Letters to the Editor
David MacDonald acknowledged a refreshingly broad spectrum of opinion in "The Flood: Mesopotamian Archaeological Evidence (XXIII, pp. 14-20) rather than only polarities. However, he went on to dismiss the middle ground as irrational, excessively biased, and dependent upon Sir Leonard Woolley's claims; the article nearly equated local or regional flood theorists with the faction that seeks the ark and demands most strata be attributed to a single year's deluge. Although bias may be inescapable, people between the extremes do adapt to continuing investigation and make tentative conclusions.
Woolley's correlation has been out of favor since the early 1940s among most advocates of the Mesopotamian flood interpretation, none of whom would urge an equivalent to the "Mount Ararat" expeditions (which are based upon the latest traditional landing site, never specified in Genesis). MacDonald's quotations from Parrot and Kramer to indicate that critical abilities were overridden by presuppositions seem to me to suggest only their authors' conviction that effects should have causes—quite a scientific attitude. Some speculations appeal to unlikely causes—such as a short-term down-warping of southwestern Asia or winds blocking flood waters from drainage—but these are neither basic to the scenario nor pressed with confident confrontation, like typical pseudoscience.
An additional alluvial deposit deserves mention. Sir Max Mallowan discovered a two-meter "barren" level between Halaf and Uruk cultural zones at Ninevah containing thirteen beds alternating mud and sand. This may or may not correlate with the three-meter interval at two or more of Woolley's five Ur pits, though the latter deposit seems to represent a single inundation. Absence of alluvium elsewhere has suggested a very limited extent to each flood, but unconformities may have been missed by the archaeologists. Recorded evidence is too incomplete to tell whether any of the Mesopotamian deposits ought to be correlated with either the Genesis account or the somewhat parallel myths.
Uncertainty also prevails in biblical chronology and the relationship between various flood traditions. Massoretic text, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Septuagint provided literalists with flood year estimates of 2348 BCE, 4000 BCE, and 5872 BCE, respectively. An average could align with the earliest alluvial strata discovered by archaeologists, and the Garden of Eden might then match the first agriculture in Mesopotamia, but that remains a highly speculative interpretation.
Scholars following the documentary hypothesis of Graf and Wellhausen have tended to assume that the biblical account derived from the Sumerian myths, though these may not be older, let alone ancestral; all may have a common ancestry or independent origins. MacDonald's assumption that Sumerian oral tradition never existed—so that flood stories only began within later, historical times—seems to be an unwarranted inference from lack of known tradition.
Sumerian civilization flourished during the post-glacial optimum or hypsithermal climatic interval. Rhodes Fairbridge traced a sea level rise to a maximum about six thousand years ago—a rise of between three and three and a half meters above the present level—and suggested that this peak accounted for flood stories. Near-Eastern climate, usually drier in Pleistocene warming trends and pluvial during stadials, had an anomalous subpluvial at the hypsithermal interval. Both factors could have contributed to inundation of the known world. Sumerian chalcolithic cultures had the technology to build a barge or boat. Genesis 5:29 may hint at a known benefit from floods, in reference to Noah's name: salt accumulations in the soil, from centuries of irrigation, were removed by floods, restoring agricultural potential. A regional flood interpretation fits available evidence, without demanding distortion of any scientific discipline; meanwhile, a great deal of mystery remains.
-John R. Armstrong
I do not believe my article, "The Flood: Mesopotamian Archaeological Evidence," should be read as implying that all local or regional flood theorists are to be equated in all matters. I attempt to show something quite different: that the middle ground is held "by a wide range of writers."
In general, I do not see much difference between John R. Armstrong's position and mine. I can with ease subscribe to his view that "recorded evidence is too incomplete to tell whether any of the Mesopotamian deposits ought to be correlated with either the Genesis account or the somewhat paralleled myths." I do, however, disagree with some of Armstrong's particular conclusions and with the methodological presuppositions behind them.
The quotations from Parrot and Kramer may seem to suggest to Armstrong only "that effects should have causes," but the quotations also reveal that Parrot and Kramer assumed without question that the cause of the flood story had to be an actual flood. That is the logical equivalent of assuming that the cause of the sixteenth-century witch mania was the existence of large numbers of real witches. Certainly, there must be cause or causes of the flood tale. I maintain, in Armstrong's own words, that "recorded evidence is too incomplete . . . to be correlated with either . . . account," and I offer an alternative hypothesis—that the endemic character of flooding in Mesopotamia is sufficient to have created the myth.
My article does, in fact, take into account Mallowan's discoveries at Nineveh, along with Mallowan's own dismissal of the idea that these levels could have anything to do with the Mesopotamian flood tradition (see my reference to Mallowan, 1964, in XXIII, p. 15).
Armstrong's attempt to average the three dates of the Massoretic, Samaritan, and Septuagint traditions seems methodologically unsound to me. There is no proof and little likelihood that any of them are derived from reliable chronologies, and they are by their very nature mutually exclusive. If one should be correct, the others by definition must be wrong. Moreover, averaging these divergent dates can no more be expected to yield an accurate date than averaging three different answers to a mathematics problem, at least two of which are certainly wrong, can be expected to yield an accurate answer.
My major disagreement with Armstrong stems from what we variously are willing to employ in attempting to write history. I agree with William of Occam that entities ought not be multiplied beyond necessity and with Stephen Jay Gould and others that hypotheses that cannot be tested are useless and uninteresting. Hence, in the absence of evidence of a highly developed Sumerian oral technique that would have preserved historical memories, I seek to exclude it from consideration. Armstrong seeks to include it because, presumably, there is no evidence that it did not exist.
Similarly, Armstrong suggests that certain post-glacial climatic variations "could have contributed to inundation of the known world" but produces no evidence that they in fact did. Until directly relevant evidence emerges, the hypothetical connection remains untestable and useless.