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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Black Sea Discoveries: Flood or Fiction?

As most Bible scholars know by now, Noah'sflood is once again gaining ground in the popular press, thanks to recentdiscoveries in the Black Sea by Robert Ballard of Titanic fame. Ballard andcompany's charting of a shadow shoreline etched 508 feet beneath the Black Seasuggests a previous freshwater lake. Partial samplings of shell species andsubsequent carbon-14 dating indicate a shift from freshwater to saltwater,somewhere between 5460 and 4820 BCE.

The theory goes that flooding caused by Europe's melting glaciers raisedsea level in the Mediterranean and caused a flood over the Bosporus strait andinto the Black Sea, until then a freshwater lake. Scientists have pulled up fromthe black, anoxic bottom of the sea scores of core data, strata data, and shelldata that do suggest a flood. It is mainly the speed of the infilling that is inquestion. Proponents of the flood theory, William Ryan and Walter Pitman ofColumbia University's Earth Observatory estimate that the sea waters inundatedover 60,000 square miles of land—though at half a foot per day, providingimagined inhabitants with months or even years to flee. The above dates, whilebased on partial shell samples, leave the geologists with a 600-year gap toexplain—Noah's Flood, or Noah's Trickle?

Despite Ballard's earlier claim, "It's clear a vast amount of realestate is under water and a vast amount of people were living [here]" nodecisive evidence has been found to lend credence to the notion of humanhabitation near the edges of the freshwater lake. The team's initial discoveryof a rectangular log-and-timber structure at 311 feet was a seductive find, butcarbon-14 dating declared the beams a mere 200 years old, a common occurrencefor artifacts harvested from a seabed surface site. But analysis of sedimentinternal to the site was more intriguing—charcoal, seeds, and phosphorus——theusual suspects at any archaeological site. Unfortunately for the research team,the technology does not yet exist to excavate, so the data remains suggestive.

Fred Hiebert, the chief archaeologist on the Ballard crew and a five-yearveteran of the "Black Sea World" as he calls it, is excitednonetheless. While flagging the hypothetical nature of the "cataclysmicinfilling" and of human habitation beneath the current Black Sea, he arguesthat the most important contribution of their finds is the archaeologicaldistinctness of the Black Sea area compared to that of Europe and the AncientNear East. "I'm a Near Eastern archaeologist, and you simply can not make a1 to 1 link between the Black Sea sites and the Near Eastern World. The BlackSea looks more like Northern Michigan than the Ancient Near East. The Noahconnection throws a wrench in because it triggers a Mesopotamia-Near Eastconnection. Could it have been a flood that affected human memory though?Certainly."

Despite the provocative title of his book, Noah's Flood, marinegeologist William Ryan admits "the linkage between the Black Sea flood eventand the Bible story is very, very, very speculative and is developed in ourbook. What we show is that some details that describe the flood in thepre-biblical Mesopotamian stories (Gilgamesh and Atrahasis) have some resonancewith the particular nature of the Black Sea flood. Nothing is proven in thiscontext."

Professor Carol Meyers, of Duke University and the SBL Program Committee, isquick to dismiss any linkage between a flooding of the Black Sea and theBiblical flood dramatized in Genesis: "The imagery of floods no doubt camefrom people's experience—that in itself is a valid connection—but to linkthe biblical narrative to any particular flood is not worthwhile. To argue thatthe historical memory of this particular flood [dated at 5500 BCE] survived tobecome the flood described in Genesis—that' s quite a stretch." Meyers seesthe flood story primarily as a "moral text, not an historical text." Forthis reason, hunting for historical clues or proof when "the text wants totalk about what God is like...in terms that are not historical orscientific" means that "for most of us, proving the Genesis narrativesto be historical documents is not a meaningful or relevant research option."

While proving the Bible's historicity does not guide the work of Ryan andPitman (or even Ballard and Co.) the Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark sensationalism offinding "Noah's Flood" may certainly help secure funding, front-pagenews, and lucrative book and film contracts for scientists in need of heavyfunding. Perhaps the marine geologists are out of their league when they foistBiblical readings onto their legitimate geological discoveries; there was, itseems, a former freshwater coastline and a saltwater flooding of the Black Sea.Isn't that story enough?



—Moira Bucciarelli

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Black Sea Discoveries: Flood or Fiction?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=29

 
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