How Did Early Christians View Noah’s Ark?

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epicAlthough 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.

Noah's Ark in Catacombs1. A box

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 

Noah

Artistic rendition of Noah in his little boxy Ark on the aforementioned Jonah sarcophagus. Note the olive branch and dove.

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?

Further Reading:

Origen, Contra Celsum

Origen, Homilies on Genesis II.2

Apocryphon of John

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Andrea D. says:

    So interesting how Christians through the ages have interacted creatively with Scriptures. We share Scripture with not just so many other cultures and religions, but also a very rich and diverse history of ideas. I really appreciate your blog posts–my mind has been broadened in so many ways….

  2. Hi Andrew, your link does not link to an example of Noah but Jonah. My name is also Andrew! 😀 But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a hard time about a few of your comments for your benefit and therefore please feel free to remove this post from the public and email me if you’d like instead. You stated “We can see, then, that early Christians held a plurality of beliefs about Noah, the Ark, and the Flood.”. I am a Christian and that is true! Throughout Christian history there have always been folks who either didn’t read and study all the related texts before forming and propagating an idea or those who have known the related texts but added or subtracted to the text what they liked or didn’t like. In church circles we tend to call this the “Buffet” approach to Scripture or label individuals who treat the Bible that way “cherry pickers”! However the discussion on Noah’s Ark is not a subjective one. There is no dispute regarding the texts of the Old and New Testaments or that they have remained unchanged in the last 2000 years (textual criticism). Thus variant viewpoints abound but the texts have remained to this day. I’m afraid your comment here is irrelevant and betrays an unwarranted bias. “We must remember that 21st century Protestants don’t have a monopoly on the Flood story.” Frankly the Bible as a whole is not written as Myth as many question beggars would like to hold. It is a first rate historical document even if one does not accept the supernatural aspects. It is still written as a historical volume. The fact is the bulk of the documentation on the Flood is in what I would call the old Testament and what Jews would call the Tanakh. This should be understood to be just as important to Jews as to Christians so it is not just a matter of how Christians viewed Noah’s Ark. In summary various interpretations of Noah’s Ark end up being more telling about the deviant individual then the text which has remained unchanged. Origen is just such an example. As you pointed out he even acknowledged his deviation from the text to fit his ideas. Now I’m not sure if you intended to highlight Origen because he is an example of a wild twist of opinions in Christian History or because you are ignorant of the many Christian scholars who understood the proper dimensions of Noah’s ark who were not “21st century Protestants”. If that is the case email me and I’ll give you a list of scholars. As for the catacomb box with no lid I’ll need to explain as briefly as I can. The catacomb depictions were mostly done in the 3rd and 4th ce. They were influenced from the “Noah Coins” which made circulation in the 2nd and 3rd ce. The Noah coins were minted in Apamea or aka Cibotus which is the same Greek word for “Chest”. Cibotus or Kibotos got its name because of the towns major business which surrounded the use of packing crates for shipment and redistribution of goods throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. Older then the Noah coins are coins with Kibotos (packing crates) on the coin. The reason both Jews & Christians in Kibotos made the connection to Noah’s Ark is because the word Kibotos is used to describe Noah’s Ark in the book of Hebrews and in the Gospels which were all penned before the minting of the Noah coins. For the Greek speaking Jews the LXX uses the word Kibotos in reference to Noah’s Ark. For some reason the average person did not care to get the hight, length and width from Genesis so as to apply it and depict the Ark in proper proportion. I don’t think these people were stupid. These are merely artistic representations of Noah’s Ark on the catacomb walls and Noah coins. Many parents who walk into a church nursery don’t think those ridiculous bathtub arks represent reality. They understand it is artistic license but are to lazy to do the math and go work out the proper dimensions in an artistic piece!

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Andrew,

      Thank you for your comment, I do appreciate it. The point of the article was precisely to show the variety of ways that early Christians embellished the original narrative. Of course they all had the same text, but they didn’t mind building upon the text. The post was a response of sorts to Christians today who complained about the recent “Noah” film being unbiblical. In my opinion, not only is this not a problem, but it even has ancient precedence in the early Church. I’m not concerned about the historicity of Noah’s Ark nor textual-critical questions regarding the transmission of the text. I was more concerned about showing how ancient Christians re-interpreted the Noah story and re-invested it with different meaning. Origen was but one example of this embellishment.

      I didn’t mean to imply early Christians were stupid in any respect, only that they viewed the Ark different than us (artistically or otherwise). We Christians living in the 21st century often forget just how different Christians in the 3rd or 4th century were from us.

      Also, my link leads to a sarcophagus that shows both Jonah and Noah on the facade. Check it out again and you can see Noah in his little boxy Ark.

      • I do appreciate that you are highlighting some differnces. That’s not the issue. I would contend there are far more similarities then differences between Christians today and my ancient brothers. Human nature hasn’t changed. Why does another mediocre “Bible” movie annoy us? Christian’s complain about it being unbiblical because we don’t like what is to us Holy being made into the profane. The concept of what is Holy or sacred has been lost in our time. I’m not surprised this concept is lost on you as you strike me as somewhat post-modern, but let me assure you ancient cultures thrived on revering what was Holy. Pomp and formality acted as a buffer to build and maintain respect for what was sacred. The Bible is to the Christian God’s very word. The fact you even have to ask why Christians and Jews would be upset betrays a bias from a non-religious perspective. And I mean religion in the sense of religiosity, commitment, devotion etc. Are you committed to the inerrancy of Scripture? If you are why so irreverent then? I hardly think so. To us it is unaceptable to treat what is sacred as some medium to be plied and twisted to whatever the individuals personal whim, the consequence being the loss of important truth in the process. This is something to be ashamed of not highlighted as a “precedent”! Your viewpoint presented is clearly NOT a Christian viewpoint or I wouldn’t have to explain this Andrew. So it seems to me your interest in celebrating the attitude of deviance from a Holy text and presume to speak as one who could make or recommend a precedent for Christian behaviour is self indulgent. We follow the Bible not heretics. If the Bible is the Christian authority, then on what basis do think you can recommend on behalf of Christians? If you’d like to try you are by definition of Christianity’s standards limited to Biblical precedent NOT fallible adherents! Past heresies only set precedent for future heretics.
        For example you stated “In my opinion, not only is this not a problem, but it even has ancient precedence in the early Church.” Well to have an opinion is fine, but to then assert some deviant behaviour is an “ancient precedence” for Christian hermeneutic today is concieted rubbish.
        “I’m not concerned about the historicity of Noah’s Ark nor textual-critical questions regarding the transmission of the text.” Christianity is a historical religion. History and the facts in Christian history are as inseparable from Christianity as is Truth. To the true Christian spirituality is tied directly to historical events. It is through historical events through which an infinite immaterial being has progressively revealed himself to finite created human minds. For you to not be concerned with the historicity of Noah’s Ark or any other historical events in the Bible betrays the quality of your training or the lack of interest in true Christianity.
        Origin = identity. This is not a new concept. Christianity is a worldview. The Bible is constantly tying and rooting its’ doctrines back to Genesis. Almost every major Biblical doctrine in the New Testament references and roots itself in the first 12 chapters of Genesis. Or consider even the whole purpose in the genealogies which strike many people today as obscure and irrelevant yet to the philosophical minded we understand what is going on here. For example in Luke the lineage of Jesus is essential in connecting the reader to who he is. The book of Romans states directly Jesus is the “second Adam”. All this simply to stress my point that history to the true Christian is of vital importance and I’d urge you to reconsider the value you’ve placed on it instead of celebrating the confusion that comes from multiplied opinions of deviant sources.

        Your link has at no point linked to a sarcophagus with the Noah box. It links to a sarcophagus with the dates you wrote above but the image is described as of Jonah. I suggest you look again at the link because at no point on my computer has it linked to an image of the Noah depiction.

        • Andrew Henry says:

          First of all, I checked the link again and it doesn’t have a close-up image of the Ark on the sarcophagus as I had hoped. I just now inserted it earlier in the post…check it out, you can see Noah holding an olive branch with a dove flying overhead.

          Secondly, I am an evangelical Christian, not a non-religious scholar (though I have another blogpost about how atheist professors are actually really nice people, you should check it out!). So when you say, “Your viewpoint presented is clearly NOT a Christian viewpoint,” I’m afraid it is not as clear as you assumed. I attended a Christian school and college and continue to lead Bible studies at my local church in Boston. I do understand why some Christians would be upset by Bible movies being poorly portrayed. The “Jesus Christ Superstar” movie was very controversial because of its portrayal of Jesus. What I am saying, though, is we need to exercise empathy when approaching these films. We can empathize with Darren Aronofsky by trying to place ourselves in his position, trying to understand his interpretation of the text. By doing this, we can dialogue. Labeling him as a “heretic” or his movie as “pagan” (as Ken Ham did) does nothing but stifle cordial discussion and understanding.

          You said: “For you to not be concerned with the historicity of Noah’s Ark or any other historical events in the Bible betrays the quality of your training or the lack of interest in true Christianity.”

          When I said I am not concerned with the historicity of Noah’s Ark, I meant it in a very pragmatic sense…as in, I was not focusing on it in this blogpost. I am a historian of ancient Christianity, not Bronze Age Judaism, so naturally, my research “is not concerned” with those events. Also, I never said I am not concerned with any other historical events in the Bible, you are misconstruing my words. My faith is precisely why I started studying church history and continue to do it at a professional level.

          I hope this clears up the confusion.

      • Hi Andrew,
        Firstly you should understand I wrote everything above keeping in mind you may believe yourself an Evangelical. This is actually irrelevant though to my initial point. I’m trying to address an issue and I stand even firmer behind what I stated above knowing that you’d consider yourself a Christian.
        HOWEVER, a point needs clarification. I’m sorry you mis understood the “heretic” comment. In re-reading I can see how you mistook that middle section. I appreciate your courteous nature despite the fact that you thought I was addressing you as a Heretic! 🙂 The context was to Origen and not directed at you. Although I’d still take issue your interest celebrating deviance from the text as a “precedence” to set for Christian life. Let me clarify the context by inserting new comments here. Here’s what I said below, my new comments in brackets;
        “To us it is unaceptable to treat what is sacred as some medium (Scriptural description of Noah’s Ark) to be plied and twisted to whatever the individuals (Origen is the guilty I have in mind) personal whim, the consequence being the loss of important truth(one generation compromises, the next goes even further) in the process. This is something to be ashamed of not highlighted as a “precedent”!(here I’m referencing your endorsement of Origen’s adding and subtracting from the text to fit his idea as if this is a hermeneutical precedent) Your viewpoint presented (the “precedent” comment) is clearly NOT a Christian viewpoint (stress on “a christian viewpoint”) or I wouldn’t have to explain this Andrew. (it isn’t a Christian viewpoint, it’s worldliness. If you were saying what is godly I wouldn’t need to be addressing you)”

        If this is how you conduct your Bible studies I honestly would wonder, do you care what the text says regarding Christian life and practice? Or do you purposefully highlight wayward teachings in Christian history? Do you forgo the Bible and turn to crap like “the story” or “Purpose Driven Life” or Rob Bell’s heretical teachings? Or do you concern yourself with actual Bible studies? I’m just asking here.

        “We can empathize with Darren Aronofsky by trying to place ourselves in his position, trying to understand his interpretation of the text.”
        Again just to clarify I wasn’t calling Aronofsky a Heretic originally, I was alluding in context again to Origen’s views which were! Should we empathize with Him? What?! NO? Are you kidding? Who care’s how he interprets the text? He is neither a practicing Jew or a Christian and he is produced a movie twisting ideas from our sacred texts. Absolutely not. Not his faith, he should expect a rebuttal from us. If he was bold enough to make the film he aught to expect criticism. If some clueless Hollywood idiot made a blundering butchery of the life of Siddhārtha Gautama would I then be sympathetic toward him when Buddhists are upset at his misrepresentation of his life? Not really. I’d expect that.

        Andrew I was addressing you primarily as a historian of ancient Christianity. You have an obligation to be interested in the truth even in that field, however my point was to challenge you as to what authority you presumed to assert Christians be comfortable with Origen’s liberties with what aught to be Holy to every Christian in every generation! The fact is you were not speaking merely as a historian of early Christianity when you did that, you were recommending and applying your twisted endorsement to modern Christians and as a Christian I certainly have a place to shoot right back at ya and say “where are you getting this?”. Don’t pretend you can hide behind your academics when it suits you. As soon as you decided to weigh in on the interpretation of Noah’s Ark, the movie, the shape of Noah’s Ark etc. you absolutely were weighing in on history that goes outside of “early Christian History” into the “Bronze Age”. As I said earlier Noah’s Ark is a Christian AND a Jewish matter. True Christian belief and practice in any era is concerned with the whole Biblical teaching. You know full well the earliest Christians did not have a Canonized “NT” but used the Tenakh.
        I hope that clears up my position which hasn’t changed form the begging. Not sure if you’ve understood why I’m challenging you, but all the best to you. Stop trying to cater to those who are hostile to the truth, go to the hungry ones. If you have a heart to reach the lost, then get out there and learn to defend the truth in an articulate and gracious way to those who are actually searching for it. I pray you learn to fight for the truth instead of celebrating the twisted inaccuracies of those who’ll be ashamed on Judgment day. “an approved workman is not ashamed who correctly divides the Word of Truth”

  3. Oh! And yes I see the picture now! Excellent link! Very interesting. I wasn’t aware of that particular example. Thanks for the good banter! 😀 I quite enjoyed it!

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    How Did Early Christians View Noah’s Ark?

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