In 1997 two marine geologists, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, published a book about Noah's Floodthe real one they discovered themselves. It's a geologic event that they say occurred several thousand years before the ancient Hebrews wrote the story down in its familiar 40-days/40-nights form. The response among Ryan and Pitman's readers was approving interest and follow-up research, the cultural equivalent of polite applause. (See my review.)
Just a few generations ago, though, the question of the Flood created whole decades of cultural flame wars. Geology won the argument and the Biblical literalists lost. The Flood could not have covered the whole world, it could not have laid down every sedimentary rock bed in a few months, and Noah could not have rescued every living species. The rocks put the lie to all that.
This debate, along with the equally ferocious argument over evolution as well as other trends of the 1800s, basically debunked the Bible as an authority for any physical truth. But while the Bible is of no use as a geology text, it does have value in its version of the Flood. In that sense, Ryan and Pitman have rehabilitated the good book.
The Updated Flood
Their new picture of the original Flood is this: As the last ice age waned some 10,000 years ago, the Black Sea overflowed with meltwater from the northern Asian ice cap, and it drained downhill into the Mediterranean, which like the rest of the ocean was rising but still well below its present level. Then a global cold snap hit. The glaciers stopped melting and the Black Sea shrank to a large freshwater lake about the size of today's Caspian Sea, a hundred meters or so below sea level. People moved there and set up the earliest significant farming societies on the lake's shores.
When warming resumed after a millennium or so, the north Asian meltwater went elsewhere and the lake stayed low. But the Mediterranean continued to rise until, one fateful day around 5600 BCE, it spilled over the hills where once the Black Sea had spilled the other way.
That first trickle of seawater grew within days to a colossal, roaring torrent as it gouged out a deep notch in the hills. Storms, lightning, earthquakes and other geophysical disturbances surely accompanied this catastrophe. In a matter of months, the great lake was utterly drowned and its shore-dwellers scattered. The Black Sea and its outlet to the Mediterranean, the Bosporus, became as we know them today in a geologic instant. But the survivors of the Flood long remembered what happened in epic songs and myths, one version of which is preserved in the book of Genesis.
How Noah's Flood Was Debunked
The history of geology is a story of hard evidence gradually defeating scripture for authority over our view of the Earth. The Floodthat is, Noah's Flood story from Genesiswas primary in that struggle.
The very first "theories of the Earth" assumed a universal Flood for two good reasons: the word of God described it in convincing detail and the majority of the rocks of Europe were obviously formed under water (and having never seen lava flows, many early thinkers considered even basalt a marine sediment). But the geologic evidence grew and its contradictions with scripture could no longer be denied.
At the same time, archaeology illuminated the sources and cultural context of the Bible itself, including the many different Flood myths that circulated among other cultures at the time of the ancient Hebrews. The Flood shrank in significance and became just another moral fable, like the tale of Jonah and the whale.
You can study the history of geology and learn how the geologic evidence began to arise in the 1600s and how theory changed to account for it. It's a peaceful timeline on the blackboard, but it leaves out the opposition. At every stage there were powerful people, many remembered today as major scientists, whose basic argument was that the evidence contradicted the plain words of the Bible. They were stubborn opponents for more than 200 years, but the last of them surrendered in the late 1800s.
The Bible has always been an awkward book. Most of it is historical, of course, and much of that human history can be independently confirmed. But much of the Bible is mythical, a record of fundamental stories that shaped an ancient worldview. Taken literally, Noah's Flood suggests a widespread set of geological consequences that have not been found. The world is true, therefore this part of the Word is not. But Ryan and Pitman's hypothesis that the Flood myth had a historical basis assumes, correctly, that even if Noah's story is not literally true it is not utterly false. More realistic versions of it can be checked out and possibly verified.
It has taken more than a century to bring this great Biblical story back to some sort of plausibility. The next few decades should produce some fascinating discoveries under the Black Sea waves as we check out Ryan and Pitman's hypothesis in detail. Scientists are arguing about the evidence and gathering more.
It's still valuable to read about 19th-century geology, because while science and religion settled their dispute during that time, both parties were wounded and distorted in ways that still matter today. In 1896, Andrew Dickson White published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, recounting the battles with fairness and sympathy for all sides, at a time when memories were fresh. It's all reproduced on Bob Kobres's remarkable ABOB site.