Interpreting Secular Reports About Biblical Events

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Posted on September 10, 2007

Can secular science provide a bias-free interpretation of evidence for Biblical events?  Consider the case of Robert Ballard’s Black-Sea Flood theory for Noah’s Flood.  This was popular a few years ago (04/21/2001), but has come under fire by other researchers (04/26/2002).  Today an Israeli research team claimed their research vessel found evidence to support the theory (Science Daily), but in June, Rensselaer Polytechnic scientists claimed evidence that contradicted it (Science Daily).
    A bigger issue is whether either team had a true scientific approach to answer a historical question untainted by any theological bias.  Notice what even the proponents of the theory said:

Says [Andreas] Weil [Tel Aviv U]: “We found that indeed a flood happened around that time.  From core samples, we see that a flood broke through the natural barrier separating the Mediterranean Sea and the freshwater Black Sea, bringing with it seashells that only grow in a marine environment.  There was no doubt that it was a fast flood — one that covered an expanse four times the size of Israel.  It might not have been Noah, as it is written in the Bible, but we believe people in that region had to build boats in order to save their animals from drowning.  We think that the ones who survived were fishermen — they already had the boats.”

Even a cursory reading of Genesis 6–9 shows major differences between these two stories.  Genesis describes a global flood that covered all the high mountains under heaven.  It was caused by an unprecedented sequence of events, wherein all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the windows of heaven were opened, causing rain for 40 days and 40 nights (no rain is suggested in the Black Sea flood).  And the Noah of the Bible was not one of a group of fishermen who outlasted a local natural disaster, but the only one on Earth whose family survived.  His boat was not his usual fishing boat, but a supertanker-sized ship 100 years in the making.  Undoubtedly the Tel Aviv team had no use, either, for the part of the story about God warning Noah about the coming flood or its purpose as a judgment on human depravity.
    What this means is that the Tel Aviv team, and Robert Ballard’s team, came into their research with a theological bias: they had already decided that the Genesis account was a myth or legend.  They allow that it might have had some basis in an actual historical event, like a smaller, local flood, but it could not have been anything like what the Bible described.  This presupposition puts them in the position of judging the Genesis account a priori rather than employing it as evidence.
    A more unbiased approach should have included the possibility that the Genesis account is historically reliable.  An interpretation of the Black Sea evidence might be, then, to propose it as a subsequent event, not the Great Deluge itself.  These researchers assumed, though, that their evidence pertained to the flood of Noah.

Beware of those who try to give the Bible “scientific” help.  They often do more damage than outright skeptics.  At least with an atheist the lines are clearly drawn.  You can argue the evidence for God and get somewhere.  These people, however, pretend to be helping make the Bible seem more credible.  What they are really doing is preaching a subtle philosophy that one cannot take the Bible at face value, because science, the paragon of Truth, has decided it cannot be more than a collection of myths and legends.  As such, its miracles and acts of God must be seen as misunderstandings of natural events by primitive people who didn’t understand science.
    There is no way to get a local flood out of Genesis 6–9 without either denying it outright as history, or claiming that words do not mean what they say.  Even if they believe in some kind of God, what the Black Sea Flood believers are really conveying is that God cannot be trusted to communicate and preserve His word accurately.  That is a theological position, not a scientific one.  They might as well say outright, “God, we know more science than you do, and we accuse You of lying because you allowed your prophets and spokesmen, and even your Son, to exaggerate a local flood into a global one.”  How would that go over in the pulpit?
    As in archaeology, Biblical events can and do leave physical traces that can be fruitfully analyzed, yielding insights into the context and meaning of the text.  One can do that with a presupposition that the Bible is reliable (e.g., 07/11/2007).  Forcing the Bible into a naturalistic mold is another thing entirely.  The ideas of those who try to “help” the Bible comport with modern secular science may look more appealing than the rants of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, but skepticism with a sugar coating produces the same symptoms.


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