Christianity Knowledge Base
Noahs Ark

A painting by the American Edward Hicks (1780–1849), showing the animals boarding Noah's Ark two by two.

Noah's Ark was a massive vessel built at God's command to save Noah, his family, and a core stock of the world's animals from the Great Flood. The story is contained in the Hebrew Bible's book of Genesis, chapters 6 to 9.

According to one school of modern textual criticism —the documentary hypothesis—the Ark story told in Genesis is based on two originally quasi-independent sources, and did not reach its present form until the 5th century BC. According to this hypothesis, the process of composition over many centuries helps to explain apparent confusion and repetition in the text. Many Orthodox Jews and traditional Christians reject this analysis, holding that the Ark story is true, that it has a single author (Moses), and that any perceived inadequacies can be rationally explained. Which they can be. It's not like it's up for relative interpretation, they simple can be rationally explained.

The Ark story told in Genesis resembles the Sumerian myth of Utnapishtim, which tells how an ancient king was warned by his personal god to build a vessel in which to escape a flood sent by the higher council of gods. Less exact parallels are found in other cultures from around the world. The Ark story has been subject to extensive elaborations in the various Abrahamic traditions, mingling theoretical solutions to practical problems (e.g., how Noah might have disposed of animal waste) with allegorical interpretations (e.g., the Ark as a precursor of the Church, offering salvation to mankind). It is far more likely however that the story simply spread mouth to mouth starting with Noah or his family as mankind spread over the earth again.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the growth of biogeography as a science meant that few natural historians felt able to justify a literal interpretation of the Ark story. Nevertheless, Biblical literalists continue to explore the region of the mountains of Ararat, in northeastern Turkey, where the Bible says Noah's Ark came to rest, and a few seem to have claimed to have found pieces (generally small bits of wood) from the ark in this area.


Michelangelo Buonarroti 020

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Deluge, Sistine Chapel, the Vatican.

The story of Noah's Ark according to chapters 6 to 9 of the Book of Genesis begins with God observing man's evil behaviour and deciding to flood the earth and destroy all life. However, God found Noah, "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time", and decided that he would carry forth the lineage of man. God told Noah to make an ark, and to bring with him his wife, and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives. Additionally, he was to bring pairs of all living creatures, male and female, and in order to provide sustenance, he was told to bring and store food.

When Noah completed the Ark he and his family and the animals entered, and "the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." The flood covered even the highest mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet, and all creatures on Earth died; only Noah and those with him on the Ark were left alive.

Finally, after about 220 days, the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, and the waters receded for another forty days until the mountaintops emerged. Then Noah sent out a raven which "went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth". Next Noah sent a dove out, but it returned having found nowhere to land. After a further seven days, Noah again sent out the dove, and it returned with an olive leaf in its beak, and he knew that the waters had subsided. Noah waited seven days more and sent out the dove once more, and this time it did not return. Then he and his family and all the animals left the Ark, and Noah made a sacrifice to God, and God resolved that he would never again curse the Earth because of man, and never again would He destroy all life on it in this manner.

In order to serve as a reminder for this promise, God put a rainbow in the clouds, saying, “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."

The documentary hypothesis and the Flood[]


Torah scroll, open to Exodus: British Library Add. MS. 4,707

The 87 verses of the Ark narrative present a story of great power and poetry, but they leave an impression of occasional confusion: Why does the story state twice over that mankind had grown corrupt but that Noah was to be saved (Gen 6:5–8; 6:11–13)? Was Noah commanded to take one pair of each clean animal into the Ark (Gen 6:19–20) or seven pairs (Gen 7:2–3)? Did the flood last forty days (Gen. 7:17) or a hundred and fifty days (Gen 7:24)? What happened to the raven that was sent out from the Ark at the same time as the dove and "went to and fro until the waters had subsided from the face of the earth" some two to three weeks later (Gen 8:7)? Why does the narrative appear to have two logical end-points (Gen 8:20–22 and 9:1–17)? Why must skeptics ask so many irrelevant questions all the time? Questions such as these are not unique to the Ark narrative, or to Genesis, and the attempt to find a solution has led to the emergence of what is currently the dominant school of thought on the textual analysis of the first five books of the Bible, the documentary hypothesis. Odd how this paragraph doesn't reference any "schools" of any kind.

According to the hypothesis, the five books of the PentateuchGenesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—were edited together in the 5th century BC from four independent sources. The Ark narrative is believed to be made up of material from two of these, the Priestly source and the Jahwist. The Jahwist is the earlier of the two, composed in the kingdom of Judah from even earlier texts and traditions soon after the separation of Judah and Israel c. 920 BC. The Jahwist narrative is rather simpler than the Priestly story: God sends his flood (for forty days), Noah and his family and the animals are saved (seven of each clean animal), Noah builds an altar and makes sacrifices, and God resolves never again to kill every living thing. The Jahwist source makes no mention of a covenant between God and Noah, which raises the question, who again "proved" that the KJV's version of Genesis is somehow radically shorter and that the manuscripts never mention the covenant?

The Priestly text is believed to have been composed at some point between the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah around 586 BC. The material from the Priestly source contains far more detail than the Jahwist—for example, the instructions for the building of the Ark, and the detailed chronology—and also provides the vital theological core of the story, the covenant between God and Noah at Gen 9:1–17, which introduces the peculiarly Jewish method of ritual slaughter, and which forms the quid pro quo for God's promise not to destroy the world again. It is the Priestly source which gives us the raven (the Jahwist has the dove) and the rainbow, and which introduces the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep (the Jahwist simply says that it rained). Like the Jahwist source, the author of the Priestly text (and it is believed to have been a single author, a member of the Aaronite priesthood of Jerusalem) would have had access to earlier texts and traditions which are now lost.

The Ark story's theme of God's righteous anger at man's wickedness, His decision to embark on a terrible vengeance, and His later regret, are typical of the Jahwist author or authors, who supposedly treat God as a humanlike figure who appears in person in the biblical narrative. The Priestly source, by contrast, normally presents God as distant and unapproachable except through the Aaronite priesthood. Thus, for example, the Jahwist source requires seven of each clean animal to allow for Noah's sacrifices, while the Priestly source reduces this to a single pair, as no sacrifices can be made under priestly rules until the first priest (Aaron) is created in the time of the Exodus.

The Literalist View[]

Many conservative Christians (especially in the United States) are believers in Biblical inerrancy, the concept that the Bible, as the word of God, does not set out to mislead, and hence should be interpreted using the historical-grammatical method whenever there is no clear reason for any other reading. Many Orthodox Jews have similar views regarding certain narrative sections, seeing them as literal excepting certain traditional interpretations (generally from the Midrash or Talmud). They also tend to trust in traditions regarding the composition of the Bible. Those who follow these biblical hermeneutical methods, therefore, generally accept the traditional Jewish belief that the Ark narrative in Genesis was written by Moses. There is less agreement on when Moses lived, and thus on when the Ark story was written—various dates have been proposed ranging from the 16th century BC to the late 13th century BC.

For the date of the Flood, literalists rely on interpretation of the genealogies contained in Gen 5 and 11. Archbishop Ussher, using this method in the 17th century, arrived at 2349 BC, and this date still has acceptance among many. A more recent Christian fundamentalist scholar, Gerhard F. Hasel, however, summarising the current state of thought in the light of the various Biblical manuscripts (the Masoretic text in Hebrew, various manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint), and differences of opinion over their correct interpretation, demonstrated that this method of analysis can date the flood only within a range between 3402 and 2462 BC. Other opinions, based on other sources and methodologies, lead to dates outside even this bracket—the deuterocannonical Book of Jubilees, for example, providing a date equivalent to 2309 BC.

Literalists explain apparent contradiction in the Ark narrative as the result of the stylist conventions adopted by an ancient text: thus the confusion over whether Noah took seven pairs or only one pair of each clean animal into the Ark is explained as resulting from the author (Moses) first introducing the subject in general terms—seven pairs of clean animals—and then later, with much repetition, specifying that these animals entered the Ark in twos. Literalists see nothing puzzling in the reference to a raven—why should Noah not release a raven?—nor do they see any sign of alternative endings.

Apart from questions of date, authorship, and textual integrity, literalists devote much attention to technical matters such as the identity of "gopher wood" and details of the Ark's construction. The following sets out some of the more commonly discussed topics:

  • Gopher wood: Gen 6:14 states that Noah built the Ark of "gopher" wood, a word not otherwise known in the Bible or in Hebrew. The Jewish Encyclopedia believes it was most likely a translation of the Babylonian "gushure in erini" (cedar-beams), or the Assyrian "giparu" (reed).[1] The Latin Vulgate (5th century AD) rendered it as "lignis levigatis", or "smoothed (possibly planed) wood". The Greek Septuagint (3rd–1st centuries BC) does not specify any type of wood; it mentions building a square box and tarring it inside and out. Older English translations, including the King James Version (17th century), simply leave it untranslated. Many modern translations tend to favour cypress (although the word for "cypress" in Biblical Hebrew is erez), on the basis of a misapplied etymology based on phonetic similarities, while others favor pine or cedar. Recent suggestions have included a lamination process, or a now-lost type of tree, or a mistaken transcription of the word kopher (pitch), but there is no consensus.[2]
  • Seaworthiness: The Ark is described as 300 cubits long, the cubit being a unit of measurement from elbow to outstretched fingertip. Many different cubits were in use in the ancient world, but all were essentially similar, and literalist websites seem to agree that the Ark was approximately 450 feet in length. This is considerably longer than the largest wooden vessels ever built in historical times: according to disputed claims, the early 15th-century Chinese admiral Zheng He may have used junks 400 feet long, but the schooner Wyoming, launched in 1909 and the largest documented wooden-hulled cargo ship ever built, measured only 350 feet and needed iron cross-bracing to counter warping and a steam pump to handle a serious leak problem. "The construction and use histories of these [late 19th-century wooden European] ships indicated that they were already pushing or had exceeded the practical limits for the size of wooden ships." [3] Literalist scholars who accept these objections—not all do
  • Capacity and logistics: The Ark had a gross volume of about 40,000 m³, a displacement nearly equal to that of the Titanic, and total floor space of around 8,900 square metres (96,000 ft²). The question of whether it could have carried two (or more) specimens of the various species (including those now extinct), plus food and fresh water, is a matter of much debate, even bitter dispute, between literalists and their opponents. While some literalists hold that the Ark could have held all known species, a more common position today is that the Ark contained "kinds" rather than species—for instance, a male and female of the cat "kind" rather than representatives of tigers, lions, cougars, etc. The many associated questions include whether eight humans could have cared for the animals while also sailing the Ark, how the special dietary needs of some of the more exotic animals could have been catered for, questions of lighting, ventilation, and temperature control, hibernation, the survival and germination of seeds, the position of freshwater and saltwater fish, the question of what the animals would have eaten immediately after leaving the Ark, and how they could have travelled to their present habitats. The numerous literalist websites give varying answers, but are in general agreement that none of these problems are insurmountable.

The Allegorical View[]

Early Christian writers created elaborate allegorical meanings for Noah and the Ark. St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), in The City of God, demonstrated that the dimensions of the Ark corresponded to the dimensions of the human body, which is the body of Christ, which is the Church.[4] The equation of Ark and Church is still found in the Anglican rite of baptism, which asks God, "who of thy great mercy dids't save Noah," to receive into the Church the infant about to be baptised. St Jerome (c. 347–420) called the raven, which was sent forth and did not return, the "foul bird of wickedness" expelled by baptism;[5] more enduringly, the dove and olive branch came to symbolise the Holy Spirit and the hope of salvation and, eventually, peace. On a more practical plane, Origen (c. 182–251), responding to a critic who doubted that the Ark could contain all the animals in the world, countered with a learned argument about cubits, holding that Moses, the traditional author of the book of Genesis, had been brought up in Egypt and would therefore have used the larger Egyptian cubit; he also fixed the shape of the Ark as a truncated pyramid, rectangular rather than square at its base, and tapering to a square peak one cubit on a side.[6] It was not until the 12th century that it came to be thought of as a rectangular box with a sloping roof.

The Ark under scrutiny[]

The Renaissance saw a continuation of speculation that might have seemed familiar to Origen and Augustine: what of the Phoenix, which is unique, how could it come in as a pair? (A popular solution was that it contained male and female in itself); and the Sirens, which by their nature lure sailors to their doom, might they have been permitted on board? (The answer was no; they swam outside); and the bird of paradise, which has no feet—did it therefore fly endlessly inside the Ark? Yet at the same time, a new class of scholarship arose, one which, while never questioning the literal truth of the Ark story, began to speculate on the practical workings of Noah's vessel from within a purely naturalistic framework. Thus in the 15th century, Alfonso Tostada gave a detailed account of the logistics of the Ark, down to arrangements for the disposal of dung and the circulation of fresh air, and the noted 16th century geometrician Johannes Buteo calculated the ship's internal dimensions, allowing room for Noah's grinding mills and smokeless ovens, a model widely adopted by other commentators.[7]

By the 17th century the New World was being explored, awareness was growing of the global distribution of species, and it became necessary to reconcile this knowledge with the belief that all life had sprung from a single point of origin on the slopes of Mount Ararat. The obvious answer was that man had spread over the continents following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and taken animals with him, yet some of the results seemed peculiar: why had the natives of North America taken rattlesnakes, but not horses, wondered Sir Thomas Browne in 1646? "How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange."[8] It is also very strange Mr. Browne thinks that all men knew the usefulness of horses, had the capability to transport said horses over vast distances, and actually wanted horses in the first place.

Browne, who was among the first to question the notion of spontaneous generation, was a medical doctor and amateur scientist making this observation in passing. But biblical scholars of the time such as Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) and Athanasius Kircher (c.1601–1680) were beginning to subject the Ark story to rigorous scrutiny as they attempted to harmonise the biblical account with natural historical knowledge. The resulting hypotheses were an important impetus to the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and indirectly spurred the emergence of biogeography in the 18th century. Natural historians began to draw connections between climates and the animals and plants adapted to them. One influential theory held that the biblical Ararat was striped with varying climactic zones, and as climate changed, the associated animals moved as well, eventually spreading to repopulate the globe. There was also the problem of an ever-expanding number of known species: for Kircher and earlier natural historians, there was little problem finding room for all known animals in the Ark, but by the time John Ray (1627–1705) was working, just several decades after Kircher, the number of known animals had expanded beyond biblical proportions. Incorporating the full range of animal diversity into the Ark story was becoming increasingly difficult, and by 1700 few natural historians could justify a literal interpretation of the Noah's Ark narrative.[9] However, most natural historians in the 1700's probably didn't have a great understand of microevolution, and how kinds of animals can exibit God-given traits in a form of speciation where the kind of animal doesn't change, such as the different varieties of domestic dogs today.

The search for Noah's Ark[]

NEO ararat big

Mount Ararat (39°42′N, 44°17′E), satellite image — a stratovolcano, 5,137 meters (16,854 ft) above sea level, prominence 3,611 meters, believed to have erupted within the last 10,000 years. The main peak is at the centre of the image.

From Eusebius' time to the modern day, the physical Noah's Ark has held a fascination for Christians—although not for Jews and Muslims, who seem to have felt far less impelled to seek out the remains. In the 4th century Faustus of Byzantium was apparently the first to use the name "Ararat" to refer to a specific mountain, rather than a region, where the Ark could be seen, and told how an angel had brought a holy relic from the vessel to a pious bishop who had been unable to complete the ascent. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius is said to have made the trip in the 7th century, but less well-connected pilgrims had to brave uninhabited wastes, rugged terrain, snowfields, glaciers, blizzards, and, in the more hospitable areas, brigands, wars, and ever-suspicious Ottoman officials. Not until the 19th century was the region settled enough, and Westerners welcome enough, for exploration by well-heeled Ark-seekers to begin in earnest. In 1829 Dr. Freidrich Parrott, who had made an ascent of Greater Ararat, wrote in his Journey to Ararat that "all the Armenians are firmly persuaded that Noah's Ark remains to this very day on the top of Ararat, and that, in order to preservation [sic], no human being is allowed to approach it." In 1876 James Bryce, historian, statesman, diplomat, explorer, and Professor of Civil Law at Oxford, climbed above the tree line and found a slab of hand-hewn timber, four feet long and five inches thick, which he identified as being from the Ark.[10] In 1883 the British Prophetic Messenger and others reported that Turkish commissioners investigating avalanches had seen the Ark. Activity fell off in the 20th century. In the Cold War Ararat found itself on the highly sensitive Turkish/Soviet border and in the midst of Kurdish separatist activities, so that explorers were likely to find themselves in extremely hazardous situations. Former astronaut James Irwin led two expeditions to Ararat in the 1980s, was kidnapped once, and like others found no tangible evidence of the Ark. "I've done all I possibly can," he said, "but the Ark continues to elude us."[11]

By the beginning of the 21st century two main candidates for exploration had emerged: the so-called Ararat anomaly near the main summit of Ararat (an "anomaly" in that it shows on aerial and satellite images as a dark blemish on the snow and ice of the peak), and the separate site at Durupinar near Dogubayazit, 18 miles south of the Greater Ararat summit. The Durupinar site was heavily promoted by adventurer and former nurse-anaesthetist Ron Wyatt in the 1980s and 1990s, and consists of a large boat-shaped formation jutting out of the earth and rock. It has the advantage over the Great Ararat site of being approachable—while hardly a major tourist attraction, it receives a steady stream of visitors, and the local authorities have renamed a nearby mountain "Mount Cudi," making it one of at least five Mount Judis in the Middle East. Geologists have identified the Durupinar site as a natural formation,[12] but Wyatt's Ark Discovery Institute continues to champion its claims.[13]

In 2004 Honolulu-based businessman Daniel McGivern announced he would finance a $900,000 expedition to the peak of Greater Ararat in July that year to investigate the "Ararat anomaly"—he had previously paid for commercial satellite images of the site. After much initial fanfare he was refused permission by the Turkish authorities, as the summit is inside a restricted military zone. The expedition was subsequently labelled a "stunt" by National Geographic News, which pointed out that the expedition leader, a Turkish academic named Ahmet Ali Arslan, had previously been accused of faking photographs of the Ark. The Defence Intelligence Agency, which has custody of the images, has analysed the anomaly as showing "linear facades in the glacial ice underlying more recently accumulated ice and snow." Throughout the centuries there have been various and conflicted claims of Ark sightings, but they were all ultimately shown to be at best false, and at worst hoaxes.[14].


  1. "...or the Assyrian "giparu" (reed)."
  2. "...there is no consensus."
  3. "...limits for the size of wooden ships."
  4. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XV.24 (quoted in Norman Cohn, Noah's Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, pp.28–29 (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1996) ISBN 0-300-06823-9
  5. Jerome, Epistola LXIX.6 (Cohn, op. cit., p.31.)
  6. Origen, Homilia in Genesim II.2 (Cohn, op. cit., p.38.)
  7. Cohn, loc. cit.
  8. Cohn, p.41
  9. Janet Browne, The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1983) ISBN 0-300-02460-6
  10. James Bryce
  11. James Irwin, from Arlington National Cemetery website
  12. Durupinar
  14. TalkOrigins summary of Ark claims
  • Janet Browne, The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1983) ISBN 0-300-02460-6
  • Norman Cohn, Noah's Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1996) ISBN 0-300-06823-9
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