In the Beginning and End of the World: Ken Ham and the Biblical Flood

In the Beginning and End of the World: Ken Ham and the Biblical Flood August 29, 2016

The infamous Christian creationist and all-around controversialist Ken Ham has been making the news a lot recently due to the recent opening of his Ark Encounter—his organization’s theme park boasting a “life-size” replica of Noah’s ark, as per the proportions described in the Biblical book of Genesis; all in a feeble attempt to persuade people of the historicity of the flood narrative exactly as it appears in Genesis.

Beyond what, to myself and others, is the farcical idea of the Ark Encounter itself, several other things in conjunction with this have become the subject of widespread ridicule and outrage. For example, people have lampooned a plaque in the replica ark that channels Satan to say “if I can convince you that the flood was not real, then I can convince you that heaven and hell are not real.”

The most recent stumbling block is a Facebook post by Ham, much in the same vein as this. In it he comments on an article by a Lutheran pastor who, as Ham tells it,

says the account of Noah is not history, but if that’s true then Jesus, Peter, and the author of Hebrews lied. The pastor says Genesis is myth. Well, then the gospel would also be, as it’s preached in Genesis 3:15, 21. If Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, like Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and others.

Ken Ham—in a position that he has been and is presumably going to continue to find himself in—is clearly engaged in what’s just as much an inner-Christian debate as he is in one between Christians and skeptics.

Before saying anything else, the basic underlying principle that Ham’s thinking of here is, charitably, the interdependence of the New Testament and the Old in terms of history and theology. The authors of the New Testament looked to Old Testament figures, their lives and the events in them, and used these as the basis for important theological assumptions and arguments—including things which constitute the core of Christian truths that Ham and others affirm.

And on one hand, that the earliest Christians and the New Testament authors did so is unquestionably true.

Now, as Ham sees it, it’s unclear why the prospect of Noah having not been a historical person necessarily entails that Abraham, Isaac, et al. weren’t either; unless he’s thinking about the fact that according to the genealogies in Genesis, these figures had Noah as their 10× great-grandfather, and then based on this assumes the same sort of scenario as in, say, the grandfather paradox in time travel. (That is, erase Abraham, and all his purported descendants might just poof out of existence along with him.)

But while contrary to Ham, we can certainly at least imagine a historical Abraham without a historical Noah, I genuinely believe that any reasonable person should be able to agree that if, based on other factors, we were able to convincingly demonstrate that neither Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, nor Moses ever existed, then this should have pretty radical effects on how the truth of Christianity itself is approached and understood; and this would be the case for virtually all Christian denominations and believers.

And this has been acknowledged even by those who are otherwise among Ham’s harshest critics. For example, in response to this most recent incident, Michael Stone at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog here on Patheos suggests that “[o]nce biblical creationism is rejected, Christianity unravels: if there is no Adam and Eve, there is no original sin, and thus no need for redemption through the blood of Christ.”

To be sure, even here Michael taps into an issue that can’t simply be hand-waved away. And I think there’d be less impetus to do so once it’s realized that the issue of the historicity of Adam and its theological implications has been a major point of contention among Christians and non-Christians since Darwin—or, arguably, since Isaac La Peyrère—and that the debate is as fierce today as it’s ever been. (You can find a survey of the landscape of the theological implications here, for both evangelical theology and beyond, in publications like Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. And there are more technical and historically informed studies by David Livingstone and Michael Ruse.)

And there are certain senses in which what Michael suggests also represents the normative view not just among, say, evangelical Protestants, but in orthodox Christianity as well. To take just one example, Catholicism is dogmatically committed to a historical Adam and Eve from whom original sin has its origin “via sexual reproduction, not through imitation¹ [of the original Adamic sin],” and in humans inheriting this sin is truly a barrier to salvation without the purifying effects of Christian faith.

But besides the issue of Adam and original sin, I think that from reflecting more deeply on the Biblical text that Ken Ham mentioned in his most recent post, and also on other related texts, there are other important ramifications from a blanket rejection of the historicity of Noah and the flood that nonetheless might be overlooked. And I suspect that those like Ham haven’t really recognized these—possibly due to the fact that Ham’s own efforts in defending the Genesis flood seem largely oriented just toward the idea that there was one, as his twofold commitment to Biblical inerrancy and literalism demands.

Without belaboring the point, I want to suggest that there are at least two major theological consequences if the flood of Noah isn’t understood to have actually had any historical basis, which can be summarized as follows:

  • if Noah’s flood didn’t actually have any historical basis—or at least if it wasn’t something that was divinely meted out by the Jewish God upon the whole world for its sins²—and yet Jesus and others in the New Testament warned about future apocalyptic events precisely by comparing them to the dire threat of the flood, then these warnings start to look like more like an empty threat. (Going forward in this post, I often use the word eschatological instead of “apocalyptic,” in reference to the events of the end of the world.)
  • if Noah’s flood didn’t actually have any historical basis, and if the flood narrative (and extrabiblical tradition in Second Temple Judaism associated with it) is looked at in its own right—and this is all what the New Testament and early Christian interpretation of this was built and depended on in the first place, obviously—then, in short, this leaves the story itself without any applicable moral or meaning, in terms of a wider Biblical theology/hermeneutics.

I’ll explain and defend these in the sections to follow.

Again, Ken Ham specifically mentioned the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Facebook post, that “[i]f Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, like Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and others.”

For a little background, Hebrews 11 is of a sort of catalog of seminal Old Testament figures, singled out for their commendable faith in various things. (Before Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, as Ham mentioned, the list also included Abel, Enoch, and Noah—something that’ll be important in a second.)

One important thing to recognize about this chapter and catalog is how it’s ultimately all bound up in a theme of Christian eschatology, the category of beliefs having to do with the expected supernatural “end of the world.” Although hinted at a couple of times throughout Hebrews, this theme is most obviously signaled in its conclusion. After all the figures are listed, the author writes “yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . . so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:39). The idea here is that, despite the faith and righteousness of Abel, Enoch, Noah and others—despite whatever kind of preliminary reward they might have received because of this—they hadn’t truly been ultimately rewarded yet; and as the author has it, this delay is in fact to ensure that there’s no disparity in their being rewarded before righteous Christians themselves are.

So what is this ultimate reward that’s being postponed? Perhaps among other things, what seems to be most clearly suggested by this is the notion of these figures participating in the climactic eschatological event of the universal resurrection of the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:35), when all dead humans would be resurrected; “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29). And Hebrews’ emphasis here, that there’d be no disparity in terms of when the righteous dead of the Old Testament period are rewarded and when contemporary Christians are, can readily be compared to what Paul says about the resurrection in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, reassuring them that “we, who remain alive until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died” (4:15).

This eschatological resurrection of the dead was, naturally, bound up with other related events that were expected at the end of history, including the final judgment. Which brings us to one of the other themes of Hebrews 11, faith in the “unseen”; and then, from here, to Noah and the flood.

The opening verse of Hebrews 11 is quite well-known: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” For the author of Hebrews, this unseen reality includes both God himself—his “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,” as Paul has it in his epistle to the Romans (1:20)—as well as the yet unseen future eschatological age and rewards. Yet unlike elsewhere in the chapter, in Hebrews 11’s reflection on Noah “what is unseen refer[s] to the threat of judgment rather than eschatological blessing” (Donald Hanger, Encountering the Book of Hebrews: An Exposition, 145).

This passage reads

By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

In addition to the uniquely negative connotation of “unseen” here, also interesting is the idea that Noah himself participated in the condemnation of the world in some way.

Due to this aspect and others, I’ve long suggested that the language used to portray Noah here could be indebted to contemporary traditions about Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch—who’s in fact mentioned in the verses immediately before this in Hebrews 11, and who was integrally connected with the eschatological future and judgment in various other texts and traditions of Second Temple Judaism. The most well-known among these texts is the book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch for short. But there are others too; and in conjunction with what’s said in Hebrews 11:7, we might look particularly toward a section in the 2nd century BCE Jewish apocryphal Book of Jubilees. In this, the imagined angelic authors behind the text speak about Enoch, that he “testified against the Watchers who had sinned with the daughters of men” (see Genesis 6:1-4), and that

He was taken from human society, and we led him into the Garden of Eden for (his) greatness and honor. Now he is there writing down the judgment and condemnation of the world and all the wickedness of mankind. Because of him the flood water did not come on any of the land of Eden because he was placed there as a sign and to testify against all people in order to tell all the deeds of history until the day of judgment. (Jubilees 4:22-24)

So not only is Enoch “writing down the . . . condemnation of the world,” but in his very placement in the Garden (because of his “greatness and honor”) he stands “as a sign and to testify against all people”—like Noah who by his very faith “condemned the world.”

All together, in various texts throughout the Second Temple period, both Enoch and Noah are heralds of a coming judgment; and at least the latter was portrayed as having been mocked by contemporary skeptics because of his warnings³: a motif that’ll be important shortly. (See my Note 3 for more extensive references to this.) Further, Enoch and Noah’s own participation in the judgment and condemnation of the world can also be connected with another tradition—one that appears several times in the New Testament itself, too—that at the end of history, righteous Jews and Christians will themselves participate in the judgment/punishment of the unrighteous.⁴

How does all this connect with the two main implications of a non-historical or non-literal flood that I mentioned earlier, i.e. in regard to how Jesus and others in the New Testament warned about future apocalyptic events precisely by comparing them to the dire threat of the flood?

While there are a few different points of entry in terms of answering this, to just pick one here: toward the end of the book of Enoch, in the Epistle section—”that which was written by Enoch . . . praised by all men, and judge of all the earth, to all my sons who will dwell upon the earth and to the last generations who will do uprightness and peace” (92:1)—Enoch delivers a warning to “you sinners, you are content to eat and to drink and to rob and to sin and to make people naked⁵ and to add to wealth and to see good days”; a warning about the dire eschatological fate awaiting them (1 Enoch 102:9).⁶

It’s hard not to detect, in this, a clear connection to the exhortations of Jesus in the New Testament gospels, specifically in relation to the carefree eating and drinking of those who’ll be unprepared for judgment. In the so-called Olivet Discourse, one of Jesus’ main eschatological discourses that appears in all of the first three gospels, in the version of this from the gospel of Matthew we find

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming [hē parousia] of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39)

In the parallel to this in the gospel of Luke, the blissfully unaware actions of humanity prior to the flood are expanded upon, for example adding a line about commerce (which we might compare to what we find in 1 Enoch 102:9, quoted above): “just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building…” (17:28).

As it’s understood here, the “coming” of the Son of Man—in Greek, the parousia—is none other than the Second Coming of Jesus. Seen all together then, this text stands as a prime example of the connection between the primordial cataclysmic flood and the future eschatological judgment, made at a few different places throughout the texts of the Second Temple period and beyond.⁷

Above, when discussing Hebrews 11:7, I mentioned the traditions of the incredulity of Noah’s contemporaries, and their mockery of his proclamation of an imminent judgment. Perhaps most importantly here, this might be paralleled with a similar incredulity at the eschatological judgment proclaimed by the early Christians themselves—one mentioned, for example, in the New Testament in the second Epistle of Peter:

3 First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming [hē parousia Autou]? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” 5 They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, 6 through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the impious/godless. (2 Peter 3:3-7)

The “promise of His coming”—again, the parousia, as above from Matthew—is none other than the final eschatological judgment of God; or, again, the Second Coming.⁸

And the incredulity of the “scoffers,” against Jews/Christians and their eschatology, is one that would soon be attested to independently of the New Testament itself. For example, the 3rd century Tyrian Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, referring to the section of Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians that I quoted earlier in which he suggests the imminence of the eschatological resurrection, taunted that “the end has not come and will never come!” And specifically in reference to the idea of the fire in which the impious will perish, mentioned here in 2 Peter, the infamous Christian critic Celsus mocked this sort of Christian eschatology “that, when God applies the fire (like a cook!) all the rest of mankind will be thoroughly roasted and that they alone will survive, not merely those who are alive at the time but those also long dead who will rise up from the earth possessing the same bodies as before.”⁹

In any case, in 2 Peter, it’s hard to miss the comparison and contrast between water and fire that it draws in relation to the primordial and eschatological cataclysms. And this itself reminds us of several traditions that were current in the Mediterranean and Jewish world at the time. For example, roughly contemporary to when 2 Peter was probably written, the Jewish historian Josephus relates—near the beginning of his Jewish Antiquities, and immediately preceding a section on Noah and the flood—an extrabiblical tradition in which the children of Seth (the son of Adam, the first man) recorded contemporary knowledge and teachings on two pillars for posterity, in light of a prophetic insight by Adam that the world would be destroyed by water and by fire:

in order that humanity might not lose their discoveries or perish before they came to be known—Adam having predicted that there would be an extermination of the universe [ὅλος], at one time by violent fire and at another time by a force with an abundance of water—they made two pillars, one of brick and the other of stones and inscribed their findings on both, in order that if the one of brick should be lost owing to the flood the one of stone should remain and offer an opportunity to teach men what had been written on it and to reveal that also one of brick had been set up by them.¹⁰

(The conjunction of world destruction by water and by fire is a motif that appears a few different times in rabbinic literature, i.e. the Talmud, too. And interestingly, when this was connected with the Biblical flood, the fire was specifically conceived as a flood of fire, מבול של אש.)

Between Literalism and Historicity, Non-Literalism and Non-Historicity

To zoom out and look at the bigger picture a bit here before proceeding: Between conservatives and progressive Christians, it’s not just differing modes of Biblical interpretation that are wielded like weapons in the ideological battle that these groups are so often engaged in. It’s the history of Biblical interpretation that’s used this way, too; a history that, perhaps predictably, those behind these differing approaches often shape in their own image.

And I can’t help but think that, especially for progressive Christians here, there’s a common thread between how they understand the primordial cataclysm of the flood and the future eschatological tribulations of the Bible, at least in terms of how they perceive the earliest Jewish/Christian authors and interpreters to have understood these. And I suspect that many have a sense that neither of these was taken very seriously here, or at least not very literally.

To say a few words about the former: it’s now common to hear a sort of blanket assessment that the earliest Jews and Christians “didn’t take Genesis literally”—which, for progressives, also often means that they didn’t interpret it historically, and applies to everything from the creation days of Genesis 1 to the Tower of Babel incident and beyond; and presumably, for many, includes the flood story as well. And from my own experiences in engaging with progressive Christians, I think it’s fair to say this idea seems to have attained a sort of orthodoxy for a significant number.

If we had to speculate as to the reason behind its popularity here, I think it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that it (rather conveniently) allows them to see early Jewish and Christian interpreters pretty much exactly like the ideal contemporary rational, critical, and science-friendly interpreter that they themselves are; and from here it’s hard not to see this as what’s in many ways a fundamentally apologetic approach (in the sense that it kind of allows Christianity to bypass what might be a more intense critical scrutiny that it could be subjected to). However, despite the fact that there indeed were some “progressive” trends in early Biblical interpretation, this blanket judgment that the early interpreters didn’t take Genesis literally or historically—especially in some of the more specific or idiosyncratic ways that this is understood—is a complete fabrication and misrepresentation.¹¹

I mention this for several reasons. To kind of pick up from where I left off in the previous section, though: I had quoted the relevant section of 2 Peter here,

by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the impious/godless.

Picking back up on this, 2 Peter continues that

the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire (3:10-12)

It’s interesting that here in 2 Peter, as it is with Genesis and the flood more broadly, these lines have been the subject of debate among scholars and theologians precisely in regard to the issue of literalism. That is, in certain circles there’s skepticism as to whether this fiery destruction, etc.—which, following others, I’ll call language of cosmic catastrophe—was intended literally, and wasn’t instead drawing on a kind of Jewish precedent of characterizing monumental political or metaphysical events using similar hyperbolic language.¹² (In terms of similar cosmic figurative language still used today, think of the idiom “earth-shattering” or, for a fortuitous event, that the “stars aligned,” etc.)

To be sure, scholars today are conscious more than ever of the pitfalls of overly literal interpretation of language like this in certain instances. Think of apocalyptic literature like Revelation, where it seems to be exactly the case that contemporary political events and other things were cast in a much grander symbolic cataclysmic or cosmic guise. Yet, along with the major strides in our understanding of Jewish and Christian eschatology that have been made in the past few decades, in virtually every element and iteration of this, there’s also been a growing recognition that there are instances where language of cosmic catastrophe was taken very seriously—was taken quite literally—by early Jews and Christians.¹³

A lot more could be said about the background and intention of the verses from 2 Peter above, in regard to their cosmology and other things. But without spending too much time on this in particular, another connection can be drawn here that’s important for my point going forward—a connection again to Jesus’ eschatological Olivet Discourse, specifically as it appears in Matthew 24 (itself literarily dependent on the earlier version of the discourse from Mark 13, but with some changes):

29 Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:29-35)

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” and other things obviously fit into this category of cosmic catastrophe along with the verses in 2 Peter. And interestingly, we also have a more specific connection between the two texts, with Matthew’s “heaven and earth will pass away [pareleusetai]” and 2 Peter’s “the heavens will pass away [pareleusontai] with a loud noise.”

As with 2 Peter, some have suggested that Jesus’ own language of cosmic catastrophe in the Olivet Discourse wasn’t really intended to suggest an actual apocalyptic end of the world, but was simply a figurative way of referring to the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the harrowing culmination of the First Jewish–Roman War.

To be sure, that Jerusalem and its destruction plays some part in the eschatological discourse is beyond question. In fact, it’s Jesus’ disciples having called his attention to the grandiosity of the buildings in Jerusalem that prompts the discourse in the first place—an observation that impels Jesus to proclaim that the buildings will be destroyed, for his disciples to ask for clarification about this, and then in response for Jesus to lay out the eschatological itinerary.

But the idea that this was all figurative language for the destruction of Jerusalem remains an extreme minority view among Biblical scholars, for several reasons; not least of which because, no matter how earth-shaking the Jewish–Roman War and destruction of Jerusalem was for Jews, still the overarching thrust of these verses in Matthew—including what preceded it in the discourse in 24:4-28—seems to be pointing toward more grandiose events than these, beyond the horizon of Jerusalem. And this is even virtually explicitly stated in Matthew 24:6 (Mark 13:7): “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars . . . this must take place, but the end is not yet.”¹⁴

And it seems to be the end here which is precisely explicated in what follows this. Most significantly, following the darkening of the sun and moon in 24:39, Jesus says that all the tribes of the earth “will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call” and “will gather [episynaxousin] his elect from the four winds” (Matthew 24:30-31).

For Matthew—and not just in the discourse of ch. 24, but throughout the gospel more generally—the coming of the Son of Man is the decisive eschatological event in which (again, among other things) the final judgment is inaugurated. Keeping in mind the language of his “gathering” the elect in 24:31, we read in the very next chapter in Matthew that “when the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . all the nations will be gathered [synachthēsontai] before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (25:31-32). Along with what follows, this unquestionably describes the final judgment where all humans are ultimately rewarded or punished for their actions on earth.

With the Son of Man’s coming on the clouds and the trumpet and the gathering, we’re also reminded of the final verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, mentioned earlier specifically in conjunction with the eschatological resurrection. More fully now, these verses from 1 Thessalonians read

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with [axei syn] him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Without a doubt, this describes a literal eschatological descent, resurrection, and ascension; and in light of all these things, it’s both tempting and likely that the details from Matthew about the trumpet and the “gathering of the elect” have the resurrection in the background, too.¹⁵

…The End (of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End) is Near; Repent

To bring this all together: following Matthew 24:29-35 in the Olivet Discourse, quoted above, is where our original “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…” begins. This was connected, of course, with 2 Peter and its own flood/eschatological tradition.

Some might be tempted to note, though, that also present in the Olivet Discourse here is an insistence on the pressing imminence of the fulfillment of its predictions—one that’s lacking in the parallel in 2 Peter: “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”¹⁶

In fact, sitting between the two sets of verses from 2 Peter 3 that I’ve already quoted, the epistle offers what might appear to be a caveat or a corrective to this kind of eschatological imminence—a rationale for why there’s been a delay in the dawning of eschaton thus far (a delay presumably between whenever the author of 2 Peter imagined that the end had first begun to be proclaimed and when 2 Peter was actually written, probably in the late 1st century):

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

The first verse here quotes Psalm 90:4, and has actually proven to be a prooftext of some apologetic versatility. Not only does it continue to be used to mitigate what seems (to humans) to be the long delay of the eschaton by appealing to the timelessness of God, but it’s also regularly been used as support for the popular notion that the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1 are not to be seen as literal solar days as we know them, but perhaps were more expansive periods of time—ones that can be more easily harmonized with the time-frame of modern scientific cosmology/geology/evolution. (Ironically enough, though, some of the earliest and most influential Christian interpreters used this verse as the basis for a kind of millennialism, in which the six creation days of Genesis 1—which to them really were understood as normal days—were representative of six millenniums of world time. That is, these interpreters believed that from the time of its creation until the final eschaton, the world would exist, in total, for 6,000 years; and most ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters believed the world to already be somewhere between 5,000 to 5,500 years old at the beginning of the Common Era.)

But in the second verse here in 2 Peter—that God only appears to tarry, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (3:9)—we might discern another integral connection with the Genesis flood. To explain this, a little background is necessary. In Genesis 6, prior to God’s decision to send the flood, he ordains for humans that “their days shall be one hundred twenty years” (6:3). Since this follows directly upon the genealogy in the previous chapter, having listed the massive lifespans of those from Adam to Noah, 6:3 is understood to serve as a kind of transitional bridge between the extraordinary nature of humanity in the primeval period and the lives of humans after this—”abridging their term of life from its former longevity to 120 years,” as Josephus puts it. In Genesis itself however, despite God’s having ordained this shortly before the flood, this reduction actually doesn’t start to take effect until a few generations after Noah; and those like Abrahaam, Isaac, and Jacob all lived to be over 140 years old.

In light of the apparent discrepancy that these post-Noah generations continued to live for more than 120 years, various alternate explanations for what “their days shall be one hundred twenty years” in 6:3 meant emerged among the early interpreters. For example, the famed Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria , who was roughly contemporary with the historical Jesus himself, suggested that this statement was only meant for “the men living at that time, who were later to perish in the flood after so great a number of years, which a benevolent benefactor prolonged, allowing repentance for sin.” That is, he suggests that what would have normally been the shorter lives of the unrighteous were actually prolonged in order to give them more time to repent before the flood. Similarly, in the Targumim, the early Aramaic expanded translations of the Hebrew Bible, the relevant Targum on Genesis 6:3 has God himself clarify that “I have given the span of 120 years (in the hope that) perhaps they might do repentance” (Neofiti 1).¹⁷

Although the “extension” of time in light of unfulfilled prophecy was certainly not unknown in ancient Judaism elsewhere,¹⁸ the fact that the context in 2 Peter already had to do with the flood, and that its delay was extended specifically to make time for repentance, as in these flood traditions, makes a connection between the two unavoidable. Even more specifically, the suggestion in 2 Peter that this additional time was made for “all to come to repentance” might be compared with what we find in verses 1.128-31 of the apocryphal Sibylline Oracles, which precisely has to do with the tradition of Noah’s ministerial mission: “Noah, embolden yourself, and proclaim repentance to all the peoples, so that all may be saved.”¹⁹ It continues, however, that “if they do not heed, since they have a shameless spirit, I will destroy the entire race with great floods of waters.” (Recall also just two verses prior in 2 Peter 3:7, where the end spells the “destruction of the godless.”)

In any case: although I mentioned at the beginning here that 2 Peter 3’s qualification about the time of the eschaton might be a sort of caveat or corrective to the type of imminence that we seem to find in the Olivet Discourse and elsewhere, one thing easily overlooked is that the very first line that introduces this section of 2 Peter is “in the last days scoffers will come . . . saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?'” That is, at the same time that it offers an explanation for the delay of the eschaton up until that point, it also seems to doubles down on the imminence: this—the skepticism about the grand eschatological coming of God—is one of the signs that these truly are the last days.

Whether the author of the epistle 2 Peter—understood in orthodoxy to be the apostle Peter himself, but widely disputed by Biblical scholars—was genuinely making some prediction about scoffers subsequent to his own time, or if this was instead an ex eventu prediction made in light of the fact that the scoffers had already arrived in the author’s time (which, again, is often understood to be sometime in the late 1st century, after Peter’s death), in either case what’s clear is that the scoffers about the eschaton have arrived. As suggested earlier, we already have unambiguous evidence of this from the 2nd or 3rd century; and we can surely locate it earlier than this too. 

So if the presence of these scoffers is a sign of the end, what does it say that this scoffing has now been around for some 2,000 years—nearly twice as long as Christianity’s own mother religion had even been in existence before Christianity came around; or perhaps even more tellingly, as suggested earlier, longer than one-third of the age of the world itself as it was calculated by early Jews and Christians—and with no end in sight?

“How miserable are those who are of two minds, who doubt in their soul, who say, ‘We have heard these things from the time of our parents, and look! We have grown old, and none of these things has happened to us.'” You fools! . . . In truth, his plan will come to completion quickly and suddenly, as even the Scripture testifies. (The first epistle of Clement, 23.3-5)

ווי רקייא למחר מבולא אתי עבדין תתובא

Woe, foolish ones! Tomorrow a flood will come, so make repentance. (From Qohelet Rabbah)

Thus read the words of Clement of Rome from the tail-end of the first century, closely echoing those of 2 Peter; as well as those of Noah himself, as they were imagined in a rabbinic midrash (an expanded re-imagining/commentary) on the book of Ecclesiastes.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I side with the sentiment of Porphyry of Tyre, quoted earlier, in thinking that the Jewish/Christian eschatological age has not come, and will never come. In light of the evidence we have, there’s no truly compelling argument that the earliest Christians—almost certainly including the historical Jesus and Paul themselves—didn’t expect that their generation would live to see the true, tangible inauguration of the expected eschatological events: where the world would never again return to normalcy, and soon culminate with the resurrection and final judgment. Thus we can see these early Christian figures alongside hundreds of other impassioned but ultimately failed apocalyptic prophets or groups throughout history.

In this view, although the author of 2 Peter and the believers that he represented thought of their contemporary scoffers as fools who’d soon eat crow in the final judgment, these scoffers, maligned in their time, now seem to have been exonerated; perhaps even vindicated. In the same way, in light of the insights of modern geology and the other sciences having uncovered no trace of a Biblical flood,²⁰ could we say that the ancient scoffers of Noah have finally been redeemed as well?

On one hand, this might seem like a bizarre question. That is, on the level of story and tradition, the answer is obviously no. As it goes, these unrighteous in the days of Noah indeed perished, no matter how good of a reason they might have had to doubt Noah otherwise. But, on the other hand, if we don’t find scientific/historical grounds on which to affirm the Biblical flood at all—and yet if Jews and Christians are still inclined to let Noah and the flood retain their power as Biblical figures (or as a herald of judgment, as in the wider tradition here)—is there a sense in which Noah, now sans the cataclysm for whom he’s always been the namesake, perhaps stands somewhat alongside other failed apocalyptic claimants as a misguided or perhaps even deluded alarmist?²¹

Of course, I suppose that here I’m no longer talking about Noah solely in his own story anymore, but precisely about Noah as symbol that was employed by Jews and Christians.

But still, the prospect is tantalizing.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, in a rabbinic commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Noah is imagined as exhorting his contemporaries to repent, because “tomorrow a flood will come.” And it’s impossible not to see this as closely parallel to the message of what must be among the earliest strata of the New Testament gospels, and surely of the various historical figures behind these, too.

For example, in the gospel of Matthew, at the true beginning following the introductory infancy narrative, the stage is set that “in those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” (Just verses later, John singles out Pharisees and Sadducees for condemnation: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”²²)

Further, in the true earliest gospel, that of Mark, Jesus appears on the scene on the heels of John—and with the same message—as follows:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Augustine’s Scoffers

I hope this post hasn’t been too scattershot so far. To finally start to wrap up here…

This post took its jumping-off point with a theme that’s often dominated the message of Ken Ham and others like him: if we can doubt the historicity of Noah and the flood, then why believe anything in the Bible (or Christianity itself) at all?

Although I reiterated that things certainly aren’t as simple as Ham understands them, what I’ve done throughout this post is to call attention to how some elements of the Genesis flood and what it was understood to stand for are indeed integrally woven into the fabric of what’s been held since the beginning as Christian truth; focusing, of course, particularly on how the catastrophic end was expected to mirror that of primordial times. That is—and in more systematic terms—what was the original utopia of the Garden of Eden became tainted by sin, eventually metastasizing until it could no longer be tolerated; with humanity’s all-but-universal unrighteousness then cauterized in the catastrophic flood. But the new postdiluvian creation in fact remained corrupted—Ham “uncovering Noah’s nakedness” no sooner than Eve grasping for the fruit—and so there will now be an expected future event, this time ending unrighteousness once for all, followed by a permanent return to utopia for the righteous.

But does affirming this truth, so fundamental to historic Christianity, indeed require affirming the historical truth of the flood? Can this in any way be related to what’s actually been believed in historic Christianity?

By way of answering this, we might note (what seems to be) a popular assumption that Ken Ham’s theology relating to the necessity of the historical flood is a contemporary aberration that’s totally alien to historic Christianity. But, in the same way that other modern theological urban legends are laid to rest, when we really take a look at the history of ideas here, we could be faced with the perhaps disconcerting prospect of locating some of the origin of Ken Ham’s apologetics here—his affirming the historicity of Genesis and the flood in the face of all doubt—much earlier in history, and with someone who’s in many ways thought to be polar opposite of Ham: the eminent 4th/5th century church father, Doctor of the Church, and saint Augustine.

Before making the comparison here, I want to reiterate that a great many things differentiate Ham and Augustine, on any number of issues, and also in terms of their fundamental philosophical/ideological approaches. Augustine was a great theological innovator and in many ways a consummate intellectual. Ham can in no way be said to be either; and also runs pretty directly afoul of a kind of condemnation of Christian pseudoscience that Augustine delivers in at least one place.²³ Nevertheless, like the lines drawn between Luther and Hitler, the history of ideas sometimes can’t eschew controversial connections in order to operate at its best; and I think that Augustine could have played a seminal role in the sort of thought that’s influenced Ham in several significant ways. (Of course, there’s nothing to say that Ham drew directly on Augustine here; but nonetheless we might think that a lot of Ham’s theology here was influenced by various mediators between the two.)

As an example of this, in a chapter in the 15th book of his City of God, Augustine connects the past and present in several ways in his defense of the long lifespans of the figures recorded in the genealogies of Genesis, and of the existence of Biblical giants (Genesis 6:4; Numbers 13:33). He begins by noting that

some unbeliever [infidelis] might perhaps dispute with us the many centuries that, as we read in our authorities, the men of that age lived, and might argue that this is incredible. In the same way some people refuse to believe that men’s bodies were of much larger size then than they are now.

In this Augustine closely echoes what Josephus had written in the same text of his that I quoted earlier in my post (on the sons of Seth and the cataclysmic flood and fire): “let no one, comparing our present life and the brevity of the years that we live with that of the ancients, think that what is said about them is false, deducing that because now there is no such extension of time in life neither did they reach that length of life.”²⁴

As for the historicity of Biblical giants, here Augustine turns to an early paleontology for support: “the real proof . . . is to be found in the frequent discoveries of ancient bones of immense size, and this proof will hold good in centuries far in the future, since such bones do not easily decay.” And even though Augustine mostly contrasts this kind of tangible proof for giants to the issue of the long Biblical lifespans (though he does note that Pliny the Elder had written of certain people who lived to be 200 years old), he reiterates that can’t be basis of skepticism:

the longevity of individuals in those days cannot now be demonstrated by any such tangible evidence. Yet we should not on that account question the reliability of this sacred history; our refusal to believe what it relates would be as shameless as our evidence of the fulfilment of its prophecies is certain²⁵

Here Augustine expresses an opinion that he would return to several times: that the historical reliability of Bible cannot be doubted—not without everything else coming into doubt as well; and specifically arguing for this here by connecting the Biblical primeval history with the prophetic future.

Of course, today we have every reason to believe that the idea of Biblical giants and the extreme lifespans of the earliest humans according to Genesis are indeed “mythological”—the very characterization that Josephus, Augustine, and others sought so strenuously to avoid.

These past sections have focused on the connections between the flood and the eschatological future, in several elements. In light of what all I’ve said here, and particularly conjunction with what I talked about in the last section, it’s hard not to that the latter as a whole as in a certain sense sitting on the same level of mythology as the former—though we might even be inclined to think of mythology here in the more pejorative sense.²⁶

And interestingly enough, this characterization (minus the pejorative aspect) has embraced by some Christians themselves. For example, in more recent times, the well-known Biblical scholar Dale Allison, reflecting on the potential dismay that Christians may have upon learning that Jesus and Paul really did proclaim what appears to be failed eschatologies, asks

So how should we respond? The widespread dismay arises in part, I submit, from a failure to comprehend fully that eschatological language does not give us a preview of coming events but is rather, as the study of comparative religion teaches us, religious hope in mythological dress. Narratives about the unborn future are fictions, in the same way that narratives about the creation of the world are fictions.

The end is like the beginning. Genesis is no historical record of the primordial past, and the New Testament offers no precognitive history of the eschatological future. The New Jerusalem, the last judgment, and the resurrection are, just like Eden, the serpent, and Adam, theological parables. We must interpret them not literally but as religious poetry, which means with our theologically-informed imagination (The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, )

(More fully quoted here.)

It’s hard to know whether here Allison speaks to Christians themselves, or to anyone who might seek to appreciate religion on just, say, merely a historical or poetic level. On one hand, why would non-Christians feel “dismay” at Christianity’s apparent failed eschatology? But on the other, how can the eschatological resurrection simply be a “theological parable” for Christians?

The End

For Christians who would at once defend Jesus’ prediction in the New Testament gospels that the eschatological age would be like the “days of Noah,” and yet who also aren’t inclined to see the Biblical flood as historical, it’s commonly responded that Jesus’ point here is carried strongly enough on the literary weight alone. After all, every culture in the world tells stories that don’t have an actual historical basis, and yet we all still clearly understand the message that they’re trying to send. And this doesn’t change even when we allude to fictional character or stories when making serious points. 

But there seems to be a serious oversight here. While of course, in theory, it’s possible for particular theological points in the New Testament to not depend on some fundamentally historical occurrence, nonetheless if a critically informed Biblical theology is a desideratum for Christians, then one perhaps unintended consequence here is that this leaves the Genesis flood story itself without a clear lesson—or, at worse, with a manifestly false one.

What I mean is this: for those who don’t see the flood as historical but are nonetheless inclined to find some sort of ultimate message or meaning in the story—say, ultimately reducing to something like “God doesn’t like unrighteousness, and punishes people when they sin”—there are certainly reasons to be highly skeptical of this idea. And in truth, although there are certainly plenty of stories in the Bible where God does punish sin immediately and/or tangibly, nowhere is the converse expressed more poignantly—where God is mysteriously absent in terms of upholding justice here on earth—than elsewhere in Biblical literature, too.

Think of the words of Job, “why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:7); or the questioning plea of the martyred saints in the book of Revelation, “sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:11); or perhaps even in background of Jesus’ saying that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). If anything then, the flood story might stand to give the impression that for some reason, in contrast to the past, God has abandoned the cosmos and is now indifferent to unrighteousness.

Conversely, if the flood narrative is understood just to illustrate, say, a prophetic “God will (ultimately) punish sin”—that is, that this only looks forward to the grand eschatological judgment in the future—then here the story doesn’t speak of its own accord at all, which undermines the entire Judeo-Christian tradition that warns of the eschatological judgment on the basis that it will be like the flood. (If the flood story is just a figurative illustration of what the future eschatological judgment will be like, then the early Jewish/Christian suggestion that the future eschatological judgment will be as bad as, well, the predicted future eschatological judgment is obviously circular.)

And of course, to add to this, there’s nothing in the flood narrative itself that indicates that it was intended or can be understood to be pointing at a future event, as opposed to a primeval one. Even Origen of Alexandria, the greatest early champion of figurative and allegorical interpretation of the Bible, was compelled to defend the historicity of the flood and the ark—by arguing, for example, that the dimensions of the ark can be interpreted as bigger than what the literal text itself says. Further, far from the idea that what the flood narrative really portends is the distant eschatological future, one point of emphasis in the Genesis flood narrative is in fact that such a catastrophe won’t happen again: “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15; cf. Isaiah 54:9).²⁷

In the end, then, we might all be compelled to join the”scoffers” in asking what reason do we have to believe that God will enact some sort of grand universal punishment of the unrighteous in the future if there really was no grand universal punishment in the past (even though, as we saw, the former was regularly compared to the latter, and even though the latter was believed with the same amount of conviction as the former)?

Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” So was the cry of the souls of the righteous martyrs, as quoted from Revelation above; and it’s on these words that I want to conclude.

At heart, despite the apparent violence that this seems to advocate, these words in fact aren’t a call for vindictive vengeance. When appreciated most fully, they’re simply part of a more general call for divine justice to finally come to our world; a world where true justice seems to be all too absent.

Contrary to what’s almost certainly still popular belief, for the earliest Christians ultimate justice wasn’t to be attained in heaven. The souls there were at peace and rest, and like the righteous Old Testament patriarchs of Hebrews 11 had received their preliminary reward. But the climactic eschatological event that the earliest Christians truly looked for was when the kingdom of heaven came to earth—when the living would be transformed, and disembodied souls would rejoin their bodies together with them in the reconstituted utopia on earth.

As in Revelation, these souls cried out for vengeance; but in this sense, the only true remedy for injustice was also resurrection.

For progressive Christians like Dale Allison, who himself represents the pinnacle of scholarly rigor in terms of understanding Christian eschatology, the resurrection of the dead may be “mythological,” or a theological parable—one that perhaps Jesus and Paul themselves misunderstood, and whose eschatological timetables have run out. But if Christianity is true at all, and if the historic beliefs of Christianity are to mean anything at all, then this is a parable that still has to come true literally; no matter how problematic or paradoxical this might be.

In light of this, why is the Christian belief in the historicity of the flood, or the idea of the necessity of it, any less absurd than this? (Especially when no less an authority than Augustine insists, about Scripture, that “our refusal to believe what it relates”—and here, again, he was referring specifically to the events of the early chapters of Genesis and their historicity—”would be as shameless as our evidence of the fulfilment of its prophecies is certain.”)

The position of Ken Ham and others that the flood of Genesis must be historical, no matter what the evidence suggests, is obviously an egregious abuse of science and critical thought in general. But conversely, if the only other way to truly maintain the authority and relevance of the Bible is to insist (in spite of the evidence and perhaps at the expense of coherence) that it’s just metaphor all the way down, then—as P. J. FitzPatrick once said of those who want to play the game of incisive criticism of Bible, and yet always hide behind a veil of mystifying vocabulary so that it’s never really dethroned from its place of authority in theology and, indeed, supernatural reality itself—”I rather think I prefer fundamentalism.”²⁸

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] My own (expansive) rendering of propagatione, non imitatione [transfusum omnibus].

[2] Some progressive interpreters like Peter Enns suggest that it has at least some historical basis, while also minimizing the traditional Biblical/theological understanding of it. As he writes in a recent post,

The story of the flood seems to be rooted in history. Many biblical scholars relying on geological findings believe that a great deluge in southeastern Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (present-day Iraq) around 2900 BCE was the trigger for the many flood stories that circulated in the ancient world, some already two thousand years old by the time King David came on the scene around 1000 BCE.

These ancient stories were attempts to explain why this happened, and the cause was fixed in divine wrath/retribution.

For the rest of the post, when I use “Biblical flood” I’m referring at minimum to a flood that was caused directly by the Jewish god, and aimed at a population among whom Noah and his family were the sole survivors.

[3] Wayne Grudem, discussing a few relevant Jewish texts, notes that

The Sibylline Oracles, 1.171-172, say that the people who heard Noah’s exhortations to repentance from their wicked life mocked him: ‘When they heard him they sneered at him, each one, calling him demented, a man gone mad’ (this mocking occurs in the middle of Noah’s sermon about their sins, after the ark has been built: note lines 190-191, 205). Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud at b.Sanh. 1o8b says that those watching Noah ‘derided him’, saying, ‘Old man, what is this ark for?’ Genesis Rabbah 30.7 (on 6:9) says that Noah was mocked by those who watched him build the ark. They despised him and called him ‘contemptible old man’. Moreover, when Noah cut down trees to build the ark and told them a flood was coming they responded, ‘It will come only on your father’s house.’ In Ecclesiastes Rabbah on 9:14 (sec. 1), when Noah warns the people, ‘Tomorrow a flood will come, so repent’, they refuse to listen and mock him, ‘If punishments begin they will begin with your house’. (The First Epistle of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, 216)

For other texts which mention Noah’s warning to his contemporaries and other things, cf. Sibylline Oracles 1:128-198; Jubilees 7:20-29; Josephus, Antiquities 1.70f. Cf. also Pseudo-Philo, L.A.B. 3.9; Vita Adae et Evae (The Life of Adam and Eve) 49-50. For patristic texts cf. the citations and discussion in Grypeou and Spurling, The Book of Genesis in Late Antiquity: Encounters between Jewish and Christian Exegesis, 180-81.

[4] For this idea, cf. 1 Enoch 38:5; 48:8-9. Puech, “Some Remarks on 4Q246 and 4Q521 and Qumran Messianism,” 549, commenting on 4Q246 ii 5-9, writes that “judgment in the hand of the people of God is not unique, compare 4QTestament of Qahat 1 ii 5; 1 Enoch 91:12 (=4QEnᵍ 1 IV 16); Daniel 7:22; Wisdom 3:8.” To this we might add 1QpHab V 4.

For its appearance in the New Testament itself, see 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; Matthew 19:28 | Luke 22:30.

[5] “Make people naked” here seems to be a figurative way of referring to robbery, at least in how the Greek version takes it; though cf. Noah’s instructions “for his grandsons” in Jubilees 7 for an actual warning against nudity: “[Noah] testified to his sons that they should do what is right, cover the shame of their bodies, bless the one who had created them, honor father and mother, love one another, and keep themselves from fornication, uncleanness, and from all injustice. For it was on account of these three things that the flood was on the earth…”

[6] Despite their present status and conduct, “they will bring their spirits down to Sheol, and evils will come upon them; (their) suffering (will be) great. And in darkness and in a snare and in flames which burn, your spirits will enter into the great judgement” (103:7-8). All these translations by Stuckenbruck, 1 Enoch 91-108, only slightly modified.

In terms of the conjunction between the righteousness of Enoch and Noah and their judgment of the world, we might also look toward the words of Paul before the Areopagus, from the book of Acts (17:30-31):

30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man [Jesus] whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

[7] Stuckenbruck notes that

The flood associated with Noah served as a type for describing eschatological events; see Book of Watchers 10:1-23, the Exhortation 91:5-7 . . . and Matthew 24:37 (par. Lk. 17:26). (1 Enoch 91-108, 680)

Further, Stuckenbruck describes the section known as the Birth of Noah—constituting verses 106:1-107:3 of 1 Enoch, which shortly follows on the sections of the Epistle of Enoch quoted above—as “an early addition which creates an analogy between the ante-diluvian events leading up to the Great Flood and events that are eschatological from the perspective of the author or redactor and the audience” (680).

In their commentary on 4Q370, Feldman and Goldman note that “[t]he analogous character of the flood and the final judgment is also highlighted in the rabbinic and patristic sources,” with plenty of citations (Scripture and Interpretation: Qumran Texts that Rework the Bible, 64).

[8] Though cf. Adams, “‘Where is the Promise of his Coming?’ The Complaint of the Scoffers in 2 Peter 3:4.”

[9] As for Porphyry, I’ve quoted and discussed this text more here. Celsus is quoted from Contra Celsum, 5.14; translation by Chadwick, 274.

In terms of other mockery relating to eschatological things from elsewhere in the New Testament itself, we might also think of the trial of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus is condemned for delivering the prophetic and eschatologically loaded words that “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” [14:62], and then only verses latter is abused and mocked, and challenged to “prophesy!”. Further, just prior to this, “false testimony” was given against Jesus, that he said he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it. Although in all this there was clearly understood to be an element of blasphemous self-deification, it could very well be the case that these reactions were also in part due to Jesus’ unusual and/or unpopular eschatological predictions.

For more on the idea that eschatological judgment/punishment could have particularly been in mind in these verses, cf. Thomas Hatina, “Who Will See the ‘Kingdom of God Coming with Power’ in Mark 9:1—Protagonists or Antagonists?”; though cf. also Collins, “The Charge of Blasphemy in Mark 14.64.”

[10] Jewish Antiquities 1.70 (?); translation from Feldman, Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 1-4. Translation and Commentary, 24-26, only slightly modified.

Adams, in his “Historical Crisis and Cosmic Crisis in Mark 13 and Lucan’s Civil War,” notes that in Lucan’s Civil War

The astrologer Nigidius Figulus attempts to interpret the omens in the sky. The message is clear: ‘imminent destruction is planned for Rome and humankind’ (2:644-45). Figulus speculates on what kind of disaster is planned. Is it to be destruction by water, a cataclysm to rival Deucalion’s flood (651-54)? Is it to be a setting ablaze of the world in cosmic conflagration (655-59)? (339)

I’m too lazy to cite all the texts that mention this flood of fire; though cf. 1 Enoch 66-67 for an interesting iteration. Feldman and Goldman, Scripture and Interpretation, 64 n. 67 and 68 have citations.

[11] In truth I don’t really have a specific piece of writing that I’m happy with that covers this comprehensively. You mean start out here or here or here though. (The former is merely illustrative of how ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters used the Biblical texts as solid historical “data” that could be used to calculate the age of the earth and humanity.)

[12] Unlike the Olivet Discourse, I’m not aware off-hand of any scholars who’ve suggested that what 2 Peter 3 really had in mind here was destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.—which is partly why I included (the admittedly vague) “metaphysical” too. We mostly have to go to really sketchy sources to find any direct suggestions of the sort. To the extent that scholars have suggested that 2 Peter 3 doesn’t necessarily conceive the actual end of the space-time universe, this is usually done merely by deemphasizing the (literal) cosmological dimensions here and emphasizing the aspect of eschatological judgment, no matter how the latter’s actually enacted.

Edward Adams quotes Kraftchick who suggests that “the author is not interested in cosmology per se, but in proving that there is a future judgment for human sin. The elements of apocalyptic thought and of Stoic cosmology were simply used to convey the idea of universal divine judgment, not to propose a theory of cosmology.” Of course, it’d be extremely trivial to reiterate that the author of 2 Peter wasn’t composing a cosmological treatise in nuce here. Adams responds to this that “[t]he shift to the thought of the judgement of the ungodly does not in the least negate, undermine or relativize the . . . cosmological statements” (The Stars Will Fall From Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and its World, 215-16).

(I certainly don’t think it’s useful to even separate the cosmological from the eschatological here. 2 Peter 3:5 is the only verse that doesn’t suggest judgment; but it leads into 6 which does.)

However: there are others who take things in much more of a preterist direction here. For example, in an article on BioLogos, Brian Godawa suggests that

Peter writes figuratively about the final ending of the Old Covenant, with God’s judgment on Israel for rejecting Messiah, and the final establishment of his New Covenant as a New World Order, or in their case, a “new heavens and new earth.”

He also clarifies that “[t]he New Covenant inauguration and implementation were not merely abstract claims of contractual change; it was physically verified that the destruction of the Old Covenant emblem, the Temple, finalized the dissolution of the Old Covenant itself.” Further, he quotes John Lightfoot from the 17th century, who had suggested that “[t]he destruction of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish state is described as if the whole frame of this world were to be dissolved.” In fact, this interpretation applied to 2 Peter 3 seems to have had its heyday around the 17th century, with the likes of Hugo Grotius and Henry Hammond and others: “[i]n its literal sense, Grotius and Hammond argued, the Petrine conflagration was applicable only to the historical destruction of Jerusalem; any futurist application of the fire dissolving the heavens and the earth would violate the historical context of the prophecy and had to be understood in an allegorical sense” (Smolinski, “Apocalypticism in Colonial North America,” 452).

Of course, how this all makes any sense of the fact that 2 Peter 3:8-9 seems to offer an explanation for why all these things haven’t been fulfilled yet is beyond me. (I cover these verses in quite a bit of detail shortly in my post.)

[13] In terms of academic representatives of the sort of two opposing interpretive extremes here, we could point to N.T. Wright on “figurative” side, and Edward Adams on the “literal,” and also to a large degree Dale Allison. (Though terminological lines can be blurred here: for example, Brant Pitre speaks of Mark 13:24-25—which I discuss further below—as “literal language meant to describe the cosmic effects of an event that is both historical and eschatological: the destruction of Jerusalem” [Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile, 337].)

I’m sure there are other more relevant excerpts, but in conjunction with this Wright comments that

the New Testament simply doesn’t support this literalistic use of apocalyptic language. For all we know, there may have been some Christians in the early church who really did believe that the space-time universe was about to come to a complete halt, to be utterly destroyed. Perhaps whoever wrote 2 Peter 3.10 (“the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed”) expected it to be taken literally, but the last word of that quotation strongly suggests otherwise. It was only later that various scribes altered the phrase to “will be burnt up”, which you still find in some Bibles.

(By contrast, Allison comments on 2 Peter 3:10-13 that “I believe that this should be read literally” in his “Jesus & the Victory of Apocalyptic,” 139.)

Much of the discussion has focused not on 2 Peter 3, however, but on the Olivet Discourse, which I discuss more following immediately following this note in the main body of my post. I’ve also discussed Wright’s proposals in this regard, as well as Adams’ a bit here, where I was quite critical of the former (specifically his suggestion that the “coming of the Son of Man” here is oriented rather exclusively toward the destruction of Jerusalem).

For a readily available article arguing that Mark 13:24-27 is metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem, see Hatina’s”The Focus of Mark 13:24-27: The Parousia, or the Destruction of the Temple?” For two available articles by Adams, see his “Historical Crisis and Cosmic Crisis in Mark 13 and Lucan’s Civil War” and “The Coming of the Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel.” The former might be particularly instructive in looking at Mark 13:7 and its parallels. (More recently on the Olivet Discourse is Robert Stein’s Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13—which at the same time that he seeks to distance himself from some of Wright’s more implausible suggestions here, nonetheless seems to end up with an implausible apologetic interpretation. Which is somewhat in keeping with the fact that Stein’s is sort of only a mid-tier academic work; and it actually only cites the work of Adams three short times in the whole book.)

But Dale Allison asks, quite instructively, in reference to “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mark 13:24-25), etc.,

Why . . . suppose that Mark 13:24 is less prosaic than, let us say, 1 Enoch 70:6, which foretells that one day the stars “will change their courses and their activities, and will not appear at the times which have been prescribed for them,” or that it is less realistic than Barnabas 15:8, which says that when the Son of God abolishes the time of the lawless one, God “will change the sun and the moon and the stars” or than Lucan’s Pharsalia 1.72-80, which envisions stars plunging into the sea at history’s end? According to Seneca (Natural Questions 3.29), Berossus, the Babylonian astrologer, foretold that “the world will burn when all the planets that now move in different courses come together in Cancer, so that they all stand in a straight line in the same sign.” If this is not metaphor, can we be confident that Mark 13:24 is? Should we not understand Mark 13:24 the same way we understand Sibylline Oracles 2:200-202 (“But the heavenly luminaries will crash together, also into an utterly desolate form. For all the stars will fall together on the sea”), that is, literally? One wants to ask how Mark, if he had wished to forecast an astronomical disaster, could have forecast it. What more could he have said? (“Jesus & the Victory of Apocalyptic,” 131)

(Cf. Adams’ The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, which I cited in my last note, and which considers some of these things at much greater length.)

Wright seems to have been less than clear in his views on and reconstructions of all these things. For example, in reference to the non-Biblical material involving cosmic/eschatological catastrophe, Allison wonders “one would still like to know how Wright interprets the evidence that suggests at least a few Jews and Christians indeed expected a cataclysmic end of the world in their day and age” (“Jesus & the Victory of Apocalyptic,” 139).

More importantly in my view though, Allison also writes elsewhere that

it seems to me that, whether or not we speak of the end of the space-time universe with reference to Jesus’ eschatology, what matters is that his vision of the kingdom cannot be identified with anything around us. God has not yet brought a radically new world. Specifically, if Jesus hoped for the ingathering of scattered Israel, if he expected the resurrection of the patriarchs and if he anticipated that the saints would gain angelic natures, then his expectations, like the other eschatological expectations of Judaism, have not yet met fulfillment. To this extent we may speak of his “unrealized eschatology.” (“Jesus & the Victory of Apocalyptic,” 129)

Of course, Wright devotes great attention elsewhere to the universal eschatological resurrection, which he clearly interprets as a firmly future event that hasn’t been realized yet. In summarizing his sort of hybrid preterist-futurist synthesis of all this, he suggests that “the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the divine spirit” constituted “the decisive ‘end’ for which Israel had longed had already happened, and . . . the consummation for which they still waited was simply the final outworking of that now-past event” (emphasis original). Clearly, for him, the universal resurrection was part of that future and final consummation, having already been preliminary realized in nuce.

But it’s hard not to think his separation of this from the other eschatological elements present in the New Testament—for example, its being integrally tied to the parousia and final judgment—is quite artificial, and wasn’t shared by these early Christian figures and authors themselves. Again in reference to the Olivet Discourse, etc., I think Ben Witherington hits the nail succinctly on the head when he writes, in reference to Wright’s proposals, that “[i]n view of the fact that language about the future coming Son of Man draws on the Yom Yahweh [=Day of the LORD] language about last judgment, when God will come and judge in person, it is difficult to doubt that something more final than the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was in mind when this language was used by Jesus” (Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy, 275). Brant Pitre, in his Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile, seems to also go entirely too far in his preterist vision of the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21), which for him is also separated (in my view, highly artificially) from the time of the final judgment—which seems to lead to poor interpretations of the gospel material on the eschatological coming of the Son of Man.

[14] The next verse speaks of wars and earthquakes and famines as “but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Also, the parallel in Luke 21:9 replaces “rumors of wars” with “insurrections/rebellions.”) As for other texts which speak of “the end,” Allison and Davies cite 1 Cor 15.24; 1 Pet 4.7; Rev 21.6; 22.13; Liv. Proph. Jon. 10. The first of these comes in the context of Paul’s discussion of the eschatological resurrection; more on this below.

As mentioned above, I think Adams’ “Historical Crisis and Cosmic Crisis in Mark 13 and Lucan’s Civil War” might be particularly instructive in regard to this.

There are four places in the Civil War [1:67-80; 1:639-72; 2:289; 7:134-8] where the destruction of Rome is directly and explicitly associated with the end of the universe. (337)

Lucan’s Civil War juxtaposes (what is for the writer) a socio-political catastrophe, the fall of the Roman Republic, with the cosmic calamity that will end the world. The ruin of the Republic foreshadows the inevitable cosmic ruin. (342)

[15] Cf. Joseph Verheyden’s “Eschatology in the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew,” 209f., suggesting that ‘Matthew does not mention the resurrection of the dead in 24:31 (nor in 25:32), but most probably “the resurrection of the dead is presupposed”‘ (quoting Davies and Allison at the end there).

Particularly on the trumpet in Matthew: the mention of the trumpet is absent from the source verse in Mark 13:27.

Just out of curiosity here, I was compelled to see if there were any more Jewish traditions that also shared some of the specific motifs with the New Testament here in their connecting the Genesis flood with eschatological calamity. Specifically looking for any association with a trumpet here, in one of the later Jewish midrashim—actually this seems to bring together several common things from the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael and Midrash HaGadol—building on the Biblical texts that mention thunder and lightning and the sound of a loud trumpet at the time of God’s revelation of the Torah to Moses on Sinai (Exodus 19:16; 20:18), we read

Something like the sound of a horn filled the air—as it is written, “a very loud blast of the horn” [Exodus 19:16]—to the point where the whole world shook.

All the nations of the world gathered around Balaam, son of Beor, and said to him, “The Omnipresent seems to be destroying His world with water, as in the verse, ‘The Lord sat enthroned at the Flood’ (Ps. 29:10).”

After Balaam rebukes them and reminds them that God had sworn to never destroy the world by floodwaters again (cf. Genesis 9:15; Isaiah 54:9), this continues that

They said, “Perhaps he will not bring a flood of water, but he may bring a flood of fire?” He said to them, “He is going to bring neither a flood of water nor a flood of fire [לא מבול של מים ולא מבול של אש]. It is Torah that the Holy One, blessed be he, is giving to his people…”

Again, though, it’s unclear exactly how many of these specific traditions are early. However, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, in 4Q370 (4QExhortation/Admonition Based on the Flood) it’s suggested re: the unrighteous of the flood generation that, before the flood proper, “[God] thundered against them with [his] might, [and] all the foundations of the ea[rth sh]ook”: without the lucunae, וירעם עליהם בכחו וינעו כל מוסדי ארץ. Cf. Isaiah 24:18. Similarly, in Sibylline Oracles 1.217-219, in preparing to send the flood, “[God] threw clouds together and hid the brightly gleaming disk. Having covered the moon, together with the stars, and the crown of heaven all around, he thundered loudly, a terror to mortals, sending out hurricanes.”

More generally, Duane F. Watson, commenting on 2 Peter 3:10, notes that “[a] roar (ῥοιζηδόν) is part of the apocalyptic tradition of sounds describing the eschatological conflagration,” citing Sib. Or. 4:175; 1QH III, 32-36; Apoc. El. (C) 3:82 (“The Oral-Scribal and Cultural Intertexture of Apocalyptic Discourse in Jude and 2 Peter,” 209 and n. 64). Also particularly interesting is that in the Life of Adam and Eve (a.k.a. the Apocalypse of Moses) 22, Adam recounts that “as we heard the archangel sounding the trumpet, we said, ‘Behold, God is coming into Paradise to judge us.'” See the section “The Eschatological Significance of the Sound of Horns” of the entry σάλπιγξ κτλ. in TDNT 7, 84, for more citations.

Among the things cited above worth quoting more fully, in Sibylline Oracle 4.173-78, before the resurrection,

there will be fire throughout the whole world, and a very great sign with sword and trumpet at the rising of the sun. The whole world will hear a bellowing noise and mighty sound. He will burn the whole earth, and will destroy the whole race of men and all cities and rivers at once, and the sea. He will destroy everything by fire, and it will be smoking dust.

Specifically in relation to a connection between the flood and trumpets, this might be the biggest stretch, but… in Jubilees 5:24, at the flood “the Lord opened the seven floodgates of heaven and the openings of the sources of the great deep — there being seven openings in number. The floodgates began to send water down from the sky…” (Cf. also 1 Enoch 89 for this motif, “a high roof and seven sluices on it.”) Now, use of seven as a symbolic/typological number is of course very common throughout Jewish and Christian literature; though here could we perhaps be reminded of the seven trumpets or seven bowls in Revelation, which inaugurate the cataclysmic destructions? In Revelation 8,

5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. 6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them. 7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

Of course, the punishments in Revelation are clearly intended to recall the plague tradition of the exodus, too.

But if the angels here are responsible themselves for throwing/hurling fire down to the earth, etc., this might be compared to the angels who “were in charge of the power of the waters” in the Noah section of 1 Enoch‘s book of Parables: cf. 66:1, “he showed me the angels of punishment, who are ready to go forth and let loose all the power of the water that is beneath the earth, that it might be for the judgment and destruction of all who reside and dwell on the earth.” This is made all the more compelling in the unique mention of the “angel of the waters” in Revelation 16:5, during the punishment of the seven bowls. Also, in view of the midrashim cited above, note how in Revelation 8:5 the “thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” recalls the Sinai theophany of Exodus 19:16; 20:18.

However, in some ways several other relevant traditions here actually suggest a connection between the cessation of the flood and some of the things mentioned above. For example, in conjunction with the revelation of the Torah on Sinai, it might be tempting to draw connections here between Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, and the flood of Noah—a connection integral to the book of Jubilees, where Shavuot is to be celebrated in commemoration of the establishment of the rainbow as a symbol/covenant that God won’t send another flood (Jubilees 6:15f.; cf. Genesis 9:15).

Further: what’s come to be understood as Rosh Hashanah appears in the Bible as Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1), the day of (trumpet-)blaring—more commonly known as the the Feast of Trumpets. According to Leviticus 23:24, this was to be celebrated on the first day of the seventh month; and interestingly, according to the book of Jubilees, it was also “on the first [day] of the seventh month” that the floodwaters began to recede—”all the sources of the earth’s deep places were opened, and the waters started to go down into the deep below” (5:29)—and which is later connected explicitly with the festival (6:26).

[16] As a side-note, while we’re on subject of coordinating motifs from the Olivet Discourse with the flood story: although the days of Noah analogy is unique to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, not appearing in Mark’s eschatological discourse, the “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until…” statement does originate from Mark. And here it might be noted that the background of the phrase “this generation” itself is often located precisely in the flood narrative in Genesis, and appears nowhere else in the Old Testament. For example, in Genesis 7:1 we find

Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation

(Cf. also Genesis 6:9. “This generation” appears both elsewhere in the New Testament and in rabbinic literature in a similar context, where it has an overwhelmingly negative connotation and is contrasted to the righteous.)

Of course, it could be argued that even though this phrase is unattested in the Old Testament other than here in Genesis, it’s still too vague to suggest a direct connection between the two stories. For example, it could be argued that it’s just a sort of variation on the phrase “this people,” more common in the OT (though note that “this generation” and “this people” are not synonymous).

However: could we maybe compare this with the argument of Thomas Hatina and select others pertaining to the saying “truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” in Mark 9:1—cf. also Mark 13:26—where the proposed intention here was not that some of that current generation would survive to reap the rewards of the kingdom, but that the unrighteous among them would live to see their punishment? (Cf. again Thomas Hatina, “Who Will See?”) Here, then, Mark 13:30 would be construed more as a warning than anything. Compare perhaps some of the things mentioned in my discussion of Genesis 6:3 below? And see a bit more discussion of “this generation” here.

[17] Translations quoted from P. W. van der Horst’s “‘His Days Shall Be One Hundred and Twenty Years’: Genesis 6:3 in Early Early Judaism and Ancient Christianity.” Targum Neofiti here reads יהבית לכון ארכא מאה ועשרין שנין דילמא די יעבדון תתובה.

[18] In the Pesher on Habakkuk (1QpHab) from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a section (VII) interpreting Habakkuk 2:3, we find

For the vision has an appointed time, it will have an end and not fail [Hab 2:3a]. Its interpretation: the final age will be extended and go beyond all that the prophets say, because the mysteries of God are wonderful. Though it might tarry, wait for it; it definitely has to come and will not delay [Hab 2:3b].

(This section began “and God told Habakkuk to write what was going to happen to the last generation, but he did not let him know the consummation of the era”—which might remind one of Mark 13:32.)

[19] Greek hopōs sōthōsin hapantes.

[20] Again see Note 2.

[21] One thing I haven’t discussed thus far is Jonathan Huddleston’s Eschatology in Genesis; but I won’t have room to get into it here.

[22] The phrase “bear fruit worthy of repentance” might be compared to the similar “make repentance” in Ecclesiastes Rabbah and elsewhere, עבדין תתובא. (Also, the verb I’ve translated “make” here is in fact specifically used in an agricultural sense a few times, a la “produce.”)

[23] Cf. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.19. Nevertheless, there are senses in which there’s tension in Augustine’s thought here, which I’ve elaborated on here and a little bit here.

[24] Translation from Feldman, Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 1-4, 37.

[25] I’m using several different translations of Augustine here: McCracken’s and Walsh’s. The original Latin of this line in particular is

Annorum . . . numerositas cuiusque hominis, quae temporibus illis fuit, nullis nunc talibus documentis uenire in experimentum potest. Nec tamen ideo fides sacrae huic historiae deroganda est, cuius tanto inpudentius narrata non credimus quanto impleri certius praenuntiata conspicimus.

[26] In fact, the pejorative sense of “mythological” appears just earlier in the text of Josephus. In relation to Josephus’ analysis of Genesis 6:1-4, Tuval writes that

Josephus definitely shared Philo’s distaste of mythology, and, similarly to Philo in Opif. 1.1-2, clearly states at the beginning of Antiquities that, in contrast to “[o]ther legislators [who followed] myths, [and] have, with their tales ascribed to the gods, imputed to them the shame of human errors and have given a considerable pretext to the wicked,” Moses followed a totally different path (1.22–23). Nevertheless, according to his retelling of Gen 6:1–4 Josephus recognized that the biblical story was similar to the myths of the Greeks. (“‘Συναγωγὴ γιγάντων’ (Prov 21:16): The Giants in the Jewish Literature in Greek,” 55)

Augustine also mentions Pliny the Elder in relation to the existence of giants (e.g. in Homer and elsewhere), that Pliny “does not ridicule such statements as poetic fictions but, speaking as a recorder of the wonders of nature, assumes their historicity.”

[27] Though, as hinted at earlier, some tried to get around this by emphasizing that a flood of fire is different than a flood of water.

[28]  “Once in Khartoum,” 122.


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