“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Matthew 24:37-39)
Over at First Things there is an interesting debate taking place regarding the historical meaning and value of a statement of Jesus which is, ultimately, a question regarding the historical nature of the Bible and the nature of history itself. The original context for this current debate was a dispute between Joe Carter and David Hart regarding biblical teaching on capital punishment. Mr. Hart took issue with Mr. Carter’s original column and in the comments to Hart’s post, Joe Carter responded to participants who assailed him for his fundamentalist and literal reading of the Bible. The response of Carter, below, to one respondent should give a fair sense of the issues:
“@Andrew Lyttle ***If you really believe Noah was a real historical personage, then indeed we have nothing to talk about. Your view of scripture, of history, and of reality in general is so alien to mine that we clearly have no common ground.***
I am indeed an untutored fundamentalist who believes, as Jesus did, that Noah was a real historical personage. As Jesus said, "But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be."
But what did he know. He was just a first century Jew living in Palestine. He didn't have the book learnin' necessary to understand that Noah couldn't have actually existed.”
This citation from Matthew 24:37-38, embedded in the comment above, is proof Carter states that Jesus believed Noah was an historical person and so proof that Noah was an historical person.
Today, Carter has posted a longer response to those who question his claims that Jesus spoke of Noah as a real historical person because Jesus believed Noah was an historical person and so, unless Jesus is a liar, Noah was an historical person. Carter delves into a slight digression on kenotic theology, in which he discusses in what manner Jesus might have emptied himself of his divinity, though Carter himself does not assent to the claims of kenotic theology,concluding, however, that even those who do hold that Jesus “emptied” himself would agree that Jesus would not lie. He states,
To my knowledge, there are no advocates of kenotic theology that believe that Jesus emptied himself of all divine attributes. Had he done so he would be merely “fully human” and not divine at all. The question then is what divine attributes he would have kept in order to fulfill his mission.
While it would be presumptuous to attempt a complete list, I believe there is one class of attributes that must be included: Jesus would have kept whatever aspects of his divinity are necessary to prevent him from intentionally deceiving his followers.
I think the foray into kenotic theology is not that significant for his argument, finally, as discussions regarding the relationship of Jesus’ divinity and humanity date back into the ancient Church, often based on Luke 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” and is a major issue of its own, needing its own discussion, and a sidelight to the major issues Carter wants to address: a) Jesus’ claim about Noah indicates that Noah was a real historical person and b) if Jesus claimed him as a historical person, and we deny that Noah was an historical person, we make Jesus, and God the father, a liar. No Christian who believes Jesus is both human and divine would claim Jesus as a liar, whatever their theological bent, so this, to my mind, is a question of biblical interpretation and history.
Carter can see four options for how to understand what Jesus said in Matthew 24:37-38 regarding Noah:
“For instance, there are only a few possibilities for how we can interpret Jesus’ claims about Noah and the days of Noah:
1. He knew that Noah was a real person and was speaking the truth when he claimed the patriarch existed.
2. He knew that Noah was not a real person and intentionally lied when he claimed the patriarch existed.
3. He knew that Noah was not a real person and was merely making a metaphorical or literary reference (e.g., he was referring to Noah like we would refer to Achilles).
4. He did not know that Noah was a mythical figure and in making the claim he was unintentionally misleading his hearers.
All Christians will reject the second option. If we believe (a) lying is a sin and (b) Jesus never sinned, then it follows that he could not have been intentionally lying in this instance. We can also reject the third option since there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.
That leaves the first and fourth options. My contention is that four should also be dismissed for reasons similar to the second. If God the Father is omniscient, then he knew about and approved of every word that would be uttered by the Son during his earthly ministry. If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.”
Carter is correct that Christians will reject the second option he lists, that Jesus intentionally lied, but his quick dismissal of the third and fourth options does indicate a narrow understanding both of history, biblical interpretation and, frankly, lying and deception. I want to look at the other three claims and comment on my sense of their merit.
“1. He knew that Noah was a real person and was speaking the truth when he claimed the patriarch existed.” The historicity of Noah is, of course, a possibility, but the close relationship of the Noah flood account to those found throughout the Ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamian versions in which Utnapishtim and Atrahasis appear in similar roles to Noah, which indicates to most scholars that the Genesis flood account is a variation of a mythic tale in which many cultures reflected theologically on the meaning of a great flood. The fact that the Genesis account contains, quite clearly, two different variations within it, P(riestly) and J(awhist) accounts, in which in P two pairs of every animal come onto the Ark and in J Moses takes seven pairs of clean animals and two pairs of unclean animals, also points to a reworking of the tradition not on the basis of historicity, but on concerns regarding issues of purity. If scholars today, though, reject the historicity not of a great flood in the Ancient Near East, but of the account of Noah, does that mean Jesus was wrong in believing there was such an historical person as Noah and so unintentionally deceiving his listeners and readers today by referring to Noah as a real person? Or was Jesus aware that Noah was not an actual person and so referring to Noah to make a theological point, though recognizing that Noah was simply a character in an ancient story and still deceiving his listeners? Are these the only options?
On point 3., “He knew that Noah was not a real person and was merely making a metaphorical or literary reference (e.g., he was referring to Noah like we would refer to Achilles),” Carter says, “we can also reject the third option since there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.” This is a strange argument, since the proposition is concerned with the belief of Jesus – “He knew that Noah was not a real person” – while the response is concerned with the beliefs of his hearers – “there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.” Whether the hearers at the time considered Noah a mythical figure has nothing to do with what Jesus thought and taught. I can speak to a child who considers Santa Claus as a real person who brings gifts on Christmas Eve, but this does not indicate that I share that belief. I do not mean the example of Santa Claus as rude or mocking, just an example that Jesus could hold beliefs different from those to whom he spoke. So whether people of Jesus’ time considered Noah an actual historical figure, and how Carter knows that they did believe this, I know not how, does not impinge on what Jesus thought. While I do not think that we can settle definitively what 1st century Jews believed on this particular score, it is probable that they did think of Noah as an historical person from the past. This does not settle, though, what Jesus himself believed.
This brings up 4., “He did not know that Noah was a mythical figure and in making the claim he was unintentionally misleading his hearers.” On this score Carter says, “If God the Father is omniscient, then he knew about and approved of every word that would be uttered by the Son during his earthly ministry. If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.” This is where I think major issues arise regarding interpretation, history and the meaning of deception, though theology could be added to the mix in addition.
I want to come back to these two points that are at the heart of Carter’s claims: a) Jesus’ claim about Noah indicates that Noah was a real historical person and b) if Jesus claimed him as a historical person, and we deny that Noah was an historical person, we make Jesus, and God the father, a liar. We need to look at the passage once more: “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matthew 24:37-39). Jesus is attempting to make the point that the day of the Son of Man will catch people unawares, happy in their lives, until Judgment falls upon them, just as it did in Noah’s day. I am not convinced that Jesus’ use of this example indicates that he thought Noah was an actual historical person, only that it is a worthy parallel to the need for preparedness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. His hearers most likely would have believed that Jesus was referring to an actual historical event and person, but if Jesus did not think the account of Noah was an historical account, does this mean that Jesus is misleading or deceiving his hearers? Does it mean what Carter says? “If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.” I simply do not see the deception, if Jesus presented Noah as a real person, because the theological point is to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man and the example provided by the Flood account of Genesis is an excellent example of the folly of turning away from God’s warnings. What does it matter if Jesus did not believe Noah was an actual person and his hearers did? The point is the same: prepare yourselves.
Nor do I see an issue if Jesus, according to our historical understanding of Noah today, “mistakenly” believed that Noah was an historical person. Jesus, as a first century Jew, must be bound by the understandings of reality that are shared by those amongst whom he lives and teaches, not due to his own limitations, but due to their limitations. On matters of theological truth, there is simply no way in which Jesus can lead anyone astray, but does this extend to matters of geography, chronology, and history? Could Jesus transcend his time and speak of the actual age of the earth, Big Bang theory, a modern cosmology, and the extent of the earth’s lands, including the Americas, Antarctica and Australia? What would be the point of it to a 1st century Jew? There would be no context in which this knowledge would be helpful or valuable. If knowledge is historically bound, and some forms of knowledge and understanding increase over time, one is bound to express the truth in terms which meet the listeners at a level which they can accept and understand. Revelation emerges in time, bound by the language, genre, and, yes, historical knowledge of that time.
Let me give another example from the New Testament about which Jesus may be said to be “deceiving” or “misleading” us: Moses’ authorship of the five books of the Law. The ancient belief, maintained by some Jews and Christians today, but not many, is that Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. According to biblical scholarship, which I accept on this score, there is no way in which this can be literally true, not only for powerful literary and historical reasons related to the texts themselves, but for the description at the end of Deuteronomy of Moses’ death. Yet Jesus refers to the belief that Moses wrote the five books of the Law on numerous occasions. In Mark 12:19, the Sadducees say, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.” In Jesus’ response, Mark 12:26, he denounces their interpretation of Scripture and God’s power, but not their understanding of authorship: “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” In John 1:45, Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." My final example is from Luke, where the risen Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
Are we being deceived and mislead by Jesus and by the Scriptures if Moses was not, as was believed and accepted in Jesus’ day, the actual author of the five books of the Law? I think not. This was a common understanding of Jesus’ day and it is not a belief upon which salvation hinges, just as belief in Noah as an historical or mythic figure is not a salvific matter. As far as I am concerned, whether one believes that Noah actually existed or that the five books of the Law were written by Moses is inconsequential. I do not believe these things because the evidence points me away from these things. That Jesus would share the common beliefs of 1st century Jews on matters of the historical existence of Noah and the authorship of the Law by Moses does not indicate an attempt to deceive or mislead, nor does it indicate that Jesus was “wrong” concerning these things; what it indicates to me is a limited historical imagination on those who would make these things matters of "deception."
As Dei Verbum12 states,
Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
Balance that with Carter’s final statement:
I refuse to believe that the Father would allow the Son to deceive mankind about anything. Because of this belief, I trust that whenever Jesus made a claim about history that he is making an assertion that is trustworthy and factually accurate. I believe that Noah existed because Jesus tells me so. Unless I’m presented with evidence that is more convincing than the words of the Creator of the Universe, I’ll continue to trust that this belief is warranted.
Some Christians may claim they know more than Jesus about Antediluvian history. Others may even claim that the Father would allow his Son to deceive his followers. They certainly have the freedom to express those beliefs. But since I refuse to believe that God tells lies, I won’t be joining them in their self-deception.
The focus on the “literal” historicity of all events or persons described and discussed in the Bible by Jesus, or in the Bible as a whole, is a failure to recognize that Jesus’ primary purpose was to seek and to save those who were lost and that he came at a particular historical time and place. Jesus could not be an alien to that time or place, but it was essential that he speak in terms which were comprehensible, reasonable and sensible to the age in which he came. This is not deception, this is not a “lie”; this is a manifestation of God’s love for us as we need him to speak to us in terms which we can comprehend. If Jesus spoke of Noah as “real” and I believe he was not an historical person, or if Jesus attributed the first five books of the Bible to Moses, and I believe they were not written by him, this is neither a claim that Jesus was “wrong” nor a claim that I know “better” than Jesus. This is an acknowledgement of the way in which God must always speak to us.
“In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous "condescension" of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, "that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature." For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (Dei Verbum13)
Jesus was not limited in his knowledge, understanding and wisdom, but our ancestors were and we are today. Whenever we read the Bible, it is an act of translation and interpretation, which includes passages about which we continue to struggle to understand, even though we have an increased and better understanding and knowledge of history today than existed two thousand years ago. Whether Jesus spoke of Noah as an historical person, though, is hardly an act of deception or of lies, whether in the ancient context or today, but a misunderstanding on our part of historical context, both then and now, of literary genre, and a misunderstanding of how revelation is constantly in need of interpretation, not for Jesus’ sake but for our sake.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens