A Secret In The Ark

Part Of: History sequence
Content Summary: 1500 words, 15min read


Today, I want to try something unusual: I want to analyze the story of Noah from a literary perspective. Some surprises lurk beneath the surface.

A Fresh Take On Noah

Try your utmost to read the following with fresh eyes. There will be a quiz after! (Okay, so you can review its four question above, and there is no grade. :P)

Ready to begin? Okay. See you soon!

Examining The Text

Q1. How many animals?

You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.

Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female

Now, the above seems contradictory.  The difference seems to be:

  • { “clean”:”1 pair” ; “unclean: “1 pair”}     vs    
  • { “clean”:”7 pairs” ; “unclean: “1 pair”}

Is this apparent contradiction a real one? Can it be resolved? Such questions are irrelevant to the argument. The simple point is: there is tension in the narrative.

Q2. How long did the flood last?

Another hard question. Take your best guess.

As you re-read the story, you are probably struck with the fact that there is A LOT of temporal information in this story. The task of constructing a coherent answer is hard. Especially when you compare quotes like these:

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth

The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

Again, the point here is about tension. Notice your confusion.

Q3. How was the narrative flow?

Yes, the narrative had structure. Yes, its plot holds together. But was it a pleasure to read?

Well, I didn’t think so.

To most modern readers, perhaps, the level of detail is painful, the amount of repetition tiresome. What are we to make of this? Are we to judge the story’s author as less enlightened regarding narrative structure?

A typical counter-argument appeals to chronological snobbery. Writing styles change, and over the millennia they plausibly change a lot.

But this response misses the point. For it turns out that these Israelite authors were better at constructing prose than the text might suggest at first glance.

Q4. What is the point-of-view of the author?

Could you create a compelling answer to this question, dear reader? I’m not sure if I could. My answer would be vague, and would lean heavily on the contents of story itself.

A New Hypothesis

Okay, so we’ve identified a few points of discomfort within the story.  If we modify our beliefs about how it was constructed, can we better explain our confusion?

Consider what happens if we view this text as the work of two different authors. We’d then need to get out two highlighters, and guess which passages come from the first, and which come from the second. Let consider one such guess now. I’d like you to just briefly skim through the following:

Notice anything cool?

As an aside: I want you thinking about how we could automate this “highlighter procedure”. Could we teach a computer how to reconstruct multiple authorship, if and only if such blending had occurred? How would we make it learn the process? How could we test it?

Okay, time to name the authors.

  • The author of the orange text we shall call J: the Jahwist source (because he likes to use the YHWH title).
  • The author of the pink text we shall call P: the Priestly source (for reasons I’ll explain in my next article).

Refining Our Hypothesis

Imagine for a moment I have written a novel. Do you think you would be able to carve my novel into two pieces, and preserve the structure and coherence of both halves?  I suspect not.

Let us name our hypotheses:

  • Let H1 represent the original, one-author hypothesis.
  • Let H2 represent the new, two-author hypothesis.

H2 can be visualized as follows:

Compilation of Noah (2)

I’ve already shown you the right hand side (the previous excerpt). Now, I’ll introduce you to the (more exciting) left hand side: the original narratives.

Evaluating The Evidence

Like good little Bayesians, we have H1 (one author) and H2 (two author) floating around in our mental apparatus.  Which hypothesis best explains this document?

To find out, let’s revisit the evidence.

Q1: How many animals were brought onto the ark?

  • The Jahwist narrative has the rule: 7 pairs for clean animals, 1 pair for unclean animals.
  • The Priestly narrative has the rule: 1 pair of all living creatures.

The tension dissolves.

Notice that the burnt offering only occurs in the Jahwist tale, and he is careful to describe the sacrifice of only clean animals (which in his version, has 7 pairs). No more need to worry about burnt offerings causing extinctions! 🙂

Q2: How long did the flood last?

  • The Jahwist narrative has the flood lasting for 40 days.
  • The Priestly narrative has the flood lasting for 150 days.

The tension dissolves.

Q3: How would you rate the narrative flow?

… it’s a lot better!

Q4: How well can you make out the author’s point-of-view?

Recall that, before, we didn’t have much of an answer: we just mumbled something about the story. But now, look:

  • P only uses the more universal term God (16 times). J uses the more personal YHWH exclusively (10 times).
  • P is interested in details such as ark dimensions, and lineages (only he names the sons of Noah). J is more oriented around the events.
  • P uses very precise dates, reminiscent of a calendar. J uses the numeric theme of 7 and 40.
  • Stylistically, P reads like the work of a scribe. J reads like an epic saga, like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Epistemic Status

I am not a philologist. I did not make this argument. What do the experts think?

The multiple authorship solution to the story of Noah (H2)  is the consensus of modern academia. It is not a contentious issue.

That this consensus is not public knowledge to those who would like to know is a rather interesting cultural failure mode.

Parting Thoughts

I hope that learning about the two authors of Noah elicited an “aha moment” from you. A few parting thoughts:

  • The debates surrounding apparent contradictions in the Bible would be more useful if they incorporated source criticism results like these.
  • It seems long overdue for resources like BibleGateway to offer different versions of authorship highlighting, just as they do for translation options.
  • Which narrative did the Noah movie borrow from the most, and will the OTHER STORY also land a blockbuster hit? 😉

Next time, I will be immersing this example of multiple authorship inference within the context of the Documentary Hypothesis and the modern atmosphere of Biblical studies. See you then!


During the construction of this article, I drew from this textbook and this UPenn resource.


5 thoughts on “A Secret In The Ark

  1. Nice article, and a good summary of the two-source view. As far as your counterfactual goes, I’m pretty sure the accepted view in the Catholic church (if I recall, dating back to the Church fathers, possibly accepted even before then among Jewish audiences) was that the early books of the Bible are comprised of quite a range of source material. The simplest way to tell is to look at the genealogies — they’re clearly written in the same style, so it’s not hard to imagine they were added to the narrative by scribes working from official documents.

    The usual hypothesis for who wrote and who compiled the bulk of the OT are 1) Moses and 2) Ezra, though I’m not entirely sure which parts and books are credited to either one. If I recall correctly, Moses usually gets the lion’s share of credit for the Torah, while Ezra gets credit for the histories (Joshua through Kings). 1 and 2 Chronicles don’t really call for a compiler, given that they’re pretty straightforward records of the court of early kings of Israel and Judah.

    If you’re going to continue this sort of analysis, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Syncretic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). For a while the consensus has been that Mark came first (along with the Gospel of Q), but I find the argument for Matthean primacy far more convincing — essentially, Matthew came first, then Mark borrowed from him and from Peter (whose sermons were the basis of the ‘Q’ sayings. Luke came last, borrowing from both sources, possibly along with other material from Peter). Regardless, I’d love to debate this some more.


  2. > As far as your counterfactual goes, I’m pretty sure the accepted view in the Catholic church was that the early books of the Bible are comprised of quite a range of source material.

    Oh, interesting! Now I’m interested in learning more. 🙂

    Even if you’re right, though, my counterfactual is non-trivial: because the view of the Church then contains less information than what we know now (n>1 vs line-by-line source divisions).

    Imagine that, in 20 years, machine learning algorithms produce a source division hypothesis with evidence strong enough to bring the field of Biblical Studies into consensus. Now hand the early church these “definitively-highlighted Bibles”. In this scenario, I suspect some of the canonization debates would have moved from book-level to source-level. Do you agree?

    > If I recall correctly, Moses usually gets the lion’s share of credit for [redacting] the Torah…

    Even if we back away from Mosaic authorship, this seems incorrect: the evidence suggests that Deuteronomy was penned during the reign of King Josiah (~620 BC).

    > I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Syncretic Gospels [and Matthean primacy]

    Regarding these, I haven’t explored the composition arguments in sufficient depth. Speaking in Bayesian terms, I’ve simply adjusted my prior via “authority seeking” to agree with the majority of scholars (I currently affirm Markan priority). Even though I probably won’t endeavor to become an expert in that topic, I would love to eyeball the strong arguments you’ve encountered. 🙂


    1. > In this scenario, I suspect some of the canonization debates would have moved from book-level to source-level.

      I suspect you’re approaching the matter from an evangelical Protestant POV in which the Bible is treated as authoritative (often considered inerrant) on its own merits as the Word of God, whereas the Catholic and Orthodox understanding (which I’d argue is much more representative of the councils themselves) is that the OT and NT books of the Bible are authoritative because they represent the voice of God speaking through the people of God (in other words, it’s a difference between ‘infallibility of Scripture’ and ‘infallibility of the Church = communion of saints’). Thus, for Catholics and Protestants, it’s less important who composed the Scriptures out of what sources, and more important whether the finished product was regarded as authoritative and binding for the Jewish people or the Christian faith. Not saying it wouldn’t be interesting; just that you’d find far fewer butterflies than you might expect.

      > …the evidence suggests that Deuteronomy was penned during the reign of King Josiah (~620 BC).

      Not disagreeing with you, but Deuteronomy is basically a record of Moses’ death: the bulk of it is occupied by his final speech to the children of Israel. Hence, the text itself should be enough to tell us that he could not have written it. The usual presumption is that it’s either a record of the speech transcribed later, or that the speech was merely a compilation of various speeches and rulings Moses had made over the course of his life, similar to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew (which clumps a lot of different speeches made by Jesus into five *big* speeches spaced evenly across the span of his ministry.

      It wouldn’t surprise me at all if King Josiah were the one to commission the final text of Deuteronomy, given the fact that it was during Josiah’s reign that those books were rediscovered and publicly read (the Torah having fallen into obscurity and presumable disrepair during the idol-worshiping regimes of earlier kings).

      >I would love to eyeball the strong arguments you’ve encountered.

      First I’d have to go back and look for the arguments again in the first place — it’s been a while, and I can’t guarantee I remember the best sources for the debate. Broadly speaking:

      1) The argument for Markan priority often seems to rely on the argument that the simplest (least organized and least content-full) Gospel must have been first. The presumption is that the content in Matthew and Luke were added by later authors, who were not witnesses. This is why Markan priority came to the fore around the same time as arguments that the Gospels were really written a generation or two after Christ’s death.

      2) Matthean priority, on the other hand, was the consensus view of the Church from the days of the earliest Church fathers — the best and earliest sources we have all corroborate this. Matthean priority is also indicated by its style, as the book of Matthew is very much framed in the context of Jewish literature. For instance, Matthew frequently points out how the life of Jesus fulfills some OT prophecy or other, Jesus frequently discusses subtle points of Jewish Scripture or debates with other religious leaders, the whole story is written in a particularly Jewish style (the five major speeches corresponding to periods of his life). In contrast, the other synoptic Gospels are framed and organized in a style much more familiar to Hellenic audiences (of Asia, Greece and Rome) — Mark has more of a didactic or public-speaking sort of style, while Luke is much more focused on historicity and biography.

      There are other arguments, but those are the ones I best remember.


      1. Saw this linked in a Catholic discussion forum re: the Matthew v. Mark debate.


        A good summary of the Clementine tradition (arguing for a Matthew – Luke – Mark order to the writing), and the first chapter provides an excellent illustration of what I meant when I referred to Mark’s style. The author ‘Mark’ is usually connected to the John Mark from Acts, who was an early companion and later scribe / interpreter for Peter when he went to preach in Rome. This explains why certain details in Mark sound like eyewitness testimony, because (by this account) it was transcribed from a speech given from that eyewitness.


  3. I’ve recently heard that the infamous “gopher” wood is actually a loan word from Akkadian meaning “reed”, and that the structure of the Ark would’ve resembled a reed boat in use today by some Arab tribes.

    Liked by 1 person

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