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Demolishing a Straw Ark: The BBC’s Noah’s Ark Fiasco

Category Articles
Date March 22, 2005

On Sunday 21 March 2004, the BBC aired Jeremy Bowen’s latest foray into biblical archaeology. Having previously examined the life of Christ and the exodus from Egypt, his subject on this occasion was the Genesis account of Noah and the Flood.

Describing it as ‘one of the great myths of human history’, he set about deconstructing the story. Bowen identified three main ‘problems’ with the biblical account:

1. It would have been impossible to build a wooden boat as large as the Ark;
2. Noah could not have collected and accommodated two of every species on the Ark;
3. There is not enough water on Earth for a global inundation.

Sceptics have been raising these objections for centuries and Bowen has brought them to a mass audience. Let us examine each of the claims.

Just too big?

Consider first the alleged ‘impossibility’ of building a wooden boat as large as the Ark. According to the Bible, the Ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. Assuming that the cubit is 1½ feet long, the biblical measurements translate to 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.

Misleadingly, Bowen said this was ‘almost as big as the Titanic‘. Actually, the Ark was about half as long and twice as wide as Titanic. Nevertheless, Bowen claimed that even the Victorians – with their engineering prowess – could not have built a boat this large from wood.

A marine archaeologist, Tom Vosmer, stated that constructing the Ark would have been impossible without ‘iron reinforcements’. The Ark could not have maintained its shape – it would have distorted and opened up along the seams. To make the point, special effects were employed to show the Ark collapsing and sinking.

Not so primitive

In fact, ancient shipbuilding techniques were not nearly so ‘primitive’ as the programme seemed to suggest. The Bible tells us that pre-Flood civilisation was quite advanced and possessed metal-working skills (Genesis 4:19-22) – although much of this technology was lost after the Flood and had to be ‘rediscovered’.

There is evidence that some pre-modern ships approached the length of the Ark. Athenaeus gives a detailed description of a warship built by Ptolemy Philopator (c.244-205 BC) which was 420 feet long, 57 feet wide, and 72 feet high to the top of her gunwale. The size of this ship approximates that of Noah’s Ark (Larry Pierce, ‘The large ships of antiquity’, Creation, 22 [3] 2000, pp.46-48).

Bending could have been prevented by constructing the lower deck of the Ark out of logs, four layers deep, instead of planks. The identity of the wood used is uncertain. But if, as some commentators have suggested, gopher is not a type of tree but a process of hardening the wood, then problems with sagging are even less likely.

Finally, leaks in wooden vessels are not inevitable – they are usually the result of poor construction methods.

Not enough room?

Next Bowen claims that Noah could not have collected and accommodated the animals as described in the Bible. According to the programme, thirty million species must have been represented on the Ark – and there simply wasn’t room. A whole fleet of Arks would have been required!

Viewers were told that Noah had only seven days to find all these animals and usher them onto the boat – necessitating a loading rate of 50 pairs every second!

There was even a melodramatic reconstruction of Noah arguing with his family about this problem, accompanied by comical music. Presumably the intention was to leave viewers in no doubt as to the absurdity of the Genesis account. In fact, it was the programme makers who were piling absurdity upon absurdity.

It is not clear how the number of 30 million species was arrived at – but that doesn’t really matter because the number is a ‘red herring’ in any case. The Bible does not claim that every species was represented – only every kind.

A great deal of work has demonstrated that the biblical kind is much broader than the species – it probably approximates to the taxonomic rank of ‘family’. Furthermore, only the land mammals, birds, and land reptiles were to be taken on board. So a more realistic estimate of the number of animals on the Ark is 2,000.

Bowen’s claim that Noah had only seven days to find the animals and load them on the Ark appears to be based on a misreading of Genesis. There is nothing in the account that necessitates such a constraint. Noah may have had years to collect the animals or for the Lord to bring them to him.

When it comes to boarding the Ark, only a few hours would be required for 2,000 animals even assuming single-file entry!

Not enough water?

Was there enough water on Earth for a global inundation? For geological advice, Bowen turned to Professor Ian Plimer, author of a notorious book called Telling Lies for God (1994).

Plimer has made something of a career out of baiting Christians, though his antics have proved an embarrassment even to some of his fellow sceptics. He informed viewers that there is ‘no evidence’ for a global flood – rather there is ‘overwhelming evidence to the contrary’.

In particular, he claimed that more than three times as much water as currently exists on Earth would be required to cover Mount Everest. This ‘difficulty’ ignores the fact that the Flood was a cataclysmic event that changed the entire topography of the world.

Mount Everest and the Himalayan mountain chain did not exist at the time of Noah’s Flood. Dramatic changes would have been produced by the biblical Flood and its aftermath, including tectonic movement and mountain building.

When we take this into account, there is every reason to believe that there was enough water to cover the entire Earth (even to a depth of a kilometre or more).

Bowen’s Sumerian ‘Noah’

After constructing a ‘straw man’ version of the biblical account and then knocking it down, Bowen set about creating a ‘more credible’ version of the story.

He adopted the view of many modern scholars that the biblical account was based on earlier legends of a large Mesopotamian flood. Bowen’s ‘Noah’ was a Sumerian king who had built his Ark to transport goods along the River Euphrates.

He was unfortunate enough to get caught in a tropical storm that washed him out into the Persian Gulf. His landing site was not the mountains of Ararat, but the island of Bahrain.

According to Bowen, Jewish priests ‘discovered’ the legend during the Babylonian exile and adopted it as a morality tale of what happens when you disobey God.

Bowen’s scenario rests squarely upon the theories of the so-called ‘higher critics’ whose onslaught against the Old Testament has been maintained for the last 150 years. These critics insist that many Old Testament books – including Genesis – were written much later than traditionally supposed.

In their view, many of the biblical accounts are little more than ‘pious forgeries’ cobbled together by a priestly class and then attributed to biblical characters to give them a spurious authority.

These theories have been refuted many times by scholars such as Robert Dick Wilson and Oswald Allis. Yet they continue to be taught almost unchallenged in colleges and seminaries – corroding faith in the Bible for another generation.

Universal flood

There is no question that the Babylonian and biblical accounts are related, because they have many strong similarities. However, this does not mean that the Genesis account is simply an embellished version of an earlier legend.

Flood stories have been recorded from many cultures worldwide – not just in the Near East. Common themes are found in many of them, such as a universal deluge, a favoured family saved, and birds sent out to test for dry land.

The local flood theory does not explain why these stories are so widespread. The most reasonable answer is that they had a common origin in real history – which points us to a global event.

The Bible clearly speaks of the Flood in universal terms, so if Bowen is right we must ask serious questions about the authority of Scripture. We must also wonder about the character of God himself, for he declared unequivocally that he would never again send a flood like this one (Genesis 9:11).

There have been many local and regional floods since Noah’s day – so has God repeatedly broken his promise?

Furthermore, if we question the historical record in Genesis, we place ourselves in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the Lord Jesus and his apostles. They always spoke of the Flood as a worldwide event – and as a sober reminder of judgement to come (Luke 17:27; Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5; 2 Peter 3:6).

We are on safer ground if we humbly accept the record that God has given us in his inerrant and infallible Word.

Paul Garner
Biblical Creation Society

Further reading

Garner, P. (1994) The dimensions and stability of Noah’s Ark.www.biblicalcrea 043.html

Grantham-Hill, B.W. (1994) The construction of Noah’s Ark. www.biblicalcreation. studies/bcs045.html

Jebson, D.V. (1994) The Genesis Flood and human history. www.biblicalcreation

Peet, J.H.J. (1994) Noah’s Ark in the media. studies/bcs046.html

Woodmorappe, J. (1996) Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study. Institute for Creation Research, Santee, California, 1996.

This article is reprinted from Evangelical Times May 2004 with kind permission of the editors

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