A reader asks

I was hoping you could clear up a problem for me concerning primeval history in the Bible (Gen 1-11), or perhaps point me toward a good book on the subject. My specific problem concerns the flood in Genesis. While much has been written about the interpretation of Creation in light of science, I can find little on the flood. The Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent tends to view it as historical and anthropologically universal (killed all humans), though not geographically universal. Newer Commentaries, such and the New Catholic Encyclopedia and New Jerome Biblical Commentary seem to view it primarily as mythic and ahistorical. I know when the church uses the term myth in reference to Gen 1-11, it doesn’t mean fictional, but a highly figurative/poetic account of truth. So how does this apply to Noah and the flood. There seems to be a notion in the early church that Noah was the “Second Father of Humanity” which is why the Noahide covenant affects Jews and Gentiles. But of course a flood that killed all humanity would have to be VERY ancient (perhaps before man had the skill to build boats) since we know places like Australia and North America have been populated for ages, and racial divergence would be a long process as well. Most scholars think a real, cataclysmic local flood in Mesopotamia happened about 7,000 years ago, which gave rise to the stories of Noah and Gilgamesh. Of course that flood would be too recent to kill all of humanity. So how do theologians view the deluge? Was the flood real? Was Noah a real person? The Catechism, in passages 56-58 and again in 71, seems to speak of him as a real person, and the flood as real too, but maybe I’m missing something here. It also say the Noahide covenant is universal, but doesn’t call Noah the second father of humanity, and perhaps that silence speaks volumes, but I don’t want to read anything into the text that isn’t there. Now I know the Catholic Church rarely issues “definitive” interpretations of certain stories in the Bible when it comes to their relation to literal history. This leaves laymen and theologians with a great deal of intellectual freedom I suppose. But it also leaves me with not a little confusion. So if you know an orthodox view of primeval history, which respects the discoveries of science, I’d sure like to be let in on it.

For some reason, issues like these are the bane of me. I keep myself so busy trying to figure them out, and reconcile Scipture with science, that I end up spending little time studying the teaching of Christ, and trying to deepen myself spiritually. But I would like to put these issues to rest, so I can focus on deeper things.

Another reason such issues are important to me concerns my friends. If my friends were solid Protestants, I’d have no problem defending Catholic doctrine to them, and they wouldn’t even bring up issues like Creation and the Flood. But my friends lean toward agnostic/deist, and they won’t care about justification or sacramentalism, but issues such as primeval history are likely to come up. And I want to give them answers that are both faithful to Catholic teaching, and satisfying to the intellect.

This letter’s a bit long in retrospect, sorry about that, but I thought you might be able to point me in the right direction. Thanks!

I don’t have a lot of info here. My own take on it is rather fuzzy, since I don’t know (and don’t know if anybody really knows) where homo sapiens populations were found and when. All that’s necessary for “world” destroying flood in biblical times is to destroy the world known to the author of Scripture, which is a fairly small region. I am skeptical that there is any Catholic “doctrine” regarding the historicity (or non-historicity) of the Flood. It seems to be one of the areas that the Church is content to take a “wait and see” attitude till the sciences bring more light. A linguist friend once told me that it was a curious fact that all human languages appear to have their roots in the area of the Fertile Crescent (i.e., the locale of the Flood and Babel stories), but I don’t know if he’s right, not being a linguist myself. My own supposing is that there is *some* sort of historical basis for the Flood story, since Flood myths are so universal. But I’m not going to try to press it past that. The author of Scripture himself clearly has a theological purpose in telling the story as he does and so I try to squeeze what juice I can from it without busying myself with reconciling the text with the latest guesses from science (guesses which will, at any rate, change tomorrow). The fact is, we don’t know a lot about what happened a long time ago. The problem with prehistoric man is: he’s prehistoric and so we don’t know his history.