Bible Stories - Credibility

All the stories in the Bible face a 3-way challenge to their credibility. The problem is that the things that made sense to bronze age sheep herders living 3000 years ago, don't necessarily work today.

1. Philisophical Problem: Why would a (loving) God set the system up this way?

2. Common Sense: How would this work?

3. Modern Science: Demonstrating that the world doesn't work like this

For the older, true believers, of course, these challenges are simply ignored. They can't be satisfactorily answered, so have to pretend not to hear them. And young kids accept their parents (literal) ignorance.

But when kids reach late teens and step outside the bubble of church and family, they are exposed to the real world, where blind ignorance is regarded as a weakness, not a virtue.

They question bits of what they have been told, and realize that not true. Then, they start to question everything else - "You lied to me about this; what else isn't true?"

Noah's Flood and Noah's Ark

Basic Question - Why?

Everybody was a "sinner"? Really? Even day-old babies? All the birds and animals had to die for God to make a point?

And what exactly were the terrible sins that mankind was committing? They must have been much worse than the crimes of say Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Rwanda or the Spanish Inquisition, for which God didn't lift a finger to prevent?

But basically, what was the point? God the Omniscient must have known that mankind was just going to go straight back to sinning as soon as they got off the boat - so what was gained by this mass murder?

Multiple Stories

That faint humming sound you've heard recently is the scholarly world of the Bible and archaeology abuzz over the discovery of the oldest known Mesopotamian version of the famous Flood story.

A British scholar has found that a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet from what is now Iraq contains a story similar to the biblical account of Noah's Ark. The newly decoded cuneiform tells of a divinely sent flood and a sole survivor on an ark, who takes all the animals on board to preserve them. It even includes the famous phrase 'two by two,' describing how the animals came onto the ark. But there is one apparently major difference: The ark in this version is round.

We have known for well over a century that there are flood stories from the ancient Near East that long predate the biblical account (even the most conservative biblical scholars wouldn't date any earlier than the ninth century B.C).

What's really intriguing scholars is the description of the ark itself.

The Bible presents a standard boat shape - long and narrow. The length being six times the measure of the width, with three decks and an entrance on the side.

The newly discovered Mesopotamian text describes a large round vessel, made of woven rope, and coated (like the biblical ark) in pitch to keep it waterproof.

Archaeologists are planning to design a prototype of the ark, built to the specifications of this text, to see if it would actually float. Good luck to them in trying to estimate the weight of its cargo.

So, why does this new discovery matter? It matters because it serves as a reminder that the story of the Flood wasn't set in stone from its earliest version all the way through to its latest incarnation.

The people who wrote down the Flood narrative, in any of its manifestations, weren't reporting on a historical event for which they had to get their facts straight (like what shape the ark was).

Everyone reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a round vessel would have been perfectly reasonable - in fact, we know that this type of boat was in use, though perhaps not to such a gigantic scale, on the Mesopotamian rivers.

The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, would naturally have pictured a boat like those they were familiar with: which is to say, the boats that navigated not the rivers of Mesopotamia but the Mediterranean Sea.

This detail of engineering can and should stand for a larger array of themes and features in the flood stories. The Mesopotamian versions feature many gods; the biblical account, of course, only one.

The Mesopotamian versions tell us that the Flood came because humans were too noisy for the gods; the biblical account says it was because violence had spread over the Earth.

Neither version is right or wrong; they are, rather, both appropriate to the culture that produced them. Neither is history; both are theology.

What, then, of the most striking parallel between this newly discovered text and Genesis: the phrase 'two by two'? Here, it would seem, we have an identical conception of the animals entering the ark. But not so fast.

Although most people, steeped in Sunday school tradition, will tell you without even thinking about it that 'the animals, they came on, they came on by twosies twosies,' that's not exactly what the Bible says.

More accurately, it's one thing that the Bible says - but a few verses later, Noah is instructed to bring not one pair of each species, but seven pairs of all the 'clean' animals and the birds, and one pair of the 'unclean' animals.

(This is important because at the end of the story, Noah offers sacrifices - which, if he only brought one pair of each animal, would mean that, after saving them all from the Flood, he then proceeded to relegate some of those species to extinction immediately thereafter.)

This isn't news - already in the 17th century scholars recognized that there must be two versions of the Flood intertwined in the canonical Bible. There are plenty of significant differences between the two Flood stories in the Bible, which are easily spotted if you try to read the narrative as it stands.

One version says the Flood lasted 40 days; the other says 150. One says the waters came from rain. Another says it came from the opening of primordial floodgates both above and below the Earth. One version says Noah sent out a dove, three times. The other says he sent out a raven, once. And yes: In one of those stories, the animals come on 'two by two.'

Does this mean that the author of that version was following the ancient Mesopotamian account that was just discovered? Certainly not.

If the goal of the ark is the preservation of the animals, then having a male and female of each is just common sense. And, of course, it's a quite reasonable space-saving measure.

Likewise, the relative age of the Mesopotamian and biblical accounts tells us nothing about their relative authority.

Even if we acknowledge, as we probably should, that the biblical authors learned the Flood story from their neighbors - after all, flooding isn't, and never was, really a pressing concern in Israel - this doesn't make the Bible any less authoritative.

The Bible gets its authority from us, who treat it as such, not from it being either the first or the most reliable witness to history.

There is no doubt that the discovery of this new ancient Mesopotamian text is important. But from a biblical perspective, its importance resides mostly in the way it serves to remind us that the Flood story is a malleable one.

There are multiple different Mesopotamian versions, and there are multiple different biblical versions. They share a basic outline, and some central themes. But they each relate the story in their own way.

The power of the Flood story, for us the canonical biblical version, is in what it tells us about humanity's relationship with God. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Was It Possible?

Today we're going to have a bit of fun and shine the light of science on an ancient story. It is said that a gigantic wooden ship once carried a family and two of every kind of animal to safety, when the entire world was flooded. Noah's Ark sailed for five months, then rested aground, sheltering its multitudinous crew for more than a year.

The elephant in the room here is that it's virtually impossible to do an episode on this subject without having it sound like an attack on Christianity. I argue that it's not at all; the majority of Christians, when you combine the numerous denominations, don't insist that the Noah story is a literal true account. And, as has been pointed out many times, the Bible is hardly the only place where various versions of the Noah story are found. The most famous parallel, of course, is the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein one of the many Babylonian gods charged the man Utnapishtim to build an ark, in a story that parallels Noah's in all the major details and most of the minor ones. It is perfectly plausible that all such stories stem from an actual event, the details of which are lost to history, but that might well account for the stories we have today of a boat and a flood. But regardless, in this episode I'm not going to address any issues of faith, but only of science. We want to look at the engineering plausibility of Noah's great ship.

Noah's Ark was a great rectangular box of gopherwood, or perhaps some combination of other woods colloquially referred to as gopherwood. Its dimensions are given as 137 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 14 meters high. This is very, very big; it would have been the longest wooden ship ever built. These dimensions rank it as one of history's greatest engineering achievements; but they also mark the start of our sea trials, our test of whether or not it's possible for this ship to have ever sailed, or indeed, been built at all.

Would it have been possible to find enough material to build Noah's Ark? When another early supership was built, the Great Michael (completed in Scotland in 1511) it was said to have consumed "all the woods of Fife". Fife was a county in Scotland famous for its shipbuilding. The Great Michael's timber had to be purchased and imported not only from other parts of Scotland, but also from France, the Baltic Sea, and from a large number of cargo ships from Norway. Yet at 73 meters, she was only about half the length of Noah's Ark. Clearly a ship twice the length of the Great Michael, and larger in all other dimensions, would have required many times as much timber. It's never been clearly stated exactly where Noah's Ark is said to have been built, but it would have been somewhere in Mesopotamia, probably along either the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. This area is now Iraq, which has never been known for its abundance of shipbuilding timber.

In 2003, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Jose Solis, created a proposal to build the Ark for Noah based on sound naval architecture. He proposed a dead weight - the weight of the wooden structure alone minus cargo and ballast - as 3,676 tons. Fully loaded, it would have displaced 13,000 tons, as compared to the Great Michael's 1,000 that consumed "all the wood of Fife". Where would all that wood have come from? In his proposal, Solis simply skipped this detail, and assumed the wood was commercially available at a cost of $16,472,040 in 2003 dollars. Tens of thousands of massive timber-quality trees would have to have been imported into the middle of what's now Iraq. Did Noah have the resources to import from France, Norway, or anywhere else?

But if the Ark did get built, it would be necessary to overcome its extraordinary fragility. Recall that when the Titanic sank, that massive steel structure tore completely in half simply because one end was heavier than the other. Just that difference in weight was sufficient to tear open many decks of reinforced steel that had been engineered to the day's toughest standards. Were Titanic a wooden box instead of rigid steel, you (as a giant) could destroy it just by swishing your finger in the water next to it.

Allow me to explain. What's known as the square-cube law is pretty familiar: increase an object's dimensions, and its surface area increases by the square of the multiplier, and its weight increases by the cube of the multiplier. But one extension of this law is less familiar. When we scale up an object - take a wooden structural beam as an example - the strength of the beam does not increase as fast as its weight. Applied mechanics and material sciences give us all the tools we need to compute this. In summary, the tensile strength of a beam is a function of its moment and its section modulus. No need to go into the complicated details here - you can look up beam theory on Wikipedia if you want to learn the equations. Scale up a simple wooden beam large enough, the weight will exceed its strength, and it will break from its own weight alone. Scaled up to the immense size of Noah's Ark, a stout wooden box would be unspeakably fragile.

If there was even the gentlest of currents, sufficient pressure would be put on the hull to open its seams. Currents are not a complete, perfectly even flow. They consist of eddies and slow-moving turbulence. This puts uneven pressure on the hull, and Noah's Ark would bend with those eddies like a snake. Even if the water itself was perfectly still, wind would expose the flat-sided Ark's tremendous windage, exerting a shearing force that might well crumple it.

Whether a wooden ship the size of Noah's Ark could be made seaworthy is in grave doubt. At 137 meters (450 feet), Noah's Ark would be the largest wooden vessel ever confirmed to have been built. In recorded history, some dozen or so wooden ships have been constructed over 90 meters; few have been successful. Even so, these wooden ships had a great advantage over Noah's Ark: their curved hull shapes. Stress loads are distributed much more efficiently over three dimensionally curved surfaces than they are over flat surfaces. But even with this advantage, real-world large wooden ships have had severe problems. The sailing ships the 100 meter Wyoming (sunk in 1924) and 99 meter Santiago (sunk in 1918) were so large that they flexed in the water, opening up seams in the hull and leaking. The 102 meter British warships HMS Orlando and HMS Mersey had such bad structural problems that they were scrapped in 1871 and 1875 after only a few years in service. Most of the largest wooden ships were, like Noah's Ark, unpowered barges. Yet even those built in modern times, such as the 103 meter Pretoria in 1901, required substantial amounts of steel reinforcement; and even then needed steam-powered pumps to fight the constant flex-induced leaking.

Even in the world of legend, only two other ships are said to have approached the size claimed for Noah's Ark. One was the Greek trireme Tessarakonteres at 127 meters, the length and existence of which is known only by the accounts of Plutarch and Athenaeus.

But this ship was merely for show; and since she differed little from a stationary edifice on land, being meant for exhibition and not for use, she was moved only with difficulty and danger.

The other example is the largest of the Chinese treasure ships built by the admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, matching Noah's 137 meters, but only in the highest estimates. Many believe the biggest ships Zheng took with him on his seven voyages were no bigger than half that size, and moreover, that they remained behind in rivers and were not suitably seaworthy for ocean travels.

The long and the short of it is that there's no precedent for a wooden ship the size of Noah's Ark being seaworthy, and plenty of naval engineering experience telling us that it wouldn't be expected to work. Even if pumps had been installed and all hands worked round the clock pumping, the Ark certainly would have leaked catastrophically, filled with water, and capsized.

(And, look at the various "replica" arks that have been built over the years - none of them are all-timber - most are steel barges sheathed in wood, or a steel shell with a wooden hull. There's a good reason for this - an all-wooden replica would sink.)

My Get Out Of Jail Free Card

There's another elephant in the room, too, that is necessary to address. Many of the problems with the Noah story are often answered, by those who regard it as a literal true account, with a special pleading. A special pleading is when any question is answered with "It was done by a higher power that you and I are not qualified to understand or question." Obviously, every point that science might raise regarding the Noah story can be fully answered with a special pleading. Superman, Underdog, and The Jetsons can shown to be literal true accounts if we allow special pleadings to be admissable. If the special pleading of divine intervention did indeed come into play during the Great Flood, then it was the most flagrant Rube Goldberg solution I've ever heard of. If divine intervention was needed to give Noah knowledge of how to build the Ark, or to provide the wood for its construction; then why not just provide an already-completed ark? Why bring the animals on board to be fed for a year or more, when divine intervention could have provided them an island? For that matter, why have the entire flood at all, when divine intervention could have simply struck down the evil humans with a plague? Why construct this most elaborate of all disaster and survival scenarios, some part of which was dependent on divine intervention; when divine intervention could have easily made the entire ordeal unnecessary? Special pleadings dismiss the true sciences that have allowed us to build real ships and conquer the world. Looking at the reality of what's possible and how things are done is always more interesting than imagining what's possible when anything is possible.

Oh Dear We've Been Lied To

This is a microcosm of the problems faced by those who try to claim the Bible to be literally true.

Modern science makes their problems worse.

Over last decade, scientists have sequenced the genomes of many animals. If they had been through a genetic bottleneck (ie if all the cats or all the dogs had had a single pair of ancestors a few thousand years ago), it would be obvious in the sequences. Instead, we can see where species branched from each other, thousands or millions of years ago.

This is what challenges the literalists - they themselves won't change their minds, but their kids will grow up exposed to all this evidence contradicting what their parents tell them. And once they realize they've been lied to on one area of religious stories, they will start to question all the dogma.

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