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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Simple Misunderstanding

Anyone reading this who has ever wrestled with translating text from one language into another will know that, sooner or later, major compromise is inevitable. It's not just the differences in [1]syntax, or the subtly-changing inflexions of meaning. Often enough, words and idioms are encountered which simply have no equivalent in the other language. In short: sooner or later the translator is forced to resort to personal opinion. Now consider that the various texts which we collectively call the Bible have been translated from Ancient Hebrew, 1st- and 2nd-century Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Vulgate Latin, 14th-century English and 16th-century German, and from these into many of the contemporary languages in use today, both national, regional and indigenous. How many personal opinions, how many compromises and simple misunderstandings of meaning did a process of translation and retranslation which extended over millennia of time and vastly different cultures involve?

To take just three of the more sensitive examples: In the original texts, Mary the mother of Jesus never actually was described as a virgin. The specific Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah, but the word used is almah, meaning simply a young maiden, a newly-married young woman, with no qualifying implication of virginity. When translated from Hebrew into Greek, however, the word in scripture became parthenos, and parthenos does indeed mean 'virgin'. There’s no denying that the idea of a virgin birth for the Messiah imbues the texts with an aura of the pure and the miraculous. The tradition is by now so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it is taken as read, although it is understandably disturbing to realize that the foundations of Catholicism rest upon a simple misunderstanding of translation. As does...

I recall being triumphantly confronted by someone who, in a bid conclusively to prove to me the accuracy of scripture, gave me a link to a website in which a dive under the Red Sea had turned up what appeared to be the remains of [2]chariot wheels. Clearly proof-positive that Pharaoh's army had drowned there while in hot pursuit of the Israelites! Well... actually, no. Because (assuming the historical actuality of the event) Moses and his followers never in fact crossed the Red Sea. No, not even on foot.

The Biblical location of the renowned crossing as it is now familiar to us is actually a mistranslation of 'Reed Sea' (the similarity of the words in English is coincidental), which was then an area of [3]salty marshlands east of the Nile Delta. The original Hebrew phrase used is Yam Suph (‘Sea of Reeds’), which was mistranslated into Greek, and further mistranslated into English as the [4]Red Sea, known as the Erythraean Sea. Exactly why this marshland region is a more likely location, and how it could tie together with Moses’ famous parting of the waters, is a story for another time, but it does underscore the hazards of language.

But to take things one step further: what if the whole of the Bible begins with a misunderstanding? Is such a thing possible? In Genesis 1:1, we read the familiar opening words: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.’ Except, as is now acknowledged by scholarship, the actual Hebrew noun used is elohim, the plural form. So the text literally reads: ‘In the beginning, the gods created the heavens and the Earth.’ My annotated Apologist [5]Bible skates around this uncomfortable truth by explaining that the usage of the [6]plural form ‘expresses intensification rather than number’ (no, I'm not quite sure what they mean by that either). But this denial is to do a disservice to the accurate portrayal of historical Hebrew religion, whose roots are polytheistic, not monotheistic.

Once I fell into conversation with someone who without question believed that the Bible, being – as he believed – God’s revealed word, has been handed down to us unchanged from the time that it had first been written. I asked him if he had ever attempted any translation work. He said, ‘No’.

Language is the source of misunderstandings.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

[1] The correct order of words in a sentence. My own translation work from Dutch into English offers some great examples. Using Dutch syntax for the English phrase ‘May I borrow a book from you?’ produces the sentence: ‘May I a book from you borrow?’!

[2] These finds are almost certainly fraudulent, and apparently were planted in an attempt to lend credible evidence to scripture. They were removed from the site before accredited marine archaeologists could examine them. The scale of the wheel in the photo at left is misleading – it apparently is quite small, and looks like an ordinary ship’s handwheel with a piece of broken coral placed on top for effect. As someone with professional museum experience of the manner in which marine organisms accrete on submerged metal, I can say that this is not how such marine accretions develop in their natural state, and certainly not after several millennia of submersion.

[2]cont: I also am aware of the claim for the alleged 'chariot wheel' in this photo that it is of gold lacquer, which is the reason given for why coral has not grown upon it. To which the only reasoned response is: please cite the source of an accredited archaeological institution which has conducted impartial metallurgical tests to determine this. Predictably, these photos continue to be presented on various websites as ‘proof’ of Biblical events. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ – except, apparently, when thou art doing so in God’s name.

[3] These marshlands no longer exist; they were drained during the construction of the Suez Canal.

[4] In editions subsequent to the King James Version the name has been changed to the more accurate Sea of Reeds.

[5] The King James Version Study Bible, pub. Zondervan.

[6] See also Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 3:22 for more plural deity examples. The argument sometimes put forward that elohim is simply an example of the singular ‘royal we’ (as in Queen Victoria’s famously-dry comment, ‘We are not amused’), is invalid, as this form of address was not used until introduced centuries later by Augustus Caesar, when he referred to himself and the Roman senate as a single entity.

Sol Abrams: Polytheism in Genesis: Baal and Ashtoreth vs. Yahweh

Elaine Pagels: The Origin of Satan. In this title, Professor Pagels points out that in writing his Gospel, Matthew was in fact reading a Greek translation of the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14, and so was able to confirm to himself and his readers that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. But as this post points out, this is not what Isaiah’s original Hebrew actually says. But Matthew (or whomever wrote the Gospel, because its authorship is unconfirmed) had his own agenda as well, and was attempting to counter claims at that time that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate. The option which he chose was to err on the side of the miraculous.

The images for this post are from the paintings by Rien Poortvliet in his book Hij was Een van Ons, pub. by van Holkema & Warendorf.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cydonia: Faces of Mars

Forty nine million miles farther out from the sun than our own Earth, on the dusty plains of the planet Mars, something is watching us. At least, that is how it appears to us. The Cydonia region of the Martian landscape first sprang into the public awareness when NASA’s Mars Viking 1 Orbiter transmitted a now-famous image back to Earth in 1976.

The image appeared to show a compellingly real alien face (the black and white image, below left) – although the likeness was considerably aided by the low photographic resolution of the image, and a chance in-lens artifact which provided the right ‘nostril’. NASA dismissed it as ‘a trick of light and shadow’, but fans of The Face remained scoffingly unconvinced by this official explanation, and their faith in its artificial origin stood firm.

Aficionados of things extraterrestrial had to wait another twenty two years for further images of the formation. On April 5 1998, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor transmitted back ultra-clear images, both of the face itself (above right) and the surrounding region (below, with the face formation positioned at 4 o’clock). I remember opening up an astronomy magazine at the time, seeing those images, and thinking, well, it’s just a rock mesa after all. Many others remained unshaken, and began to discern pyramids and even a city in the surrounding formations. Mystic alignments were plotted, measurements were taken, and a certain fittingly-named Professor Horace Crater concluded that the ‘city’ contained geometries beyond chance.

I myself have taken a certain guilty pleasure in producing my own image of a seeming pentagonal ‘pyramid’ in the region superimposed with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing known as Vitruvian Man (below), the angles of which relate to universal proportions, and match other such angles, including that of the pyramid on the American dollar bill – fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of all shades and persuasions.

Die-hard Face fans will now say that the reason the face formation looks the way that it does is simply due to erosion over time. Dust-blown Martian storms would have done their work in the eons since unknown extraterrestrial engineers sculpted the face in their endeavours to leave some tangible sign of their passing, and communicate with us across time and space. But the most recent image of the face (below), transmitted in 2010 back from the Mars HiRISE Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the formation from a mere three hundred meters above the surface. Such a high resolution ultra close-up leaves no further room for fantasy. The face is a natural formation. End of story.

When seen from our Earth-bound perspective over time, the face on Mars is rather more of a sequence of faces – each one less likely to have been artificially created than the previous one. We project our ideas and beliefs onto what we perceive, and those beliefs make things real for us – until advances in science or technology, or new discoveries, or diligent research, encourage and if necessary force us both to accept new truths and to reach further into the unknown to find new mysteries.

And there are those who, for their own reasons, are either unwilling or unable to adjust to change, and who instead choose willfully to stay behind and cling to ideas and beliefs which already have been overtaken by more detailed realities, whether those beliefs are invested in the dusty surface of Mars, or in the scriptural account of the creation, or in some non-existent lost El Dorado lying perpetually out of sight around the next bend in the river.   

Graham Hancock, with John Grigsby and Robert Bauval: The Mars Mystery

Public domain images by NASA. Overview of the Cydonia region processed by the European Space Agency. HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) Reconnaissance Orbiter image processed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, University of Arizona.

To see another face of Mars, you’re welcome to visit my other blog:
Two Faces of Mystery

For those with the program, Google Mars gives the coordinates for the Cydonia Face as: 40°44'31,63"N by 9°27'56,22"W. The region itself is a rather patchy resolution, but the Face is hi res, and you can examine it from all angles - and as a bonus, on arrival you do get the option to chat with a Martian called Meliza - with the advice that, as Meliza is using an account on a different planet, there may be translation errors... :)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sin and Other Illusions

You are sitting at your computer innocently doing what you do, when suddenly a formal-looking warning pops up in an on-screen window. It earnestly advises you that your comp has been infected with a virus, and that you absolutely and beyond question need to let it do a system scan to help you rid your hard drive of the offending corruption before things go into digital meltdown. Before you have a chance to decide, it begins a rapid scan, and on completion delivers an alarmingly specific list of the assorted bugs which it has detected that are even now busily chomping their way through your files. All you need to do (it suggests) is make over a payment to the scan company and your embattled hard drive will be restored to its former pristine condition.

Those who have had the above bad experience (and those who suss it anyway) will know that it is the helpful scan (in reality a mere animation) that is attempting to use fear to con you into parting with your cash. And that convincing list of threatening bugs is a fake: not one of them actually exists. In fact, there was nothing wrong with your system in the first place. Well.. not until the fake scan began, anyway.

Supposing it has been suggested to you that you have a 'virus' in your system – in yourself. Through constant reiteration of this idea to you, you no longer even question its veracity - to the point where you accept your virus-ridden condition as the only reality. It seems like a gloomy prognosis. Mind you, there is no actual straight evidence for the existence of this virus, and (if you're honest with yourself) neither do you notice any direct ill-effects from the damage being done to you internally. You simply accept that you are the unconsenting host to this bug, and that’s the way things are.

But wait! You are told that there is hope. There is a way to get rid of your virus. There is a way that you can be 'debugged', and it is so very, very easy. Remembering that you are long past the point where you question the reality of having such a virus inside you, you'd grab at the chance, right? And one factor that would make you reach out for what's on offer is simple fear: fear at the thought of what might happen if you don't, as it were, make over the cash. Now for ‘virus’ read ‘original sin’, and for ‘debugged’ read ‘redeemed’, and my metaphor is complete. Voila!

This is the mental (and emotional) sleight-of-hand that is part and parcel of faith. You have been convinced of the reality of the sin inside you, and that you absolutely and beyond question need the ‘cure’ of redemption. But since this blog is partly about questioning the unquestioned... what if there is no ‘sin’? What if there actually is nothing wrong with you in the first place? Religions and beliefs by no means universally recognize the concept, and it goes without saying that for unbelievers it’s a non-starter. Sin is a product of the human mind: an idea which, I know from personal experience, can be shocking to those for whom it is a tenet of faith.

And if you already have accepted Jesus, then you must buy into sin as well, because without sin to redeem, Jesus’ ministry would have no purpose. It’s a closed loop, and once you’re in it, you will probably have a fight on your hands to break out of it, even when you perceive the mechanisms which keep the wheels of faith turning. It’s a fight, because of the various pressures which can be brought to bear upon you; from family, from friends, from social and community situations in which you might have involved yourself over a period of years. You might have so much invested in the situation which comes with your faith, emotionally and socially, that you will deny your own doubts to yourself, even when confronted with those doubts. I’ve seen it happen often enough.

But few words are more true or more wise than those attributed to Jesus in the heretical 2nd-century Gospel of Thomas: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.’ These are the words of a very different Jesus from the Jesus propounded by Bible-thumping cable network evangelists. This is an altogether more intriguing Jesus, a quietly-spoken Jesus whose voice has been silenced by orthodoxy, a Jesus the Zen master, a Jesus the shaman, a Jesus the mystic who, cut loose from all doctrines and dogmas, invites us to coax out any truth which is there for ourselves. And such an intimate and personally experienced truth has no need to invoke any scary soul-chomping bugs.

Original bug graphics created with Mehdi and Chaoscope software (scroll upscreen to see the bugs 'walk'!).

Monday, October 15, 2012

Frontier Justice in the Promised Land

I recall attending enough church services whose sermons related various Biblical miracles and uplifting messages of hope. But how many ministers mount their pulpit and deliver a sermon on Moses’ instructions to his forces to execute a My Lai-style massacre, or relate to the listening congregation the scriptures' heartless treatment of women as victims of rape and spoils of war? And yet these and other dark themes are as much a part of the Bible as those stories which get all the attention, and rough and ruthless frontier-style justice is not in some mysterious way made more morally acceptable simply because it appears in scripture. And I, who have in my career illustrated such dark gothic classics as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and others, am still somewhere struggling to get my head around the realization that it is the Bible, of all books, which reaches into darker places even than these. You doubt me? Then please read on...

This post grew out of the notes which I made for my previous post to reference specific Biblical passages. The more I buried my nose in my [1]Bible to double-check the accuracy of my references, the more surreal everything seemed to become. Was I really still reading canonical scripture? Was I still reading the presumed word of God? Well, yes I was, as anyone reading these cited texts can check for themselves. These passages are mostly either God speaking in the first person, dictating the various laws or Commandments to Moses (yes, there are considerably more than ten), or Moses speaking to the Israelites, and are intended as instructions for social conduct in the Promised Land.

Slaughter: In the Old Testament see the Book of [2]Numbers 31:7-18 for a graphic account of how, having massacred the Midianite army, the victorious Israelite forces nevertheless had mercifully spared the lives of the captive women and children - much to Moses' wrath. He then commanded his forces to put all the married women and boys to the sword as well, but the young virgin girls they 'could keep alive for themselves'. He seems quickly enough to have brushed aside the 13th Commandment ('Thou Shalt Not Kill') which God had so recently given to him personally. And so these captive women and 'young ones' were slain also. But even this brutal episode was not a one-off incident: see also Judges 21:10-24 for a very similar account. This time it was the women and young boys of Jabesh-gilead who were slain. In this case it even specifies the number of young virgins who were taken back to the Israelite camp: there were four hundred of them. Apparently even this many weren't enough to go around - or as the narrator ruefully puts it: 'they sufficed them not'. See other instances throughout the Bible of murder and massacre too numerous to cite here.

Slavery: See Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17, both of which describe the practice of driving an awl through the ear of a slave to mark that slave forever, while bracing him or her (it applied to both sexes) against a door. Incredibly, in both Books this act is described as a reward for loyalty. See Leviticus 25:44-47 for an exposition of slaves as inheritable possessions, and elsewhere regarding the keeping of slaves, and also in the New Testament, such as in Ephesians 6:5 (on obedience to one's master) and Timothy 6:1 (on honoring one's master). Slavery is dealt with in scripture in expositions of the various rules governing the owning of slaves, while never actually being condemned as a practice. Exodus 21:20-21 states that if you beat your servant (whether male or female) to incapacity, if the servant survives for 'a day or two', then you're off the hook because, well... after all, servants cost money. Yes, this is the actual reason given, as anyone reading this can check for themselves.

Rape: In the Old Testament see Deuteronomy 21:10-14 for a description of the treatment of women as spoils of war, which concludes that if a captive woman does not please you, and you show her the door, it is unlawful to sell her for money if you have raped her because she is then regarded as spoiled goods. See also Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which earnestly assures us that the rape victim must marry and remain with her rapist 'all his days'. I would challenge anyone to read these several chapters in Deuteronomy and other books in the Old Testament dealing with Biblical law and not feel revolted by their inhumanity, as anyone with a sense of moral human decency should.

Stoning: See Deuteronomy 21:18-21 for instructions on stoning to death your disobedient son. This particular law is just one of many such Biblical laws which break the 13th Commandment. Homosexuality, loss of virginity before marriage, blasphemy, adultery, fortune telling and swearing at or striking a parent were also among the various Biblical offences punishable by a gruesome and prolonged death by stoning. An exception is Leviticus 20:14, which specifies that if a man 'take a wife and her mother', then all three are to be burned alive. Deuteronomy 13:6-10 also specifies death by stoning for apostasy - in this case, turning away from the Israelites' God - and urges the listener that 'thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death'.

Sacrifice: Judges 11:29-40 relates the grim tale of Jephthah, who makes a pact with God. If God will grant him victory in a coming battle, Jephthah will sacrifice to God whatever is the first thing to come out of his house upon his return home. God keeps his side of the bargain, Jephthah returns triumphant – and is greeted by his daughter, his only child, who rushes joyfully to meet him. Jephthah in despair tells his daughter what he has promised to God. His daughter (whose name we never learn) is reconciled, but asks for two months reprieve. The period passes, and Jephthah then ‘did with her according to his vow’, as the Bible coyly phrases what is in reality a human sacrifice. The body is then burned so that the smoke may waft heavenwards and please the Almighty. God, being all-knowing, would of course have known at the time the pact was made who the victim would be, and being all-powerful, could presumably have arranged for a chicken or some other animal to rush outside instead. But God, as much as Jephthah – and the rest of us – made his choices.

[1] The Bible referred to is my own copy of the King James Version study edition, published by Zondervan. This is a copiously-annotated Apologist edition whose annotations at times make unintentionally chilling reading, such as excusing the Biblical condoning of slavery as 'situations that were divinely-given, practical ways of dealing with the morality of the day.' (annotation to Timothy 6:5). So in the actual words of this edition's editors, for one human being to own another is considered by them to be a 'divinely-given situation'.

[2] My chapter-and-verse citations throughout this post are for others to independently check these passages for themselves should they choose to do so. For those who do not have a Bible, the full text of the King James Version is available online from several websites, including:

The images for this post are adapted from Gustave Doré's illustrations for the Bible.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Good Satanist

Once I was asked by someone what I considered to be the opposite of a good Christian. The obvious answer would seem to be: a bad Christian, which could be taken to mean someone who might nominally consider themselves to hold Christian beliefs, but who paid mere lip service to their faith by (for example) attending church once a year for the annual Christmas service, or by praying to the Almighty to grant them victory in some sporting event. But there is another possible answer.

The opposite of a good Christian might be: a good Satanist. Satan fills the Biblical role of the adversary, famously tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Looking out over all the world from an [1]‘exceeding high mountain’, Satan offers to grant Jesus dominion over all that he sees if Jesus will only perform an act of worship to him. I wonder if you can spot the curious contradiction in this proposition of Satan's? It implies either that Satan already had the world as his dominion, and it was therefore his to give, or that Jesus presumably would have known that Satan was offering him something that Satan did not truly own, and therefore no real 'temptation' as such took place because nothing was actually on offer. In lawyer's terms, it all hinges on the question of prior ownership. But Jesus in his response gives no indication of his awareness of this. Rather, he points out only that Satan should serve and worship God.

This curious conversation which took place high above the world between these two ultimate adversaries must have been an apocryphal exchange anyway, because there were no other witnesses present to record what was being said at the time. As for Jesus’ admonishing Satan to serve and worship God: had Satan done so, then one senses that the whole balance of the universe and the order of reality would have shifted – and not necessarily in a good way. Satan’s mere existence indicates that he had a crucial function in the proceedings – and that he was self-aware enough to realize this function. As with the extremes of all opposing forces, each to some extent defines itself by its relationship to the other, which in itself is a form of mutual dependence. I can imagine Satan laconically answering Jesus with: ‘Well, that’s not going to happen..’, perhaps not so much because of his nature, but because of an awareness of his essential role in the scheme of things.

There is a further possibility: maybe after all, Satan actually did – and does – have the world in his pocket. And that being so, how would he choose to play things? It’s not hard to imagine that he would work in various devious ways to trick others into thinking that they were opposing him, when all along they were in reality carrying out his master plan for him. He would allow others to create texts both cruel and contradictory, which would include the ideas that [2]slaughter and [3]slavery were okay things to do, that if you were the [4]victim of rape then you must marry your rapist, that if your unruly son was disobedient, then you should drag him outside and [5]have him stoned to death. The Satanic triumph would be, not to closet these extreme and inhuman behaviours away in some dark and forbidden heretical text, but to have them accepted as scripture, so that others would uncritically follow his plan, because it would then be termed ‘defending one's faith’. And (a masterstroke on his part) he would ensure that these texts could be interpreted in so many subtly different ways that they would cause deep divisions of [6]doctrine – deep enough actually to cause major schisms of faith that would last for centuries.

Back on top that ‘exceeding high mountain’, maybe Jesus missed his chance. Maybe he should have called Satan’s bluff. Maybe he should have seen through the double blind. For that one brief moment in time, the world, literally and metaphorically, lay at his feet, and all might have taken a very different path. But Satan was Satan, and Jesus was Jesus, and their preordained roles were to resist each other.

[1]Matthew 4:9.

[2]Book of Numbers 31:7-18. See also other instances throughout the Bible of murder and massacre too numerous to cite here.

[3]Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17. Also Leviticus 25:44-47, and also in the New Testament, such as in Ephesians 6:5 and Timothy 6:1.

[4]Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

[5]Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

[6]According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2001), estimates of the different and distinct Christian denominations worldwide vary from 33,000 to 38,000.

Painting: The Temptation of Christ, by Vasily Surikov.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Lost Ark of Noah

Recently I was intrigued to learn that Kenneth Ham, the Christian fundamentalist founder and director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, plans to extend the museum as a theme park, with a full-scale dry dock Noah's Ark as the main crowd-puller. A Biblical scale Ark! Wow! Or... maybe not? Not being sure just how do-able the original Ark could have been, and tending not to take things at face value, I decided to crunch the numbers. So this post is not about the feasibility of getting a mating pair of Argentinian giant anteaters to the Middle East in time to get aboard, or even about where a volume of water far greater than all the oceans of the world combined actually 'abated' to. It is about the Ark as a potentially seaworthy vessel.

Noah's Ark! The name alone has an extraordinary hold on the imagination. The story in Genesis is so familiar that it seems to stretch across boundaries of belief, and countless depictions and models of the vessel have been made. Could the actual vessel still be in existence somewhere, just waiting to be found? Some claim that it already has been, and using scripture as a sort of road map to guide their search, have headed for the famed Mount Ararat in present-day Turkey. The incentive to establish it's existence is not hard to understand, for it would provide the actual hands-on truth of the Genesis story. But is finding it really so straightforward?

This photo (above) was taken on the lower slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey; the place where Genesis tells us the Ark came to rest after the Flood receded. It seems to show the remains of a huge boat-shaped vessel, and the dimensions of the formation do more-or-less tally with those given in Genesis - and some intriguing artifacts have been found around the formation. It seems compelling evidence indeed, although the structure does match surrounding geology. And yet another strange prow-shaped formation known as the Ararat Anomaly has been spotted on the very slopes of snowy Ararat. There's just one snag with the remains of these supposed Arks: the location of the Ark, if it ever existed, is probably not the Biblical Ararat at all.

Were it not for the fact that I had been reading a *book on a different subject (the Biblical Nephilim), I might not have chanced across this nugget of information. But apparently the Biblical phrase 'mountains of Ararat' (note the plural) is translated from the Assyrian 'mountains of Urartu', a sprawling kingdom that then lay between present Turkish Kurdistan and Russian Armenia (the map above) - a far less specific and more vast  location. As both Urartu and Ararat originally would have been written as RRT (without vowels), there originally was no difference between the names 'Ararat' and 'Urartu'. So it seems that our popular notion of the Ark coming to rest on the top of Mount Ararat needs some impartial revision. But is it anywhere to be found at all? Just how feasible in the first place is the Ark in terms of being a built structure?

Willem Vos is a name to conjour with here in Holland. He is a master-shipbuilder whose stunning achievement has been to recreate a full-scale replica of the wooden 17th century Dutch East Indiaman, the Batavia (above). This is no theme park attraction, but a museum-standard research project; a faithful and seaworthy reconstruction built using only the original tools and methods. Working with the assistance of a small army of student volunteers and maritime archaeologists (one of whom I have worked with, but that - and the fate of the original Batavia - is another story!), the project took ten long years to complete - and the reborn Batavia has been under full sail on the open seas.

So with the *claim by Mr. Ham that the Ark which Noah built would have been 'eminently seaworthy', and with the achievement of Willem Vos in mind, I set about doing the math. The Batavia is 56½ meters (186 feet) long. Converting Biblical cubits to contemporary measure, the Ark would have been (conservatively) some 137 to 140 meters long – almost three times the Batavia’s length. So what about other large wooden ships known from history? There was the U.S.S. ironclad Dunderberg, launched in 1865, purchased by France and renamed the Rochambeau. At 115 meters long, it is one of the largest documented wooden-hulled vessels known. Alas, it was considered 'neither stable nor seaworthy' because of it’s size, and after serving only briefly in the Baltic was decommissioned and scrapped. And there was the similarly-sized six-masted schooner Wyoming, launched in 1909. At 100 meters long, it needed iron cross-bracing to counter warping in its timbers caused by wave motion, and a steam pump to handle constant serious leakage. Having run from a storm, it sank in sheltered waters with the loss of all hands.

But what was the problem with these floating wooden giants? Why can't we just build a wooden vessel as large as we please? Well, that’s where the engineering factor comes in, because this equation states simply enough that the greater the wooden structure, the more the structural integrity is compromised. In other words: the larger a wooden vessel is, the weaker it becomes. Calculating in this factor means that an 80-90 meter keel is probably the safe outer limit for a wooden vessel – and the Ark was half as long again as this. But what was the source of the Ark’s building material? The ‘gopher wood’ (‘gopher’ could have meant a method of treatment, rather than a type of tree) could have been the large cedar of Lebanon, whose maximum height is about 40 meters. The Ark’s keel would therefore have required at least four separate trunks laid end-to-end – and any shipwright will tell you that a ship’s weakness lies in the joins of its keel. But to be frank about it, in all his long life 'shipbuilder' Noah probably had not built so much as a rowing boat before - and was building the Ark with the most ominous deadline in human history looming over his head.

So it seems that Kenneth Ham's proposed land-locked Ark is driven more by a flair for showmanship than by daring faith. But if I remain unconvinced, what, then, might sway me? How about: once the creationist Ark is completed, fill it to capacity with assorted [1]fauna both wild and domestic (I'm being generous in not insisting that those Argentinian anteaters are aboard), get it waterborne, crew it with eight hands who between them have zero experience of seamanship (I'm sure that Mr. Ham will confidently volunteer to captain the vessel), and tow it down to the latitude of the Roaring Forties to simulate [2]sea conditions during the Flood. Then cut it loose to ride out the monster waves for a period of seven months (as specified in Genesis), with no means of turning the craft into the weather. If I could stand on the coast and watch the Ark sail safely back to port, then I might - just might - start to believe. Until then, my conclusion will be that such an overly-massive wooden structure as Noah's Ark, had it ever existed, would have broken its back as soon as it hit the water.

Long ago, a man built a *great wooden vessel to escape a deluge sent as divine retribution to destroy all humankind, except for this chosen man and his family and the beasts of the field which he took on board with him. When the terrible destroying waters at last abated, he released in turn a dove and a raven to help him find signs of dry land. Sound familiar? This man’s name was Ut-napishtim, and his story was recorded on Babylonian clay tablets several centuries before the story of Noah was written.

[1]Having written the above, after some thought I've decided to offer Mr. Ham a more-than-generous concession. In place of all those animals, I'll allow him to substitute sandbags to approximate the collective faunal weight. You'll guess my reason. I just don't like the thought of all those animals going under.

[2]When discussing this subject it's a usually overlooked factor that with no land masses to cause barometric differences and deflect them, storm-force winds would have raged continuously around the flooded planet, as they do for the same reason on planets such as Jupiter and Neptune. My depiction of the Ark in such weather conditions (top image), is for more than mere dramatic effect. The seas of the Flood would have been an unrelenting succession of perfect storms.

*Andrew Collins: From the Ashes of Angels, pub. Michael Joseph
*Andrew George: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated with an introduction, pub. Penguin Classics


The Ark's true proportions
Note added 26 October, 2012: I like to get things right if I can - and it's also important to me that others can rely on what they read and see here. Since I posted it, my painting of Noah's Ark (top image) has bothered me. I based the Ark upon the commercial model produced by Minicraft Models, whose manufacturers assure us that it is 'produced to cubit scale'. As it turns out, it's not! What bothered me about my painting is that the Ark actually looks credibly seaworthy. It makes you believe that it just might ride out those monster waves after all.

But there are two issues here. The first is the term 'Ark'. The actual Hebrew word used is tebah, which indicates some kind of unspecified container or vessel: something that will sustain and protect the life within it. For this reason this same word tebah is also aptly used to describe the basket in which the infant Moses was found. No mention of any boat shape - or even box shape, as some Ark depictions show.

The second point is that the dimensions given in Genesis (300 cubits long, 30 high, and 50 wide) produce a very different proportion to the Minicraft Ark. These scriptural proportions produce a shape more resembling the proportions of large steel container ships of today - that is: of extreme length in proportion to the narrowness of their beam. As a wooden hull, it would have been more shockingly vulnerable even than my description in this post. The timbers of a hull of such extended length and slender width would have been under constant lateral stress from wave action even in moderate seas. There is also the factor that a vessel without steering tends to turn beam-on to the weather (that is: the waves would be hitting it side-on). This effect, known as broaching, would have caused ever-greater instability and the constant threat of a rollover. Serious leakage and an eventual hull breach would have been inevitable - and even this is assuming that a wooden hull of such massive weight and vulnerably slim length could manage to get fully waterborne in the first place. The stress points along the extended length of the keel - if indeed it had one - would have been compromised to the point of collapse from the collective weight of its cargo plus the weight of the timber of the vessel itself.

The Chinese Treasure Ships
Note added 13 October 2013: What has so far been omitted from this post is mention of the early 15th-century Chinese baochuan treasure ships, which written accounts claim to have been up to 137 meters (450ft) long and 55 meters (180ft wide). If these accounts are trustworthy, then they would have been the same length as the conservative estimate for the Ark in my diagram above. The difficulty with these accounts is that the ships themselves do not exist, and (with the exception of an excavated possible large rudder board) there is no actual physical evidence for them. Had they existed, they might have been of comparable length to the Ark, but their beam was proportionally far wider than the Ark’s Biblical dimensions, which would have provided considerably greater stability. Scholars nevertheless are skeptical – for the very engineering reasons which I have cited above. Being constructed entirely of wood, the flexibility of the structure on the open ocean would have been dangerously compromised even in moderate weather. It is possible that wooden vessels of this size were constructed – but would have been used primarily for show, and would not have left the safety of the Yangtze river. The diagram above is from the July 2005 National Geographic.

The Ark Encounter exhibit opens under leaden skies.
Note that the main door on this 'reconstruction' would actually have been below the vessel's waterline.
The Ark Encounter exhibit
Note added 15 September 2016: The Ark Encounter attraction is now open to the public, and you can visit the website here. The website describes the Ark as 'amazingly seaworthy' - a determinedly optimistic assertion which all that is said in this post continues to refute. If you go to the 'About the Ark' topic on the website you'll see a close-up of the hull timbers. The timbers are not even clinker-built, but are laid flush with each other: a recipe for disaster for such a large wooden structure in any waterborne situation.

The exhibit's organizers also claim that it is the most accurate version of the Ark ever built. But how can they determine this? The scriptural description gives the bare measurements and nothing more - and we do not even conclusively know how long a 'cubit' was, or even what 'gopher wood' was. So what are the criteria for such claims of 'accuracy'? When it comes to creationist claims, showmanship, apparently, counts for more than intellectual honesty.

Apparently Kentucky was hit by torrential rains and floods at the time the exhibit opened. It's tempting to conclude that the Almighty was signalling to those responsible for the exhibit finally to put their money (or rather: their painfully literalist beliefs) where their mouth is and actually get the thing to sea (to be realistic: in a powerful storm). But they won't, of course. Not now, not ever. No-one wants to watch their dearly-held beliefs capsize and sink like a stone.

Dinosaurs in their enclosures on board the Ark. Really??

Thursday, October 4, 2012


In this week’s [1]newspaper the Dutch philosopher and columnist Martin Slagter questions the assumed right of religious beliefs to command automatic respect. Our very laws are slanted in favour of this, both socially and politically. But, Slagter wonders, just how justified is such a stance really? I weighed Slagter’s words against my own experiences. Right here in Holland, in my own neighbourhood, Christian Calvinists have averted their eyes and turned their backs on me when I have walked past them, apparently for no other reason than that my appearance is fairly goth (how ironic, then, that both they and myself favour wearing black!). When considered simply as preferred lifestyles, there is no reason whatever that my Calvinist neighbours should not give me as much social acceptance as I would give to them. And yet in some mysterious way, because their own lifestyle is belief-driven, they apparently assume the moral high ground, and their actions leave me feeling judged by them accordingly.

On various Internet forums I have had much experience debating the case for science (drawn from my own professional experience) with numerous Fundamentalist Christian creationists who clearly considered that Charles Darwin is almost interchangeable with the Prince of Darkness himself, and who regarded the theory of evolution as the ultimate heresy. The sheer toxic invective directed at the theory of evolution in general, and Darwin in particular, actually took me aback the first time I encountered it. And it was not so long ago that a furore broke out here in Holland when it was discovered that the Christian Evangelical channel was broadcasting David Attenborough’s commendable Life of Mammals nature series with the scenes which referred directly to evolution discreetly edited out.

To encounter minds right here in the 21st century which sincerely believe that dinosaurs were on board Noah’s Ark (which they had to be, if one also believes that all animals were created within one extremely busy week), and that the Earth is no more than [2]6,000 years old, was an experience for me almost akin to culture shock. I don’t go toe-to-toe with creationists any more (these days I’d sooner more fruitfully spend my time writing my blogs!), but in the two years which I did so, I encountered some very strange minds indeed in the anti-evolution camp. ‘Strange’ in the sense of apparently being willfully misshapen by the very religious beliefs which they sought to uphold.

Borders inside ourselves can be slipped over without our even noticing, and these include borders of human decency: of a sense of moral worth in what we believe as religious faith, and the acts which we perform in the name of such faith. Inevitably, this now includes those acts of social violence and terror which are committed in the name of Islam. To physically attack another – even to take a life - in the name of ‘upholding’ one’s faith is to diminish both oneself and, inevitably, one’s faith as well. And how bitterly ironic is it that you exultantly proclaim that ‘God is great!’ at the very moment that you take the lives of those (as someone doing so surely must believe) who are the creations of that same God?

I personally see no reason why religious belief as such should be granted respect as part of any privileged package deal simply because it is religious belief, and not some other form of moral code or ethical principle. Sure, we should respect the worldviews of others, but that respect should have more to do with a deeply-driven sense of human decency, of ‘doing the right thing’. And in religion, alas, that is not always present. Should I respect a religion whose ultimate authority on this Earth throws a mantle of tacit inaction - even protection - over the systematic and long-term pedophiliac activities of those answerable to it, instead of firmly establishing its own moral authority by conducting a rigorous and sweeping root-and-branch excision from their holy offices of the offending priests who have been responsible for ruining so many young lives?

Steven Weinberg said: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things… that takes religion.” Everything in me wishes that it were not so. Desperate experience shows that it is.

[1] Martin Slagter: Geloofsovertuiging is ook maar een mening (‘Religious conviction is also just an opinion’), in De Volkskrant, 3 October, 2012.

[2] For those unfamiliar with the arcane logic of creationists, they rely for this particular bit of reasoning on the calculations of Archbishop James Ussher, who in the 17th century totted up all those Biblical ‘begattings’ to conclude that the creation of the Earth took place on the evening before 24 October, 4004 BC. I try to be tolerant of others, I really do. But truth to tell, inside a creationist’s head is not a place that a sane, well-balanced person would wish to be.

Top image: Alberta Human Services. 2nd image: AnimalPhotos! 3rd image: Associated Press.