"The flood legends of Mesopotamia and the Bible" is how the Times recently described beliefs about a huge, ancient inundation once covered much of the Earth. Oddly, this choice of words occurred in a news report about a study, just published in the American Journal of Archeology, giving evidence that a huge, ancient inundation once covered much of the Earth.
Researchers studying the Black Sea off Sinop, a city in Turkey, found indications that a catastrophic flood struck the area approximately 7,000 years ago, flooding inhabited land and turning the Black Sea from fresh to saline. Sinop is roughly 500 miles from the ancient Holy Land. Oceanographers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Exploration, a science organization in Connecticut, reported evidence suggesting the deluge hit rapidly, was extremely wide in scope, and killed many. The work was sponsored by the nonpartisan National Geographic Society.
A fast-hitting, catastrophic deluge is, of course, what Genesis describes. And the timing seems about right--scholars date the Noachian passages of the Bible to 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, and the verses profess to describe events from that period's far past. The catastrophic flood in the general area of the Black Sea doesn't live up, perhaps to the flood in Genesis, which says it extended across the entire Earth, until "all the high mountains on the whole heaven were covered." But a deluge of the scope and depth documented by the new study may well have seemed to its survivors in the ancient Middle East as though the waters had covered the whole of the Earth. At the time the Noachian passages were composed, no one knew other continents even existed.
Such a prospect isn't exactly 40 days and nights of rain, but it's awfully close. If there were ice-dam floods at the end of the last ice age, they would have occurred all over the world, and thus many faiths and cultures might have accounts of an ancient horrible deluge.
Commentators often point out that the Flood of the Bible sounds awfully similar to the large-scale deluge depicted in the Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh, written about 5,000 years ago, and to deluge accounts found in cultures in Africa and Asia as well. The similarity of deluge accounts, they usually claim, suggests that these cultures have simply borrowed a myth from each other. This logic seems inverted. If many cultures in many places have ancient beliefs that an awful flood occurred, doesn't this unanimity increase the chance that the accounts are true? Maybe Sumerians, Hebrews, Asians and Africans all independently developed flood accounts because that's what happened.
There are other hard-science studies suggesting biblical events actually happened. About a decade ago, archeologists found evidence that an ancient Holy Land city had its walls demolished in battle about 3,400 years ago. This sounds awfully like the Bible story of the fall of Jericho, and fits snugly in the expected time-frame. At the largest scale, the Big Bang sounds awfully similar, in its suddenness and "out of nothing" character, like the cosmic creation account shared among Muslims, Jews and Christians.
But hard-science evidence of events depicted in scripture ought to cause us to re-examine our modernist reflex to presume that accounts in antiquarian texts, whether epic poems or chapters of the Bible, must be legends. To assume this may be both wrong and a form of hubris--as if skepticism were unique to our era, and the ancients never asked themselves, "Did this really happen?"
If we knew the Flood or the fall of Jericho or other such events really happened, it would hardly settle questions of faith. The Flood might have been natural in origin, the fall of Jericho a feat of military engineers. And if the supernatural were involved, many heartfelt questions would still remain. After all, Genesis tells us that the Flood was a global slaughter of horrific proportions. Would God have done this? The book of Joshua tells us that once the walls of Jericho fell with divine aid, God looked on approvingly and held aloft a sword as the Chosen People slaughtered every civilian in the city, "both men and women, young and old." If the Flood and Jericho really did happen and really involved the Maker, one's faith might be tested by the very words of scripture themselves.
But at least we would know that scripture contains more than what modernism dismissed as "legends." This is a stirring prospect of knowledge, stirring for faith and skepticism both.