Although Darren Aronofsky’s Noah hasn’t even hit theaters yet, some from among its target audience are already flogging it as “unbiblical” and “bizarre.” The backlash—which includes the film’s censorship in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE—has prompted Paramount Studios to appease religious groups with the following disclaimer in all promotional material:
“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
Though I’m not sure why we are expending so much righteous indignation on a film that will likely be as forgettable as it is mediocre, I am excited to see this “artistic license” in action. Aronofsky most obviously deviates from the biblical story by including the Watchers—angels who, according to the Book of Enoch, descended to earth to wed human women. This account embellishes the strange story in Genesis 6 in which these angel/human couplings produced giant offspring called the Nephilim. But where Genesis only makes vague allusions, Enoch goes into great detail, describing the Nephilim as 300-cubit (~135 meters) tall giants who decimate the earth’s resources and instigate God’s retributive Flood.
Aronofsky probably won’t include all of these details from 1 Enoch, but by incorporating some apocryphal material, he ironically is exercising the same creative liberty that early Christians did when thinking about Noah’s Flood. Many early Christians, including some prominent figures like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, considered 1 Enoch to be authoritative Scripture. Other Christian sects like the Sethian Gnostics composed their own accounts which bear little resemblance to Genesis.
Many early Christian interpretations focus on the Ark itself, but even though Genesis provides its exact dimensions, it never seems to appear in the same way.
Some early Christians conceptualized Noah’s Ark as a square box. In the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, a massive 2nd-3rd century funeral complex located to the south-east of Rome, archaeologists discovered a wall fresco depicting Noah sitting in his ark. The ark is comically stylized as a little lidless box, while the dove that Noah released to search for dry land can be seen flying back to his outstretched hands. A similar depiction appears on a marble sarcophagus dated to about 260-300 CE. The sarcophagus, which probably was commissioned by a wealthy Christian client, depicts Noah sitting in a little box with the dove fetching him a piece of an olive tree.
2. A Giant Pyramid
In his apologetic text Contra Celsum, the 3rd century church father Origen battles Celsus over the Ark’s existence and exact dimensions. Using a similar line of argument that modern critics employ, Celsus derides Noah’s flood as a children’s story and points out that the Ark couldn’t have possibly been large enough to hold 2 of every kind of animal. Origen counters by implying that the Ark was likely larger than what the biblical text stipulates. He expands these views in his Homilies on Genesis, in which he suggests that Moses, who was purportedly educated in Egypt, recorded the cubits in the larger Egyptian cubit when composing Genesis. Therefore, the Ark was much larger than what the plain text of Genesis says. He finally and inexplicably conceives the shape of the ark as a pyramid with a square base that tapers to a square top.
3. A Luminous Cloud
The Sethian Gnostics are by far the most creative. According to their flood story found in The Apocryphon of John, a second century gnostic text, God is an evil Demiurge who decides to destroy the world by means of a Flood. In an attempt to spoil the Demiurge’s plans, the personification of foreknowledge, Pronoia, warns Noah to save the human race. Rather than an ark, though, Noah gathers some people together and hides them in a luminous cloud, thereby surviving the deluge.
We can see, then, that early Christians held a plurality of beliefs about Noah, the Ark, and the Flood. Although Aronofsky pays little heed to the Genesis account, he’s joining a long and storied lineage of people embellishing and innovating upon this beloved story. As “bizarre” as it may be, it is certainly no more weird than the Sethian versions, and he may even make some early Christians proud by giving extra screentime to the Watchers.
We must remember that 21st century Protestants don’t have a monopoly on the Flood story. Not only do we share it with Jews and Muslims, but less populous religious groups such as the Mandaeans, Samaritans, and Bahá’ís also hold it dear. My inner cynical movie critic has already convinced me that the movie will be terrible, but whether it is a blockbuster or a flop, why not judge it on cinematic rather than theological grounds?
Origen, Contra Celsum
Origen, Homilies on Genesis II.2
Apocryphon of John