Sunday, May 2, 2010

Thoughts on Noah's Ark

In case you hadn't heard, news reports in the last week have covered the claim that a team of Chinese and Turkish archaeologists have discovered the remains of Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat and that carbon-dating of the wood yields a result of 4,800 years old.

A friend of mine who keeps a close watch on the latest discoveries in archaeology in the Middle East emailed several Christian friends (including me) to warn them to be very cautious about believing these reports. My response to him was that it never once crossed my mind that the reports of finding the ark on Mt. Ararat could be legitimate. So, perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to explain why. But first, a word about biblical archeology (from a non-expert)...

The Bible--unique among the world's "Holy Books"--presents itself as historically true. It is filled with specific names of people and places, and opens itself to verification or falsification. Many of the Bible's historical claims ought to be accessible to the archeologist, including the places, people, and events of Jesus' day and those of the thousand years or more preceeding the time of Jesus.

How has the Bible fared with regard to archaeological evidence? There have, of course, been periods of time in which verification of the events, people, and places recorded in the Bible has been lacking, or slow in coming. And during such periods, bold claims have been made by skeptics, that the Old Testament is mainly myth, that people like Moses, David, and Solomon never existed, that Israel didn't achieve the level of culture ('kingdom' level, as it were) claimed for it, and on and on.

Such claims have always been unwise, for the very simple reason that "absence of evidence does not prove evidence of absence." And, in the case of biblical archaeology, the makers of such claims have had to eat crow time and time again. The history of archaeology in the lands mentioned in the Bible is a continual record of verification, and this has been especially true of the past 100 years of digging.

It used to be believed that David and Solomon never existed. But that skeptical view was disproved by the discovery in 1993 of a stela on Tel Dan that refers to King David.

So, okay, it seems pretty clear now that David (and probably, therefore, Solomon) existed. The skeptical response (of not all that long ago) was that while these men existed, claims of their having established kingdoms are greatly exaggerated. Several independent recent discoveries are proving the skeptics wrong and verifying the Bible's portrayal of Israel's existence as a thriving, far-reaching kingdom in David's day.

In short, archaeology has provided no falsification of any biblical account and has incrementally, progressively provided verification of more and more of the people, places, and events recorded in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. To be sure, there still has been no archeological evidence uncovered to verify the existence of Moses or the Exodus (though many will be aware of one archaeologist's claims--never independently confirmed--of discovering chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea). The history of research in this field would suggest that thereby claiming that Moses didn't exist would be folly. But this leads into my first reason for dismissing the recent claims about the discovery of Noah's ark...
In terms of historical time, the discovery of Noah's ark would be a complete outlier (a much earlier event than any other verified biblical events) and therefore not anticipated by any serious archaeologists (Jewish, Christian, or otherwise).
This is not my most important reason for rejecting these claims, but it is significant. For one thing, it suggests that the claim may have less to do with likelihood and more to do with perceived apologetic value. That is, while finding Noah's ark would be highly improbable, it would nonetheless be sensational and striking in its implications for verifying the historicity of the Old Testament. This is a first clue that one ought to be suspicious of this claim.

But we can't confuse improbability with impossibility. It's possible that some remains of the ark could one day be found. So in the next post, I'll offer more compelling reasons why 'this ain't it.'

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