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How the ark changed shape

British Museum curator Irving Finkel tells Will Gore how the chance discovery of a Babylonian tablet helped him trace the roots of Noah’s Ark

By on Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dr Irving Finkel

Dr Irving Finkel

In 1985 a man called Douglas Simmonds brought a bag of miscellaneous antiquities to the British Museum for inspection. Dr Irving Finkel, the museum’s assistant keeper of ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures, went through the curiosities and quickly discovered that one of them, a small Babylonian tablet covered in cuneiform (an ancient form of script) was a historical document of great significance. As an expert in Assyriology and cuneiform, Finkel only needed to read the first few lines of this small, craggy tablet to realise that this was a segment of an ancient Mespotamian myth, the Babylonian Story of the Flood, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark.

“With its pinched corners the tablet looks like the classic example of a Babylonian letter,” Finkel tells me, the words emanating from beneath a fine and wild beard, “but when I started reading I knew straight away that it was the start of the flood story, with warning coming from heaven to build this huge boat and save lives.”

Ancient tablets featuring the Babylonian flood myth have been found before, mostly famously in 1872 by another British Museum Assyriologist, George Smith. The fact that the Smith tablet, which featured the story in full, originated in around 700 BC, close to the time that the Bible was written, gave those who stood steadfastly by the primacy of the Holy Book a reason to suggest one could have influenced the other. Finkel contends that the Simmonds tablet breaks through this argument as it dates back to 1750 BC, some 1,500 years before the Bible was written.

Finkel grew up an Orthodox Jew and, although he became an atheist in his teenage years, the enormity of his discovery was not lost on him. “This has been a matter of argument and anguish since 1872, but it was up to me consider how this story that is definitely older than the Bible managed to end up in the Bible,” he says.

“Most people, when they get to this question, runaway like mad. There are books that say the Babylonian period and the Bible are obviously connected, but nobody has ever really tried to explain how it happened.”

Finkel’s explanation is unfurled in his excellent new book, The Ark Before Noah, and later this year there will be a Channel 4 documentary based on his work. During the course of the hour I spend with him in his dark, book-lined office at the British Museum he talks me through his theory.

Finkel’s quest to translate the tablet initially got off to a frustrating start, with Simmonds refusing to leave the precious artefact at the museum. It was not until the two men met again at the British Museum’s Babylonian exhibition in 2009 that Finkel was able to persuade the collector to bring the priceless object back in and, more importantly, allow him to hold on to it.

Finkel got to work deciphering the cuneiform and soon the tablet’s full significance was revealed. It contained detailed instructions for how the story’s hero, Atra-hasis, was to build his ark – a vessel that was round, as opposed to the Bible’s famous oblong version.

“It sounds bizarre to begin with, this idea of a round boat, but, of course, coracles are used on the rivers of many European countries and on the rivers of India, and the Ancient Mesopotamians had coracles too,” Finkel says.

“When you put the two things together you realise that an unsinkable, light and easy-to-use waterproof boat that they used to transport animals up and down the river made perfect sense as the kind of craft described in the story.”

Furthermore, the tablet, which is currently on display in the British Museum, also says that the animals came on to the boat “two by two”. As Finkel puts it, this was an “electrifying” discovery. “In the other tablets that have come to light, the expression had never been found in cuneiform and it is an iconic thing in people’s minds,” he says.

Finkel believes that one of the key elements that proves the link between the Babylonian myth and Bible version of the flood story is how similar the texts are. He is adamant that a process of what he calls “literary transmission” must have taken place. “It’s not credible that a version ran around through the centuries and that the stories just happened to be almost identical,” he says. “There’s no good you being a Babylonian in the bus queue, who knows the flood story well, and me being a Judean next to you, and somehow the story jumping from brain to brain. That’s not how it works. We might have talked about the story but that has nothing to do with literary transmission.”

Finkel explains how the ark changed shape, from round in the Simmonds tablet to square in the Smith version and, finally, oblong in the Bible story. Briefly, it’s to do with a misunderstanding in the first instance and how the word for “boat” has been translated in the second. He then goes on to tell me that the root of the story’s “literary transmission” can be found in the Book of Daniel.

Finkel says that at the beginning of the book the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar called for the finest young Judeans to be educated in the lore and literature of the Babylonians. These Judeans would, he says, have been taught cuneiform and that the curriculum would have included the Babylonian stories that went on to form a major part of the Old Testament. Finkel believes that, in the context of this education and with the Judeans trying to maintain their religion in an alien environment, it’s easy to see how the seeds of the Hebrew Bible were sown.

“The Judeans had no culture or temples and no sculptures or images of God,” he says. “Their religious conception was purely abstract and I don’t think that abstraction would have lasted unless their survival as a body was imperilled to such an extent that they felt the need to bring the Bible into existence.

“My idea is that when they came to describe the beginning of the world in the Old Testament they didn’t have their own traditions, so in order to fill out the story from the start they took three Babylonian stories that were taught in schools: the tradition of the people living to huge ages before the flood, the story of the flood itself, and the story of a child being thrown into a river being rescued and becoming a king like Moses.

“They took these stories and turned them round to have a moral principle of man being non-sinful or punishment comes, divorcing them from the original messages that were different in Babylonian contexts.”

In talking through his theories Finkel rarely pauses for breath. At one point, there’s a brief hiatus when a colleague (also with fine facial hair) knocks on the door. But he’s soon back in his stride as we discuss how the roots of the Babylonian flood myth can be found in Mesopotamia’s susceptibility to flooding.

We also discuss the negative reaction that his theories might provoke in some Christian quarters. He admits that those who tend towards a literalist reading of the Bible will never be persuaded of its links to the Babylonian era.

He hopes, though, that he is handling the topic sensitively. He is at pains to point out, for example, that, despite what some headlines have suggested, he is not claiming the Bible story to be wrong and that Noah’s Ark should be round. He has, he says, simply traced the origins of the story found in Genesis.

Finkel has resolved to make sure he maintains a sense of humour when dealing with critics. He’s obviously very content with the conclusions he has drawn. Behind that big beard it’s not hard to detect a smile as he says: “I can’t imagine somebody will find something that proves my ideas wrong, so if people reject them it doesn’t matter. People often reject things they don’t like and not necessarily on logical grounds. If I give a lecture and people throw vegetables, then so be it.”

The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel is published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £25

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (14/2/14)