hey ho!)

Anonymous said…
Looks like you have an interesting series planned! For what it's worth, some time ago I pondered how to set the (local) Flood in its proper archeological horizon.
Anonymous said…
Graham: I was asking it didactically, for people who generally do read the text literally. Seems Robin is going to cover that later anyway :-)
Danny Zacharias said…
Did I miss part one of this, or is this part one?
Teresita said…
Isaac Asimov's theory was that a large meteorite struck the Persian Gulf and created a tsunami that washed over the Flats and killed a lot of people. This is feasible, and it is the sort of thing that could be verified by geologists. But a global flood that covered Mt. Everest with 15 cubits of water would require 1.1 billion cubic miles of water.
Unknown said…
I read an article by Glenn Morton about ten years ago that all but clinched it for me (I can't recall the title or journal). Some of his work revolving around the flood can be found here.

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